At the height of the Ethiopian famine – the worst to hit the country in a century – the British government pondered whether it should assist in the overthrow of the military regime that was ruling in Addis Ababa.  Below, Martin Plaut, senior research fellow at the School of Advanced Study’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies, examines the evidence in the National Archives which shows that Margaret Thatcher seriously contemplated what might be done to undermine its leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam.

The regime Mengistu Haile Mariam led was known as the Derg (short for the Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police and Territorial Army) that ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1987. Marxist and pro-Soviet in orientation, it was certainly not to Mrs Thatcher’s liking. Despite this, and under intense pressure from the media and aid agencies to come to the aid of the millions who were starving, Britain flew in aid and paid for the provision of supplies via neighbouring Sudan. The latter was to reach areas which were under control of rebel movements (the EPLF and TPLF) which were fighting in large areas of northern Ethiopia bordering on Sudan.

By late 1985 Mrs Thatcher was fed up with providing the aid through the Derg, which she clearly loathed. Together with her private secretary, Charles (now Lord) Powell, she considered what alternative measures might be employed. These included considering providing assistance to rebels in Eritrea and Tigray.

The trail in the National Archive begins on 18 September 1985 with a letter from the Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe, to the prime minister to discuss what he called ‘the political implications of the aid we give to Ethiopia’ (National Archive, PREM 19/1699).

‘Our aid is inevitably helping a regime which is harsh and repressive. This poses a real policy dilemma,’ he wrote. Scribbled on the letter is a note to the prime minister from Charles Powell: ‘There is little hope of influencing Ethiopia through the European Community: the others simply won’t join in. And we give no bilateral financial aid, only emergency relief. There is therefore little to which we can attach strings. But we ought to do something. FCO to think harder?’ Next to this is a simple ‘Yes’ and the prime minister’s initials.

Powell wrote to the Foreign Office on 23 September, saying that the prime minister wanted to know ‘… how far we are presently trying to influence the Ethiopian government and in what ways. Are we doing so? Or have we given up? Can we do more by cooperating with other countries in the region? Would we be better off by joining the United States in a policy of containment? In short, the Prime Minister recognises the difficulties but thinks that a rather more imaginative study is requires which examines other options as well as that of trying to use the EC aid as a lever’ (National Archive, PREM 19/1699).

A letter from the Foreign Office, dated 27 November offered little in the way of the ‘imaginative’ thinking the Prime Minister was looking for (National Archive, PREM 19/1699). Rather it noted that the United States had rejected a policy of ‘containment’ and fallen in with British policy. To this Powell simply wrote in the margin: ‘Has it?’ The letter ended: ‘To sum up, the prospects of exerting any significant influence on the Ethiopian are far from good.’

Powell, clearly frustrated with what he saw as an inability of the Foreign Office to think outside the box, wrote a note to Mrs Thatcher on 28 November, marking it ‘Top Secret and Personal’ (National Archive, PREM 19/1699).

‘You asked for more thought from the FCO on how we could influence the unpleasant regime in Ethiopia … the FCO response … lists exhaustively the reasons why we can’t. It is probably the case that we can’t do much to influence them through normal channels. But we can make life harder for them in a number of ways.  i) Support for the rebels in Eritrea and Tigray, who are already backed by the Saudis and Kuwaitis. (The FCO, on the other hand, conclude that it would be better to discourage the Saudis and Kuwaitis from giving the rebels further support.) … iv) a more active effort in conjunction with the Americans to identify and perhaps encourage opponents of Mengistu within the country’ (National Archive, PREM 19/1699. Emphasis in the original). Powell ended his note asking the prime minister whether she preferred to ‘continue as we are’ (next to which she wrote: ‘No’) or ‘examine scope for action outlined above.’ (next to which she wrote: ‘Yes.’)

Powell sent a formal letter along these lines, again marked ‘Top Secret and Personal’ to the Foreign Office on 29 November (National Archive, PREM 19/1699.) It ended with the warning: ‘You will recognise the sensitivity of this letter.’ It is worth noting just how radical these proposals were. Mrs Thatcher was, in effect, calling for measures to undermine, if not actually overthrow, the Ethiopian government with which it was co-operating to fight the famine.

The reply took a while, but on 10 January 1986 it came: ‘The Foreign Secretary agrees that jogging along with the Ethiopian regime would not be right (National Archive, PREM 19/1699).’ It then outlined a series of less than radical measures. They were not the kind of ‘imaginative thinking’ the prime minister had been looking for. Powell noted in the margin: ‘Prime Minister, pretty much of a nil return, but a stepped up effort and some sign of a more robust attitude by the EC. Agree to leave it at that for the time being?’ (National Archive, PREM 19/1699. Emphasis in the original). The prime minister simply initialled his note.

Reflecting on these events in a recent interview, Lord Powell says he cannot recall the details of the events, but that he ‘doubts’ that the proposal to fund the Tigray rebels came entirely from what he described as ‘my fertile mind’ (Author’s interview with Lord Powell, 14 February 2017). Rather, he believes that the plan may have come from the Secret Intelligence Service – MI6.

‘I probably talked to them about it,’ he says, although he cannot now recall the conversation, remarking that he seldom worked with the intelligence services on Africa, but rather on the Soviet Union.

It may well be that the British secret services did indeed consider the impact of aid flows on the Ethiopian civil war, but since their files are seldom, if ever, made public, this is difficult to corroborate.

The full story of how and why these discussions came about can be found in the ‘The Ethiopian Famine: War, Weapons and Aid’, an article I published in the latest edition of the Royal United Services Institute Journal.

Martin Plaut is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?