THE COMING OF TYRANTS III

Ugandan President Idi Amin (1977)

Map of battles of the Uganda–Tanzania War.

However cruel, capricious and brutal many of Amin’s actions may have seemed in the West, in much of Africa he was regarded as something of a hero. By expelling the Asian community and attacking Western imperialism, he was seen to be fearlessly asserting African interests. At meetings of the Organisation of African Unity, of which he was chairman for one year in 1975, Amin’s appearances, weighed down with his own medals and gold braid, inspired enthusiastic applause. He was also able to trade on his Muslim credentials, gaining valuable support and generous loans from the Arab world, notably from Saudi Arabia and Libya, in return for agreeing to promote the Islamic cause in Uganda.

The end of Amin’s tyranny came in 1979. Faced with internal dissension, squabbling and rivalry within his army, Amin desperately sought a diversion and ordered the invasion of the Kagera Salient in northern Tanzania, allowing his troops to loot and plunder at will in an orgy of destruction. In retaliation, Tanzania launched a force of 45,000 men across the border and then decided to oust Amin altogether. After initial resistance, Amin’s army broke and ran. Amin himself abandoned Kampala without a fight, fleeing northwards to his home in the West Nile district, eventually finding refuge in Saudi Arabia.

Amin’s rule had left Uganda ravaged, lawless and bankrupt, with a death toll put at 250,000 people. When exiles were reunited with old friends on the streets of Kampala, they greeted each other in their delight with the phrase, ‘You still exist!’ But there was to be no respite. In 1980 Obote regained power in disputed elections, plunging Uganda into an anarchic civil war. Obote’s repression was as bad as Amin’s had been; his ‘northern’ army was accused by human rights groups of being responsible for 300,000 civilian deaths. By the time Obote was overthrown in 1985, Uganda was ranked among the poorest countries in the world.

Equatorial Guinea enjoyed only 145 days of independence before it was pitched into a nightmare of brutality and coercion that lasted for eleven years. A former Spanish colony, comprising the mainland province of Rio Muni and the main island of Fernando Po (Bioko), it achieved independence in October 1968 under a shaky coalition government led by Francisco Macías Nguema. A politician of limited education and low mental ability, Nguema had made his way up the ladder as a result of the support of Spanish administrators who believed he could be turned into a trustworthy collaborator relied upon to do their bidding. On three occasions he had failed to pass examinations qualifying him for a civil service career and emancipado status, succeeding the fourth time only because of overt Spanish favouritism. In 1960, under Spanish auspices, he had been appointed alcade – mayor – of Mongomo district in the east of Rio Muni and given a seat in the small national assembly on Fernando Po. But while being groomed for office by the Spanish, Nguema harboured intense resentments against them and an abiding hatred of foreign culture and ‘intellectuals’ in general. Once in power, he lashed out.

The incident that triggered his rage occurred in February 1969 when on a visit to Bata he discovered Spanish flags still flying there. His inflammatory speeches against the Spanish sent youth activists into the streets searching for Spanish victims. Fearing for their safety, thousands of Spaniards fled the country. When the foreign minister, Ndongo Miyone, sought to defuse the crisis, Nguema refused to listen. A few days later Ndongo was summoned to a meeting at the presidential palace, beaten with rifle butts, hauled off to prison with broken legs, and brutally murdered. Scores of other politicians and officials whom Nguema wanted out of the way were killed. A former ambassador died after being repeatedly immersed in a barrel filled with water for more than a week. By the end of March most of the Spanish population of 7,000, including civil administrators, teachers, technicians, professionals and shopkeepers had fled, abandoning their businesses, property and prosperous cocoa and coffee plantations.

Equatorial Guinea steadily sank into a morass of murder and mayhem. Ten of the twelve ministers in the first government were executed. In their place Nguema installed members of his own family and fellow tribesmen from the small Esangui clan from the Mongomo region. His nephew, Colonel Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbosogo, became commander of the National Guard, military commander of Fernando Po, secretary-general of the ministry of defence and head of prisons. Other nephews were appointed to senior security posts; one simultaneously held the portfolios of finance, trade, information, security and state enterprises; a cousin ran foreign affairs. Officers in the security forces were all linked to Nguema by ties of kinship.

