The Failed Coup of Mengistu and Germame Neway
By Seble Teweldebirhan
Addis Ababa, April 4, 2012 (Ezega.com) – Until 1974, the descendants of Queen of Sheba and her son from the King Solomon of Israel, King Menelik I, ruled Ethiopia for nearly 3000 years. The last king of the Solomonic Dynasty, Haile Selassie, was not ready to give up what he believed to be divinely assigned power. Not only him, but also the Ethiopia people as a whole were convinced that only the family that descended from King Solomon has the entitlement to rule Ethiopia.
Compelled by illiteracy, religion, and history teachings, the people supported a system that treated the majority of people as slaves and second-class citizens. The pains and cries of the peasants of Ethiopia went unheard. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a state religion that owned nearly 40% of the country's fertile land, only looked after its own interests and preached the people to be loyal and devoted to the king and his family, as they had done for centuries. For the nearly 90% uninformed population, that was good enough validation for the Emperor’s indisputable divine power.
However, for the few young, western-educated Ethiopians at the time, the infinite power of the king, his family, and his officials was unbearable. For the peasant that carried the country and was still treated as a slave, these few young educated people felt a responsibility. The fact that the farmer was tortured physically, emotionally and betrayed by the conspiracy of state and church was not something they can just ignore.
It was for this reason the two legendary brothers in Ethiopian recent history, Germame and Mengistu Neway planned a failed coup on the Emperor. In 1960, the two brothers’ thought they figured a way out to free the people and the nation out of the brutal rule of feudalism. The new book “Gedele Mefenkel Mengiste, Ethiopia in 1953” or “The Legend of Coup, Ethiopia in 1960/61” by Tadele Tele Salvano, explains what happened during that era in Ethiopia. The 235-page book published by Berana Printing Company provides the story with evidences like letters, pictures, and court testimonies. It also includes interviews with people who experienced the coup first hand and was part of it one way or another.
Mengistu and Germame were privileged young Ethiopians at the time. They were educated with some crucial government positions. Germame Neway was a ruler of the then Jijiga Awarga and General Mengistu Neway was a Chief of the military division Royal Guard or known as Kibur Zebegna. The book using the testimony of Mengistu Neway for the investigative bodies after the coup failed shows what made these two fortunate brothers believe they can challenge what was assumed to be unchallengeable.
Mengistu says that it all started after years of witnessing the brutal treatment, torture, and pain of Ethiopians under the Emperor regime. Since many were tired of being exploited for the interest of the few, the brothers thought if they just figure out a way to remove the king, the people and the army would support them. Considering they were educated and understood the attitude of Ethiopians to certain level, they obviously knew it would be a challenge. However, the book provides evidences on the fact that they did not realize how much that would be.
The brothers first communicated their intention to the third mastermind, Colonel Workneh Gebeyehu, a man who was a Cabinet member and Chief Security Officer of the Emperor. Colonel Workneh indeed agreed with the plan. After that, the three met several times to discuss how they will materialize the coup.
In addition, they had approached the American Embassy in Addis Ababa for support. The Ambassador named, Arture Richards was keen with the plan and gave them a complete support. He even suggested his country will assist financially and he will get them military support from Egypt. According to Mengistu’s testimony, that news convinced them that they will succeed. Therefore, they agreed to come up with a detailed plan. Germame took the initiation to write steps and procedures.
When the Emperor got an invitation to visit western Africa, he thought he was leaving the country and his power on reliable hands. Therefore, he extended his travel from West Africa to Brazil. This, for the coup schemers was an excellent opportunity. Since the king will be far away, before he gets back they planned to demolish his power. Therefore, the coup was set to commence on December 12, 1960.
According to the book, the king left the country as planned. When he got to Brazil, Germame, General Mengistu, and Colonel Workneh started executing their plan. They believed that the Royal Guard, led by Mengistu, would be on their side to make their plan a reality. Since he was the Chief of the Royal Guard, Mengistu seemed to take this part of the military for granted. He did not even take time to explain his plan or inform them what they were about to be part of. Instead, he deceived them with information that says the military was trying coup so they will be getting orders to defend the power of His majesty Haile Selassie. Since that is their primary task, they were more than happy to do it.
Here, there is something Mengistu and his allies knew and tried to take advantage of, but still noticeably misunderstood. That is the bitter relationship between the Royal Guard and the military. Those two got a completely different treatment from the Emperor. The Royal Guards were considered more of a family and treated with better care. The military, on the other hand, had grievances about the overall treatment they got. In addition to that, according to several books and testimonies on the relationship between the Royal Guard and the military, there was a clear tension and dislike between the two. The Royal Guards used to show some contempt for other divisions of the military.
The coup masterminds tried to take advantage of this tension. That is probably why they told the Guards the military was trying to betray the king. At the same time, one might wonder how they thought they would wipe out three-thousand-year dynasty with a limited number of Royal Guards, which in fact had little war experience compared to the military.
