Cape Argus (Cape Town)

Ethiopian Tyrant Lives in Luxury Thanks to Mugabe

Forced political exile has made many once-powerful dictators idle and impoverished. But not Mengistu Haile Mariam.

The former Ethiopian strongman, who fled to Harare in 1991 as Meles Zenawi's rebels closed in on Addis Ababa, has not only remained active in helping his generous host President Robert Mugabe sharpen tactics of repression and political longevity. He has also flourished as a businessman.

Mengistu is graced with around-the-clock security and two mansions in the affluent suburbs of Gunhill and Borrowdale. Mugabe gave him the second so he could switch between the two, after four Ethiopians tried to kill him on November 4 1995.

When Mugabe begun his destructive land seizures in February 2000, Mengistu also got two plum white-owned farms. Those who watch his movements say he drives the latest ML Mercedes Benz and travels to his farms and other places under discreet escorts. All of this is financed by the state.

When he wants, he takes a walk around his favourite Sam Levy's Village mall with his security guards in the background.

Although he does not travel often, he used his Zimbabwe government diplomatic passport for a controversial visit to South Africa for treatment of a heart problem in 1999 and for a few more surreptitious visits since, according to sources.

His four children are not ordinary refugees either. They are full Zimbabwean citizens and travel the world on their passports issued on Mugabe's directive. Highly placed sources say he gets special treatment because he is not your ordinary political exile.

Unlike Uganda's Milton Obote, who died a virtual pauper in Lusaka, Zambia, or even his compatriot Idi Amin who complained that his US$4 000 monthly stipend from his Saudi hosts was inadequate to cover his expenses and those of his 30 plus children, Mengistu "has had it all and still has it all", said one Zimbabwean intelligence official. This is because when Mugabe's octopus-style grip on power came under heavy threat from a resurgent civic society and opposition, the dictator turned to his old comrade for help.

And the fellow-Marxist who has a death sentence hanging over him in Ethiopia because of his murder of hundreds of thousands of his countrymen during his "Red Terror" reign from 1974 to 1991, had the necessary experience.

"Mengistu did not only play an advisory role, he effectively became an active employee of the CIO," said a source in the dreaded spy agency.

Mengistu worked closely with the security generals in the so-called Joint Operations Command (JOC), the military junta that has run Zimbabwe over the past few years.

He advised them on the "best tactics" for keeping the opposition and civic society at bay.

In fact, some sources claim that the murderous campaigns that Zimbabwe has witnessed over the years are a direct result of Mengistu's "wit".

"Even though he has now slowed because of health problems, he still spends long periods in private consultations with the president at State House," another source said.

Mengistu has every reason to want Mugabe to stay in power. His next port of call should Mugabe be ousted is said to be North Korea which has already approved his future asylum should the need arise. He routinely packed his bags in readiness to flee there before Zimbabwe's elections "just in case", sources say.

Over the years, he has grown accustomed to Zimbabwe and the lifestyle there. Because his residences are very close to Mugabe's and he is looked after by the state, he does not have to suffer the routine problems of power cuts, food and fuel shortages like most Zimbabweans.

Mugabe has for 18 years sternly rebuffed the Ethiopian government's demands that he hand over Mengistu to face justice for his crimes.

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