Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Mengistu Haile Mariam: No Famine Accepted in Acceptance Speech

Mengistu Haile Mariam, the leader of the Derg (Committee) which ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991, and head of state during 1977-1991, is remembered for 'red terror' and even genocide. His speech in September 1984, at the Inauguration of the Workers Party of Ethiopia (WPE) was an instance of political hypocrisy at the highest level.

The revolution of 1974 which deposed the long serving Emperor Haile Sellassie I, was the result of public dissatisfaction intensified by a famine in the 1970s. The new military regime struggled to establish itself in the initial years. Mengistu rose to the prominence after eliminating his opponents within and without the Derg.

The Derg embraced Marxism-Leninism as the guiding principle and increasing aid was received from the Soviet bloc. To transform the feudal economy, among other things, land reforms were carried out. Land distribution was quite fairly done and was generally popular. But it created small plots of land which affected the productivity.

Peasants were organized into Peasant Associations and Peasant Collectives. However, collectivization never received wide support in the country. The National Farms established also were unproductive.

The peasants' incentive to produce suffered a heavy blow due to the policies of the powerful Agricultural Marketing Corporation (AMC). This was established to feed the country's cities and towns. The AMC determined a quota for associations, collectives and national farms and bought foodstuff below market prices. To prevent smuggling, AMC built road blocks at strategic points along the roads. The peasants were unwilling to sell the full quota to the AMC at low prices.

Meanwhile, mid-year rains failed in 1983, and a famine was projected for the following year. The regime was at the time preparing for the tenth anniversary of the 1974 revolution and the establishment of a new party, the WPE. Mengistu himself may have been unaware at this stage about the projections. But, he should have been well aware of the situation by late 1983 as the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC) leaked the information to foreign press against the will of the regime. However, the regime never accepted the reality and foreign aid was not forthcoming as a result.

Rains again failed in February 1984 and June-July 1984. By that time, the famine was becoming a hard reality. The government was unwilling to divert funds from the tenth anniversary celebrations to counter the famine. More than half of the country’s population was severely affected.

Despite this, the foreign dignitaries who arrived for the celebrations in September, saw a clean city and nothing of the horror engulfing the country. In the newly built Congress Hall, the WPE was called into being and a Politburo was elected. This in turn, elected Mengistu as the General Secretary of the Party, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces and President of the Council of ministers.

His acceptance speech lasted for five and a half hours. Mengistu spoke on the achievements and the future of the revolution. Not even once, in this long speech, did he mention the famine. Even during his speech, thousands of Ethiopians died from starvation.

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