Given unlimited powers to arrest, torture, rape and murder, Nguema’s security forces wreaked vengeance on the country’s educated classes and took savage reprisals against any hint of opposition. Thousands were incarcerated in prison and murdered there; two-thirds of national assembly deputies and most senior civil servants were killed, imprisoned, or driven into exile. Many were executed on a whim. When the director of statistics published a demographic estimate that Nguema considered too low, he was dismembered to ‘help him learn to count’. In two documented cases he ordered the execution of all former lovers of his current mistresses. He also ordered the murder of husbands of women he coveted. Before each state visit that Nguema made abroad, political prisoners were routinely killed to dissuade other opponents from conspiring against him. Death sentences were invariably carried out with extreme brutality. Guineans were liable to be punished merely for failing to attend manifestations of praise and joy or for being ‘discontento’. In 1976 the last remaining senior civil servants, handpicked by Nguema to replace those he had previously murdered, sent him a mass petition asking for a relaxation of the country’s total isolationism, hoping there would be safety in numbers. Every one of the 114 petitioners was arrested and tortured, many never to be seen again.

No proper administration survived. The only people to be paid regularly were the president, the army, the police and the militia. Most ministries – including those dealing with education, agriculture, construction and natural resources – had no budgets at all and their offices in Malabo were shut. The central bank too was closed after the director was publicly executed in 1976. All foreign exchange was delivered instead to Nguema who hoarded it along with large amounts of local currency in his various palaces on Fernando Po and Rio Muni. When Nguema was short of money, he resorted to ransoming foreigners: $57,600 for a German woman; $40,000 for a Spanish professor; $6,000 for a deceased Soviet citizen.

In long, rambling and incoherent speeches, Nguema fulminated against his pet bugbears – education, intellectuals and foreign culture. He closed all libraries in the country, prohibited newspapers and printing presses and even banned the use of the word ‘intellectual’. All formal education came to an end in 1974 when Catholic mission schools were told to close. Children from then on were taught only political slogans.

In his drive to control organised religion, he ordered church sermons to include references to him as ‘The Only Miracle’ and decreed that his portrait be displayed in all churches. Under threat of immediate arrest, priests were forced to reiterate slogans such as, ‘There is no God other than Macías’, and ‘God created Equatorial Guinea thanks to Papa Macías. Without Macías, Equatorial Guinea would not exist.’ Even this, though, did not satisfy him. In a series of edicts in 1974 and 1975, he banned all religious meetings, funerals and sermons and forbade the use of Christian names. Christian worship became a crime. Virtually all churches were subsequently locked up or converted into warehouses. The cathedral in Malabo was incorporated into the presidential compound and used to store weapons. Foreign priests were expelled. The last Claretine missionary was held as a hostage at the age of eighty-five and released only after a ransom had been paid.

The urban economy collapsed. On a visit to Malabo in 1977, a foreign researcher, Robert af Klinteberg, described it as a ghost town, like ‘a place hit by war or plague’. Nearly all shops, market stalls and the post office, along with government ministries, were closed down; consumer goods were unobtainable; electricity supplies were erratic. Trade and commerce were replaced by barter. Goods arriving on the few ships still calling at Malabo mostly went to Nguema’s clique; the rest rapidly sold out at exorbitant prices. In rural areas, cocoa and coffee production plummeted. Nigerian plantation workers on contract were treated like slave labour and left in droves. To replace them, Nguema ordered the forced recruitment of 2,500 males from each of the country’s ten districts, causing an exodus of tens of thousands to neighbouring Gabon and Cameroon.

In his report on Equatorial Guinea, Klinteberg summed it up as a land of fear and devastation no better than a concentration camp – the ‘cottage industry Dachau of Africa’. Out of a population of 300,000, at least 50,000 had been killed and 125,000 had fled into exile. Hardly a single intellectual remained in the country; fewer than a dozen technical school graduates survived.

