By Seleshi Tessema
The unfolding political crisis in Zimbabwe this week has intrigued Ethiopians for a specific reason all their own.
Indeed, Harare hosts and refuses to extradite the former Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, who was sentenced to death in absentia, has triggered public attention and opened old wounds and divisions in Ethiopia.
Col. Mengistu, 80, was the leader of the self-styled Marxist–Leninist military junta that in 1974 toppled the last Ethiopian monarch Emperor Haile Selassie and put an end to the Solomonic dynasty that ruled Ethiopia since the 13th century.
The junta transformed itself into the Ethiopian Workers Party which ruled the East African country under a brutal reign of terror that resulted in the deaths and disappearances of tens of thousands people.
After 17 years in power, Mengistu’s regime was toppled in 1991 by a guerrilla army of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
A few days before Addis Ababa was stormed, Mengistu escaped to Zimbabwe. Ever since he has lived in Harare with his family as a "guest of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe".
The Ethiopian Supreme Court had sentenced him to death in 2008.
The Ethiopian government has repeatedly requested his extradition, but authorities in Harare have publicly refused to do so.
The 'butcher of Addis Ababa'
This past week, the Zimbabwean military seized power from Mugabe, detaining him and his family.
The crisis in Zimbabwe has generated intense interest in Ethiopia due to Mengistu, said Henock Alemu, a program director with a private station Ethio FM.
"All media houses have been providing in-depth coverage since day one and the issue has become the talk of the town,’’ he added.
On Thursday, Radio Fana, the biggest radio network, ran a report on how the military takeover might impact Mengistu's future -- they were not placing their bets on an extradition.
The issue is a most sensitive one for those who suffered under Mengistu.
Adamu Kibru, who was detained without trial for nearly a decade, told Anadolu Agency that the unfolding crisis in Zimbabwe had caused the most traumatic memories of the brutality of the regime, which had affected the lives of his generation, to resurface.
"I was one of many youngsters who were routinely tortured, beaten to death and killed,” he said, adding survivors were keenly following unfolding events in Zimbabwe.
"I pray that Mugabe’s regime shall end soon, and the new authorities would extradite the butcher of Addis Ababa to face justice in Addis Ababa.’’
But that could turn out to be wishful thinking.
A former official during Mengistu’s reign who asked not to be named due to his association with the state, said: "The Red Terror was aimed at thwarting the White Terror launched by the supports of the old regime, ultra-revolutionary parties, and anti-unity elements.
"Mengistu was a symbol of Ethiopian unity, and will remain in Harare despite the dreams of others who want to see him languish in an Ethiopian prison.’’
Gen. Kassaye Chemeda, who was commanding a mechanized division under Mengistu, told Anadolu Agency that he was keenly following the situation "for it is directly related to the fate of Mengistu”.
"Mengistu instructed us to train and arm thousands of Zimbabwean guerrilla fighters during the liberation struggle,’’ he said. "I was the head of the training project, and thousands of Zimbabwean, Namibian and South African fighters were trained in mechanized warfare.’’
He believes that, no matter who claims -- or keeps? -- the leadership in Zimbabwe, Mengistu will not be extradited to Ethiopia because he had significantly contributed to the liberation struggle.
"Mengistu is a great manipulator and can smell the rat, and in the worst case scenario, he could flee to Namibia or South Africa. They will accept him,’’ he added. Neither country has voiced such intentions.
Comrade Mengistu still remains a special guest
According to Ayalew President Mugabe’s refusal to extradite his guest is rooted in Pan Africanism that aims to bond all Africans struggling against all manifestation of colonial capitalism.
"It is not a matter of birds of the same feather flock together, rather it is a deeply entrenched Africanist convection, “he noted.’’ This is why President Mugabe said on many occasions that Comrade Mengistu still remains a special guest.’’
Moreover, Mengistu lately received Zimbabwean citizenship, and the extradition of a citizen is illegal, he added.
In the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, few symbols remain of Mengistu's reign, which many recall with aversion: A tall statue built by North Koreans topped by a red star and another more macabre exhibit of people being flogged as part of a Red Terror Martyrs’ Monument, erected by the current regime.