Fifteen years after finding sanctuary in Zimbabwe, deposed Ethiopian leader Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam has been convicted by an Ethiopian court on charges of genocide. Mengistu fled Ethiopia in 1991, and Zimabwe President Robert Mugabe is not expected to provide extradition of the former Marxist ruler. Long-time Ethiopia watcher, author, and American attorney Michael Clough suggests that the Mengistu verdict must be seen in the context of what he calls Addis Ababa’s current dubious human rights policy.
“The biggest problem with prosecuting Mengistu for genocide is that his actions did not necessarily target a particular group. They were directed against anybody who was opposing his government, and they were generally much more political than based on any ethnic targeting. In contrast, the irony is the Ethiopian government itself has been accused of genocide based on atrocities committed in Gambella. I’m not sure that they qualify as genocide either. But in Gambella, the incidents, which were well documented in a human rights report of about 2 years ago, were clearly directed at a particular group, the tribal group, the Anuak,” he said.
The Mengistu regime is said brutally to have put an estimated fifty-thousand dissident students, political opponents and members of Ethiopia’s middle class to death. The trial lasted for twelve years and included only about half of those accused of crimes against humanity. Twenty-six, including Mengistu, were tried in absentia, and fourteen others have died since the start of the trial in 1994. Meanwhile, the two national entities that emerged from Mengistu’s former Derg regime, the sovereign nations of Ethiopia and Eritrea, have engaged in a costly border war since 1998 and are threatening to renew hostilities in the context of the independence struggle unfolding in neighboring Somalia. As Michael Clough points out, a Mengistu verdict that tries to resolve an extremely unpleasant chapter in Ethiopia’s history does not necessarily bring closure to its various ethnic populations.
“The only thing that the Eritrean government and the current Meles (Zenawi) government in Ethiopia would agree on is that Mengistu was a brutal dictator who deserved to be prosecuted for gross human rights abuses. What really needs to be done is that we need governments that respect human rights and don’t arbitrarily torture, abuse, and kill their citizens,” said Clough.
Besides a looming clash alongside the dueling Somali factions, the Baidoa-based transitional government, supported by Addis Ababa, and the Islamic Courts Union, backed by Asmara, Ethiopia also faces several serious internal struggles, which Michael Clough says puts them on a very dangerous confrontation course.
“The Ethiopians are facing serious challenges on a least three different fronts. You mention Eritrea, but there is also the situations in Oromia and the Ogaden province, which is Somali-inhabited but not part of Somalia. Plus, also, there is the opposition evidenced by the results of the elections, which, I think, is pretty clear that the Amhara, who represent somewhere between twenty-five and thirty percent of the Ethiopian population, are universally opposed to the government. So I think the real danger is that if serious fighting breaks out with Somalia, it could cause all of these various groups to join forces, and we could see the eruption of a very serious conflagration,” he said.
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