Ethiopia: Victors and Victims

Mengistu Haile-Mariam
Mengistu Haile-Mariam; drawing by David Levine

The Friends of the Ethiopia vs. the Friends of the Dergue

We are all friends of Ethiopia but we are not all friends of the Dergue, the group that rules the country. The friend of Ethiopia sees a people in distress and wishes to do something about it. It seems a simple issue—people are starving and should be fed. The friends of the Dergue are a different lot—the object of their identification is a politburo, the former Provisional Military Administrative Council which overthrew Haile Selassie and set up Mengistu Haile-Mariam in his place. The friends of the Dergue need an ability to identify with an apparently omnipotent regime. People have this fantasy, and to a striking degree. It gives the fantasy a particular piquancy if you can feel not just that you are a friend of power, but that, through no fault of that power, you happen to be the only true friend it possesses.

The friends of Kim II Sung are like that. And the Maoists in West Germany were similar. They used to turn out in serried ranks to chant their immense slogans in public places. They were not trying to convert the passer-by. They seemed more or less unaware of their surroundings. But they were out to say to the Chinese themselves: look, you are not friendless; few we may be, and persecuted, but we have kept faith. The friends of Enver Hoxha saw themselves as the lone connoisseurs of socialism. Even Pol Pot had friends of this kind, lone supporters from afar.

“From both a non-Western and a socialist perspective, Ethiopia has taken a correct ideological position in its domestic policies. The entire range of its economic and social policies contain within their frame the politics of equity. Political rights and economic and social rights have a common core and cannot be separated one from another.” This is a friend speaking. It sounds as if he is reading from a Dergue handout. He tells us that “the lives of Ethiopia’s poorest citizens have been improved” and that “it is remarkable how quickly the population as a whole has come to accept the radical changes that have taken place.”

The voice belongs to Professor Peter Schwab of the State University of New York. He is, on his own authority, a reputed Ethiopianist. “Only Marina and David Ottaway, Fred Halliday and Maxine Molyneux, and this author,” he tells us, “among reputed Ethiopianists, have seen the revolution as a positive step despite some of the excesses.” But it is hard to see what, in the professor’s terms, would count as an excess. Purges of conservative and bourgeois opponents were fine because “the violence of the executions served as a cleansing agent. As Fanon so well put it, the destruction ‘is the preliminary to the unification of the people.’ ” “In 1984,” says Schwab, “Ethiopia is cleansed of opponents and everyday life is…

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