Author Archives: toniweis

Youth responses to social engineering in Eritrea and Rwanda

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ICES Resolution on the Graziani Memorial

It’s been a while since the International Conference on Ethiopian Studies in Dire Dawa, but we just received a copy of the resolution regarding the Graziani memorial that was passed there and thought we should share – see below, and see our own comment on the issue here.

H.E. Mr. Giorgio Napolitano,

President of the Republic of Italy,

H.E. Mr. Mario Monti,

Prime Minister of the Republic of Italy

Your Excellencies,

The 18th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies was held in the eastern Ethiopian city of Dire Dawa from 29 October to 2 November 2012. The conference brought together three hundred scholars from twenty-six countries from all over the world. It was the latest in the series of conferences first held in Italy in 1959.

On the last day of the conference, we the participants noted with great dismay the erection in August 2012 of a monument to the Fascist war criminal Rodolfo Graziani in the town of Affile. The name of Graziani is associated with the worst atrocities of Italian Fascism in Ethiopia and, earlier, in Libya, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of Africans. He is remembered for vowing to deliver Ethiopia to Mussolini “with or without the Ethiopians”. He went on to fulfill that vow with indiscriminate use of chemical weapons and the massacre of thousands of Ethiopians. The notorious “Graziani Massacre” that followed the attempt on his life on 19 February 1937 was marked by brutal and inhuman killing of thousands of innocent Ethiopians. Targeted for liquidation in particular were a number of young educated Ethiopians. This was followed by the massacre in May of nearly three hundred monks and over twenty other Ethiopians in the medieval monastery of Debre Libanos. Continue reading

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Between Wadiya and China: Djibouti and the recent reform of the Rassemblement Populaire pour le Progrès (RPP)

By Samson A. Bezabeh

Samson A. Bezabeh recently completed his PhD at the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen. His article ‘Citizenship and the Logic of Sovereignty in Djibouti’ won the 2012 African Author Prize from the journal African Affairs.

Beyond the fiction of reality, there is the reality of the fiction. Slavoy Zizek, ‘Less Than Nothing’

In his latest comedic movie, Sacha Baron Cohen plays the dictator of a fictional country, Wadiya, the location of which is clearly present-day Eritrea. In the plot, the dictator of Wadiya, President Prime Minister Admiral General Haffaz Aladeen, goes to the United Nations headquarters in New York to discuss sanctions against his country’s nuclear programme, but ends up falling in love with Zoey, the feminist caterer working at the conference. To impress her, Aladeen deviates from his original script and declares that Wadiya will have a true democracy. A year later, he conducts a ‘democratic election’, which is actually far from being fair and free. Aladeen is declared the winner with 98.8 percent of the vote, after compelling everyone to vote for him. In short, Aladeen the dictator continues to deceive Zoey and the world. He also continues to enrich uranium.

Ismail Omar Guelleh, President of Djibouti, in 2006. Picture credits: saraab,

When real life politics seem risible, perhaps we need to draw attention to the humor of politics and the politics of humor. Indeed, the case of the Republic of Djibouti, which adjoins the fictitious Republic of Wadiya, may require this kind of approach. The Republic of Djibouti has existed as an independent nation state since 1977, following an independence vote that brought to an end French colonial rule in this strategically important region. Since independence, the country’s political system has been dominated by a single political party, the Rassemblement Populaire pour le Progrès (RPP). Members of a single family – the Guelleh family – have been the only leaders of the country under the banner of the RPP.

This week, however, the RPP has shown signs of a willingness to change. On the party’s web page, as well as on television, radio and in the newspaper of Djibouti, which is controlled by the RPP, we were told that they remarkable modifications have been made to the party structure. This much-talked about structural change consists among other things of the replacement of the party’s old guard with newcomers, in a move seen as an attempt to revitalize the group that has held power since independence. This reform follows a report written by a committee established to evaluate the party’s present condition. Continue reading


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Meles Zenawi: Afterthoughts

By Toni Weis

Many obituaries have been written since Meles Zenawi died on August 20th. So many, in fact, that this is a comment on the obituaries as much as on the man himself.

The young Meles Zenawi, on a picture that lined his casket during the funeral cortege. Copyright unknown

There are many stories about Meles Zenawi. Here is one of them. The year is 1995, and the newly-elected prime minister is getting ready to sit the final exams for his MBA at the Open University. The proctor at the British Council tells Meles (who, like most former revolutionaries, sustains himself on cigarettes) that, unfortunately, he will not be allowed to smoke during the exams. “I am sure you believe in democracy?”, Meles replies. The proctor concurs. “So let’s put that to a vote”. There is a show of hands, and not much later the Ethiopian prime minister lights a cigarette, savouring one of the more marginal successes of his political career.

