Flashbacks to May 1989


Flashbacks to May 1989

By Teshome Beyene 05/21/14

There was a tense atmosphere on the streets of Addis Ababa exactly 25 years ago on May 16, 1989. The streets in the center were virtually deserted on that late afternoon of Tuesday. Towards dusk, planes and helicopters were hovering in the skies of Addis indicating an ominous development. The road from Mexico square to Le Gar had also been cordoned off.

The BBC World Service, at its 8 p. m news, reported the strange situation as being “unusual troop movements in the city and that the president left Addis Ababa with his wife for East Germany”. The Ethiopian Radio towards the end of its program for the day at 10:55 pm confirmed this with similar factual details. The Ethiopian Radio further reported that there had been a shootout near the headquarters of the Ministry of Defense. The same fact was aired in the subsequent news bulletin of the BBC. Ethiopia, during this particular epoch, was by and large impermeable to the Western media. Hence, the pace with which the event was being reported on the BBC did truly forebode something massively serious.

The VOA came up with a new twist to the earlier news of the BBC. It added a rumor that the President of the nation (Mengistu) had left for East Germany with his child, too. It also revealed that the visit of the president to East Germany was unannounced and had not been scheduled for. Both news giants gave a background to the story by referring to a series of mutinies that allegedly had taken place in the recent past.

On the previous day, 15 May 1989, a tragic event had taken place around Arat Kilo. At least 20 residents and passersby were shot dead by soldiers from Arat Kilo Palace; then known as Derg tsihfet bet. The soldiers, who were the palace guards, supposedly jumped over the palace fence and sprayed bullets indiscriminately, on the old and young, and pillaged houses and bars in the area. The incident was swept under the carpet and there was never an official account of it as such. As rumors had it, however, a civilian youth had had a brawl with a soldier which culminated in the death of the soldier. The soldiers from the Palace (Kilib as they were referred to derogatorily), therefore, mercilessly lashed out at the public in blind revenge.

Most folks who heard about the incident of May 16, 1989 must have associated the tense situation in Addis to the killings of the previous day. One would think it was a clash between the residents of Arat Kilo and the soldiers as the former might have tried avenging the massacre.

Meanwhile, an Amharic instrument music was heard on the Ethiopian Radio followed by an announcement transmitted several times at intervals. The veteran journalist, Darios Modi, in a clearly broken voice, announced that a statement from the Council of State would shortly be released and asked listeners to stay tuned. This was at a time when the summary news for the day would otherwise be read. The Council shortly afterwards, through Darios, disclosed that a coup against the government had been foiled and labeled the plotters as ‘military junta’. In the most ironic fashion bordering on the theatrical, the Council described the ‘conspiracy’ as being an attempt to install military dictatorship.

In the morning of May 17, 1989, the Ethiopian Radio was perfectly on track with its program for the day. The regular gymnastic drill for the morning kicked off without a glitch followed by the 7 am news. The news, this time around, was more informative and declared the killing of two military commanders – Major General Meried Negussie and Major General Amha Desta – while spearheading the coup. Both were at the helm of the military institution, chief of staff and commander-in-chief of the Air Force respectively. The Radio, in an unambiguous language, warned every resident to restrict movement within the neighborhood. It declared that movement any farther than that would be at own peril. It also announced that all government offices would be closed for that day. This heavily signaled that the situation was not yet fully under control.

At 10:45 am, bullets were whizzing all around fuelling the speculation that that the coup was not thwarted as such and that there was more to unfold. The mid-day news, however, affirmed, leaving no room for speculation, that the government was fully in control of the situation and the perpetrators were utterly overpowered.

It was possible that the government still had had some setbacks. But, the manner in which the media was presenting the stories was so skillful that an impression of normalcy and calm would dawn even on the most cynic observer. The government even read ‘congratulatory’ messages felicitating the crushing of the coup from the various military units in the country.

On the same day, it was learned that dramatic events were unfolding in Asmara. The army in Asmara rose up against the government and took control of the government radio station in there. The station had actually been taken over by the mutineers in Asmara on 16 May 1989 which was on the same date a coup had been attempted in Addis Ababa. For a moment, it was confusing listening to the radio as the radio announcers were familiar voices. The reason could be that the army leaders did not bother to change the radio crew and used them to transmit their messages. The radio in Asmara was alternately transmitting two target hitting messages; one to the army and another to the public. There was a strong appeal to the public and the army to rally behind the mutineers to overthrow the government. It was the same message that had been showered from the skies of Addis Ababa the previous Tuesday from helicopters and airplanes.

