Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 May 2008
Issue No. 895
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The Mengistu curse

Will African justice finally be served, asks Eva Dadrian

Zimbabwe's ruling party Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) has been denying the people of Zimbabwe their right to choose another leader, perhaps because the party fears reprisals for the human rights violations committed by the North Korean trained Five Brigade on the orders of President Robert Mugabe in Matabeleland in the early 1980s. The Movement for Democratic Change is unlikely to push for Mugabe to be prosecuted, but he has reportedly said he feared being tried for war crimes committed during his rule.

In Zimbabwe, a former dictator, also fears prosecution. Mengistu Haile Mariam, the former dictator of Ethiopia who was given asylum and protection by Mugabe, is also looking over his shoulder. Despite Mugabe's support to Mengistu for over 16 years, the Zimbabwean president has more pressing priorities right now than sorting out the future of his protégé.

Throughout history, kings, emperors, dictators, poets, religious reformers and philosophers have found refuge in foreign lands. They were either forced to leave as part of a negotiated transfer of power or because they represented some kind of threat to the establishment, be it political, religious or moral. Saad Zaghloul, the Egyptian nationalist leader, was exiled to Malta and then to the Seychelles by the British colonial authorities, as a threat to their control.

But what is exile and how it can affect the exiled person? Exile is the enforced removal from one's native country, whether because of expulsion or voluntary absence. However, why would one voluntarily leave one's country? Self-exile is often practised either as a form of protest or to avoid persecution. Associated with this is the concept of asylum, meaning protection from persecution or prosecution, granted by a state to someone from abroad. But with the strengthening of international law, such exiles now must account for their actions before the world.

Two former African dictators who have much to account for have been given asylum by two other African heads of state: Hissene Habré of Chad found asylum in Senegal while, as already mentioned, Mengistu found it in Zimbabwe.

After years of rejections, discussions and negotiations, Abdoulaye Wade, the Senegalese president, finally accepted the decision to prosecute the exiled former dictator of Chad. This was in response to a request by the African Union and a landmark move in the long campaign to bring Habré to justice. This decision was not easy to reach, and it was only after a report by legal experts citing Senegal's obligations under the 1984 UN Convention against Torture to prosecute or extradite alleged tortures who enter its territory, that African leaders asked that Senegal ensure Habré's trial or extradition. It will take another three years to see Habré in a courtroom and longer for the judges to reach a verdict, but at least the judicial process has started with an African court presided over by African judges and an African jury.

For some 16 years, Mengistu has been living in the elite Gunhill suburb of Harare, protected by a 24-hour security service provided by the police VIP protection unit and the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), all this of course at the expense of Zimbabwean taxpayers. It is also believed that Mengistu has also two large farms, in Mazowe and in Norton, and owns a separate home in Bluffhill.

An army officer, Mengistu participated in Emperor Haile Selassie's assassination in 1974. By 1977, he emerged as the military ruler of the country and tolerated no opposition, when mass executions were carried out in day light by the guards of the Derg, the governing body he set up. After his overthrow in 1991, dozens of mass graves were dug out to reveal the extension of the atrocities and crimes committed during his 16-year hold on the country. In 1984, he waged war against Somalia and fought an insurgency in Eritrea, which was still part of Ethiopia. His collectivisation policy in agriculture contributed to a famine in 1984 that resulted in the deaths of over one million people.

In 1991, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party, a coalition of two guerrilla armies -- the Tigrean People's Liberation Front and the Eritrean People's Liberation Front -- were on the outskirts of Addis Ababa when Mengistu fled the country taking in his luggage millions of US dollars, allegedly including the ransom paid by Israel for the right to evacuate 15,000 Falasha Jews from Ethiopia. When his plane landed in Zimbabwe, he was granted asylum by Robert Mugabe.

It took 12 years for the court in Ethiopia to deliver its verdict and in December 2006, Mengistu was convicted in absentia for genocide and crimes against humanity. Considering Mengistu's advanced age and the state of his health, the death penalty requested by the prosecution was commuted to life imprisonment. When the government of Ethiopia officially requested Mengistu's extradition, President Robert Mugabe rejected the appeal, saying through a spokesperson, "as a comrade of our struggle [against white rule in former Rhodesia], Comrade Mengistu and his government played a key and commendable role during our struggle for independence and no one can dispute that." Mengistu had in fact provided weapons to ZANU's guerrilla movement and after Zimbabwe's independence had trained its air force pilots.

Mengistu was unrepentant, declaring in an interview that the revolution he had led was a very popular one and that he did not come to power by force or by weapon or even by violence, but was "invited" by the people to take power.

What will happen to Mengistu if and when Robert Mugabe steps down? Will he be sent to Ethiopia to serve a prison sentence? Today, unconfirmed reports from Harare say that Mengistu was moved to a secret farm, maybe one of the farms he owns, in Kariba, some 350km from Harare. Some of the famous exiled and self- exiled historical figures returned to their native country with the fall of the regime that sentenced them to exile, like Saad Zaghloul. They were re-instated with honours, led their countrymen and lived peacefully among their people. But this cannot be part of Mengistu's dreams. Having escaped an assassination attempt once, he may well be looking over his shoulder and wondering when and how, justice will catch up with him.

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