For any Ethiopian, there are two contrasting images the name Mengistu Hailemariam calls to mind. The first is of an iron ruler displaying heroism, defiance, patriotism, unity, and sovereignty in the face of hardship. On the other hand, Ethiopia’s former president is also inextricably associated with butchery, oppression, brutality, and warmongering.
Whatever one’s view, Mengistu’s name is etched into Ethiopian history. He overthrew a centuries-old monarchy thought to have been unassailable. Then he built an invincible military in the region, waging a merciless campaign in the 1970s and 80s on opponents and dissident voices, all in the name of being an ‘anti-revolutionary’.
The curtain came down on his rule when EPRDF rebels took power in 1991.
On 22 May of that year, Mengistu was reported to have fled the country on an Ethiopian Airline plane bound for Zimbabwe. At the time, EPRDF rebels were closing in, eventually taking control of the capital Addis Ababa on May 28.
Mengistu Hailemariam, the former Marxist head of state of Ethiopia, continues to elude justice in exile in Harare to this day. Despite being convicted of genocide in 2006 by a court in Addis Ababa, Zimbabwe remains a safe place of sanctuary for the fugitive from the law.
The ousting in 2017 of late Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe – a close friend of Mengistu – was expected to pave the way for the former Ethiopian President’s extradition back to Ethiopia. But five years on, his fate remains unresolved.
Now there are tantalizing signs that Zimbabwean authorities could hand Mengistu back to Addis Ababa if an extradition request is made. Zimbabwe’s Foreign Affairs Minister Ambassador Frederick Shava gave the clearest sign of this in May.
This marks a huge shift in policy from Zimbabwe’s previous position. In 2009, the country’s late former information minister said Mengistu was entitled, under UN conventions, to reside in the country as a refugee.
The fugitive convict Mengistu
High-ranking officials of the Derg were prosecuted for the crimes committed during Mengistu’s reign. The prosecution dragged on for about 12 years.
The defendants were collectively and individually charged with 209 counts of provocation and preparation to commit genocide, the commission of genocide, aggravated homicide, grave and wilful injury, abuse of power, and unlawful detention.
As the prosecution concluded in 2008, many of them were sentenced to death. When the Ethiopian government lifted death sentences for over 23 senior officials and reduced the sentence to life imprisonment in 2011, the pardon noticeably did not include Mengistu Hailemariam’s name.
Mengistu has been living in Zimbabwe as a refugee and fugitive for more than 30 years. Little is known of Mengistu’s life there, except for some rare accounts from privileged visitors.
Among these select individuals is Genet Ayele, a former journalist and author, who memorably met Mengistu at his heavily guarded residence in Harare in 1999. Based on this meeting, she wrote a book entitled “Memories of Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam”, compiling observations and exclusive interviews she conducted with the former Marxist strongman.
As told by Genet in her book, Mengistu lived in one of the villas Zimbabwe’s government had constructed for leaders of ‘partner countries’. His home is a modest one compared with other nearby residences which were larger and had swimming pools, she reported. Except for his Zimbabwean guards who call Mengistu “Comrade”, there were said to be no Ethiopians around him.
“When he speaks with a sudden glower, shouting loudly punching the table, stretching in his chair and coming closer, and muttering at times. . . His whole stature displays the gallant personality in him,” Genet related.
“When he was a ruler I didn’t know him in person except on the television, but I can see that he’s changed. As I used to hear, though I didn’t find him surrounded by guards who are armed to the teeth and alert like a scary panther, he’s not bestowed with the usual majesty of authority clad in a spectacular military uniform. [However] he is still conferred with the remarkable complexion he naturally has.”
Addis Zeybe reached out to Genet to comment on this article. She revealed that she had just returned from a visit to Mengistu in Harare a few days before. Genet declined to speak on the ongoing issue surrounding Mengistu’s extradition.
Another person given access to Mengistu in 2018 was the former Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. He recounted Mengistu’s condition with an accompanying set of pictures on social media which was later taken down.