Presiding over this slaughterhouse, Nguema exhibited many signs of overt madness. His conversation and ideas were increasingly disjointed; his moods swung suddenly from periods of calm to uncontrollable violence. He sometimes carried out lengthy monologues with former colleagues whom he had executed. His movements were often jerky and uncoordinated; he became progressively deaf, shouting loudly in order to hear himself, refusing the use of hearing aids; he consumed large quantities of drugs, local stimulants like bhang and iboga, that visibly affected the pupils of his eyes. He received treatment in Spain for illnesses that were never disclosed.

Ill at ease in Fernando Po, he retreated to the mainland, first to Bata, where a new presidential palace was built for him, then to live in his remote native village in Mongomo where three of his four wives lived. He took with him most of the national treasury, storing huge wads of bills in bags and suitcases in a bamboo hut next to his house. Some of the money rotted in the ground. He also kept the country’s pharmaceutical store there. Surrounded by relatives and village elders, he spent hours around a campfire discussing ‘state policy’ and reminiscing about the good old days before white rule.

Many Guineans believed he was endowed with supernatural powers. His father, a Fang of the Esangui clan, was said to be a much feared sorcerer, and Nguema constantly used his knowledge of traditional witchcraft both to prop up his legitimacy and to keep the local population in terrified submission. At his home in Mongomo he built up a huge collection of human skulls to demonstrate his power. He invented plots, then uncovered them, in order to prove his invincibility. He used clan leaders and elders and itinerant praise singers to spread the dreaded message of his magical powers. ‘You may be against Macías as long as the sun shines, but in the night you have to be for him,’ one of Klinteberg’s informants told him.

Nguema’s demise came in 1979 as the result of a clash with his ambitious nephew Colonel Obiang Nguema and other members of his family, who feared that unless he was removed they might be dragged down with him. They were spurred on by an incident in June 1979 when six officers of the National Guard who travelled to Mongomo to ask Macías to release funds for the payment of salaries several months in arrears were summarily shot. On 3 August Obiang led a coup against his uncle. After setting fire to most of the country’s fiscal reserves, Macías escaped with two suitcases of foreign currency but was captured two weeks later.

After debating whether to put him on trial or commit him to a psychiatric ward, the family decided on a trial. The trial was held in September 1979 in the Marfil cinema in Malabo. The charges included genocide, paralysis of the economy and embezzlement of public funds. Out of a total of 80,000 murders listed in the original indictment, Nguema was found guilty on 500 counts. He rejected all murder charges, suggesting that his nephew, Obiang, was responsible. ‘I was head of state, not the director of prisons.’ Along with five of his most brutal aides, he was sentenced to death.

Fearful of his supernatural powers, no local soldier was willing to participate in a firing squad. So the task was given to a group of Moroccan soldiers. Long after his death, Nguema’s ghost was believed to be a potent force in Equatorial Guinea. But his successor, Colonel Obiang, settled in comfortably enough.

Major Mengistu Haile Mariam first gained prominence when he harangued the Derg into ordering the execution of some sixty high officials from Haile Selassie’s regime. Ambitious, ruthless and cunning, he was impatient from the start for revolutionary action. Coming from a poor background, a private soldier who had worked his way up the ranks to officer training school, his career and character seemed to symbolise the driving force behind the revolution. His mother was the illegitimate daughter of an Ethiopian nobleman, his father a guard at the nobleman’s house. With little formal education, he was placed with the army as a ‘boy’ at the age of fifteen. A dour, secretive figure, whose dark complexion and facial features linked him to one of the empire’s conquered peoples of the south, he despised the rich and well-born elite that surrounded Haile Selassie’s court. Stationed with the Third Division in Harar province, he acquired a record for insubordination and was constantly in trouble. One reason why he was sent as a representative to the Derg when it was first formed in Addis Ababa in June 1974 was said to be that his divisional commander simply wanted to get rid of him.

As a member of the Derg, Mengistu made common cause with the ordinary soldiers and non-commissioned officers who made up a large part of its membership and who became his power base. He also struck up close links with radical students and Marxist activists, many of whom had returned to Ethiopia from exile in 1974 demanding revolutionary change.

