“THE ETHIOPIAN RED TERROR TRIALS”,
(Edited by Kjetil Tronvoll, Charles Schaefer & Girmachew Alemu Aneme), James Currey,
I had intended to write an extensive review of this book, a collection of very informative and analytical articles by scholars who are either Ethiopian or foreigners like Tronvoll1 who are well informed on the reality in Ethiopia2, but other engagements made this difficult. Time went by and in a due respect to better late than ever and because the Red Terror Trials (referred to as ERTT after this) have come to a close, I have written this brief review to call on readers to check out this valuable book.
Special Prosecutor Girma Wakjira, himself a former member of the EPRP, recently stated that the RETT has been concluded. The Special Prosecutor’s Office (SPO), set up in 1992, dealt with the cases of 5119 accused ( some in abstentia) and the courts found 3589 of the accused guilty, freed 658, called 8047 witnesses and compiled 15214 pages of evidence. Some of the accused conveniently died before and during the trial. The book under review deals, through nine articles, with the ERTT, its raison d’etre, political anatomy, the context of transitional justice, consequences, comparison with traditions of restorative justice in Ethiopia, etc. The Red Terror was a bloody orgy that scarred the history and the psyche and soul of
The book edited by Kjetil Tronvoll and others tries to put the Red Terror in context (the article by Bahru Zewde: The History of the Red Terror) before delving into the ERTT itself and its implications. Bahru’s brief historical rendition of the Red Terror, an appraisal that tries to be objective and coldly detached, is full of assumptions that call for refutation. Bahru even goes as far as to dispute the number of Red Terror victims supplied by Babile Tola5 (while the even the BBC presents a half million number– BBC news, Dec.12/1999). The wrangling over the number of victims of the Red Terror assumes importance in that both the TPLF and former partisans of the Eritrean front (EPLF) like Bereket Habtsellasie made it a point to minimize the number to allege that the struggle waged by people under the leadership of the EPRP was minimal while they (the ethnic fronts) paid the most sacrifice. Bahru almost joins Gebru Tareke in inadvertently minimizing the role of the Derg in the carnage they called key Shibir/Red Terror/. Here is how Bahru puts it:
“Once the debate was over (between the EPRP and Meisone in the newspapers–K), both sides withdrew to sharpen their tools for the armed clash, EPRP preparing squads and Ma’ isone drawing on the military sinews of the state“. (p.24)
“The first phase could be said to have begun in September 1976 when the Derg and its leftist allies launched a massive campaign against the EPRP characterized by denunciations of its alleged counter-revolutionary activities and detention of its members and sympathizers. In less than a month, hundreds of people already targeted for their pro-EPRP stance in labour unions, discussion forums and the student movement were incarcerated in various prisons of the capital. The EPRP, which appears to have been waiting for just such an occasion, retaliated by what it described as acts of self defence, that is the assassination of leaders and cadres of the opposite camp”. (page26, emphasis mine-K)
The above assertions could be understandable had they come from officials and apologists of the Mengistu regime out to deny their criminal role but Bahru is a historian of repute, a political prisoner of the Derg and one who should have known better. It is clear that Bahru tries to strike the “non partisan” middle ground but fails (as the above quotations show. The political debates in the State controlled newspapers in 1976 were not “dress rehearsals” (p.24) for the armed clash nor were they intended to make a convert of either Meisone or EPRP to the cause of the other. The debates were aimed at clarifying basic political issues to the reading urban public and they did help achieve that. The EPRP did not have a strategy of urban armed action and as such did not have squads in hiding in the city though one trained member (Seyoume Kebede- later martyred in the Red Terror) was infiltrated into Addis Abeba for possible operations to obtain funds if and whenever the need may arise. There was no “rush to the armed squads” as Bahru alleges once the debates were over. Neither was the EPRP “waiting for just such an occasion” (imprisonment/incarceration) to launch what Bahru calls the assassination of cadres and leaders. Alas, objective Historians are as rare as peace and democracy in
