By Michael Wossen (PhD)
This article is a retelling of the Amharic narrative presented by former Ethiopian PM Fikre Selassie Wegderes. It is merely retold in English here. The point of this exercise is not to translate the exact words of the former PM (author), but to promote a thoughtful reflection of the narrative he presents. How credible is his recollection? In this recently published book “We and the Revolution” the author recounts what he saw and heard as a member of the monstrous Derg military council in 1966 Ethiopian calendar ( or 1974). What interests me most in the book is declared in the title: the fate of Aman and the execution of the “60” former officials. There is barely any analytic or reflective value in this work, yet this is a story straight from the proverbial horse’s mouth. This is the voice of the Derg’s nomenclature. The author served singularly at the pleasure of Major Mengistu and ended up with a long jail sentence. Some argue “not long enough,” but that is not at issue here.
Nevertheless, the former PM’s remembrances of these two events demand our attention, if only for their long range historical significance on Ethiopia. The discourse of sociology focuses on seeking discernible patterns in human inter-relationships. In this case, the explosive social dynamics leading up to the monstrous act can be sketched. The author’s main contention is that Aman Andom’s hubris, self-love, out right contempt for the Derg’s soldiers/leaders and insatiable lust for power had driven him to conspire against the Derg that respected him greatly. The man’s forceful and intransigent personality and his conspiratorial actions against the Derg caused the execution of the 59 imprisoned officials. There is cause -effect causation suggested by the author here.
The Return of Aman
Ethiopia was in turmoil. Shabiyyans were engaged in a rural-based armed struggle in Eritrea and the Eritrean-led Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party or EPRP is beginning to wage urban armed struggle against the Derg in Addis Ababa. The demand for a people’s government was being voiced. The 120 Derg (Committee) members decided they needed a strong, well-known, incorruptible and capable General to lead them through the turbulent times they had encountered at that moment. The emerging strong man and chairman of the Derg military council Shaleka Mengistu, suggested that Lt. General Aman Andom was the right man to act as chief of the army. He was an upright man and has earned his respect nationally for thoroughly defeating a previous Somali aggression, when he led the Third division. Moreover, he had earned the respect and trust of the Ethiopian troops. On these grounds, a group of soldiers led by Shaleka Nadew Zacharias was selected to head to the palace, and ask the emperor HIM to approve the appointment of the well-respected general Aman. At the time, transitional military policies were made to look as if the emperor still ruled and had willed them. Upon entering the emperor’s office, they saw a saddened and angry Emperor Haile Selassie who had sensed the changing times for his monarchy. He welcomed them, saying something like “ok, what is it that you want?” Major Nadew Zacharia pulled out a paper and started reading the demands of the soldiers. Firstly, secondly and so on, but when he came to the issue of General Aman’s proposed appointment as chief of the army “enough, stop right here” said the emperor and asked pointedly “who gave you guys the authority to appoint and demote people anyway, what kind of audacity is this…by the way, do you exactly know who Aman is?” This was a prescient question indeed, as we shall see. The Emperor looked intensely at the soldiers, and a few of them started nervously sweating. “Ok continue reading” he ordered Nadew Zacharias, who had begun to be hopelessly tongue-tied by now.
At this point, Shaleka Tesfaye Gebre-Kidan who did not like what he saw, takes over and pleads with a clearer and louder voice the main demands of the soldiers. He said that corrupt generals have compromised the national security and defense of the country, and thereby rendered the army weak and leaderless. Soon, Shambel Endale Tessema continued to remind the emperor how HIM himself, as he is popularly known, had salvaged the famed and brave general from parliament and made him head of the Third Division. He recalled how the nation had witnessed a shining victory over the Somalis, all under Aman’s command. Today too, we are merely demanding the appointment of this capable officer, he added. “That is all we ask, we are not claiming to appoint or demote anybody” just requesting that general Aman be appointed to lead us, said officer Endale, assuring the dignity and authority of the emperor. This demand was amplified by Lij Endakachew Mekonnen standing nearby. He pleaded with “Janhoy” along the lines: “What the “kids” really want is for you to appoint this accomplished army chief to lead the army. The soldiers control the communication channels anyway, so it is better for the Emperor to decide on this issue now.” After a moment of silence, the officers continued their demands that all political prisoners be freed. This was presented as one of their key demands. The emperor interrupted and inquired “who are the political prisoners?” Officer Tesfaye Gebre-Kidan responded by saying that this was a general demand addressing all political prisoners, whoever they may be. The Emperor shook his head sadly and thought “You have failed to understand.” Here the author (former PM) agrees with the emperor. Namely, the soldiers had simply repeated the blanket demands of students with special interests. They were really pleading for the likes of Italian Banda criminals like Haile Selassie Gugsa (HSG) to be wrongly and popularly viewed as a “political prisoners.” Such vicious traitors of the nation now released and celebrated as heroes! This was tragic, for HSG was nothing but a notorious traitor and Banda in the pay of the Italian “conquistadores” between1936-41.
