Ethiopia: Red Terror and Famine

Introduction | Atrocities | Fatalities | Ending | Coding | Works Cited | Notes


In 1974, an array of Ethiopian opposition groups, most from the political left, overthrew Emperor Haile Salessie. Military leaders involved in the revolution quickly sought to consolidate their power–they abolished the monarchy and began eliminating political competitors. Mengistu Haile Mariam emerged as leader in February 1977 and intensified a crackdown against the opposition, initiating a period which became known as the “Red Terror.”

The primary targets of state-sponsored violence were members of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP).  The military regime argued that it reacted to EPRP provocations, including urban terrorism, assassinations of those who aligned with the military government, and an attempted assassination of Mengistu.[i]  Without question, the political opposition committed violence against state supporters and those who disagreed with the political agenda as defined by the opposition’s leadership.[ii] Nonetheless, state-sponsored violence preceded and eventually exceeded the violence committed by opposition groups.[iii]

Violence perpetrated by the government was conducted in collaboration with urban and rural dweller’s associations (kebeles), which had their own detention centers.[iv] Kebeles benefited from state authority but were not closely controlled, so local agendas and grievances—as well as tensions between local and regime interests—influenced the dynamics of violence at a micro-level.[v] During the same time period, several armed groups launched attacks against the state: in the north, two insurgencies developed, and, in the south, a Somali intervention was halted only with Soviet and Cuban aid.

One can roughly divide the violence against civilians during the longer period into three contexts. The effort to eliminate political opposition in the capital, Addis Ababa, is the best documented violence during this period. However, secondly, the Terror also extended to outlying regions. Counter-insurgency provided the third context for civilian deaths. There is significant overlap in the time period of these contexts and in the logic of the government’s use of violence, which was to eliminate opposition and consolidate control.

Atrocities, 1976 – 1985

An initial phase of violence began during the Revolution: for example, 61 former officials within the Imperial government were taken into custody and executed in 1974. However, the large-scale targeting of the civilian population, particularly members of the EPRP, began in September 1976. Some consider this period to be the first phase of the Red Terror. Factionalization and infighting within EPRP began, with some members opposed to assassination tactics and others joining the military regime. EPRP defectors provided inside information that facilitated the regime’s efforts to crush the group.[vi] The level of violence against EPRP increased significantly following Mengistu Haile Mariam’s rise to the head of the government on February 3, 1977, when he had his more moderate competitors within the military regime killed. In March and April, prominent EPRP members were killed, and house searches and disarmament efforts commenced.[vii] May Day, on April 29, 1977, represents a key peak in violence and marked the start of the first wave of intense mass killings, with at least 1,000 killed in a few days in Addis Ababa.[viii] Thousands were killed from the end of April to June, with major house searches occurring again in May.[ix] Bahru describes the period starting in May, 1977 as natsa ermejja, meaning “unrestricted license to kill,” with kebeles having full authority to kill suspects without question or a need to justify their actions.[x] By mid-summer, the EPRP in Addis Ababa was obliterated.[xi]

The regime then shifted its target from the EPRP to the All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement (commonly referred to as MEISON, its Amharic abbreviation), another political group that had previously allied withe the military government. Its members defected and went underground in August 1977.[xii] This wave of violence peaked in October 1977.[xiii] There remained some violence between MEISON and remnants of EPRP, although it is difficult to determine exactly who was responsible for which killings.[xiv] Another group, Abyotawit Seded (or, “Revolutionary Flame”), regime controlled and that reported to Mengistu, was also responsible for killing members of MEISON.[xv] By early 1978, the public displays of violence—with bodies left on the street, for instance—subsided and the regime resorted to more concealed use of violence, much of it in prisons that multiplied across Addis Ababa.[xvi] Red Terror had largely concluded in Addis Ababa by March of 1978, although lower levels of violence and detentions continued through 1978 and the violence was slower to decline in some areas in the rest of the country.[xvii]

Violence also occurred outside of the capital as part of the power consolidation and political repression of the Red Terror, although very little documentation of this violence exists. The regime perpetrated massacres in Gondar, Wollo, Gojjam, Tigray, and elsewhere throughout 1977.[xviii]  The Red Terror hit Tigray worse than any other region outside of Addis Ababa.[xix] The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was formed in 1975, after the short-lived Tigrayan National Organization (TNO) moved its base of operation to the countryside.[xx] In its first years, the TPLF concentrated on solidifying its support within Tigray and successfully defeating other opposition groups.[xxi]

The government began to commit mass atrocities in Tigray in 1977, as it sought to gain full control over the region by destroying the social and economic base of the TPLF.[xxii] Within Tigray, teachers were especially targeted for imprisonment.[xxiii] Regime officials killed 178 peasants in the town of Abi Adi in July 1977 simply because the area supported the TPLF.[xxiv] Mekelle, the capital of Tigray province, was especially harshly targeted.[xxv] Red Terror tactics had a significant impact on the TPLF within urban areas of Tigray, but ultimately, the Terror, along with other counterinsurgency tactics, served to alienate civilians from the government.[xxvi]

