The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Book Review - Ethiopia in Mengistu's Final Years - Volume 1, The Derg in Decline

Paul B. Henze

Reviewer - Richard Snailham

Paul Henze’s first acquaintance with Ethiopia more or less coincided with mine. As younger men we went there in the 1960s, he as a diplomat, I as member of a couple of expedition teams. Then the correlation ended. I never wanted to hazard a visit there while Ethiopia under the Derg and Mengistu Haile Mariam succumbed to the baleful influence of Marxism and travel there became increasingly difficult (only easy for Russians, East Europeans and Cubans). Paul Henze, however, continued to have several opportunities between 1977 and the fall of the Derg. He seized them all.

President Carter first sent him there to try to moderate Mengistu’s Stalinist tendencies and again in 1978 to improve relations between the USA and Ethiopia. Both attempts failed. More amazingly than this, however, is the fact that as a private citizen after 1980, researching and writing about Ethiopia, Henze was able to make a series of seven more visits, accompanied each time by minders but nevertheless encouraged by the regime, to many parts of Ethiopia, including even war-torn Eritrea. His findings on these trips form the substance of this excellent book.

The first section — of 60 or so pages — is a general account of how the Derg came to power and quite soon got into difficulties both internal and external. The second section — the bulk of this first volume of two — is a record, based on his diaries, of the visits he made to Arsi, Harar, Kefa and Welega in 1984, 1987 and 1988.

Henze’s interests are primarily economic and his journeys were mostly to State Farms and Resettlement sites where his questioning of the apparatchiks was fair but relentless. It was clear that several of them, while mouthing socialist dogma, were privately disenchanted with Mengistu and his bureaucrats, who bombarded them with well-meaning but often wrong-headed directives. Where things were running well Henze gives them due credit, but his prevailing reaction is one of doubt, dismay, even sadness that such potential for prosperity in such a fertile land was never widely fulfilled.

He is an acute observer of other non-economic indicators of socialist folly as for example the proliferation of often tatty billboards with their banal political encouragements or the stern features of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mengistu; the pointless triumphal arches at the entrances to towns; and the idiocy of the villagization programme, which brought country-folk, generally against their will, from their isolated tukuls into regimented lines of dwellings, easily controlled by the Workers’ Party cadres but unhelpfully far from their fields, and very often still underprovided with schools and clinics.

Despite the continuing need for foreign food aid, on a scale almost paralleling today’s to Zimbabwe, the Derg’s apparatchiks parroted their hopeful statistics to suggest that all was well in the best of all possible worlds. I was reminded of my own experiences in China in the late 1970s where I sat in deep armchairs with mugs of green tea at my elbow and dutifully noted down the reams of meaningless production figures (probably bogus) which the Chairman of the Revolutionary Committee (Factory Manager to us) would trot out. Paul Henze suffered several such sessions at State Farms, Children’s Homes and the like and my only small cavil in an otherwise very informative and readable book is that he has included most of these mesmerising figures in the text.

Ethiopia in Megistu's Final Years - Volume 1, The Derg in Decline by Paul B. Henze, published by Shama Books, Addis Ababa, 2007.
Hardcover 295 pages

First Published in News File Summer 2008

Opinions expressed in the articles are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of the Society.
Information is offered in good faith but the Society does not warrant the status or reliability of the information contained.

© The Anglo-Ethiopian Society and Contributors 2003 - 2023