Book Review: Autopsy of the Ethiopian Revolution

Review by Prof. Theodore M. Vestal

The book ‘Ideology and Elite Conflicts: Autopsy of the Ethiopian Revolution, by Prof. Messay Kebede, is the best and most thorough analysis of the causes and implications of the Ethiopian Revolution to date. Prof. Messay has written a {www:tour de force} of the political theory of the Ethiopians who overthrew the imperial regime of Emperor HaileSelassie and instigated a program of socialism that endured for 18 years (from 1974 through 1991) before utterly collapsing. In a carefully researched and logically crafted book, the author touches on a {www:plethora} of significant topics related to a {www:seminal} period in Ethiopian history and presents them in new and important ways. The arguments and insights presented are cogent.

From the start, Messay defines {www:trenchant}ly his terms and lays out the objectives of the book. Noteworthy is the examination of current theories of revolution, making a distinction between social and political revolutions, and positing discrepancies in the Ethiopian experience. Messay does a masterly job of reviewing the ideological and sociopolitical origins of HaileSelassie’s regime with its history of political {www:cooptation}, social blockage, and creation of discontent leading to crises that brought about its demise. In evaluating the Emperor’s quest for personal glory and his success in foreign policy, he correctly notes that Haile Selassie’s international reputation enhanced his internal authority and absolutism sufficient to postpone the modern development of his country. It was in consolidating his centralized power and in rejecting limits to such power that the Emperor set up the very instruments (a national army, a system of education, and a modern bureaucracy) that would bring the imperial absolutism to an end. As the monarchy lost legitimacy with the people, it lost authority over its own guardians—especially the military.

Messay skillfully traces the precipitating factors that led to the collapse of the imperial regime and the political ascent of the military. Chief among these factors was the miscalculation of the educated and reform-minded members of the ruling elite who thought they would assume leadership of the social protests with an ensuing radical revolution without drawing in the Armed Forces into the center of the political battle. With Western educations proving of little value in getting around the blockage of social mobility, the educated elite found itself marginalized. In desperation, it turned to the then dominant ideology of Marxism-Leninism. This very disfranchisement of the educated elite became quite inspirational to the rebellious junior officers and NCOs of the military, who adopted the perspective of the outcast elite to justify their power. In 1974, it became apparent that the government could not effectively deal with the crises that engulfed the nation. As the author notes, without clear civilian leadership in the opposition, the military officers filled the vacuum and soon were making political instead of corporate demands. To oversee the implementation of these demands, the military formed a representative committee, the Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police, and Territorial Army—the Derg, that took over the reins of government. There followed a bitter power struggle among individuals and opposing groups that resulted in the radicalization of the Derg which imposed a socialist revolution upon the country. Thus, the Derg hijacked the political revolution using a commitment to utopian ideas that originated from the students and intellectuals. The Derg adopted Marxist-Leninist ideology because if justified the absolute power that it needed to eliminate all other contending groups.

While this was occurring, Cold War politics intruded into the Horn of Africa: Soviet-armed Somali troops invaded Ethiopia, and the United States proved reluctant to provide military support to the nascent Derg. The Soviets, encouraged by the Derg, quickly abandoned the Somali government, their former allies, and gave massive support to Ethiopia, which appeared to be a more reliable client implementing a genuine socialist revolution. Somali forces were driven out of the country, and the radicals of the Derg led by Mengistu Haile Mariam emerged under the protective wing of the Soviets with absolute power. During Mengistu’s reign civil war was continuous. Large numbers of people either lost their lives or were forced to flee the country.

At the heart of Messay’s analysis is the use of {www:psychobiography} in finding Mengistu’s narcissism essential in understanding the revolution. In a significant contribution to the study of the revolution, the author delves into the double-edged nature of the dictator’s narcissism: on the one hand, his decisiveness, authoritarianism, cunning, and manipulative ability so suited for seizing power; but on the other hand, his negative paranoia, quick temper, cruelty, and sense of invincibility that impeded his winning the civil war. Like Haile Selassie before him, the very measures that Mengistu took to safeguard his absolute rule turned out to be those that most weakened him.

Messay is also incisive in analyzing the rise of ethnonationalism leading to the concept of a nation within Ethiopia possessing the right to self-determination either in the form of self-rule or, if need be, independence. Ethnonationalism became the rallying point for the Tigrean elite in resisting government intrusions into its territory. Together with the Eritreans who sought independence, the two northern ethnic movements scored decisive military victories that brought about the collapse of the Derg. Troops of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) marched into Addis Ababa while the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front captured Asmara. The TPLF then dominated the transitional government that adopted a system of ethnic federalism and supervised a referendum on Eritrean independence that created a new nation and left Ethiopia without an outlet to the sea. The TPLF’s rule ever since continues under the shadow of the Derg’s socialist revolution.

In his concluding analysis of the Ethiopian revolution using both a narrative method and ideological factors, Messay synthesizes a philosophic perspective that is excellent political theory and a major contribution to the literature of Ethiopian Studies. The narrative history of Haile Selassie’s era and of the Derg’s reign are splendidly presented. I strongly recommend this book to all who seek to understand Ethiopia’s turbulent transformation from a monarchy into a socialist nation during the 1970s.

