Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Mengistu Mariam Verdict

In a morbid irony of fate, Mengistu Haile Mariam, former Ethiopian dictator, has, at last, been sentenced to death by the country’s Supreme Court for genocide and other crimes. That landmark judgment should serve as warning to despots worldwide, particularly those in Africa where many people who assume the leadership of their countries often display a poor grasp of the transience and essence of power.
Mengistu Mariam indeed went down as one of Africa’s worst rulers, first as a prominent member of the Dergue, the military junta that ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1987, then after shooting his way to power in 1977 and finally between 1987 and 1991 as the President of the Peoples Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. The famine and economic collapse of Ethiopia which had become sources of concern globally under the late Emperor Haile Selassie were worsened by the coercive, Marxist policies of Mariam and his gang. The failure of those strategies was demonstrated by the country’s total reliance on foreign relief materials and foodstuff between 1984 and 1989.
In the northern part of the country, the armed conflict between the government and rebel movements mixed with drought to produce unprecedented starvation while drought alone galvanized the misery and widespread mortality of the other regions. By 1985, 7.7 million people were victims of food shortages. Of that figure, 2.5 million were at the immediate risk of dying. But instead of pursuing programmes that would alleviate the deadly impact of the natural disasters, Mengistu’s government committed gross human rights violations which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
The deadliest manifestations of Mengistu’s depravity occurred between 1977 and 1978 during the “Red Terror”, a campaign that eliminated thousands of those dubbed by his regime as “imperialists” and “counter-revolutionaries.” The large documentary evidence of the murders carried out in that era eventually helped to convict Mengistu and some of his aides of crimes against humanity. It is sad that the social and economic changes he initiated, substituting an ancient feudal system with a socialist one-party state and forcefully resettling large populations , were all geared towards actualizing his megalomania rather than the general good of Ethiopians.
It is also instructive that on his overthrow in 1991 by the joint Eritrean and Tigrayan forces, he ran into the embrace of his friend, Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe, whose grip is currently threatening the survival of his own country. Despite the capital pronouncement on Mengistu, Mugabe has refused to extradite the ex-Ethiopian strongman to pay for his iniquities, insisting that “Comrade Mengistu still remains a special guest.”
But Mugabe and his fellow travelers on the path of life presidency and official brutality should recognize the place of nemesis in the affairs of mankind. Yesterday, Mengistu was the hunter of his people. Today, he is at the receiving end. By attempting to evade the course of justice, he has become a vagabond. But the former Ethiopian leader should know that truth will ultimately prevail. It’s only a matter of time.
The major lesson from Mengistu’s dilemma is the need for leaders to be conscious of the verdict of history. Power, after all, is ephemeral. The most rational way to handle it, therefore, is to pursue the betterment of life for the governed. And not to use it as a tool for despondency, destruction and death.