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Mengistu Haile Mariam

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Mengistu Haile Mariam

Mengistu Haile Mariam
Chairman of the Derg and Head of State of Ethiopia
In office
3 February 1977 – 10 September 1987
Preceded by Tafari Benti
Succeeded by Position abolished
President of Ethiopia
In office
10 September 1987 – 21 May 1991
Preceded by Position established
Succeeded by Tesfaye Gebre Kidan
General Secretary of the Workers' Party of Ethiopia
In office
12 September 1984 – 21 May 1991
Preceded by Position established
Succeeded by Position abolished
Personal details
Born (1937-05-21) 21 May 1937 [1]
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Political party Workers Party of Ethiopia
Spouse(s) Wubanchi Bishaw [2]
Children Tigest

Mengistu Haile Mariam (Amharic: መንግስቱ ኃይለ ማርያም, pronounced ; born 21 May 1937) is an Ethiopian politician who was the most prominent officer of the Derg, the Communist military junta that governed Ethiopia from 1974 to 1987, and the President of the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia from 1987 to 1991. Mengistu has ethnic Konso ancestry from his mother side and Amhara ancestry from his father. Effectively a dictator, he oversaw the Ethiopian Red Terror of 1977–1978,[3] a campaign of repression against the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party and other anti-Derg factions. Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe in 1991 at the conclusion of the Ethiopian Civil War and remains there despite an Ethiopian court verdict finding him guilty in absentia of genocide.[4] Estimates of the number of deaths for which he was responsible range from 500,000 to over 2,000,000.[5][6]


  • Early life 1
  • Army life 2
  • The rise of the Derg 3
  • Leadership in Ethiopia 4
    • Political conflicts 4.1
    • Embracing Marxism 4.2
    • Asylum in Zimbabwe 4.3
  • Claims of genocide in Ethiopia 5
  • Memoirs 6
  • Personal life 7
  • Notes 8
  • References 9
  • Further reading 10
  • External links 11

Early life

Mengistu's father, Haile Mariam Wolde Ayana, was born 80 km west of Addis Ababa in a place called Furii. He was an ethnic Amhara in the service of the Shoan landowner Afenegus Eshete Geda, who had encountered Haile Mariam while he was on a hunting expedition in the administrative district of Gimira and Maji, then under the governorship of Dejazmach Taye Gulilat. He later became an enlisted man in the Ethiopian army.[7] Afenegus Eshete Geda was the half-brother of Dejazmach Kebede Tessema's wife, Woizero Yitateku Kidane, and it was through this connection that Mengistu's parents are alleged to have met. Unsubstantiated accounts allege that Mengistu's mother, an ethnic Konso, was the illegitimate daughter of Dejazmach Kebede Tessema, a high ranking nobleman and Crown Councilor to Emperor Haile Selassie, and himself suspected of being the illegitimate son of Emperor Menelik II. These rumors of Mengistu being the grandson of Dejazmach Kebede are widely believed, but have never been confirmed by either Mengistu himself or by the late nobleman's family.

Mengistu was born on 21 May 1937 in Addis Ababa. His mother died during childbirth when Mengistu was only 8 years old. After the death of his mother, Mengistu and his two siblings went to live with their grandmother for a few years. He then came back to live with his father and soon after joined the army at a very young age. Mengistu's father was very proud of his son's achievements, though some people believe the Ethiopian popular account that states that his family was far from proud of his political accomplishments.[7][1]

Army life

Mengistu followed his father and joined the army, where he attracted the attention of the Eritrean-born general Aman Andom, who raised him to the rank of sergeant and assigned him duties as an errand boy in his office. Mengistu graduated from the Holetta Military Academy, one of the two important military academies of Ethiopia.[8] General Aman then became his mentor, and when the General was assigned to the commander of the Third Division took Mengistu with him to Harar, and later was assigned as Ordnance officer in the 3rd division. A few years before his departure for training to the US he was in conflict with the then 3rd Division commander General Haile Baykedagn whose policy of strict discipline and order did not sit well with Mengistu. At the time, the Ordnance group was offered military technical training support in The US. Despite his disapproval of Mengistu's insubordination and disrespect, the General was obliged to release him and Mengistu went for a six-month training program in Maryland, USA. Returning after his training, he was expected to command the Ordnance Sub-division in Harar. Years later, Mengistu would murder General Haile Baykedagn along with the 60 ministers and generals.

