Ginbot 20, the Fall of the Derg, and its historical and contemporary significance

Mekelle፡28 May 2024 (Tigray Herald)

Ginbot 20, the Fall of the Derg, and its historical and contemporary significance


May 28, 2024, also known as Ginbot 20, marks the 33rd anniversary of the fall of the Derg regime. Marking a pivotal moment in Ethiopian history, in May 1991, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of various Ethiopian liberation fronts, defeated the Derg army and took control of the capital Addis Ababa. The day symbolizes the triumph of the people over the oppressive Derg military dictatorship led by Mengistu Haile Mariam that ruled Ethiopia with an iron fist for 17 years. The overthrow of the Derg led to the establishment of a new government that promised democratic reforms and national reconstruction.

The commemoration of Ginbot 20 serves as a reminder of the sacrifices made by countless Tigrayans and other Ethiopians in their struggle for freedom and justice. It is a day to honor those who lost their lives and to reflect on the progress made since the regime’s downfall. For many, it also serves as a call to remain vigilant in safeguarding the freedoms and rights that were hard-won through decades of struggle. 

Though freedoms and human rights were violated under the EPRDF leadership as it moved away from its founding principles, the lessons learned from the state violence perpetrated by the Derg have been lost completely under the Abiy Ahmed administration. Since April 2018, the country has been once again ruled by an authoritarian leader who centralized power and is waging war in multiple regions of the country, among which has been a genocidal war on Tigray. Therefore, this Ginbot 20 commemoration is as important as ever in reminding us what it is that Ethiopia’s nations, nationalities, and peoples have long fought for and points to the need to establish inclusive, robust, and resilient governance systems. 

What the struggle that preceded Ginbot 20 was about 

The liberation fronts that constituted the EPRDF were united in their struggle against the Derg’s totalitarian and brutal rule, which caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people across Ethiopia. The Derg era was characterized by numerous atrocities, including the Red Terror (1976-1978), a violent campaign of terror unleashed against the Derg’s political opponents, most notably the members of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP). Tens of thousands of people were killed during the Red Terror, most of them the country’s youth and intelligentsia, often in gruesome and public ways. Additionally, the Derg instituted a policy of resettlement and villagization that forcefully displaced thousands of people from their homes. Human suffering grew worse in the 1980s when a devastating famine struck northern Ethiopia, especially the Tigray and Amhara regions. This famine was not only caused by drought and failed harvests but precipitated by the Derg’s mismanagement of the economy and its policies that prevented aid from reaching those affected by the famine. In the wake of this famine, an estimated one million people died. 

The Derg’s failed policies, authoritarianism, and brutality towards political dissidents fuelled mass mobilization of various nationally based nascent liberation fronts, including the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF),  and especially the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the various Eritrean fronts, such as the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). These groups took up arms to fight against the Derg’s tyrannical rule and bring about national liberation for the various groups in the Ethiopian state. Throughout the 1970s and even more so in the 1980s, the various liberation fronts, and especially the TPLF fought numerous fierce battles against Derg forces, registering important victories. 

Main battles and establishment of a transitional government  

The fall of the Derg in 1991 was marked by a series of strategic battles and events that culminated in the takeover of Addis Ababa and the establishment of a transitional government.

The strategic battles that ultimately led to the fall of the Derg included the Battle of Shire in 1989, where the TPLF decisively defeated government forces, and the Battle of Afabet in 1988, where the EPLF dealt a significant blow to government troops. These battles weakened the Derg’s hold on power and paved the way for further advances by opposition forces.

In 1991, as opposition forces closed in on Addis Ababa, the Derg’s grip on power began to slip. On May 28, 1991, opposition forces, including the TPLF as part of EPRDF, entered the capital, marking the end of the Derg’s rule. Mengistu Haile Mariam fled the country, and a transitional government was established, led by Meles Zenawi, the leader of the TPLF.

The takeover of Addis Ababa and the establishment of the transitional government marked a turning point in Ethiopian history. In July 1991, the Transitional Charter was officially adopted. This transitional charter introduced a series of political and economic reforms. The Charter established 14 administrative regions based on ethnic, language, and settlement patterns in Ethiopia (which was later revised to 11). This Charter stipulated the rights of nations and nationalities to self-determination, a principle that is echoed in the 1995 EPRDF constitution. Similarly, the EPRDF coalition also passed important economic reforms upon seizing power, among them limited liberalization of the Ethiopian economy. While under the Derg regime, peasants were forced to sell their produce to a state agency at a set price, following the 1991 Charter, they were allowed to sell their products on the market. These governance and economic reforms laid the foundation for the modern Ethiopian state and set the stage for the country’s transition to a more decentralized and inclusive system of government. 

