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The Derg, Common Derg or Dergue (Ge'ez: ደርግ, meaning "committee" or "council") is the short name of the Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police and Territorial Army that ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1987. Officially known as the Provisional Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia, it took power following the ousting of Emperor Haile Selassie I. Soon after it was established, the committee was formally renamed the Provisional Military Administrative Council but continued to be known popularly as "the Derg". In 1975, it formally abolished the monarchy and embraced Communism as an ideology. The abolition of feudalism, sweeping land reform, literacy, and education became priorities.

Internally, armed uprisings were given U.S. aid. The Derg eventually became formally known as the Provisional Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia.[1] Between 1975 and 1987, the Derg executed and imprisoned tens of thousands of its opponents without trial.[2] In 1987 Mengistu Haile Mariam, its chairman since 1977, abolished the Derg and replaced it with the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. However, Mengistu and the surviving members of the Derg dominated the new government. After years of warfare by a coalition of ethnic-based parties, Mengistu was overthrown in 1991.

Formation and growth

High ranking Derg members: Mengistu Haile Mariam, Aman Mikael Andom and Atnafu Abate

After the February 1974 popular revolution, the first signal of any mass uprising was the actions of the soldiers of the 4th Brigade of the 4th Army Division in Nagelle in southern Ethiopia.[3] They were unhappy about the state of their food and water and arrested their brigade commander and other officers. When the government sent the commander of the ground forces, General Deresse Dubala to treat with the rebels, they held him and forced him to eat their food and drink their water. Similar mutinies took place at the air force base at Debre Zeit, on 12 February, and at Second Division at Asmara on 25 February. It was these protests that gave rise to a general armed forces uprising.

The Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police and Territorial Army, or the Derg (Ge'ez "Committee"), was officially announced 28 June 1974 by a group of military officers. This was done in order to maintain law and order, due to the powerlessness of the civilian government following widespread mutiny in the armed forces of Ethiopia earlier that year. Its members were not directly involved in those mutinies nor was this the first military committee organized to support the administration of Prime Minister Endelkachew Makonnen. Alem Zewde Tessema had established the Armed Forces Coordinated Committee 23 March. Over the following months, radicals in the Ethiopian military came to believe Makonnen was acting on behalf of the hated feudal aristocracy. When a group of notables petitioned for the release of a number of government ministers and officials who were under arrest for corruption and other crimes, three days later the Derg was announced.[4]

The Derg, which originally consisted of soldiers at the capital, broadened its membership by including representatives from the 40 units of the Ethiopian Army, Air Force, Navy, Kebur Zabagna (Imperial Guard), Territorial Army and Police: each unit was expected to send three representatives, who were supposed to be privates, NCOs and junior officers up to the rank of major. According to Bahru Zewde, "Senior officers were deemed too compromised by close association to the regime."[5] The Derg was reported to consist of 120 soldiers,[6] a statement which has gained wide acceptance due to the habitual secretiveness of the Derg in its early years. But, Bahru Zewde notes that "in actual fact, their number was less than 110",[5] and Aregawi Berhe mentions two different sources which record 109 persons as being members of the Derg.[7] No new members were ever admitted, and the number decreased, especially in the first few years, as some members were expelled or killed. They assembled at the Fourth Division headquarters.[8]

The committee elected Major Mengistu Haile Mariam as its chairman and Major Atnafu Abate as its vice-chairman. The Derg was initially supposed to study the grievances of various military units, investigate abuses by senior officers and staff and to root out corruption in the military.

In the months following its founding, the Derg steadily accrued more power. In July the Derg obtained key concessions from the emperor, Haile Selassie, which included the power to arrest not only military officers, but government officials at every level. Soon both former Prime Ministers Tsehafi Taezaz Aklilu Habte-Wold and Endelkachew Makonnen, along with most of their cabinets, most regional governors, many senior military officers and officials of the Imperial court were imprisoned. In August, after a proposed constitution creating a constitutional monarchy was presented to the emperor, the Derg began a program of dismantling the imperial government in order to forestall further developments in that direction. The Derg deposed and imprisoned the emperor on 12 September 1974.

On 15 September, the committee renamed itself as the Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC) and took control of the government. The Derg chose Lieutenant General Aman Andom, a popular military leader and a Sandhurst graduate,[9] to be its chairman and acting head-of-state. This was pending the return of Crown Prince Asfaw Wossen from medical treatment in Europe, when he would assume the throne as a constitutional monarch. However, General Aman Andom quarreled with the radical elements in the Derg over the issue of a new military offensive in Eritrea and their proposal to execute the high officials of Selassie's former government. After eliminating units loyal to him — the Engineers, the Imperial Bodyguard and the Air Force — the Derg removed General Aman from power and executed him on November 23, 1974, along with some supporters and 60 officials of the previous Imperial government.[10]

Brigadier General Tafari Benti became both the new Chairman of the Derg and head of state, with Mengistu and Atnafu Abate as his two vice-Chairmen, both with promotions to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonels. The monarchy was formally abolished in May 1975, and Marxism-Leninism was proclaimed the ideology of the state. Emperor Haile Selassie died on 22 August 1975, while his personal physician was absent. It is commonly believed that Mengistu killed him, either ordering it done or by his own hand.[11]

Mengistu's leadership

After internal conflicts that resulted in the execution of General Tafari Benti and several of his supporters in February 1977, and the execution of Colonel Atnafu Abate in November 1977, Mengistu gained undisputed leadership of the Derg. In 1987, he formally dissolved the Derg and established the country as the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE) under a new constitution.

Many of the Derg members remained in key government posts and also served as the members of the Central Committee and the Politburo of the Workers' Party of Ethiopia (WPE). This became Ethiopia's civilian version of the Eastern bloc Communist parties. Mengistu became Secretary General of the WPE, President of the PDRE, while remaining Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.

Ethiopian Civil War

Derg party badge, c. 1979.

Opposition to the reign of the Derg was the cause of the Ethiopian Civil War. This conflict began as extralegal violence between 1975 and 1977, known as the Red Terror, when the Derg struggled for authority, first with various opposition groups, then with a variety of groups jockeying for the role of vanguard party. Though human rights violations were committed by both sides, the great majority of abuses against civilians as well as actions leading to devastating famine were committed by the government.[12]

Once the Derg had gained victory over these groups and successfully fought off an invasion from Somalia in 1977, it engaged in a brutal war against armed opponents. These groups included guerrillas fighting for Eritrean independence, rebels based in Tigray (which included the nascent Tigrayan Peoples' Liberation Front) and other groups that ranged from the conservative and pro-monarchy Ethiopian Democratic Union to the far leftist Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party. Under the Derg, Ethiopia became the Soviet bloc's closest ally in Africa and became among the best armed nations of the region as a result of massive military aid, chiefly from the Soviet Union, East Germany, Cuba and North Korea.

On 4 March 1975, the Derg announced a program of land reform, according to its main slogan of "Land to the Tiller," which "was unequivocally radical, even in Soviet and Chinese terms. It nationalized all rural land, abolished tenancy and put peasants in charge of enforcing the whole scheme."[13] Although the Derg gained little respect during its rule, this reform resulted in a rare show of support for the junta, as the Ottaways describe:

During a massive demonstration in Addis Ababa immediately following the announcement, a group of students broke through police and army barriers, climbed the wall and escarpment around Menelik Palace, and embraced major Mengistu as the hero of the reform.[14]

In addition, the Derg in 1975 nationalized most industries and private and somewhat secure urban real-estate holdings.

But, mismanagement, corruption and general hostility to the Derg's violent rule, coupled with the draining effects of constant warfare with the separatist guerrilla movements in Eritrea and Tigray, led to a drastic fall in general productivity of food and cash crops. In October 1978, the Derg announced the National Revolutionary Development Campaign to mobilize human and material resources to transform the economy, which led to a Ten-Year Plan (1984/85-1993/94) to expand agricultural and industrial output, forecasting a 6.5% growth in GDP and a 3.6% rise in per capita income. Instead, per capita income declined 0.8% over this period.[15] Famine scholar Alex de Waal observes that while the famine that struck the country in the mid-1980s is usually ascribed to drought, "closer investigation shows that widespread drought occurred only some months after the famine was already under way."[16] Hundreds of thousands fled economic misery, conscription and political repression and went to live in neighboring countries and all over the Western world, creating an Ethiopian diaspora for the first time.

Aid and controversy

The famine in the mid-1980s brought the political situation in Ethiopia to the attention of the world and inspired charitable drives in Western nations, notably by Oxfam and the Live Aid concerts of July 1985. The money they raised was distributed among NGOs in Ethiopia. A controversy arose when it was found that some of these NGOs were under Derg control or influence and that some Oxfam and Live Aid money had been used to fund the Derg's enforced resettlement programmes, under which they displaced millions of people and killed between 50,000 and 100,000.[17] A BBC investigation reported that rebels had used millions of pounds of aid to buy arms; these accusations were later fully retracted by the Corporation.[18]

End of the Derg

Tanks in the streets of Addis Ababa after rebels seized the capital

Although the Derg government officially came to an end 22 February 1987, three weeks after a referendum approved the constitution for the PDRE, it was not until that September the new government was fully in place and the Derg formally abolished.[19] The surviving members of the Derg, including Mengistu, remained in power as the leaders of the new civilian regime.

The geopolitical situations turned unfavourable for the communist government in the late 1980s, with the Soviet Union retreating from the expansion of Communism under Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika. Socialist bloc countries drastically reduced their aid to Ethiopia, struggling to keep their own economies going. This resulted in even more economic hardship, and the military gave way in the face of determined onslaughts by guerrilla forces in the north. The Soviet Union stopped aiding the PDRE altogether in December 1990. Together with the fall of Communism in the Eastern Bloc in the Revolutions of 1989, this was a serious blow to the PDRE.

Towards the end of January 1991, a coalition of rebel forces, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) captured Gondar, the ancient capital city, Bahar Dar and Dessie. Meanwhile, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front had gained control of all of Eritrea except for Asmara and Assab in the south. The Soviet Union, mired in its internal turmoil, could no longer prop up the Derg.[20] In the words of the former US diplomat Paul B. Henze, "As his doom became imminent, Mengistu alternated between vowing resistance to the end and hinting that he might follow Emperor Tewodros's example and commit suicide."[21] His actions were frantic: he convened the Shengo, the Ethiopian Parliament, for an emergency session and reorganized his cabinet, but as Henze concludes, "these shifts came too late to be effective."[21] On 21 May, claiming that he was going to inspect troops at a base in southern Ethiopia, Mengistu slipped out of the country to Kenya. From there he flew with his immediate family to Zimbabwe, where he was granted asylum and as of 2014 still resides.

Upon entering Addis Ababa, the EPRDF immediately disbanded the WPE and arrested almost all of the prominent Derg officials shortly after. In December 2006, 73 officials of the Derg were found guilty of genocide. Thirty-four people were in court, 14 others had died during the lengthy process, and 25, including Mengistu, were tried in absentia.[22] The trial ended 26 May 2008, and many of the officials were sentenced to death. In December 2010, the Ethiopian government commuted the death sentence of 23 Derg officials. On 4 October 2011, 16 former Derg officials were freed, after twenty years of incarceration. The Ethiopian government paroled almost all of those Derg officials who had been imprisoned for 20 years.


  • Aman Mikael Andom (September 12, 1974 – November 17, 1974)
  • Mengistu Haile Mariam (November 17, 1974 – November 28, 1974) (1st term)
  • Tafari Benti (November 28, 1974 – February 3, 1977)
  • Mengistu Haile Mariam (February 3, 1977 – September 10, 1987) (2nd term, acting to February 11, 1977)

PMAC Standing Committee (January 1985)

Mengistu Haile Mariam
Lt.-Col. Fikre Selassie Wogderess
Deputy Secretary-General
col Fisseha Desta
Military Affairs
Lt.-Gen. Tesfaye Gebre Kidan
Teka Tulu
Development and Planning
Addis Tedla
Party Organization
Legesse Asfaw
Administrative and Legal Affairs
Wubshet Dessie
Other members
Genesse Wolde-Kidan
Endale Tessema
Kassahun Tafesse
Birhanu Bayeh


  1. David A. Korn, Ethiopia, the United States and the Soviet Union, Routledge, 1986, page 179
  2. de Waal 1991.
  3. Bahru Zewde, 'The Military and Militarism in Africa: The Case of Ethiopia,' 269-70, citing Hall 1977, 115-119, in Hutchful and Bathily, 'The Military and Militarism in Africa,' CODESRIA, 1998, ISBN 2-86978-069-9
  4. Marina and David Ottaway, Ethiopia: Empire in Revolution (New York: Africana, 1978), p. 52
  5. 5.0 5.1 Bahru Zewde, 2000, p. 234
  6. See, for example, Richard Pankhurst, The Ethiopians: A History (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), p. 269.
  7. Aregawi Berhe, A Political History of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (Los Angeles: Tsehai, 2009), p. 127 and note. The sources he cites are both in Amharic: Zenebe Feleke, Neber (E.C. 1996), and Genet Ayele Anbesie, YeLetena Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam Tizitawoch (E.C. 1994)
  8. Zewde 1998, 280.
  9. Wrong, Michela (2005). I didn't do it for you. Harper Collins. p. 244. ISBN 0-06-078092-4. 
  10. Bahru Zewde 2001, 237f.
  11. See, for example, Paul Henze, 2000, p. 332n
  12. de Waal 1991, iv.
  13. Ottaway 1978, 67.
  14. Ottaway 1978, 71.
  15. Bahru Zewde 2001, 262f.
  16. de Waal 1991, 4.
  17. David Rieff (24 June 2005). "Cruel to be kind?".,16066,1513359,00.html. Retrieved 9 October 2011. 
  18. BBC Complaints (17 November 2010). "ECU Ruling: Claims that aid intended for famine relief in Ethiopia had been diverted to buy arms". BBC. Retrieved 9 October 2011. "Following a complaint . . . the BBC has investigated these statements and concluded that there was no evidence for them . . . The BBC wishes to apologise unreservedly" .
  19. Edmond J. Keller. "The 1987 Constitution". Ethiopia: A country study (Thomas P. Ofcansky and LaVerle Berry, editor). Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress of the USA (1991).  This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  20. Henze 2000, 322.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Henze 2000, 327f.
  22. Mengistu is handed life sentence, BBC News, 11 January 2007


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