Mengistu’s Oromo father, Haile Mariam Wolde Ayana, was born in Furii, the then 8 km west of Addis Ababa (now in Addis Ababa due to the city’s growth). He was in the service of the Shewan landowner Afenegus Eshete Geda, who had encountered him while he was on a hunting expedition in the administrative district of Gimira and Maji, then under the governorship of Dejazmach Taye Gulilat. He later became an enlisted man in the Ethiopian army.] Afenegus Eshete Geda was the half-brother of Dejazmach Kebede Tessema’s wife, Woizero Yitateku Kidane, and it was through this connection that Mengistu’s parents are alleged to have met. Unsubstantiated accounts allege that Mengistu’s mother was the illegitimate daughter of Dejazmach Kebede Tessema, a high ranking nobleman and Crown Councilor to Emperor Haile Selassie, and himself suspected of being the illegitimate son of Emperor Menelik II. These rumors of Mengistu being the grandson of Dejazmach Kebede are widely believed, but have never been confirmed by either Mengistu himself or by the late nobleman’s family.
Mengistu was born on 21 May 1937 in Wolayita or Kaffa Province. His mother died during childbirth when Mengistu was only 8 years old. After the death of his mother, Mengistu and his two siblings went to live with their grandmother for a few years. He then came back to live with his father and soon after joined the army at a very young age. Mengistu’s father was very proud of his son’s achievements, though some people believe the Ethiopian popular account that states that his family was far from proud of his political accomplishments.
Mengistu followed his father and joined the army, where he attracted the attention of the Eritrean-born general Aman Andom, who raised him to the rank of sergeant and assigned him duties as an errand boy in his office. Mengistu graduated from the Holetta Military Academy, one of the two important military academies of Ethiopia. General Aman then became his mentor, and when the General was assigned to the commander of the Third Division took Mengistu with him to Harar, and later was assigned as Ordnance officer in the 3rd division. A few years before his departure for training to the US he was in conflict with the then 3rd Division commander General Haile Baykedagn whose policy of strict discipline and order did not sit well with Mengistu. At the time, the Ordnance group was offered military technical training support in the US. Despite his disapproval of Mengistu’s insubordination and disrespect, the General was obliged to release him and Mengistu went for a six-month training program in Maryland, United States. Returning after his training, he was expected to command the Ordnance Sub-division in Harar. Years later, Mengistu would murder General Haile Baykedagn along with the 60 ministers and generals.
While studying in the United States, Mengistu experienced racial discrimination, which led him to a later strong anti-American sentiment. He equated racial discrimination in the United States with the class discrimination in Ethiopia. When he took power, and attended the meeting of Derg members at the Fourth Division headquarters in Addis Ababa, Mengistu exclaimed with emotion:
In this country, some aristocratic families automatically categorize persons with dark skin, thick lips, and kinky hair as “Barias” (Amharic for Slave)… let it be clear to everybody that I shall soon make these ignoramuses stoop and grind corn!
Bahru Zewde notes that Mengistu was distinguished by a “special ability to size up situations and persons”. Although Bahru notes that some observers “rather charitably” equated this ability with intelligence, the academic believes this skill is more akin to “street smarts“: “it is rather closer to the mark to see it as inner-city smartness (or what in local parlance would be called aradanat).”
The latest report showed that Mengistu has an interest to return to Ethiopia as long as the government is able to provide him security.
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