The Derg Period
After a period of civil unrest which began in February 1974, the aged Emperor Haile Selassie I was deposed. On September 12, 1974, a provisional administrative council of soldiers, known as the Derg (“committee”) seized power from the emperor and installed a government which was socialist in name and military in style. The Derg summarily executed 59 members of the former government, including two former Prime Ministers and Crown Councilors, Court officials, ministers, and generals. Emperor Selassie died on August 22, 1975. He was allegedly strangled in the basement of his palace.
Mengistu Haile Mariam assumed power as head of state and Derg chairman, after having his two predecessors killed, as well as tens of thousands of other suspected opponents. The new Marxist government undertook socialist reforms, including nationalization of landlords’ and church’s property. Before the coup, Ethiopian peasants’ way of life was thoroughly influenced by the church teachings; 280 days a year are religious feasts or days of rest. Mengistu’s years in office were marked by a totalitarian style government and the country’s massive militarization, financed by the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, and assisted by Cuba. In December 1976, an Ethiopian delegation in Moscow signed a military assistance agreement with the Soviet Union. The following April, Ethiopia abrogated its military assistance agreement with the United States and expelled the American military missions.
In July 1977, sensing the disarray in Ethiopia, Somalia attacked across the Ogaden in pursuit of its irredentist claims to the ethnic Somali areas of Ethiopia. They were assisted in this invasion by the armed Western Somali Liberation Front. Ethiopian forces were driven back far inside their own frontiers but, with the assistance of a massive Soviet airlift of arms and Cuban combat forces, they stemmed the attack. The last major Somali regular units left the Ogaden March 15, 1978. Twenty years later, the Somali region of Ethiopia remains under developed and insecure.
From 1977 through early 1978, thousands of suspected enemies of the Derg were tortured and/or killed in a purge called the “Red Terror”. Communism was officially adopted during the late 1970s and early 1980s; in 1984, the Workers’ Party of Ethiopia (WPE) was established, and on February 1, 1987, a new Soviet style civilian constitution was submitted to a popular referendum. It was officially endorsed by 81% of voters, and in accordance with this new constitution, the country was renamed the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia on September 10, 1987, and Mengistu became president.
The regime’s collapse was hastened by droughts and famine, which affected around 8 million people leaving and 1 million dead, as well as by insurrections, particularly in the northern regions of Tigray and Eritrea. In 1989, the Tigraian Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) merged with other ethnically based opposition movements to form the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). In May 1991, EPRDF forces advanced on Addis Ababa. Mengistu fled the country to asylum in Zimbabwe, where he still resides.