The Ethiopian Revolution: War in the Horn of Africa

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Revolution, civil wars, and guerilla warfare wracked Ethiopia during three turbulent decades at the end of the twentieth century. This book is a pioneering study of the military history and political significance of this crucial Horn of Africa region during that period. Drawing on new archival materials and interviews, Gebru Tareke illuminates the conflicts, comparing them to the Russian and Iranian revolutions in terms of regional impact.

Writing in vigorous and accessible prose, Tareke brings to life the leading personalities in the domestic political struggles, strategies of the warring parties, international actors, and key battles. He demonstrates how the brutal dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam lacked imagination in responding to crises and alienated the peasantry by destroying human and material resources. And he describes the delicate balance of persuasion and force with which northern insurgents mobilized the peasantry and triumphed. The book sheds invaluable light not only on modern Ethiopia but also on post-colonial state formation and insurrectionary politics worldwide.

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Editorial Reviews

The International Journal of African Historical Studies

"A provocative and meticulously researched study of the revolutionary wars of modern Northeast Africa...a lucid and ultimately compelling book."--James De Lorenzi, The International Journal of African Historical Studies

— James De Lorenzi

The Journal of African History

"[Gebru Tareke] is an excellent guide to the specifics of modern Ethiopian history."--Cedric Barnes, The Journal of African History

— Cedric Barnes

Donald Crummey

"An outstanding contribution to the twentieth-century history of the Horn of Africa and to the study of guerrilla warfare. . . . Compelling."—Donald Crummey, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
M. Crawford Young

"This masterful politico-military history of the Ethiopian Revolution is a superb account. Tareke offers a meticulously documented chronicle that is an indispensible guide to the multiple wars of the Mengistu era."—M. Crawford Young, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Said S. Samatar

"This book chronicles, then interprets, the cataclysmic revolutionary events of the 1970s that changed the face of Ethiopia. A groundbreaking work recounted in elegant prose. With it Dr. Tareke retains his reputation as sprinting in the forefront of Ethiopianist scholars."—Said S. Samatar, Rutgers University

The International Journal of African Historical Studies - James De Lorenzi

"A provocative and meticulously researched study of the revolutionary wars of modern Northeast Africa...a lucid and ultimately compelling book."--James De Lorenzi, The International Journal of African Historical Studies
The Journal of African History - Cedric Barnes

"[Gebru Tareke] is an excellent guide to the specifics of modern Ethiopian history."--Cedric Barnes, The Journal of African History
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300141634
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 6/23/2009
  • Series: Yale Library of Military History
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 464
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Gebru Tareke is professor of history at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and author of Ethiopia: Power and Protest: Peasant Revolts in the Twentieth Century. He lives in Rochester, NY.

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Read an Excerpt

The Ethiopian Revolution

War in the Horn of Africa
By Gebru Tareke

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2009 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-14163-4

Chapter One

Roots and Outcomes of Revolution: A Review


The world only goes forward because of those who oppose it. -Johann W. Goethe

Selecting benchmark dates as beginnings or endings of long and complex historical processes can be arbitrary, often faulty. But if we were to choose the event that both foreshadowed and inspired the generation that catalyzed the Ethiopian Revolution, it certainly would be the aborted coup d'état of 1960. That event set in motion a decade of political protest against monarchical absolutism that did not abate until the more momentous upheaval of 1974. What transpired in that year, of course, was not imagined by the conspirators of December 1960.

Thirty years after his coronation as king of kings of Ethiopia and eight years after the Free Officers of Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser banished the monarchy, as well as Britain's "veiled" colonialism, from their country, Emperor Haile Selassie I survived his first major political challenge from his own troops. On December 13, 1960, some elements of the Imperial Bodyguard (IBG), a relatively privileged sector of the armed forces mainly entrustedwith the protection of the royal family, tried but failed to dethrone him while he was out of the country. The abortive coup was led by the commander of the IBG, Brigadier General Mengistu Neway, and his brother Girmame, the alleged mastermind of the plot, with the reluctant connivance of the police chief, Brigadier General Tsige Dibbu, and the security chief, Colonel Workneh Gebeyehou. Except for Girmame, the only civilian among the quartet and someone vocal about his progressive views, the conspirators were trusted and loyal servants of the monarch. A salutary force for change, Girmame was immersed in the intellectual currents of his era; the three high-profile officers, by contrast, were caught up in the trappings of power and the good life. It was widely believed that Mengistu-a mightily handsome man with a magnificent, intimidating moustache-had acted only in response to the incessant goading of his firebrand younger brother.

