The one time I saw Mengistu face to face was when he visited the Arbaminch Comprehensive High School when I was a student of class eight. The whole school was full of troops brandishing guns. There was an air of excitement in the whole school, and students were eager to meet the “Chairman-Mengistu”, one of the architects of the People’s revolution of the Republic of Ethiopia! Then came the big moment, and I could see the, “Chairman” approach from afar! I was short compared to others, so I had to literally peep through the gaps between the students standing within the cordon, which was surrounded by troops. At that time I found it so funny looking at the troops lying on their stomachs with guns mounted on tripods aimed everywhere. Now I realise that there was a great threat to the life of the Chairman, so the troops were taking no chances-Overkill or not! Then Mengistu reached our position and I could see that he had put on his military uniform, the uniform of a soldier, dark green in colour, and he had put on his green cap with the characteristic red stars fixed to it. He was all smiles, appeared relaxed and shook hands with some of the students in front of me-and then he was gone! Next few days Mengistu was the talk of the town, the talk of the school, and my Ethiopian friends and I talked about no one else but Mengistu Haile Mariam. We talked about how vibrant he appeared, so well groomed, confident, and young. This was the year 1978, a couple of years after the Imperialist Government of Ethiopia was toppled over by a military coup led by a group of people like Teferi Benti, Mengistu and few others like Andom Mikael. It is difficult to believe that this smiling person could have snatched a machine gun from a car waiting outside in a shoot out in 1977 to spray the corridors of the Conference Hall with bullets. Later in a public telecast it was claimed that Tefari Benti was working against the Socialist Government and that there was written proof to this effect. By the end of the day, Mengistu had managed to supersede all of his henchmen to emerge as the “true leader” or the Chairman of the country.
Just a few days back, I was watching the movie titled, “The rise and fall of Idi Amin” and somehow it brought back memories of life in Ethiopia after the revolution. The portrayal of a Suave, smiling and apparently carefree personality in the film hid the true personality of a psychopath and a madman who had no scruples in getting his opponents shot in cold blood. I couldn’t help marvel about the similarities between the story of Idi Amin and Mengistu. Perhaps we didn’t hear much about Mengistu at that time and never for once considered him to be a psychopath, because he was at least more tactful than Idi Amin. Perhaps that was one reason why Mengistu lasted longer than Idi Amin! But then Africa has been home to many types of Dictators. General Bokassa of the Central African Republic was known for his prowess in using a single plane to throw bombs at his enemies, and then there was General Ujuku. Idi Amin however beats all of them anytime whether it is with reference to his temperament, pride, swagger, or boastfulness! If he called himself the Last King of Scotland, then, wasn't it part of his charisma that he could force a vision of himself on to others, impose his world of make-belief on to others? Well this is one of the elements of great dictators, they can show you visions of wealth and good life even bombs are falling in your backyard, such were Hitler’s skills at oration!
Perhaps the licence and impunity with which so called dictators acted in the society might be glanced in the life of one of Saddam’s sons, Uday, who would pick up any woman he fancied and he was the in charge of the Iraqi National Football team, and woe betide anyone who dared defy his dictates! A colleague, Mrs. Gupta who had once been in Uganda at the time of Idi Amin told me about how the Indian community had been given a few hours to pack up and leave the country. Her husband had been a Medical Doctor in one of the Hospitals there. Incidentally, Amin’s eccentricities lost him allies. He became alienated from Britain, America, and his friends from the Soviet Union decided to leave him but then he was able to request them to stay back going to the extent of playing an accordion and singing a song to appease them.
Life in a country lead by a dictator is certainly precarious and uncertain as I came to experience by the time I reached grades eleven and twelve in Ethiopia. You didn’t speak loudly against Government policies never mind how bad they were. You spoke loudly and favourably of the “Chairman” and the Peoples Socialist Party. You denounced the Imperialists for every ill in the country. The drought in the country was blamed on the machinations of the Imperialists. Shortage of goods was blamed on the imperialistic policies of countries that opposed the socialist ideology. All of the shortcomings of the Government were blamed on America, all this even though food aid titled “Gift from the People of America” could be seen in market in the form of butter-oil and other goods. We knew that America and many other western countries were pouring aid in the form of money into the country in aid of people dying from hunger and thirst, but then whether all this aid was reaching the drought affected people was highly suspect! Every so often we heard of people missing from homes. They had been taken away by the police late at night, some of them never to be seen again. There were stories about people being taken away in truck loads into the forests where they were supposedly shot dead. These were unconfirmed reports that did the rounds and we were scared of them, so were our Ethiopian friends. Most of my friends and classmates studying in class twelve became despondent towards the end of the session because they had to serve as recruits to fight in the North against advancing rebels of the Tigray Liberation Front, and the Eritrean Liberation front rebels. Many of the most promising students never came back from the battlefront.
Ultimately Dictators of all kinds turn out to be the most cowardly and human of all human beings, because at some time or the other their Charisma fades away. Mengistu had an inkling that his time was drawing close to an end so he acquired a ranch in Zimbabwe and his wife and he started shifting base gradually but steadily. One of the stories that did the rounds in those days when there was frequent travelling of the Chairman’s family to Zimbabwe was that his wife had carried with her Emperor Haile Selassie’s Gold plaited chair! A few months before the rebels entered Addis Abeba, Mengistu did a deal with the Israelis for the evacuation of Ethinic Ethiopian Jew, called as the Falashas to Israel. The motive behind this action was surmised to be to garner funds. The ultimate end of the lives of dictators is as dramatic as their coming to power. Mengistu fled from the country leaving it to mercy of the Yehadigs or the Northern rebels, while Idi Amin also fled his beloved country to settle in an Arabian Country. I am sure many of the Dictators might have fled to the safety of harbouring countries, but then I am sure that the ghosts of the people they have killed and the crimes committed by them against humanity will continue to haunt them all their lives! It is said that Mengistu lives on one of Ian Smith’s ranches in Zimbabwe that he had bought earlier.
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