According to the testimony of Mengistu, they first decided to get Prince Asfaweson, the son of Emperor Haile Selassie. Therefore, they went to the palace and told the prince the same story they fed the Royal Guards. They told him the military is planning a coup and he should come with them to discuss immediate measures. Instead of controlling the main palace, for a reason hard to imagine, they chose the building of the Royal Guards. The prince, shocked by the news agreed to join them in Mengistu’s office. After that, the prince was told he is under arrest. They also told him he would become successor of his father if he agrees to work with them.
Meanwhile, they called every top government official including ministers, cabinet members and military leaders saying the Queen is sick. Most of them did buy this story and came to the palace with their own cars. Unfortunately, the Royal Guards were waiting to arrest every one of them.
The coup allies also thought they should get the city police on their side. Therefore, after calling the Chief of the city police, General Tsige Dibu they forced him to order the police to be part of the coup. Unfortunately, he was able to let his officers know his order was not voluntarily. Therefore, the plan to get the police on their side failed.
One of the terrible mistakes they did was Mengistu and his allies failing to arrest the Commander in Chief of the military, General Mered Mengesha. Mengistu admitted to the investigative bodies later that if they have had him arrested, the whole story might have gone differently.
Instead, they hurried to write announcement about the end of the Empire rule in Ethiopia and made Prince Asfaweson read it on radio. Though Mengistu did not mention about forcing the prince to read this announcement, many testified he put a gun on his head and made him read it. The book refers to several testimonies to that effect.
The announcement told the Ethiopian people the 3000-year rule of the Solomonic dynasty ended. In addition, it promised a salary raise, ownership of land by peasants and many other improvements for those who lived in the city. While declaring all of this, the only thing the coup allies had controlled was top officials, the prince, and the radio station. The military including the navy and the air force were running themselves and they failed to see the importance of taking measures in that area. Since they did not arrest the Commander in Chief of the military, he started planning to crash their scheme.
In fact, it took only 24 hours before the whole plan went to hell. The military and the police took control of most of the city. Though Mengistu ordered the Royal Guard to fight back, they were outnumbered and did not know whom they were defending exactly. In addition, the people, ordered by the church to stick to the divine rule of the Emperor and believed the Royal guards betrayed the king fought siding with the police and military. Emperor Haile Selassie, who got back from Brazil to Asmara as soon as he heard the news, played a big role in crushing the coup by pleading the people to be on his side.
The dark side of Mengistu, his brother Grmame and their allies came out when they know they lost the game big time. Mengistu told in his own words that he ordered the murder of the 15 top government political and military officials. He said he shot some of them himself to make sure they were dead.
The two brothers and one of their allies Baye Tilahun were caught near Debrezeyet while on the run. They used their last strength to fight back. However, Germame and Baye were killed and Mengistu was arrested injured badly. After arrest, Mengistu told the coup investigation bodies every detail with a resonance of a man who had nothing to lose by telling the truth. He told how they planned, executed, and killed the top officials. He gave names, both who agreed with him and who challenged him.
The court sentenced him to death. Of course, he knew this was coming. According to those who were at the court during the sentence, he was not surprised at all. Instead, he gave his historical speech about Ethiopia, his dream to the people and his belief that the future generation will remember him for his commitment and love for his country.
“I and my brother had everything,” Mengistu told the court. “I have got so many privileges in life. If I wanted to be like you and give judgments on things, I barely understand I could have. However, I chose to hear the cries of my people. Ichose to leave all my power and luxuries behind to give my country a better day. I feel sorry for you people. When Ethiopia realize what you are and what you did, I feel sad to think what it would do to you. I have never planned to start a fight between the military and the Royal Guards. Those two got a salary less than the King’s dog. I did not want to make their life any worse. All I wanted was to change my country and make Ethiopia a place where people are respected and treated equally regardless of their bloodline,” he said.
The court told him he had the right to appeal to the Emperor’s court or known as Yengus Chilot. He refused to stand before Haile Selassie and beg forgiveness. Therefore, on March 28, 1961, General Mengistu Neway was hanged on TekleHaimanot Square. His body was displayed the whole day to the public. According to the book, nobody knew what happened to his body after that.
The book shows the two ambitious brothers who wanted to change their country but never thought the whole thing through. With several letters, testimonies of those who witnessed the coup first hand, including President Girma Woldergiorgis, and many other evidences, it shows the flows of their plan and the extent of their commitment.
However, another barely known military man, Mengistu Hailemariam, finished what the two brothers started by removing the Emperor's rule for good in 1974.
The book makes everyone wonder what would have happened to Ethiopia if the two brothers had succeeded. Since what happened in that era considerably shaped the present political and social setup of Ethiopia, the book is a necessary read for anyone who likes to understand the country better.
Seble Teweldebirhan is Addis Ababa based Reporter for Ezega.com. She can be reached by sending email through this form.