Commentary Magazine

Ethiopia: The Communist Uses of Famine

Toward the end of 1984, at the height of a famine which has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of its citizens, the Ethiopian government launched one of the most farreaching social experiments of recent memory. The plan, as explained by government officials, was to relocate between 1.5 and 2 million peasants from the country's mountainous and relatively arid northern provinces to what were officially described as “uninhabited virgin areas” in the nation's central and southern regions.

Government spokesmen justified the resettlement project on both humanitarian and economic grounds. The northern provinces, it was pointed out, were the most severely afflicted by drought and famine, to the point where the very survival of the peasantry depended on a thinning-out of the population. Furthermore, it was claimed that resettlement was essential if Ethiopia were ever to develop a viable, self-sufficient rural economy. Without a population redeployment, officials warned, Ethiopia would forever remain a ward of international charity.

This latter point was reiterated forcefully, even angrily, whenever Western governments expressed doubts about the wisdom of uprooting and shifting masses of people around the country in the midst of a catastrophic famine. Western misgivings were unwarranted, officials insisted; instead of carping about resettlement, the wealthier capitalist nations should be promoting it by contributing generous sums of development aid specifically for this project. Nevertheless, to assuage the apprehensions of foreign governments and relief agencies, Ethiopian spokesmen stressed that candidates for resettlement would be chosen on a strictly voluntary basis, that the program would be carried out in an orderly and humane fashion, and that each resettled family would receive a private plot of two hectares and “cattle, seed, fertilizer, and medical assistance for at least one year.”

These reassurances did not dispel the worries of foreign governments, which were donating millions of dollars in famine relief, or of the multitude of relief organizations which raised money and helped administer the distribution of food and other humanitarian goods. The relief agencies in particular were by then well-acquainted with the Ethiopian regime's callous disregard for the well-being of the rural populace, as demonstrated by the diversion to the military of foreign-donated food designated for famine victims and the ruthless methods used to prevent food from reaching provinces where insurgent movements were challenging the authority of the central government. Despite all this, objections to resettlement initially were either suppressed or couched in the mildest possible terms. Specialists in international development were even quick to point out that, in theory, resettlement might contribute to the recovery of Ethiopia's farm economy.

However, no one outside the Communist world believed that resettlement should be the center-piece of agricultural policy, or that it should be undertaken on a mass scale during a time of severe famine. And in the most revealing reflection of the prevailing Western attitude, governments and relief agencies almost without exception refrained from financing or participating in resettlement, including those which in the past had supported collectivist farm schemes in other Third World nations.

In fact, cynical observers theorized in private that resettlement was being put forward not because of official overzealousness or panic, but as part of a deliberate strategy having nothing to do with feeding the hungry. Rather, they noted that the “overpopulated” areas which were to supply candidates for resettlement just happened to be the very regions where opposition movements were in open rebellion. In this view, resettlement provided a convenient smokescreen for the depopulation of troublesome regions, a classic counter-insurgency technique. Some theorized as well that resettlement was meant to advance another longstanding goal: agricultural collectivization. Ethiopian officials repeatedly denied any intention of using force to increase the percentage of farmland organized along socialist lines. But as a foreign diplomat predicted: “Certainly in a year or so we're likely to be informed that the people have unanimously expressed their desire to be collectivized.”

The resettlement program is now slightly more than one year old, and despite extraordinary measures taken by the authorities to stop embarrassing information from reaching the outside, we have come to learn a great deal about the consequences of the project. The evidence suggests something far more serious than imagined by the most skeptical observers. Among the conclusions: resettlement was never conceived of as a voluntary enterprise, and the overwhelming majority of resettlement families were compelled to participate; thousands upon thousands died in holding camps, en route to their new homes, or after having arrived at the resettlement sites; many of the resettlement sites were not uninhabited, as the government had asserted, and families already living there were uprooted without compensation; resettlement sites more nearly resembled penal labor camps than the private farming plots advertised by the government; family separations were a frequent occurrence during the resettlement process; resettlement has been exploited to further the creation of the most radical form of collective-farm enterprise; Western assistance intended to feed the hungry has been routinely redirected to the resettlement program.