The changes initiated by the Derg came in swift succession. In December 1974 it proclaimed the advent of Ethiopian socialism. In January 1975 it nationalised banks and insurance companies, followed in February by all large industrial and commercial companies. In March it nationalised all rural land, abolishing private ownership and the whole system of land tenancy, thus destroying at a stroke the economic power of the old regime. To spread its message to rural areas, where 90 per cent of the population lived, it despatched the entire body of 50,000 secondary school students, university undergraduates and teachers into the countryside. ‘Christ exhorted his apostles to go and teach,’ a Derg official told students. ‘Today Ethiopia is sending you to the countryside to enlighten the people.’ In July the Derg nationalised all urban land and rentable houses and apartments. The monarchy, too, was formally abolished. The climax came in April 1976 when Mengistu appeared on radio and television to proclaim Marxism-Leninism as Ethiopia’s official ideology.

As the revolution gathered momentum, Ethiopia was engulfed in strife and turmoil. Landlords and land-owners organised armed resistance; royalists and the nobility raised the banner of revolt; in one province after another, rebellions against the central government over long-held grievances flared up. In the north-western province of Begemdir a conservative opposition party, the Ethiopian Democratic Union, led by aristocrats, raised an army, succeeded in capturing towns close to the Sudan border and advanced towards the provincial capital, Gondar. In the north-east Afar tribesmen formed the Afar Liberation Front and mounted guerrilla attacks on traffic using the main road to the port of Assab on the Red Sea coast, where the country’s only oil refinery was located. In Tigray province a large guerrilla force was established by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front with the help of the Eritreans. In the south the Oromo Liberation Front was launched with support from Somalia. The Somalis also revived the Western Somali Liberation Front, which had lain dormant for five years, and began to infiltrate arms and equipment into the Ogaden, preparing for a new initiative to recapture their ‘lost’ lands.

The fiercest struggle occurred in Eritrea. When the Derg decided in November 1974 to prosecute the war in Eritrea rather than seek a negotiated settlement, Eritrean guerrillas launched a massive onslaught. By mid-1976 the guerrillas had gained control of most of the countryside and were laying siege to small army garrisons. In a desperate attempt to shore up the army’s hold on Eritrea, the Derg recruited a huge peasant army from other provinces, hoping that sheer numbers would overwhelm the guerrillas. Poorly trained and armed only with ancient rifles, scythes and clubs, the peasant army was routed on the Eritrean border even before it had been deployed.

In Addis Ababa the Derg met growing opposition from radical political groups which wanted civilian control of the revolution. In September 1976 the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), drawing support from labour unions, teachers and students, all vehemently opposed to military rule, embarked on a campaign of urban terrorism against the Derg and its civilian ally, the All-Ethiopian Socialist Movement, usually known by its Amharic acronym, Meison. An assassination attempt was made on Mengistu in the centre of Addis Ababa in September, the first of nine such attempts. Scores of officials and supporters of the Derg were murdered. The Derg in turn sent out its own murder squads.

The Derg itself was split between rival factions. Mengistu demanded uncompromising action against the Derg’s opponents; other officers favoured a more conciliatory approach. At a meeting of the Derg at the Grand Palace on 3 February 1977, Mengistu and his supporters suddenly left the room, leaving behind seven members he considered his enemies. Mengistu’s bodyguards stormed into the room with machine guns and forced them down to the basement. Mengistu joined them there and joined in the executions. He was now in undisputed control.

Mengistu next turned ruthlessly against his civilian opponents, embarking on what he referred to as a campaign of ‘red terror’, licensing civilian groups – the lumpen-proletariat of the slums – to act on his behalf. ‘It is an historical obligation to clean up vigilantly using the revolutionary sword,’ he told his supporters. ‘Your struggle should be demonstrated by spreading red terror in the camp of the reactionaries.’ At a rally in Addis Ababa in April, he smashed three bottles filled with a red substance he said represented the blood of the revolution’s enemies, inciting followers to avenge themselves on the EPRP. He ordered arms to be distributed to ‘defence squads’ formed by urban neighbourhood associations, or kebeles, as they were called. Months of urban warfare, assassination and indiscriminate killing followed as supporters of the EPRP, Meison and the Derg struggled for control. From the kebeles of the shantytowns, armed gangs hunted down students, teachers and intellectuals deemed to be ‘counter-revolutionaries’. Bodies of murdered victims were left lying where they fell with signs attached to their clothing naming them as ‘oppositionists’ or were dumped in heaps on the outskirts of the capital. Thousands died in the red terror, thousands more were imprisoned, many of them tortured and beaten. By mid-1977 the EPRP was effectively destroyed. In the final phase of the red terror, to establish his own supremacy, Mengistu turned on his Meison allies, destroying them too. The young generation of intellectual activists who had so avidly supported the revolution were all but wiped out.