Mengistu experienced racial discrimination (while studying in the United States), which led him to a later strong anti-American sentiment [9] He equated racial discrimination in the United States with the class discrimination in Ethiopia. When he took power, and attended the meeting of Derg members at the Fourth Division headquarters in Addis Ababa, Mengistu exclaimed with emotion:

In this country, some aristocratic families automatically categorize persons with dark skin, thick lips, and kinky hair as "Barias" (Amharic for Slave)... let it be clear to everybody that I shall soon make these ignoramuses stoop and grind corn![7]

Professor Bahru Zewde notes that Mengistu was distinguished by a "special ability to size up situations and persons". Although Bahru notes that some observers "rather charitably" equated this ability with intelligence, the professor believes this skill is more akin to "street smarts": "it is rather closer to the mark to see it as inner-city smartness (or what in local parlance would be called aradanat)."[10]

The rise of the Derg

Mengistu Haile Mariam with fellow Derg members Aman Mikael Andom and Atnafu Abate.

Emperor Haile Selassie's government, having lost the confidence of the Ethiopian public following a famine in Wello province, was overthrown in Ethiopian revolution of 1974. As a result, power came into the hands of a committee of low ranking officers and enlisted soldiers led by Atnafu Abate, which came to be known as the Derg. Mengistu was originally one of the lesser members, officially sent to represent the Third Division because his commander, General Nega Tegnegn, considered him a trouble-maker and wanted to get rid of him.[9] But between July and September 1974, Mengistu became the most influential member of the shadowy Derg, though he preferred to act through more public members like his former mentor, general Aman Andom, and later Tafari Benti.[8]

Haile Selassie died in 1975. It is rumored that Mengistu smothered the Emperor using a pillow case, but Mengistu has denied these rumors.[11] Though several groups were involved in the overthrow, the Derg succeeded to power. There is no doubt that the Derg under Mengistu's leadership ordered the execution without trial of 61 ex-officials of the Imperial government on 23 November 1974, and later of numerous other former nobles and officials including the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abuna Theophilos, in 1977. Mengistu himself has acknowledged that the Derg ordered these deaths, but refuses to accept personal responsibility. Members of the Derg have contradicted him in interviews given from prison, saying he conspired and was in full agreement with their decisions.

Leadership in Ethiopia

Mengistu did not emerge as the leader of the Derg until after the 3 February 1977 shootout, in which Tafari Banti was killed. The vice chairman of the Derg, Atnafu Abate, although with some support at this time, clashed with Mengistu over the issue of how to handle the war in Eritrea and lost leading to his execution with 40 other officers, clearing the way for Mengistu to become the complete master of the situation.[12] He formally assumed power as head of state, and justified his execution of Abate (on 13 November of that year) by claiming that he had "placed the interests of Ethiopia above the interests of socialism" and undertaken other "counter-revolutionary" activities.[13] Under Mengistu, Ethiopia received aid from the Soviet Union, other members of the Warsaw Pact, and Cuba.

Political conflicts

From 1977 through 1978, resistance against the Derg ensued, led primarily by the Red Terror". The Derg subsequently turned against the socialist student movement MEISON, a major supporter against the EPRP, in what would be called the "White Terror".

The EPRP's efforts to discredit and undermine the Derg and its MEISON collaborators escalated in the fall of 1976. It targeted public buildings and other symbols of state authority for bombings and assassinated numerous Abyot Seded and MEISON members, as well as public officials at all levels. The Derg, which countered with its own counter-terrorism campaign, labeled the EPRP's tactics the White Terror. Mengistu asserted that all "progressives" were given "freedom of action" in helping root out the revolution's enemies, and his wrath was particularly directed toward the EPRP. Peasants, workers, public officials, and even students thought to be loyal to the Mengistu regime were provided with arms to accomplish this task.[14]

