By the end of 1979, Mengistu Haile-Mariam, “the Chairman,” was being projected through the official media in a strong authoritarian light. He derived from his earlier years an exceptional acquaintance with the regional diversity of Ethiopia. Born in an Oromo area between 1940 and 1942, of mixed Amhara and shankala (a caste of blacks who were traditionally slaves) origin, he traveled as a child to different areas while his father was soldiering and then serving as a houseguard. Mengistu gained access to the Holeta military academy, where he was trained as an ordnance officer. He twice visited the United States for training purposes. There is no public evidence of his radicalism prior to the constitution of the Derg in 1974. His subsequent espousal of a “Marxist-Leninist” outlook was, it would seem, as much a response to the immediate situation as a reflection of long-standing conviction. Some of the brutal and top-down features of Ethiopian political culture, as well as his military training, appear to have exerted influence upon him. A more immediate cause of his political development may have been his three-week visit to the USSR in 1975, a voyage that may have focused his attention on the Soviet model. Whatever his precise political orientation, however, there can be little doubt of Mengistu’s determination to rule and to do so decisively: Many who have met him, either as government officials or foreign visitors, attest to his great calmness, a cool realism that has enabled him to overcome the many problems which he has faced.

The other members of the PMAC Standing Committee have post-revolutionary political records in their own right. The secretary-general of the PMAC in charge of the ideological affairs of the new political structure, COPWE, is Lt. Col. Fikre-Selassie Wogderess. Fikre-Selassie was a strong supporter of Menigstu in the 1974-1977 period, but later appeared to incline toward the pro-Soviet faction. The leader of this group is believed to be Lt. Col. Legesse Asfaw. He was one of the PMAC members who underwent political training in the USSR in 1975, and was a keen advocate of the establishment of a political party thereafter. Lt. Col. Fisseha Desta, deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers, is, by contrast, reputed to be a man of outspoken nationalist views: A Tigrean by origin, and a graduate of the Harar academy, he has resisted the policies of the pro-Soviet group and is believed to want a more independent foreign policy. Brig. Gen. Tesfaye Gebre-Kidan is the minister of national defense and originates from Hararghe province: He was involved in negotiations with the Russians on the provision of military supplies. Berhanu Bayih, another Harar graduate, has been in practice the man responsible for Ethiopia’s foreign relations since the revolution and has been closely involved in attempts to win support in the Arab world. Addis Tedlay is an air force officer later placed in charge of the National Revolutionary Development Campaign. Woubshet Dessie served as PMAC representative in Eritrea in 1977-1978 but later became head of the PMAC’s Security Committee, responsible for, among other things, surveillance of other PMAC members. Teka Tulu, an Oromo and a policeman by profession, has been a long-standing member of the Security Committee. Capt. Gesesse Wolde-Kidan has been appointed commissioner for children, an office responsible for much of the relief work among refugees. If, for any reason, Chairman Mengistu were to be removed from his position of dominance, it is probable that his successor would be drawn from among these other Standing Committee members.

How to cite this article:

Fred Halliday "Mengistu and the Standing Committee," Middle East Report 106 (June 1982).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This