Born in Adwa, Tigray region, in the early 1940s, Fisseha Desta (Lt. Col.) attended his elementary education at Nigiste Saba School in his hometown and his secondary education at Agazi School in Adigrat. He moved to Addis Ababa in 1947 and enrolled at Kotebe Secondary School and later joined the then Haile-Selassie I Military Academy (later known as Harar Military Academy) in 1952. Three years later, he joined Kibur Zebegna (Imperial Bodyguard) and was specifically assigned at the Emperor’s Palace which gave him an opportunity to observe palace activities up close. He later received advanced military trainings in the US. By the time the revolution of the 1974 broke, he was studying law at Addis Ababa University School of Law (then Haile-Selassie I University). The revolution brought Derg, which promulgating itself as the Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC), to power and Fisseha became a member of the politburo. After the formation of the Workers' Party of Ethiopia and the establishment of the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, Fisseha served as deputy to former President Mengistu Hailemariam (Col.). After serving a 20-year jail term for convictions on crimes against humanity for the atrocities of the 17-year Derg regime, Fisseha, along with other former Derg officials, was released from jail in 2011 on parole. Following the launch of his long-awaited book titled ‘The Revolution and My Reminiscences’, Yemane Nagish of The Reporter caught up with the former Derg official and Vice President of Ethiopia for an exclusive interview. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Have you played any role during the revolutionary days of the early 1970s?
Fisseha Desta: At the time I was studying law at the Addis Ababa University School of Law. I was a military officer then, which meant we had strict orders to avoid politics and simply focus on our education only. Other than being a mere observer we were not able to play any meaningful role because we were also closely monitored. But I occasionally go out of campus and talk to my friends at Kibur Zebegna to assess the situation. I used to meet with some soldiers and low rank officials underground. All of us believed that there needs to be a regime change. I may not be an active player, but I was anti-feudal like every youth at the time. When the revolution broke, I was picked by fellow soldiers to represent the Third Brigade when Arategna Kifle Tor (Fourth Military Division) was established.
How come you were picked to represent the Third Brigade while you were not an active player?
The soldiers under my command had a lot of faith in me because of my leadership [capabilities] and the trainings I gave them. In fact, I initially refused. But they insisted I represent them. I can say it was bordering on the forceful. It was difficult to predict where the revolution was heading but I could not refuse the responsibility they bestowed on me. It was a difficult time and I thought I could play some role in resolving some issues.
Now that you have seen three regimes, what are your thoughts about the Haile-Selassie regime in hindsight?
It is a feudal system which was backward even compared to countries in Africa, let alone the rest of the world. The land system, the level of illiteracy, backwardness and so on were the weaknesses of the regime. On the other hand, the Emperor had some qualities. He was highly regarded in Africa and the rest of the world. But internally the country was entangled in economic problems, unemployment, illiteracy and the land tenure system. When I look back, I see the strengths and weaknesses of the regime. However, the regime failed to rectify its weaknesses in time. Also, instead of an absolute monarchy, the emperor could have established a constitutional monarchy to ensure its survival. It was a lost opportunity. Besides, it was a time that socialism was gaining prominence not just in Ethiopia but around the world. The feudal system was doomed to collapse because the young and the progressive were eager to introduce a socialist system.
Socialism was spreading like wildfire at the time. And you still seem to hold a firm belief in this ideology. Are you of the view that the faults were in the manner it was implemented?
I do believe socialism is the way to go. It is a good system that stands for the exploited mass. [Karl] Marx says socialism should come after capitalism. But I do not agree with that. As [Vladimir] Lenin said, backward countries, with the help of socialist countries, can establish a socialist system through national democratic revolutions. However, there were many shortcomings to that. The problem occurred when individuals began to exploit the system for their own personal gains. That is when the system began to go off the road. In addition, the democratic aspect of socialism is very loose. Democracy and socialism should be intertwined. How to do that may require a lot of work. But in my view, social democracy has a huge benefit. It ensures public participation as well as democracy, equality and the rule of law. That is my preference and many countries, including Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, follow this system.
Let us talk about your book. What was your objective when you set out to write this book? There are many similar books out there including the ones by Fikreselassie Wogderess (Capt.) and Mengistu Hailemariam (Col.). What new perspective or information do you think your book adds?
I decided to write this book so that young people would know and learn from our struggle, our shortcomings and strengths. I was at the forefront of the revolution and I believe that I have an obligation to tell this generation what I know. My other objective is to apologize for all the wrongs we did as progressive and young military officers at the time so that this country comes to a genuine reconciliation so that it moves forward.
Indeed your book is the first to begin with an apology from other books written by former senior Derg officials. Many people have appreciated the gesture during the book’s launching ceremony. What impact would this bring to the polarized and often heated discussions regarding the politics of the 1970s and 80s?
