1977: Girma Kebede in the Ethiopian Red Terror

Add comment April 2nd, 2011 Headsman

There’s a reason why “may you live in interesting times” is a curse.

The eras we call a “Terror” — Stalin’s Russia, Robespierre‘s France, Pol Pot’s Cambodia — are pretty interesting.

Ethiopia in the mid-1970’s was one of the most interesting places in the world.

After the Derg, a shadowy committee of leftist officers, toppled the monarchy in 1974, factional violence between Ethiopia’s two main Marxist parties soon came to the fore.

Long story short, All-Ethiopian Socialist Movement (MEISON) backed the Derg — while its rival the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) denounced it as fascistic.

And when Mengistu assumed dictatorial power in February 1977, it was Red Terror on.

It was as dirty as it sounds, “one of the most systematic uses of mass murder by the state ever witnessed in Africa” according to Human Rights Watch. This was the context of Mengistu’s most notorious public appearance, at an Addis Ababa rally later this same month of April 1977 when he theatrically smashed bottles of (apparently) blood while inciting his supporters against “enemies.”

Now that is red terror.

The Derg-MEISON alliance* built up Kebeles, small neighborhood militias — “essentially a matter of arming the lumpenproletariat against members of the urban intelligentsia,” writes Christopher Clapham.

But even these MEISON-allied goon squads were liable to run afoul of revolutionary justice if their indiscriminate mayhem failed to discriminate at the most essential moment.

On two occasions, March and again in May 1977, house-to-house searches were carried out in Addis Ababa, and suspected EPRP members rounded up for execution. Attempts by the EPRP to launch a school strike were likewise countered by the execution of students who failed to attend classes. The press regularly reported the execution of ‘anarchists’ and ‘paid assassins’. Along with the conflict between the rival political factions went the settling of personal scores, and gratuitous killings by psychotics on either side. The most notorious of these, Girma Kebede, was a Meison kebelle chairman in the Arat Kilo area of Addis Ababa, and the well-educated son of a former high official; he overreached himself by taking away for execution a group of ‘reactionaries’ from the Ministry of Education who included Mengistu’s uncle, and was then shot on the charge of seeking ‘to alienate the people from the Government and incite the broad masses against the revolution’.

On this date in 1977, Girma Kebede paid the forfeit. His, er, strategy of killing scores of humans to alienate the people from the government would take many more years and bodies to succeed.

* Later that year, the Derg-MEISON alliance also fell apart, Mengistu cemented his power, and MEISON got the same treatment it had once meted out to its EPRP enemies.

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1936: Aberra Kassa and Asfawossen Kassa, Ethiopian royalty

Add comment December 21st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1936, Italian forces consolidating control of occupied Ethiopia mopped up a couple of royal relatives who had resisted a bit too long.

Brothers Aberra Kassa and Asfawossen Kassa had briefly become, with the flight to exile of their ally Haile Selassie, symbolic leaders of Ethiopia’s domestic resistance to Mussolini’s imperialism.

Along with another brother, these sons of Ras Kassa mounted an abortive July 1936 attack on Addis Ababa, precipitating a furious Italian response.

The rebels were hunted to their retreat: the other brother was caught in a cave and summarily executed, which must have been at the back of Aberra and Asfawossen’s mind when they surrendered under a pledge of safe conduct.

‘Now I tell you to surrender’, wrote Graziani, ‘and I assure you nothing will happen to you. Why do you want to die uselessly?’

Only his cousins had remained with Dejaz Aberra: Mesfin Sileshi and the two younger men, Lij Merid Mangasha and Lij Abiye Abebe. They suspected Italian treachery. ‘If you want to be killed’, said Mesfin, ‘shall I kill you?’ …

The exact sequence of the events that followed is difficult to disentangle … Aberra and Asfawossen finally decided to submit. Aberra however sent his wife and baby son away with Mesfin and the two cousins, a last-minute concession to their pleas and threats.

A letter was sent up to General [Ruggero] Tracchia who had now occupied Fikke:

“To General Tracchia

“As you have assured me in your letter ot me that our lives will be spared, we shall assemble our armies and receive you by peaceful parade in a place called Bidigon.