That day, all stations were reporting about events in Ethiopia. The Amharic program of the German radio broadcast that the President, Mengistu H. Mariam, had left East Germany for Addis Ababa and had been seen off by the leader of the host country, Mr Eric Honiker. This piece of news gave a real somber outlook about the success of the coup. At the same time, as if in imitation of the radio in Addis Ababa, the mutineers in Asmara aired a message of ‘support’ from the troops in Gondar. The BBC was also making constant communications and receiving live reports from its reporter in Nairobi. There was no direct news source in Ethiopia as Addis was completely sealed off to foreign reporters.

In the whole lot of chaos, the EPLF (The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front) was quick to cash in. It discarded all age old rhetoric of Eritrean independence and began to support openly the mutineers in Asmara. The EPLF radio broadcast almost identical statements as that of the mutineers. The radio disclosed that the coup leaders and the EPLF had had a clandestine meeting in the Sudan to plan the coup. This supplied most needed ammunition to the government in Addis Ababa to characterize the mutineers in Asmara as proxy tools of the EPLF and as enemies of the unity of Ethiopia. The statement of the EPLF came so handy to the defenders of the regime that the evening news of the Ethiopian radio in Addis did seize upon it to paint the mutineers as anti-unity forces. The adjective ‘anti-unity’ did have so strong a ring at that particular epoch that one imagines it must have damaged the unity of the mutineers. The government’s allegation that the mutineers were ‘anti-unity’ was propped up through a repeated reference to the support of the EPLF to the ‘plotters.

Most alarming was that there was a risk of in-fighting in Asmara among army units that could drag on to the point of blockading Eritrea from the rest of the country and create a chaos everywhere. Add to this the EPLF which had a strong vested interest in seeing Ethiopia descend into utter turmoil.

At this particular juncture, there were four forces to reckon with in the country; in Addis Ababa, Asmara, Afeabet (Eritrea) and Mekele. The region of Tigray had almost been totally controlled by the TPLF (Tigray Peoples Liberation Front).

Amazingly, the situation had been so scary that any piece of news would soon get stale. One striking similarity of the Radio stations was that they were all up-to-date and more or less accurate in their reporting. Notable was that a certain Kebede, apparently a freelance reporter, gave up-to-date facts from Nairobi for the VOA.

At 8:00 pm on May 17, the Ethiopian radio, in a non-committal way, announced that the President of the country had just landed in Addis Ababa from East Germany. There was no much of a follow up story in the Ethiopian radio afterwards and the radio did sign off later than usual at 11:40 pm.

It was the third day since the coup had begun and this time around the TPLF released a position statement of its Central Committee. It supported the mutineers in principle but with a number of formidable conditions attached to it. The major condition was that the rank and file in the army must actively participate. It also required some kind of assurance to that effect. The TPLF expressed its belief that it was only through the participation of the ordinary soldiers that a genuine democracy would prevail. To substantiate this, the TPLF referred to the 1974 ‘palace coup’ in which, according to the same, the military leadership assumed power illegitimately and castrated the causes of the series of uprisings. Radio Woyane further declared that the military in Asmara was not unanimous. It stated that an army unit in Asmara called Zemecha Mekonen had not joined the mutineers as yet.

Work resumed in most of government offices after a one day interruption. Addis was quiet but tense. On this date, it came to surface that the Minister of Defense, General H.Giororgis, had been killed by the coup plotters. He had ordered the plotters, who were in the premise of the Ministry, to disband but the reaction from the plotters was fatal. The general was accorded a state funeral. However, president Mengistu did not attend the ceremony in spite of the fact that he died in defense of the government at which helm Mengistu was found. One would not help but conjecture that the situation was not brought under full control for the President to attend a mass gathering.

Another piece of tragic news was also broadcast in the Radio Ethiopia. General Fanta Belay, who was then the Minister for Industry, was put under control having reportedly been an accomplice of the coup plotters. The radio used degrading terms to depict the circumstance under which this veteran general was caught and the depiction did really taste sour for many people. The former air force general was described as having been in hiding in a metal ‘container’ for several days until he was found and apprehended. If this story was at all true, it was undoubtedly very agonizing to stay in hiding under those circumstances for so long.

Towards late in the morning, the whole staff of the Ministry I was working in was called for an urgent briefing meeting. The meeting was convened by the minister. The minister, in an astonishing candidness, explained to the audience how the coup was brewed, orchestrated and finally aborted.