Col. Mengistu gave a dramatic send-off to his campaign of terror. In a public speech, he shouted "Death to counterrevolutionaries! Death to the EPRP!" and then produced three bottles of what appeared to be blood and smashed them to the ground to show what the revolution would do to its enemies. Thousands of young men and women turned up dead in the streets of the capital and other cities in the following two years. They were systematically murdered mainly by militia attached to the "Kebeles," the neighborhood watch committees which served during Mengistu's reign as the lowest level local government and security surveillance units. Families had to pay the Kebeles a tax known as "the wasted bullet" to obtain the bodies of their loved ones.[15] In May 1977 the Swedish general secretary of the Save the Children Fund stated that "1,000 children have been killed, and their bodies are left in the streets and are being eaten by wild hyenas . . . You can see the heaped-up bodies of murdered children, most of them aged eleven to thirteen, lying in the gutter, as you drive out of Addis Ababa."[16]

Military gains made by the monarchist Ethiopian Democratic Union in Begemder were rolled back when that party split just as it was on the verge of capturing the old capital of Gondar. The army of the Somali Democratic Republic invaded Ethiopia having overrun the Ogaden region, and was on the verge of capturing Harar and Dire Dawa, when Somalia's erstwhile allies, the Soviets and the Cubans, launched an unprecedented arms and personnel airlift to come to Ethiopia's rescue. The Derg government turned back the Somali invasion, and made deep strides against the Eritrean secessionists and the TPLF as well. By the end of the seventies, Mengistu presided over the second largest army in all of sub-Saharan Africa, as well as a formidable airforce and navy.

Amnesty International estimates that up to 500,000 people were killed during the Ethiopian Red Terror[17][18][19]

Embracing Marxism

In the 1970s, Mengistu embraced the philosophy of Marxism–Leninism, which was increasingly popular among many nationalists and revolutionaries throughout Africa and much of the Third World at the time.

In the mid-1970s, under Mengistu's leadership, the Derg regime began an aggressive program of changing Ethiopia's system from a mixed feudo-capitalist emergent economy to an Eastern Bloc-style command economy. Shortly after coming to power, all rural land was nationalized, stripping the Ethiopian Church, the Imperial family and the nobility of all their sizable estates and the bulk of their wealth. During this same period, all foreign-owned and locally owned companies were nationalized without compensation in an effort to redistribute the country's wealth. All undeveloped urban property and all rental property was also nationalized. Private businesses such as banks and insurance companies, large retail businesses, etc. were also taken over by the government. All this nationalized property was brought under the administration of large bureaucracies set up to administer them. Farmers who had once worked on land owned by absentee landlords were now compelled to join collective farms. All agricultural products were no longer to be offered on the free market, but were to be controlled and distributed by the government. Despite progressive agricultural reforms, under the Derg, agricultural output suffered due to civil war, drought and misguided economic policies. There was also a famine in 1984, which was the 10th anniversary of the Derg.

During the Ogaden War, learning that after the fall of Jijiga to units of the Somali army (2 September 1977) Ethiopian units had started to mutiny, Mengistu flew to the front and took direct control. According to Gebru Tareke, he ordered those suspected of leading the mutiny "bayoneted as cowardly and counterrevolutionary elements", then had the soldiers regrouped and ordered to recapture Jijiga in simultaneous attacks from the west and north. The Ethiopians recaptured the city on 5 September, but Jijiga remained within range of the Somali artillery, which shelled the city the whole night long. The next day the Somalis counterattacked, "considerably strengthened and ever more determined", and before he could be encircled inside the city, Mengistu fled back to Adew on the 7th where he boarded a plane back to Addis Ababa. The Somalis broke through Ethiopian lines, recapturing Jijiga on 12 September, and managing to overrun Ethiopian positions past the Marda Pass.[20]

In early 1984, under Mengistu's direction, the Marxist–Leninist Worker's Party of Ethiopia (WPE) was founded as the country's ruling party, with Mengistu as general secretary. On 10 September 1987, a new constitution was adopted, and the country was renamed the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Mengistu became president, with sweeping executive and legislative powers. He and the other surviving members of the Derg all retired from the military and as civilians made up the Politburo of the WPE.