Bahru goes on to argue that who fired the first shot is not really that important while it is actually very pertinent especially in light of his above quoted assertions that the EPRP was waiting for just a simple provocation to unleash its “assassination squads”. The facts of the time show in no uncertain terms that the peaceful political struggle process was shattered by the ruling junta (and its Meisone and other intellectual groups acting as its advisors). As Bahru admits the EPRP had won the political battle or had at least gained the ascendancy in that more people rallied to its banner than they did to that of the Derg and Meisone. This feeling of defeat was what led to the repression and it is not mere incarceration that occurred (as Bahru alleged) but plain murder and wanton killings as notorious Derg leaders Majors Getachew Shibeshi and Ali Moussa went on a murderous spree ( Asbe Teferi, Jimma, Awash, etc…Details of the killings can be found in Babile Tola’s book). Shallow mass graves were dug out by hyenas on the outskirts of Addis Abeba long before the EPRP fired a single shot or even before the Derg officially declared war on the EPRP. The decision to strike at the EPRP was made long before the EPRP reacted, the Nebelbal special force was brought into Addis Abeba and a list of assassination victims supplied by the Meisone (in July-August) to the Derg–all this long before the Derg officially declared war on the EPRP or before the EPRP attempted to kill Mengistu or Fikre Merid, the Meisone leader. Hence, for the sake of History, if not for the memory of the martyrs, it is necessary to blame the culprit for first resorting to violence and no reference to “verbal violence” introduced, according to Bahru, back in 1971 6 can be used as a justification to spread the blame. The Derg and Meisone ushered in the violence and the EPRP resorted to armed self defence, a choice that can be criticized or supported depending on one’s political views and conclusions but the ongoing attempt to blame the EPRP for initiating violence, an attempt echoed by Bahru in this book, will not hold. Moreover, it is not the question of “assassination” that led to the division of the EPRP (as Bahru wrongly asserts). The factionalist situation of two EPRP leaders (called anja) was a result of differences on how to characterize the Derg and whether to struggle against it or ally with it. The anja leaders called for an alliance with the Derg while the majority opposed this option. Here also Bahru presents a non fact as he does on the killing of one of the Anja /faction/ leaders who he alleges was killed when the leadership “did not know what to do with him” p.27). Really? Anyway, the resort to what the EPRP called armed defence followed on the heels of the violent repression (not only incarceration but murder and execution) and did not precede it. To argue the opposite is not factual and the Derg remnants use it anyway to present themselves as victims and as “forced to defend the revolution by resorting to revolutionary Terror”. Bahru also passes without a single comment, in light of the fact that the trials were initiated by the ruling Tigrai front (TPLF), the accusation that members of the TPLF did take part in the Red Terror by being part of the POMOA (Provisional Office for Mass Organizational Affairs or Hizb Dirijit Tshifet bet) or the Red Terror committees in Tigrai (mention can be made of lieutenants Desta and Gebre Hiwot). I did expect a better and more informed analysis from Dr Bahru, more in tune with the facts and not a rehash of the facetious assertions and conclusions we have been reading or hearing from other partisan quarters.
