Back to Front Page

Foreign Affairs: Yesterday and Today

Foreign Affairs: Yesterday and Today

Amen Teferi


Here I have engaged myself with a task of catering comparison between two reflections made by two writers of the world famous Foreign Affairs magazine. The magazine had published the first article in its April 1942 issue titled: “The Future of Ethiopia” and the other published on April 2015 titled: “Africa’s Next Hegemon, Behind Ethiopia's Power Plays.

Reading these articles would definitely give one the good opportunity to appreciate the trajectory of Ethiopia over the last seventy years. The article written by Robert Gale Woolbert seventy-three years ago deals with the pending conditions that ensue after the evacuation of Italy, the author of Ethiopia's downfall in 1936. Italy, fighting for five years with Ethiopian patriots who had never surrendered their freedom without fight, forced shamefully to leave Ethiopia. The second article that was written by Harry Verhoeven, published on April 12, 2015, has opened its discussion recalling the situation in 1991.

Verhoeven said, “In 1991, as the Cold War drew to an end, the only African country that had never been colonized by European imperialists was but a pale reflection of the Great Ethiopia that generations of the kingdom’s monarchs had pursued.” Describing the conditions of the country in 1991 the magazine continued saying “Million people lay dead following two decades of civil war. Secessionist movements in the provinces clamored for self-determination. The economy was in tatters, and another catastrophic famine loomed. The world came to associate Ethiopia with images hoards of starving children, and the country’s regional and domestic decline opened questions about its very survival.” That is no more the story of Ethiopia.


It has taken groundbreaking pragmatic measure and has begun its move from the zero-ground. Hence, Ethiopia managed to pass through the difficult situation and according to Verhoeven positioned itself to become “Africa’s next hegemon.”


Here we must raise important question. What is the secret of this transformation? In reading the above-cited two articles, surly, we can mine the secret of this transformation. For instance, if you see between the cracks of the sentences will find the answer. As Harry Verhoeven said, “Mystical ancestry and military greatness provided legitimacy to Ethiopia’s rulers for centuries as they controlled their formidably diverse empire through a policy of violent internal assimilation.”  He then concluded, “The myth of greatness lay shattered.”

But assimilation does not help Ethiopia to keep going unperturbed. Evidently, the move to hold the empire coercively proved to be disastrous. The dictatorship that followed the imperial regime also had crumbled as rebel fighters from the countryside marched on Addis Ababa in May 1991.

“Many observers were skeptical about the ability of the Horn of Africa’s once mightiest empire to reconstitute itself. When the northeastern territory of Eritrea voted for and got independence in 1993.”

There were many groups who had raised a claim for self-rule, which could in fact trigger total disintegration of the then Ethiopia. Now a quarter-century on, the mood in Ethiopia has completely changed.

The overthrow of the Soviet sponsored dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam has opened a new chapter in Ethiopian history. When EPRDF come to power, it promised a constitution that would respect the right of Ethiopia’s ninety-plus nations and nationalities to self-determination and took measure to abolish the political-economic inequities that had torn the country apart.

As Harry Verhoeven has declared in the last ten-plus years, Ethiopia’s economy grew more than seven percent per year on average. According to him, “It was the only African country to move at a pace comparable to the East Asian tigers—and to do so without a hydrocarbons boom or a huge mining sector. The economic miracle resulted in real pro-poor growth, lifting millions of people out of the vicious cycle of poverty, hunger, and poor health.”

Ethiopia has achieved the 2000–15 Millennium Development Goals for child mortality. It is also likely to meet the goals set in combating HIV/AIDS and rolling back malaria. As Harry Verhoeven has said, Ethiopia is making giant strides in tackling income volatility and illiteracy. Millions of smallholder farmers are improving the productivity shackles that historically have kept them in abject poverty. 

The pragmatic and problem solver ruling party EPRDF charted a path that differs resoundingly from Washington Consensus recipes and laissez-faire economics and ensured Ethiopia’s economic resurgence. Ethiopia has become the prime example for a different economic and political path.

After three decades of civil war, the EPRDF manage to establish a durable political order that vigilantly seek autonomy from any external threats, builds functional institutions, and democratic governance.

