Today we mark a day in Ethiopian history that heralded the beginning of one of its bloodiest chapters. On the evening of November 22, 1974, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, the First Vice Chairman of the ruling Provisional Military Administrative Council (known as the Derg) called it to an emergency meeting at the Imperial (Menelik) Palace. The 160 or so Derg members were joined by a larger group of about 500 known as the “Neus Derg/ንዑስ ደርግ”, basically a mob of enlisted soldiers, who acted as a support group for the military junta that had deposed Emperor Haile Selassie and seized power just a little over a month earlier. The Neus Derg was included it seems, to provide political cover for the smaller Derg and spread out the responsibility for the monstrous act that was about to be carried out. The issue they were called to discuss was the refusal of the Chairman of the Derg, Lt. General Aman Mikael Andom, to authorize a new military offensive in his native Eritrea, and also to authorize the fate of the ex-officials of the Imperial government held in detention. General Aman was refusing to obey a summons to appear before the Derg at the Palace, and so the assembled Derg and Neus Derg ordered that a detachment of soldiers be sent to the General’s home to bring him to the Menelik Palace, and if he resisted to respond with all force. Then the assembly began to discuss the fates of the Princes, nobles, ministers, governors,and senior military officers imprisoned in the wine cellars of the palace under their feet. A list was drawn up of those among them that should immediately be put to death.
A detachment of soldiers was sent to the Old Airport district of the capital and surrounded General Aman’s home where the General had assembled a small group of supportive military men to resist. A fierce shootout ensued which ended with a loud explosion (many believe the General and his men set off a massive bomb when they ran out of bullets) and Lt. General Aman and his men all died.
At the Palace, soldiers assembled the former officials of the Imperial Government from the Wine Cellar prison, and took them in a convoy of trucks to the Aqaqi Prison, known as “Alem Beqagn/ዓለም በቃኝ” (I’ve had enough of the world). They were then brutally gunned down and killed, their bodies unceremoniously tossed in a mass grave dug there in the prison, covered in lime, and buried. The bodies of General Aman and his companions were also brought to the prison and buried with them.
The men who were killed were a varied group. Two Prime Ministers, a grandson of the Emperor who was also a Rear Admiral of the Ethiopian navy, the Prince who was the President of the Crown Council, and the cream of Ethiopia’s post-war civilian and military establishment. Many were heroes of the resistance against the Fascist Occupation. Some were from aristocratic families long established in power circles, others of very humble birth appointed by the Emperor to be agents of progress and change to benefit his subjects. There were graduates of some of the greatest Institutions of learning be it civilian or military, Cambridge, Oxford, Sandhurst, the Sorbonne, St. Cyr, and others, people who still had much to contribute to their country. Some were elderly, others quite young. They left devastated widows and children, stunned siblings, and parents that would never recover from this blow.
Beyond the brutal butchering of these individuals, something very fundamental was murdered by the Derg in the wee hours of that dark November night. Ethiopia’s long history of justice and due process was slaughtered too. Whether it was the reigning Emperor, a regional Lord or Governor, or the administrator of a tiny district, the fair administration of justice was marker against which every ruler and official was judged. Ethiopians had always taken both the process and the substance of justice extremely seriously. Traditional law in Ethiopia dictated that any individual had the right to be heard whether he/she was accusing or the accused. He/she could appeal to the next higher court or authority all the way to the Supreme Court, and ultimately to be heard by the Emperor himself. The Emperors were bound by history, tradition and custom to hear every case brought to them in what was called their Chilot. Indeed, among the oaths taken by the Emperor on a Bible at his coronation was to administer fair justice to his people. An Emperor or any official who failed to do so was considered a failure, so every monarch took this duty extremely seriously. Emperor Haile Selassie took the administration of justice so seriously that he listened to cases in his Chilot while standing. It is said that he made a pledge to Medhane Alem (the Savior of the World) wile in Exile during the Fascist Occupation, that if Ethiopia were to be liberated he would never sit to administer justice. Until the end, when he was in his eighties, he stood to listen to all sorts of cases from the mundane to the highly significant, sometimes leaning on a lectern for support.