I wouldn’t exactly vouch for the accuracy of this little anecdote. But if it exaggerates, it does so for effect. It captures the essence of the Meles Zenawi we, as more or less distant observers, got to know over the last twenty years: his wit, his confidence, and his willingness to put people on the spot; the sheer boldness with which he played the games of others, but by his own rules; but most clearly perhaps his instinctive talent, honed by many years of Marxist exegesis, to see the political in everything.

This primacy of politics was a common thread running through Meles’ short but extraordinarily eventful life, from the 1974 student protests to the Hoxhaist years in the mountains of Tigray, and from the TPLF’s march on Addis to Meles’ later years as a pan-African statesman. So much so that, when I recently asked someone who knew Meles well about his legacy as a person, not just a political leader, my interlocutor rejected that distinction as artificial: “Meles was a profoundly political person”.

I’m not sure all of those who penned his obituaries – the eulogists as much as the detractors – have understood the importance of this point. If there is a consensus among the multitude of voices, it seems to be that Meles left behind a “mixed” legacy, a “checkered” or “conflicted” one: good for the Ethiopian economy (the famous ‘double-digit growth’), less so for Ethiopian politics (the infamous ‘authoritarian tendencies’).

What the commentators fail to understand is that, to Meles, these were two sides of the same coin. Development, in his eyes, was primarily a political process, not an economic one. Continue reading


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A Monument for Graziani: Italy’s unresolved relations to its violent colonial past

By Jacob Wiebel and Toni Weis

Opening of the Graziani memorial in Affile. Copyright holder unknown.

Earlier this month Affile, a small town in the Italian region of Lazio, has inaugurated a Mausoleum dedicated to the memory of the fascist Field Marshal Rodolfo Graziani. The Marshal’s name is well remembered in Ethiopia for his use of chemical weapons and for ordering massacres which cost thousands of Ethiopian lives, including those of a sizable portion of the country’s intelligentsia, during the Italian invasion and occupation of the country in the 1930s. Coverage of these news in the Italian media has remained marginal and has largely centred on the exorbitant price tag of almost 130.000 €, paid for with regional funds. The erection of a monument to a fascist leader has been denounced by some, but the violent colonial realities created by that leader have received little attention. The memorial to Graziani powerfully illustrates Italy’s ongoing flirtations with far-right politics; but it also acts as a reminder of the systematic human rights abuses and war crimes on which Italian colonialism was built, and of the sad fact that these have never engendered the public debate and societal soul-searching that their gravity, and their victims’ dignity, demands.

 The illegal use of chemical weapons in the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, claiming thousands of lives, is well documented. For example, on the eve of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in March 1936, Graziani sent a secret memorandum on his preparations for the conflict to the Ministry of War in Rome. In this file, which has recently been purchased by the Library of Congress (see footnote 1), he outlined his strategy for overcoming the numerous but poorly-armed Ethiopian defense forces. Central to this strategy was the large-scale use of illegal chemical weapons:

 “Condizione essenziale per la riuscita dell’ operazione: […] libero uso di bombe e proiettili a liquidi speciali per infliggere al nemico le massime perdite e sopratutto per produrne il completo collasso morale.”

[“Essential condition for the succeeding of the Operation: […] the free use of special-liquid bombs and shells in order to inflict maximum losses on the enemy, and above all to effect his complete collapse of morale”] Continue reading


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Leading academics react to the Graziani memorial

The decision, by the Italian town of Affile, to erect a monument in honour of Rodolfo Graziani is not only an insult to his victims, but also a challenge to those who research and write the history of colonial rule.  Focus on the Horn has asked a number of international scholars to comment on this issue; below, we document their responses in full. Please feel free to add your own comments! (For our background article on the Graziani memorial, see here).

Bahru Zewde is Emeritus Professor of History at Addis Ababa University and author of A History of Modern Ethiopia, 1855-1991.

” I do hope that your blog and other initiatives would culminate in the dismantling of this shameful memorial. This is not an academic issue. It is a matter of honour and dignity, not only of those in Libya and Ethiopia who were the victims of his bloody reprisals but also of later generations who had kept those martyrs in their memory. In Ethiopian history, Graziani is particularly notorious for what has come to be known as the Graziani Massacre when, following an attempt on his life on 19 February 1937, the Black Shirts were let loose on the population of Addis Ababa. Three days of indiscriminate killing set in. But not so indiscriminate was the systematic liquidation of a promising generation of young Ethiopian intellectuals. Their crime: having been part of the Black Lion Resistance force. Although they had surrendered to the Fascist forces months earlier, they were rounded up and executed.” Continue reading


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ይቻላል: Ethiopia’s Distance Running Elite

By Jacob Wiebel

Firezar in a picture taken by Jacob Wiebel

Six mornings a week, Firezar Dugumma wakes up before sunrise, puts on his trainers and begins his first training session of the day. Soon he is one of hundreds of runners weaving their way through the Eucalyptus forests that line the steep mountain slopes to the north of Addis Ababa. Some run alone, some in small groups, lined up in single file to negotiate the narrow trails. By international standards, many of these runners are elite athletes; Firezar’s Half Marathon time of 64 minutes, run at altitude, would put him in the top 5 in the UK. Yet in Ethiopia, recognition and success are scarce commodities. The talent pool is deep, and emerging from it remains the preserve of a chosen few. As Ethiopia’s top athletes are in London to compete in the Olympic Games, let me turn to Addis to explore some of the background, challenges and impacts of the country’s running elite.

