Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Beneath the Lion's Gaze

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Beneath the Lion's Gaze

A Novel

by Maaza Mengiste

Beneath the Lion's Gaze by Maaza Mengiste
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2010, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2011, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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The 1974 Ethiopian Revolution
Ethiopia was a monarchy until 1974, ruled by a dynasty that can be documented back to the 13th century, and claimed by oral tradition to trace its lineage to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Emperor Haile Selassie I, born in 1892, was the country's last emperor, beginning his rule as regent in 1916 and officially becoming emperor in 1930. He was considered both a modernizer and a unifier, and was generally held in high respect by his people and the international community.

Following an attempted coup in 1960, dissatisfaction with Selassie's reign grew, as his government struggled with economic and political reforms. A severe famine and drought in 1972-74 brought food shortages and high inflation to Ethiopia which, coupled with perceived government corruption, led to general discontent among the populace. The shortages also impacted those in the military, as low pay and insufficient food and supplies led to a wide-spread mutiny among the lower ranks. In response, low-ranking military officers formed the Derg (meaning "committee" or "council" in Ge'ez, an ancient semitic language that was once the official language of the Ethiopian Imperial Court) in June 1974, ostensibly to study grievances and root out corruption in the military. They rapidly gained power and popular support, and consequently obtained important concessions from Haile Selassie, including the power to arrest military officers and government officials at all levels. The Derg immediately imprisoned many senior imperial and regional government and military officials; the emperor was deposed and imprisoned on September 12, 1974.

Power struggles ensued among various groups seeking to govern Ethiopia, both within the Derg and outside of the organization. All parties became increasingly brutal in their attempts to gain control, with the Ethiopian people stuck in the middle of the conflict. General Mengistu Haile Mariam eventually won undisputed leadership of the Derg on February 3, 1977 and he subsequently formed a one-party communist state, backed by the Soviet Union. Mengistu instituted a campaign of terror targeting counterrevolutionaries (basically, anyone who objected to his policies). Young men and women were systematically murdered by Derg-sanctioned neighborhood watch committees. Their bodies were piled in the streets, and relatives were forbidden to claim them. A corpse hanging from a light pole or bridge was a common sight. Amnesty International estimates that half a million people died during the period, and many more thousands were imprisoned and tortured without trial. In addition, constant warfare with separatist guerrillas in Eritrea and Tigray, as well as mismanagement, corruption and general hostility to the Derg's violent rule, led to the country being unprepared for a severe drought which led to famine in the mid-1980s. The situation was exacerbated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had previously provided a great deal of monetary support to the regime. More than a million are thought to have died from starvation.

The Derg dissolved in 1987, and Ethiopia became the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia under a new constitution, with Mengistu as president. Hostilities continued, however, eventually forcing Mengistu to flee to Zimbabwe, where he remains. An Ethiopian court convicted him in absentia of genocide in 2006.

For more about Ethiopia, see the sidebar to There Is No Me Without You

Article by Kim Kovacs

This article was originally published in January 2010, and has been updated for the January 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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