In recent years we have begun to see some of Africa’s most notorious warlords being brought to trial – notably Charles Taylor and Thomas Lubanga. It now also appears that there is at least some chance one of the continent’s bloodiest tyrants – Mengistu Haile Mariam – will finally face justice.
As Chairman of the Derg and later President of Ethiopia, Mengistu presided over what Human Rights Watch called “one of the most systematic uses of mass murder by a state ever witnessed in Africa” – the Red Terror of 1976-78, in which as many as half a million political opponents may have been killed (sometimes by Mengistu himself).
Mengistu was convicted in absentia of Genocide in 2006 by Ethiopia’s High Court and sentenced to life imprisonment, though last year this sentence was overturned and the death penalty imposed. The court held that the definition of Genocide included the intent to wipe out political, not just ethnic groups, apparently in accordance with Ethiopian law.
The sentencing was until recently considered a symbolic gesture, as it was believed that Robert Mugabe, who has been Mengistu’s host in Zimbabwe since 1991, would never allow extradition to take place. However, it now appears that the wheels of justice might finally be turning. According to The Times:
For 17 years Mengistu Haile Mariam, the former Ethiopian dictator who slaughtered opponents on an industrial scale in the “Red Terror”, has lived in Zimbabwe as the honoured guest of Robert Mugabe, dividing his time between a heavily guarded villa in Harare, a farm near the capital and a retreat on glorious Lake Kariba…
[But now] the future of one of Africa’s worst tyrants looks less assured. Next week the Zimbabwe opposition Movement for Democratic Change will enter a unity government with Zanu (PF) and Nelson Chamisa, its chief spokesman, told The Times yesterday that Mengistu’s extradition to Ethiopia would be “high on the agenda” of that new administration.
“Zimbabwe should not be a safe haven or resting place for serial human rights violators like Mr Mengistu,” he said. “We can’t shelter purveyors of injustice.”
This is a rare instance of an African dictator facing justice in his own country for his crimes, and Ethiopia is to be applauded for having the wherewithal to carry out both the trial and the sentencing. One hopes that the Zimbabwean political leadership will now have sufficient courage to follow through on the MDC’s promise.