Military Junta Comes to Power in Ethiopia

The Ethiopian army staged a coup against the government of Emperor Haile Selassie I, resulting in a Marxist-Leninist seizure of power, systematic human rights violations, and a protracted civil war.

Summary of Event

Ethiopia (formerly Abyssinia) is the name given to the area of eastern Africa near the Red Sea bordered by Eritrea to the north, Djibouti to the northeast, Somalia to the southeast, Kenya to the south, and Sudan to the west. As a modern nation-state, Ethiopia is an artificial construct, an amalgam of several distinct ethnic and national territories held together primarily by subordination to a central government in the capital, Addis Ababa. Religious and class divisions have exacerbated these ethnic nationalist tensions, rendering entire areas and provinces of Ethiopia governable only through force. Revolutions and coups;Ethiopia
Ethiopia;human rights abuses
Human rights abuses;Ethiopia
[kw]Military Junta Comes to Power in Ethiopia (Feb., 1974)
[kw]Junta Comes to Power in Ethiopia, Military (Feb., 1974)
[kw]Ethiopia, Military Junta Comes to Power in (Feb., 1974)
Revolutions and coups;Ethiopia
Ethiopia;human rights abuses
Human rights abuses;Ethiopia
[g]Africa;Feb., 1974: Military Junta Comes to Power in Ethiopia[01530]
[g]Ethiopia;Feb., 1974: Military Junta Comes to Power in Ethiopia[01530]
[c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Feb., 1974: Military Junta Comes to Power in Ethiopia[01530]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Feb., 1974: Military Junta Comes to Power in Ethiopia[01530]
Haile Selassie I
Mengistu Haile Mariam
Zenawi, Meles

Ethiopia’s population in 1941 was approximately 48 million people. The numerically predominant ethnic group in Ethiopia proper were the Oromo, composing about 40 percent of the population, followed by the Amhara (25 percent), Tigray (12 percent), and Sidama (9 percent). Roughly 40 percent are Muslim and 40 percent Ethiopian Orthodox Christian. Consequently, when the Ethiopian revolution and civil war broke out in 1974, powerful nationalist and class hostilities surfaced, leading to devastating cycles of insurrection and governmental repression.

The revolution and civil war produced systematic political rights violations by the new Ethiopian government (the Dergue), including widespread extrajudicial executions, war atrocities, imprisonment without trial, torture, and denial of civil rights. Internationally supplied food relief intended for famine-stricken regions of the country in the control of rebel forces was intercepted by the government, contributing to massive starvation. During the late 1980’s, economic and military assistance from the Soviet Union and Cuba, assistance which had been substantial during the first fifteen years of the regime, began to trail off, leaving the government increasingly vulnerable.

As rebel victories accumulated in the early 1990’s, the Ethiopian government began to reach out for international help. It called for formal peace talks with insurrectionary groups and permitted the massive airlift of thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. In exchange, the United States agreed to mediate the peace talks, lubricating the transition to a new government and enabling some of the collapsing regime’s leadership to escape the country unharmed. Conflicts over the post-civil war political identity of several of Ethiopia’s provinces ensued, especially with regard to the territory of Eritrea, whose population considered themselves a separate nation.

The nationalist tensions plaguing Ethiopia have deep historical origins. At various times in recent centuries, most of the current provinces of Ethiopia have been independent tribal or ethnic homelands, with their own distinct languages, cultures, and religious practices. In the nineteenth century, Italy colonized much of the Red Sea coast, including Eritrea. At roughly the same time, the Amhara kingdom of the central highlands, under the rule of King Menelik II, conquered and occupied the lands of the Oromos to the south and the Tigray to the north. Italian armed forces tried to expand farther from the coast into the interior, but were confronted and routed by Menelik’s army at the Battle of Adowa in 1896, the first and only, as of 1991, defeat of a European army by an African one in conventional battle. Menelik’s cousin, Tafari Makonnen, was appointed regent for his daughter upon Menelik’s death. When she too died, in 1930, Makonnen proclaimed himself Emperor Haile Selassie I.

In 1936, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini Mussolini, Benito sent armies once again into the Ethiopian interior, defeating Haile Selassie’s forces and forcing the emperor into exile. This military incursion by a modern army with tanks and artillery against a horse cavalry armed with spears and single-shot rifles was accompanied by war crimes and atrocities that shocked the growing international human rights community. Along with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and German annexation of the Saar and Sudetenland, Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia is viewed as one of the precipitant causes of World War II.