Significantly weakened in strength and power, the aging emperor continued listening to all the soldier’s demands and said “indeed, when soldiers we order to go and die demand that an army chief be assigned, it is difficult to deny this request. Hence we’ll look at your demand carefully and provide responses, now go.” Captain Kassaye Aragaw interjected that the Army is awaiting a response from your majesty, what do we take back to the soldiers? The emperor got up and left the room, telling them to discuss their issues with Endalkachew, the provisional PM at the time. In the end, the emperor approved that Aman lead the army with the title of lieutenant General. This was regarded as a heart- warming victory by the Derg. Immediately, Lt. General proceeded to place his trusted officers in key positions, ostensibly to strengthen his authority over the army and to strengthen the frayed command structures. Working closely with Major Mengistu, the incipient leader of the Derg, the general tried hard to re-instill discipline into the badly fractured army. He was now functioning as chairman of the Derg and minister of defense, with Majors Mengistu and Atnafu acting as second and third chairmen respectively. The Derg had denied the general the position of the prime minister, causing him considerable apprehension from the start. He thought proudly “how could junior officers criticize him and deny him this crucial position he sought? To the international press, Major Mengistu was already known in the international press as “the man behind Aman.”
From day one, the general had misgivings about how, hidden from the public, the Derg deliberates and operates in secret. He thought, a bunch of people with unequal knowledge, schooling, intellectual experience and cultural capital cannot seat in a hall and argue about all things pertinent to the state, and arrive at sound decisions. This kind of deliberation could not result in effective policies. He voiced this concern openly, much to the dismay of senior Derg members. In effect, the general did not enjoy being a powerless leader and voiced his consternation to Major Mengistu. That is, he had found it impossible to work harmoniously with dim-witted soldiers and suggested that a fourteen-man Military Council should be established under his command. In his view, seven educated officers should be invited to join the seven Derg members he had already chosen. This was clearly a direct threat to the revolution and its increasingly powerful Derg leader himself. Mengistu explained patiently that the Derg’s strength resided in its diversity and that they cannot suddenly start dismissing elected Derg members to fulfill the general’s objectives. Clearly, in his thirst for more power the general had forgotten how he had returned to power and had shown his utter contempt for Derg members to the chairman of this cabal.
Soon the issue of Eritrea came up for discussion. Here the general was in his elements as a man of Eritrean heritage. He suggested that the Eritrean people had trust in him, and that he could propose a peaceful solution to this long-standing conflict. Despite the suspicion that some Derg members harbored against the degree of Eritrean-nes of the general, he was dispatched to Eritrea to seek solutions. His visit was triumphant, to put it mildly. He discussed with elders. He told them there was no need to separate or secede, and that they can all enjoy unity with Ethiopia as Eritreans. The following day there was a jubilant welcome for him at Saba stadium. The general made speeches in Tigrigna and Arabic, and expressed his abiding love to the people, much to the delight of assembled Eritreans. Soon peace will come to Eritrea, and the soldiers will no longer have to fight all over the place. In fact, he ordered the Ethiopian soldiers to abandon their strategic locations, to cease fighting the vagabonds and return to their camps. This particular decision created more suspicion and anger among certain members of the Derg, including the ever suspicious Mengistu. What is the general’s real agenda? On orders of the latter, Lt. Colonel Tesfaye Wolde-Selassie was dispatched to Asmara to study and clarify the issues surrounding the general’s activities. After visiting certain military camps and interviewing various individuals etc., the colonel returned to Addis Ababa within a week, and delivered his report in a meeting where the general was present.
