Category Archives: Ethiopia

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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What does Ethiopia represent in the 21st Century?

Ethiopia’s flag bearer Yanet Seyoum holds the national flag as she leads the contingent in the athletes parade during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games. Photo courtesy of Reuters.

by Alpha Abebe

When Kenenisa Bekele, Tirunesh Dibaba, and Dejen Gebremeskel take their marks at this year’s Olympics, and that start gun goes off, it is more than their personal careers on the line. Millions of people in Ethiopia and the diaspora will hold their breath, bite their nails, yell at their TV screens, and (hopefully) cheer in jubilation in heroic displays of nationalism. The Olympics has a way of creating patriots overnight, even drawing in the most apathetic and cynical of the lot. For a few days every four years, the nation feels like less of an ‘imaginary community’ as Benedict Anderson so famously argues, and more of something very real, visceral and tangible. But what will people (and I) be cheering for above and beyond the incredible athleticism and dedication of these Ethiopian athletes? If (ahem…when) the Ethiopian flag is raised above the Olympic podium, what will those colours represent to the world?

I struggle to think of another country whose historical global image is as diverse and contradictory as Ethiopia’s.

This is meant as a statement, not necessarily a critique. Besides, all countries are dynamic, heterogeneous social and political constructions…right? So any effort to represent a country as something more stable and coherent than it is involves some level of fantasy, fiction and often subversion. But national images, however constructed and confused as they are, do matter. They matter in public diplomacy, they matter for tourism revenues, and they matter to individual identities. Unlike pop-stars and retail companies, countries cannot simply hire consultants and marketing firms to whip up a compelling global brand. As regimes rise and fall, geopolitical interests shift, economies grow and collapse, and culture does what it does – evolves – new layers and dimensions are added to Ethiopia’s self and global image. This generally evokes one of two responses – creative adaptation and innovation, or desperate attempts to hold on to things past. However, if there was ever a case to find the middle ground, it is with Ethiopia. It is a country with such a rich (albeit contested) history that is worth commemorating. Yet, social, political and economic conditions are rapidly changing the country’s landscape, as well as its position within the world.

Coming to grips with what Ethiopia represents in the 21st Century must involve a willingness to engage with the inevitable tensions between the past and the present, the personal and political, and the local and international. Continue reading


Filed under Addis Ababa, Diasporas, Ethiopia, Nationalism

Language endangerment in the Horn

by Graziano Savà

Several languages spoken in the Horn of Africa are now endangered as more dominant and economically important languages begin to gain ground in the speech habits of smaller communities. The adoption of another language passes from a stage of strong bilingualism in which the target language is used in economically and socially more important contexts and the local language in limited to internal and familial domains. In this situation, the local language acquires a negative image because younger generations tend to see it as “ugly”, “useless” and “difficult”. The decision to give up speaking ancestral languages is thus made by rising generations who may or may not decide to teach them to their children. Once the transmission to the following generation is interrupted, the language is no longer a mother tongue and is destined to become extinct.

The phenomenon of extinct languages is by no means limited to the Horn: it is now expected that in the coming years, half of the world’s languages will disappear. However, while strong languages used in trade, technology, administration, and media such as English in North America, Spanish in South America, and Russia in Siberia gain ground at the expenses of smaller tongues, the situation in the Horn typically involves local dominant languages. The spread of Somali in Somalia and Djibouti makes these countries linguistically relatively homogeneous.While the interesting thing here might be to see which Somali variety, or dialect, has become economically and socially more prestigious, one should not forget the small Bantu languages of Southern Somalia and minority Cushitic languages such as Afar and Saho, on the Ethio-Djiboutiborder. Sudan and South Sudan are more varied. Here it is mainly Arabic that puts at risk a number of minority languages, particularly those whose speakers have suffered forced migrations due to warfare. The social and economic role of Tigrinya in Eritrea is absolutely dominant. The Eritrean constitution states this, implicitly creating a danger for the dozen of minority languages spoken in the area. At the same time, Ethiopia is probably the country of the Horn with the greatest variety of languages and cultures in danger. Out of the about eighty Ethiopian languages, including the majority languages Amharic and Oromo, half are declared endangered by Unesco. Continue reading


Filed under Ethiopia, Language, South West Ethiopia

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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Gambella violence and land deals: a link?