The Ethiopian government has a vision to foster regional integration. Central to this vision is forging economic and political alliances among the Horn countries in particular and the African countries in general. In the mind of Ethiopia, its domestic and regional vision is closely entwined, which would be primarily fulfilled by casting off the shackles of poverty. Ethiopia is a prime example for the encouraging effort to rid Africa from the longstanding stigmatizing epithet: “the hopeless continent.” Ethiopia believes that forging regional alliances and fostering international cooperation would boost Ethiopian economy and consolidate its viable domestic governance.

Wollbert In 1942

Now let us look back. In 1942, Robert Gale Wollbert had discussed the general condition of the country soon after Ethiopia’s liberation from Italian occupation. The Foreign Affairs magazine reflected the future prospect of Ethiopia in the then global political configuration. According the author of the article, Robert Gale Wollbert, Ethiopia was the first country to lose her independence in the sweep of the Italian aggression and had been the first to be liberated. True, the invasion of Manchuria preceded the conquest of Ethiopia by four years; yet China was engaged in a fight to the finish with the invader. Ethiopia, unlike China, was completely overrun and her independence extinguished.

As the first country freed from Axis occupation, Ethiopia faces the liberating Powers with important and complicated problems. Then, for the first time, they must make decisions, which inevitably will influence the policies they later pursue in other occupied lands as they too are freed.

Of course, the same reconstruction formulas cannot be applied indiscriminately to all countries that are not similar with each other. For example, Ethiopia, Albania, Poland and Norway were countries with dissimilar conditions. Yet, they know the force which precedent exerts on the acts of governments. Hence, the policies followed in the reconstitution of an independent Ethiopia seem sure to serve as guideposts for those who are to supervise the creation of a New Europe out of the wreck of the New Order. Nor should they forget that the policies applied to Ethiopia will be watched with the closest attention, not only by the various governments-in-exile and their countrymen at home, but by the Axis régimes themselves, for these can be counted on to extract the full propaganda value from any failure by the Anglo-Russo-American bloc to honor promises made to its smaller allies.

According to Robert Gale Wollbert, “On 28th of November 1941, Italian resistance in East Africa ended with the surrender of the besieged Fascist garrison at Gondar.” The campaign had been typical of this war in that the Allied forces were composed of units from many parts of the world. The British Empire contributed men from the United Kingdom, West Africa, Rhodesia, South Africa, Kenya, the Sudan and India. There were also contingents from the Belgian Congo and the Free French colonies in Africa. Last but certainly not least, there were the patriot armies raised by the Ethiopians themselves.

Concisely, with defeat of the Axis power, Ethiopia has lost some of her remoteness. There was time when "Abyssinia" was merely a word -- like Tibet or Timbuctoo -- that sprang to the lips as a synonym for something inaccessible, hardly real. Before the Ethiopian War of 1935-36 only two articulate groups in the United States were interested in Abyssinia: the more race-conscious Negroes, and certain religious bodies engaged in missionary work.

This feeling of sympathy became widespread among all Americans when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in the fall of 1935, and since that date, Ethiopia has ceased to be a kind of fairy tale in the minds of most Americans.

When Mussolini thrust Italy into the war on June 10, 1940, he did so at the cost of leaving his newly won empire in East Africa to its fate. Not that Il Duce understood this at the time, for in his calculation the imminent fall of France was to be followed shortly by the collapse of the British Empire. This event, long predicted by Fascist orators, was to have opened the gates of Egypt and the Sudan to the creation of a vast Italian empire in Northeast Africa. The failure of Britain to cave in according to the Fascist schedule meant that, except for hazardous communication from Libya by air, Italian East Africa was completely isolated from the homeland.

The question then became one as to how long it would take the British to exert enough pressure against the Fascist forces in East Africa -- numbering over 200,000 and known to be well armed and supplied -- to cause them to surrender.

An obvious weapon to use against the Italians was the Ethiopian people itself. The British Government had, in 1938, decided to recognize the Italian conquest of Ethiopia. Though Haile Selassie had taken up residence in England, he was regarded by the British Foreign Office merely as a private person, not as the head of a government-in-exile. When, however, Italy and Britain went to war, the latter discovered that the former Negus was a valuable diplomatic and military asset. He was flown to the Sudan in a British plane, and on January 15, 1941, he raised his banner on Ethiopian soil. With this gesture, the re-conquest of Ethiopia was begun.

