EthiopiaAfter a failed assassination attempt against Graziani on February 19, 1937, the colonial authorities executed 30,000 persons, including about half of the younger, educated Ethiopian population.



The two years of Menelik’s reign that followed the death of Ras Tessema in 1911 found real power in the hands of Ras (later Negus) Mikael of Welo, an Oromo and former Muslim, who had converted to Christianity under duress. Mikael could muster an army of 80,000 in his predominantly Muslim province and commanded the allegiance of Oromo outside it. In December 1913, Menelik died, but fear of civil war induced the court to keep his death secret for some time. Although recognized as emperor, Menelik’s nephew, Lij Iyasu, was not formally crowned. The old nobility quickly attempted to reassert its power, which Menelik had undercut, and united against Lij Iyasu. At the outbreak of World War I, encouraged by his father and by German and Turkish diplomats, Lij Iyasu adopted the Islamic faith. Seeking to revive Muslim-Oromo predominance, Lij Iyasu placed the eastern half of Ethiopia under Ras Mikael’s control, officially placed his country in religious dependence on the Ottoman sultan-caliph, and established cordial relations with Somali leader Muhammad Abdullah Hassan.

The Shewan nobility immediately secured excommunicating Lij Iyasu and deposing him as emperor from the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church a proclamation. Menelik’s daughter, Zawditu, was declared empress. Tafari Mekonnen, the son of Ras Mekonnen of Harer (who was a descendant of a Shewan negus and a supporter of the nobles), was declared regent and heir to the throne and given the title of ras. By virtue of the power and prestige he derived from his achievements as one of Menelik’s generals, Habte Giorgis, the minister of war and a traditionalist, continued to play a major role in government affairs until his death in 1926. Although Lij Iyasu was captured in a brief military campaign in 1921 and imprisoned until his death in 1936, his father, Negus Mikael, continued for some time to pose a serious challenge to the government in Addis Ababa. The death of Habte Giorgis in 1926 left Tafari in effective control of the government. In 1928 he was crowned negus. When the empress died in 1930, Tafari succeeded to the throne without contest. Seventeen years after the death of Menelik, the succession struggle thus ended in favor of Tafari.

Well before his crowning as negus, Tafari began to introduce a degree of modernization into Ethiopia. As early as 1920, he ordered administrative regulations and legal code books from various European countries to provide models for his newly created bureaucracy. Ministers were also appointed to advise the regent and were given official accommodations in the capital. To ensure the growth of a class of educated young men who might be useful in introducing reforms in the years ahead, Tafari promoted government schooling. He enlarged the school Menelik had established for the sons of nobles and founded Tafari Mekonnen Elementary School in 1925. In addition, he took steps to improve health and social services.

Tafari also acted to extend his power base and to secure allies abroad. In 1919, after efforts to gain membership in the League of Nations were blocked because of the existence of slavery in Ethiopia, he (and Empress Zawditu) complied with the norms of the international community by banning the slave trade in 1923. That same year, Ethiopia was unanimously voted membership in the League of Nations. Continuing to seek international approval of the country’s internal conditions, the government enacted laws in 1924 that provided for the gradual emancipation of slaves and their offspring and created a government bureau to oversee the process. The exact degree of servitude was difficult to determine, however, as the majority of slaves worked in households and were considered, at least among Amhara and Tigray, to be second-class family members.

Ethiopia signed a twenty-year treaty of friendship with Italy in 1928, providing for an Ethiopian free-trade zone at Aseb in Eritrea and the construction of a road from the port to Dese in Welo. A joint company controlled road traffic. Contact with the outside world expanded further when the emperor engaged a Belgian military mission in 1929 to train the royal bodyguards. In 1930 negotiations started between Ethiopia and various international banking institutions for the establishment of the Bank of Ethiopia. In the same year, Tafari signed the Arms Traffic Act with Britain, France, and Italy, by which unauthorized persons were denied the right to import arms. The act also recognized the government’s right to procure arms against external aggression and to maintain internal order.