Col. Tesfaye did not mince his words. He reported that the Shabiyya is stronger than ever and its units have taken over the strategic areas vacated by the Ethiopian troops on general Aman’s orders. In fact, there is fear that the vagabonds are ready to capture Asmara soon. Moreover, the soldiers are complaining that the Derg appears to be ready to have them all eliminated in their camps. The Eritrean civilian population is worried too. Their members are demanding to be removed to safer places as well. In fact, unless policy corrections are undertaken immediately, the province will fall out of our control soon. The general could hardly control his rage at what he is hearing, and at the end of the report he exploded “Liar, dissimulator, you are concocting tales you did not see.” Yes, the general had given orders to soldiers to go to camp in the interest of peace, but the notion that the vagabonds had “occupied” the vacated strategic places is an utter fraud! With these words, the general angrily walked out of the meeting. In fact, he never returned to a Derg meeting again. When major Mengistu called him the following day to inquire about his wellbeing, the general told him that he was “sick” with a cold, and assured him that he will return to duty as soon as he feels well. The seething contradiction between the two had been ratcheted up significantly. The group’s systolic pressure was rising.
Sensing his growing strength Mengistu had started visiting military camps and giving agitation-laden speeches to soldiers. The media reported his appearances and speeches as the general watched and listened to the media from home. The general was obviously incensed and phoned Mengistu, clearly the emerging strong man of the Derg. The general wanted to know why the major is making visits and speeches to troops without conferring with him, the Defense Minister. Mengistu answered that he merely wanted to create unity of purpose among the troops. If that has offended the general, he offered his apology. The incensed general said he does not comprehend what the major is talking about. In any case, he was not one to be toyed with, and the general abruptly hung up the phone. Mengistu began to be seriously worried about what to do with the stubborn and haughty general. The decision was made to go to the general’s home, explain the visits/speeches to him and apologize again that it was done without the general’s knowledge. It will not happen again. Moreover, to stem the public rumors that the general was at odds with Mengistu and under house arrest, the two should make a joint appearance at a function on Hidar 8. The general reluctantly agreed and seemed to have pardoned the infraction.
On the day of the planned joint appearance, the military radio program announced that Mengistu had made yet another speech to soldiers. Enraged to the extreme, the general questioned how this can happen, especially after their recent agreement with the major. His disdain for the Derg boiled over and the general decided that beyond this point it was no longer possible to work with these people. He promptly cancelled the planned joint appearance with Mengistu. The seething contradiction between the general’s position and that of the Derg’s leadership had surfaced again. The following day the Derg met to discuss the problematic case of the general, who had effectively removed himself from the Derg now. It was still decided to somehow convince the general to return to his duties, and a high ranking group of officers led by general Gizaw was dispatched to mediate with him. The general was inconsolable and assured the delegates that that he can under no circumstances play a puppet’s role like the “Egyptian general Naguib” while the Derg consolidated power.
The Derg was clearly worried about the general’s obduracy and decided to send the respectable Ras Imru to intervene. Despite the latter’s best efforts, the general insisted that he would not work under the leadership of junior people he had raised, particularly under officers in charge of a weapon’s warehouse. This was a clear reference to Mengistu. If they want me to work with them, they will have to dismiss the assembled soldiers and appoint people of my choice to the military council, he thought. If they agree with this idea, let me know, and he promptly dismissed the delegation. Ras Imru explained the general’s position to Mengistu who then transmitted it to the Derg’s membership. The Derg’s members were unable to entertain the general’s perilous idea, and rejected his proposal. Meanwhile the general started agitating against the Derg, particularly among soldiers of the Third division that trusted him. Phoning the commanders he falsely alleged that the Derg had dismissed him and that he can no longer work with them. For instance, the army’s Geladin unit in the Ogaden became insurrectional and started imprisoning its leaders. The general also prepared a telegram urging all units to rebel against the Derg, but before it was distributed the telegram fell in the hands of major Mengistu. Soon, a group of officers (Lt. Colonel Kassa Gebre-Mariam and Lt. Colonel Aytenew Belay) came to Addis’ Fourth Division (Derg’s headquarters) without official permission. When asked about their presence, they informed the Derg that the general had asked them to appear. At this point, the conspiratorial intentions of general Aman had become crystal clear to Mengistu.
