Revolution from Above

Colin Legum

The first and only time I have been inside Boodle’s was early in 1972, when I was bidden (I choose the word with some care) for a confidential tête-à-tête with an Ethiopian in whose high caste Evelyn Waugh would have rejoiced. Ras Asrata Kassa – as noble in physique and physiognomy as in his birth – had recently been dismissed as Governor-General of Eritrea, but he still retained his position as chairman of Ethiopia’s Crown Council. While this was notionally one of the three most influential positions in the country, all real power in Haile Selassie’s empire derived solely from the Emperor’s authority. The ras confessed to me the weakness of his own position, and spoke of his deep fear that his cousin the Emperor was leading Ethiopia to its ruin. Although he was on the eve of his 80th birthday, Haile Selassie had stopped his ears to any suggestion from his Crown Council that he should arrange for the surrender of any power in his own lifetime, and stubbornly refused to arrange for a peaceful succession. ‘I’m afraid,’ said the chairman of the Crown Council, ‘that the Emperor’s egomania has developed in him the attitude of après moi le deluge.’

Asrata Kassa was not a leader with whom I had seen eye to eye in the past, especially over the tough attitude he had adopted to students after the abortive 1960 coup, which, had it succeeded – as it so nearly did – would probably have saved Ethiopia from much of the agony it subsequently had to endure. While not unaware of the strong element of personal ambition in the ras’s make-up, I was nevertheless impressed by his undoubted patriotism and by the common sense of the service he proposed I might render as a journalist with a particular interest in, and affection for, Ethiopia.

The ras explained that his country had reached a critical point in its history. The war in Eritrea had already been lost, and he doubted whether it was still possible to reconcile the embittered Eritreans. The last chance of saving his country from disaster was to persuade the Emperor to announce plans on his 80th birthday for the succession through the Crown Prince, and for a genuinely independent Cabinet deriving its authority from an elected parliament. The only possible hope of getting the Emperor to do so was to mobilise pressure in influential Western circles to persuade the paranoid old ruler to prepare for the post-imperial age which was close at hand.

The idea was that I should approach the Emperor with a set of carefully-prepared questions which would reflect not only Ethiopian concerns but also those of the old man’s Western friends, whose opinions he valued. I rehearsed my questions with a cross-section of Ethiopians – members of the royal family, conservatives and radicals. My interview was a total failure. To every question about the succession Haile Selassie replied with oblique, fatalistic references to ‘the hand of Destiny which has determined my fate and will determine that of my successor’.

When I reported the results of my interview to Asrata Kassa, his immediate response was: ‘I’m afraid that all is lost.’ And, indeed, it was. Less than a year later, a mutiny broke out in the Army, and although it was a small affair, the Emperor suddenly found he was unable to count on the loyalty of many of his officers, or indeed on any but a small number of impotent courtiers and landowners. The ramshackle empire collapsed like a pack of cards. Ras Asrata Kassa was among the 70 noblemen and courtiers who were taken out and shot by the soldiers.

And so Ethiopia stumbled, by accident, from what had started as an army mutiny into a full-blooded revolution – but with no trained revolutionaries to give it direction. The only group capable of assuming the leadership was the ad hoc committee established by mutinous soldiers, the Derg. It took almost two years of near-chaos, widespread killing and purges within the Army before a revolutionary élite finally emerged under the chairmanship of Lieutenant Mengistu Haile Mariam, which was able to establish some measure of control and to prevent the old empire from breaking up into half a dozen different parts. But this they were able to do only by enlisting the support of the Soviet Union as their strategic ally.

Two large questions still remain unclear: the precise relationship between the Russians and Mengistu’s cadre of revolutionaries; and the future direction of the revolution itself. The two questions are closely related.

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