The 1960 Ethiopian coup was an attempted coup d'état staged in Ethiopia on 13 December 1960. Its goal was to overthrow Emperor Haile Selassie, who was on a state visit to Brazil at the time. Four conspirators, led by Germame Neway and his older brother Brigadier General Mengistu Neway, who was commander of the Kebur Zabangna (the Imperial Bodyguard), took several ministers and other important personages hostage and gained control of most of the capital city, Addis Ababa. The coup leaders declared the regime of Haile Selassie had been deposed and announced the beginning of a new, more progressive government under the rule of Haile Selassie's eldest son, Crown Prince Asfaw Wossen, that would address the numerous economic and social problems Ethiopia faced. Despite a demonstration of support by the students of Haile Selassie University, other military units remained loyal to Selassie and crushed the coup. By 17 December, loyalists had regained control of Addis Ababa and the conspirators were either dead or had fled the capital.
The coup attempt is considered the most serious threat to Haile Selassie's rule between 1941 and his deposition in 1974 during the Ethiopian Revolution.
Germame Neway, widely seen as the motivator of the coup, was a progressive and activist governor who was frustrated in his attempts to improve the standard of living of the subjects living in the subprovinces he was assigned to govern. When he had attempted to encourage the Oromo inhabitants of Wellamu to build roads, bridges and schools, this led local landlords to agitate for his replacement. He was then reassigned to Jijiga, where he "was immediately confronted with the abject poverty and underdevelopment of the region and with obvious signs of official neglect." Concludes Bahru Zewde, "The obstruction he encountered even in these remote posts convinced him of the need for change, and he began to work with his brother to that end."
Germame then persuaded his brother, Mengistu, that a military coup was feasible. Mengistu was vital to the success of this plan, not only because he commanded the Kebur Zabangna, whose members were expected to follow orders without question, but because he had connections throughout the Ethiopian armed forces. Two more important members were recruited to form a clandestine "Council of the Revolution": the Chief of Security Colonel Warqenah Gabayahu, and Police Commissioner Brigadier General Tsege Dibu. The group began planning their move, but according to Paul Henze, fearing that their plans had already leaked out, the conspirators rushed into action without sufficient planning when the Emperor departed on a state visit to Brazil. According to the memoirs of John Spencer, Makonnen Habte-Wold had been seriously suspicious of Colonel Warqenah's activities two years prior to the attempted coup, and only five months before the conspirators acted Makonnen confided his renewed suspicions about both the Colonel as well as Brigadier General Tsege to Spencer.
On the evening of Tuesday, 13 December, the group duped several ministers and other important political personages into coming to Genetta Leul palace for an emergency meeting where they were taken hostage. At the same time, followers of Colonel Warqenah occupied the central bank, the radio station, and the Ministry of Finance; the Kebur Zabangna surrounded the other army bases in and around the capital.
The next morning, after the members of the coup had secured control of most of Addis Ababa, Asfaw Wossen, who is generally regarded as having acted under duress, read a proclamation. This proclamation attacked Ethiopia's economic backwardness in relation to other African countries, announced the formation of a new government under the Crown Prince, and promised the start of a new era. In response, the students of Haile Selassie University demonstrated in support of the new government.
The leaders of the coup obviously expected this demonstration would convince the other branches of the military to join them. An uneasy 24 hours followed while the conspirators awaited developments. During this period Mangestu and his colleagues issued an 11-point programme of proposed reforms, and appointed as Prime Minister Ras Imru Haile Selassie and Major General Mulugeta Bulli, who was popular in the army, as Chief of Staff. Meanwhile, the loyalists within the military were able to come to a consensus on how to respond to this threat. (Clapham shows that the civilian leaders, who in previous coups that created new rulers of Ethiopia, had been effectively isolated from the military. Makonnen Habte-Wold, whose own intelligence network had uncovered this plot, was unable to do more than send frantic telegrams to his Emperor "until the coup took place and he was captured and shot.") Dejazmach Asrate Medhin Kassa, Major General Mared Mangesha, and the other loyalists spent their time more usefully; they secured the support of the tank squadron and the Ethiopian Air Force, both stationed within reach of the capital, and made up their initial shortage of troops by airlifting about 1,000 loyal soldiers in from outlying provinces; they also issued leaflets signed by the Abuna of the Ethiopian Church, which condemned the rebels as anti-religious traitors and called for loyalty to Haile Selassie. These leaflets are believed to have had a great effect on the uncommitted.