Although Empress Zawditu died in April 1930, it was not until November that Negus Tafari was crowned Haile Selassie I, “Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, and King of Kings of Ethiopia.” As emperor, Haile Selassie continued to push reforms aimed at modernizing the country and breaking the nobility’s authority. Henceforth, the great rases were forced either to obey the emperor or to engage in treasonable opposition to him.

In July 1931, the emperor granted a constitution that asserted his own status, reserved imperial succession to the line of Haile Selassie, and declared that “the person of the Emperor is sacred, his dignity inviolable, and his power indisputable.” All power over central and local government, the legislature, the judiciary, and the military remained with the emperor. The constitution was essentially an effort to provide a legal basis for replacing the traditional provincial rulers with appointees loyal to the emperor.

The new strength of the imperial government was demonstrated in 1932 when a revolt led by Ras Hailu Balaw of Gojam in support of Lij Iyasu was quickly suppressed and a new nontraditional governor put in Hailu’s place. By 1934 reliable provincial rulers had been established throughout the traditional Amhara territories of Shewa, Gojam, and Begemdir, as well as in Kefa and Sidamo–well outside the core Amhara area. The only traditional leader capable of overtly challenging central rule at this point was the ras of Tigray. Other peoples, although in no position to confront the emperor, remained almost entirely outside the control of the imperial government.

Although Haile Selassie placed administrators of his own choosing wherever he could and thus sought to limit the power of the rases and other nobles with regional power bases, he did not directly attack the systems of land tenure that were linked to the traditional political order. Abolition of the pattern of gult rights in the Amhara-Tigray highlands and the system of land allocation in the south would have amounted to a social and economic revolution that Haile Selassie was not prepared to undertake.


A latecomer to the scramble for colonies in Africa, Italy established itself first in Eritrea (its name was derived from the Latin term for the Red Sea, Mare Erythreum) in the 1880s and secured Ethiopian recognition of its claim in 1889. Despite its failure to penetrate Tigray in 1896, Italy retained control over Eritrea. A succession of Italian chief administrators, or governors, maintained a degree of unity and public order in a region marked by cultural, linguistic, and religious diversity. Eritrea also experienced material progress in many areas before Ethiopia proper did so.

One of the most important developments during the post-1889 period was the growth of an Eritrean public administration. The Italians employed many Eritreans to work in public service–particularly the police and public works–and fostered loyalty by granting Eritreans emoluments and status symbols. The local population shared in the benefits conferred under Italian colonial administration, especially through newly created medical services, agricultural improvements, and the provision of urban amenities in Asmera and Mitsiwa.

After Benito Mussolini assumed power in Italy in 1922, the colonial government in Eritrea changed. The new administration stressed the racial and political superiority of Italians, authorized segregation, and relegated the local people to the lowest level of public employment. At the same time, Rome implemented agricultural improvements and established a basis for commercial agriculture on farms run by Italian colonists.

State control of the economic sphere was matched by tighter political control. Attempts at improving the management of the colony, however, did not transform it into a selfsufficient entity. The colony’s most important function was to serve as a strategic base for future aggrandizement.


As late as September 29, 1934, Rome affirmed its 1928 treaty of friendship with Ethiopia. Nonetheless, it became clear that Italy wished to expand and link its holdings in the Horn of Africa. Moreover, the international climate of the mid-1930s provided Italy with the expectation that aggression could be undertaken with impunity. Determined to provoke a casus belli, the Mussolini regime began deliberately exploiting the minor provocations that arose in its relations with Ethiopia.

In December 1934, an incident took place at Welwel in the Ogaden, a site of wells used by Somali nomads regularly traversing the borders between Ethiopia and British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland. The Italians had built fortified positions in Welwel in 1930 and, because there had been no protests, assumed that the international community had recognized their rights over this area. However, an Anglo-Ethiopian boundary commission challenged the Italian position when it visited Welwel in late November 1934 on its way to set territorial boundary markers. On encountering Italian belligerence, the commission’s members withdrew but left behind their Ethiopian military escort, which eventually fought a battle with Italian units.

In September 1935, the League of Nations exonerated both parties in the Welwel incident. The long delay and the intricate British and French maneuverings persuaded Mussolini that no obstacle would be placed in his path. An Anglo-French proposal in August 1935–just before the League of Nations ruling–that the signatories to the 1906 Tripartite Treaty collaborate for the purpose of assisting in the modernization and reorganization of Ethiopian internal affairs, subject to the consent of Ethiopia, was flatly rejected by the Italians. On October 3, 1935, Italy attacked Ethiopia from Eritrea and Italian Somaliland without a declaration of war. On October 7, the League of Nations unanimously declared Italy an aggressor but took no effective action.

In a war that lasted seven months, Ethiopia was outmatched by Italy in armaments–a situation exacerbated by the fact that a League of Nations arms embargo was not enforced against Italy. Despite a valiant defense, the next six months saw the Ethiopians pushed back on the northern front and in Harerge. Acting on long-standing grievances, a segment of the Tigray forces defected, as did Oromo forces in some areas. Moreover, the Italians made widespread use of chemical weapons and air power. On March 31, 1936, the Ethiopians counterattacked the main Italian force at Maychew but were defeated. By early April 1936, Italian forces had reached Dese in the north and Harer in the east. On May 2, Haile Selassie left for French Somaliland and exile–a move resented by some Ethiopians who were accustomed to a warrior emperor. The Italian forces entered Addis Ababa on May 5. Four days later, Italy announced the annexation of Ethiopia.

On June 30, Haile Selassie made a powerful speech before the League of Nations in Geneva in which he set forth two choices–support for collective security or international lawlessness. The emperor stirred the conscience of many and was thereafter regarded as a major international figure. Britain and France, however, soon recognized Italy’s control of Ethiopia. Among the major powers, the United States and the Soviet Union refused to do so.

In early June 1936, Rome promulgated a constitution bringing Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Italian Somaliland together into a single administrative unit divided into six provinces. On June 11, 1936, Marshal Rodolfo Graziani replaced Marshal Pietro Badoglio, who had commanded the Italian forces in the war. In December the Italians declared the whole country to be pacified and under their effective control. Ethiopian resistance nevertheless continued.

After a failed assassination attempt against Graziani on February 19, 1937, the colonial authorities executed 30,000 persons, including about half of the younger, educated Ethiopian population. This harsh policy, however, did not pacify the country. In November 1937, Rome therefore appointed a new governor and instructed him to adopt a more flexible line. Accordingly, large-scale public works projects were undertaken. One result was the construction of the country’s first system of improved roads. In the meantime, however, the Italians had decreed miscegenation to be illegal. Racial separation, including residential segregation, was enforced as thoroughly as possible. The Italians showed favoritism to non-Christian Oromo (some of whom had supported the invasion), Somali, and other Muslims in an attempt to isolate the Amhara, who supported Haile Selassie.

Ethiopian resistance continued, nonetheless. Early in 1938, a revolt broke out in Gojam led by the Committee of Unity and Collaboration, which was made up of some of the young, educated elite who had escaped the reprisal after the attempt on Graziani’s life. In exile in Britain, the emperor sought to gain the support of the Western democracies for his cause but had little success until Italy entered World War II on the side of Germany in June 1940. Thereafter, Britain and the emperor sought to cooperate with Ethiopian and other indigenous forces in a campaign to dislodge the Italians from Ethiopia and from British Somaliland, which the Italians seized in August 1940, and to resist the Italian invasion of Sudan. Haile Selassie proceeded immediately to Khartoum, where he established closer liaison with both the British headquarters and the resistance forces within Ethiopia.


