Someone close to my taste said, “what is very tragic is to sleep through a Revolution”, doing a Rip Van Winkle on the momentous event shaking the given country. Let me state from the outset that I have not (yet) read the book by Maaza Mengiste (Beneath the Lion’s Gaze) and I do not know the person or the politics of the reviewer of her book, Ato Abebe Gelaw. However, his labelling of the February 1974 Revolution (Yekatit 66) as tragic and brutal spurred me to write the following lines. More motivation has also come from others who have been revising History and projecting that popular revolution in negative terms and also by the denial of the Red Terror made by the lamentable Dr, Hailu Araya (a Derg loyalist now wearing another mask) and criminals trying to hide their past despicable deeds. Read More
No lie can live forever said another wise man. The same man who penned the poem of the truth on the scaffold and the lie on the throne. Was the February Revolution tragic? Like the Russian revolution of 1917 can it be bombarded with the question: were you premature? Was it brutal? Did it usher in a period of violence and brutality that was, as implied in Ato Abebe’s comment, unknown in our past? Revolutions do not occur out of the blue though they may appear spontaneous. For all Revolutions, the Time comes, none are really premature. The Yekatit 66 Revolution exploded because it was time for it to do so, the feudal system had become moribund, the people were fed up with their condition and more importantly determined to sacrifice all to bring change. And the ruling class was unable to govern as before, its crisis had come to a head, its mechanisms of control totally derailed. The Revolution had to be and thus it came about surprising even those who had been expecting it, it was not, however, premature.
It was not tragic either. It was a people’s revolution that erupted to put an end to a feudal system, to the autocracy of Emperor Haile Sellasie. And it did just that. It was thus a successful revolution that brought victory to the people. The Revolution was hijacked by military officers–that was what became tragic. That was what brought in the brutality as the officers could not peacefully defeat the popular unrest and struggle against the military rule. When it comes to violence, it must be said without any qualms at all that violence has been endemic, part of the Ethiopian systems for decades if not centuries. The campaigns of the Emperor’s (we can mention Tewodros, Yohannes and Menelik) were very brutal, and violence and cruel treatment of the civilian population has been sown into the politics, the means of governance. In this way, the States were all absolute, all were violent. For the people, the State has always been alien, cruel, capricious, something on top of them, heavy. It is in the respect that Ato Abebe’s reference to Hobbes becomes relevant: Here is what he wrote as he reviewed Maaza’s book:
“The tragic 1974 revolution was not just a bumpy transition from a feudo-capitalist monarchy to a more progressive system as we were told time and again. It was also the beginning of untold brutality that has still continued to haunt us. It is a story of man against man, comrade against comrade, citizen against citizen . It was simply akin to what the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes called a state of nature, where men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man.” In the state of nature life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”.
The February Revolution did not usher in “untold brutality” but the counter revolution just continued what was imbedded in the political system of Ethiopia–rule by violence and terror. The violence did not just begin, it was there, it was revived by a brutal military regime. And what followed was not a state of nature by any stretch of imagination. Hobbes mechanistic view of life or what some called his “philosophy of fear” does not apply here. The Red Terror was not a free for all, citizen against citizen, comrade against comrade. Hobbes state of nature was inapplicable by all accounts1. The State was neither Leviathan nor the violence haphazard and aimless. After the Revolution was hijacked by the former bosses of Dr, Hailu, that is the Derg, there was popular protest mainly organized by the EPRP. The demand for a provisional popular government was tabled, the Revolution and the people needed no military guardian it was said. This popular protest was confronted in a short while by the violence of the State as the Ethiopian State, almost instinctively, resorts to violence when challenged. I leave out here the futile argument by the criminals of the Red Terror who want to allege that the EPRP launched what they so wrongly call the “white terror” and “forced the Derg to resort to the Red Terror”. The truth cannot be hanged always and the fact remains that the repression and the violence was launched by the military regime and its intellectual allies grouped within the POMOA. The scenario of a peaceful and gentle military clique being catapulted into the realm of violence and terror by provocation on the part of the people is ridiculous and would have been funny had it not involved the deaths of hundreds of thousands. That aside, the violence was not a free for all and haphazard—the State unleashed its terror on the people, on the EPRP and its supporters. The Terror had clear cut aims: to destroy the EPRP and to cow the people unto fearful obedience. On the part of the EPRP, its actions were directed at those perceived as enemies of the people. That the Red Terror was so vast does not belie the fact that it had its aims, knew its targets and objectives. Thus, the Hobbesian State of nature, of a war pitting every man against every other man was not the reality of the Red Terror or the violent period that followed the February Revolution.