Jason Mosley’s original report for Chatham House: Peace, Bread and Land.

Jason Mosley is an associate fellow of the Africa Programme at Chatham House, a research associate at the African Studies Centre, University of Oxford, and the managing editor of the Journal of Eastern African Studies.

Earlier this year, I presented a report to the Horn of Africa seminar at Oxford University, which explored some of the implications for security of large-scale investment in Ethiopia and Sudans. Although good data on the amount of land leased, the terms of the leases and the state of any investments is extremely difficult to find, it was possible to discern some possible trends. For Ethiopia, among the more significant trends was that large-scale land deals (involving both foreign investors and domestic) were situated along Ethiopia’s peripheral areas — politically and geographically speaking.

I was seeking with the report to move beyond oversimplified narratives of ‘land-grabbing’, to get at some more useful insights about motivations and political context. In Ethiopia’s frontiers/peripheries, relations with the central government are still in the process of being defined. Moreover, Ethiopia’s frontiers have played a long and significant role in the country’s political economy: as a location to escape central authority, and also — most recently — as the base of the revolutionary movements that overthrew the state and took power in Ethiopia (and Ertirea) in 1991.

As such, one of the concerns I raised in the report was whether, by aggressively courting commercialisation of land use — along with attendant impacts such as resettlements of local populations out of leased areas — the Ethiopian government would be risking stability in its frontier areas. Those regions — including the federal units of Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella, parts of Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region (SNNPR), Oromia, Afar Region and Somali Region — already host more and less active anti-state insurgencies. Moreover, there are numerous local level conflicts, some of which are of significant scale and may involve cross-border activities and population displacement. As such, large-scale investment in land in Ethiopia’s frontier areas cannot be a conflict-neutral prospect. Continue reading


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Kirumpt Diary & Happy New Year – by TEXT MESSAGE

by Emma Lochery

This is the first post in an ongoing series featuring artworks from and about the Horn of Africa region. We will start with two short stories by Emma Lochery, both read at our blog launch party this past weekend. Click on the sound boxes below each story title to hear Emma’s recitation. The stories are an excerpt of letters Emma wrote home from Addis Ababa in 2008 and 2009. They are dedicated to her neighbours in Arat Kilo.

Happy New Year – by TEXT MESSAGE 

(An overview of SMS greetings Ethiopian government style) 


First, I must wish you a very happy New Year…yes, last month Ethiopians welcomed the year 2002. We were as usual bombarded with the text messages from various government ministries and other companies…I always save these text messages that come on holidays.

First, there are the more straightforward reminders –

Quality education for all! 
Quality education is every one’s job! 
Happy new year
Ministry of Education

And –


And here is one from an event earlier this year a lot of you missed, I am betting –

“Your child will grow strong & healthy when only breast milk is given from the first hour of life until 6 months.” FMOH [Fed Min of Health], World Health Breastfeeding Week, 1-7 Aug 2009

Then also for New Year, the evil tax evaders among us got a subtle nudge –

Wish all a happy and prosperous new year. 
“Compliance to law including the laws governing tax & customs is basis for a sustainable growth”. 
Melaku Fanta (ERCA) [Ethiopian Revenue and Customs Authority]

And for the 10th anniversary of Ethiopian Telecommunications, we got free SMS for 24 hours:

Ginbot 20 (Eth. Renaissance) and the 10th Anniversary of Mobile (telecom renaissance), ETC grants its subscribers to use free local SMS for 24 hrs. ETC

We also get kind wishes that make us feel like business tycoons –

Ethiopian cargo wishes you happy easter with the new exciting business opportunities of MD 11 air craft capacity. EAL CEO, Girma Wake 
[EAL = Ethiopian Airlines]

And ones like this that come out of the blue:

“Go to <>  or dial 992 to get information about cases in the Federal Supreme Court.”

