Maybe because the past looks more interesting when the future is not
looking too good.
IN AMBO, a town in central Ethiopia, a teenage boy pulls a tatty photo
from his wallet. “I love him,” he says of the soldier glaring
menacingly at the camera. “And I love socialism,” he adds. In the
picture is a young Mengistu Haile Mariam, the dictator whose Marxist
regime, the Derg, oversaw the “Red Terror” of the 1970s and the
famine-inducing collapse of Ethiopia’s economy in the 1980s. Mr
Mengistu was toppled by rebels in 1991 before fleeing to Zimbabwe,
where he still lives. He was later sentenced to death, in absentia, for
But the octogenarian war criminal seems to be growing in popularity
back home, especially in towns and among those too young to remember
the misery of his rule. When Meles Zenawi, then prime minister, died in
2012, a social-media campaign called for Mr Mengistu to return. In the
protests that have swept through towns like Ambo since 2014, chants of
“Come, come Mengistu!” have been heard among the demonstrators.
Asked by Afrobarometer, a pollster, how democratic their country is,
Ethiopians give it 7.4 out of 10. They give the Derg regime a 1. Yet
even some of those old enough to remember life under Marxism are giving
in to nostalgia, admits a middle-aged professor at Addis Ababa
University. The coalition that ousted the Derg, the Ethiopian People’s
Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), introduced a system of
ethnically based federalism in 1995 that critics say favours the
Tigrayan minority. After bouts of ethnic violence, most alarmingly this
year, many now look back fondly on Mr Mengistu’s pan-Ethiopian
“The general perception is that whatever the Derg did was out of love
for the country,” explains Befekadu Hailu, a human-rights activist, who
is himself no fan. Mr Mengistu fought a victorious war against Somalia
in the 1970s, and waged a homicidal campaign against secessionists in
Eritrea, then a region of Ethiopia, for more than a decade. The EPRDF,
in contrast, oversaw the loss of Eritrea and with it access to the sea
when it allowed an independence referendum in 1993.
The Derg’s policies were ruinous: nationalising almost every firm;
forcing peasants at gunpoint onto collective farms, where they starved.
Mr Mengistu was also more brutal than any Ethiopian ruler before or
after. But the EPRDF is struggling to win the hearts of ordinary
Ethiopians. Its heavy-handed propaganda—which includes ideological
“training” for students and civil servants, and an annual celebration
of its victory over the Derg—are widely met with contempt.