The Derg (also spelled Dergue; from Amharic: ደርግ, “committee” or “council”; Oromo: Dergii), officially the Provisional Military Government of Ethiopia, was the military junta that ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1987, when the military leadership formally civilianised the administration but stayed in power until 1991.
The Derg was established in June 1974 as the Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police and Territorial Army, by officers of the Ethiopian Army and police led initially by Chairman Aman Andom. The Derg was formally renamed the Provisional Military Administrative Council and in September 1974 overthrew the government of the Ethiopian Empire and Emperor Haile Selassie during mass protests. The Derg abolished the monarchy and established Ethiopia as a Marxist-Leninist one-party state with itself as the vanguard party in a provisional government. The abolition of feudalism, increased literacy, nationalisation, and sweeping land reform including the resettlement and villagization from the Ethiopian Highlands became priorities. Mengistu Haile Mariam became Chairman in 1977, launching the Red Terror political repression campaign (Qey Shibir) to eliminate political opponents, with tens of thousands imprisoned and executed without trial.
By the mid-1980s, Ethiopia was ravaged by multiple issues, such as recovering from invasion attempt by neighbouring Somalia, droughts, economic decline and the 1983-1985 famine. The Derg itself estimated more than a million deaths from famine during its time in power. This was followed by increasing reliance on foreign aid and a gradual resurgence of conflicts, particularly the Eritrean War of Independence (1961-1991), and the Ethiopian Civil War between it and various ethnic militias in the periphery. In 1987, Mengistu abolished the Derg and formed the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia led by the Workers’ Party of Ethiopia, with a new government containing civilians but still dominated by surviving members of the Derg. Both the Haile Selassie and the Derg government relocated numerous Amharas into southern Ethiopia where they served in government administration, courts, church and even in school, where Oromo texts were eliminated and replaced by Amharic. The Abyssinian elites perceived the various southern minority languages as hindrances to Ethiopian national identity expansion.
After the February 1974 popular revolution, the first signal of any mass uprising was the actions of the soldiers of the 4th Brigade of the 4th Army Division in Nagelle in southern Ethiopia. They were unhappy about the state of their food and water and arrested their brigade commander and other officers. When the government sent the commander of the ground forces, General Deresse Dubala to treat with the rebels, they held him and forced him to eat their food and drink their water. Similar mutinies took place at the Ethiopian Air Force base at Bishoftu, on 12 February, and at Second Division at Asmara on 25 February. It was these protests that gave rise to a general armed forces uprising.
The coordinating committee of the armed forces, police and territorial army, or Derg was officially announced 28 June 1974 by a group of military officers. This was done in order to maintain law and order, due to the powerlessness of the civilian government following widespread mutiny in the armed forces of Ethiopia earlier that year. Its members were not directly involved in those mutinies nor was this the first military committee organised to support the administration of Prime Minister Endelkachew Makonnen. Alem Zewde Tessema had established the armed forces coordinated committee on 23 March. Over the following months, radicals in the Ethiopian military came to believe Makonnen was acting on behalf of the hated feudal aristocracy. When a group of notables petitioned for the release of a number of government ministers and officials who were under arrest for corruption and other crimes, three days later Derg was announced.
The Derg, which originally consisted of soldiers at the capital, broadened its membership by including representatives from the 40 units of the Ethiopian Army, Air Force, Navy, Kebur Zabagna (Imperial Guard), Territorial Army and police: each unit was expected to send three representatives, who were supposed to be privates, NCOs and junior officers up to the rank of major. According to Bahru Zewde, “Senior officers were deemed too compromised by close association to the regime.” The Derg was reported to consist of 120 soldiers, a statement which has gained wide acceptance due to the habitual secretiveness of the Derg in its early years. But, Bahru Zewde notes that “in actual fact, their number was less than 110”, and Aregawi Berhe mentions two different sources which record 109 persons as being members of the Derg. No new members were ever admitted, and the number decreased, especially in the first few years, as some members were expelled or killed. They assembled at the Fourth Division headquarters.
The committee elected Major Mengistu Haile Mariam as its chairman and Major Atnafu Abate as its vice-chairman. The Derg was initially supposed to study the grievances of various military units, investigate abuses by senior officers and staff and to root out corruption in the military.
