Mengistu Hailé Mariam was born in 1937 in Walayata in Ethiopia. His father was a soldier and his mother a household servant .As a young man, he joined the Army and graduated from the Military Academy in 1966.
In 1974, Mengistu was one of the officers who overthrew the Emperor Hailé Sellasié during a coup fomented by the Derg, a Marxist style revolutionary junta which then took over power. In 1977, Mengistu became Head of State and the uncontested leader of the Derg.
His years in power were marked by a totalitarian style of government and a massive military build up in the country, backed notably in this respect by the Soviet Union. From 1977 to 1978 tens of thousands of suspected Derg opponents were tortured or killed during a huge purge, which came to be called the “Red Terror”
His government, notably, was forced to contend with periods of full scale drought and with the disastrous famine of 1984-1985. Furthermore uprisings broke out in the country’s northern province of Eritrea which became independent in 1993. The Eritrean rebels invaded Addis Ababa in 1991 and ultimately overthrew the regime
Mengistu was forced to flee Ethiopia first of all to Kenya, and then afterwards to Zimbabwe together with numerous other members of the Derg. He obtained political asylum in Zimbabwe and has been living there ever since, despite attempts by Ethiopia to have him extradited.
The Derg’s seventeen years in power were witness to numerous human rights violations: the murder of around sixty leading figures in the Emperor’s inner circle in 1974, the execution of hundreds of young people just before the first of May festivities in 1975 and 1976, the “Red Terror” campaign of the years 1977-1979 during which thousands of opponents to the regime were murdered, the forced displacement of thousands of farmers in the eighties , the use of napalm and fragmentation bombs against civilians in the rebel regions and the recourse to famine as a weapon of war.
According to estimates, the Derg was responsible for the death of more than half a million civilians. Based on some other sources, however the number of victims was certainly much higher.
On 13 December 1994, the name of Mariam Mengistu Hailé appeared on a long list of individuals who were put under indictment, notably, for the crime of genocide.