271. Special National Intelligence Estimate0

SNIE 76.1-61


The Problem

To assess the significance of the abortive coup of December 1960 and its likely consequences for Ethiopian internal stability over the next few years.

[Page 426]

The Estimate

Emperor Haile Selassie has re-established his personal authority in Ethiopia after a bloody three-day coup attempt initiated by the Imperial Body Guard against his regime in December 1960. Nevertheless, the Emperor’s position was, if only briefly, seriously challenged, and he is confronted with serious problems involving the rebuilding of his Administration, and over the longer run, the stability of Ethiopia and the perpetuation of the imperial dynasty.
The abortive coup appears to have been intramural in character; the active protagonists on both sides came almost exclusively from the small Amhara ruling group and its supporters. Fighting took place between the Imperial Body Guard and the army, the principal military components upon which Haile Selassie had depended for the retention of his power. However, the immediate consequences of the short struggle and its implications for the future suggest that it was more significant than a “palace revolt.” In addition to the blatant and well-publicized challenge to his authority suffered by the Emperor, many of his most trusted ministers and advisers have been assassinated, his Imperial Body Guard and the security services have been proved unreliable, and his doubts concerning the competence and resolution of the Crown Prince have been confirmed. Most importantly, the way in which the revolt unfolded dramatized the existence of social and political discontent at key points in the Empire’s social structure.
The issue which sparked the coup appears to have been the dissatisfaction of the Imperial Body Guard officers with their low pay and what they felt to be their declining status in the military hierarchy. Nevertheless, there exists a wider range of dissidence in the country, arising from a more complex set of factors. These include dissatisfaction of some middle level government officials with His Imperial Majesty’s autocratic rule, and the thwarted aspirations of the growing number of young “modernists” and western educated intellectuals for more rapid social and economic advance. The Body Guard leaders probably anticipated support from large numbers of civil servants, army, and police officers. However, initial alarm at the audacity of the undertaking, realization that Haile Selassie was not in full eclipse, and most important, the unpopularity of several plot leaders probably prevented the rebels from gaining the support they anticipated. Since the attempted coup was engineered by a small segment of the ruling group, and because the revolt was quickly snuffed out, there was neither inclination nor opportunity for discontent among civilian elements to manifest itself. Moreover, coup leaders approached the important army and air force commanders only after the initiation of the coup, and failed to secure their support. The longstanding prestige of the Emperor almost certainly had its effect in limiting enthusiasm for the attempted revolt. Ultimately, [Page 427]it was the vigorous action of the armed forces in putting down the rebellion that was the decisive factor.
Although Haile Selassie has indicated that he intends to deal charitably with opponents who did not directly lead the revolt and who are now willing to make public apology, the experience will almost certainly reinforce his penchant for a constant shuffling of top government officials. He must not only replace those who were murdered by the rebels—a slow and difficult task—but is likely to continue his longstanding practice of assigning potential troublemakers abroad and making frequent shifts of cabinet ministers and other high officers. A number of the Emperor’s advisers and aides perished in the coup or are under suspicion, and this will reinforce his customary practice of using a variety of foreign advisers of miscellaneous nationalities. The ineffectual perform-ance of the Crown Prince has almost certainly reinforced the Emperor’s grave doubts about him as a successor. However, there are no clearly qualified alternative candidates, and the Emperor will probably be in no hurry to name a substitute.
Security measures will almost certainly be tightened, and the Emperor’s suspicions of the more progressive of his civil servants will almost certainly persist. Nevertheless, pressures by the latter for major reforms probably will grow. The Emperor faces the dilemma whether he should seek to control these “modernist” elements by somewhat more concessions to their point of view or should rely on traditionalist supporters and thus risk further alienation of the literate class. On the whole, we do not anticipate any massive internal reprisals or dramatic changes in Haile Selassie’s program of painfully gradual economic and social reform. If the Emperor succeeds in the task of re-establishing an effective government apparatus, we do not believe that any important coup attempt by disgruntled military and civilian elements will develop during the next year or so.
Haile Selassie, who may have been harboring fears concerning US intentions under precisely such emergency conditions, has probably been reassured by the assistance rendered by the US for the Emperor’s cause during the rebellion—[3 lines of source text not declassified]. Moreover, some uncertainty apparently exists in the Emperor’s mind concerning possible Bloc or Yugoslav support of the revolt leaders. While we have no evidence of such involvement, Haile Selassie is perfectly capable of becoming obsessed with such a possibility. He will continue to weigh American friendship by its support of his own position at home and in his foreign relations, especially in his difficulties with the neighboring Somali Republic. In any case, Ethiopian demands on the US will probably increase.
The abortive coup has served to underscore the personal importance of Haile Selassie as the dominant force in a far from united Empire, [Page 428]and the potentialities for sustained conflict and fragmentation when the Emperor leaves the scene. In addition to the question of the succession, which traditionally has been resolved in conflict among the pretenders and contenders, the ruling group is likely to find itself deeply divided over the direction Ethiopia should take in the modern world. The conservatives, led by the Coptic Church and the traditional aristocracy, are likely to oppose strongly the ambitions of young “modernists” who wish to end Ethiopian isolation and expose the country to far-reaching social, economic, and political change. If dissension within the ruling and educated groups broke into open conflict, this might release the floodgates of separatism among the other peoples of the Ethiopian Empire.
  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency Files, DCI Files, Job 79 R 1012, Box 190. Secret. According to a note on the cover sheet: “The following intelligence organizations participated in the preparation of this estimate: The Central Intelligence Agency and the intelligence organizations of the Department of State, the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and The Joint Staff.” All members of the U.S. Intelligence Board concurred in this estimate on January 24, except the Atomic Energy Commission Representative and the Assistant Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who abstained because the subject was outside their jurisdiction.
  2. This estimate supplements the discussion of Ethiopia in NIE 76-60, “Probable Trends in the Horn of Africa,” dated 21 June 1960. The underlying factors in the Ethiopian situation are more fully analyzed in that estimate. [Footnote in the source text. For text of NIE 76-60, see Foreign Relations, 1958-1960, vol. XIV, pp. 188190.]