In the late 1980s, some Western critics of Mengistu, including Michael Johns of the Organization of African Unity.

However, the government's military position gradually weakened. First came the

  • "Mengistu defends Red Terror", BBC News, 28 December 1999.
  • "A U.S. Strategy to Foster Human Rights in Ethiopia", by Michael Johns, Heritage Foundation Backgrounder # 692, 23 February 1989.
  • "Ethiopian Dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam", Human Rights Watch, 29 November 1999.
  • The Trial of Derg on YouTube. Reuters, 2007
  • "Gorbachev's Holocaust: Soviet Complicity in Ethiopia's Famine", by Michael Johns, Policy Review, Summer 1988.

External links

  • Andrew, Christopher M. and Mitrokhin, Vasili. The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World. Basic Books, 2005. ISBN 0-465-00311-7
  • Coppa, Frank. 2006. "Mengistu Haile Mariam." Encyclopedia of Modern Dictators: From Napoleon to the Present, Frank Coppa, ed., pp. 181–183. Peter Lang Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8204-5010-0.
  • Applebaum, Anne (foreword) and Hollander, Paul (introduction PDF file and editor) From the Gulag to the Killing Fields: Personal Accounts of Political Violence and Repression in Communist States. Intercollegiate Studies Institute (2006). ISBN 1-932236-78-3.
  • Courtois, Stephane; Werth, Nicolas; Panne, Jean-Louis; Paczkowski, Andrzej; Bartosek, Karel; Margolin, Jean-Louis & Kramer, Mark (1999). The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-07608-7.
  • Orizio, Riccardo. Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators Walker & Company, 2004. ISBN 0-8027-7692-2
  • Ulrich Schmid. Aschemenschen. Berlin, 2006 (German)
  • Taffara Deguefé, A Tripping Stone: Ethiopian Prison Diary, Addis Ababa University Press, Addis Ababa, 2003.
  • Scott Rempell, "Five Grounds: A Novel," ISBN 1479201723.