“Aberra Kassa”

Ras Hailu in person led Aberra and Asfawossen to General Tracchia’s camp. While they were in the tent drinking coffee with the General, the men of their escort were disarmed, apparently without difficulty, and taken away (they were released the next morning). A group or carabinieri entered the tent and arrested the two brothers. It was 21 December, three days after Ras Imru had surrendered. At 7 p.m. the men in the escort heard a volley of shots in the centre of the town.

Tracchia sent a laconic cable to Graziani: ‘Dejaz Aberra and brother shot dusk in piazza of Fikke’. Graziani sent a cable to Lessona (Italian link) repeating Tracchia’s message and adding ‘Situation Salale liquidated’.

This reference to the Salale or Selale branch of the Ethiopian royal family was not entirely correct, however.

Not liquidated was the youngest brother, Asrate Kassa, who had escaped to exile and would return with Haile Selassie’s post-Mussolini government. Asrate ultimately qualified for these dolorous pages himself, however, as one of the victims of the 1974 Derg purge.

Of more immediate concern for Graziani and his ilk: Abera Kassa’s widow Kebedech Seyoum (French link) legendarily rose from childbirth after learning of her husband’s execution to become one of the Ethiopian resistance’s greatest military leaders. She’s a national hero in Ethiopia … and there’s also a Laboratorio Femminista Kebedech Seyoum in Rome, dedicated to the study of ant-fascist women.

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1977: Atnafu Abate, Mengistu’s last rival

Add comment November 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1977,* Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam eliminated one of his last political rivals with the execution of Atnafu Abate.

The men’s relationship had long been complex and unclear; Abate backed the Derg’s “Black Saturday” mass executions in 1974, and sometimes lined up as Mengistu’s ally over the succeeding years as part of the Derg military junta.

At the same time, there were rumors that things between Mengistu and Atnafu were so tense that they pulled guns at meetings.

Atnafu’s absence (by accident or design) during an early 1977 purge within the Derg left the conservative and Orthodox Atnafu officially second-in-command, and unofficially the last real or potential rival to Mengistu.

His elimination was widely expected, though exactly why it went down, when it went down has never been transparent. Mengistu’s grip on the country was already secure enough to have launched the Red Terror.

The New York Times‘ Nov. 15 report of this development captures a bit of the Alice-in-Wonderland political logic evidently at work.

The Ethiopian press agency, which made the announcement, also released what amounted to a six-page indictment listing “twelve specific antirevolutionary crimes,” and “five specific arch-reactionary stands” attributed to Colonel Atnafu, who had served as vice chairman of the provisional military administrative council.

The statement charged Colonel Atnafu with opposing “proclamations intensifying the revolution,” manifesting “a feudal arrogance while on visits to various provinces,” and consorting after working hours with what the statement called riff-raff of the aristocracy and military bourgeois, as well as “extremely dangerous imperialist agents — especially CIA agents.”

The statement also charged that “he had repeatedly confessed at meetings that he did not believe in the ideology of the working class.”

But perhaps the section of the statement that most accurately reflects the bewildering tone of political rhetoric and chaos in Addis Ababa, was one that charged that the proof of Colonel Atnafu’s “reactionary stands” was his placing of Ethiopian national interests before ideological considerations.

“At this time,” said the document, “when workers, farmers, the men in uniform and all the toiling masses are intensifying the revolutionary struggle guided by the principles of Marxism-Leninism, Lieut. Col. Atnafu has been antagonistic to the idea and has instead by way of dilatory tactic, argued that the interest of Ethiopia should be put before ideology.”

* As reported by the London Times gloss (articles Nov. 14 and Nov. 15) of a state radio report given in Ethiopia on Nov. 13. “A revolutionary measure” was the official euphemism for the action taken against Atnafu Abate.

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1974: Black Saturday in Ethiopia

4 comments November 23rd, 2009 Headsman

November 23, 1974 was “Bloody Saturday” in Ethiopia for that day’s* surprise purge of some threescore politicians and soldiers by the ruling Derg.