Firezar and I first met during a research trip in March 2010. Since then we have spent months training together on the trails of Kotebe, ‘Arat Shi’ and Entoto, giving me ample opportunities to be left in the dust behind him and to learn about Firezar’s journey thus far. Originally from a village in the Bale mountains, Firezar moved to Addis Ababa when he was still a teenager, an inevitable step on the road to athletic success in Ethiopia. In the capital he was supported by his older brother, an aspiring local businessman, joined one of the established running clubs and integrated in the community of athletes who live on the edge of the forest, between Meganagna and Kotebe. He enrolled at the College of Teachers’ Education, but the course demanded too much time and energy and had to be sacrificed in the interest of full-time training, at least temporarily. His decisions, whether it be the move to Addis, the postponement of college or the delay of marriage (“I will think about that once I have won”) are fueled by dreams of international running success and of the opportunities and rewards that attend it. His hopes of an international breakthrough, of recognition and of material rewards are shared by his family in Bale, one of the many threads in the urban-rural nexus linking the capital to the countryside. Continue reading

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Orthodox Modern

By Tom Boylston

Tom Boylston is a post-doctoral researcher in social anthropology at the LSE.

Orthodox priests in Lalibela

Orthodox priests in Lalibela. Copyright: Tom Boylston.

A certain grand narrative of the Ethiopian nation – the Queen of Sheba, the Lion of Judah, the Ark of the Covenant, the bastion of African independence under the guidance of the Christian emperors – retains a great imaginative force both in international discourse and among Ethiopian Orthodox Christians themselves. But the pattern of the last forty years – arguably, of the last century – has been the progressive erosion of Orthodox privilege and Church influence in matters of state.

I would like to use this post to reflect on Ethiopian Orthodoxy in post-Imperial times, and to discuss the emergence of a competitive religious public sphere. Orthodox Christians have been challenged to re-evaluate their institutions on multiple fronts, to balance the notions of tradition and territoriality on which their religion is based with multiple competing conceptions of the Ethiopian future, and with the mass perspective shift that global economy, secular government, and narratives of modernity bring about. One useful approach is to ask to what extent a kind of religious marketplace has emerged in contemporary Ethiopia, and to look at the ways in which religious groups attempt to claim space in the public sphere. Continue reading


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South Sudan’s “Christian and Animist” Population

Evans-Pritchard: Nuer Religion

Cover of E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s “Nuer Religion”

By Grant Brooke

To be a right writing observer of the two Sudans – these days – means one must go to some length to ‘de-mythologize’ the conflict. One must dispense of the simple tropes of a “Muslim North and a Christian South,” generally for the phrase a “Muslim North and a largely Christian and Animist South.” Adding the “animist” seems to be sufficient enough evidence for de-mythologization. The phrase is now the wording of choice for the UNHCR, BBC, The Christian Science Monitor, Economist, Reuters, Fox News, the New York Times, the Telegraph, several recent academic papers, as well as any number of local NGOs and missionary organizations. It has even found its way into the definitive wikipedia page for Southern Sudan.

And yet, describing the region as a “Muslim North and Christian and Animist South” carries with it three major problems:

– There a multiple forms of Islam and regionally specific religions in the North

– There are a large number of Muslims in the South (upwards of 10%)

– And, chiefly, there are no “animists” in the Sudans.

Let me expand a bit on this last point.

The usefulness of the term “animism” is an old debate in anthropology and religious studies. It was popularised in 19th century by Sir Edwin Taylor, and was later utilised by a number of social Darwinists. The same people who thought lighthouses should be banned so that bad sailors would be evolutionarily killed off on their way into port.

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Summer hiatus over!

Old postcard of Mogadishu

Old postcard of the seaside in colonial Mogadishu. Copyright unknown.

If you’ve been following this blog recently, you will have noticed that there hasn’t been much to follow. Sorry for this little summer hiatus, especially since so many things have been going on in the Horn!

But don’t worry, we’ve come back with lots of new stories and material. On Friday we are launching a five-part series on religion and politics in Ethiopia. There will be more from Nikki Kindersley on independence day in South Sudan, a review of the new edited volume “Sudan after Separation”, and a new post from Eastleigh by Neil Carrier. And who knows, perhaps we will even dabble in some Olympics coverage for a change? But for today, we are kicking off with Grant’s thoughts on the ill-informed use of the term “animism”. Take a look, and come back for more!

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