Moreover, a compelling body of evidence strongly suggests that Ethiopian government policies played a much more substantial role in exacerbating the effects of famine than was previously recognized. This is not to say that responsibility for the famine rests entirely on the shoulders of the country's political leaders. But the Ethiopian case differs in a number of crucial respects from other famine-ravaged African nations like Mali, Niger, and Sudan. Ethiopia has suffered not so much a natural catastrophe as a deliberate state-sponsored atrocity, with nature providing the authorities with the means to break the rural society's resistance to radical change. Thus the parallels which can be applied to Ethiopia are less with Africa than with previous instances of totalitarian agrarian extremism: the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; China during the Great Leap Forward; the Ukrainian famine of the early 1930's.


There is one important difference between developments in Ethiopia and previous cases where Communist policies, purposely or otherwise, led to the starvation of millions of peasants. The previous instances—especially in the Ukraine and China—took place under ideal totalitarian conditions, with the borders of the affected areas sealed off from foreign journalists, relief workers, and diplomats. Even today scholars continue to debate how many people died in the Ukrainian famine, a controversy which may never be satisfactorily resolved due to the sketchiness of Soviet demographic data. And even less is known about conditions in rural China during the early 1960's. Ethiopia, by contrast, was reluctantly forced to give the outside world a glimpse of internal conditions once it decided to apply for international relief.

That the regime was sensitive to the implications of seeking aid outside the Soviet bloc was made clear by its having waited until late 1984 to initiate an appeal for help, a date well after famine had begun to claim Ethiopian lives. The date is significant, for in September 1984 the regime played host to a mammoth celebration, complete with processions orchestrated by North Korean advisers, to mark the tenth anniversary of the revolution that brought the Communist regime to power in Ethiopia. Only after this extravagant event, costing upward of $100 million, did the regime see fit to inform the world that millions of its people were starving to death; within Ethiopia itself the famine was seldom referred to in the state-controlled media. Many residents of Addis Ababa, the capital city, learned the true dimensions of the famine only in conversation with foreigners.

To minimize the likelihood of unpleasant publicity, the authorities have limited foreigners' access to the countryside. No foreigners are permitted to enter the areas where candidates for resettlement are rounded up or to visit the holding camps where peasants are kept while awaiting transportation to their new homes. Nor are foreigners permitted to inspect the resettlement sites, the only exceptions being carefully-screened delegations which are shown the same few Potemkin Village-style model settlements. Of necessity, some relief workers are allowed to visit various parts of the countryside to distribute food and other aid; they hear stories about atrocities, and occasionally witness them. Generally, however, relief organizations are reluctant to protest government actions out of a justifiable fear that their projects will be closed down. This fear was confirmed this past December, when a French organization, Doctors Without Borders (Médecins sans Frontières), was expelled after publicly criticizing the resettlement program.1

Nevertheless, relief workers have privately given Western journalists important information. Moreover, because of government-imposed constraints, some of the most illuminating research has been conducted outside Ethiopia, primarily in Sudan, where nearly one million Ethiopian peasants fled to escape drought, war, and resettlement. Interviews with these refugees provide the basis for the most comprehensive—and disturbing—study of the resettlement program, which was compiled by Cultural Survival, an organization of American anthropologists primarily concerned with the plight of oppressed indigenous minority groups.2


Perhaps the most important question raised by the Cultural Survival study is the degree of government responsibility for the famine. This issue, in turn, leads directly to the question of whether resettlement is essential to the recovery of the country's rural economy. As noted earlier, many development authorities were of the opinion that a population redistribution would alleviate Ethiopia's chronic food shortages. According to this view, the northern provinces, from which candidates for resettlement were to be selected, suffered from a complex syndrome of problems, including ruinous farming practices and overpopulation, as well as periodic drought.

There is, no doubt, considerable merit to these analyses; but the question remains whether the purely agricultural—as opposed to the political—problems of the region justify so complete and radical a solution as mass internal deportation. On this question, the testimony of Ethiopian peasants is quite revealing. Many, for example, report being scheduled for resettlement despite having an average harvest the previous year. Thus their designation for resettlement is understandable only within the context of the regime's military priorities.

Or again: because the most drought-ridden areas of Tigre province were situated in territory controlled by the Tigre Popular Liberation Front, the regime apparently decided to find candidates for resettlement exclusively in areas under secure government domination. Nor was there any rational basis for the selection of families for resettlement; indeed, it is inaccurate to speak of a selection process. As we shall see, peasants in a particular area would simply be seized en masse by soldiers and packed off to a holding camp. In some instances, peasants taken away from their farms left behind crops ready for harvest.