(Prof. Theodore M. Vestal, author of The Lion of Judah in the New World: Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and the Shaping of Americans’ Attitudes toward Africa.)

10 thoughts on “Book Review: Autopsy of the Ethiopian Revolution

  1. Los Eritritreanos on

    “the two northern ethnic movements”???
    Just so you know Eritrea has nine ethnic groups. So one of the movements for sure was not an “ethic movement”. It was rather inclusive on Nationality basis.

  2. Eritrawi on

    The evil weyane regime will come down soon.
    All ethiopian must unite and bring evil TPLF REGIME

  3. Professor,

    I wish you convince the West that TPLF and Shaebia are the greatest threat for Ethiopia. I will definitely buy your book. Thank you!

  4. Eritreawi on

    you need revolution now.
    2012 end of weyane TPLF Rats

    we eritrean are with the people of ethiopia. we want strong united ethiopia. weyane TPLF Rats are # 1 enemy of ethiopian & eritrean people.
    message from eritrean

  5. Anonymous on

    Are Mengistu and the revolution that of a big deal in light of larger disasters looming over the country, namely, Akrari Islemina (Islamic Extremist), the impending domination and threat of Islam, or the devastation that is being unleashed by and under the current regime i.e. Woeyane (Assyria) occupation? A fast book on the current regime whose avowed goal is to dismember, sell and turn the country inside out is first and foremost essential. Democracy is not certain to work in a backward and barbaric societies, according to Michael Wiener, Phd, a talk show host. If Democracy is the ultimate wish and goal of the current generation, bear in mind that implementing it would not going to be a piece of cake; it would mean that Ethiopia would have to consistently place an Oromo or Muslim president as a compromise and rotate a Prime Minister from Tigre, Amhara, Gurage etc. This very idea is being developed by the very Ethiopians, the children and tribes of Jacob to whom the country was willed, but who are clueless of their own history, and who, for more than 80 years have been doing the dirty job on behalf of the outsiders. This is not merely sibling/tribal rivalry, its evil. True, certain ideals of Democracy are great such as election and individual rights, but did we not have those already before Dergue and Woeyane? Why reinvent the things that we already had? Why be consistently fools, why consistently run by the Devil?

  6. Elias,
    I have heared that the Ethiopian dictatorial government has implimented a new law which makes government to be the owner of every land in Ethiopia. everyone who has a house can only own the woods and nails but not the land and everyone has to pay the government the estimated amount for the land. that means everyone is leasing the land but not owening it.that also mean you can be asked to leave the land anytime they wish. Do you anything about this? if so can you give us an elaborated report on it? if this is true and the ethiopian people accepted, i say there is something really wrong with our people. first they took our ability to speak freely, then our freedom to elect our leader and finally they are taking the only thing we have that is our properties.

  7. Bilbala on

    Professor Mesay Kebed is in fact an admired scholar who can contribute to his Ethiopia,although he was a prominent ideologue of The Derg regime,in his recent article he wrote about the future of Ethiopia with the intention of including the regime of PM Melese Zenawi; no matter what the other side of the opposition is all about, it is a fact that Ethiopians will fast forward with the EPRDF, but devoid of the need to even think about Eritrea; we know the time is justifying that Eritreans are requesting forgiveness, but it is over and we have proved it how we can viably grow fast enough.

  8. Getachew on

    Dr Messay’s new book holds the same old story with a new title. As always he tried to justify Derge’s crimes to be instigated by its’ civilian opponents. His consideration of Marxism as the only root cause of totalitarianism and dictatorship makes his arguement weake and shallow. Both Dergue’s dictatorship and TPLF’s ethno fascism has been caused by their undemocratic nature not because of their proffessed Marxism. For that matter TPLF’s current Noe liberal ‘free market’ excercise hasn’t changed its dictatorial nature.

    Messay is one of the few Orthodox marxists if not its high priest until the ideology made out of work as a result of the fall of the soviet empire. Yet, he shamelessely continued to accuse those who rejected the ideology and opt for multi party system long before the advent of perestroika and the fall of the berlin Wall.

    As an educated and as an author messay should show courage and honesty in his works. Writing history is not righting wrong or hiding crime but depicting the truth as it happened. It shouldn’t be reduced to a self serving motive, to absolve oneself of past crimes.

    The ethiopian political environment of the seventies and then after engaged several political forces with defined political objectives and antagonistic differences which often involved bloodshed. Part of the civilian that Messay belonged to has collaborated with the military dictatorship and palyed prominent role in exterminating Ethiopians who ressisted the millitary dictatorship. Messay loves to lump up these two opposing forces as the one and same. History will judge those who fought against the Derge’s RED TERROR and those who worked for the perpetuation of the merderous regime accordingly. Messay’s endeavor to absolve himself and his comrades in crime of their crimes by falsifying history is nothing but one more crime on our history.

  9. Tobiaweaba on

    it is sad to see a professor doing an autopsy on something not yet dead.

    the revolution of ethiopia in 1974 contained in it two or three faces of revolutionaries
    1. class and wealth distribution concernees(derg, eprp?, meison?)
    2. ethnicity concernees (Tplf, Olf,etc)

    Tplf is one of the faces of the revolution of ethiopia of 1974.
    hence, when aging the revolution, (1974 – ) would describe it better.

    sorry professor, u got it wrong.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.