The wresting of Ethiopia from the occupying Italian forces involved British personnel, composed largely of South African and African colonial troops penetrating from the south, west, and north, supported by Ethiopian guerrillas. It was the task of an Anglo-Ethiopian mission, eventually commanded by Colonel Orde Wingate, to coordinate the activities of the Ethiopian forces in support of the campaign. The emperor arrived in Gojam on January 20, 1941, and immediately undertook the task of bringing the various local resistance groups under his control.

The campaigns of 1940 and 1941 were based on a British strategy of preventing Italian forces from attacking or occupying neighboring British possessions, while at the same time pressing northward from East Africa through Italian Somaliland and eastern Ethiopia to isolate Italian troops in the highlands. This thrust was directed at the Harer and Dire Dawa area, with the objective of cutting the rail link between Addis Ababa and Djibouti. At the same time, British troops from Sudan penetrated Eritrea to cut off Italian forces from the Red Sea. The campaign in the north ended in February and March of 1941 with the Battle of Keren and the defeat of Italian troops in Eritrea. By March 3, Italian Somaliland had fallen to British forces, and soon after the Italian governor initiated negotiations for the surrender of the remaining Italian forces. On May 5, 1941, Haile Selassie reentered Addis Ababa, but it was not until January 1942 that the last of the Italians, cut off near Gonder, surrendered to British and Ethiopian forces.

During the war years, British military officials left responsibility for internal affairs in the emperor’s hands. However, it was agreed that all acts relating to the war effort–domestic or international–required British approval. Without defining the limits of authority, both sides also agreed that the emperor would issue “proclamations” and the British military administration would issue “public notices.” Without consulting the British, Haile Selassie appointed a seven-member cabinet and a governor of Addis Ababa, but for tactical reasons he announced that they would serve as advisers to the British military administration.

This interim Anglo-Ethiopian arrangement was replaced in January 1942 by a new agreement that contained a military convention. The convention provided for British assistance in the organization of a new Ethiopian army that was to be trained by a British military mission. In addition to attaching officers to Ethiopian army battalions, the British assigned advisers to most ministries and to some provincial governors. British assistance strengthened the emperor’s efforts to substitute, as his representatives in the provinces, experienced administrators for the traditional nobility. But such help was rejected whenever proposed reforms threatened to weaken the emperor’s personal control.

The terms of the agreement confirmed Ethiopia’s status as a sovereign state. However, the Ogaden and certain strategic areas, such as the French Somaliland border, the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railroad, and the Haud (collectively termed the “Reserved Areas”), remained temporarily under British administration. Other provisions set forth recruitment procedures for additional British advisers should they be requested. About the same time, a United States economic mission arrived, thereby laying the groundwork for an alliance that in time would significantly affect the country’s direction.

A British-trained national police administration and police force gradually took the place of the police who had served earlier in the retinues of the provincial governors. Opposition to these changes was generally minor except for a revolt in 1943 in Tigray–long a stronghold of resistance to the Shewans–and another in the Ogaden, inhabited chiefly by the Somali. British aircraft brought from Aden helped quell the Tigray rebellion, and two battalions of Ethiopian troops suppressed the Ogaden uprising. The 1942 Anglo-Ethiopian agreement enabled the British military to disarm the Somali rebels and to patrol the region.

After Haile Selassie returned to the throne in 1941, the British assumed control over currency and foreign exchange as well as imports and exports. Additionally, the British helped Ethiopia to rehabilitate its national bureaucracy. These changes, as well as innovations made by the Italians during the occupation, brought home to many Ethiopians the need to modernize–at least in some sectors of public life– if the country were to survive as an independent entity.

In addition, the emperor made territorial demands, but these met with little sympathy from the British. Requests for the annexation of Eritrea, which the Ethiopians claimed to be racially, culturally, and economically inseparable from Ethiopia, were received with an awareness on the part of the British of a growing Eritrean sense of separate political identity. Similarly, Italian Somaliland was intended by the British to be part of “Greater Somalia”; thus, the emperor’s claims to that territory were also rejected.


