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The politics and history behind the genocide in Ethiopia are both complex and cyclical. They resulted from a civil war and successive famines, as the coup d’etat which ignited the civil war was preceded by a severe bout of famine from 1972 to 1973. Emperor Haile Selassie I’s response to the famine was dismissive, claiming that it was merely a natural disaster. However, seeing the famine as the result of governmental indifference and as a crime against humanity, the Ethiopian public became quite discontented with Selassie’s rule. Amidst such unrest, the Dergue, a Marxist military junta led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, emerged and eventually staged a coup d’etat that ended in Selaisse’s assassination. Because the Dergue presented a chance for change in the relationships between Ethiopia’s leaders and its peasantry, junta rule was at first seen as beneficial. However, as is always a concern in military-led nations, the Dergue’s political interests eventually came at the expense of public welfare.
Mengistu Haile Mariam- Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The Dergue ruled from 1974 to 1991 under a violent regime of terror, torturing, imprisoning, and/or executing those who opposed them and tallying tens of thousands of victims. Opposition groups developed in response to this governmental abuse, forming various insurgencies across Ethiopia’s fourteen administrative regions. These groups included the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP), Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). There was a wide range of ideologies and objectives defining these groups – from overthrow, to secession, to unification. The EPRP gained a particularly influential role in the struggle. In September 1976 the multi-ethnic EPRP group began a systematic campaign, eventually dubbed the White Terror, across the cities and villages of Ethiopia, targeting Dergue supporters for assassination.
The Dergue responded with its own strain of violence, the Red Terror campaign, in which death squads were used to murder EPRP sympathizers. Under the pretext of national security and stability, the Dergue targeted anyone suspected of association with the EPRP, irrespective of their age, religion, gender, or ethnicity. Corpses were then publically displayed in order to punish the victims’ families and to persuade them to support the Red Terror. Altogether, the extrajudicial and wanton violence resulted in at least 20,000-30,000 casualties. This history unfortunately remains understudied, especially in light of the recent famines and droughts in the region. It is through remembrance, analysis, and discussion of this genocidal conflict that we as a global community can honor the lost and learn valuable lessons from the more depraved and shameful points in history.
Oxfam distributing water in Ethiopia- Photo courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons