Rising through the ranks of the army, Mengistu was a leading figure in the group of officers that overthrew Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie in September 1974. Mengistu considered himself a socialist and sought to establish a people's republic. Elected chairman of the new ruling committee, or Derg, which made him the de facto chief of state, he achieved sole control of the government in February 1977 when he had his political rivals killed.
Mengistu ended the special relationship between Ethiopia and the United States, turning to the Soviet Union for support and aid. This assistance enabled him to consolidate his hold on power, crush a rebellion in Eritrea, and repel the Somali invasion of the Ogaden in 1978. Soviet support also enabled Mengistu to retain power during the turbulent 1980s, when a devastating famine in 1984 drew attention to his failed agricultural policies, rebellion in Eritrea and Tigray flared, and increasing internal unrest prompted challenges to his regime.
After 1989 and the end of the Cold War and termination of Soviet aid, Mengistu's hold on power weakened. Unable to meet the combined challenge of the Eritrean and Tigray People's Liberation Fronts, Mengistu fled into exile to Zimbabwe in May 1991. In 1994 a trial began in Addis Ababa of Mengistu and seventy-two of his former aides concerning the deaths of nearly 2,000 people in the 1977–1978 terror campaign. In a December 2006 verdict, Mengistu, sometimes known as the "Butcher of Addis Ababa," was found guilty (in absentia), as were all but one of the defendants.
Donna R. Jackson
Korn, David A. Ethiopia, the United States and the Soviet Union. London: Croom Helm, 1986.