After the fall of Ethiopia’s ancient monarchy in 1974, the country experimented with a Marxist government under Mengistu Haile Mariam, seen here in 1983.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

In 1941, the Italians were defeated by British troops, and Haile Selassie returned to Addis Ababa, where he ruled until 1974. The Ogaden region remained under British military occupation until 1948. Following the war, Haile Selassie offered the United States use of military bases on Ethiopian territory. In exchange, the United States and other Western powers recognized Amhara sovereignty over Eritrea, which retained formal, but in practice very weak, provincial autonomy under a federative agreement of 1952. The emperor soon took steps toward establishment of a constitutional government, and in 1957 the first general elections to the Chamber of Deputies were held. The constitution, proclaimed in November, 1955, contained some provisions for the guarantee of human rights and civil liberties, especially religious freedom. National universities were established, and basic educational and sanitation services were extended to much of the general population.

Partially because of its own concern over the threat of Eritrean separatism, Haile Selassie’s government became a prominent advocate of the sanctity of postcolonial boundaries. Addis Ababa became the center of much regional activity by the Organization of African Unity Organization of African Unity (OAU), whose primary political tenet was the territorial integrity of its member states. Systematic repression of the human and economic rights of the Eritreans and failure to respect the letter or spirit of the autonomy agreement led to a guerrilla insurrection in 1961. The rebellion was put down but after 1966 reemerged and became more organized. This rebellion continued for decades, initially against the Haile Selassie regime, and then against the revolutionary Dergue government.

Both because Haile Selassie was a valued regional ally and because the United States for its own reasons wanted to respect the inviolability of established postcolonial nation-state boundaries and the territorial integrity of those states, the United States never formally opposed Ethiopian control over Eritrea. Cold War alliance formation, on the principle of “my enemy’s friend is my enemy,” also led the Soviet Union to first back Somalia in its border conflict with Ethiopia over the Ogaden region in the south, and then later to support the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), the guerrilla organization that grew out of the 1961 uprising.

Mounting problems associated with economic underdevelopment, local political corruption, and ethnic discontent led in 1974 to a collapse of faith in Haile Selassie’s government. A bloodless military coup, led by a junta of leftist officers, overthrew the emperor and formed a military government ruled by a committee called the Dergue. Over the next three years, one of these officers, Mengistu Haile Mariam, consolidated his power through selective but ruthless violence, executing sixty members of the imperial household, incarcerating scores of others, and having other members of the Dergue assassinated.

The prerevolutionary pattern of international alliances also reversed during this period, when the Soviet Union began to provide approximately one billion dollars per year in aid to the Ethiopian government, and the United States began to back Ethiopia’s regional rival, Somalia. Throughout Mengistu’s rule, the EPLF grew in legitimacy and capability, winning battle after battle against Africa’s largest army and successfully training a large insurrectionary force in the Tigray Province. Soviet assistance began to wane with the end of the Cold War, and by 1989 Mengistu was forced to turn to Israel as a supplier of foreign aid. This assistance proved inadequate, however, and in 1991, the combined Eritrean and Tigrayan rebel forces successfully forced Mengistu into exile, and with the assistance of U.S. diplomatic personnel, negotiated the transition to a new government under Meles Zenawi. The new government guaranteed the effective autonomy of the province of Eritrea and promised the establishment of a multiparty system in Addis Ababa.


The Ethiopian revolution and civil war contributed to widespread violations of the human rights, both political and economic, of the several peoples of Ethiopia. While repressive government policies and corruption had resulted in human rights violations under the earlier government of Haile Selassie, following the 1974 revolution conditions grew worse. The primary victims were opponents of the new regime and its dissident members, residents of the provinces of Tigray and Eritrea, and the victims of famine in isolated rural areas of the country.

When the government of Haile Selassie was overthrown in 1974, much of the population, especially the educated youth of the middle classes, celebrated what appeared to be a “progressive” new regime. Within three years, however, the Dergue had ordered the killing of more than sixty members of the former imperial household and had arrested thousands of political opponents. Mengistu rose to power largely by physically eliminating potential adversaries, often by arranged assassinations and in at least one incident by personally shooting political leaders during a meeting.

Beginning in 1977, Mengistu’s followers unleashed a “red terror,” involving mass arrests and secret executions, televised display of the bodies of prisoners who had been tortured to death, and mass killings of antigovernment demonstrators by the army. The Dergue also embarked on a plan to modernize the Ethiopian industrial and agricultural economy under Marxist-Leninist guidelines, adapted to the essentially feudal conditions of the country. This resulted in the general suspension of civil rights, the elimination of competing political parties, the forced collectivization of the peasantry, the relocation of hundreds of thousands of rural residents, and the nationalization of all industry. The ensuing economic disruption contributed to a devastating famine in 1984 and 1985 that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians. The famine was exacerbated by the government’s interference with international food relief, the bombing of grassroots relief facilities in the northern provinces that were in rebellion, and the forced relocation of entire communities.

