By Alemayehu G Mariam
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.
At the time of the summary executions of the officials, the applicable criminal law was codified in the 1957 Penal Code of Ethiopia. That Penal Code provided a comprehensive scheme of criminal sanctions and penalties not only for criminal violations by civilians but also military personnel under Title III.
The most extraordinary fact about the execution of the 60 officials is they either committed NO CRIME at all as a matter of law; or if theyarguably committed a crime, their offenses were violations punishable “with simple imprisonment or fine.”
First, 17 of the highest level officials of the imperial government were executed for committing the crime of “gross abuse of power”. The fact of the matter is that there is NO SUCH CRIME as “gross abuse of power” in any provision of the 1957 Penal Code. Period! Those officials were murdered for a crime that did not exist!
Second, the allegations of “gross abuse of authority” against the military officers also does not exist as a crime per se in the Penal Code. It could arguably arise under Article 304 (Abuse of Authority) of the Penal Code, which incorporates by reference military regulations. That article provides, “A superior officer who exceeds the authority be exercises by virtue of his commission, abuses such authority or improperly assumes authority not conferred by such commission is punishable, where his act does not constitute an offence under this Code, in accordance with the provisions of military regulations.” Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the military officers had committed “abuse of authority” in the military, they should have been court-martialed not summarily executed. However, there was no evidence whatsoever to show any of the military officers abused their authority let alone grossly abusing it.
Third, the alleged “plot to incite civil war ” also does not exist as a crime per se in the Penal Code. The allegation could arguably arise under Article 252 (Armed Rising and Civil War) of the 1957 Penal Code. That article prohibits “a revolt, mutiny or armed rebellion against the Emperor, the State or the constitutional authorities…” Asa matter of law, the officials executed for “plotting to incite civil war” could not have been guilty of this crime because the Derg itself was not a lawful authority under any circumstances within the meaning of Article 252. At the time the imperial officials were executed, the Derg itself and its leaders could have been legally and reasonably charged for “plotting to incite civil war” by overthrowing the constitutional monarchy. Yet, three captains, one corporal and one private were executed for a crime that did not exist in the Penal Code of Ethiopia 1957 or in any military regulations.
Fourth, there is no such crime as “breach of oath of office and attempt to create divisions in the armed forces” in the 1957 Penal Code! Arguably, that allegation could arise under Article 332 (“Compelling Breaches of Duty”) and/or Article 344 (“Failure to Report Crimes against the Armed Forces and Breaches of Military Obligations”) of the Penal Code. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the officers actually committed the crimes of “breach of oath” and “attempted division of the armed forces” under the foregoing articles, both offenses were “punishable with simple imprisonment or fine.”
Assuming, for the sake of argument, that all of the allegations as formulated by the Derg to justify the summary execution of the officials were based on lawful regulations and policies made by the Derg itself, those allegations would have been legally null and void because Article 5 (2) (non-retrospective effect of criminal law) of the 1957 Penal Code prohibits the application of ex post facto criminal sanctions: “An act not declared to be an offence and committed prior to the coming into force of this Code is not punishable…”
Such was the murder of 60 innocent Ethiopians by Mengistu and the Derg –without any proof of their guilt– and the death of the rule of law in Ethiopia!
** Summarily executed for allegedly committing the crime of “Gross Abuse of Power”:
Aklilu Habtewold (Tsehafe Tizaz, served as prime minister under H.I.M. Haile Selassie for 13 years and in other high level positions for a total of 39 years).
H.H. Ras Asrate Kassa (member Crown Council, Senate President, Enderassie; served in various high level positions for over 34 years).
Endalkachew Mekonnen (prime minister; Lij; Ethiopian ambassador to the U.N., served in various high level positions for 23 years).
Ras Mesfin Seleshi (war veteran, Enderassie; served in various high level positons for over 54 years).
Ato Abebe Retta (Minister, linguist, scholar in history and religion, particularly the Ethiopian Orthodox Church; served in various capacities for 47 years).
Lt. Col. Tamirat Yegezu (Enderassie, Crown Council member; served in various capacities for 38 years).
Ato Akaleworq Habtewold (Minister, ambassador, served in various capacities for 39 years).
Dr. Tesfaye Gebre-Egzy (Minister).
Ato Mulatu Debebe (Minister; served in various capacities for 22 years).
Dejazmach Solomon Abraha (Enderassie; served in various capacities).