The book as a whole focuses on the Red Terror trial and tries to place it within the context of retributive-restorative justice, reconciliation, democratization, rights, etc. The main or fundamental flaw in the articles is the assumption, as stated in the preface, that the ” EPRDF wanted to establish a societal consensus on the Derg period, apparently in order to draw a line and start afresh with a new mode of governance in the country.”(Page xi). Sarah Vaughan in her The Role of the SPO’ s Office) also echoes this (‘the EPRDF was determined to record past events to educate future generations’) claim But nothing could be farther from the truth, notwithstanding self serving hindsight declarations by Meles Zenawi. The motive of the EPRDF in conducting the ERTT owed its rationale not from any noble pursuit of educating a generation or starting afresh with a new mode of governance but had more to do with what
The EPRDF’s political constraints had also little to do with any preoccupation with the populace’s conception of justice or retribution but with its precarious or unsettled state in power at the time. The new regime was resorting to populist actions (mostly illegal like the summary on the spot execution of petty thieves) and calling for public denunciations of alleged Red Terror criminals. The call for denunciation to a populace that had to endure and do such horrible acts (denounce or you shall be denounced!) during the Derg regime was cynical and, at first, it did appeal to people who had grudges and serious grievances against the alleged criminals. In this way, the EPRDF was trying to be popular and the attempted murder in
In short, the EPRDF was after retributive justice if we take care to situate justice within its own restrictive context or conception. As Belgesem and Girmachew have correctly analysed it– (in The Rights of the Accused pp33-50)– the Ethiopian Red Terror trials have exhibited serious breaches of the rights of the accused. The SPO itself was accountable to the Prime Minister, habeas corpus was ignored, the accused did not have easy access to defence witnesses and the whole trial took a very long time. The sentencing also left much to be desired giving death sentences to minions and even letting the big fish free on grounds that have not been explained properly. In this respect, the article “Concluding the Red Terror Trial” is informative. Ethiopian courts are not independent under the EPRDF and the SPO was not independent either and this has negated any attempt to link the trials to any notion of democratization or restorative justice in a democratic transition as in South Africa.10 Barring the justifiably critical articles of Kjetil Tronvoll (The Political Anatomy of the Red Terror Trials) there persists in the book the tendency to take the EPRDF as it sees or presents itself. This is very apparent in Girmachew Alemu’s “Beyond the Ted Terror Trials–Analyzing Guarantees of Non-Repetition”. Girmachew misses the crux of the matter, the core of the problem, which is the EPRDF regime itself. The EPRDF had no moral or legal ground/justification to sit as a judge over the accused and this for very many reasons including its own participation in the Terror at least in Tigrai. The EPRDF came as a repressive force, violating many rights, resorting to repression and trampling upon the articles of its own Constitution ( in whose drafting or approval the people did not freely or really take part). What it was after was a half hearted vendetta (many justifiably wonder why the TPLF/EPRDF should want to punish the very people that massacred and weakened its arch enemy, the EPRP), retribution, lip service to the demands of the victims families for justice. In other words, it would have avoided any trial at all and buried the Red Terror (perhaps as an in fighting amongst the “chauvinist Amhara” as Sebhat Nega would have liked to label it), had not political expediency forced it to address the issue.
The guarantee for non repetition of the Red Terror requires almost all that the EPRDF had avoided to do. First of all, the existence of the rule of law, the respect of rights of the accused and due process must be assured. An independent judiciary if that be the option but better still an attempt to expose the truth with the active participation of the victims and their families, an approach that aims at really educating the future generation to say “never again”. Not retributive but restorative justice and in this respect Charles Schaefer has presented an interesting article on restorative justice in
This said, I recommend the book, The Ethiopian Rd Terror Trials, to all who want to know about that period and the way in which the EPRDF sabotaged the search for proper closure.
1 Tronvoll’s last book is “War and the Politics of Identity in
2 the other scholars are Bahru Zewde,,Charles Schaefer,,Girmachew Alemu, Frode Elgesem,Sarah Vaughan and Elsa Van Huyssteen
3 Books, mostly in Amharic, are being written both inside
4 Gebru Tareke: The Red Terror in
5 in To Kill A Generation: The Red Terror in
6 Bahru elaborates on this notion of his whereby the so called verbal violence turned into physical violence in his new book: Society, State and History, Selected Essays, Addis Abeba University Press, 2008, pp238–251
7 The TRC was set up in terms of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, No. 34 of 1995, and was based in
8 this and the practice of denunciation was exposed by the EPRP (in a BBC interview by EPRP then representative for
9 The Red Terror Committee was repeatedly denounced by the families of the red Terror victims and was recently accused of embezzling money collected for the erection of a monument in Addis Abeba for the victims.
10 Elsa Van Huyssteen’s article in the book details the differences between the two approaches