The Mengistu regime was also responsible for systematic war atrocities in Eritrea, including the aerial bombing of civilian residential communities, the use of cluster bombs against civilian populations, and violent retaliation against innocent Eritrean civilians for acts of the EPLF. The Mengistu government also effectively held the Eritrean capital city of Asmara hostage during the final years of the civil war, threatening to destroy its population to prevent the EPLF from overrunning it. In 1989, twelve respected, high-ranking officers conspired to stage a coup against Mengistu. He uncovered the plot and executed all the conspirators in 1990.

The new governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea appeared to hold out the promise of greater respect for human rights than their predecessors. The EPLF was regarded, even among Mengistu’s soldiers, as considerate of the human rights not only of its own population but also of captured prisoners of war. It was the effective government of most of Eritrea for several years before capturing the Eritrean capital, Asmara, in 1991, and it built Africa’s most effective grassroots hospital network and famine-relief system. The new rulers in Addis Ababa immediately freed all political prisoners, called for the establishment of a multiparty political system, and dedicated themselves to addressing the famine problem.

Ethiopia remained a highly divided society, and the victorious Tigrayans, however respected as fighters, did not enjoy governing legitimacy among many of the country’s other ethnic groups. Scattered guerrilla groups not affiliated with the new regime, and operating essentially as bandits in outlying areas of the country, continued to impede food relief, threatened the lives and security of refugees, and prevented consolidation of governmental authority. Border disputes between Ethiopia and newly independent Eritrea provoked war in 1998-2000 and ongoing tension even after a peace agreement was reached. Revolutions and coups;Ethiopia
Ethiopia;human rights abuses
Human rights abuses;Ethiopia

Further Reading

  • Donham, Donald L. Marxist Modern: An Ethnographic History of the Ethiopian Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Based on the author’s extensive fieldwork in Ethiopia, this cultural history of the Ethiopian revolution examines the role of modernist Marxist ideas in the local traditions.
  • Gebre-Medhin, Jordan. Peasants and Nationalism in Eritrea: A Critique of Ethiopian Studies. Trenton, N.J.: Red Sea Press, 1989. Very good study, from an anthropological perspective, of the social scientific approaches to the Ethiopian civil war and domestic problems of economic and political development in the Horn of Africa.
  • Giorgis, Dawit Wolde. Red Tears: War, Famine, and Revolution in Ethiopia. Trenton, N.J.: Red Sea Press, 1989. The author was a member of the Dergue, serving on the central committee and as head of the government’s relief commission. This is an insider’s account of the deterioration of the revolution covering the period from 1974 to 1986, when the author fled the country.
  • Harris, Myles F. Breakfast in Hell: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account of the Politics of Hunger in Ethiopia. New York: Poseidon Press, 1987. Chronicles efforts to overcome tremendous bureaucratic and political obstacles to effective famine relief. Understandably bitter toward the Dergue government and its local petty agents. Idealizes the prerevolutionary regime.
  • Keller, Edmond J. Revolutionary Ethiopia: From Empire to People’s Republic. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. Solid political science account. Analyzes the way the Dergue government was forced to use Marxism-Leninism as a mythology to displace its own evident inability to govern legitimately.
  • Korn, David A. Ethiopia, the United States, and the Soviet Union. London: Croom Helm, 1986. A geopolitical analysis of the Mengistu regime, with focus on the famine of 1984 and 1985. Documents the misguided efforts of the Dergue to apply Marxism-Leninism to rural Africa and the consequences of the internationalization of the Ethiopian problem in the Cold War context.
  • McCann, James. From Poverty to Famine in Northeast Ethiopia: A Rural History, 1900-1935. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987. Extremely interesting and comprehensive history of the effects of governmental policy and structure primarily on the Wallo region of Northern Ethiopia. Concentrates primarily on the Menelik II and early Haile Selassie periods. McCann shows how the centralization and bureaucratization of government power during this period compounded the natural and demographic pressures that led to the famines of the 1980’s.
  • Parfitt, Tudor. Operation Moses: The Untold Story of the Secret Exodus of the Falasha Jews from Ethiopia. New York: Stein & Day, 1986. Exciting, journalistic account of the escape of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the early 1980’s. Traces the history of the Falasha and describes their customs, religious practices, and oppression under successive Ethiopian regimes.
  • Wubneh, Mulatu, and Yohannis Abate. Ethiopia: Transition and Development in the Horn of Africa. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1988. Part of the Nations of Contemporary Africa Series. Good brief overview of the political, economic, and cultural context of the revolutionary government and its international setting.

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