Seventy Years Ago Today. By Dr. Tsehai Berhane Selassie - May 4, 2011
Ethiopia: Seventy Years Ago Today May 4, 2011
Seventy years ago, Ethiopians won the war against colonial aggression by their archenemy Fascist Italy. For a people conscious of its history, seventy years is not far, and for Ethiopians the sorrows, destructions and glories associated with the five-year war are still fresh in their memories. As a tribute to the patriotic resistance fighters, this write-up presents their perspective with the purpose of reminding the current generation some of what our ancestors approved or disliked in relating to foreign allies. There are two points I wish to highlight. One of them is that the fighters acknowledged British help, but they were essentially proud of their own resistance to Italian presence. To the end of their days, they insisted that they fought a war of invasion from 1935 to 1940/41; their country was not occupied despite a foreign army that they managed to dislodge eventually. The other point of emphasize here is that Ethiopians were aware of contemporary episodes that were used for asserting negative views about their political processes.
Italy crushed an Ethiopian army at Maichew in October 1935 and took the capital on 5 May, but the southern Ethiopian war front of Sidamo*, Harar, Arsi and Bale, Ras Desta, Dajazmaches Gebre Matyam and Debay, Beyene Merid and others went on fighting until Februray 1937. Ras Imeru, with members of young standing army cadets, sustained an army and a government in Wellega and the west until June 1936. In and around the capital, resistance picked up as guerilla warfare in September 1937 and kept going until 1941. The same type of warfare was conducted in Gojam, Begemder, Wello and parts of Tigre, more or less throughout the same time. Far from extracting colonial wealth, the invader had to maintain a substantial fighting force at a heavy cost to Italy itself.
The United Nations has declared that five-year war as the beginning of World War II. When it ended in Ethiopia in 1940/41, it escalated elsewhere because Fascist Italy joined Germany and Japan to contest world superiority. On top of its provocation in Europe, Italian air force bombed towns along the Kenyan border and even took Galbat and Kassala on the Ethiopian Sudanese border in June and July of 1940. In a well-known historical saga, the British Middle East Command, especially General Platt in Sudan, General Cunningham in Nairobi and the French in Djibouti wanted to use the Ethiopian warriors against the Italians. Their purpose was to ‘mop up’ Italians from their African military bases and secure the Red Sea. The British authorities in Sudan reached out to the fighters along the Ethiopian Sudanese border, and gave them uniforms and supplies. So did those in Kenya and the French Djibouti.
How the British and their agents engaged Ethiopians in dialogue is a fascinating historical episode that has some relevance to contemporary attempts of approaching westerners concerning the country. At the time, only a few held the once wide-spread belief that the League of Nations would help Ethiopia against their aggressor. Indeed, those on the side of the British mission reported that they had difficulty in winning over the confidence of the fighters. Some were highly suspicious that they would only change one European aggressor for another. Others distrusted the claim that the emperor was returning with a British force. Those who finally accepted British offer of help, did so because they strongly believed that the Emperor would have the upper hand in making final decisions on Italian or any other European presence in Ethiopia. They saw the role of the British as marginal to the war effort to throw out the Italians.
Most fighters rejected the offer preferring to take their commands from the emperor. Leaders such as Amoraw Wubneh (styled ras by his followers) told the British in Gedaref “What is the difference to me. White are White, be they British or Italians or British”. Even news of the emperor’s imminent arrival in their midst did not help the British mission that was sent to coordinate the warriors’ efforts. Thus, Lij Belay Zeleke (whose bravery had obliged his followers to style him “emperor by his own might”) would not shake hands with a member of the British mission that had reached his camp in Gojam. In Kenya, General Cunningham had to restrain some Ethiopian exiles who refused to fight under the command of British colonial officers. Only the exiles in Djibouti were happy to fight the enemy as long as the French authorities cooperated with them.
The history of the British involvement in the war in Ethiopia adds another interesting aspect to foreign involvement in the affairs of the country. Once General Cunningham launched the attack against the Italians, he found that the Italians were much weakened in the south. He soon reached the centre, and on April 4 had the Royal Air Force bomb the airport where it destroyed 32 planes; the following day, he entered the Addis Ababa. His use of weapons and military force from British territorial holdings in southern Africa was minimal cost to the British. The Ethiopian resistance had already carried the critical cost of dislodging the Italian forces.