The Decisive Meeting of Hidar 14, 1967 EC
On this fateful day, an urgent meeting was called. The compound was teeming with activity. Soldiers with heavy and light weapons were everywhere. Officers and soldiers hitherto unseen were on location and crowding into the meeting hall. Seating positions were filled with delegates and soldiers standing against the wall. The meeting hall was over-crowded and all the delegates were apprehensive of what the agenda might be. In a little while, Shalekas Mengist and Atnafu walked into the meeting and assumed their honorable positions on the podium. Mengistu was seated on the right side and Atnafu on the left. The usual middle chair of General Aman was absent this time, testifying to the end of the general’s political life, the author tells us. Mengistu informed the invited delegates that today “we will be discussing some heavy issues” and this is why we have invited all members and “neus” dignitaries from the provinces to give us their voices. Saddened and angered at the same time and gesturing passionately with his hands, Mengistu said “gobez” matters are taking a turn for the worst. The man we had trusted and decided should lead us, has stopped coming to his office claiming sickness. Soon we discovered that, rather than sickness, his position was borne of anger at us. Despite the various emissaries of peace we have sent to him, he adamantly refused to work with us. In fact, he started agitating against us (the Derg) with certain officers in the army. The details of his conspiracy have fallen onto our hands. Today’s urgent meeting is about how we are going to deal with this troublesome matter and solve it once and for all.
Most of the Derg members in the hall had limited knowledge that the contradiction between the general and Mengistu had reached to this point and decided to keep quite. Others decided that a peaceful solution must be sought to avoid the impending danger. Yet others thought that the general must be imprisoned and his conspiratorial activities exposed to the public. Still, a lot of the “neus Derg” members did not accept Mengistu’s allegations about the general’s treachery and proposed to go to the general’s house and talk to him once again. At this point Mengistu’s was infuriated, his lips and cheeks started quivering in fury. I do not know why you doubt and fail to believe what we just reported? He wanted to know. “Everything is backed up by concrete evidence and we can present to you the detailed information if necessary.” Mengistu was confident in his demeanor and utterances. Now, Colonel Tesfaye Wolde-Selassie has something to present to you, so listen carefully and form your own opinions on the issue. Tesfaye moved to the podium carrying his tape recorder and the incriminating information. What you are going to listen to is the phone conversation between generals Aman and Gizaw Belayneh. Since we have other incriminating communications like this, with other generals and military commanders, we will present them in due course if necessary.
On tape, general Gizaw makes a call to general Aman and after the necessary greetings, Gizaw pleads with him to change his mind and return to duty. Who am I going to work with? Inquired Aman. How can we lead a country with ordinary soldiers and sergeants? He continued. Since there is an idea I have proposed, unless they accept it (a 14 man junta led by Aman) I am not willing to work with them, Aman thought. When asked more about this idea, the general elaborates on the idea of dismissing the Derg and creating a military Council (junta) of more educated and capable military leaders under his command. General Gizaw explains the impossibility of Aman’s ideas for the wellbeing of movement according to Mengistu. Anyway, general Gizaw advises him to return to duty and to try improving the current situation under his leadership. The angered general Aman rejoins “you guys have failed to listen to what I am telling you. Henceforth I am no longer able to work with these rabbles that have “not wiped their asses!” yet. At this point Colonel Tesfaye stopped the tape and returned to his seat. The silence in the hall erupted into angry murmurs and the members were visibly livid at the general’s insulting remarks, writes the author. Shaleka Atnafu was biting his lips in anger and Mengistu was surveying the members’ reaction. He had successfully stalked their violent instincts now self-evident throughout the hall. The notion of “not wiping their asses” exemplifies the level of contempt he held for Derg members. This language had infuriated all present in the hall. In Caesar’s language, “the die was cast” henceforth.
