Book review: Our Struggle: The History of the Revolutionary Struggle of the Ethiopian People (Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam) By Waltenegus Dargi
In December 2011 Tsehai Publisher released a book written by the former Ethiopian president, Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam. The book covers the period between 1960 and 1970, the period between the time leading to the Ethiopian revolution and the final defeat of the Somalia Army by the Ethiopian Army.
The book begins by giving a philosophical defence on the importance of writing the history of the great Ethiopian revolution. The defence enumerates some of the social and cultural achievements of the revolution, namely, the all-out war to eradicate illiteracy and backwardness; the coming into existence of the first publishing agency, Kuraz; the spouting of Ethiopian literature during the time; and the translation into Amharic of some of the outstanding work of socialist (communist) thinkers.
Following the defence, the book spends an introductory chapter on the history of Ethiopia, covering a vast period of time (from Aksum to the Italian occupation in 1936) in 60 pages.
Then the book devotes another chapter to summarise the time between the Italian Occupation and 1968. The highlight of this time is the first attempt by the Neway brothers to overthrow the monarchy. In this chapter, the author examines the extent of public discontent, the factors that contributed to the defeat of the rebellion, and the microscopic fracture the rebellion inflicted on the monarchical existential foundation.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the book begins on page 99 and goes all the way to page 274. In these pages and in 10 solid chapters the author relates with some detail some of the outstanding aspects of the revolution, including the establishment of the Derg; the overthrow of the monarchy and the death of the Monarch; the “revolutionary” assassination of the first 60 minsters; and the rise and fall of some crucial figures (General Aman Andom and Colonel Atnafu Abate).
The remaining parts of the book, no less important (for example, the war against the Eritrean Liberation Front and the Somali Army; the building of the army and its capacity; etc.) have already been recorded by a large number of scholars and may not come as a complete surprise to someone who is already acquainted with contemporary Ethiopian history. Having said this, one need to carefully read the latter part of the book in order to be able to look into things from the same vantage point the writer of the book is looking at the history for which he is predominantly responsible.
The book is a work of careful contemplation, rich of names, places, and occasions. The language of the narration, though by no means noble, is flawless and adequate. Except occasionally, when it is absolutely necessary to provide details and facts, the book flows fast and reads well. Perhaps this is because the Mengistu we meet in those pages is no longer the 37 years old Mengistu of the infamous revolution, but the 75 years old statesman who looks into the past with patience and amazing clarity. Therefore, throughout the book, Mengistu is presented to us as reconciliatory, wise, peace loving, intelligentsia friendly, and premeditative; who always prefers to deal with conflicts through dialogue and impromptu discussions over the phone or over dinner. We never see him wilfully confronting, demeaning, or embarrassing his opponents, in public or private; he will be the last to pronounce judgement on the unfortunates when this must no longer be avoided.
This does not mean, by any means, that the book is self-justifying. The author candidly and soberly presents before us the vast and damning problems that tangled the country, from within and without, at the time he took the fateful role and how he dealt with them: The revolution was unavoidable. The confrontation with the ELF was unavoidable. The problem with Somalia had already existed even before he became a cadet. The level of illiteracy and poverty of the Ethiopian people was beyond words could express. The irredeemable short-sightedness and greed of the educated few (civilian and army generals alike) eventually exposed the nakedness of the country for all to see. These are evidences pertaining to the inevitability of the revolution no self-respecting person would refuse to take into account.
The book narrates with remarkable clarity the subject the author knows very well, namely, the army and the various fronts. The reader is presented with comprehensive knowledge of the Ethiopian army and its hierarchy; its politics and intrigues; and the complexity of the challenges that surrounded it. No other book presents with such a comfortable ease the names, personalities, and deeds of so many Ethiopian Generals. The same can be said of the author’s knowledge of the various fronts, in almost all parts of the Ethiopia that once was – names of places infused with war history, defeats and victories, flow from page to page without boring the reader for a second.
But for the reader looking for an answer or explanation to some of the disturbing sides of the Ethiopian revolution, the book has little to offer.
The author goes a great length to persuade us with what difference and respect the Derg initially handled the Emperor until one day a secrete document was found inside the Emperor’s personal safe box. This document was believed to be a Swiss bank account statement. Following this discovery, the Emperor was ordered to give up the money he saved with this account. The Emperor, expectedly, denied the presence of money under a secrete account. This disagreement potentially led to his “unforeseen” death and the eventual destruction of everything he had built for more than 40 years.