A government capable of deporting successful peasants in the midst of famine is capable of a great deal. Thus, in Ethiopia, the government played a direct role in the killing of hundreds of thousands of people through a series of actions purposely designed to create havoc in the country-side. One of the most sinister policies was the campaign against the “hoarding” of grain. Initially the drive against hoarding was limited to exhortations against the stockpiling of grain and mutterings about “kulaks,” who allegedly had enriched themselves as a result of the post-revolutionary land-reform program. However, in the period leading up to the famine, soldiers conducted thorough sweeps of peasant areas, confiscating surplus grain at gunpoint, a policy justified in the name of socialist egalitarianism. Yet peasants from the Wollo region, for example, cited the stockpiling of grain as having enabled them to survive frequent periods of famine; it was only after the Marxist rulers had decreed hoarding to be a criminal act, and then moved forthrightly to enforce the new revolutionary standard, that these peasants faced the prospect of starvation.

In the northern provinces, an additional problem was the fact that land reform led to reduced acreages for many individual peasants, with the surplus land transferred to collective farms administered by the peasant associations, one of the many mass organizations established after the revolution. The result of all this was a sudden decrease in peasant productivity. As one refugee explained: “There are farmers in our area who can produce in one harvest enough food for seven years. But no more. This is not because the land has changed but because the government takes it all.”

Another problem was a requirement that peasants work long hours for state farms run by the peasant associations or the military. In addition, peasants were expected to attend political lectures and literacy classes, meetings which were usually devoted to official explanations of why, in one peasant's words, “they are taking our grain, our money, our people.” The result of the myriad meetings, classes, assemblies, rallies, and work details—all obligatory and without compensation—was to leave the peasant with practically no time to devote to farming his own fields.

All this helps explain one of Cultural Survival's most startling findings: that many peasants believed the famine was entirely the product of political decisions. Not one refugee interviewed in the Yabuus (Sudan) relief camp cited drought as a major or even subsidiary cause of famine in the region of Ethiopia which they had fled. Rather, the two most frequently noted reasons were the 4-5 days per week of compulsory work on collective farms and a category labeled simply “imprisonment prevents farm work,” which says a great deal about the state's priorities. Despite a desperate need for increased food production, peasants were jailed on such charges as failure to pay taxes, resisting the confiscation of land, trading outside government channels, refusing to arrest a neighbor as part of militia duty, working the fields during a political seminar or literacy class (frequently mentioned by refugees), suspicion of assisting the Oromo Liberation Front, and publicly objecting to government decisions.

Still another problem was the confiscation of guns. The major result of this policy was to give free rein to foraging animals, such as baboons, who were capable of destroying an entire year's harvest unless killed or driven away. In disarming the peasantry, the authorities were clearly acting to undermine prospective insurgencies. Yet at the same time the government was aware of and unconcerned by the implications for agricultural production. The fact that individual peasants were forbidden to kill wild animals while crops in collective farms were carefully protected indicates that the confiscation of guns was yet another element in a broad strategy to eliminate the private farmer from the Ethiopian economy.

In short, the state helped create the conditions it now cites as justification for a radical and inhumane reorganization of rural life: resettlement.


In designating peasants for resettlement, the regime gave wide authority to the various totalitarian structures which had already played so central a part in subverting the position of the private farmer. Local peasant associations were assigned a resettlement quota, to be filled by whatever measures were necessary. Compulsion of one form or another was almost always required, since few peasants would readily agree to enlist in so dubious an enterprise. An often-employed tactic was the promise of food, as in the following example, from Welo Province:

Board chairmen or members of the peasants' association announced that the government was going to distribute food aid in the nearest market town. . . . The advice to go to the nearest market town was followed without distrust. “The old and the sick came, children and youths and famine victims,” says Ahmed Mohamed. “Some very old people were even brought on camels. I carried my sick wife into town on a stretcher with the help of a neighbor. We were all full of expectations.” But at the assembly centers the peasants were rounded up by soldiers and militia men. . . . During these operations anyone in town looking like a peasant was captured and also resettled: the Koran student who was in the marketplace, a young man who wanted to visit his mother, peasants selling grain, young men selling wood in the town.

A similar ploy required all peasants in a particular area to bring their oxen to the village for vaccination, where the peasants were seized and processed for deportation.