Further reading

  1. ^ "Profile: Mengistu Haile Mariam". BBC News Online. 12 December 2006. Retrieved 2006-12-13. . Other accounts state 21 May 1941 [2], 27 May 1941
  2. ^ "Mengistu Haile Mariam's Biography". Durame News Online. 1 May 2012. Retrieved 2012-05-06. .
  3. ^ a b "Mengistu found guilty of genocide". BBC News. 12 December 2006. 
  4. ^ "Profile: Mengistu Haile Mariam". BBC News Online. 12 December 2006. Retrieved 2007-01-11. 
  5. ^ Fitzgerald, Tyrant for the taking in White, Matthew (2011). Atrocitology. Edinburgh: Canongate. p. 615. Retrieved 2013-03-21. 
  6. ^ Rapoport, Knives Are Out in White, Matthew (2011). Atrocitology. Edinburgh: Canongate. p. 615. Retrieved 2013-03-21. 
  7. ^ a b c d Dr. Paulos Milkia, "Mengistu Haile Mariam: The Profile of a Dictator", reprinted from the February 1994 Ethiopian Review (accessed 30 July 2009)
  8. ^ a b Edmund J. Keller, Revolutionary Ethiopia (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), p. 185.
  9. ^ a b Paul B. Henze, Layers of Time (New York: Palgrave, 2000), p. 290 n. 13. In Mengistu's last interview, he mentioned that he knew Kebede Tesemma, but denied a blood relationship.
  10. ^ Bahru Zewde, A History of Modern Ethiopia, second edition (London: James Currey, 2001), p. 249
  11. ^ Jeffrey Gettleman, 'Ethiopian court convicts Mengistu Haile Mariam of genocide', International Herald Tribune, 12 December 2006. Paul Henze, however, states this accusation as a fact (Layers of Time, p. 188).
  12. ^ Indian Ocean Newsletter publication, 1985 "Ethiopia: Political Power & the Military"
  13. ^ Henze, Layers of Time, p. 302.
  14. ^ A Country Study: Ethiopia (US Library of Congress)
  15. ^ Ethiopian Dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam Human Rights Watch, 1999
  16. ^ Stephane Courtois, et al. The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Harvard University Press, 1999. pg. 691
  17. ^ a b The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, pg 457
  18. ^ a b US admits helping Mengistu escape BBC, 22 December 1999
  19. ^ a b Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators by Riccardo Orizio, pg 151
  20. ^ Gebru Tareke, "The Ethiopia-Somalia War of 1977 Revisited", International Journal of African Historical Studies, 2000 (33, #3), pp. 635ff at p. 648. (accessed 10 August 2009)
  21. ^ Gorbachev's Holocaust", by Michael Johns, Policy Review, June 1988, pp. 74-75""". Retrieved 4 February 2015. 
  22. ^ "Ethiopia Fizzled Coup", Time, 29 May 1989 (accessed 30 July 2009).
  23. ^ a b c "Report: Mengistu Survives Assassination Attempt", Ethiopian Review, Vol. 5, Issue 12 (31 December 1995), p. 14 (accessed 15 August 2009)
  24. ^ The Washington Times, 11 July 1996, page A10.
  25. ^ a b "Mengistu 'brains behind Zim clean-up'", ZimDaily (Mail & Guardian Online), 20 February 2006.
  26. ^ "Ethiopia's Mengistu brains behind Zimbabwe cleanup campaign".  
  27. ^ Staff reporter (20 February 2006). "'"Mengistu 'brains behind Zim clean-up.  
  28. ^ a b c "Ethiopian Dictator Sentenced to Prison" by Les Neuhaus, The Associated Press, 11 January 2007
  29. ^ Mengistu is handed life sentence BBC, 11 January 2007
  30. ^ "The irony of the Anuak Masscare and Zenawi's genocide verdict over Mengistu". Retrieved 4 February 2015. 
  31. ^ Guilty of genocide: the leader who unleashed a 'Red Terror' on Africa by Jonathan Clayton, The Times Online, 13 December 2006
  32. ^ "Court sentences Major Melaku Tefera to death", Ethiopian Reporter
  33. ^ "Zimbabwe hails Mengistu's role in liberation", AFP (IOL), 13 December 2006.
  34. ^ Court Sentences Mengistu to Death BBC, 26 May 2008.
  35. ^ "Ethiopia's Mengistu Haile-Mariam speaks". Retrieved 4 February 2015. 
  36. ^ Book Review: "Tiglachin", Ethiomedia online, 6 February 2012


  1. ^ His grandmother, Woyzero Abebech, was still alive when he seized power, and had become an Orthodox nun (as is very common amongst elderly women in Ethiopia). Woyzero Abebech lost her land that she inherited from Empress Zewditu, whom she had served as an attendant, as well as her husband. She continued to live in a place known as Addis Alem not far from Addis Ababa and was said to have been furious at the nationalization of her land by her grandson's government. Mengistu's father was said to have defiantly hung Emperor Haile Selassie's portrait on the walls of his living room in the villa that the Prime Minister, Fikre Selassie Wogderess, built for him in the middle class district of Asmera Menged.[7]


Mengistu married Wubanchi Bishaw in 1968. They have a son, Andenet, and two daughters, Tigisit and Tilahun.

Personal life

In 2010, Mengistu announced the publication of his memoirs.[35] In early 2012, a manuscript of the memoir, entitled Tiglatchin ("Our Struggle" in Amharic),[36] was leaked onto the internet.


Following an appeal on 26 May 2008, Mengistu was sentenced to death in absentia by Ethiopia's High Court, overturning his previous sentence of life imprisonment. Twenty-three of his most senior aides also received death sentences that were commuted on 1 June 2011. On October 4, 2011, 16 of former Mengistu officials have been released from prison on parole, due to their old age and good behavior while incarcerated. However, Mengistu's sentence remains unchanged. It is not clear if a change in government in Zimbabwe will result in his extradition.[34]

After Mengistu's conviction in December 2006, the Zimbabwean government said that he still enjoyed asylum and would not be extradited. A Zimbabwean government spokesman explained this by saying that "Mengistu and his government played a key and commendable role during our struggle for independence". According to the spokesman, Mengistu assisted Zimbabwean guerrilla fighters during the Rhodesian Bush War by providing training and arms; after the war he had provided training for Zimbabwean air force pilots. The spokesman said that "not many countries have shown such commitment to us".[33]

