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The Derg / Dergue

In April 1976, the Derg set forth its goals in greater detail in the Program for the National Democratic Revolution (PNDR). As announced by Mengistu, these objectives included progress toward socialism under the leadership of workers, peasants, the petite bourgeoisie, and all antifeudal and anti-imperialist forces. The Derg's ultimate aim was the creation of a one-party system. To accomplish its goals, the Derg established an intermediary organ called the Provisional Office for Mass Organization Affairs (POMOA). Designed to act as a civilian political bureau, POMOA was at first in the hands of the All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement (whose Amharic acronym was MEISON), headed by Haile Fida, the Derg's chief political adviser. Haile Fida, as opposed to other leftists who had formed the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP), had resourcefully adopted the tactic of working with the military in the expectation of directing the revolution from within.

By late 1976, the Derg had undergone an internal reconfiguration as Mengistu's power came under growing opposition and as Mengistu, Tafari, and Atnafu struggled for supremacy. The instability of this arrangement was resolved in January and February of 1977, when a major shootout at the Grand (Menelik's) Palace in Addis Ababa took place between supporters of Tafari and those of Mengistu, in which the latter emerged victorious. With the death of Tafari and his supporters in the fighting, most internal opposition within the Derg had been eliminated, and Mengistu proceeded with a reorganization of the Derg. This action left Mengistu as the sole vice chairman, responsible for the People's Militia, the urban defense squads, and the modernization of the armed forces--in other words, in effective control of Ethiopia's government and military. In November 1977, Atnafu, Mengistu's last rival in the Derg, was eliminated, leaving Mengistu in undisputed command.

Ethiopia's Road to Socialism

Soon after taking power, the Derg promoted Ye-Itiopia Hibretesebawinet (Ethiopian Socialism). The concept was embodied in slogans such as "self-reliance," "the dignity of labor," and "the supremacy of the common good." These slogans were devised to combat the widespread disdain of manual labor and a deeply rooted concern with status. A central aspect of socialism was land reform. Although there was common agreement on the need for land reform, the Derg found little agreement on its application. Most proposals -- even those proffered by socialist countries--counseled moderation in order to maintain production. The Derg, however, adopted a radical approach, with the Land Reform Proclamation of March 1975, which nationalized all rural land, abolished tenancy, and put peasants in charge of enforcement. No family was to have a plot larger than ten hectares, and no one could employ farm workers.

Farmers were expected to organize peasant associations, one for every 800 hectares, which would be headed by executive committees responsible for enforcement of the new order. Implementation of these measures caused considerable disruption of local administration in rural areas. In July 1975, all urban land, rentable houses, and apartments were also nationalized, with the 3 million urban residents organized into urban dwellers' associations, or kebeles, analogous in function to the rural peasant associations.

Although the government took a radical approach to land reform, it exercised some caution with respect to the industrial and commercial sectors. In January and February 1975, the Derg nationalized all banks and insurance firms and seized control of practically every important company in the country. However, retail trade and the wholesale and export-import sectors remained in private hands.

Although the Derg ordered national collective ownership of land, the move was taken with little preparation and met with opposition in some areas, especially Gojam, Welo, and Tigray. The Derg also lost much support from the country's left wing, which had been excluded from power and the decision-making process. Students and teachers were alienated by the government's closure of the university in Addis Ababa and all secondary schools in September 1975 in the face of threatened strikes, as well as the forced mobilization of students in the Development Through Cooperation Campaign under conditions of military discipline. The elimination of the Confederation of Ethiopian Labor Unions (CELU) in favor of the government-controlled All-Ethiopia Trade Union (AETU) in December 1975 further disillusioned the revolution's early supporters. Numerous officials originally associated with the revolution fled the country.

Political Struggles Within the Government

The transition from imperial to military rule was turbulent. In addition to increasing political discontent, which was particularly intense in the late 1970s, the Derg faced powerful insurgencies and natural calamities throughout the 1980s. Following the establishment of his supremacy through the elimination of Tafari Banti, Mengistu declared himself Derg chairman in February 1977 and set about consolidating his power. However, several internal and external threats prevented Mengistu from doing this. Various insurgent groups posed the most serious threat to the Derg. The EPRP challenged the Derg's control of the revolution itself by agitating for a broad-based democratic government run by civilians, not by the military. In February 1977, the EPRP initiated terrorist attacks--known as the White Terror-- against Derg members and their supporters. This violence immediately claimed at least eight Derg members, plus numerous Derg supporters, and soon provoked a government counteraction -- the Red Terror. During the Red Terror, which lasted until late 1978, government security forces systematically hunted down and killed suspected EPRP members and their supporters, especially students. Mengistu and the Derg eventually won this latest struggle for control of the Ethiopian revolution, at a cost to the EPRP of thousands of its members and supporters imprisoned, dead, or missing.

Also slated for destruction was MEISON, proscribed in mid-1978. In coordination with the government, MEISON had organized the kebeles and the peasant associations but had begun to act independently, thus threatening Derg dominance of local governments throughout the country. In response to the political vacuum that would be left as a result of the purging of MEISON, the Derg in 1978 promoted the union of several existing Marxist-Leninist organizations into a single umbrella group, the Union of Ethiopian MarxistLeninist Organizations (whose Amharic acronym was EMALEDEH). The new organization's duty was similar to that of MEISON-- promoting control of Ethiopian socialism and obtaining support for government policies through various political activities. The creation of EMALEDEH symbolized the victory of the Derg in finally consolidating power after having overcome these challenges to its control of the Ethiopian revolution.