Dejazmach Legesse Bezu (Enderassie; served in various capacities for a total of 29 years).
Dejazmach Sahlu Defaye (Enderassie, veteran; served in various capacities for a total of 46 years).
Dejazmach Workneh Wolde Amanuel (Minister, Senator, Enderassie; served in various capacities for a total of 30 years).
Dejazmach Kifle Ergetu (Ambassador, diplomat, Senator).
Dejazmach Worku Enqoselassie (Enderassie; served in various capacities for a total of 26 years).
Dejazmach Aemeroselassie Abebe (Enderassie, civil servant; served in various capacities for 35 years).
Dejazmach Kebede Ali Wole (Enderassie military commander served in various capacities for 34 years)
Summarily executed for allegedly committing the crime of “Gross Abuse of Authority”
Ato Nebeye Leul Kifle (Minister, Crown special cabinet member; served for a total of 24 years).
Col. Solomon Kedir (Chief of security, minister; served in various capacities for 25 years).
Afenegus Abeje Debalq (Judge, Crown Counsellor, Senator; served in various capacities for 44 years).
Ato Yilma Aboye (Palace courtier, served in various capacities for 18 years).
Ato Tegen Yeteshaworq (Minister, editor Ethiopian Herald; served for 12 years).
Ato Solomon Gebremariam (Minister; served in various capacities for 31 years).
Ato Hailu Teklu (civil servant).
Blata Admassu Retta (Palace courtier).
Lij Hailu Desta (Ethiopian Red Cross President, served in various capacities for 26 years).
Fitewrari Amede Aberra (rancher, served in various capacities).
Fitewrari Demessie Alamerew (Enderassie).
Fitewrari Tadesse Enquselassie (Enderassie).
Lt. General Abiye Abebe (Minister, ambassador, Senate President).
Lt. General Kebde Gebre (Minister, Enderassie).
Lt. General Dressie Dubale (Commander, Ground Forces).
Lt. General Abebe Gemeda (Commander, Imperial Body Guard, Enderassie; served in various capacities for a total of 40 years).
Lt. General Yilma Shibeshi (Chief of national police; served in various capacities for 34 years).
Lt. General Haile Baykedagn (Chief of staff; served in various capacities for 32 years).
Lt. General Assefa Ayene (Minister, chief of staff; served in various capacities for a total of 38 years).
Lt. General Belete Abebe (Chief of staff, served in various capacities for a total of 40 years).
Lt. General Isayas Gebreselassie (Senator).
Lt. General Assefa Demissie (ADC H.I.M.).
Lt. General Debebe Hailemariam (war veteran, palace courtier, commander ground forces; served a total of 33 years).
Maj. General Seyoum Gedle Giorgis (served in various capacities in the military for a total of 31 years).
Maj. General Gashaw Kebede (served in the national police force and other capacities for a total of 33 years).
Maj. General Tafesse Lemma (Military attache, palace courtier; served total of 28 years).
Vice Admiral Iskinder Desta (Commander of the navy, modernized Ethiopia Navy, diplomat).
Brig. General Mulugetta Woldeyohannes (Chief of National Police; served in various capacities for 31 years).
Brig. General Girma Yohannes (served in national police force for 28 years).
Col. Yalem Zewd Tessema (Commander, Army Airborne).
Col. Tassew Mojo
Col. Yigezu Yimer
Major Berhanu Metcha
Capt. Molla Wakene
Summarily executed for for allegedly comitting the crime of “Plotting to Incite Civil War and Disrupt Popular Movement”
Cpt. Demessie Shiferaw.
Cpt. Belay Tsegaye (Army aviation heliopter pilot; served a total of 31 years).
Cpt. Woldeyohanes Zergaw.
Lance Cpl. Teklu Hailu (18 year-old and member of Army engineers; executed for opposing the idea of military government).
Pvt. Bekele Woldegiorgis (served 22 years.
Summarily executed for allegedly committing the “Breach of Oath of Office and Attempt to Create Divisions in the Armed Forces”
Lt. General Aman Michael Andom (chairman of Derg and Council of Ministers, Defense Minsiter and Chief of Statff of the Armed Forces).
Lt. Tesfaye Takele (24 years-old Army aviation pilot, Derg member).
Junior Aircraftsman Yohanes Fitiwi (Derg member).
Mengistu Hailemariam “T