Despite criticism of the emperor’s 1936 decision to go into exile, the concept of the monarchy remained widely accepted after World War II. The country’s leaders and the church assumed that victory over the Italians essentially meant the restoration of their traditional privileges. Before long, however, new social classes stirred into life by Haile Selassie’s centralizing policies, as well as a younger generation full of frustrated expectations, clashed with forces bent on maintaining the traditional system.


The expansion of central authority by appointed officials required a dependable tax base, and that in turn encroached on the established prerogatives of those who had been granted large holdings in the south and of gult-holders of the Amhara-Tigray highlands. Consequently, in March 1942, without reference to the restored parliament, the emperor decreed a taxation system that divided all land into one of three categories: fertile, semifertile, and poor. A fixed levy, depending on category, was imposed for each gasha (forty hectares) of land.

The nobles of Gojam, Tigray, and Begemdir refused to accept any limitation upon the prevailing land tenure system and successfully battled the government over the issue. The emperor acknowledged defeat by excluding those provinces from the tax. When landlords elsewhere also protested the tax, the emperor exempted them as well, contenting himself with a flat 10 percent tithe on all but church land. But this tax, traditionally collected by landlords, was simply passed on to the tenants. In short, the emperor pursued policies that did not infringe on the rights of the nobility and other large landholders. In 1951, in response to additional pressure from the landlords, Haile Selassie further reduced the land tax payable by landlords and not covered by previous exemptions; the peasant cultivator, as in centuries past, continued to carry the entire taxation burden.

Some reform was also effected within the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. In July 1948, Haile Selassie initiated steps, completed in 1956, by which he, rather than the patriarch of Alexandria, would appoint the abun, or patriarch, of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Thus, for the first time in sixteen centuries of Ethiopian Christianity, an Ethiopian rather than an Egyptian served as head of the national church. The Ethiopian church, however, continued to recognize the primacy of the Alexandrian see. This appointment was followed by the creation of enough new bishoprics to allow the Ethiopians to elect their own patriarch. Abuna Basilios, the first Ethiopian archbishop, was elevated to the status of patriarch in 1959. The postwar years also saw a change in the church-state relationship; the vast church landholdings became subject to tax legislation, and the clergy lost the right to try fellow church officials for civil offenses in their own court.

Acutely aware of his international image, Haile Selassie also was active on the diplomatic front. Ethiopia was a founding member of the United Nations (UN) and the Organization of African Unity (OAU). After the postwar relationship with Britain wound down, the emperor in 1953 asked the United States for military assistance and economic support. Although his dependence on Washington grew, Haile Selassie diversified the sources of his international assistance, which included such disparate nations as Italy, China, the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), Taiwan, Yugoslavia, Sweden, and the Soviet Union.

Administrative Change and the 1955 Constitution

In pursuit of reform, Haile Selassie faced the recalcitrance of the provincial nobility, other great landholders, and church officials–all of whom intended to maintain their power and privileges. Moreover, some provincial nobility opposed the emperor because of their own long-held claims to the throne. Whatever his intentions as a reformer, Haile Selassie was a political realist and recognized that, lacking a strong military, he had to compromise with the Amhara and Tigray nobility and with the church. And, where required, he made his peace with other ethnic groups in the empire. For example, he eventually granted autonomy over Afar areas that Addis Ababa could not dominate by armed force to the sultan of Aussa. In general, political changes were few and were compromised at the first sign of substantial opposition. In the 1950s, despite his many years as emperor and his international stature, there was almost no significant section of the Ethiopian population on which Haile Selassie could rely to support him in such efforts.

The emperor sought to gain some control over local government by placing it in the hands of the central administration in Addis Ababa. He revised the administrative divisions and established political and administrative offices corresponding to them. The largest of these administrative units were the provinces (teklay ghizats), of which there were fourteen in the mid-1960s, each under a governor general appointed directly by Haile Selassie. Each province was subdivided into subprovinces (awrajas), districts (weredas), and subdistricts (mikitil weredas). Although the structure outwardly resembled a modern state apparatus, its impact was largely dissipated by the fact that higher-ranking landed nobles held all the important offices. Younger and better educated officials were little more than aides to the governors general, and their advice more often than not was contemptuously set aside by their superiors.