Patriot bands, some of which had been carrying on guerrilla warfare against the Italians ever since the Emperor had fled in 1936, joined his forces. Led largely by British officers, these played an important part in the ensuing campaign, particularly in the liberation of Gojjam province.

However, the troops of the Emperor were not the first to reach the capital. This honor was won by a small body of South, West and East African troops that in seven weeks (February 14 to April 5) pushed its way from Kismayu, at the mouth of the Juba River, through Mogadishu and Harrar to Addis Ababa, a distance of some 1,150 miles, after having defeated Italian forces several times its own in number and captured immense stores of arms and other supplies. By May 19 the Italian Viceroy, the Duke of Aosta, had surrendered at Amba Alagi, and the campaign was at an end except for the capture of a few isolated outposts.

This lightning campaign has remained as one of the military marvels of this war. How so few could accomplish so much against so many, particularly when the many were better supplied than the few and were in possession of numberless excellent defensive positions in a mountainous country, is explained by the low morale of the Italians and their native allies. Only in rare instances, such as during the siege of Keren, did they put up more than a halfhearted fight. Mussolini lost his empire even more quickly than he had won it.

On February 4, 1941, Foreign Secretary Eden declared in the House of Commons that: "His Majesty's Government would welcome the reappearance of an independent Ethiopian State, and recognizes the claim of the Emperor Haile Selassie to the throne. The Emperor has intimated to His Majesty's Government that he will need outside assistance and guidance. His Majesty's Government agreed with this view and consider that any such assistance and guidance in economic and political matters should be the subject of international arrangement at the conclusion of peace.

They affirm that they have themselves no territorial ambitions in Abyssinia. In the meanwhile, the conduct of military operations by Imperial forces in parts of Abyssinia will require temporary measures of military guidance and control. These will be carried out in consultation with the Emperor, and will be brought to an end as soon as the situation permits."

This commitment was made in anticipation of the conquest of Italian East Africa. Not until May 5, five years to a day after he had fled into exile, did the Emperor re-enter Addis Ababa. He appointed a ministry and set about re-establishing his administration, both in his capital and in the provinces. At the same time, there came into existence a British administration that operated alongside, or perhaps above, the Ethiopian Government. This British administration, nominally military, was nevertheless staffed in no small part by men whose experience had been in the colonial service. In England, the friends of Ethiopia voiced considerable apprehension at this system, and particularly at the use of colonial officials in the administration of a friendly people long accustomed to national self-government. Questions were asked in Parliament as to when the Government intended to give effect to its implied promise to recognize Haile Selassie, not only as the ruler of an independent Ethiopia, but as an active ally in the war.

The Government was reminded that the Emperor had declared himself and his people ready to fight on against the Fascist Powers until final victory was won. In general, the Government spokesmen confined themselves to reiterating Mr. Eden's statement of February 4.

Finally, on January 19, 1942, the British Government was able to announce that a two-year agreement had been made, the general nature of which was revealed by Mr. Eden on February 3. In this accord, the Government of Haile Selassie received formal recognition, and a grant of £2,500,000. Other British aid in the form of a military mission and various advisers was also extended, in return for the wartime use of Ethiopian bases and communications.

Unlike Great Britain, the United States has never recognized the Fascist conquest of Ethiopia. That being so, all the American Government need do to re-establish relations with Haile Selassie is to exchange diplomatic missions. Such a step, aside from satisfying the elementary demands of justice, would have the practical advantage of allowing us to station diplomatic and consular representatives at Addis Ababa and other Ethiopian cities, where they could gather much-needed information about a region in which we have suddenly become vitally interested. Further, because of the prestige enjoyed by the United States in that part of the world, American diplomats would be in a particularly favorable position to facilitate close collaboration between the Ethiopian and Allied Governments. The dispatch of an American diplomatic mission to Addis Ababa would seem to be most desirable.