In the months following its founding, Derg steadily accrued more power. In July, Derg obtained key concessions from the emperor, Haile Selassie, which included the power to arrest not only military officers, but government officials at every level. Soon both former Prime Ministers Tsehafi Taezaz Aklilu Habte-Wold and Endelkachew Makonnen, along with most of their cabinets, most regional governors, many senior military officers and officials of the Imperial court were imprisoned. In August, after a proposed constitution creating a constitutional monarchy was presented to the emperor, Derg began a programme of dismantling the imperial government in order to forestall further developments in that direction. Derg deposed and imprisoned the emperor on 12 September 1974.
On 15 September, the committee renamed itself as the Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC) and took control of the government. The Derg chose Lieutenant General Aman Andom, a popular military leader and a Sandhurst graduate, to be its chairman and acting head-of-state. This was pending the return of Crown Prince Asfaw Wossen from medical treatment in Europe, when he would assume the throne as a constitutional monarch. However, General Aman Andom quarrelled with the radical elements in the Derg over the issue of a new military offensive in Eritrea and their proposal to execute the high officials of Selassie’s former government. After eliminating units loyal to him – the Engineers, the Imperial Bodyguard and the Air Force – the Derg removed General Aman from power and executed him on 23 November 1974, along with some supporters and 60 officials of the previous Imperial government.
Brigadier General Tafari Benti became both the new Chairman of Derg and head of state, with Mengistu and Atnafu Abate as his two vice-chairmen, both with promotions to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. The monarchy was formally abolished in March 1975, and Marxism-Leninism was proclaimed the ideology of the state. Emperor Haile Selassie died on 22 August 1975 while his personal physician was absent. It is commonly believed that Mengistu killed him, either by ordering it done or by his own hand.
Under Mengistu’s Leadership
After internal conflicts that resulted in the execution of General Tafari Benti and several of his supporters in February 1977, and the execution of Colonel Atnafu Abate in November 1977, Mengistu gained undisputed leadership of the Derg. In 1987, he formally dissolved the Derg and established the country as the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE) under a new constitution.
Many of the Derg members remained in key government posts and also served as the members of the Central Committee and the Politburo of the Workers’ Party of Ethiopia (WPE). This became Ethiopia’s civilian version of the Eastern bloc communist parties. Mengistu became Secretary General of the WPE and President of the PDRE, while remaining Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.
Ethiopian Civil War
Opposition to the reign of the Derg was the cause of the Ethiopian Civil War. This conflict began as extralegal violence between 1975 and 1977, known as the Red Terror, when the Derg struggled for authority, first with various opposition groups, then with a variety of groups jockeying for the role of vanguard party. Though human rights violations were committed by both sides, the great majority of abuses against civilians as well as actions leading to devastating famine were committed by the government.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Christian state church of Ethiopia for centuries, was disestablished in 1974. The Derg declared a policy of state atheism, a tenet of Marxism-Leninist ideology; this was opposed by the Ethiopian population.
Once the Derg had gained victory over these groups and successfully fought off an invasion from Somalia in 1977, it engaged in a brutal war against armed opponents. These groups included Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) guerrillas fighting for Eritrean independence, rebels based in Tigray (which included the nascent Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front) and other groups that ranged from the conservative and pro-monarchy Ethiopian Democratic Union to the far leftist Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party. Under the Derg, Ethiopia became the Soviet bloc’s closest ally in Africa and became among the best armed nations of the region as a result of massive military aid, chiefly from the Soviet Union, East Germany, Cuba and North Korea.
On 04 March 1975, the Derg announced a program of land reform, according to its main slogan of “Land to the Tiller,” which was unequivocally radical, even in Soviet and Chinese terms. It nationalised all rural land, abolished tenancy and put peasants in charge of enforcing the whole scheme. Although Derg gained little respect during its rule, this reform resulted in a rare show of support for the junta, as Marina and David Ottaway describe:
During a massive demonstration in Addis Ababa immediately following the announcement, a group of students broke through police and army barriers, climbed the wall and escarpment around Menelik Palace, and embraced major Mengistu as the hero of the reform.
In addition, Derg in 1975 nationalised most industries and private and somewhat secure urban real-estate holdings.