On other occasions, troops were sent into an area to conduct dragnets for resettlement candidates. Peter Niggli, a Swiss relief official who talked to Ethiopian refugees in Sudan, described how these sweeps were carried out:

The resettlement takes place without prior warning: villages in the vicinity of the garrisons are enclosed by military troops or militias at night or in the early morning hours, and all inhabitants the troops can get hold of are rounded up. The people are told the lie that they will be brought to a political assembly in the nearest town. . . . The troops caught the candidates for resettlement asleep, in sick-bed, while harvesting, ploughing, threshing, while herding cattle, repairing a fence . . . or simply arrested them in the streets if they happened to pass through a village that was to be resettled.

Nor was the regime above exploiting the presence of foreign relief workers. Thus Tigrean peasants were enticed to a feeding center where Red Cross representatives were supposed to distribute aid; instead, the relief workers were told to stay in their quarters while soldiers took the peasants off to resettlement holding sites. Relief workers also reported instances of soldiers conducting sweeps for resettlement victims in relief camps during the dead of night, and of a policy by some camp administrators to issue food rations only to those famine victims who agreed to participate in the relocation program.

As should be evident by now, the government paid little attention to humanitarian niceties in its headlong rush to move as many people as possible in the shortest possible time. Since many resettled peasants were grabbed while working in the fields or traveling about their districts, a not surprising side-effect was a high incidence of family separation. Although, of course, precise figures are not available, a comment by a peasant who fled the resettlement program hints at the dimensions of the problem:

Everything occurs, but not a complete family: men without their family (the majority of cases), men with one child, women with some of their children but never with all of them, children or youths without a family but with one brother and men with relatives but without wives and children. . . . And it makes no difference whether someone was ill or not, or whether a woman was pregnant or not.

Once a peasant had been taken away by the military, he was confined to one of the holding camps. These often were nothing more than jails, where the peasant shared quarters with common criminals. Despite the high priority given resettlement by the government, and the generous transport assistance provided by the Soviet Union and other Communist-bloc countries, peasants often had to remain in the holding camps for weeks while arrangements were completed. Starvation rations were the norm, and it was not uncommon for peasants to go without food or drink for several days. Mortality rates were extremely high, to the point where concern was expressed by relief officials from the United Nations (no small matter, since the UN, practically alone among outside agencies working in Ethiopia, consistently supported resettlement and downplayed or explained away the “mistakes” committed by the government). Similarly horrible conditions due to overcrowding obtained during transit from the holding camps to the resettlement sites.

Then there were the resettlement sites themselves. As already noted, the government had made a number of promises: each settler would have a decent-sized plot; farm implements and oxen were to be made available; there were to be separate houses for each family, with running water and metal roofs, and schools and medical facilities were pledged for each settlement area. Peasants were even shown a film, supposedly of the resettlement area, depicting mile upon mile of grain waiting to be harvested.

The reality was altogether different. Peasants arriving in the Asosa region found a wild and uncultivated tangle of weeds and grasses. As one stunned peasant later described the landscape of Asosa: “Around us grew grass and bamboo as tall as men. I felt like garbage that had been dropped in the middle of nowhere.” There was no housing for most of those assigned to Asosa, and thus the first order of business was building houses for the political cadres, the militia, and only then the settlers themselves. Peasants were not permitted to build individual homes; they were housed in barracks-like units holding 200-300 persons each.

Conditions were similar to the accounts—all too familiar by now—of Stalin's slave-labor camps, or, more recently, Vietnam's New Economic Zones. The peasants worked long hours at hard physical work. Their only compensation was a meager food ration. Sometimes they would be told to work at nearby state farms, again without pay. The workers were kept under constant armed guard to prevent escapes and keep shirking to a minimum. The death rate at the resettlement camps was extremely high; it is conservatively estimated that death claimed between 50,000 and 100,000 of the 400,000 peasants resettled in the program's first eight months.

Nor, as it turned out, were all the resettlement areas uninhabited. Some had been successfully farmed for years, and as was the case for those coerced into relocating, the program proved a curse for the original residents. Their lands were expropriated by the state, which then amalgamated adjoining plots to form state entities. Those displaced faced the unpleasant alternative of moving in with relatives or joining a state farm, where working conditions were decidedly inferior to conditions they were used to as private farmers.


One might well wonder why the government would uproot one group of peasants and replace it with another group of uprooted peasants. In fact, this policy does not reflect mismanagement or administrative confusion but rather a deliberate move to advance two government objectives. First, the regime has attempted so thoroughly to disrupt the traditional social and economic patterns of the countryside that the peasants will gladly accept the relative security of collectivized agriculture. As Stalin demonstrated in an earlier time, even the most obstinate peasant will capitulate if he is squeezed and battered with sufficient resolve.