Poorly conceived and badly managed, the plot misfired. All the elementary principles of an orderly overthrow were violated. The coup was hurriedly planned and implemented with little coordination. The architects of the successful Egyptian coup of 1952 may have planned for as long as a decade without being detected. Cleavages within the military and the mistrust and suspicion for which Ethiopians are well known appear to have precluded such painstaking preparation. Indecisiveness was another major weakness; while the conspirators temporized, the initiative was stolen away from them by the loyalists. The revolt incited little popular support outside the University College of Addis Ababa. Little wonder it was extinguished in barely three days. All the ringleaders were murdered, and many of the fleeing rebel soldiers were stoned or knifed to death by mobs; the survivors were imprisoned or discharged dishonorably. In one concentrated effort, the military center of opposition was erased, at least for the time being. The military ceased to be an independent political actor for another decade.

The conspirators may have been inspired by the Egyptian nationalist revolt, but they were far less radical than the Nasserites, whose main motive was the abolition of the monarchy and colonialism. They did not seek to abolish the monarchy, let alone transform the hierarchically structured social order. They were concerned with alleviating the most obvious economic injustices and political incompetence. Although they spoke in the name of the oppressed segments of society, their actions were an expression of the aspirations and ambitions of a new rising class-the petite bourgeoisie, an amorphous stratum of intellectuals, midlevel state functionaries, artisans, and shopkeepers.

Although the personnel of the United States embassy in Addis Ababa had assisted in suppressing the revolt, some well-placed Americans in the city did not miss its wider or long-term implications. They saw it as a harbinger. A month after the event, a close adviser bluntly warned the emperor that "disaster and catastrophe" would result if a "a truly responsible government" was not instituted. "We must not be misled into believing that we have a choice," he said. "The forces of history are in motion, and while they may be halted temporarily, they can never be repulsed permanently. We must either move with them or be overwhelmed by them. But this is not a real choice. Even if your Imperial Majesty feels the risks are great, they must be accepted."

It was an eloquent and grimly prophetic exhortation. But the emperor did not see the threat in such apocalyptic terms and was loath to yield his autocratic power. He set the memorandum aside. His only response was to reshuffle some ministerial posts and bolster the state's security apparatus. He also quickly abandoned his official residence, where many of his closest advisers, court attendants, and senior ministers were slaughtered by the rebels in a last desperate act, and moved into the new and more imposing Jubilee Palace. The old palace became the hub of a new university bearing his name-and soon a center of dissension.

Although jolted, the ruling political class saw no urgency for social reform. To the contrary, it resorted to various acts of oppression, censoring even its own members. Seemingly distressed by the fact that the goal of nation building was being sacrificed for selfish and factional concerns, Lieutenant General Abiye Abebe, a socially prominent former son-in-law of the emperor, pleaded with the powerful and privileged to put the national good ahead of self-interest by refraining from malfeasance and injustice. In religiously couched language, he prophesized sternly that the next fire may be even more devouring than the last. The patricians contemptuously dismissed his pleas and censored his book. He, too, unfortunately, would be consumed by the conflagration he foresaw.

Although it failed to upset the status quo, the soldiers' direct interference in state politics nonetheless subverted the monarchy's hallowed image and authority. In the eyes of many, the emperor's person was no longer sacred, nor was his authority inviolable, as his constitution had declared it. The Decembrists stirred up a new political consciousness, heralding a decade of social activism. At long last, the country had entered the "age of the masses," or popular politics.

After the coup, and largely because of it, the challenge to autocracy shifted from the palace to the open space of society, from clandestine to overt, from parochial to popular, from peaceful to violent opposition, from sectional conspiracies to mass-based insurgencies, and from the center to the periphery. During the decade before the revolution, there were three areas of popular resistance: at the center was a radical student movement and at the periphery were the Eritrean insurgency for separation and peasant revolts for the redress of a cascade of local problems. The student rebellion was confined mainly to Addis Ababa and other major cities, but it was the only persistent challenge to state authority and one of the catalysts of revolution. The other was the Eritrean revolt. Following independence from Britain in 1953, Eritrea was federated as an autonomous region with imperial Ethiopia by a United Nations act. The federation was an anomalous political arrangement that was destroyed when, in violation of the UN decision, the Ethiopian government annexed the region. This move was destined to give the Ethiopian state its share of grief. The Eritrean insurgency that began a year after the coup was the most enduring challenge from the periphery to the imperial regime. The two movements became autocracy's nemeses.