Mismanagement, corruption and general opposition to the Derg’s dictatorial and violent communist rule, coupled with the draining effects of constant warfare with the separatist guerrilla movements in Eritrea and Tigray, led to a drastic fall in general productivity of food and cash crops. In October 1978, Derg announced the National Revolutionary Development Campaign to mobilise human and material resources to transform the economy, which led to a ten-year plan (1984/85 – 1993/94) to expand agricultural and industrial output, forecasting a 6.5% growth in GDP and a 3.6% rise in per capita income. Instead, per capita income declined 0.8% over this period. Famine scholar Alex de Waal observed that while the famine that struck the country in the mid-1980s is usually ascribed to drought, closer investigation shows that widespread drought occurred only some months after the famine was already under way. Hundreds of thousands fled economic misery, conscription and political repression and went to live in neighbouring countries and all over the Western world, creating an Ethiopian diaspora for the first time.
Aid and Controversy
The 1984-1985 famine brought the political situation in Ethiopia to the attention of the world and inspired charitable drives in Western nations, notably by Oxfam and the Live Aid concerts of July 1985. The money they raised was distributed among NGOs in Ethiopia. A controversy arose when it was found that some of these NGOs were under Derg control or influence and that some Oxfam and Live Aid money had been used to fund Derg’s enforced resettlement programmes, under which they displaced millions of people and killed between 50,000 and 100,000. A BBC investigation reported that rebels had used millions of pounds of aid to buy arms; these accusations were later fully retracted by the corporation.
Although the Derg government came to an end on 22 February 1987, three weeks after a referendum approved the constitution for the PDRE, it was not until that September the new government was fully in place and the Derg formally abolished. The surviving members of the Derg, including Mengistu, remained in power as the leaders of the new civilian regime.
The geopolitical situations turned unfavourable for the communist government in the late 1980s, with the Soviet Union retreating from the expansion of Communism under Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika. Socialist bloc countries drastically reduced their aid to Ethiopia, struggling to keep their own economies going. This resulted in even more economic hardship, and the military gave way in the face of determined onslaughts by guerrilla forces in the north. The Soviet Union stopped aiding the PDRE altogether in December 1990. Together with the fall of Communism in the Eastern Bloc in the Revolutions of 1989, this was a serious blow to the PDRE.
Towards the end of January 1991, a coalition of rebel forces, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) captured Gondar (the ancient capital city), Bahir Dar and Dessie. Meanwhile, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front had gained control of all of Eritrea except for Asmara and Assab in the south. The Soviet Union, mired in its internal turmoil, could no longer prop up the Derg. In the words of the former US diplomat Paul B. Henze, “As his doom became imminent, Mengistu alternated between vowing resistance to the end and hinting that he might follow Emperor Tewodros’s example and commit suicide.” His actions were frantic: he convened the Shengo, for an emergency session and reorganized his cabinet, but as Henze concludes, “these shifts came too late to be effective.” On 21 May, claiming that he was going to inspect troops at a base in southern Ethiopia, Mengistu slipped out of the country to Kenya. From there he flew with his immediate family to Zimbabwe, where he was granted asylum and, as of 2017, still resides.
Upon entering Addis Ababa, the EPRDF immediately disbanded the WPE and arrested almost all of the prominent Derg officials shortly after. In December 2006, seventy-three officials of Derg were found guilty of genocide. Thirty-four people were in court, fourteen others had died during the lengthy process, and twenty-five, including Mengistu, were tried in absentia. The trial ended 26 May 2008, and many of the officials were sentenced to death. In December 2010, the Ethiopian government commuted the death sentence of 23 Derg officials. On 04 October 2011, 16 former Derg officials were freed, after twenty years of incarceration. The Ethiopian government paroled almost all of those Derg officials who had been imprisoned for 20 years. Other Derg ex-officials managed to escape, and organised rebel groups to overthrow Ethiopia’s new government. One of these groups is the Ethiopian Unity Patriots Front which waged an insurgency in the Gambela Region from 1993 to 2012.
At the conclusion of a trial lasting from 1994 to 2006, Mengistu was convicted of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity and sentenced to death by an Ethiopian court for his role in Ethiopia’s Red Terror. Ethiopian law is distinct from the legal definition as outlined in the Genocide Convention by the United Nations and other definitions in that it defines genocide as intent to wipe out political and not just ethnic groups. In this respect, it closely resembles the definition of politicide outlined by Barbara Harff, who wrote in 1992 that no Communist country or governing body had been convicted of genocide.