A second reason, which again borrows from the Stalinist arsenal, is related to Ethiopia's persistent nationalities problems. Traditionally, Ethiopia has been under the domination of one group, the Amharas, and resentment over the subordinate position of other nationality groups predates the 1974 revolution. But anti-Amhara sentiments which simmered under Emperor Haile Selassie literally exploded after the new leadership of radical military men launched a drive to remake Ethiopian society, and secessionist movements have emerged in at least four regions of the country. Although the authorities betray a preference for brute force in dealing with national insurgencies, a long-term strategy aimed at the dilution of nationality cohesiveness is also being implemented. Right now, resettlement is a principal instrument of Ethiopia's nationality policy, as thousands of Tigreans have been removed from ancestral lands and settled among Oromos and other groups. There are already reports of resettled Tigreans being armed and sent into battle against Oromo secessionists, a development which, the regime hopes, will deflect Oromo resentment from the central authorities to their new Tigrean neighbors.

In addition to resettlement, Ethiopia has implemented another policy which should, over the next decade, significantly move the countryside toward full collectivization. Known as the “villageization” campaign, this project will eventually affect 33 million peasants, or the overwhelming majority of the rural populace. Villageization entails the abandonment of the scattered settlements which currently predominate in the countryside and the creation of villages where all peasants in a particular area will be obliged to reside. The actual moving of homes and belongings is the responsibility of the peasant himself; during the past year, over one million peasants have completed the process. Leaving aside the question of whether villageization will strengthen Ethiopian agriculture over the long run, one is struck by the awesome irresponsibility of instituting so disruptive a program during a time of famine when the overriding need is to ensure a successful harvest.

Here it must be emphasized that what to outsiders may seem mistaken and even inhumane priorities carry a clear logic when the government's long-range plans are taken into consideration. Ethiopia's leaders have declared, again and again and again, that they intend to transform their society along socialist lines. And by socialist they do not mean some watered-down variant of “African socialism” as practiced in Tanzania and Zambia. To be sure, other African states have expropriated the socialist label, and some claim the heritage of Lenin as well as Marx. But while the policies of such countries as Angola and Mozambique have been guided by a totalitarian inspiration, only in Ethiopia has the leadership set in motion a thoroughgoing and irreversible reorganization of society. Despite famine or other external complications, in Ethiopia the march toward socialism proceeds undeterred.

In an overwhelmingly peasant society, full socialism, in the words of two leftist authorities on Ethiopia, requires “expanding the state's control over the economy and in particular a substantial transformation of agrarian relations.”3 Ethiopia's tyrannical leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam, has put the matter bluntly: “The question of whether or not to socialize the rural production relations is really a question of whether or not to build socialism.”

Yet until the most recent famine, the Dergue, or military committee, which assumed leadership after the revolution, had proceeded with uncustomary caution in its agrarian policies. Even so, the initial land-reform decree gave hints of things to come. Although its major purpose was to break the landholding domination of the nobility and the Coptic church, land reform imposed a ten-hectare limitation on peasant holdings and forbade the hiring of agricultural labor. More to the point, peasants were not given title to redistributed land but rather were given permission only to use the land.

Another ominous sign was the anti-private-peasant rhetoric employed by Mengistu, who complained about lazy and unproductive peasants and denounced “kulaks” for resisting collectivization, hoarding grain, and taking over the leadership of some peasant associations.

Mengistu's analysis was not entirely incorrect. After a surge triggered by the initial land reform, farm production entered a steady decline in response to the policies set down in Addis Ababa. Peasants saw no reason to sell their grain at the artificially low prices decreed by the state, especially since there was little to purchase because of general economic deterioration. And although a collectivization program, organized with the assistance of East German advisers, was launched in 1980, by 1984 state farms accounted for a mere 8 percent of farm production. While state farms continue to receive the overwhelming share of state agricultural investment funds, they have never turned a profit, and thus serve as yet another drag on the Ethiopian economy.