The caption to one of the images reads: “I met [the] former president of Ethiopia, Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam. I wish to see more former heads of government and state in my country contributing their parts in [a] different capacity after [a] peaceful transition of political power.”
Mengistu has been granted a permanent residence permit in Zimbabwe - his home since he fled Addis Ababa in 1991. Mugabe’s government admitted, however, that they gave refuge to him because he helped train and arm them during Zimbabwe's liberation struggle in the 1970s.
Mengistu – butcher or patriot?
Mengistu remains convicted and sentenced to death for the crime of genocide and other human rights violations.
Mengistu's reign of ‘Red Terror’ between 1977-8 still sends a collective shiver down the spines of most Ethiopians. Up to 750,000 of his fellow countrymen and women lost their lives during a bloody crackdown on opposition groups and civilians, most of them being intellectuals.
Those who portray him as a butcher hold him responsible for the indiscriminate and ruthless killings undertaken by the Derg regime – which took the lives of many former ‘comrades’ as well as Ethiopian civilians.
Fasika Sidelil, a former politburo member of the Derg and Mengistu’s close friend, recently shed light on Mengistu’s relentless inclination to kill.
In an interview following the release of his book Yeshamolaw Tiwulid (Generation of the Sword), Fasika said: “Many sympathizer commentators don’t really know Mengistu. The President [Mengistu] is an over-hasty person. He is impatient. What we witnessed from the measures taken on the conspirators of the 1991 coup d'etat and others, he didn’t try to think twice, to give another chance for a moment. He is a person who immediately rushes to execution.
Reflecting on this 40 years on, Fassika added: “In this regard, he blamed us for not killing the coup conspirators. He said ‘why did you spare the officers for me to kill them’. He was disappointed with us for bringing them to justice and keeping them alive.”
Mengistu still strongly denies being personally responsible for any killings.
In an interview Mengistu conducted with the South African daily, 'The Star', in 1999, he said he had not killed anyone personally but had given orders in battle which resulted in the deaths of people. He insisted the ‘Red Terror’ campaign was "a fight between two different social groups". The newspaper described him as an "angry and bitter man" who voiced "defiance" throughout the interview.
In the interview, Mengistu said his legacy would be that of a ruler who had dragged Ethiopia out of feudalism. "All I can say is that living for 17 years without rest from fighting, dealing with problem after problem, war after war, and crisis after crisis, every day and every hour was very difficult."
Mengistu still has supporters who hail him as a valiant ‘iron man’ and unwavering true patriot of Ethiopia. These people retain a soft spot for Mengistu and are oblivious to the atrocities he has been said to have committed. They justify his supposed offenses as ‘choiceless actions’ taken to redeem his country, in order to maintain its sovereignty and protect it from its enemies.
Could Zimbabwe be a safe house anymore?
Zimbabwe’s defense forces ousted President Robert Mugabe from power on November 21, 2017. As President Emmerson Mnangagwa took office, his administration promised to bring criminals around Mugabe to justice.
In light of this, there were calls urging Zimbabwe to stop harboring those who had committed genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Mengistu Hailemariam’s name was also mentioned.
It was reported in 1999 that Ethiopia had sent a request for Mengistu’s extradition from South Africa, where he had gone for treatment. Amnesty International and other organizations stepped up the pressure, saying Mengistu should stand trial for human rights violations and answer allegations of genocide. But Ethiopia’s former ruler returned to Zimbabwe just before the request was received.
At the time, in a bid to counter international pressure for harboring Mengistu, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe disclosed that the American and Canadian governments had offered to help his government ‘look after’ Mengistu.
According to a report by the New Humanitarian in Dec 1999, Mugabe said: "Both the Americans and Canadians even offered to assist financially if we could not meet the expenses of looking after Mengistu”. This information was later acknowledged by the US embassy in Harare, revealing that the Americans felt at the time that a safe haven for Mengistu would prevent further bloodshed in Ethiopia.
