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The Ethiopian Red Terror, or Qey Shibir (also Key Shibbir, etc., Amharic: ቀይ ሽብር ḳäy šəbbər; 1977–1978), was a violent political campaign in Ethiopia that most visibly took place once Mengistu Haile Mariam achieved control of the Derg, the military junta, 3 February 1977. In December 2006, Mengistu Haile Mariam was convicted in absentia for his role in the Red Terror while leader of Ethiopia.



Since the deposition of Emperor Haile Selassie 12 September 1974, the Derg had been faced with a number of civilian groups competing for control of Ethiopia, most notably being the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP). During September 1976, EPRP militants were arrested and executed, in tandem with the EPRP's assassination campaign against ideologues and supporters of the Derg. Although an unsuccessful attempt to kill Mengistu on 23 September was attributed to the EPRP, the first prominent victim of the EPRP's terror was Dr. Feqre Mar'ed, a member of the Political Bureau and MAISON.[1]

However, at the time the Derg was split by a rivalry between Mengistu and a faction allied against him, which limited his control. This rivalry was resolved at the meeting of the Standing Committee of the Derg 3 February 1997, in which fiftey-eight top Derg officers were killed in an hour-long shootout. Seven of these officers were opponents of Mengistu, who included chairman and Lieutenant General Tafari Benti, Captain Almayahu Haile, Captain Mogas Wolde Mikael and Lt. Colonel Asrat Dasta. Although two rivals to Mengistu were still alive -- Colonel Berhanu Bayeh and Lt. Colonel Atnafu Abate -- Col. Berhanu had sided with Mengistu, and Lt. Colonel Atnafu quickly sided with the victor of the bloodbath, leaving Mengistu as the undisputed head of the Derg -- and ruler of Ethiopia.[2] A few days later, Mengistu turned his attention to his rivals outside of the Derg, foremost being the EPRP.

Attacks on the EPRP

Mengistu officially began his campaign with a speech in Revolution Square (formerly and currently Mesqel Square) in the heart of Addis Ababa, which included the words "Death to counterrevolutionaries! Death to the EPRP!". When he delivered these words, he produced three bottles of what appeared to be blood and smashed them to the ground to show what the revolution would do to its enemies.[3] This campaign involved organized groups of civilians, or kebeles, which within a month's time began to receive arms from the Derg. "Contrary to expectations," note the Ottaways, "these squads did not all side with the Derg or heed its call to track down 'reactionaries' and 'anarchists.' Rather, many followed their own whim and law, in accordance to the political faction that controlled each kebele or factory. Not only had numerous defense squads been infiltrated by the EPRP, but also those controlled by the Political Bureau were often bent on furthering the interests of MEISON rather than the Derg."[4]

The Ottaways date the height of the Red Terror in Addis Ababa to 22 March, when the Derg felt that they had armed enough civilian groups to permit a house-by-house search for EPRP members, arms, and other paraphernalia. However the search was anything but systematic, the Ottways note, with "each squad a law unto itself. Some looked only for arms, but others confiscated foot supplies, building materials, and gasoline; some considered cameras espionage equipment, and others regarded typewriters as highly dangerous."[5] Despite that many were taken from their homes in the middle of the night, some never to return home, few of the top leaders of the EPRP were amongst the dead.

A number of distinctly ugly incidents followed. One was at the Berhanena Selam Printing Press, where three days later a dozen workers were arrested for being EPRP members, then afterwards released for lack of evidence; on the morning of 26 March, nine of them were found murdered, including a woman in an advanced stage of pregnancy, which shocked the city. The deaths were found to be the responsibility of a certain Girma Kebede, and who was later found to be "the Political Bureau's chief executioner; he had already murdered twenty-four persons and had a list of over two hundred others he was supposed to liquidate." Embarrassed, the Derg had him and five associates executed as counterrevolutionaries on 2 April.[6]

Despite this brutality, the EPRP continued to strike back, best as it could. As one contemporary report, describes:

In and around the capital, the main opposition group is the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (E.P.R.P.) .... E.P.R.P. has given the Dergue good reason to be nervous: it has assassinated more than 20 government officials, mounted at least one daring raid on Dergue headquarters, and even wounded Mengistu in an ambush. One rebel sympathizer accosted Correspondent Griggs on a busy downtown street and boasted: "We have 700 marksmen, and some of them are Mengistu's own soldiers. It will take time, but we will clean out the pseudo-Marxist military leaders eventually."[7]

Events like this led to tension between the Derg junta (and presumably Mengistu) and the civilian Political Bureau. Concern over the threat of the EPRP kept this tension from becoming a definite break until the eve of May Day when the Political Bureau, on the pretext that an anti-government protest was in the offing, ordered the kebeles to arrest any young person suspected of being an EPRP member. According to the Ottaways, "Hundreds were arrested, taken to three different sites on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, and executed en masse. Scores of others were gunned down in the streets by the Derg's 'permanent secretaries,' the jeeps mounted with machine guns constantly patrolling the streets of Addis Ababa. The death toll may have been as high as one thousand." Afterwards, the Derg disavowed this outrage, and put the blame for this slaughter on the Political Bureau in a proclamation on 14 July. The Bureau's leader Haile Fide and a group of his followers attempted to flee the capital the following August, but were caught.[8]

At the same time the Red Terror made MEISON its next target. "Sensing danger," writes Bahru Zewde, "the leaders of the organization hastily tried to go underground. But almost all of them were either captured or killed in August 1977 as they tried to retreat into the countryside in several detachments."[9]

Thousands of men and women were rounded up and executed in the following two years.[3][10] Amnesty International estimates that the death toll could be as high as 500,000.[11][12] Groups of people were herded into churches that were then burned down, and women were subjected to systematic rape by soldiers.[13] The Save the Children Fund reported that the victims of the Red Terror included not only adults, but 1,000 or more children, mostly aged between eleven and thirteen, whose corpses were left in the streets of Addis Ababa.[11]


Mengistu was found guilty of genocide and was sentenced to life in prison in January 2007. After his conviction, Zimbabwe, where he received sanctuary due to friendship with Robert Mugabe, said it would not extradite him.[10] On 2008-05-26, the Ethiopian Supreme Court sentenced Mengistu in absentia to death. Eighteen associates of Mengistu, two of whom live in the Italian embassy in Addis Ababa and 16 in Ethiopian prisons, also are under a death sentence.[14]

See also


  1. ^ Marina and David Ottaway, Ethiopia: Empire in Revolution (New York: Africana, 1978), p. 247
  2. ^ Ottaways, Ethiopia, pp. 142ff
  3. ^ a b Backgrounders: Ethiopian Dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam Human Rights Watch, 1999
  4. ^ Ottaways, Ethiopia, p. 145
  5. ^ Ottaways, Ethiopia, p. 146
  6. ^ Ottaways, Ethiopia, pp. 146f
  7. ^ "A Despot at War On All Fronts", Time 23 May 1977 (accessed 14 May 2009)
  8. ^ Ottaways, Ethiopia, pp. 147f
  9. ^ Bahru Zewde, A History, p. 248
  10. ^ a b Mengistu is handed life sentence BBC, January 11, 2007
  11. ^ a b Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin. The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World. Basic Books, 2005. ISBN 0465003117 p. 457
  12. ^ US admits helping Mengistu escape BBC, 22 December, 1999
  13. ^ Stephane Courtois, et al. The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Harvard University Press, 1999. pg. 692
  14. ^ Court Sentences Mengistu to Death BBC, 26 May 2008.

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