Ethiopia should also become one of the United Nations by being invited to adhere to the Washington Agreement of January 2, 1942. Haile Selassie and his patriot bands have for some time been de facto allies of the anti-Axis Powers -- indeed, the Ethiopians were fighting Fascist aggression long before the twenty-six United Nations were willing to recognize that it was their fight too. The least these Powers can do is to admit Ethiopia to their ranks. Incidentally, this would be wise diplomatic strategy, for it would impress the colored and colonial peoples of the world with the sincerity of Allied professions.

So much for Ethiopia's role in the war.

What is to be her status when victory has been won? This is a question that will concern the United States, if for no other reason than because it will be an American interest to see that the peace settlement is so devised as to leave -- anywhere in the world -- the fewest possible foci of dissatisfaction from which future wars may breed.

First, Ethiopia must be assured of her juridical independence. As far as Britain is concerned -- and she is the paramount Power in that part of the world -- the question has apparently been settled by the agreement announced on January 19. If in addition the United States were to resume diplomatic relations with Ethiopia, and the latter were to adhere to the Washington Declaration, there would be little, if any, doubt that an Axis defeat would see Ethiopia's independence fully restored.

There then arises the question as to what territory should be included in the revived Ethiopian state. Then, there were three main schools of thought have manifested themselves on this subject in England. One school, composed primarily of liberals and anti-imperialists, holds that Ethiopia should not only be restored to her 1935 boundaries, but should also be given Eritrea, and perhaps French and Italian Somalilands. Those who hold this view point out that there are weighty geographic, economic and ethnic reasons in favor of their proposal.

Another group, more numerous and influential, holds that the Ethiopian Empire is hopelessly backward and that therefore the non-Amharic and non-Christian parts of it should be lopped off, leaving only the ancient core of historic Abyssinia under a nominal freedom, but in reality as a British protectorate. To make this proposal is to suggest the revival of the essential feature of the Hoare-Laval Plan. Those of this persuasion speak feelingly about the need for Haile Selassie to accept "advice and assistance." There were many other schools too.

In any case, Britain had shown reluctance to accept independent Ethiopian Government. One reason for the reluctance of the British to recognize the Ethiopian Government may well have been their unwillingness to endorse the territorial integrity of Ethiopia as of 1935. Having accepted the Italian conquest, the British Government can of course allege that its recognition of the independence of Ethiopia does not necessarily carry with it acquiescence in her former boundaries.

The Real Solution

The magazine tried to examine the question of Ethiopia's boundaries on its merits. It argued that “diversity of language and religion in and around Ethiopia indicates the impossibility of trying to carve up that region along lines of cultural cleavage and in reality, the confusion of peoples and tribes is far too great to portray on any map, no matter how detailed.” Several different languages are found in the same locality, spoken by diverse peoples living side by side. What has been said of languages applies with equal force to religions. For instance, not all of the inhabitants of the plateau are Christians; many are Moslems, while some are “pagans.” Nor are all those who speak Amharic and its sister tongues necessarily either Christians or inhabitants of the plateau.

Robert Gale Wollbert argued that inequality among citizens based on ethnic and religious background had been a salient feature in the Ethiopian history, and has been a critical factor that had been triggering continual struggle among these groups. This struggle has been long and fierce, and its memory is part of the national tradition of Ethiopia. This tradition had been very vigorous until recent time. According Robert Gale Wollbert, this was shown in 1916 when the Emperor [Lijj Yasu], grandson and successor to Menelik, was overthrown among other reasons because of his partiality to Islam.

Robert Gale Wollbert had mentioned that Lij Iyasu, whose father, Ras Micael of Wollo, had been a Moslem could even ascend the imperial throne. And this, in his view, indicates that times were changing. Moreover, he has affirmed that the Oromos have long been intermarrying with the “Abyssinians,” and many have received high office.

Finally, he concluded, “Haile Selassie has encouraged this tendency, and during his previous rule even Moslems participated in the imperial administration. It is along this road that the salvation of Ethiopia lies. The Christians and Mohammedans of Egypt, Palestine, Syria and the Lebanon have learned to live and let live with a fair degree of mutual accommodation, and it is not too much to hope that they can do the same in Ethiopia.”