The place of Ginbot 20  in Tigrayan history

Ginbot 20 holds a special place in Tigrayan history for several different reasons. First, and most importantly, it marked the end of the Derg’s brutal reign. This reign was characterized by countless atrocities against various peoples across the country but was especially bloody in Tigray, where the Derg targeted civilians in its attempt to stifle the people’s resistance. In particular, the latter years of the Derg reign brought death and destruction to many parts of Tigray, as the civilian populations suffered the brunt of the regime’s military activities. Ginbot 20, and the overthrow of the Derg government, brought an immediate end to these atrocities, freeing the people of Tigray and of Ethiopia more broadly. Especially among those who lived through the Derg years, saw and experienced its atrocities, or were forced to flee Tigray, Gibot 20 signaled the end of immense suffering. 

Another reason Ginbot 20 occupies a special place in Tigrayan history is because of the indispensable role that Tigrayan fighters played in toppling the Derg government. The Tigrayan resistance, and in particular, the TPLF, played the most important role in leading and directing the military missions that undermined and eventually defeated Derg, culminating in the takeover of Addis Ababa in May 1991. Tigrayan fighters, families, and communities paid the highest cost in these missions, sacrificing everything to ensure liberation for themselves and other oppressed nations in Ethiopia. Estimates are that between 67,000 and 70,000 TPLF fighters made the ultimate sacrifice. Making alliances with other armed groups under the auspices of the EPRDF, Tigrayan fighters led the charge in removing the Derg from the Ethiopian political arena. In so doing, Tigrayans were continuing their long tradition of resistance to subjugation that has characterized their history. Just as Tigrayans rose up in arms to resist imperial subjugation and oppression during the First Woyane uprising in 1943, another generation of Tigrayan fighters arose to fight the Derg’s military dictatorship, culminating in Ginbot 20. 

Finally, as highlighted above, Ginbot 20 ushered in a new era in Ethiopian politics, one in which the rights of the various nations and nationalities living in the country were written into law. For the first time in the country’s history, the rights of nations and nationalities to full self-administration were formally articulated. While the implementation of this system has faced significant challenges, the protection of nations and nationalities’ right to self-determination was a hard-won victory for Tigrayans and other nations within Ethiopia. In all, Tigrayans celebrate Ginbot 20 not only to commemorate the removal of a brutal regime but also to remember the immense sacrifices of those who fought against an oppressive regime and sought to establish a freer, more open, and more inclusive future for Ethiopia.

Ginbot 20 and the Tigray Genocide 

Tigray bore the brunt of the Derg regime’s violence and death outside of Addis Ababa, given the threat the TPLF posed to the regime. In fact, specifically referencing the TPLF and Tigray, Mengistu once said, “’To kill the fish, drain the pond.”  Therefore, as the genocidal war on Tigray erupted after Tigray was invaded on November 4, 2020, parallels began to emerge between the rhetoric of the Derg era and the hate speech and atrocities that were unleashed on Tigray after 2020, though the latter was on a much larger scale and a more systematic manner. The atrocity crimes committed by Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara forces during the genocidal war – which included massacres, weaponized sexual violence, famine, and wholesale destruction – were reminiscent of the Derg era when such tactics were employed by the Derg, the most notable mass atrocities being the Hawzien and Abi Adi massacres. Moreover,  the ethnic profiling and targeting of Tigrayans in all parts of Ethiopia echoed the ethnic profiling campaign of the Derg era. 

Unfortunately, the lessons learned from this very violent period of Ethiopian history, in which 10,000-20,000  young people were killed during the Red Terror and hundreds of thousands were killed by weaponized starvation, were not well enough documented and incorporated into the country’s political and social fabric. The pain and trauma of that era faded with a generation lost to death and displacement. As the genocidal war on Tigray raged on, the Abiy administration and his allies unleashed countless atrocities with public support, some of which included people who yearned for Ethiopia to return to the “glory days” of the Derg and even imperial Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s population is a very young one, of which 40% is under the age of 15 and 67% is under 65. Without documentation and efforts to embed lessons learned in the group psyche, such atrocities are bound to repeat themselves. Unfortunately, this has been the case in Abiy Ahmed’s Ethiopia. Emblematic of the disconnect between Ethiopia’s generation and the degradation of what the Derg era meant for Ethiopians was the shattered glass of the Red Terror’s Martyr Museum in Addis Ababa, destroyed amidst police clashes in May 2022.  

Connections to Ethiopia’s history and memorialization of mass atrocities are important pieces of the puzzle to ensure long-term peace and stability, as is justice and accountability for crimes committed, which has largely remained elusive for the victims of the Derg as Mengistu remains free in Zimbabwe. Therefore, as we commemorate this Ginbot 20 in 2024, we honor and remember all those martyred in a struggle for freedom and against oppression, whether that be during the Derg era or today, as Tigray continues to face a silent genocide and human rights abuses take place across the country. As we remember what Ginbot 20 signifies, it is a time of hope for peace and freedom from oppression for all of Ethiopia’s nations and nationalities.  

Source፡Omna Tigray

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