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A bitter anniversary

Remembering the African communist revolution that led to starvation


Ethiopian militia salute during a mass rally in Addis Ababa on Feb. 16, 1978. Associated Press

A bitter anniversary
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This spring marks the 50th anniversary of a communist revolution that some readers may not know much about. It occurred in a country that was the former Soviet Union’s closest ally in Africa, as well as the longest established communist regime on that continent.

Ethiopia’s communist revolution was led by a group with a villainous-sounding name—the “Derg,” which imposed the principles of Marxist-Leninism. Beginning in 1974 the Derg could have seen and avoided the disastrous economic, agrarian, and fiscal impact of communist ideology in the Soviet Union and China. Instead, they accepted the communist playbook from A to Z.

Following the coup d’état that started the revolution in Ethiopia, the Derg abolished religious freedom, despite the fact that Ethiopia had a highly religious population and that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, in particular, was an important social institution. Indeed, it was directly due to the pride of place in Ethiopian life and history that the church had, that it was immediately caught in the crosshairs of the Derg. The other institutions of civic life, such as a free economy, private property ownership, and the rule of law, all came under assault. Ethiopia’s long-time monarchy, freedom of the press, the right to assemble, and the right to private ownership of land, as well as other fundamental freedoms were all put on the chopping block.

The draconian measures that the leaders of the Derg were willing to take to subjugate their own citizens resulted in years of civil war as many different groups resisted the regime’s policies. This ultimately resulted in the breakaway and formation of a new country, Eritrea, and long-lasting rivalries that we’ve seen re-erupt in recent years, in the Tigray region and among Ethiopia’s Oromo population.

Ethiopia’s communists utilized the typical revolutionary tactics, beginning with burning down the old institutions of society by what Lenin called an “elite vanguard,” then imposing a new structure from the top-down. The Derg expected absolute allegiance, so other forms of loyalty, such as religious faith or allegiance to Ethiopia’s king and constitution, were signs of disloyalty.

Famine is a weapon of war used repeatedly by communists and their regimes.

Therefore, it was not surprising that within less than a decade after the Derg took drastic measures to enforce communism, including some loss of private property and changing policies toward agriculture and government intervention, that the people of Ethiopia were facing famine. As Human Rights Watch’s Alexander de Waal has reported, such policies and the deliberate use of starvation and famine tactics preceded, but were exacerbated by, the drought of 1983-85.

In 1985, as people around the world were moved by photos of starving children and the song, “We are the World,” governments rushed aid to try to save lives. But few citizens in London, Sydney, or Los Angeles realized that the government in Addis Ababa was a communist regime ruling according to the same ideology as Moscow.

Famine is a weapon of war used repeatedly by communists and their regimes. Induced famine was a deliberate policy used by Vladimir Lenin in 1922. Lenin’s successor, Stalin, used the same “weapon” of famine against the people of Ukraine a few years later, resulting in 6 million Ukrainian deaths (the Holodomor). Mao’s infamous “Great Leap Forward” caused the largest man-made famine in human history, with 40 million deaths. The Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia killed millions more, starting with farmers. Both Cuba and North Korea experienced devastating hunger when they lost Soviet funding in the early 1990s. Communist regimes have a terrible track record of either failing to feed their people or using famine as a way to attack their own people.

As we look back 50 years to the beginning of Ethiopia’s communist scourge, we have to ask ourselves whether the disastrous lessons of Ethiopia’s communist regime have been learned by other countries—especially those that have since taken up hard Left politics based on Marxist-Leninist principles?

In the case of Ethiopia, the communist takeover resulted in the death of millions of citizens due to famine and violence. We should stand against future attempts to impose this bankrupt ideology elsewhere.


Eric Patterson

Eric Patterson is president and CEO of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C., and past dean of the School of Government at Regent University. He is the author or editor of more than 20 books, including Just American Wars, Politics in a Religious World, and Ending Wars Well.


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