106 Derg officials were accused of genocide during the trials, but only 36 of them were present in the court. Several former members of the Derg have been sentenced to death.[32]

Some experts believe hundreds of thousands of university students, intellectuals and politicians (including Emperor Haile Selassie) were killed during Mengistu's rule.[28] Amnesty International estimates that a total of half a million people were killed during the Red Terror of 1977 and 1978[17][18][19] Human Rights Watch describes the Red Terror as "one of the most systematic uses of mass murder by a state ever witnessed in Africa."[28] During his reign it was not uncommon to see students, suspected government critics or rebel sympathisers hanging from lampposts each morning. Mengistu himself is alleged to have murdered opponents by garroting or shooting them, saying that he was leading by example.[31]

“The biggest problem with prosecuting Mengistu for genocide is that his actions did not necessarily target a particular group. They were directed against anybody who was opposing his government, and they were generally much more political than based on any ethnic targeting. In contrast, the irony is the [current] Ethiopian government itself has been accused of genocide based on atrocities committed in Gambella. I’m not sure that they qualify as genocide either. But in Gambella, the incidents, which were well documented in a human rights report of about 2 years ago, were clearly directed at a particular group, the tribal group, the Anuak.”

Michael Clough, a US attorney and longtime observer of Ethiopia, said in a statement that[30]

The trial began in 1994 and ended in 2006. The court said Mengistu was guilty as charged on 12 December 2006, and imposed a life sentence on Mengistu in January 2007.[29] In addition to the genocide conviction, the court claimed that he was guilty of imprisonment, illegal homicide and illegal confiscation of property.[3]

Mengistu was charged by the Ethiopian government led by Meles Zenawi, in absentia, for the killing of nearly 2,000 people. Mengistu's charge sheet and evidence list was 8,000 pages long. The evidence against him included signed execution orders, videos of torture sessions and personal testimonies[28]

Claims of genocide in Ethiopia

Mengistu still resides in Zimbabwe, despite the Ethiopian government's desire that he be extradited. He is said to live in luxurious circumstances, and it is claimed that he advises Mugabe on security matters; according to Zimbabwean intelligence sources, he proposed the idea of clearing slums, which was implemented as Operation Murambatsvina in 2005, and chaired meetings at which the operation was planned.[26][27] State Security Minister Didymus Mutasa strongly denied that Mengistu was involved in Operation Murambatsvina in any way, saying that Mengistu "does not interfere at all with the affairs of our country. We also do not allow him to interfere with his country from Zimbabwe."[25]

An assassination attempt against Mengistu occurred on 4 November 1995, while he was out walking with his wife, Wubanchi Bishaw, near his home in the Gunhill suburb of Harare. While Mengistu was unharmed, his alleged attacker, Solomon Haile Ghebre Michael, an Eritrean, was shot and arrested by Mengistu's bodyguards.[23] He was later tried for this assassination attempt, pleading not guilty in a Zimbabwean court on 8 July 1996.[24] The Eritrean Ambassador to South Africa, Tsegaye Tesfa Tsion, flew to Harare to attend the trial.[23] The attacker was sentenced to ten years in prison, while his accomplice Abraham Goletom Joseph, who had been arrested in a police raid, was sentenced to five years. They said that they had been tortured under Mengistu, and on appeal their sentences were reduced to two years each due to "mitigatory circumstances".[25] The Ethiopian ambassador to Zimbabwe, Fantahun Haile Michael, said his government was not involved in the assassination attempt, and that he heard about the incident from the media.[23]

In May 1991, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) forces advanced on Addis Ababa from all sides, and Mengistu fled the country with 50 family and Derg members. He was granted asylum in Zimbabwe as an official guest of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. Mengistu left behind almost the entire membership of the original Derg and the WPE leadership, precluding their escape. Almost all were promptly arrested and put on trial upon the assumption of power by the EPRDF. Mengistu has claimed that the takeover of his country resulted from the policies of Mikhail Gorbachev, who in his view allowed the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the termination of its aid to Ethiopia.

Asylum in Zimbabwe


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