The 1960s also saw revolts in other parts of the country, although they were much less significant than the Eritrean resistance. A pauperized peasantry rose up in arms in the provinces of Bale, Sidamo, Wello, and Gojjam between 1963 and 1970. These revolts failed to cohere, however; localized, fragmented, and lacking support from the depressed sectors of the urban population, they could not withstand the state's repressive machinery. But they did impose considerable strains on the state's financial and military resources. This was particularly true of the rebellion in Bale, a southeastern province bordering Somalia. Waged from 1963 to 1968, it was the second-longest and bloodiest uprising, and the province was not pacified until 1970. It was able to sustain itself longer than the others in part because ethnic particularity conjoined with geographic marginality to give it greater intensity. Moreover, the military and logistical support it received from the state of Somalia, which was in the midst of territorial disputes with its neighbors, was unmatched anywhere but Eritrea.

Resistance to the autocratic state was thus intermittent and of little immediate consequence. Poverty, insecurity, and fear of repression were obvious deterrents, but, as will become clear, the fractionalization of society itself posed formidable obstacles to collective action transcending and cross-cutting class, ethnic, and regional boundaries. Despotism had little difficulty containing the social forces unleashed by state-driven modernization, but not indefinitely. In the 1970s, the unstoppable forces that the American adviser had so starkly warned about finally overwhelmed the monarchy, already in advanced decline, because domestic and international conditions were more favorable than in the 1960s. A spate of irreversible events brought about a political, social, and cultural transfiguration. The circumstances have been traced many times, but I must briefly recount them here to provide a context for the revolutionary wars.


A revolution is a rapid, fundamental, and violent domestic change in the dominant values and myths of a society, in its political institutions, social structure, leadership, and government activity, and policies. -Samuel P. Huntington

"The scintillating halls of the Hilton Hotel in the city were the scene of one of the most extravagant wedding parties witnessed in the modern history of Ethiopia just on the eve of the February 1974 Revolution.... A wedding cake costing the fabulous sum of Eth $10,000 was flown in from London for the occasion. As the 5,000 guests assembled at the Hilton Hotel for the wedding party washed down their exotic cakes with champagne, the death toll from famine in Wello was reaching the 200,000 mark.... In the midst of simulated plenty, the people were being ravished by famine and pestilence."

Many saw the extravaganza as an affront to humanity and a bad omen for royalty. It was the kind of excess amid want and misery that General Abiye Abebe had predicted would bring trouble. And indeed the prince who gave the affronting banquet was one of the first victims of revolutionary violence. Only a year after the spectacle, fifty-two of the most exalted members of Ethiopia's privileged class were shot and dumped into an unmarked grave. The slaughter bruised a nation's conscience and presaged darker days ahead. More violence, terror, and civil wars, coinciding with the greatest famine in living memory, would follow-all outcomes (by no means ordained or necessary) of historical developments that were of long duration. The purpose of this chapter is to retrace those developments, which culminated in a classically violent and transformative revolution that fundamentally changed old institutions and the feudal structures and myths that supported and sustained them; it is to recapture the structural and intellectual origins, the precipitating factors as well as the immediate results, of this extraordinary African social phenomenon. Ethiopian society, which was undergoing a transition from feudalism to capitalism before it was ruptured by the epochal events of 1974, comprised many of the ingredients for revolution and war. It was a heterogeneous society characterized by minimal integration, minimal and uneven growth within regions as well as within social classes, and interlocking social relations and multiple identities that were "subject to multiple pressures for cohesion and dissolution." The decade between the military uprising and the revolutionary crisis of 1974 witnessed a growing rift between the absolutist state and the society. The expansion of the educational system, the slow but steady growth of the capitalist sector of the economy, the increasing inequalities between social groups and between towns and villages, the extortionist activities of the state in the countryside, and the deepening agrarian crisis combined to undermine the feudal order upon which absolutism rested. The monarchical regime managed to hold on for another fourteen years largely because society was fractured, both horizontally and vertically. Neither the peasantry nor the embryonic urban classes saw themselves as sharply differentiated from each other. There was no social class or faction of one sufficiently self-cognizant or organized to challenge state authority effectively. The intermittent rural rebellions were quelled one at a time. Although student activism and the Eritrean insurrection proved irrepressible, their impact on both state and society was limited until the end of the 1960s, the former remaining essentially a student affair and the latter confined to the sparsely inhabited parts of Eritrea. But if revolutions are the culmination of past political activities and experiences, then these multifaceted popular protests in rural and urban Ethiopia must be considered the precursors of the upheaval of 1974. We need to examine the emerging state and society to appreciate the autocracy's longevity, the soldiers' failure in 1960 and their phenomenal success in 1974, the unusual role of students in one of the least-developed countries in the Third World, the varied nature of the civil wars, and the eventual triumph of ethnonationalism over state nationalism, of the periphery over the center, and of Maoist revolutionary insurgents over Leninist military dictators.