In 1978, after the government successfully pushed back the Somali invasion in southern Ethiopia, it turned its focus to eliminating the northern insurgency.[xxvii] Ongoing counterinsurgency tactics resulted in severe persecution of those from TPLF-sympathizing areas, with rape and arbitrary imprisonment common.[xxviii] There were five main government military offenses in Tigray in the 1970s: November 1976, June 1978, October-November 1978, March-April 1979, and May-June 1979.[xxix]

It is important to note the brutal effects of yet another tool at Mengistu’s disposal for controlling civilians and weakening opposition: famine. Crucial to the fate of Ethiopian civilians during under Mengistu’s reign were the famines in the south and north (1983 – 5). The devastating impact of the famines[xxx] for which Ethiopia would later become a global cause celebre was due in no small part to the failure of governmental policies, including broader agricultural policies, counter-insurgency and famine response. The famine in the north coincided with the war zone and government offensives and, Alex de Waal argues, should be understood as “a war crime”[xxxi] not only for the general destruction of civilian lives, food production capacities, and commerce, all of which amplified the effects of poor harvest, but more directly, hence incorporated into our study, by the policy of forced resettlement. In terms of impact on the civilian population, the government’s actions transformed poor harvest into massive famine.

Resettlement was portrayed as a key part of the government’s relief efforts, although it was in fact a component of their counterinsurgency strategy (similar resettlement programs had occurred in southeast Ethiopia and Eritrea). This blunt policy of “draining the sea to catch the fish” occurred in three phases: November 1984 – May 1985, October 1985 – January 1986, and November 1987 – March, 1988.[xxxii] Much of the resettlement was involuntary, with government representatives using coercion and deception to meet quotas in the north. Direct force was common in Tigray and northern Wollo. The resettlement camps were not equipped to meet the basic needs of the relocated. Many died of illness; lack of food, shelter, and water; and the absence of the tools and seeds needed to plant and survive on their livelihoods.[xxxiii] There was international pressure against the resettlement, and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was expelled after blowing the whistle on the abuses resulting from the resettlement in December of 1985.[xxxiv]


We use the figure of a minimum of 60,000 deaths for the period 1974 – 1985. This combines the commonly cited figure of 10,000 – 20,000 people killed as part of the Red Terror, acknowledging that the dearth of data, particularly from areas outside of Addis Ababa. It further includes an estimated 50,000 additional deaths directly resulting from government policy of forced resettlement during the famine in Tigray.

The best minimal estimate of fatalities in Addis Ababa during the Red Terror is 10,000.[xxxv] De Waal further argues for “a comparable number in the provinces in 1977 and 1978.”[xxxvi] There are no figures of the number of civilians killed specifically in Tigray as part of the Red Terror, although there is credible evidence of massacres. For the longer period of Mengistu’s rule, estimate vary widely: for example, Babile (1989), who compiled reports from Amnesty, Reuters, the Derg, survivors, and daily and nightly death rates and argues for an estimate of 150,000 deaths. However, Babile’s figure presumes the majority of those imprisoned were killed, a point disputed by other researchers.[xxxvii]

Overall, estimates suggest that 275,000 – 367,000 people died in the famine.[xxxviii] Additionally, 80,000 out of the 100,000 who died in camps should be added to the overall fatality figure.[xxxix] Half of those deaths can be attributed to human rights abuses committed by the government; the Derg’s military strategies caused the famine to hit one year earlier than it would have had the drought been the sole cause, and their policies caused it to spread to other regions and increase migration. de Waal calculates the number who died as a result of government abuses between 225,000 and 317,000.[xl]

Given the parameters of this study, however, we focus on the deaths caused by resettlement, when populations were directly under government control. Death rates during resettlement were six times the normal rate, while death rates during the famine were only three-and-a-half times the normal rate. Adding deaths caused by people trying to escape resettlement, as well as the fact that those resettled tended to be least vulnerable, with few elderly or children, de Waal gives a minimum estimate of 50,000 people killed specifically because of the resettlement figure, which is also the low estimate given by Clay and Holcomb.[xli]


Mengistu solidified his position with crucial military support from the Soviet Union, successful crushed political opposition. In Addis Ababa, the political opposition was completely dismantled. Violence declined in Addis Ababa in 1978; major offensives against Somali forces in the south ended in 1978; and the military offensives in the north were largely carried out 1980 – 1985. While the incomplete nature of the data makes it difficult to identify the precise year of the decline in lethal violence directed against civilians, 1985 appears to be a reasonable designation.

Ultimately, Mengistu was militarily defeat in 1991.


We code this case as ending ‘as planned,’ due to the primary perpetrator’s ability to consolidate control and elimination competitors. We further code for the moderating influence of international actors to account for the aid influx that by 1985, had contributed to some moderation of the resettlement policies and famine deaths.