Considering the age of the author and his inexperience in the rule of law (and, we may add, the insurmountable problems oppressing the country), it is understandable the Emperor was asked to return the money he allegedly kept in a secret account. But the impatience and ignorance to the rule of law with which the delicate problem was approached are not admitted even forty years later.
The Execution of the Sixty Minsters and others
The author explains away the execution of the 60 minsters (we should be grateful; the original plan was actually to murder 150) in a mere three-line paragraph at the end of chapter 8. This same banal justification will become a patter in the subsequent pages to justify the execution of General Aman Andom and Colonel Atnafu Abate. As to the death of General Teferi Benti, the author does not have anything to tell us. This matter is simply ignored.
If we accept the author’s justification of the shedding of innocent blood, we must indeed accept Hitler’s justification to the extermination of millions of European Jews. But we don’t need to enter into contestable dialogue. We will soon find the author contradicting himself. On the one hand, he tells us that the execution of the sixty was not premeditated. It was not even in anyone’s agenda until a nameless, malicious lieutenant by the name Kedu Dule brought it to everyone’s attention. Moreover, had it not been for the conspiracy of General Aman Andom, the lieutenant himself wouldn’t have the opportunity to do so… But on the same page, the author beseeches us to understand the context. The decision to execute them was a revolutionary decision; it was a decision made by the peoples’ representatives. It is acceptable. We should accept the Terror and the Guillotine of a poplar revolution, in which wilful, unruly, and unexpected murderous thoughts are entertained and justified.
Treason is another baffling subject in the book, for it is intractably associated with the betrayal of an atheistic socialist ideology. Those who questioned its scope and usefulness to the country’s future were cold-bloodedly murdered. Who defined treason this way and under what justification or mandate are nowhere explained. The author simply tells us that those who utter the vow of trust for the revolution and the socialist ideology shall abide by their vow or otherwise they will die. He never pauses for a while to question the legitimacy of the vow.
The rule of Law
Throughout the book, the absence of the rule of law is conspicuous. Everything is settled according to the pressing need of the time as perceived by the author and his colleagues. Given the God fearing nature of most Ethiopians, some argue, it is a mystery how an entire nation could surrender to such a hideous evil (by the way, it has never freed itself to this very day). If we take the author as the sum total of his past, his generation, and his background, the book forces us all to be confronted with our depressing past. It does not help to push the blame to the breast of one man or a few bad men.
The author gives a detail and honest account of the creation of the Derg, a group of military personnel from the Ethiopian army which overthrew the Monarchy and ruled the country with absolute dictatorship for the next 17 years. The reviewer cannot say much about this entity without a pang of pain. In short, here we are presented with a group of men, all of them below the rank of a Major, none of them save one had a formal higher education, who decided the fate of the country without having a clue in which direction and how it should be led.
The Memorable Page
There is an image on page 254. It is the image of (from left to right) Colonel Mengistu, Colonel Atnafu, and General Teferi Benti. The three are standing and there is a conspicuous gap between Colonel Mengistu and the rest. Colonel Mengistu stands erect with a gaunt, miserable look on his face (many mistake it for firmness) while the other two, in a marvellous contrast, stand relaxed and very near to each other. Colonel Atnafu is speaking to the General, who is attentively but cordially listening. This image speaks volumes about these three people, more than all the words used in three solid chapters to tell us about them.
It is impossible not to take this book as an autobiography, since the author is present and actively playing a detrimental role throughout the book. If so, one is forced to ask why the author left out essential autobiographical elements from the book. We do not know where and from whom he was born; to which school he was sent; how did his childhood look like; who made the strongest influence in his life; where did he meet his future wife, etc.? When were his children born? Innumerable questions of this nature are left out from the book.
The absence of this vital information from the book is the first indication of the presence of unresolved psychological issues in the life of the author. Secondly, whereas it is expected that mistakes can be made in a revolution, particularly, given the background of our country and people, the author neither acknowledges nor apologises a single mistake in his book. No words of regret. No reflections. No admission of a lesson learned. The new generation which will come to this book in search of advice will have to be disappointed.
But the book has academic contribution, if nothing else. Students who write their thesis on communist Ethiopia will certainly find the book helpful.