The Final Solution
Major Mengistu appeared both saddened and angered by the feelings stirred in the hall and preceded to building his case against the general. “The general’s plan is rather far-reaching and dangerous.” Mengistu told the soldiers about the 14 man “junta” the general had shared with him. He underscored his refusal to accept this notion. Failing to convince him, the general had begun conspiring to hatch a coup d’état with other high-ranking officers. His seditious plan was to release the emperor’s ministers and bring them back to power. All this after our people had suffered and sacrificed for centuries to get rid of them. We have the evidence in our hands and we can present it to you, bellowed the outraged Mengistu. Again the somberness in the hall erupted in rage and surprise at what they had just heard. Fear, anxiety and alarm began to invade everybody’s mind. Feeling the fuming mood of the soldiers, Mengistu made his pitch “we are in a treacherous state of affairs in any case; the soldiers are forever complaining that we are merely feeding the jailed emperor’s ministers…”
Now assured, certain Derg members started making speeches about eliminating those who have forever oppressed the Ethiopian people. Another voice added that if we don’t strike now, they will finish us off. We need to take decisive action to curtail this dangerous movement against us. The decision was leaning towards needing to take decisive action against the imprisoned ministers. The author thinks that Mengistu could have told the anxious soldiers that this issue is not in our agenda today, and that we will certainly discuss it at an appropriate time in the near future. Instead, he moved towards soliciting opinions in favor of the final solution, as it were. He suggested that we (the Derg) can end this rising and imminent danger against us only by taking fast and decisive action against the culprits. Therefore we must unleash the final solution against some of these imprisoned officials by a simple majority vote opined Mengistu. Fearful, nobody objected this deadly motion, except for Shaleka Berhanu Bayeh who counseled that that the matter should better be resolved by legal means. No one supported Major Bayeh (head of the Derg’s legal committee)! The soldiers were ordered not to leave the compound to go home, and the meeting was adjourned for lunch. All members were immersed in fear and foreboding. The Derg’s membership had surrendered to Mengistu’s will and the gates of hell were opened wide open.
Now, it was time to take stock. Those of you supporting the death of certain members of the old order, raise your hands, demanded Mengistu. Noticing that the “punishable by death” sentiment was in the majority, Mengistu ordered Shaleka Getachew Shibeshi to bring the list of the prisoners. At this moment, he announced that general Aman had failed to surrender and that his house is surrounded. He quickly ordered Colonel Daniel Asfaw to see to his surrender or dismissal-elimination. It was decided that each prisoner’s fate would be decided after lunch.
After lunch, Mengistu came to the hall with his thick file of the prisoners. He said, continuing on the pre-lunch decision, we will now go through their names and known crimes and decide by a simple majority. First was the name of former PM Aklilu Habte Wold, and the endless number of “crimes” he had allegedly committed. Those who want him dead raise your hands and Mengistu placed a mark of death beside his name. 17 of those sentenced to death in this way were generals in rank. In this mode, over 250 names were read and out of these 53 were sentenced to die, including some members of the rebellious “neus Dergs.” Before the death sentences were handed down, Colonel Daniel walked in to announce the suicide of Aman to a smiling Mengistu. The latter announced that the general had started resisting arrest and that his house was crushed by a tank and the general had committed suicide. On this note, the soldiers were dismissed for a break until 10:00 PM. Upon return to the hall four commanders were called in to bear witness the Derg’s decisive actions. They were generals Jagamma Kello, Gizaw Belayneh, Tadesse Gabre, Worku Mekonnen. They leave the meeting.
At midnight, Shaleka Getachew Shibeshi came into the meeting hall to explain how effectively the summary executions of former officials had been carried out. With this diabolical execution, the old order was disintegrating. The meeting of this long night lasted until 1:00 AM. A statement of the execution was prepared to be read the following day, accompanied by “Yefiyel Wotette!” The confused, exhausted and morally bloodied soldiers were ordered to monitor public opinion the following day and dismissed for the night. That fateful decision reverberates into post Derg times.
The author further alleges that even though there might have been some Derg officials that may have wanted the execution of former officials, 80% of the Derg would not have voted in favor of this dreadful decision, especially had it been presented formally and debated soberly, as it were. In other words, all these men were controlled by irrational circumstances and acted in a climate of fear, haste and anxiety. The “60” were executed by a simple majority vote given by, for the most part, outraged and anxious soldiers. It is clear to the author that all Derg members are legally and morally liable for this criminal summary execution of imprisoned officials; they all partook in it, as grand jury and judge. To some extent, they were all participants in this atrocious act and must accept common accountability for the consequences their decisions have wrought. For one, this criminal action cemented the violent power base of Mengistu, both within and outside the Derg, and initiated the process of mendacity, barbarity and arbitrariness in the use and abuse of state power in modern Ethiopia. The arbitrary use of repressive/deadly state power in resolving troublesome affairs of the state had become normalized, so to speak. This deliberate and ideologically buttressed extrajudicial bloodletting was the inauguration of the Derg 17 year dictatorship and many more crimes to follow.
By Michael Wossen (PhD)