All in all, I don’t feel alone on the holidays with all this bombarding me…

Continue reading

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Seeking inclusivity in Ethiopian healthcare

By Julianne Weis

In a guest lecture last week at Oxford, Harvard historian Emmanuel Akyeampong began with a methodological caveat, stating that he was not interested in the tradition and modernity dichotomy, but rather saw the two terms as existing in a constant interchange of causation and process. His argument made me think of Jake McKnight’s post regarding those excluded from modernity politics in Ethiopia. Blankedly disregarding “tradition” in pursuit of “modernity,” rather than investigating the constant interchanges between the two terms, leads to an elitist form of development.

It was this dichotomous thinking that formed the basis of failed development politics in Ethiopia under previous regimes – Haile Selassie most notably – and only served to alienate the majority populace. Ethiopia today continues to contend with this exclusionist legacy – particularly when providing services like education and health. In developing a modern health network for Ethiopia, Haile Selassie truly saw himself as starting from zero – any indigenous system or network was conveniently wiped aside as the Imperial regime attempted to inject a fully modern mode of healthcare. In 1944, a British nurse working in Ethiopia called the country a “doctor’s paradise… if to provide a pretty clean slate on which to work is a paradise then it may be agreed that Ethiopia is one.” What is implied in this type of rhetoric is that because Western medical systems were so underdeveloped, Ethiopians had no existent networks of health and healing – the population was merely succumbing to illness and death without making any effort to develop curative or palliative services for themselves. Under this line of thinking, the Selassie regime strove to develop what they termed the first public health network for the empire, training hundreds of community nurses and health officers to man village health centres throughout the countryside – over 400 built before 1965.

Unfortunately these health officers and nurses were notoriously ineffective, owing largely to the elitist core of their operations. The centres’ staff were trained to believe it was they alone who were bringing healing services to this community, completely negating the existing network of indigenous medical personnel already serving the same patients the new health centres were targetting. Anthropologist Simon Messing published several studies in the 1960s showing how the health centres failed to change even the most basic behaviours of the communities they served (e.g. more rigorous hand-washing), pinning that failure directly on the lack of involvement of indigenous health leaders (debetras and wogeshas). Continue reading

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Filed under Development, Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, Health

Modernism and development politics in Ethiopia

By Jacob McKnight

There are two paths between Addis Ababa’s top hotels. If you ask the guards at the Hilton how to get to the nearby Sheraton, they will politely point right, up the smooth concrete road. If you ask one of the kids who variously shine shoes, sell gum, shout ‘Farenji!’ and offer to be your guide however, they will beckon you across the street, off the tarmac, and onto a scrub road leading along the Sheraton’s high walls. While the guard’s looping route takes you past manicured gardens, and the newly painted periphery of the Prime Minister’s residence, the kid’s route is quicker and dirtier. Tin-roofed, but long established huts are stacked tight, breaking only for steep, winding pathways and haphazard open drains. Thousands live in these simple homes and go about their business while tourists, businesspeople and aid workers swell the swimming pools beyond the fences and guards.

This stark divide was shocking to me five years ago as I walked the route as a first time visitor to the country, but the locals didn’t see what I did. Over time, I became aware of a diverse middle class of shop owners, taxi drivers, and civil servants who lived in the centre of Addis Ababa on mediocre earnings and gave the city a feel of openness and egalitarianism. They saw wealth but didn’t feel threatened by it and were able to live happy and full lives amidst the bustle of Addis Abba.

All across the country however, a new economic urgency seems to be taking hold. As quick as the capital’s concrete shopping centres continue to rise, so Ethiopians are asked to modernise, develop and participate in building the country anew. The government has led the way. Alongside Korean laid roads, Chinese foremen oversee the installation of fibre-optic cable, promising broadband internet access to newly connected populations. In the fields beyond, recently constructed tunnel tents house flower growing businesses born out of fresh international partnerships. More ambitiously, the government is building the largest hydro-electric dam in Africa and aims to be a net exporter of energy when it is complete. Even within the country’s notoriously bureaucratic ministries, the spirit of modernism is taking hold. The Ethiopian civil service has completed the largest implementation of Business Process Reengineering ever attempted, and now schools, council offices and hospitals all talk of processes rather than departments and customers rather than citizens.

There are many positives to this new spirit of progress and Ethiopia remains a country sorely in need of development. But despite the positive rhetoric of the Ministry of Information, something is not quite right. Continue reading


Filed under Business, Development, Ethiopia, Health