On 17 December 1960 Emperor Haile Selassie, who was on a state visit to Brazil, returned hastily to Ethiopia after an attempted coup to oust him from power had failed. Paris Match, a French weekly pictorial magazine, sent its reporter, Jacques Le Bailly, and staff photographer, Gérard Gery to cover the uprising a few days after it broke out. Eight pages of reporting entitled “La vengeance du Negus” (Revenge of the Negus) relating the coup attempt as it played out and the tension in the aftermath appeared in the magazine on 31 December. The following is the English translation appearing here for the first time.
An extravagant and bloody chapter has just been added to the extraordinary existence of Haile Selassie. In four days, the King of Kings lost and regained his Ethiopian empire. It was the commander of the Imperial Guard himself who took advantage of the emperor’s absence to foment the rebellion. However, Emperor Haile Selassie has his own loyal and solid supporters. Three days later, the uprising was crushed.
On his return, the King of Kings received a triumphal welcome. 200,000 people lined the streets to cheer him. Yet shootings still erupted here and there. He did not have the courage to go to the imperial palace still stained with the blood of the terrible killing. At the Jubilee Palace, he received homage from those faithful to him.
Tuesday, 13 December
Brigadier General Mengistu Neway, commander of the Imperial Guard, leaned one last time over the cradle of his only son Jacob, his pride and joy. Mengistu was an Ethiopian Alcibiades, a Persian miniature, a favourite army commander of the Emperor, a modern Don Juan with countless affairs until his marriage to a beautiful Ethiopian, twenty years younger than he was and who six months ago bore him this son who became all his life.
On the steps of the beautiful, enormous mansion, located near the French embassy, his brother Germame was impatient. He was short and portly, while Mengistu who was nine years older than him, was rather tall and thin. Both were nevertheless the oldest, the leader, and the youngest, the conspiracy they would unleash. Conspiracy against Haile Selassie, a sacrilegious one since the Emperor had the status of the Chosen One of God.
The King of Kings was on the other side of the world. The two men left the large, peaceful house to put themselves at the head of the imperial guard that invaded the city.
Mengistu Neway’s and Germame Neway’s wives killed following the aborted coup
Tuesday, 13 December Midnight
Brigadier General Makonnen Denneke, Deputy Minister for Imperial Palace, was awakened by a phone call in the dark stillness of the night. “The Empress is dying, the Empress is dead.” He jumped into his car and arrived in front of the gate of the palace which was closed. Strangely, the sentries refused to let him pass. But here was the command of the guard who arrived smiling. The two knew each other well.
The Empress is dead?
No, responded Mengistu. “It is feudal and backward Ethiopia that has just died. We deposed the emperor. There are three thousand years of injustice to be repaired. You are with us, aren’t you?”
A nonchalant gesture from his childhood friend and the Deputy Minister was suddenly framed by guards, bayonet to the cannon, who pushed him towards the building of the general staff 300 meters from there. in the luxurious Green salon of the commander-in-chief, General Makonnen found most of the leading figures of the government and finally, the Crown Prince himself, Asfa Wassen, who himself was attracted to this ambush. The emperor’s chaplain was the first victim. He falls riddled with bullets. His head was cut with a knife and guards played football with it.
Wednesday, 14 December
The rebel Mengistu cheered his guard Abebe three months ago.
A corporal in Haile Selassie’s Imperial Guard, world champion marathon runner, Abebe Bikila, reached the posting by trotting where he would take his duty. He wasn’t the only one who noticed something unusual on the street. The streets were animated and squads of soldiers were everywhere. Maybe there was some maneuver going on but didn’t give it much thought. He had other priorities to ponder about, Rio or Saint-Sylvestre where he would run in two weeks. His sergeant looked at him. “Corporal Abebe, there is no training today. Take your casket and gun, today you aren’t going to do athletics, but rather a soldier.” Abebe obeyed the order, being well disciplined. His squad headed for the Imperial Palace. Suddenly he understood. He loved his emperor, he had sworn to be faithful to him to the last. He would not betray him.
He threw away his gun and ran away much faster than he had ever run before. There was a deserter. No question of returning to his house. With all the speed his legs could generate, he crossed the north of the city and reached, in the suburbs, the tukul, a round structure with a thatched hut and plain mud where he lived before his triumph at Rome. He put on civilian clothes, cast aside his uniform, and decided “to wait for the return of his master.”
Wednesday, December 14
Crown Prince and heir to the throne, Asfa Wossen, 44 years, big, strong, bearing little resemblance to his father, was sweating and scared to death. A guard pointed a machine gun at his belly. He recorded on a Magneto phone while stuttering, an announcement written by the rebel brothers. Docile, the prince denounced “three thousand years of injustice.” Hence the heir became the emperor, he who so many times would have wanted to shake off the yoke of paternal authority. Later, people listened in silence to this proclamation, broadcast by radio and by trucks equipped with loudspeakers. They said, “A son should not do that to his father.”
Wednesday, 15 December
The imperial representative to Eritrea, General Abiy Abebe couldn’t believe his ears when he heard the declaration of the Crown Prince. The 40 years old general, tall and solid, had distinguished himself with exemplary courage and loyalty. General Abiy Abebe sent twelve telegrams to governors telling them that he had contacted the Emperor to let him know about the coup and asked them to pledge loyalty to the Emperor. In less than four hours, he received four favourable responses and the rest the following day.
(To be continued)