Fighting broke out in the afternoon of the next day. Heavily outnumbered, the rebels were slowly driven back. Many ordinary soldiers of the Kebur Zabangna, once they learned they were fighting against the Emperor, lost heart as they had been given to understand that they were fighting for him. The inhabitants of the capital, once the fighting started, gave their support to the loyalists. Before abandoning the capital, Germame and the others turned their machine-guns on their hostages in Genetta Leul palace, killing 15 of them. The dead included not only Prime Minister Abebe Aregai, and Makonnen Habte-Wold, but also Major General Mulugeta.
General Tsege was killed in the fighting; Colonel Warqenah committed suicide. Mengistu and Germame evaded capture until 24 December 1960 when they were surrounded by the army near Mojo. Rather than face capture, Germame committed suicide; Mengistu surrendered. He was hanged a few months later. Official casualty figures state that at least 300 people were killed, many of them civilians caught in the street fighting; Christopher Clapham considers them "likely to be underestimates", noting in a footnote that the Kenyan East African Standard estimated about 2,000 dead and wounded in its 20 December 1960 story.
Although Paul Henze asks the relevant question, "Was the 1960 coup the harbinger of the revolution of 1974?" he denies that there was a significant connection with his next sentence: "Only in a very general sense, if at all." Henze emphasizes the inside nature of the coup, how much of the population of Ethiopia was illiterate and had little awareness of events in the capital city. However Henze admits that the threat to his rule caused a change in the Emperor's behavior: after reorganizing his government and appointing Aklilu Habte-Wold Prime Minister, Haile Selassie "gave less attention to domestic affairs and devoted more time to foreign affairs, making a place for himself in the Pan-African movement and championing decolonization. ... Not to be overshadowed by many of the new personalities on the African scene – Nkrumah, Sekou Toure, Kenyatta, Nyerere – he continued to take a leading role in Pan-African politics."
On the other hand, Ethiopian historian Bahru Zewde finds a very clear chain of connection between the two events. First, in his history of modern Ethiopia Bahru points out an ironic element in this event: "By his colleagues he [Mulugeti Bulli] was more than half-expected to emulate the Egyptian colonel, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who staged a coup in 1952 that overthrew the dynasty, a century and a half old, of Mohammed Ali." Yet Professor Bahru draws an even more apparent connection between the two, in a strikingly elegiac passage:
The torch of change that the rebels had kindled was not extinguished with their physical elimination. On the contrary, it sparked a more outspoken and radical opposition to the regime. This can be seen in some of the underground leaflets that began to circulate soon after the end of the coup. They had such uncompromising motifs as "Better be a lion for a day and die than live the life of a lamb for a thousand days", "There is no solution without blood", and "What is sinful is to be ruled by despots, not to rise against them." Above all, the students became the true heirs of the rebels. They had come out on the streets in support of the rebels in 1960. Thereafter, they gave breadth and coherence to the opposition that the rebels had conceived and executed in such a confused manner. As for the regime, unprepared to concede reform, it condemned itself to being swept away by revolution.
Edmond Keller adds that following the coup, "rather than being able to dictate comfortably the rate and direction of change, the emperor was placed ever more on the defensive, having to work harder to mediate the demands of increasingly politically significant social groupings." Keller also disagrees with the assertion that the leaders of the coup were the only organized group critical of the monarchy and its policies, pointing to nationalist organizations coalescing amongst the Oromo, Somali, Eritreans, and Tigreans, noting that "these pockets of opposition might never have emerged if the emperor's policies had been more sensitively directed at building legitimacy among the masses rather than simply at securing compliance or acquiescence to laws and policies."