He further explained, “There has never been any such thing as Ethiopian nationalism -- that is, a sense of loyalty to a common fatherland on the part of all the peoples in the empire. Among those peoples, only the Christian Abyssinians possess a sense of national solidarity that has evolved to any degree of articulateness. Elsewhere in the empire, loyalties are still localized in the tribe or in the region.

Most of the peoples cannot even lay claim to a written language, and without that the growth of a national culture is impossible. Perhaps the first sparks of a feeling of common destiny among the Ethiopian people were struck off on the anvil of Fascist rule. Perhaps also the heroic figure of Haile Selassie may catch the imagination and enlist the loyalty of his heterogeneous realm.” Nonetheless, the government of the Ethiopian Empire is certainly far from being that of a modern democracy.

In any event, the Ethiopian Empire is an historical reality and the wise course for peacemakers is to build upon that foundation. Anything that can be done to prevent the rise of countless small African nationalisms based on racial, linguistic or religious differences should be encouraged. The tendency today must be towards integration, not partition. For Balkanization of Africa can hardly be the aim of enlightened statesmanship.

Finally, he concluded that “the experience of Soviet Russia in protecting the cultural autonomy of its numerous and diverse peoples within a greater political framework might be imitated, as far as conditions permit, in Ethiopia.”

The East African region is a much larger region -geographically and ethnically- where the “Abyssinian” plateau is a core. This region, roughly in the form of a triangle, possesses marked characteristics that distinguish it from surrounding regions.

On the east, the waters of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean bound it. And on the west by the line where the plateau falls away into the plains of the Sudan. In the south, though nature has failed to provide a clear-cut line of cleavage, the belt of sterile steppe and swamp land in northeast Kenya running from Lake Rudolf to the Indian Ocean forms a buffer zone between the Ethiopian and Kenyan highlands.

In addition to its geographical unity, this region possesses a high degree of ethnic homogeneity. Except for the border areas along the Sudan frontier, it is inhabited by peoples manifesting like somatic characteristics which anthropologists have identified as belonging to the Ethiopic type.

Robert Gale Wollbert also said “The conclusion to which we have come, then, is that it is neither politically wise nor physically possible to split up the mosaic of Ethiopian peoples into different sovereignties; that the whole area comprised within former Italian East Africa and the two Somalilands of Britain and France possesses a high degree of geographic, racial and historical unity; and that therefore the function of wise statesmanship is to strengthen this natural unity by endowing it with political unity. Here is a chance for us to anticipate, and thus avoid, some of the mistakes into which the exaggerated nationalism of Europe has led its peoples.”

As Robert Gale Wollbert has admitted “This will not be easy, and it can only be achieved if the Ethiopian Government receives that outside aid and advice which the Emperor has repeatedly stated he needs.” 

But the solution catered under foreign domination or tutelage is does not work. However enlightened and altruistic these foreign forces may be, it would be difficult and impossible for them to come-up with sustainable solution for the unique and long-standing problems that have destabilized Ethiopia for so long. A better suggestion could have been the formation of federal arrangement that recognizes the group rights of the nation, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia. As we have practically proven, such an arrangement has enormously helped Ethiopia to stabilize itself.  

That was the most suitable solution that had facilitated peaceful solution for the manifold political, economic, cultural or religious problems that had been affecting Ethiopia for centuries.

With the proper policy at hand, the Ethiopian Government is working to implement homegrown solution. The federal arrangement has cemented the historical ties and mutual dependence of the people of Ethiopia. Thus, Ethiopia has delivered a solution to its longstanding ailments.

Now there is every reason to believe that the Ethiopian government is in good shape that could allow it to be fully alive to all its responsibilities and meet them with wisdom and generosity. EPRDF is pragmatic, enlightened and forward-looking party that made remarkable progress in further improving the historical ties of the people of Ethiopia.

The rapid expansion of educational institutions will produce capable human capacity that would be instrumental in the progress Ethiopia made. With the progress achieved in this sector, Ethiopian renaissance will rest on solider foundations. Given ample time, it can make even faster progress in the future. Sure EPRDF was fully aware of the fact that the transition from bondage to emancipation is only possible through recognizing the individual and group rights of the nation, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia. And it did the same.  Now the reason for hope in the future of Ethiopia is the national consensus being created within the federal political framework.


Back to Front Page