It was barely ten weeks since the Derg — an Amharic word meaning “committee”, in this case a leftist military junta — had formally overthrown Emperor Haile Selassie, so ancient that he was already middle-aged back when he’d been leading Ethiopia’s resistance against Mussolini.

It’s strange to say in retrospect, but having spent the best part of a year systematically supplanting the political authority of the decrepit ancien regime with widespread public support, the Derg had engendered hope that its revolution would be accomplished without slaughter.

“Ityopiya tikdem/yala mimin dem” — “Let Ethiopia progress/Without any bloodshed” — became the popular slogan of that heady time. (pdf source)

Black Saturday turned the leaf on all that, and opened the sanguinary chapter of Ethiopian history today evoked by the name of the Derg.

What went wrong with Ethiopia's bloodless revolution?
“The prospect,” concluded the analysis that appeared under this headline in the Nov. 29, 1974 London Times, “is that the mass executions will be followed by further drastic action aimed at consolidating the control of the new military rulers.” The same author, Michael Knipe, had written on Nov. 16 that “the firmness of [the military’s] control appears to be matched by an overall moderation of approach, which holds promise for Ethiopia’s future.”

The Derg long remained a shadowy body, its members largely unknown and its internecine factional politics only guessed-at. The executions this date are generally read as the consolidation of the coup’s “radical” elements as against its “moderates” and the first signal event in Derg member Mengistu Haile Mariam‘s eventual conquest of supreme authority.

The crucial issue that separated radicals from moderates at the revolution’s early stage appears to be their approach to the ongoing struggle of coastal Eritrea — then still a province of Ethiopia.

Ethnically Eritrean officer Aman Michael Andom, the first titular head of the Derg who had been deposed from his position only a week ago, was a noteworthy advocate of negotiating a peacable settlement with Eritrean agitators. He was among the casualties of Black Saturday. (Aman was later reported to have been killed resisting arrest, rather than actually executed; many of the available accounts of this massacre have slightly varying numbers and particulars.) Henceforth, military force would be Addis Ababa’s only approach to the Eritrean problem.

A few other Aman supporters in the Derg shared his fate in a political wipeout. But more numerous among the 29 civilian and 31 military men announced as casualties the next morning — and there had been no prior warning that executions were imminent — were aristocrats and officials of the Haile Selassie government, including:

  • Two former Prime Ministers, Endelkachew Makonnen and Aklilu Habte-Wold (or Aklilou Wold), both of whom had been slated for trial for the recent famine in Wollo (London Times, Nov. 14, 1974);**
  • Solomon Abrahami, the former governor of Wollo;
  • Selassie’s own grandsom, Rear Adm. Iskender (Alexander) Desta;
  • 16 generals, including Selassie’s son-in-law (and former Defense Minister) Abiye Abebe.

(This Nov. 25, 1974 New York Times article — behind the paper’s pay wall — lists all 60 vicitms.)

These were a selection of some 200 political prisoners held by the Derg; how hard to come down on these officials was another point of contention between radicals and moderates. It emerged later that the Derg had met earlier on the 23rd to vote, name by name, which among its prisoners deserved execution.

So if you look at it right, summarily machine-gunning only 30% of your political prisoners is a moderate policy. Alas: these would hardly be the last.

After the Derg government was itself finally overthrown in 1991 — and the troubled province of Eritrea finally won its independence from Ethiopia — some of the perpetrators of its genocidal atrocities were themselves put on trial.

* It’s obscure — perhaps permanently so — whether the nighttime killings transpired before or after the end of the day, and both the 23rd and 24th are variously cited as the date of death. “Reliable sources said the executions were by machine gun at midnight,” the unhelpfully breezy New York Times reported on Nov. 25. This account (pdf) has the shootings occupying several batches with midnight passing during the process. We give precedence to Saturday the 23rd here because that’s the day that earned the “Bloody” appellation.

** According to Marxist Modern: An Ethnographic History of the Ethiopian Revolution, Mengistu was rumored to have disposed of Aklilu personally.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Ethiopia,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Mass Executions,Notable Participants,Politicians,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wrongful Executions

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