Mengistu Rule Seen Teetering on Brink
President Mengistu Haile Mariam, who built a Marxist regime on the ashes of a feudal empire he helped bring down in 1974, is a man with many problems and, some predict, a limited future.
His army has suffered battlefield setbacks in recent months, particularly in the northernmost province of Eritrea, where rebels appear on the verge of winning a 29-year-old war for independence.
Another insurgent group swept out of its stronghold in Tigre Province, just south of Eritrea, 10 months ago and has pressed its fight to overthrow Mengistu’s government to within 50 miles of the capital.
The Soviet Union, preoccupied with its own economic and political problems, has threatened to close the tap that has poured billions of dollars worth of military hardware into Ethiopia since 1977.
Mengistu spurned the United States and its Western allies when he achieved power 13 years ago, and they are in no hurry to improve relations.
Major elements of Mengistu’s own army attempted a coup last year. He said in a recent speech that he had survived nine assassination attempts.
With all those problems, and burdened by a collapsing economy that has never been robust, Mengistu signaled a change of course two months ago. From now on, Ethiopia will favor free-market economics and welcome foreign investment, he said.
Giant posters of Marx and Lenin came down in Addis Ababa, but those showing Mengistu in various poses as a revered leader remain.
“It looks like a deathbed conversion,” a Western diplomat in Addis Ababa said, on condition of anonymity. “If you believe that Mengistu has had a true change of heart, you probably also believe in the Easter bunny.”
Mengistu joined other army officers in 1974, when he was a major, in overthrowing Emperor Haile Selassie. Three years later, he reigned supreme.
He created the Marxist-Leninist Workers Party of Ethiopia in 1984. In 1987, Mengistu established the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, formally dropping his military rank of lieutenant colonel to become a civilian president.
Ethiopia is ruled by a small group agreeable to Mengistu’s every plan, according to the memoirs of Dawit Wolde Giorgis, a former member of the party Central Committee who defected to the West.
Dawit, major human rights groups and other critics accuse Mengistu of ordering or participating in the executions of dozens of rivals and of imprisoning thousands. Mengistu has denied the claims.