The Tale of Two Autocrats: Power, Struggle, and the Similarities Between Mengistu Hailemariam and Abiy Ahmed

” Articles The Tale of Two Autocrats: Power, Struggle, and the Similarities Between Mengistu Hailemariam and Abiy Ahmed Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam, the now exiled previous military junta leader of Ethiopia (1977-1991), and Colonel Abiy Ahmed, the current Prime Minister of Ethiopia, have more in common than their time leading Ethiopia. More than sharing the same military rank, these two leaders have similar traits, authoritarian ambitions, and visions for Ethiopia. Mengistu Hailemariam The military regime, which later had Mengistu at its head, came to power in 1974, hijacking a student-led revolution that aimed to overthrow the Ethiopian monarchy. The student protests that demanded Emperor Haile Selassie relinquish his power for failing to address a wide range of issues, including the famine in northern Ethiopia, triggered a larger social movement. This larger movement included protests by various groups, such as taxi drivers, Muslims, teachers, and landless farmers.  At the same time, military officers led a mutiny in Negele Borena (Southern Ethiopia), asking for better wages. They obtained support from army personnel in Asmara (Eritrea’s capital), and the mutiny, led by a group of mid-level military officers, reached Addis Ababa shortly after. What started with the military asking for a higher salary ended with the formation of a committee that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie: the Provisional Military Administration, which quickly transitioned to the Derg. Previously a powerful Deputy, it was not until February 1977 that Mengistu violently rose up the ranks and consolidated his power by eliminating his opponents and comrades.  Mengistu started on his path to power when he was a major serving in Ethiopia’s Third Division in Harar, a strategically important southwestern market town. Because of his oratory prowess, Mengistu was selected as the Third Divisions representative to the newly formed Provisional Military Administration. His ease with the public and politics proved important in his rise to the top of Ethiopia’s military government, going from a military officer unknown to the public to the chairman of the Derg and Ethiopia’s dictatorial leader. He also later created and led Ethiopia’s Socialist Workers Party. Ultimately, Mengistu’s time as Deputy and Chairman of the Derg lasted 17 years before he fled into exile in 1991 after allied forces— including the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), Amhara National Democtratic Movement (ANDM), and Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF)—overthrew the military regime. Abiy Ahmed Much like Mengistu, nobody knew who Abiy was before a social movement led to the conditions conducive for his rise to power. In Abiy’s case, it was the Qeerroo movement, an Oromo youth-led movement which started in 2017 and lasted through 2018.  The Oromo youth, frustrated by the leadership of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democtratic Front (EPRDF), were effective in catalyzing a larger movement that forced the EPRDF to reshuffle its leadership and place Abiy, an ethnic Oromo and Amhara, as the leader of the party and interim Prime Minister of Ethiopia.  During the EPRDF’s reign, Abiy Ahmed served in the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF), achieving the rank of lieutenant colonel. In 2007, he became the head of the Information Network Security Agency (INSA), the Ethiopian government’s organization responsible for cybersecurity.  After leaving the military and his post of Deputy Director at INSA, Abiy was elected to the House of Peoples’ Representatives as a member of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) in 2010. The OPDO was one of the four parties that formed the EPRDF ruling coalition.  In October 2015, Abiy was appointed Minister of Science and Technology under the EPRDF but held the post for only a short while, leaving that position to serve as the Vice President of the Oromia regional government. Within the OPDO, Abiy was elected head of the Secretariat in 2017.  At the same time that Abiy was rapidly moving through numerous roles in the EPRDF and OPDO, Ethiopia’s political unrest was becoming a serious concern for the EPRDF. The unrest was caused by structural issues including but not limited to the expansion of Addis Ababa, the dispossession of Oromo people from their ancestral land, and the suppression and arrest of opposition political parties from Oromia. As a result,  the EPRDF sought out an Oromo leader to bring stability and peace. To this end, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who came to power following the death of former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in 2012, resigned in 2018. In an attempt to be an eligible contender to replace Desalegn as Chairman of the EPRDF,  Abiy immediately swapped positions with the President of Oromia and Chairman of the OPDO at the time, Lemma Megersa. His ambitions came to fruition in April 2018 when Abiy was nominated by the EPRDF to serve as the interim Prime Minister of Ethiopia. The Similarities of the Two Leaders Both Mengistu and Abiy exploited the existing political conditions of their time to rise to, and stay in, power without leading or playing an integral role in the uprisings that created the conditions conducive to their political success. It was not until both sought to consolidate their power that their true authoritarian nature and brutal modus operandi were revealed.   Much like Mengistu, Abiy sees himself as the only and inevitable leader of Ethiopia, assuming that Ethiopia would fall into disrepair without him, while in reality precisely the opposite is true. Also, like Mengistu, Abiy often swears that he would live and die for Ethiopia and pretends to speak on behalf of Ethiopia’s honor and unity, when in fact he speaks on behalf of his personal apprehensions or megalomania.  During his reign, Mengistu brought Ethiopia to the brink of collapse because of his authoritarian ambitions to consolidate power by any means necessary. The same is true of Abiy today, though some commentators suggest that this time the Ethiopian empire might not survive. Much like Mengistu did, Abiy has labeled his strongest political challengers as terrorists, detained or killed the most prominent of them, and used propaganda to deceive the Ethiopian population.  