Whatever the British thought they were doing in Ethiopia, the Ethiopians accompanying them were made to understand that they were only receiving assistance in their struggle against the Italians. They were easing the advance of the British columns to the capital and beyond, whether they were coming from the north and west or from the south. Later, however, the British put a facile twist of military diplomacy, with a dash of racism particularly from their military bases of their Southern African colonies, and claimed that their relationship with the fighters was one of ‘inciting a rebellion’ in the Italian ‘colony’.
This was a negation of the spirit of Ethiopian sovereignty, and with General Cunningham’s dash to enter the capital symbolically expressed it. Haile Selassie and the resistance fighters were deliberately delayed. The resistance fighters, including the famous Ras Abebe Aregai had hoped to stage a deservedly grand entry into the capital with the emperor in the lead. The same day that Cunningham arrived in Addis Ababa, Haile Selassie hoisted the Ethiopian flag in Debre Markos, Gojam. He and his warriors had to wait for until 5 May to enter the capital. British friends, who considered the emperor as a symbol of unity, also lauded that date as important for being the fifth anniversary of the emperor’s departure into exile five years before.
Once their forces from Sudan and Southern Africa overrun Ethiopia, they set to consolidating their victory over the Italian army. They dismantled its weapons, looted its administrative centers and took what they could carry to Kenya. The emperor and his government personnel had to engage in diplomatic maneuvers to finally get rid of British administrative and military personnel. Some of their administrative decisions included the attempt at forging territorial boundaries in the neighboring countries of North East Africa, notably Ethiopia and Somalia.
The resistance fighters never accepted Italian or any other claim that they had lost their sovereignty. They rejected British claims to liberate Ethiopia, and resented that Britain treated Ethiopia as an occupied territory. It has to be remembered that the British entered the war in Ethiopia as part of their strategy of denying German military holding in Rwanda-Urundi [later Rwanda] and Italian positions to Libya, Somalia, and Eritrea-Ethiopia. It was neither in aid of policing the region nor philanthropic. They knew Italy’s military expenditure was overtaxing it and that even sending troops to Ethiopia in order to ease internal social and economic crisis had outrun its usefulness as a propaganda ploy. Italy was a weak enemy, and the Ethiopian warriors were already giving it a hard time. As a strategy of making the weakened enemy fragile ever further, helping the emperor to link with the guerilla fighters was vital.
To summarize: The historical episodes –the British agents engaging Ethiopians in dialogue and British involvement in the war in Ethiopia – have influenced the turn of some events in Ethiopian history. Indeed the British sentiment of inciting rebellion in Ethiopia was at work when the British Command in Sudan sent its agents to engage the Ethiopian warriors in a dialogue for cooperation. They were talking cross-purpose of what was at stake. The engagement in dialogue underlined the difficulties in what was to be seen as the rivalry between the resistance fighters who had stayed in county and the exiles. Those who fought the guerilla wars looked down on the returned exiles; the latter of course were said to have the support of the chief exile, the emperor. It was a rivalry that was reflected in the less than harmonious administration of post-war Ethiopia. Sadly, a more profound legacy of British involvement in the war emanated from their subsequent administrative decisions on the basis of their claim that Ethiopia was their occupied territory. Their attempt at forging territorial boundaries left hostilities among people in the neighboring countries of North East Africa, notably Ethiopia and Somalia.
Both historical incidents have been cited also as basis for characterizing Ethiopians as suspicious of one another, and as a people who lack in coordinating their own efforts. Perhaps drawing parallels between the experiences of the resistance fighters had with the British and current generation of Ethiopians with the global community is unfair. However, there are lessons to be learnt from their negative consequences. Those heroic resistance fighters also used their diplomatic skills to dislodge foreign involvement in the name of war. Follow their example in such involvement in the name of contemporary rivalry for investment is entirely up to whether we seek to learn from our history.
*place names are from the time.