Last week, many Ethiopian families in the United States gathered in houses of worship with their relatives and friends to hold memorial services in remembrance of the victims of the massacre of the 24th of November 1974, a date that shall live in infamy in Ethiopian history. On that fateful day, a military junta gathered and took a “simple vote” to summarily execute 60 high level government officials, civil servants, decorated war veterans and elite army officers and enlisted men of the imperial regime of H.I.M. Haile Selassie. That massacre propelled Ethiopia into a spiraling vortex of gross human rights violations and tyranny which persists to the present day. On November 24, 1974, Ethiopia crossed the Rubicon, the point of no return, and marched headlong from a promised bloodless revolution to one the bloodiest military power grabs in modern African history. The darkness that descended on Ethiopia on November 24, 1974 still envelopes her today.
The bloody bloodless coup of 1974
The 1974 military takeover of power in Ethiopia has been described alternatively as a “bloodless” and “creeping” coup. Unlike most African countries that experienced violent military coups in the post-colonial period, the junior officers in Ethiopia tiptoed their way into a power vacuum left by a decaying imperial regime whose leaders were in confusion and disarray over the burgeoning civil unrest at the time.
The “creeping” coup began haltingly as a ragtag bunch of junior officers bungled their way into power. Their slogan was “Yaleminim Dem Ityopia Tikdem” (“Without shedding blood, Ethiopia First (Forward)”.) They organized themselves in a self-styled “Derg”, (Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police, and Territorial Army). By September 1974, the Derg had dethroned H.I.M. Haile Selassie and arrested many of his top officials.
The pretext for the Derg’s seizure of power included the purported need to control the civil arrest triggered by student protests over economic hardships following the 1973 oil crises, the need to establish accountability for official neglect of widespread famine in northern Ethiopia and to address mutinous soldiers’ demand for pay increases and improvements in military service conditions.
To ingratiate itself with the protesters and the public, the Derg launched a public relations campaign using the rallying cry, “Ethiopia Tikdem (First)”. The Derg later made a political platform out of the slogan to articulate its ideas about promoting equality and grassroots democracy, reforming the judicial, justice and land sectors and to pledge implementation of national health and literacy campaigns. The Derg infused its populist propaganda with combative and militaristic rhetoric. In 1975, the 120-member Derg proclaimed its allegiance to communism and renamed itself the “Provisional Military Government of Ethiopia”. Despite the official change in name, most people continued to refer to the military junta as “Derg”.
As the Derg implemented its “creeping coup”, it began arresting high level officials of the imperial government. The arrests provided grist to the anti-imperial government propaganda mill and fueled the widespread dissatisfaction with the imperial government and its ineptitude in dealing with pressing demands for economic, social and political change. The Derg arrested and detained hundreds of officials in the imperial government. It promised to undertake a full investigation into their alleged official misconduct, wrongdoing and malfeasance. The promised investigative process was stillborn on the night of November 23, 1974.
The events leading to the executions of the 60 high officials of the imperial government was diabolically conceived and staged by Mengistu Hailemariam, a junior officer consumed by blind ambition. From the beginning, Mengistu’s eye was fixed on the top prize, the chairmanship of the Derg; but he had to consolidate his power. Mengistu cleverly orchestrated the massacre of the 60 officials as his ultimate power play game for the chairmanship. Mengistu first scapegoated Gen. Aman Michael Andom, the first titular chairman of the Derg. Gen. Aman was not only a highly decorated military leader but also widely respected and loved by the troops. He led Ethiopian troops during the Korean War and distinguished himself in the Ethiopian Somali border conflicts in the early 1960s.
Mengistu set in motion an elaborate intrigue to oust Gen. Aman by fabricating a story that Gen. Aman was plotting to sabotage the “revolution” spearheaded by Derg. He accused Gen. Aman of being an appeaser of the rebels in Eritrea because Gen. Aman had proposed a negotiated settlement of that conflict. Gen. Aman had ethnic roots in Eritrea and Mengistu sought to play on prevailing sentiments of ethnic mistrust in the Derg. He depicted Gen. Aman as a conspirator and rebel sympathizer and insisted that the Eritrean rebellion could and should be crushed militarily.
Gen. Aman actually had other fundamental disagreements with Mengistu and his faction in the Derg. For instance, Gen. Aman as chairman rejected Mengistu’s demand for the summary execution of certain detained imperial officials. Gen. Aman also did not believe Ethiopia could be led by a gathering of callow and sophomoric junior officers and enlisted men. As a result of deep disagreements with Mengistu, Gen. Aman resigned. On November 23, 1994, Mengistu sent troops to “arrest” Gen. Aman. In the ensuing battle, Gen. Aman was killed. It was rumored that he committed suicide than be captured. It will never be known whether Gen. Aman could have delivered a negotiated settlement of the conflict in Eritrea, but in 1994 Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia.
On November 23, 1994, Derg members reviewed a list of 250 detainees of the imperial government for summary execution to cover up and to make the murder of Gen. Aman more palatable to the public. On November 24, 1974, the Derg announced the dreadful news of its dastardly deeds to a shocked public.
In justifying the summary executions, the Derg issued the following statement:
The Council (Derg) also found it necessary to execute former civilian and military officials on whose account repeated plots have been made that might engulf the country into a bloodbath. This decision was imperative to save the lives of innocent people that had suffered for so long in the past. Hence the Council ordered the execution of those found guilty of maladministration, hindering fair administration of justice, selling secret documents of the country to foreign agents and attempting to disrupt the present Ethiopian popular movement.
The 60 victims were all buried in a mass grave with their hands tied as evidence later proved following exhumation of their remains. (For a Youtube video of the exhumation and reburial of the remains of the 60 victims, click here.)
Extra-judicial executions by Mengistu and the Derg
George Orwell wrote, “Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” To justify its cold-blooded murder of the detained officials, to give a veneer of legal legitimacy for its criminal actions and to create political theater for a shocked public, the Derg announced the detained officials were executed for having committed one four “crimes”: 1) gross abuse of power, 2) gross abuse of authority, 3) plots to incite civil war and disrupting popular movement, 4) breach of oath of office and attempt to create divisions in the armed forces.