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2001 interview with Mengistu

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Post 01 Sep 2014, 22:37
Yesterday I typed up the following from Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators. Here are pretty much all the answers Mengistu gave to questions asked of him by the interviewer:

(Pages 148-149)
"In November 1999 a restless and angry Mengistu tried to break out of his cage. Using a Zimbabwean diplomatic password, he flew to Johannesburg and booked himself into the Garden City Clinic for treatment to his diseased heart. But his presence was leaked to the South African press and an international scandal ensued. The Ethiopian government applied to the South Africans for his immediate extradition to Addis Ababa, where he is wanted on charges of crimes against humanity. Charges that would undoubtedly carry the death penalty. Confronted with this danger, Mengistu abandoned his treatment and flew back immediately. Avoiding arrest by a few hours, he returned voluntarily to his cage.

'Ungrateful bastards,' he hisses, his gaze as steely as in the days of the Red Terror. 'I helped and financed the ANC when South Africa was still in the grip of apartheid. I was on their side when they needed me. Now that I need them, they say they can't help. Before I left Harare, they assured me there would be no problems, since I was travelling for humanitarian and health reasons. Yet they were ready to hand me over to Ethiopia.' After a pause, he adds, 'And to think that the men now controlling the government in Pretoria are my ex-comrades in arms, friends, colleagues.'

The 'ex-comrades in arms' who came to power in Africa in the Seventies and Eighties are bound, like the members of any family, by complex ties of solidarity and rivalry. On the subject of Mandela, a leader revered even by his one-time enemies, Mengistu will only say, 'When he was in prison I admired him for his moral strength.' But even this encomium is quickly amended: 'Of his period in power I can see few results. Apartheid no longer exists, at least to all appearances, but no one understands what the new government in South Africa is doing.'

Mengistu has nothing but praise for his host, Comrade Mugabe. Despite the pressure brought to bear on him from a thousand different sources, Mugabe still refuses to extradite Mengistu. He considers him a hero and constantly repeats, 'He has helped in every war of liberation across the continent.'

(Page 150)
"'I'm a military man, I did what I did only because my country had to be saved from tribalism and feudalism. If I failed, it was only because I was betrayed. The so-called genocide was nothing more than a just war in defence of the revolution and a system from which all have benefited.'"

(Pages 151-154, first answer is about the Red Terror)
"Despite all this, the ex-dictator is unrepentant. 'I survived nine assassination attempts. The country was i nchaos. One social group whose ties with the past were especially strong was attacking the workers who wanted progress. Millions of people came to the capital demanding, 'Either you defend us or you give us arms so that we can defend ourselves.' It was a battle. All I did was fight it.'

... 'I knocked at the Americans' door saying, 'I'm on your side; our two countries have always been friends; Ethiopia even sent troops to fight beside yours in the Korean War. Now we need your help to rebuild and develop our country.' He pauses. 'They replied that they had their hands full with Vietnam and were not strategically interested in Africa. I knocked at the door of China, and they turned me down. So I went to Moscow, to Leonid Brezhnev. I still have a clear memory of the first time he embraced me at the Kremlin.' ...

'I explained the situation, and he replied, 'Colonel, with the exception of the atomic bomb, my country is disposed to give you everything you think you need.' And that's how it was. The USSR helped us materially, not only with words. From that moment Brezhnev was like a father to me. We met another twelve times, always in the Soviet Union. Each time, before telling him about our problems, I would say, 'Comrade Leonid, I am your son, I owe you everything.' And I truly felt that Brezhnev was like a father.' ...

'I knew [Gorbachev] when he was a young member of the Party's Central Committee,' says Mengistu. 'Even before he entered the Politburo.' Mengistu loves pronouncing that word. His English, normally quite hesitant, quickens whenever the subject is the old Soviet hierarchy, which he replicated in his own Ethiopia. 'He seemed a nice enough person, honest, devoted to the cause of Socialism. He was warm and friendly towards me. Then, once he got into power, he began to talk about perestroika and glasnost. Eventually I called him from Addis Ababa to arrange an appointment. I needed to know what as going on. I went to Moscow to ask him what those two slogans meant. They were slogans that I didn't understand and, if you ask me, nor did the Soviet people. I said, 'Comrade Gorbachev, let's be honest with each other. If there is a change of direction, tell me, so that we can also adjust our direction. Your strength is our strength, your weakness our weakness.'

But Mengistu's eagerness evoked no response from the Soviet leader... [Gorbachev] wanted to repudiate Brezhnev's doctrine of 'non-capitalist development' for their former colonies, a policy that had encouraged the spread of Soviet states in all the continents and cost the USSR many resources.

But perhaps Gorbachev did not have the stomach to explain this to the devout Mengistu. Instead, he smiled and said, 'Comrade Mengistu, don't worry. I shall not shift one millimetre from Marxism-Leninism. I am proud of our Socialist achievements and I always will be.'