Had it not been for the famine, it is likely that the collectivization drive would have continued at its initial modest pace, particularly since the government, already bogged down by insurgent combat, was unlikely to risk driving Oromo or Tigrean peasants further into opposition. Then famine created unforeseen opportunities for rearranging the rural economy. A starving peasantry would be less prone to fight the drastic measures—like resettlement—which invariably accompany collectivization. Likewise, the international community would be more likely to ignore or excuse acts of repression that in ordinary times might incite charges of human-rights violations. Finally, famine opened the possibility of acquiring assistance from conscience-stricken foreigners which could be used to advance collectivization. As matters have turned out, foreign sources have generally refused to give money for resettlement or collectivization. Yet the regime has been able to divert humanitarian aid for the resettlement campaign by, for example, using foreign-donated trucks for the transportation of peasants to resettlement sites.


Ironically, it was a previous famine, in 1973, which contributed to Haile Selassie's downfall. But even today it remains unclear why what began as an almost bloodless coup degenerated into a brutal Communist dictatorship. Although there was a degree of pro-Communist sentiment among the pre-revolution-ary student class, there were no underground parties of any consequence. And while the Soviets had long coveted Ethiopia's strategic position on the Horn of Africa, no evidence has been uncovered to indicate Kremlin complicity in the coup which toppled Haile Selassie. One can, of course, explain the Dergue's march into the Soviet camp as stemming from its desperate need for military assistance to put down the various secessionist threats. Yet this is unconvincing; after all, the United States had provided generous amounts of military aid to the Emperor, and would have continued to give aid to a pro-Western government (although the U.S. would not have sent in troops, as the Soviets did in the form of Cuban proxies during the Ogaden crisis in 1977-78). In any event, it was the Dergue's extremist and intrusive policies which set off the wave of secessionist movements; whatever his shortcomings, Haile Selassie was much shrewder—and far less murderous—in his dealings with the country's various nationality groups than the revolutionary leadership has been.

Nor can it be reasonably claimed that a hostile United States “pushed” Ethiopia into the arms of the Soviets. Successive American administrations have, if anything, been excessively tolerant of Ethiopia's military leaders, given their increasingly pro-Soviet stance and wretched human-rights record. Even after America had been denounced and humiliated, the opinion still prevailed that the Dergue would eventually turn toward the U.S. in order to extricate itself from the wreckage of irrational economic policies. Instead, in response to the famine, Mengistu has demanded—and received—American humanitarian assistance while at the same time moving ever closer to the Soviets.

A more plausible explanation of the course the Ethiopian revolution has taken is that the Dergue initially saw Marxism as a legitimizing instrument, a rationale for the continued dominance of a group of inexperienced soldiers. But if at first the Dergue's revolutionary credentials were somewhat contrived, the leadership has since come to embrace Communism as a matter of conviction. Communism appeals to the Dergue for the same reason it has appealed to the radicalized elites of other Third World countries: it seems to be a means of transforming a backward society while bypassing the normal stages of development. And insofar as it holds forth the promise of total state power, Communism is doubly appealing to a man like Mengistu, who sees himself as an African Castro and compares Ethiopia's role in Africa with Vietnam's in Asia.

Mengistu's revolutionary scenario calls for nothing less than a telescoping of the European revolutions of 1789, 1848, and 1917 and a transformation of his country from absolute monarchy to full Communism over a period of several decades. In putting forth this mad agenda, Mengistu has until now avoided the kind of forthright opprobrium that the West has reserved for South African apartheid or even the Philippines under Marcos. Mengistu even has his Western admirers, such as the British observer who placed the Dergue's reign of terror in a broad historical perspective: “Ethiopia is compressing the history of Britain from the Norman conquest to the Industrial Revolution into one generation. . . . In that context, the number of deaths is minuscule.”

Well before embarking on his campaign to bring socialism to the countryside, Mengistu succeeded in placing urban society under firm state dominion. Most industries, banks, and businesses have been nationalized, as has urban land. As the urban economy has deteriorated, these measures have been strengthened. Strict limits have been imposed on the amount of housing space permitted urban dwellers; those who exceed the limit must relocate, pay additional taxes, or take in tenants. The state has also decreed limits on the size of private businesses; those exceeding the limits are liable to nationalization. At a time when a number of Communist regimes are encouraging a modest level of private initiative, Mengistu is moving in a direction guaranteed to damage further an already sagging economy.


To enforce its rule in the cities, the Dergue early on set up urban kebeles, a Communist version of the neighborhood association, but with far more expansive authority than similar organizations in the non-Communist world. The kebeles were given the power to determine who qualified to live in a particular residence, as well as wide patronage power over jobs, rationed food, and travel permits (necessary for long-distance travel within Ethiopia). The kebeles conducted literacy classes and seminars on Marxism, and kebele cadres kept a close watch over the comings and goings in the neighborhood.