Mengistu’s hold over other parts of Ethiopia was nevertheless precarious. By mid-1977 the Ethiopian army in Eritrea had lost most major towns and controlled little more than Asmara and the ports of Massawa and Assab. In July 1977 Somalia, deciding the time was ripe to take advantage of the Derg’s preoccupation with Eritrea and other revolts, launched a full-scale invasion of the Ogaden. By August the Somalis controlled most of the Ogaden. In September they captured Jijiga, an Ethiopian tank base, and pressed on towards the town of Harar and the rail and industrial centre of Dire Dawa, the third largest city in Ethiopia.

What rescued Mengistu from military defeat was massive intervention by Soviet and Cuban forces, determined to prop up his Marxist regime. In November 1977 the Soviets mounted a huge airlift and sealift, ferrying tanks, fighter aircraft, artillery, armoured personnel carriers and hundreds of military advisers to Ethiopia. A Cuban combat force numbering 17,000 joined them. Led by Cuban armour, the Ethiopians launched their counter-offensive in the Ogaden in February 1978, inflicting a crushing defeat on the Somalis. The full force of the Ethiopian army, supported by the Soviet Union, was then turned on Eritrea.

At the fourth anniversary celebrations marking the overthrow of Haile Selassie in 1978, Mengistu sat alone in a gilded armchair covered with red velvet on a platform in Revolution Square in Addis Ababa watching a procession of army units and civilian groups pass before him. Then he returned to his headquarters at the Grand Palace. Having succeeded in holding the old empire together, he liked to portray himself as following a tradition of strong Ethiopian rulers. Indeed, Mengistu came to be compared with the Emperor Tewodros, a nineteenth-century ruler who started his career as a minor local chieftain, fought his way up to take the Crown and then strove to reunite the empire after a period of disintegration. At official functions at the Grand Palace, while members of the Derg stood respectfully to one side, Mengistu chose to preside from the same ornate chair that Haile Selassie had once favoured.

One of his ministers, Dawit Wolde Giorgis, once a fervent supporter of the revolution, recalled his growing sense of disillusionment.

At the beginning of the Revolution all of us had utterly rejected anything having to do with the past. We would no longer drive cars, or wear suits; neckties were considered criminal. Anything that made you look well-off or bourgeois, anything that smacked of affluence or sophistication, was scorned as part of the old order. Then, around 1978, all that began to change. Gradually materialism became accepted, then required. Designer clothes from the best European tailors were the uniform of all senior government officials and members of the Military Council. We had the best of everything: the best homes, the best cars, the best whisky, champagne, food. It was a compete reversal of the ideals of the Revolution.

He recalled, too, how Mengistu changed once he had gained complete control.

He grew more abrasive and arrogant. The real Mengistu emerged: vengeful, cruel and authoritarian. His conduct was not limited by any moral considerations. He began to openly mock God and religion. There was a frightening aura about him. Many of us who used to talk to him with our hands in our pockets, as if he were one of us, found ourselves standing stiffly at attention, cautiously respectful in his presence. In addressing him we had always used the familiar form of ‘you’, ante; now we found ourselves switching to the more formal ‘you’, ersiwo. He moved into a bigger, more lavish office in the Palace of Menelik. He got new, highly trained bodyguards – men who watched you nervously, ready to shoot at any time. We now were frisked whenever we entered his office. He began to use the Emperor’s cars and had new ones imported from abroad – bigger, fancier cars with special security provisions. Wherever he went he was escorted by these cars packed with guards, with more riding alongside on motorcycles.

He concluded: ‘We were supposed to have a revolution of equality; now he had become the new Emperor.’

1 thought on “THE COMING OF TYRANTS III

Leave a Reply to Alexandru Nădăban Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.