Last month, in an interview with VOA Zimbabwe, Ambassador Frederick Shava, Zimbabwe’s Foreign Affairs Minister, said, “If the people of Ethiopia approach the government of Zimbabwe, appropriate steps will be taken by the Government of Zimbabwe in response to the request, to the legitimate request from the government of Ethiopia.”
Among those who opposed the intent of Mengistu's extradition is David Nyekorach Matsanga, a Ugandan lawyer, investigative journalist, and conflict resolution expert. He said in an opinion piece for Capital FM: “Some of us have been against Mengistu’s extradition since time immemorial, not because we do not believe in justice, but because of the wretched repercussions and the price Ethiopians would have to pay for it.”
He added that in deciding whether or not to extradite Mengistu, Zimbabwe must apply Solomonic wisdom and explore all the possible consequences of such a decision. “If Zimbabwe is not keen, it might end up cutting the child into half, and the biggest losers and those who will bear the brunt of this will be the Zimbabwean and Ethiopian people.”
Government interest and the legal procedure of extradition
Mengistu’s extradition can of course be realized if Ethiopia shows interest and requests his extradition. The authenticity behind Zimbabwe’s apparent willingness to accede to this request is another factor, though.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government achieved wide recognition with the release of political prisoners and the pardoning of exiled convicts in the early days of his administration.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed added in a 2018 speech that it was pointless for incumbent administrations to seek retribution on former ones. He told parliament: “Emperor Haileselassie did it [sought revenge] on Lij Eyasu, Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam did it on Haileselassie. This didn’t change anything for us [Ethiopians]. Something has to be done to put a stop to this.”
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s intentions on this matter still remain unclear. The possibility of requesting Mengistu’s extradition, granting him amnesty, and then seeing him return to Addis Ababa is a scenario naturally fraught with difficulty.
PM Abiy Ahmed, on August 25, 2018, during a press briefing said, “Proclamations are laws governed by the constitution. The ‘Procedure of Granting and Implementing Amnesty Proclamation’ revokes pardon for the ‘Red Terror’. So, Mengistu Hailemariam cannot enter the country through the amnesty proclamation.”
But he added, “if the specific article of the amnesty under the constitution is amended and let such crimes to be treated by the amnesty, there is a chance for Colonel Mengistu to be part of it.”
The FDRE ‘Procedure of Granting and Implementing Amnesty Proclamation No. 1089/2018’ on its scope of application sub-article 1 states: “This Proclamation shall apply to suspects, accused or persons who have been convicted of any criminal offenses”. But in the next article, the proclamation elaborates: “Notwithstanding the provisions of sub-article (1) of this Article, this Proclamation shall not be applicable to criminal offenses of genocide, summary executions, forcible disappearances or torture.”
So what would ensue happen if the previously unthinkable happened and Mengistu was extradited back to Ethiopia? Abdirazak Nasir, a legal expert, and political commentator says, “The first thing that would happen legally is his arrest since he’s been sentenced. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the sentence would then be followed through.”
According to Abdurazak, any convict who is tried in absentia has a legal right to defend his case in court.
However, if Mengistu’s sentence would be sustained through the defense, he’d have to face a death sentence – unless of course it is commuted to life imprisonment by the head of state.
In article 28 of the Ethiopian constitution, it is laid down that crimes such as genocide shall not be barred by the statute of limitation and such offenses may not be commuted by amnesty or pardon of the legislature or any other state organ.
It is also stated in the article that in the case of persons convicted of such crimes and are sentenced to death penalty, the head of state may commute the punishment to life imprisonment.
As the only one surviving of his contemporary African dictators, Mengistu, at 85, looks to have an uncertain future.
In Ethiopia’s history, most of its leaders have eventually fallen victim to their successors who seek vengeance in the name of serving justice.
Mengistu has so far been the exception. Can he escape that historical destiny? Time will only tell.