In addition to the kebeles, the government imposed strict urban residency restrictions; impoverished peasants who attempted to live in the cities without official permission were seized by authorities and dumped outside the city limits. These measures, combined with a general police-state atmosphere, explain why visitors have so often remarked on the absence of abject poverty in Addis Ababa.

The kebeles became especially important during the so-called “Red Terror,” in 1977-78, when thousands were killed in the capital city. Kebele paramilitary units carried out door-to-door searches for suspected members of underground opposition groups, mostly high-school and university students (who admittedly employed violent tactics in their own right). Often those killed would simply be left on the streets, bedecked with placards inscribed with revolutionary slogans, as a warning to other potential “class enemies.” Others were piled in a heap at the morgue, where bodies could be claimed only after payment of a stiff fee by friends or family.

Mengistu did not find these practices embarrassing. Quite the contrary. In a 1977 May Day speech, he declared: “The recent role played by workers, peasants, and progressive men in uniform in weeding out anarchists and infiltrators has proven the Marxist-Leninist theory that the working class is the most revolutionary of all classes.”

Lower-level officials were even more candid in their celebration of violence. The execution of a high official was described as “the revolutionary process manifesting itself at the highest level.” An official of one of the many mass organizations declared: “What one observes in this country today is open class struggle—in other words, violence is primary.” Or as another official elaborated: “One might look at the whole thing from a moral point of view—why kill people? . . . But the question of violence cannot be approached from a purely abstract moral level.” Although they admitted the possibility of mistakes, these were “insignificant compared to the successes.” These young revolutionary enthusiasts, who gloried only yesterday in the purifying effects of violence, are today prosecuting a collectivization campaign whose mortality rate vastly exceeds the numbers deliberately murdered during the struggle against the urban opposition.

While Mengistu's Red Terror succeeded admirably in demoralizing the urban populace, it failed to win popular loyalty. With the exception of those directly connected to the Workers party of Ethiopia, there exists no mass constituency for Communism, the Dergue, or even Mengistu as a national leader. The Russians are universally despised, and Western culture and Americans remain highly popular. While the unpopularity of the regime's policies has not deterred it from pressing ahead on both the domestic and international fronts, it has caused Mengistu to refocus the drive to “reeducate” the Ethiopian people. Borrowing a page from the experience of other Communist societies, the Dergue has placed its hopes and energies on instilling in the younger generation socialist values and a hatred for all things American.

One of the most important components of the Dergue's educational plans is the establishment of a series of orphanages where the political cadres of the future are being carefully indoctrinated. The orphanages were putatively designed for children of parents killed during the various wars which followed in the revolution's wake. Many of the students, however, are not orphans, but children separated from their parents during the resettlement campaign.

According to Blaine Harden, a reporter for the Washington Post, the showcase orphanage is called the Revolutionary Ethiopian Children's Village. A banner at the entrance carries the slogan: “We growing children are determined to follow the method of our father, Comrade Chairman Mengistu Haile Mariam.” Mengistu's image appears on practically every wall, as do Marxist sayings such as “We shall combat all anti-socialist tendencies.”

From interviews with the children, it can be gathered that the regime may eventually reap political dividends from its new strategy. One student dutifully described President Reagan as an “oppressor.” Asked about foreign relief efforts, another student responded: “The Soviet Union and the East Germans give food. And African countries give medicine. No other countries give help.” The same student reported having heard that Ethiopia had fought a war with the United States, and that Ethiopia had won. And when asked about the general state of affairs in her country, she answered that conditions had improved dramatically since the revolution: “Before, we did not have enough ammunition. Now we have enough to fight our enemies. We don't have to beg.”

We of course cannot know for certain if the children interviewed by Harden—with their distorted view of history and militaristic attitude—are representative of those raised in the special orphanages. We do know that the Ethiopian government is sufficiently satisfied with the results to have announced ambitious plans for the establishment of a number of additional institutions. Although the regime's plans cannot be realized without foreign assistance, the possibility cannot be discounted that democratic governments will end up contributing to the rawest kind of militaristic and anti-democratic indoctrination. As Harden notes, the Revolutionary Ethiopian Children's Village was financed by a $13 million grant from Sweden and an additional $1 million from UNICEF.4

It remains to be seen whether Mengistu can create a mass base of support for Communism. If he should fail, as seems likely, it would not be the first time that a Communist regime has survived though despised by the people over whom it rules. Yet even by the normally low Communist standards of political legitimacy, the Ethiopian case is unique. In practically every other Communist nation, at least some segment of the population—sections of the working class, the intelligentsia, even the peasantry—has been initially favorably disposed toward radical change. Moreover, most Communist regimes, having gained power, are at first able to enhance their popularity through policies of redistribution or patronage; it is only later, when mass repression and confiscatory policies like collectivization are introduced, that the true nature of the system is revealed. By contrast, the Ethiopian revolution materialized out of violence and has been sustained solely by the leadership's willingness to annihilate anyone seen as an obstacle.


