Red Terror in Ethiopia

Instructor: Julia Maypole

Julia has a master's degree in world history and has taught college history and other humanities courses.

This lesson will examine the brief but extremely violent era in Ethiopian history known as the Red Terror. We'll explore the events leading up to the Red Terror as well as the legacy that remains, then you can test your knowledge with a quiz.

What is the Red Terror?

The Red Terror (or Qey Shibir in Amharic) was a campaign of oppression and mass killings in Ethiopia. It began in 1976, when communist Mengistu Haile Mariam took control of the military dictatorship and ousted Emperor Halie Selassie, and lasted until 1978. During these years, the governing body used atrocious violence against anyone that was not a part of its party by arbitrarily arresting, torturing, and massacring thousands of people. In the following sections, we'll discuss the history that led up to this tragic event through the aftermath of the Red Terror.


Ethiopia was the only African nation that avoided being colonized by European powers during the scramble for Africa in the late 19th century. The country retained its long-running monarchical rule until its last emperor, Haile Selassie, was overthrown by a military coup on Sept. 12, 1974. The reasons for the coup were varied, but much of the initial force behind it stemmed from university students who connected with Marxist ideology and began protesting against unanswered state issues, such as widespread starvation and lack of opportunity. The two main groups that formed were the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP) and the All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement (known by its Amharic acronym MEISON). Both groups sought communist revolution, but each had their own idea of how to get there.

Emperor Haile Selassie
Emperor Haile Selassie

In the wake of Selassie's oust and arrest, chaos swiftly engulfed the nation, and a council-like governing body, the Dergue, assumed power. The Dergue was communist in ideology and militaristic in action. The MEISON was initially in support of the Dergue. However, the situation spiraled out of control as members of the EPRP were targeted by the Dergue as enemies of the newly established state. In efforts of retaliation and revolution, EPRP members began attacking and killing members of the Dergue.

The First Wave

For two years after the deposition and imprisonment of Selassie, members of the three groups took turns killing each other. However, the Dergue was highly efficient, more organized, and in control of the country (even receiving aid and weapons from the Soviet Union). Then, a high-ranking Dergue leader, the infamous Mengistu Haile Mariam, had his rivals imprisoned and executed so he could assume complete power, which he did in February of 1977. Up until this point (especially in late 1976), the targeting of the EPRP by the Dergue was brutal but sporadic, but it was about to get a whole lot worse.

In a public speech on April 17, 1977, Mengistu threw several bottles of red liquid onto the ground of Meskel Square in the capital of Addis Ababa to officially begin the First Wave of the Red Terror. He stated that the political killings by the EPRP had been a 'White Terror', then he declared death to all counterrevolutionaries. In a statement that did not end up being much of an exaggeration, Dergue officials promised that for every one revolutionary that was killed, a thousand counterrevolutionaries would be killed.

The creation of Defense Squads came next, and they set out in search of EPRP members to imprison, torture, or execute (often all three). Much of their efforts occurred in the capital city, but rural factions and mass murders by the Defense Squads, especially in the rural Tigray region, were also common.

Dergue officials; Mengistu is on the Left
Dergue Officials - Mengistu is on the Left

Anyone who was even suspected of being a member or supporter of the EPRP (usually young and educated people) was targeted, arrested, tortured, and executed. Young people and children as young as twelve were singled out to be killed by Defense Squads who walked the streets in search of EPRP members. These squads killing between 100 and 150 youths a night--their bodies left in the streets of Addis Ababa for hyenas to scavenge.

Families who searched through the bodies for loved ones were arrested and murdered as accessories. Other families were forced to pay for the bullet used to kill their child. True numbers are hard to pinpoint, but some estimates go as high as 2,500 people murdered during this First Wave of the Red Terror, which lasted from April to June 1977.

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