We have had some good things as well as some bad ones. To apologize for the wrong things, I believe, is the right thing to do. It might have started with me but I do not think it should end here. Others, who wronged the people, should also apologize. But some people may not want to do so. But I do what I believe is right. Every political organization that was in operation at the time has done some wrong unless it is a case of denying the fact that you are wet while swimming. Yes there is still political extremism. But how long are we going to continue like that? Can we not take a moment and reconcile? Should the young inherit such hatred and vengeance? I do not think so. Yes, in the past we have exchanged fire but times have changed. It is wrong to follow the same course. The world is leaving us behind. The South Africans had their national reconciliation; but we are still arguing. This has to stop.
What is national reconciliation for you?
In my view, national reconciliation is not about power sharing arrangement. There is a constitutional order to assume power. Blood was shed everywhere. If you erect a [memorial] monument for one, there is no reason you should not for the other. There is a memorial for Red Terror victims but mothers who lost their children because of White Terror are still crying. There were wrongs done by the Derg but the EPRP (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party) and Meison (All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement) should also share the blame. So what is better is national reconciliation. We need to be tolerant to one another and be able to sit around the table to resolve our problems.
Since when would you say you developed this view of reconciliation? Is it while you were serving your term in prison or is it after you came out or was there a particular instance?
During my days in prison I had the chance to talk to many people who participated in the revolution. I had the opportunity to evaluate and asses what was done. I acknowledged that there were wrongs done. That is how I came to this conclusion.
For many people the Derg is associated with brutality, murder and distraction and there is little acknowledgement for anything else. You are saying there are some good deeds carried out by the regime. Tell us about those?
First of all, the land reform proclamation [the law nationalized rural land without compensation, abolished tenancy, among other changes] cannot be taken lightly. It was not an easy thing to do but it brought political, economic and social changes in Ethiopia. It was a groundbreaking reform which introduced a sense of equality for the first time in Ethiopia. Farmers and women were beneficiaries. Secondly, it is the meserete timhirt program [the national literacy campaign]. It is difficult to introduce socialism in a country where 93 percent of the population is illiterate. Because the government worked hard under this program, the level of illiteracy declined to 36 percent. This effort was recognized by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) on more than one occasion. In addition, had it not been for the nationalization of urban land by the Derg it would not have been easy for this government to carry out its urban development activities. That probably would have instigated another revolution. Also, although embroiled in many wars, the Derg has set up many factories, including textile factories in Hawassa, Kombolcha and Arba Minch, as well as hydroelectric dams like Melka Wakena, Fincha expansion and Tana Beles. Defense Industry Commission at Gafat was set up and there was a time that we were manufacturing about ten thousand guns a year. There were also many development projects whose studies were finalized but did not take off the ground because of financial constraints. For instance, there were studies on a ring road, a train stretching from Assab to Addis Ababa. But there were financial constraints because the regime was embroiled in a war. One cannot deny what is done but what one can do is to build on that.
When you say “build on that” what kind of Ethiopia would you like to see built?
Any Ethiopian would like to see a prosperous Ethiopia free from illiteracy. A nation where there is prevalence of the rule of law, democracy and freedom, including freedom of expression and the mass media.
How about in terms of the state structure? Are you concerned that the current federal system would fail?
That is a very tough question. This was an issue that divided the then student movement in two camps. One said that not addressing the question of nations and nationalities is the major problem in Ethiopia. The other held the view that the problem is a class issue. The former organized themselves under ethnic lines and the latter were nationalists. These views still exist to this day. Time and history will resolve it. It is difficult for me to predict whether this would unify or fragment us. I have to further evaluate it. To state my opinion in this regard would be premature.
You were talking about the need for national consensus. How can that be achieved when opinion on these issues are divided?
When you talk of national consensus, it presupposes issues like what sort of system we should put in place in Ethiopia. In my view, no ethnic group in Ethiopia oppressed another group. It was a class problem. It was the ruling elite in the interest of preserving their grip on power that people were oppressed. They built a system with the aim of consolidated their power. This generation should not be made to pay for that.
Some say the murder of General Aman Andom was one factor that served the secession of Eritrea while others associate it with the failed coup of May 16. What is your view?
I view the two incidents separately. General Aman Andom had a huge acceptance by the people of Eritrea. Shabia [now Eritrean government] was strongly opposed to General Aman because the public’s support for him was disadvantageous to their struggle. On many occasions they have tried to get rid of him. The general had the support of Sudan and other Arab countries to resolve the issue of Eritrea. This is one lost opportunity. The murder of General Aman by the Derg ended a peaceful resolution of the Eritrean issue. The May 16 attempted coup is a different story. Was it sensible to attempt a coup in 1988? The war was at a heightened state. It was a time our forces were defeated in Tigray and at Afabit in Eritrea. For whose benefit was the coup attempted? It is naïve to say the coup was attempted to bring about a political solution. Shabia saw two opportunities in the attempted coup. If the plotters succeeded, Shabia benefits from the internal squabble. At least it buys them time until the situation stabilizes. And if the coup was averted and the plotters got rid off, it weakens the government and that also benefits Shabia. And that is what exactly happened. There were a lot of generals and military officers who conspired to carry out the coup. They were all either killed or they disappeared. To the contrary, TPLF (Tigray People's Liberation Front) was opposed to the coup and did not collaborate.