Not having read Maaza’s book, I sincerely hope that her rendition of the events of that period (even if fictionalized) does not echo this aspect of the reviewer’s interpretation or the crowning of lies in the form of a memoir attempted by another writer called Nega Mezlekia in “his” first book. The February Revolution is a historic event in the annals of our people as it was practically the first instance of a popular revolt overthrowing a brutal regime. It was historic also because of the fact that the Revolution had noble aims, not the coming to power of another ambitious despot but the transformation of the society in a democratic way, the empowerment of the people for the first time in the history of Ethiopia. Hence, it was neither tragic nor brutal and one should take care not to confuse a revolution with its sequel of a counter revolution that negates the revolution itself to take its place. As one revolutionary put it “Revolution, in history, is like the doctor assisting at the birth of a new life, who will not use forceps unless necessary, but who will use them unhesitatingly every time labor requires them. It is a labor bringing the hope of a better life to the enslaved and exploited masses”. That was the February Revolution. The brutality came after, with the counterrevolution of the Derg.
Admirers and those nostalgic of the dead and gone imperial regime have never pardoned the progressives whom they hold responsible for the end of their beloved regime and monarchy. A vigorous attempt to revise History has been put in place with endearing and eulogizing (Ababa Janhoy) pseudo biographies of Haile Sellasie being printed. That system, that autocracy was rotten to the core and a curse on the majority of the people of Ethiopia. The revision cannot prevail– the time is short and those with the memories and the wounds are still alive and around. The February Revolution was thus a tragedy to the ruling class of that period and a historic and beautiful event for the people who succeeded to get rid of a backward system. What followed is another matter altogether as the fall of the Mengistu regime would not be considered a bad thing just because those that replaced him are not any better. Revisionists may, to quote Brecht, wish “to dissolve the people and elect another” but the people cannot be wished or washed away and their memory, stifled as it may be at any given time, stays vivid and alive. For those of us who fought for a Revolution, Yekatiit 66 was a festival that, we hope, gets repeated against the present regime too.
The age of big ideas and robust ideologies may be over but that period of the Revolution cannot be analysed or investigated devoid of its ideological reality. Those who want to rewrite History and allege that “the intellectuals massacred one another” are not only factually wrong but also intellectually uninformed. The truth is that the military dictatorship slaughtered the people; it was not a mere spectator or a secondary player in the tragedy of the Terror. It was the perpetrator of the carnage it called the Red Performance (key tiryit2). Hailu Araya is feebly trying to cover up this fact when he blatantly denied there was any red Terror in the first place. History will not absolve but condemn him thoroughly along with his former masters and as those who deny the Holocaust are guilty of a crime so is the shameless Hailu who has denied the brutal killing of more than 250,000 Ethiopians by the regime he served so loyally to the end. Yesterday’s Marxists (Hailu and company) are today’s liberals, eulogizing the market, admiring pluralism, swallowing their every spit against the system they had been castigating as anti people. This conversion has not, however, led them to reassess their role and nefarious practices in the fallen system/regime, none of them have recanted or asked forgiveness from the people they had hurt so much. They have just glided smoothly, with no conscience harassing them, from being the loyalists of a Terrorist regime (that of Mengistu) to loyal followers of another equally murderous one but this time conveniently and gratuitously labelling themselves “the opposition”. That being the case they justify their previous crimes by denying it altogether or by alleging that their regime “was provoked” to excesses and also by doing a somersault back to the February Revolution which they firmly castigate as “brutal, a mistake, a curse brought upon us by young devils imbued with a foreign ideology”.
Forget utopian vision for today the very imagination of a better world has been dimmed and the prevailing tendency is to regress into condemning the past during which courageous people not only dreamed of a better world but fought and died to make it real. Valiant citizens who still echo Che’s cry : Wherever death may surprise us, let it be welcome, provided that this, our battle cry, may have reached some receptive ear, that another hand may be extended to wield our weapons, and that other men be ready to intone our funeral dirge with the staccato singing of the machine guns and new battle cries of war and victory.
Long Live the February Revolution!
1 “Hobbes’s view was challenged in the eighteenth century byJean Jacques Rousseau, who claimed that Hobbes was taking socialized persons and simply imagining them living outside of the society in which they were raised. He affirmed instead that people were neither good nor bad. Men knew neither vice nor virtue since they had almost no dealings with each other. Their bad habits are the products of civilization. Nevertheless the conditions of nature forced people to enter a state of society by establishing a civil society”. Other philosophers including Marx have also criticized Hobbes even though “his theory of society and the state contains embryos of a materialistic appreciation od social phenomena“.
2 Another young writer Dinaw Mengistu ( he left Ethiopia when he was 2 years old while Maaza left at four) has, for example, failed to really grasp the dynamics of that period and what really transpired by writing that Mengistu Haile Mariam’s thugs killed people and nailed to their forehead a placard with the writing: “I am a Communist”.