Blood and tears in the Horn of Africa

While Ethiopia under Zenawi was characterised by impressive economic progress and high international prestige, although criticised for authoritarian rule and lack of freedom, Eritrea under Isaias Afewerki is an internationally isolated, economically depressed dictatorship.

(Daily Times, 7 November 2012)

The military coup of 1974 that overthrew famine-stricken Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie unfolded slowly, just as famines do, after army officers bundled His Majesty out of the royal palace in the back seat of an old two-door VW Beatle and imprisoned him.  To these officers with guns, it didn’t matter that he was not just Emperor, but also “King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God and Power of the Trinity”.

An internal power struggle amongst the officers lasted nearly five years, which is why observers called it the “creeping coup” and the ‘lazy revolution”.  Whatever it was, for the Ethiopian people it heralded a brutal military and one-party dictatorship in the garb of “socialism”.

Soon after seizing power, the regime known as Derg (Committee in Amharic) ordered the execution of 61 former officials of the Imperial government and later of numerous other former nobles and officials including the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  

In a 1977 shootout, the leader of the coup of 1974, Brigadier Tafari Banti, was himself killed. Subsequently, the vice chairman of the Derg, Lt Col Atnafu Abate, also lost his life along with 40 other officers in this long drawn and bloody power struggle from which Major Mengistu Haile Mariam emerged victorious.

It would take many years, much suffering and up to a million lives, from executions, torture and famine, to rid Ethiopia of the Mengistu dictatorship.  In 1991, weakened by an insurgency and the loss of Soviet support, Mengistu Mariam fled to the sanctuary of his good friend in Zimbabwe, another dictator by the name of Robert Mugabe, who clings to power long beyond his “use by” date, causing nothing but suffering to his own people.

The Derg regime’s brutality is recorded in a small but fine museum called the Museum of Red Terror. Quite fittingly, it was inaugurated by a woman whose four sons had been executed as “enemies of the revolution”. Very appropriately, too, it is situated next to Meskel Square in the centre of Addis Ababa, where in his heyday Mengistu Mariam took salute as the soldiery marched past to the tune of martial music.

There is not a hint of this in Merkato, Africa’s largest open air market, only a short distance away.  Merkato sprawls over several square kilometres, employs an estimated 13,000 people in over 7,000 businesses.  It is quite a place, humming with activity, totally immersed in the present, oblivious to the past and optimistic about the future.  Here, buying, selling and haggling over prices occur at a frenetic pace. Being crowded and noisy, it also provides pickpockets with ample business opportunities. As in many Third World countries, there are two sets of prices in Merkato, one for locals and a much higher one for feringhis (foreigners).

The Ethiopians are said to be a very proud people. Two things stand out from my brief visit there and pride is not one of them: these are churches and beggars. Ethiopia is known as a bastion of Orthodox Christianity.  Indeed, judging by the abundance of churches and the crowds milling around them, one is left in little doubt that Christianity runs rampant in this wretchedly poor country.  Though the crowds comprise of both worshippers and beggars, I hasten to add that all are in fact engaged in begging: the worshippers for God’s favour and the beggars for the worshippers’ generosity!

In light of the conspicuous pervasiveness of Christianity in Ethiopia, it is somewhat of a surprise to learn that one Ethiopian out of three is a Muslim.  Apparently, there is no mutual hostility or animosity between the two communities.  The Muslims keep a low profile in exchange for the freedom to live and practice their religion in peace.  Harar in eastern Ethiopia is the Muslim “capital” of the country, with 82 mosques, three dating from the 10th century, and 102 shrines.  It is the historical centre of Islamic culture and religion in the Horn of Africa.

After the Mengistu Mariam dictatorship was overthrown, Ethiopia amicably split in two, helped by the fact that the two leaders had been comrades-in-arms in the war of resistance against the Derg regime.  When a small north-eastern corner of the country became the new, independent state of Eritrea, Ethiopia lost its only access to the sea and became a land-locked country.

The spirit of amity between the two countries, however, did not last long.  Within five years of Eritrean independence, a border dispute and clash of egos led to a two-year war between them, resulting in 100,000 deaths and their further impoverishment. With a population of 6 million, Eritrea was no match for Ethiopia’s 85 million. When the war ended in 2000, Ethiopia occupied nearly a quarter of Eritrean territory.  And still does.

Like Ethiopia, Eritrea has two dominant religions, Christianity and Islam, variously estimated at 50 to 62.5% and 36.5 to 50% of the population, respectively. Both countries have been ruled since 1991 by authoritarian leaders, Meles Zenawi (who died a couple of months ago) and Isaias Afewerki. 

But while Ethiopia under Zenawi was characterised by impressive economic progress and high international prestige, although criticised for authoritarian rule and lack of freedom, Eritrea under Isaias Afewerki is an internationally isolated, economically depressed dictatorship.  Ethiopian elections have been far from fair, but Eritrea has not had any national elections since its founding.  Among the numerous political and religious prisoners in Eritrean jails are eight Pakistanis, who had arrived there on a Tableeghi Jamaat mission in 1993.

As a result of economic decline and repression, thousands of Eritreans flee the country every year, some attempting to reach Israel through Sudan and the harsh and treacherous Sinai desert of Egypt.  Many fall prey to greedy and heartless Bedouin bandits on the way.  Some are cut up for their vital organs, others chained and starved for ransom money from their families.

By Razi Azmi


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4 Responses to Blood and tears in the Horn of Africa

  1. Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur says:

    Razi Sahib, Thank you for sharing this weath of information about Ethiopia and Eriteria. I sometimes wonder why there is so much bloodshed and misery in Africa and Asia. It would be too simplistic to blame colonialism, which naturally has a fair share, for all the ills. I suppose arrogance and self-righteousness combined with ignorance provides the right lethal mix for misery of people.

  2. Javed Agha says:

    Thanks for an insight into Ethiopian history.

  3. The opening paragraph manifests various aspects of powerful writing. One of which underpins the usefulness of poignant prose–valid assertions. It’s likely not the type of article that invites “Thanks,” as it reminds us of our human depravity. As I pen elsewhere about a similar discussion, I’d recommend Vishal Magiwaldi’s The Book that Made Your World (Thomas Nelson, 2011). As a native of India, he brings an engaging perspective on why the West took a radically different path than most of the world. Of course, Samuel P. Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” (Foreign Affairs, 1993) still puts much of our discussion in perspective. Your inveterate writings provide provocative musings. Jerry Pattengale

  4. Zulfiqar Ali says:

    Azmi Sahib has unveiled the hidden and less-known recent history of Ethiopia and Eriteria in this fine and exquisite article. Indeed, it presents a factual account of the the flow of events in this part of Africa. One feels as if one is travelling with the writer while he has been observing and sharing these deep observations with the readers. I personally feel much well informed about the recent history of this region and its people after going through this excellent piece of writing.

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