|“||There were two reasons why Mengistu and others in the Derg wanted Soviet arms. First, they came to power as revolutionaries with a radical program. They regularly denounced imperialism, yet they remained dependent on the bulwark of what they called imperialism, the United States, for the most critical of all commodities, weapons for their army. Could they be true revolutionaries and socialists and still have such a vital link to the United States? It was very embarassing. But it was more than that. For the second and equally powerful motive that pushed them toward the Soviets was that they wanted a much bigger army than Ethiopia had at the outbreak of the revolution.||„|
|~ David A. Korn, Ethiopia, the United States, and the Soviet Union, 1986|
The Derg (officially known as the Provisional Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia) was the military junta that governed Ethiopia for much of the Cold War. They were in power from 1974 to 1987.
The Derg was established in June 1974 as the Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police and Territorial Army by low-ranking officers of the Ethiopian Army and police led by Chairman Aman Andom.
The Derg was formally renamed the Provisional Military Administrative Council and in September 1974 overthrew the government of the Ethiopian Empire and Emperor Haile Selassie I during mass protests.
The Derg abolished the monarchy and embraced communism as an ideology, establishing Ethiopia as a Marxist-Leninist one-party state with itself as the vanguard party in a provisional government. The abolition of feudalism, increased literacy, nationalization, and sweeping land reform including the resettlement and villagization from the Ethiopian Highlands became priorities. Mengistu Haile Mariam became Chairman in 1977, launching the Qey Shibir to eliminate political opponents, with tens of thousands imprisoned and executed without trial.
By the mid-1980s, Ethiopia was ravaged by various issues such as droughts, economic decline, the 1983–1985 famine, increasing reliance on foreign aid, mismanagement, corruption, the after-effects of failed Derg policies, the Eritrean War of Independence, and the Ethiopian Civil War between the Derg and United States-backed ethnic militias. In 1987, Mengistu abolished the Derg and formed the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia led by the Workers' Party of Ethiopia, with a new government dominated by surviving members of the Derg.
The brutal military dictatorship of the Derg is estimated to be responsible for the deaths of up to 2 million Ethiopians.
Opposition to the reign of the Derg was the cause of the Ethiopian Civil War. This conflict began as extralegal violence between 1975 and 1977, when the Derg struggled for authority, first with various opposition groups, then with a variety of groups jockeying for the role of vanguard party. Though human rights violations were committed by both sides, the great majority of abuses against civilians as well as actions leading to devastating famine were committed by the government.
Once the Derg had gained victory over these groups and successfully fought off an invasion from Somalia in 1977, it engaged in a brutal war against armed opponents. These groups included guerrillas fighting for Eritrean independence, rebels based in Tigray (which included the nascent Tigrayan Peoples' Liberation Front) and other groups that ranged from the conservative and pro-monarchy Ethiopian Democratic Union to the far leftist Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party. Under the Derg, Ethiopia became the Soviet bloc's closest ally in Africa and became among the best armed nations of the region as a result of massive military aid, chiefly from the Soviet Union, East Germany, Cuba and North Korea.
The famine in the mid-1980s brought the political situation in Ethiopia to the attention of the world and inspired charitable drives in Western nations, notably by Oxfam and the Live Aid concerts of July 1985. The money they raised was distributed among NGOs in Ethiopia. A controversy arose when it was found that some of these NGOs were under Derg control or influence and that some Oxfam and Live Aid money had been used to fund Derg's enforced resettlement programmes, under which they displaced millions of people and killed between 50,000 and 100,000. A BBC investigation reported that rebels had used millions of pounds of aid to buy arms; these accusations were later fully retracted by the corporation.
Although the Derg government came to an end on 22 February 1987, three weeks after a referendum approved the constitution for the PDRE, it was not until that September the new government was fully in place and the Derg formally abolished. The surviving members of the Derg, including Mengistu, remained in power as the leaders of the new civilian regime.
The geopolitical situations turned unfavourable for the communist government in the late 1980s, with the Soviet Union retreating from the expansion of Communism under Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika. Socialist bloc countries drastically reduced their aid to Ethiopia, struggling to keep their own economies going. This resulted in even more economic hardship, and the military gave way in the face of determined onslaughts by guerrilla forces in the north. The Soviet Union stopped aiding the PDRE altogether in December 1990. Together with the fall of Communism in the Eastern Bloc in the Revolutions of 1989, this was a serious blow to the PDRE.
Towards the end of January 1991, a coalition of rebel forces, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) captured Gondar (the ancient capital city), Bahir Dar and Dessie. Meanwhile, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front had gained control of all of Eritrea except for Asmara and Assab in the south. The Soviet Union, mired in its internal turmoil, could no longer prop up the Derg. In the words of the former US diplomat Paul B. Henze, "As his doom became imminent, Mengistu alternated between vowing resistance to the end and hinting that he might follow Emperor Tewodros's example and commit suicide." His actions were frantic: he convened the Shengo, the Ethiopian Parliament, for an emergency session and reorganized his cabinet, but as Henze concludes, "these shifts came too late to be effective." On 21 May, claiming that he was going to inspect troops at a base in southern Ethiopia, Mengistu slipped out of the country to Kenya. From there he flew with his immediate family to Zimbabwe, where he was granted asylum and, as of 2017, still resides.
Upon entering Addis Ababa, the EPRDF immediately disbanded the WPE and arrested almost all of the prominent Derg officials shortly after. In December 2006, 73 officials of Derg were found guilty of genocide. Thirty-four people were in court, fourteen others had died during the lengthy process, and twenty-five, including Mengistu, were tried in absentia. The trial ended 26 May 2008, and many of the officials were sentenced to death. In December 2010, the Ethiopian government commuted the death sentence of 23 Derg officials. On 4 October 2011, 16 former Derg officials were freed, after twenty years of incarceration. The Ethiopian government paroled almost all of those Derg officials who had been imprisoned for 20 years.
Other Derg ex-officials managed to escape, and organized rebel groups to overthrow Ethiopia's new government. One of these groups is the Ethiopian Unity Patriots Front which waged an insurgency in the Gambela Region from 1993 to 2012.