Haile Selassie chose those most loyal to him to the most important position of Ethiopia's government. These tended to be members of the nobility and were mostly satisfied with the status quo. Haile Selassie also paid for students to go overseas to acquire higher education and upon their return, found a position for them in his government. This had been Haile Selassie's style of governing ever since the 1930s. However, post-World War II Ethiopia had outgrown Haile Selassie's archaic mode of governing. Top leaders at high positions were more concerned with retaining their power than addressing the plight of the peasantry or tackling the tricky problem of land reform, while the younger members of government became increasingly dissatisfied with Ethiopia's social and economic backwardness.
One such disgruntled government official was Germame Neway, who was educated in the US. Upon his return from finishing his studies, he was made governor of Wollamo. He made his mark immediately by putting into policies to ease the life of the peasant. He gave away land that belonged to the state and he "reduced the amount of unpaid agricultural labor" required of the peasant (Del Boca 256). His actions greatly upset the top echelon of government, who benefited by exploiting the peasant. He was removed as governor of Wollamo. However, he was able to survive this setback and was given governorship of another town, Jijiga. In Jijiga as well, he implemented policies that tackled issues of the poor and confronted ineffective bureaucrats. His attempts were met with subversion from Addis Ababa (Del Boca 256). By this time, he had decided the only way to achieve change was by eliminating his opponents.
In 1956, Germame's brother, Mengistu, became commander of the Imperial Body Guard, which had a force of 8000 men. Germame succeeded in convincing his brother that an overthrow of the government was needed. Germame also won over the emperor's chief of security Workneh Gebeyehu (Marcus 119-200). These 3 men became the leaders of the coup that would be attempted while the emperor would be of out of the country for 3 weeks in December of 1960. Interestingly, prior to his departure, the emperor's intelligence apparatus had identified possible trouble within the Imperial Body Guard. However, the emperor was confident that the Army would be loyal to him in case of any trouble in Addis Ababa (Marcus 122). According to Tekalign Gedamu, the emperor had told Germame to go back to Jijiga before leaving the country and this is the reason the conspirators chose this time to go ahead with their ill prepared attempted coup (73).
The coup was launched in the evening of December 13th. Overnight the bodyguard troops "had taken control of Addis Ababa's airport, banning all flights; had blocked all roads leading to the palace; had occupied the telephone exchange". At the palace they detained the empress and the crown prince Assfa Wossen. They summoned other government officials to the palace and kept them locked in. When word got out that the bodyguard had taken over Addis Ababa, Dej. Asrate Kassa, Major Gen. Merid Mengesh and others banned together on behest of the Army to form a force loyal to the emperor. Through the British Embassy, they sent a telegram to the emperor, who was in Brazil, notifying him of the coup (Marcus 122-4).
The next day, on the 14th, crown prince Assfa Wossen went on the radio to announce the coup and the formation of a new government and a pay raise for the armed forces (Zewde 2014, 58). Whether he did this willing or by force has remained a topic of controversy. Marcus points out that it was to his "advantage to cooperate...he could always claim, if the coup failed, that he had acted under mortal threat." The conspirators hoped the crown prince's speech would buy them the support of the Army and the Air Force while also gaining support from the populace of Addis Ababa. However, the speech did not have the intended effect. Most felt that the crown prince gave the speech under duress. Imperial Body Guard troops, the majority of whom learned for the first time that they were fighting against the emperor when they heard the radio broadcasts, lost their will to fight (Gedamu 74). By this time the Air Force had decided to join the group loyal to the emperor. Troops were being recalled and were pouring into Addis Ababa. Another important player in town were the Americans. The conspirators asked that the new government be given recognition by the United States government. However, the Americans were also in contact with the loyalist camp and had not yet decided on which side they would give support (Marcus 126-131).
The next morning, Addis Ababa was still quiet and fighting had not broken out. The radio broadcasts did not have the effect the conspirators hoped for; the residents of Addis Ababa had not come out in support and the armed forced remained loyal to the emperor. The conspirators did however get support from university students. Students came out in mass and marched through Addis Ababa expecting they would be able to convince the people to join their cause. This action also failed to elicit support and at the very first sign of confrontation with the Army, the students dispersed without a shot being fired (Marcus 139). When this failed, the constriptors went on the radio and reported that students had been massacared by the Army but this act of desperation did not work (Milkias 104). By this time the loyalist forces had outnumbered the bodyguard. The Air Force flew jets and dropped leaflets denouncing the actions of the bodyguard. On the ground fighting had begun and the Army was able to take the airport. The Americans also decided to join the loyalist camp and flew reconnaissance planes and provided access to their international communications network (Marcus 140).
On the final day of the coup, the 16th, the Air Force began dropping bombs and ground forces began their attack on bodyguard headquarters. Knowing by this point that they were on verge of defeat, the conspirators asked the Americans to mediate. Fighting stopped while Germame and representatives from the Army met at the US Embassy. However, the Army knew they had the upper hand and they would not accept anything less than immediate surrender and as a result nothing came of the meeting (Marcus 141-5). Fighting resumed and before the day ended the conspirators lost hope and fled. Just before departing they shot and killed 15 of their hostages. By this time, Haile Selassie also reached Eritrea. The next day, on the 17th, he reached Addis Ababa to the seat of his throne. Over the next few months, he promoted Asrate Kassa, Merid Mengesh and others who had been loyal to him. He also had to increase the Army's salary, hoping to quiet those who may have sympathized with the conspirators (Marcus 147-9).
Official casualties were 324 dead and 785 injured (Marcus 155). Germame was killed in fighting and Mengistu was captured and later prosecuted and executed (Zewde 2007, 211-5), while Workneh took his own life (Marcus 159).
Gedamu, Takelign. Republicans on the Throne. Los Angeles: Tsehai Publishers, 2011.
Marcus, Harold. Ethiopia, Great Britain, and the United States, 1941-1974: The Politics of Empire. University of California Press, 1983.
Milkias, Paulos. Haile Selassie, western education, and political revolution in Ethiopia New York: Cambria Press. 2006.
Zewde, Bahru. A history of modern Ethiopia 1855 1991. 2nd ed. Addis Ababa: Addis Ababa University Press, 2007.
Zewde, Bahru. The Quest for Socialist Utopia: The Ethiopian Student Movement, c. 1960-1974 Boydell & Brewer, Limited, 2014.