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 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 plethora of significant topics related to a 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 trenchantly 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 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 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.)