The men who were killed on the night of November 22-23 believed in the age old system of justice and rule of law in Ethiopia. These were powerful men who had the resources and power to resist or flee, but they had surrendered believing they would have the chance to defend themselves in open court. They were confident that they would receive justice. On the day they were gunned down, none had been charged with a single crime, none had appeared before any judge or tribunal or jury for any crime. The had simply been locked up and then murdered. No process, no justice, just political detention followed by political murder. It was a monumental landmark in Ethiopia’s history as political imprisonment without charge, or without substantiation of actual crimes, and political murder without trial became the norm. Where the Emperor once exiled opponents to foreign ambassadorships as punishment, or made them Senators where they could rail harmlessly, the new authorities used brutality to entrench their power. This trait was inherited by those who succeeded them and for four decades political imprisonment and murder replaced any semblance of due process and rule of law. Today efforts are underway to reverse this evil trend, and I pray the Prime Minister is successful in his gargantuan challenge.
The group of men who were butchered on the night November 22-23 were told they were to be killed moments before the killings began. It is said that Prime Minister Aklilu said that if their murder would bring prosperity or any benefit to the Ethiopian people they would die willingly, but he did not think it would. The elderly and very ill Lt. General Issayas Gebre-Selassie, an Eritrean born hero of the fight against fascism had been brought to his execution on a stretcher. He is said to have pointed at Rear Admiral Iskinder Desta (the Emperor’s grandson and a man in his early thirties) and said
“You can accuse us old men of long service and kill us, but what has this young boy done? He has done nothing and hurt no one. He could do so much for his country. Spare him.”
But they shed their blood together that day. The blood continued to flow and Ethiopia changed forever.
The Executed Imperial Officials
1, Prime Minister Tsehafi Taezaz Aklilu Habte-Wold
2, Prime Minister Lij Endalkachew Makonnen
3, Lt. General Abiye Abebe
4, H.H. Prince (Leul Ras) Asrate Kassa
5, Rear Admiral Leul Iskinder Desta
6, Ras Mesfin Sileshi
7, Ato Abebe Retta
8, Ato Akalework Habte-Wold
9, Lt. Colonel Tamirat Yigezu
10, Dejazmatch Kifle Irgetu
11, Lt. General Kebede Gebre
12, Lt. General Issayas Gebre-Selassie
13, Lt. General Assefa Ayana
14, Lt. General Debebe HaileMariam
15, Lt. General Belete Abebe
16, Lt. General Deresae Dubale
17, Lt. General Haile Baikedagn
18, Lt. General Assefa Demisse
19, Lt. General Abebe Gemeda
20, Lt. General Yilma Shibeshi
21, Ato Mulatu Debebe
22, Dr. Tesfaye Gebre Igzi
23, Dejazmatch Workineh Wolde Amanuel
24, Dejazmatch Aemero Selassie Abebe
25, Dejazmatch Solomon Abreha
26, Dejazmatch Sahelu Difeye
27, Dejazmatch Worku Enko Selassie
28, Dejazmatch Legese Bezu
29, Colonel Solomon Kedir
30, Blata Admasu Retta
31, Ato Nebiye Leul Kifle
32, Ato Solomon Gebre Mariam
33, Ato Tegegn Yetashework
34, Afe Nigus (Lord Chief Justice) Abeje Debalke
35, Dejazmatch Kebede Aliwele Asfaw
36, Major General Gashaw Kebede
37, Major General Seyoum Gedle Giorgis
38, Major General Tafesse Lemma
39, Lij Hailu Desta
40, Fitawrari Amde Abera
41, Fitawrari Tadesse Enko Selassie
42, Fitawrari Demisse Alamirew
43, Kegnyazmatch Yilma Aboye
44, Brigadier General Wendimu Abebe
45, Brigadier General Girma Yohannes
46, Brigadier General Mulugeta Wolde Yohannes
47, Colonel Yigezu Yimene
48, Colonel Alem Zewde Tessema
49, Colonel Tassew Mojo
50, Major Berhane Mecha
51, Captain Mola Wakene
52, Captain Wolde-Yohannes Zergaw
53, Lieutenant Belai Tsegaye
54, Killed in shootout at the home of Lt. General Aman Mikael Andom.
55, Lt. General Aman Mikael Andom
56, Lieutenant Demisse Shiferaw
57, Lance Corporal Bekele Wolde Giorgis
58, Sub-Corporal Tekle Haile
59, Lance Corporal Tesfaye Tekle
60, Junior Aircraftsman Yohannes Fetoui
The is written by Deacon Solomon Kibriye, he was born in Addis Ababa in the late 1960’s and witnessed as a boy, the tumult of the Ethiopian Revolution. As a young teen he moved to the US and have lived here ever since. He live and work in New York, and he is an enthusiast of history of all kinds, but most particularly of Ethiopian history. He serve as a deacon at New York City’s Debre Medhanit Medhane Alem Church as well.