What is the reason?
They should be the ones to tell you that. Maybe they could not predict what comes out of a new government. I believe they did not see the point of replacing a military dictatorship with another military dictatorship.
Do you agree with the position TPLF took by seeing it from their perspective?
From their point of view, it was the right thing to do. From our perspective it was not.
There were successive negotiations between senior officials of Derg and Shabia. That has put some strains on relations between Shabia and TPLF. Tell us about those negotiations How it started and how it ended?
To start with, there was no good faith from both sides. Shabia cools down its interest in the negotiations when it gains the upper hand in its military operations and vice versa. Quiet negotiations were held with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Germany, Italy and Yemen doing the mediations at different times. However, agreements could not be reached. Finally, there were attempts to incorporate in the constitution the right to special regional autonomy for Shabia and TPLF. But it never materialized. Indeed, there were some mistrust between Shabia and TPLF.
We understand now that Shabia and TPLF have different organizational structure and strategy with the Derg being a common enemy. It is clear when TPLF was established it received a support from Shabia. And many still believe that TPLF is the making of Shabia. How did the Derg view the two groups back then?
Within the Derg there was one strategy. Especially the president [Mengistu Hailemariam] viewed Shabia as the main threat for Ethiopia. He believed every other group was the making of Shabia and that these groups will disappear if Shabia is decimated. He also believed the TPLF movement will not get the support of the people of Tigray because this is part of Ethiopia and will not secede. Therefore, his [Mengistu’s] whole focus was on Shabia. That is why the negotiations were held with Shabia and not with TPLF. Only once I was instructed to communicate with TPLF and that did not go anywhere. The source of all the war was deemed to be Shabia. So, if Shabia is decimated, the others would die a natural death was the belief. Whether that strategy was right or wrong is debatable.
Although that was the belief, TPLF played a crucial role in preventing Shabia’s complete decimation, for example, at Sahel Mountains fighting alongside them.
Of course! Who quashed many of the battles during the Key Kokeb Zemecha (Red Star Campaign)? TPLF deployed three brigade force which changed the course of the war. Shabia was packing their bags at the time. They were planning to flee to Sudan and become guerrilla fighters. It was TPLF that prevented that. Some people may deny this but there are historical evidences. Was that because the two groups share similar ideological standpoints? It was the Derg that was a common enemy. In fact, when the Derg opened holding negotiations with Shabia, we knew there were many disagreements within the TPLF.
In your book you said Mengistu Hailemariam was a man who loved his country until the time he fled. What is the measure of a man who loves his country? Mengistu was the man presiding at the helm of a nation in the midst of all that bloodshed and distraction. And eventually he fled his country, unlike Emperors Tewodros II or Yohannes IV. He also made some remarks which had the potential of inciting one people against another mainly along ethnic lines.
I have said in my book that his populist views slowly degraded and he became more and more a dictator. He began to worry only about his power. At first he had a populist stance. He showed that during the land reform or the literacy campaign. But later he ruined it. I have also written those inciting remarks in my book. I also said he was a man who loved his country but who was also selfish. Loving ones country means having a populist view. We might be held accountable for not providing political solutions but we did not start the persecutions and murders. Shabia or TPLF are not our creations. It was they who rebelled. It is clear who started the Red Terror or White Terror. You cannot deny his [Mengistu’s] populist views or his love for his country because people died as a result of this. He played a major role in easily quashing the invasion of Ethiopia by Somalia. That was because he loved his country. But in the end, he loved himself. I do not see contradictions in that.
You said he ruined it later. He also fled the country. Now when you look back, doesn’t that defeat the whole notion of a man who loves his country?
Until that moment, I believed he was a man who loved his country. So when I said he later ruined it the conclusion is that he was a man who did not love his country.
Would you say he was an absolute dictator?
You can say that because he was the president, the commander-in-chief of the army and chairman of the Workers' Party of Ethiopia. Every organ was under his control and that is what absolutism is.
From his book, Mengistu still seems to show non-repentance. Why do you think we are not seeing that?
I would have to be in his shoes to understand that. There are all kinds of people. It is this stubborn position of his that led to our downfall. He still maintains that he would not negotiate with separatists. He still maintains that. Of course you negotiate with those who are opposed to you, not with your followers. It is because of his stubborn views that we did not succeed in bringing about political solutions.
Some say that dictatorship is not the work of one man alone. You were one of those individuals in the inner circle. You were the vice president. What have you done to tame Mengistu’s dictatorship? Is there anything you regret not doing?
To start with, the system was ideal for dictatorship. It was a single party system. And that one party follows a socialist ideology. But that is not to say we did not support his [Mengistu’s] ways. We were together short of some steps. But things started changing and it reached a point where there is nothing one can do. This was the case not just in Ethiopia but in other countries as well.