The emperor also attempted to strengthen the national government. A new generation of educated Ethiopians was introduced to new enlarged ministries, the powers of which were made more specific. The emperor established a national judiciary and appointed its judges. Finally, in 1955 he proclaimed a revised constitution. Apparently, he sought to provide a formal basis for his efforts at centralization and to attract the loyalty of those who gained their livelihood from relatively modern economic activities or who were better educated than most Ethiopians.

The younger leaders were mostly the sons of the traditional elite. Having been educated abroad, they were favorably disposed toward reform and were frequently frustrated and in some cases alienated by their inability to initiate and implement it. The remnants of the small number of educated Ethiopians of an earlier generation had been appointed to high government positions. But whatever their previous concern with reform, they had little impact on traditional methods, and by the mid-1950s even this earlier reformist elite was considered conservative by the succeeding generation.

The new elite was drawn largely from the postwar generation and was generally the product of a half-dozen secondary schools operated by foreign staffs. A majority of the students continued to come from families of the landed nobility, but they were profoundly affected by the presence of students from less affluent backgrounds and by their more democratically oriented Western teachers.

The 1955 constitution was prompted, like its 1931 predecessor, by a concern with international opinion. Such opinion was particularly important at a time when some neighboring African states were rapidly advancing under European colonial tutelage and Ethiopia was pressing its claims internationally for the incorporation of Eritrea, where an elected parliament and more modern administration had existed since 1952.

The bicameral Ethiopian parliament played no part in drawing up the 1955 constitution, which, far from limiting the emperor’s control, emphasized the religious origins of imperial power and extended the centralization process. The Senate remained appointive, but the Chamber of Deputies was, at least nominally, elected. However, the absence of a census, the near total illiteracy of the population, and the domination of the countryside by the nobility meant that the majority of candidates who sought election in 1957 were in effect chosen by the elite. The Chamber of Deputies was not altogether a rubber stamp, at times discussing bills and questioning state ministers. However, provisions in the constitution that guaranteed personal freedoms and liberties, including freedom of assembly, movement, and speech, and the due process of law, were so far removed from the realities of Ethiopian life that no group or individual sought to act upon them publicly.

The Attempted Coup of 1960 and Its Aftermath

Haile Selassie’s efforts to achieve a measure of change without jeopardizing his own power stimulated rising expectations, some of which he was unwilling or unable to satisfy. Impatient with the rate or form of social and political change, several groups conspired to launch a coup d’état on December 13, 1960, while the emperor was abroad on one of his frequent trips. The leadership of the 1960 revolt came from three groups: the commander of the Imperial Bodyguard Mengistu Neway, and his followers; a few security officials, including the police chief; and a handful of radical intellectuals related to the officials, including Girmame Neway, Mengistu’s brother.

The coup was initially successful in the capital, as the rebels seized the crown prince and more than twenty cabinet ministers and other government leaders. The support of the Imperial Bodyguard, the backbone of the revolt, was obtained without informing the enlisted men–or even a majority of the officers–of the purpose of the rebels’ actions. The proclaimed intent of the coup leaders was the establishment of a government that would improve the economic, social, and political position of the general population, but they also appealed to traditional authority in the person of the crown prince. No mention was made of the emperor.

The coup’s leaders failed to achieve popular support for their actions. Although university students demonstrated in favor of the coup, army and air force units remained loyal to the emperor, who returned to the capital on December 17. The patriarch of the church, who condemned the rebels as antireligious traitors and called for fealty to the emperor, supported the loyalists. Despite the coup’s failure, it succeeded in stripping the monarchy of its claim to universal acceptance and led to a polarization of traditional and modern forces.


Source: Country Studies