Although Addis Ababa quickly developed a close relationship with the communist world, the Soviet Union and its allies had consistent difficulties working with Mengistu and the Derg. These difficulties were largely the result of the Derg's preoccupation with internal matters and the promotion of Ethiopian variations on what Marxist-Leninist theoreticians regarded as preordained steps on the road to a socialist state. The Derg's status as a military government was another source of concern. Ethiopia's communist allies made an issue of the need to create a civilian "vanguard party" that would rule a people's republic. In a move geared to ensure continued communist support, the Derg formed the Commission to Organize the Party of the Workers of Ethiopia (COPWE) in December 1979, with Mengistu as its chairman. At COPWE's second congress, in January 1983, it was announced that COPWE would be replaced by a genuine communist party. Accordingly, the Workers' Party of Ethiopia (WPE) was proclaimed on September 12, 1984.

About the same time, work continued on a new constitution for the planned people's republic. On February 1, 1987, the proposed constitution, which had been submitted to the public for popular debate and changes the prior year, was finally put to a vote. Although the central government claimed an 81 percent approval of the new constitution (with modifications proposed by the public), the circumstances of its review and approval by the general population were called into question. The task of publicizing the document had been entrusted to the kebeles and the peasant associations--organizations that had a state security mission as well as local administrative duties. Observers noted that little commentary or dissent was possible under such circumstances. Additional criticism included the charge that the proposed constitution was not designed to address or even understand Ethiopian needs; in fact, many noted that the constitution was "almost an abridged translation of the Soviet Constitution of 1977".

1984-88 - Famine and Collapse

Toward the end of the 1980s, several crises, including famine, economic collapse, and military setbacks in Eritrea and Tigray, confronted the Derg. In addition, as democratic reform swept through the communist world, it became evident that Addis Ababa no longer could rely on its allies for support.

Ethiopia had never recovered from the previous great famine of the early 1970s, which was the result of a drought that affected most of the countries of the African Sahel. The late 1970s again brought signs of intensifying drought. By the early 1980s, large numbers of people in central Eritrea, Tigray, Welo, and parts of Gonder and Shewa were beginning to feel the effects of renewed famine.

By mid-1984 it was evident that another drought and resulting famine of major proportions had begun to affect large parts of northern Ethiopia. Just as evident was the government's inability to provide relief. The almost total failure of crops in the north was compounded by fighting in and around Eritrea, which hindered the passage of relief supplies. Although international relief organizations made a major effort to provide food to the affected areas, the persistence of drought and poor security conditions in the north resulted in continuing need as well as hazards for famine relief workers. In late 1985, another year of drought was forecast, and by early 1986 the famine had spread to parts of the southern highlands, with an estimated 5.8 million people dependent on relief food. Exacerbating the problem in 1986 were locust and grasshopper plagues.

The government's inability or unwillingness to deal with the 1984-85 famine provoked universal condemnation by the international community. Even many supporters of the Ethiopian regime opposed its policy of withholding food shipments to rebel areas. The combined effects of famine and internal war had by then put the nation's economy into a state of collapse.

The primary government response to the drought and famine was the decision to uproot large numbers of peasants who lived in the affected areas in the north and to resettle them in the southern part of the country. In 1985 and 1986, about 600,000 people were moved, many forcibly, from their home villages and farms by the military and transported to various regions in the south. Many peasants fled rather than allow themselves to be resettled; many of those who were resettled sought later to return to their native regions. Several human rights organizations claimed that tens of thousands of peasants died as a result of forced resettlement.

Another government plan involved villagization, which was a response not only to the famine but also to the poor security situation. Beginning in 1985, peasants were forced to move their homesteads into planned villages, which were clustered around water, schools, medical services, and utility supply points to facilitate distribution of those services. Many peasants fled rather than acquiesce in relocation, which in general proved highly unpopular. Additionally, the government in most cases failed to provide the promised services. Far from benefiting agricultural productivity, the program caused a decline in food production. Although temporarily suspended in 1986, villagization was subsequently resumed.

Following the desolution of the Federation of 1951 by vote of the Eritrean parliament in 1960, Eritrea entered into complete union with the rest of the Empire and became a province of Ethiopia. The Province of Welo is also sometimes spelled Wollo. Arsi sometimes was spelled Arusi, Gojam was also spelled Gojjam, Harerge as Hararge or Harrarge (the Duchy of Harrar serving as it's capital was also spelled Harar or Harer). The province of Gonder was also spelled Gondar, and infact, the prefered name for the Province was Beghemidir and Semien, with the capital city at Gonder (Gondar). Tigray is also spelled Tigrai, Asmera as Asmera etc.

With the fall of the communist Derg regime in May of 1991, and the assumption of power by the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Forces (EPRDF), the old Imperial era provinces were all abolished with the exception of Tigrai. The borders of Tigrai itself were drastically redrawn to include northern area's of Gondar, and cedeing much of it's east to the new Affar territory. The new "Regions" were roughly based on ethnic group and language rather than the long standing historic kingdoms and provinces of the Ethiopian Empire. The new "Zones" are based roughly on the subdivisions of the old Imperial provinces and kingdoms as re-organized by the Derg regime.

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Page last modified: 23-11-2015 19:35:22 ZULU