Ethiopia’s supreme court is awaiting confirmation from President Girma Woldegiorgis of this week’s death sentence against former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. The court overturned a previous life sentence on genocide charges for the Marxist lieutenant colonel and 17 of his associates, who were first punished last year after a decade-long trial. Donald Levine is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Chicago and the author of two widely cited books on Ethiopia, “Wax and Gold” and “Greater Ethiopia”. He says that Ethiopians believe the current government has a strong political stake in the new sentence.
“The current regime believes that it needs to be seen as very strong. They believe that the demonstration against them in June, 2005, following the election called for brutal, extreme, repressive measures and ever since, they felt they needed to be seen as very tough. The prosecution appealed only in July the sentence that had been handed down in January of the previous year. I’m really surprised and bothered that it took so long to bring this trial to conclusion,” he noted.
Mengistu overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 and assumed absolute control after a bloody coup in 1977. In 1991, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe offered him refuge in Zimbabwe, where he has lived ever since. With the 84-year-old Mugabe seriously challenged with political changes in Zimbabwe after next month’s (June 27) presidential election run-off, Donald Levine sees a possible new opening for Ethiopians hoping to achieve Mengistu’s extradition.
“Not right now, but if President Mugabe is replaced, then his successor may well extradite him if requested to. If the evidence is reviewed, I think if a new government comes to be in Zimbabwe, that they would be wanting to abide by the standards of international law and would consider that he should be extradited,” said Levine.
For a new generation of Ethiopians, many of whom were born after the fall of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam’s regime, the process of coming to terms with the return and execution of an internationally recognized brutal war criminal could epitomize a momentous national experience. Professor Levine says that even though young Ethiopians lack direct personal contact with the troubled past, they have without doubt incorporated the tragedy into their sense of national consciousness.
“Those who were not born at the time, I’m sure have learned from their families about what happened during those years and I don’t know a single Ethiopian at home or abroad who doesn’t regard his (Mengistu’s) regime as absolutely horrible. Probably, almost everyone, even if generally they don’t believe in the death penalty, would say, well in this case, it’s deserved,” he pointed out.
The test of whether Africans living outside of Ethiopia, especially in Zimbabwe, will pass up seizing an opportunity for international justice or pursue it may rest in the hands of Zimbabwe voters and the Mugabe government. University of Chicago sociologist Donald Levine concludes there is no question that the crimes of the Mengistu era should not be overlooked by Zimbabweans.
“No way. The reason they’ve given him a home there is that he helped Zimbabwe during their liberation struggle. But on the merits of his own case and the horrible crimes of which he was guilty, I see that they would certainly have no reason to protect him any further,” he said.
As for Ethiopians’ stake in the Zimbabwe crisis, Professor Levine says he thinks Ethiopians would like to see Zimbabweans overcome President Mugabe’s resistance of the democratic process, much as many of them would like to see greater reform in their own country. In addition to wanting President Mugabe ousted for that reason, he says, they are also interested in seeing Mengistu Haile Mariam extradited back to Ethiopia to face justice.