To fulfill Mengistu's dream of transforming Ethiopia into the first truly Communist state on the African continent will require the assistance of the capitalist world. The Soviets have made it clear that they have no intention of permanently subsidizing another developing country; one Cuba is all they will support. Based on past experience, Mengistu no doubt concludes that the West will eventually set aside its objections to his domestic regime, and provide the means to build Communism, whether out of humanitarian concern or because of the lingering hope that Ethiopia can be persuaded to modify its global alignment. Already there are signs that some Western governments, Italy and Canada in particular, have begun to donate a modest supply of aid for the resettlement program.

Rather than caving in to Mengistu's unyielding demands, however, the democracies could actively resist resettlement with the most effective means available. Unless concessions were offered by the Dergue, an unlikely prospect, the United States might impose a moratorium on all aid to Ethiopia, and exert pressure on foreign governments and private relief organizations to do likewise. The inevitable arguments would be raised; resettlement is a fait accompli, and cutting off aid would only punish the Ethiopian people for the crimes of their rulers. But at the present time the evidence suggests that resettlement itself may be responsible for more deaths than famine, which has abated with improved rainfall. Doctors Without Borders has proposed a total moratorium on assistance to Ethiopia by governments and private relief organizations for a three-month period, during which an international commission could conduct an on-site investigation of the resettlement program. The commission would issue recommendations regarding a more humane implementation of the program, and address the broader question of whether resettlement is necessary as a means of breaking the famine cycle. A decision to lift the moratorium could then be based on the commission's findings and the Ethiopian government's willingness to make the recommended changes.

Beyond the question of whether to maintain humanitarian aid, there must be a recognition that Ethiopia is not a Chile or even a South Africa, with a little extra killing thrown in. The Dergue's rule combines the most lethal aspects of Communism, militarism, and Third World brutalism; among postwar regimes, only the Khmer Rouge has exceeded the Ethiopians in savagery.

Ethiopia also reminds us of how politically alike are geographically and culturally disparate Third World Communist regimes. Mengistu's methods are certainly more deadly than, to take another timely example, those of the Sandinistas, but the similarities are all too apparent: the disdain for the rights of national minorities; the determination to collectivize agriculture against all common sense; the neighborhood spy committees; political indoctrination camouflaged as a literacy drive; the rewriting of history; even resettlement (which the Nicaraguans have instituted in provinces where pro-contra sentiment runs high).

A major difference is that the Nicaraguan revolution has been subjected to a microscopic examination by experts, journalists, and diplomats from around the world, while Ethiopia has been largely ignored. There is also the reality of American pressure, until now the principal obstacle to the consolidation of totalitarian rule in Nicaragua.

Unluckily for the Ethiopian people, the predominant superpower in their region has not only failed to restrain the excesses of Ethiopia's political leaders; the Soviet Union, calling on years of experience in its own land and elsewhere, has played a crucial part in conceiving and executing a plan which has turned Ethiopia into yet another Gulag state.


1 See Mass Deportation in Ethiopia, a report issued by Doctors Without Borders and written by the organization's executive director, Dr. Claude Malhuret.

2 Politics and Famine in Ethiopia, by Jason W. Clay and Bonnie K. Holcomb, Occasional Paper #20, Cultural Survival, Inc., Cambridge, Massachusetts.

3 Fred Halliday and Maxine Molyneux, The Ethiopian Revolution (London, Verso, 1981).

4 Communist authorities in Afghanistan, similarly encountering difficulties in convincing the people to embrace Communism, have also established a group of orphanages for the education and training of future political cadres. The institutions are run by the Afghan secret police. In both the Afghan and Ethiopian cases, the inspiration is Soviet. Under the Bolsheviks, the secret police (Cheka) played an important part in raising children orphaned by the revolution and civil war. Feliks Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka, observed that “the care of children is the best means of destroying counterrevolution.”

About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.

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