Tafari Benti

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Brigadier Tafari Benti Chairman of the Ethiopian Derg Condemns South Africa Somalia Sept 1976.png

Tafari Benti (Ge'ez: ተፈሪ በንቲ; October 1921 – 3 February 1977)  was the Head of State of Ethiopia (28 November 1974 – 3 February 1977) was an Ethiopian politician who served as chairman of the Derg, the ruling military junta. His official title was Chairman of the Provisional Military Administrative Council.

Early life and career

Tafari Benti was born near Addis Ababa. He joined the Ethiopian army at the age of 20, graduated from the Holetta Military Academy, and served in the Second, Third and Fourth Divisions. In 1967, he served as a military attaché in Washington, D. C., where he and several other Ethiopian colleagues suffered from racial discrimination.

On the evening of 23 November 1974, the charismatic Lt. General Aman Mikael Andom, the president of Ethiopia, and who had been in a struggle for power with the other members of the Derg, was killed in a shootout at his home. Mengistu Haile Mariam served as interim president until the Derg appointed Tafari Bente to the position. He had been serving as brigadier general in the Fourth Division, which was stationed in Asmara, at the time of this appointment.

Tenure

During his tenure Tafari presented himself as the public face of the ruling junta. According to the Ottaways, while at first he was "a neutral and powerless figure", in the end "he was too colorless, soft-spoken, and undemonstrative to be the figurehead of the revolution." However, according to Rene LaFort's account, Tafari offered some hints that he supported those opposed to Mengistu. One such hint was in July 1975, when in a public speech he made overtures to the civilian left—groups which included the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP) and MEISON—proposing a united front "of all the forces that rejected the ancient regime, built from the base, that is from the mass organizations born of the great reforms"; LaFort points out that this was "a strategy which Mengistu Haile Mariam and his supporters opposed and would continue to oppose more and more resolutely." He repeated this message in a speech on the first anniversary of the deposition of Emperor Haile Selassie.

Over the following months, according to LaFort the Derg was split over irreconcilable objectives: "How could the authority of the Committee be strengthened while avoiding the dangers of authoritarianism, and how could the principles of collegiality be maintained while gaining maximum benefit from a concentration of power?" And behind this split was concern at Mengistu's growing power. To end this split, the Derg set up a committee chaired by Captain Mogus Wolde Mikael to reform the Derg's structure. After nine of weeks of what LaFort describes as "strenuous internal negotiations", on 29 December 1976 Tafari delivered a speech, announcing that the Derg had been restructured. The reorganization limited Mengistu's powers and sent his supporters out of the capital to positions in the countryside; on the other hand, two of the key architects of this reform, Captain Mogus and Captain Almayahu Haile, were appointed to powerful positions. His enemies had thought they had clipped Mengistu's wings and had removed him as a threat. And Tafari Bente went even further and, flanked by Captains Mogus and Almayahu, criticized the lack of a vanguard party in words which LaFort interprets as declaring "the bloody war between MEISON and the EPRP to be politically unjustifiable, and that it should in any case remain limited to the civilian Left without the army intervening in any way."

Death

Despite this apparent setback, Mengistu proved to be far more resourceful than his opponents believed. The showdown occurred on 3 February 1977, when gunfire erupted during a meeting of the Standing Committee of the Derg. This meeting ended with the deaths of not only Tafari and the two captains, but four other Derg members who had been opposed to Mengistu - Lieutenant Colonel Asrat Desta, Lieutenant Colonel Heruy Haile Selassie, Captain Tefera Denke, and Corporal Haile Belay - as well as one Derg member who supported Mengistu, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Asfaw, and a civilian Senay Likke. The Ottaways, writing not long after the incident state, "Precisely how the shoot-out began and which side took the initiative remains a typical Derg mystery". Rene LaFort relates one of the many stories in circulation at the time, where "Mengistu merely turned to his advantage a shoot-out started by someone else." A number of Derg members, including Mengistu, had met that morning to discuss a document which described the "class peace" Tafari Bente had publicly endorsed, and after hours of arguing, it was clear that there was a deadlock on the issue. Mengistu then asked that Tafari attend the meeting, and met the Chairman of the Derg outside who told Mengistu that there was nothing to discuss; tempers flared, a soldier belonging to the anti-Mengistu faction started shooting, and Mengistu's bodyguards opened fire, killing Tafari instantly and fatally wounding Senay Likke; Mengistu then took the 12.7 machine gun from the armed car outside the meeting room and sprayed the corridor and entrance to the meeting room, slaughtering the others. The Ethiopian academic Bahru Zewde, although writing over 20 years later is physically much closer to the scene, and states simply the dead "were readily picked up and summarily shot." Shortly afterwards, Radio Ethiopia broadcast a charge by Mengistu that Tafari and his associates had been killed because they were secret supporters of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP). Mengistu claimed he had discovered a 47-page master plan in Tafari's possession, which detailed how the EPRP would replace the "scientific socialism" of the Derg.