When Ras Tafari Makonnen ascended the throne as Haile Selassie I, king of kings of Ethiopia, in 1930, he had three basic goals: to build a modern nation-state out of the tapestry of ethnicities, to safeguard its independence and his own authority with modern national organizations of coercion, and to rule without any intervening forces, that is, to become an absolutist monarch. It was a gigantic task, but through intelligence, charm, cunning, dogged determination, and the assistance of a few intellectuals as well as Britain, Haile Selassie established a centralized dynastic state by eradicating provincial autonomies and cautiously steering a feudal polity into the modern world. But his achievements should not be exaggerated, for, as Bruce Porter observes in War and the Rise of the State, "state-driven innovation was substituted for social initiative, and despotism became an instrument for containing the social forces unleashed by modernization." What the emperor really wanted was political order and safety in relative stagnation.

A land of enigmatic beauty, Ethiopia was a vast and backward country of mountain barriers and deserts and rudimentary communication. The population was extremely heterogeneous. Some of the ethnic groups harbored their own aspirations and a few of the tamed regional elites still nurtured hopes of a restoration of lost privileges. Most of the people were poor and illiterate, and the conservative polity was not readily receptive to new ideas. In the face of resistance from the aristocracy and clergy, which associated secular education with heresy and science with the work of the devil, Haile Selassie shrewdly and courageously introduced a series of lasting reforms. He used inducements and punishments to achieve his goals. During the six years before the Italian invasion in 1935, a new constitution supplanting the provincial sovereignties was adopted; the groundwork for the establishment of a national army was put in place; a system of schools that offered comparable education to both sexes, endeavoring to inculcate patriotism and the virtues of a civic culture, was instituted; and modern financial institutions, as well as transportation and communication systems, were either expanded or opened to facilitate the country's integration into the world economy. Royal writ was replaced by a unified legal code, and the new constitution contained provisions that guaranteed respect for civic liberties and political rights. Adult suffrage was introduced and a bicameral parliament established. These were some of the changes that reform-minded Ethiopians had envisaged and advocated. Haile Selassie surely must have appeared to them as the archetypal leader that the preeminent intellectual Gabber Hiwet Baykedagn anticipated at the beginning of the last century: a man of intellect, experience, energy, order, and passion for progress-an enlightened despot that is. In the end, however, Haile Selassie turned out to be an astute politician who was interested less in transforming the state and society than in creating a faux-Western absolutist monarchy. In this he was immensely successful.


Excerpted from The Ethiopian Revolution by Gebru Tareke Copyright © 2009 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Foreword by Donald Kagan & Frederick Kagan....................ix
List of Abbreviations....................xix
Part One THE SPECTER OF REVOLUTION AND WAR....................1
1 Roots and Outcomes of Revolution: A Review....................11
Part Two COMRADES AGAINST COMRADES....................45
2 The Victorious Nationalists: Insurgent Eritrea....................55
3 The Victorious Ethnonationalists: Insurgent Tigray....................76
4 The Vanquished Revolutionary Army: Birth and Evolution....................111
5 The Vanquished Revolutionary Army: Defeat and Demise....................138
Part Three BATTLEFIELD ETHIOPIA....................177
6 Ogaden: "Socialist" Neighbors at War....................182
7 Nakfa: "Even the Mountains Fought"....................218
8 Af Abet: Ethiopia's Dienbienphu?....................247
9 Shire: "Unexpected Grand Failure"....................262
10 Massawa: The Denouement....................291
11 Conclusions....................311
1998: Postscript....................343
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