Articles in this series:
Series: A History of Early Twentieth Century Ethiopia
20. Prelude to Revolution
We saw last week that post-World War II Ethiopia witnessed significant achievements in economic and other fields. This did not, however, prevent the growth, in the 1960s and early 1970s, of steadily increasing political discontent. Now read on:
The 1960 Coup d’Etat
Complaints at the slow pace of Ethiopian economic development, which was seen as comparing unfavourably with that of other African countries, and criticism of the Emperor’s autocratic rule, led to an escalation of political discontent in the late 1950s. During his absence on a state visit to Brazil, in December 1960, his Imperial Bodyguard staged a coup d’etat. Its mastermind was Garmam Neway, an American-educated radical and dedicated civil servant, whose brother, Mangestu, happened to be head of the bodyguard. The plotters arrested most of the Ministers, several of the Emperor’s closest confidants.
The coup received immediate support from University College students, who demonstrated in its favour. The population as a whole, however, failed to rally behind the insurrection, as Garmam and Mangestu had hoped. The coup was speedily crushed by the army and airforce. Before surrendering, however, the plotters killed most of their ministerial prisoners.
The Emperor, who, on hearing the news of the rebellion, had immediately decided to return, entered Addis Ababa in triumph. The coup’s student supporters on the other hand refused to accept defeat. In the months and years which followed they continued to agitate, and gradually succeeded in permanently politicising the country’s steadily expanding student body.
In Asmara, meanwhile, the Eritrean Assembly voted, under Ethiopian Government pressure, on 14 November 1962, for the territory’s complete union with Ethiopia. Eritrea, on the following day, was accordingly declared an integral part of Ethiopia. The legality of this act was, however, challenged by many Eritreans. Some of them shortly afterwards founded their territory’s first militant opposition organisation, the Eritrean Liberation Front, ELF.
“Land to the Tiller!”
Discontent in Ethiopia itself was by then markedly on the increase. Students, particularly after 1965, demonstrated against the government more or less regularly each year, with escalating determination. They focused on the need for land reform, with the cry, “Land to the Tiller!”, as well as on the treatment of the capital’s beggars, on the alleged corruption of senior officials, on the catastrophic famine of 1972-4 in Tegray and Wallo, which was comparable in intensity only to the Great Famine of the previous century, and on rising prices. Discontent also manifested itself in several small-scale peasant disturbances, mainly in the southern provinces, and in on-going agitation among the trade unions many of whose members thought that their official leadership was too subservient to the government.
Many people, even within the ruling elite, were moreover increasingly of opinion that the then Ethiopian mode of government was antiquated. Many were also concerned that the ageing Emperor was not apparently grooming his heir, the Crown Prince, to succeed him.
Haile Sellassie, then in his eighties, was by this time increasingly concerned with foreign rather than internal affairs, and had relaxed his previous day-to-day scrutiny and control over the administration. The Government, as a whole, seems moreover to have been half-hearted in its recognition of the need for reform.
It was decided in 1960 that the Prime Minister, Aklilu Habtawald, instead of the Emperor, should chose the cabinet, but this limited constitutional reform failed to change either the composition or the spirit of the administration, and left the government’s critics unsatisfied.
A landlord-tenant reform bill was presented to Parliament in 1968, but met with such strong opposition in the landlord-dominated assembly that it had not been passed six years later when Revolution erupted.
Despite the Emperor’s flair for personal diplomacy the country suffered, perhaps unavoidably, from strained relations with neighbouring Somalia. The latter country had come into existence in 1960, through a merger of the former Italian colony of Somalia (which had been for ten years under U.N.-sponsored Italian Trusteeship) and the former British Somaliland Protectorate.
The newly established Somalia state, inspired by the earlier British idea of a Greater Somalia, from its inception claimed the Ethiopian Ogaden, northern Kenya, and the southern half of the French Territory of the Afars and Issas, formerly the French Somaliland Protectorate. All three areas were inhabited by ethnic Somalis.
Tension between Ethiopia and Somalia peaked in 1964, when an undeclared war broke out, and an OAU cease-fire failed to put an end to continued periodical clashes.
Ethiopian relations with neighbouring Sudan were also often tense. This was largely due to Ethiopian support for the Anya-Nya rebels in the southern Sudan, and Sudanese support for the Eritrean Liberation Front. Refugees from both sides were placed in camps near the common frontier, thus enabling them to pursue their political agitation and other activities unhampered.