Works Cited

Africa Watch.1991. “Evil Days: 30 Years of War and Famine in Ethiopia.” New York: Africa Watch, September. Available at:

Amnesty International. 1977. “Human Rights Violations in Ethiopia.” London: Amnesty International Report, 14 December.

Clapham, Christopher. 1988. Transformation and Continuity in Revolutionary Ethiopia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Clay, Jason W. and Bonnie K. Holcomb. Politics and the Ethiopian Famine 1984-1985. Cambridge: Cultural Survival, Inc., 1986.

de Waal, Alex. Evil Days: Thirty Years of War and Famine in Ethiopia. London: Africa Watch / Human Rights Watch, 1991.

de Waal, Alex. Famine Crimes: Politics & the disaster relief industry in Africa. London: James Currey, 1997.

Getahun, Solomon Addis. The history of Ethiopian immigrants in the United States in the twentieth century, 1900—2000. Dissertation. Michigan State University, 2005.

Inquai, Solomon. 1987. “Famine and Population Manipulation in Ethiopia,” Anthropology Today 3:1, 12-14.

Kiros, Gebre-Egziabher and Dennis Hogan. “The impact of famine, war, and environmental degradation on infant and early child mortality in Africa: the case of Tigrai, Ethiopia.” Genus, Vol. 56, No. 3/4 (December 2000), pp. 145-178.

LeFort, René. 1983. Ethiopia, an Heretical Revolution? London: Zed Press.

Marcus, David. Famine Crimes in International Law. The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 97, No. 2 (Apr., 2003), pp. 245-281.

Tareke, Gebru. 2009. The Ethiopian Revolution: War in the Horn of Africa. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Teffera, Hiwot. 2012. Tower in the Sky. Addis Ababa: Addis Ababa University Press.

Tola, Babile. 1989. To Kill a Generation: The Red Terror in Ethiopia. Free Ethiopia Press.

Vestal, Theodore M. 1991. “Risk Factors and Predictability of Famine in Ethiopia.” Politics and the Life Sciences, 9: 2, 187-203.

Young, John. 1997. Peasant Revolution in Ethiopia: The Tigray People’s Liberation Front, 1975-1991. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wiebel, Jacob. 2015. “ ‘Let the Red Terror Intensify’: Political Violence, Governance, and Society in Urban Ethiopia, 1976 – 78.” International Journal of African Historical Studies 48:1, 13 – 29.

Zewde, Bahru. 2009. “The History of the Red Terror: Contexts and consequences.” in Tronvoll, Kjetil, Charles Schaefer, and Girmachew Alumu Aneme, Eds. The Ethiopian Red Terror Trials. Suffolk: James Currey.


[i] Clapham 1988, 55-56; de Waal 1991, 102; Wiebel 2015.

[ii] Wiebel 2015; Teffera 2012.

[iii] Zewde 2009, 25.

[iv] Getahun 2005, 48.

[v] Wiebel 2015.

[vi] Zewde 2009, 26-27.

[vii] Chapman 1988, 56.

[viii] Zewde 2009, 27.

[ix] Clapham 1988, 56.

[x] Zewde 2009, 28-29.

[xi] de Waal 1991; Clapham 1988; Tola 1989.

[xii] de Waal 1991; Clapham 1988.

[xiii] de Waal 1991, 104.

[xiv] Clapham 1988, 57.

[xv] LeFort 1983, 222; Amnesty 1977, 6; Clapham 1988, 67-68.

[xvi] Wiebel 2015, 27.

[xvii] Clapham 1988, 57; de Waal 1991, 105; Wielbel 2015, 28.

[xviii] de Waal 1991b; Getahun 2005.

[xix] de Waal 1991, 108.

[xx] Young 1997, 85-87.

[xxi] Young 1997, 115; Tareke 2009, 85-89.

[xxii] de Waal 2010, 537.

[xxiii] Young 1997, 95-96.

[xxiv] Young 1997, 95-96.

[xxv] Kiros and Hogan 2000, 152.

[xxvi] Young 1997, 95.

[xxvii] Young 1997, 118.

[xxviii] Young 1997, 119.

[xxix] de Waal 1991, 63.

[xxx] de Waal (1991) notes that there were two famines one in the southeast and one in the north.

[xxxi] de Waal 1991, 115 – 117.

[xxxii] de Waal 1991, 211.

[xxxiii] Young 1997, 146.

[xxxiv] de Waal 1991, 211-7; de Waal 1997, 120.

[xxxv] Amnesty International 1977; Human Rights Watch 1991; de Waal 1991.

[xxxvi] de Waal 1991, 110.

[xxxvii] Zewde 2009.

[xxxviii] de Waal 1991, 173-6, 224-7.

[xxxix] de Waal 1991, 173-5.

[xl] de Waal 1991, 175-6.

[xli] de Waal 1991, 224-7; Clay and Holcomb, 1986, 102.

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