Forty years ago to the month, Ethiopians across the board embarked on a movement that was to bring them meaningful changes in their collective existence. Like many social movements in history, Ethiopia’s February Movement (1974), which we repeatedly call Ethiopia’s Great Revolution, was stirred (mostly and not so covertly) by the usual culprits; students & intellectuals. Even though other members of society also harbored their own parochial grievances against the feudal regime, they were not as successful as the learned youth in exposing the workings of the established order. The nationalist movements, some of whom were vying for out right cessation a la militarily engagements, of course were of a different breed. At the end, it was the unexpected massive inflation triggered by the tripling of fuel prices, (the Arab oil embargo) that broke the back of the ‘ancien regime’.
In February 1974 the Addis Ababa taxi drivers went on strike against the steep increase of petrol prices/inflation and were soon joined by other segments of the community. One after the other, more politically nuanced demands started to creep up to the fore. Ethiopian Moslems demanded equal right to religious practices. Labor unions, teachers, the military, etc., all joined in the rush to present their own demands to the ruling entity. Sensing the weakness of the regime, the whole collective held its grounds and continued to present even more demands than can be realistically delivered. Consequently, the prime minister and his cabinet called it quits. That single act, unprecedented in its nature, tangibly signaled a new opening towards meaningful democratization. At this time, student-activists joined/propelled by party intellectuals from behind the scene (EPRP & MEISON already in clandestine operations inside the country) started to coin popular slogans to galvanize the populous for a more protracted struggle. Redirecting the anger of the masses towards drastic reforms, the progressives posed the subversive and forward looking slogan; ‘Provisional Peoples Government Now’ to overarch the struggle’s trajectory!
The new cabinet under a new prime minister was also up to its neck with all sorts of myriad demands coming from the already awakened beast (human mass.) Recognizing the beast has already unbolted and is actively looking for a more progressive leadership than the one at hand, the new cabinet tried to preempt the whole situation by launching a covert operation to thwart it off! This in turn radicalized the most organized entity in the country–the military, which started to brew its own plan, also clandestinely! Soon low rung military personnel (non-commissioned officers, the brass was intentionally excluded) from the combined armed forces managed to upstage all and sundry by forming the Derg, numbering about 120 individuals at the start! Gradually and less than six months since the start of Ethiopia’s creeping revolution, the military junta (the Derg) took center stage of political leadership. Unable to organize itself (for various reasons, some justifiable) as a formidable political force in its own rights, Ethiopia’s progressives had to settle for secondary roles; such as the grooming of progressive elements within the military, particularly the Derg, labor, teachers, etc. Not to be outdone and to diffuse the underground parties’ intentions, the Derg also came up with its own simple and catchy nationalist slogan–‘Ethiopia First’!
On September 12, 1974 the Derg abolished the monarchy (imprisoning Haile Selassie) and soon thereafter, it brutally executed (without due process) the top 60 officials of the ‘ancien regime’. With this one scoop, the Derg established itself as one of the most brutal regimes in the world. The following decade saw bona fide revolutionary turmoil, reminiscence of the Bolshevik’s. Assassinations, purges, internal/external displacement of peoples, etc., became the order of the day. At the same time the Derg unleashed an avalanche of proclamations that were far reaching in their impact than any attempted in Africa and took most progressives (including that of our own) by surprise! Nationalization of all land & the commanding heights of the economy (finance, etc.), the promulgation of laws ushering equality of religious practices, rights of nations & nationalities, gender, age, etc., all were profusely inked! Cognizant of such facts led some progressives to collaborate in the effort to build Ethiopia from the ground up. Amongst these, the major one was probably the ESUE-MAESON nexus (Ethiopian Student Union in Europe-All Ethiopia Socialist Movement, MAESON in Amharic.)
On the other hand, ESUNA-EPRP (Ethiopian Student Union in North America-Ethiopia’s Peoples Revolutionary Party) became adamant and pursued more treacherous adventures with a view to capture state power by waging urban guerrilla warfare. Such a tactic against a military regime that already proved its viciousness was not very prudent, to say the least. The rest is our bloody history that goes by the name ‘Red Terror.’ The widespread terrors (Red & White) probably could have been avoided, had we had mature and capable leadership dominating the various contending groups. We admit, it is easy and certainly not fair passing judgments a posteriori, but the gross errors of those days must be noted for posterity’s sake! Be that as it may, through the thick and thin of this revolutionary episode, Ethiopia nevertheless blazed a visible liberation track that continues to resonate with the oppressed peoples of the world, and in that alone, Ethiopia’s Great Revolution still remains exemplary. We salute all the martyrs of the revolution who made it possible!
The Derg’s instinctive insistence on military and rigid solutions to all problems gradually alienated it from the beast. Even though the Derg- EWP (Ethiopia’s Workers Party) had the largest relatively well-equipped army in Africa, it couldn’t resist the offensive waged by few, less formally organized & equipped forces of the TPLF/EPLF (Tigray Peoples Liberation Front/Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front). Here is a lesson to all. Once you lose the trust/confidence of the beast, it is all over! Ethiopia’s Derg betrayed its original, popular & peaceful intents (Ethiopia First, without any blood, etc.,) by relenting to its dictatorial military straight jacket! On our part we can only say: “The Derg was brutal as it was radical.” Good Day!