If Gorbachev's political manoeuvring was tricky, the situation on the ground was also complex. While Moscow was sending arms to the government in Addis Ababa, it had also begun to sell arms to several secessionist groups operating in Ethiopia, the Ogaden and Tigray.

'Years later,' Mengistu recalls in his slow, measured speech, 'when the rebels were advancing on Addis Ababa, I telephoned him to ask for help. And he said, 'Stand firm. We will support you. They may criticise you, but you have done enough for Ethiopia to go down in history as a great statesman. You have deserved your place in history for having eliminated the archaic monarchical system, for having modernised a medieval nation.' Hypocrite! To think they gave him the Nobel Peace Prize! He sent arms to my enemies and flattered me with words. After this last conversation I never phoned him again. I knew he was lying. A very difficult time was starting: we no longer knew who were our friends and who our enemies.'

... 'Gorbachev and Reagan were involved in a conspiracy against progress. Gorbachev betrayed the whole world, not just [me]. He destroyed his own country and the entire international Socialist movement, both Communist and nationalist. He came to power saying he wanted to fight the corruption endemic in the old Communist Party of the Soviet Union, but he didn't really want to improve the system in order to save it. He came to dismantle it.'

(Pages 156-157)
"'I've met many foreign leaders,' he exults, still pleased to feel that he has been one of them. 'But the men I most admire and respect are the North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and Cuba's Fidel Castro. They have been very generous. Fidel is deeply patriotic, a true revolutionary and very honest. I don't think the world knows him well. Fidel is very human. Very human. And he has worked miracles in his little island of Cuba, given its lack of resources. I have the greatest respect for him. As for North Korea, it's a wonderful country, it's almost incredible to think what they've done in such a short time. Despite the gloomy image that he had in the international press, Kim Il Sung was the liveliest of men; when we went cruising together on his personal yacht he drank, smoked and told jokes. He was a real friend of Ethiopia and gave me a power station, shipyards and military advisers, asking nothing in return.'

(Pages 159-161)
"'Yes, Somalia was my enemy, but today I'm sorry for the people of Somalia. They allowed themselves to be divided into enemy tribes.' He has forgotten that Somalia, unlike most African nations, has no tribal divisions. It is divided by clan loyalties, not ethnicity. But for Mengistu, as for most African leaders of his generation, 'tribalism' is the worst evil of post-colonial Africa. 'Even my country has been hijacked by a minority. It has been divided into tribes. Like the whole of Africa, it is regressing, moving backwards into the past,' he says.

But we are talking about Somalia and Siad Barre, who ruled the country from Mogadishu when Mengistu was ruling in Addis Ababa, are we not? 'Ah, Siad!' Mengistu laughs. 'I knew him well, very well indeed. For a long time he was my worst enemy.' And he laughs again.

... 'I tried to make peace with Siad Barre,' he tells me. 'Together we could have done so much for our respective peoples, but he too was betrayed.' ....

'I have never been pro-Albania, but I admired their resolute and disciplined philosophy,' [Mengistu] says. And adds, shaking his head, 'We have all been betrayed. All of us have been betrayed.' ....

Would you ever return to Addis Ababa?

'I love Ethiopia more than my life.'

Do you have any regrets?

'Yes. I built up one of the most powerful armies in Africa, I built up one of the best-organised political parties in the whole world, I defended the territorial integrity of my country like a mother protecting her young, yet it all came to nothing.'

Do you believe in democracy?

'Democracy works in Europe. The traditions in Africa are different. Look at Ethiopia today. They say they have introduced the multi-party system, but what they have really done is bring back tribalism. Everyone stands by his own tribe or his own religion, not by party. The same as in the Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, the Congo, Kenya. Everywhere. The world will see wars in Africa such as have never been seen before. Terrible tribal wars.'

Mengistu's voice rises again. This is a subject that, ten years after his flight from Adis Ababa, still exercises him, still rouses his passion. The world has still not understood that the alternative as it appeared to men like him was chaos, ethnic violence, the disintegration of states.

'As we say in Ethiopia, the world insists on trying to give us fine new shoes. And we have to adapt our feet to these new shoes. But, sometimes, new shoes hurt their feet so much that people throw them away. Do you understand this paradox? Instead of adapting your shoes to fit our feet, you in the West have demanded the opposite. When all's said and done, the sandals I offered would not have been thrown away.'"
Post 09 Sep 2014, 15:37
Fascinating. Mengistu gave a rare interview to SBS Radio (Australian state broadcaster for foreign languages) in 2013 following the death of Nelson Mandela, but as far as I know it has not been translated into English. A manuscript of his forthcoming memoir has apparently been leaked onto the Internet somewhere, too.
Post 06 Nov 2014, 17:24
Really puts a face to the man. Can't say I really disagree with any of his statements. Thank you for transcribing this
Post 09 Mar 2018, 01:04
The most interesting part of interview is this revelation
If Gorbachev's political manoeuvring was tricky, the situation on the ground was also complex. While Moscow was sending arms to the government in Addis Ababa, it had also begun to sell arms to several secessionist groups operating in Ethiopia, the Ogaden and Tigray.
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