He narrated that the coup had long been in the making and the government had had sufficient information about it except that it could not have imagined it to occur so quickly and to have involved so many members of the army. Glancing at a piece of paper, he further stated that the President had left for East Germany due to a gap of information on the latest preparation of the plotters. He added that the core conspirators had invited to a meeting a reasonably large audience including some who were not part of the plot. Upon learning of the meeting, the special force from the palace besieged the premise of the Ministry and asked the participants of the meeting, through the microphone, to adjourn the illegal meeting and surrender. This was done, he reasoned, in order to avert casualty of the innocent and bring the situation under control without any bloodletting. Some unidentified person from the crowd fired at the special force while all those attending the meeting obliged and surrendered. The minister noted that two generals, General Merid Negussie and General Amha Desta, met a hero’s death repeating the history of King Tewodros by committing suicide instead of surrendering. Two other generals escaped and joined their garrison in the old airport. He confirmed that they were later on arrested after some exchange of fire. What shocked us all was that colleagues, who were members of the Workers Party of Ethiopia (WPE), were as uninformed of the situation as the rest of us were. We all would have thought they were insiders and knew much more than we did at least post-event. But, they were as helpless and hapless as anybody else. It transpired that it is the military and the intelligence people who matters most when the going is tough.

No sooner, a new turn of events took place in Asmara. Just for few minutes, the radio in Asmara was silent and triggered a spell of speculations. The loyalists began broadcasting through the Asmara radio which apparently indicated that the mutineers had been overcome. Soon, the loyalists in Asmara announced that the ‘conspiracy’ had been decisively quashed and the government had restored the city of Asmara to its control. Again, the radio relapsed to its previous silence arousing a strong suspicion that the station probably had been damaged as a result of fighting.

Dimtsi Hafash, the EPLF Radio, just caught up and broke off its regular program to make an announcement. It announced that fighting was raging in Asmara between the two factions. The EPLF also, through its Radio, hastened to order its military units to render full support to the mutineers wherever the units might happen to be.

The BBC, in its twenty hours news, read that the battle in Asmara was over in favor of the defenders of the regime. It also stated that six generals had been killed in the battle. This put an end to all the suspense around the coup and the subsequent mutiny.

On the same date, at 9 pm, President Mengistu gave a short speech to the nation regarding the coup. His voice was very controlled and calm. One could not help but notice his command of the situation. He lauded all loyalists saying their heroic deeds would assume an honorable place in the annals of the Ethiopian history. He had, six years ago, removed his military fatigue for a Korean style dark blue khaki. When delivering his speech that evening, he was clad in military uniform after many years in civilian costume. Ironically, he referred to the motive of the plotters as being a desire to install a military dictatorship.

On Friday morning, 19 May 1989, the voice of Woyane confirmed the utter defeat of the mutineers in Asmara. It ascribed the failure of the coup to the reluctance of the plotters to heed to the advice of the TPLF given earlier. Interestingly, the EPLF was consistent in pursuit of its propaganda sticking to the same story line. It claimed that the situation in Asmara was still far from calm. The radio ‘extended’ the opposition far afield and declared that regiments in Harar and Gondar still stood by the side of the mutineers in Asmara. It was too soon for the anti climax of defeat and embarrassment to sink in the ranks of the EPLF.

Almost everyone was dispirited in the wake of the coup. The golden opportunity to change the regime was lost either because the regime was razor-sharp; or the conspirators were inexperienced and naïve; or a combination of the two. Most people were downcast as the national radio and TV continued to demonize the plotters with a distinct ironic language. The media latched on to a phrase which went as ‘a coup plotted by few generals’ for many weeks afterwards. All statements about the coup would invariably begin with ‘few generals’.

Historians would have to invest time and energy to investigate the full ramification of the coup and the political phenomena surrounding it. From the hashed public discussions that went on then, the coup was destined to abort as it had involved too many people and the labyrinth of the plot design would naturally sabotage it. Regarding the villains of the whole drama, names such as Tesfaye W.Silasse, Tesfaye G.Kidan and Fiseha Desta were flying around. They were considered as the actors that masterminded the counter coup operation. According to a detailed account the VOA gave the following week end, the Minister of Defense dialed Major Fisseha Desta on sensing a threat. Major Fisseha promptly responded by sending the special force down to the Ministry of Defense to besiege the premise and frustrate the plot.

There was also a hypothesis that East Germany had had an active role in squashing the coup. Some even argued that the President had left for East Germany on purpose to use the country as a temporary hideout until the coup would be overcome or as a permanent sanctuary if it would succeed.

The entire turn of events in the four consecutive days intrigued every political analyst. It was too swift a situation for analysts to handle. The future was even more intriguing to predict. There were so many questions peppering one’s mind; will the regime remain as powerful as it was? What will be the impact on the military of the killing of the dozen of generals? Will the brutality of the regime further worsen? Will the balance of power decisively tilt in favor of the rebels in the North? and many more !!

Exactly a year later in May 1990, the Derg (or the government of the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Republic) massacred 12 senior generals who allegedly had taken part in the coup. A shock wave run through the nation when the death sentence was announced by the Military tribunal chaired by General Tesfaye G.Kidan. At least, for once, it was expected that the Derg would be ‘merciful’ and give amnesty to the highly educated career Generals (all trained during the Imperial Era). No sooner had the Generals perished than the brutal Derg saw its agonizing collapse.


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