Their approaches towards potential contenders within their own governing structures also share similarities: they eliminate individuals or groups who question their ability, ideology, or ambition. Mengistu secured his position at the helm of Ethiopia using harsh methods to eliminate comrades he suspected would endanger his authority, often labeling them reactionaries, anti-revolutionaries, and enemies of Ethiopia. Abiy Ahmed has similarly maintained his stronghold in Ethiopia by eliminating or sidelining his initial collaborators, mentors, and opponents. Abiy has either pushed them to exile or assigned them to positions far outside his center of power.   Abiy, as Mengistu did during his time, is using violence and oppression against his people to maintain his power and control over Ethiopia. Abiy’s administration is committing countless human rights violations, as Mengistu did during the Derg regime.  One of the bloodiest periods of Ethiopian history was during Mengistu’s military dictatorship when he attempted to quench any opposition he faced with violence. This period from 1976 to 1978, in which tens of thousands were killed by the Derg in mass murder sprees, is termed the Red Terror. Organized youth were killed across major cities and towns in Ethiopia and current day Eritrea, with the most killed in Addis Ababa, Asmara, Jimma, Gonder, Mekelle, Dessie, Assela, and Harar. Under Abiy, the oppression has taken a different form. Unlike during the Derg time, most of Addis Ababa supports their dictatorial leader today, while those who do not support Abiy remain silent out of fear. This fear comes from Abiy’s policies and strategies employed throughout the rest of the country where his opposition, and civilians branded as opposition, are extra-judiciously killed, tortured, and raped en masse.        Of all the offenses committed by Mengistu Hailemariam and Abiy Ahmed, their biggest miscalculation was getting involved in a protracted war against the people of the north. Mengistu was at war with Tigray and Eritrea for most of his time in power, as he sought to squash resistance to his centralized rule and assured access to the Red Sea. Mengistu put all his efforts into winning a war against the TPLF and Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, who sought to protect the interest and self-determination of their respective communities.  Like Mengistu, Abiy is at war with the people of Tigray in an effort to squash resistance and  assure and consolidate his authority— which the TPLF and Tigray as a whole threaten. While Mengistu’s protracted war eventually ended in the victory of the TPLF and other allied movements, and the formation of the EPRDF, the outcome of Abiy’s war against the TPLF and Tigray is yet known after more than seven months.   The Lesser Evil Although both leaders have committed heinous crimes against their citizens, Mengistu never waged systematic attacks targeting specific ethnic groups with the intent to destroy a people. Abiy is employing numerous tools of war that amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, and more appropriately, genocide. The way Abiy has conducted the war on Tigray is entirely unique in the degree and extent of destruction and atrocities against innocent civilians. Abiy’s crimes are so grave that even Mengistu, who waged a barbaric war and weaponized famine, appears more human and less power-hungry than Abiy. The key difference between Mengistu and Abiy is that Mengistu did not have the intent to destroy a whole population. Furthermore, Mengistu never sought a neighboring country’s military support to attack his own people. Eritrea’s dictator Isaias Afewerki and Abiy masterminded the attack and current genocidal war on Tigray. In addition to deploying the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) and Eritrean military, Abiy and Isaias have found allies to support their mission. These include Ethiopia’s Amhara regional militias and special police, the Somali military, and United Arab Emirates drones. The fact that Abiy invited foreign invaders to attack his own people is the definition of an act of treason and must be considered and addressed as such.  Again, despite the similarities between Mengistu and Abiy in their dictatorial nature, Abiy inviting or at the very least allowing a foreign country to invade Ethiopia is a treasonous act to a degree unheard of in Ethiopian history. The crimes primarily being perpetrated by the ENDF, Eritrean military, and Amhara militia to exterminate the people of Tigray are so unique in their barbarism and brutality that a number of grief-stricken senior international humanitarian officials have stated that they have never witnessed such heinous crimes over the course of their humanitarian careers.  Similar to the war against the Derg, the war against Abiy and his collaborators is a fight against oppression and violence. Despite having one of Africa’s largest armies, and one of the most substantial weapon arsenals on the continent at the time, Mengistu was defeated by a popular front headed by the TPLF, forcing him to flee the country and seek asylum in Zimbabwe. This time under Abiy, the struggle of the Tigrayan people is an existential fight led by the Tigrayan Defence Force (TDF), which is composed of many civilians turned freedom fighters, whose goal is to defeat the orchestrators of the genocide in Tigray. With history as our guide, those on the side of humanity and justice will prevail”

Published by Woyanay Tigray Media

This Websites for the support of the people of Tigray and for the various ideas on the human and democratic rights of all Ethiopian nationalities.the equality of the Ethiopian people has always been a victory for the TPLF and the people of Tigray. Therefore, we will only distribute the TPLF’s contribution to the country to our people. We will discuss various realities of the people of Tigray as well as the heroism of Tigray and the positive issues we need to support for our government in Tigray. The heroism of the TPLF, the TPLF is a real and heroic party built by political elites who will not betray the country and sell it to the enemy.

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