Category Archives: Haile Selassie

Review: Bereket Habte Selassie’s new ‘Short History’ of Emperor Haile Selassie

51bVLS-3yhL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_Bereket Habte Selassie begins his short history of Emperor Haile Selassie with a caveat: he served in the late Emperor’s cabinet for over twenty years, both as Attorney General and in other ministerial offices. Given the author’s connection to Haile Selassie, it is not surprising that his biography of the independent Ethiopian ruler has tendencies towards hagiography. The numerous studies written on Haile Selassie so far have largely been divided into two camps: positive praise of the Emperor as visionary monarch, and detracting criticism of an autocratic ruler. While his personal approval of the Emperor is evident, Bereket largely manages to evade this polarized historiography, attempting to, in his words, provide a ‘well-rounded’ history of Haile Selassie, describing both his triumphs and failures in ruling independent Ethiopia in the pivotal moment of Africa’s decolonization.

The volume is part of a new series of ‘Short Histories of Africa’ by the Ohio University Press. This is a promising series to help introduce the varied history of the African continent to a wider audience. Because of the brevity required in this series, Bereket cautions that he had to omit a great deal of history from his telling of Haile Selassie’s history. It is unfortunate, however, that he mostly omits the meaty history of the Emperor’s rule in the 1950s and 60s, concentrating largely on his long rise and fall from power. The first half of the book concentrates on the early years of Haile Selassie’s life, as Ras Tafari Makonnen, and the fraught power struggles which characterized his ascension to the throne. While this is in an interesting history, given the length of the book, it could have easily been summarized to make room for more discussion of the Emperor’s actual decades of rule.

Bereket focuses on Ras Tafari’s power struggles at such great length largely because he believes they help explain why Haile Selassie as Emperor became fixated on defending his autocratic right to reform the empire. Bereket describes how Haile Selassie failed to live up to early promises to adequately reform the nation’s most destructive practices, including land tenure. He argues that because Ras Tafari had to struggle against so many conservative forces in pushing a reformist agenda through in his ascension to the throne, once Emperor, Haile Selassie felt convinced the modernization of Ethiopia was his own personal responsibility. This short history of Haile Selassie therefore falls in line with the general historic consensus, led by Bahru Zewde, that while Haile Selassie was a necessary force for reform in Ethiopia in the 1930s and 40s, his usefulness wore thin by the second half of the twentieth century. In continually seeking power and refusing to instill a proper democracy, the Emperor largely failed his populace, leading to his inevitable overthrow in 1974. Bereket describes this history carefully, at once admonishing the late Emperor for autocratic measures like annexing Eritrea with no respect of international law, while also praising Haile Selassie’s overall vision to modernize Ethiopia as an “enlightened monarch.”

Bereket doesn’t question the concept of “modernization” itself within Ethiopia, largely agreeing with the superficial dictum which pits Haile Selassie’s “progressive” retinue against a “traditional” and even “backward” past. This lack of reflection is unfortunate, as there is much debate on the merits of modernity as a measure of “progress” in Africa at large. At the same time, anyone searching for a quick introduction to Ethiopia’s fascinating history could happily turn to Emperor Haile Selassie as a starting point. There is enough meat here to examine the history of the one “true independent African country,” written from the perspective of one of its elite history-makers.

Book details: Bereket Habte Selassie (2015) Emperor Haile Selassie. Ohio University Press. http://www.amazon.com/Emperor-Haile-Selassie-Histories-Africa/dp/0821421271

This review was kindly furnished by Ohio University Press.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Ethiopia, Haile Selassie

Ian Campbell on the Addis Ababa Massacre of 1937

243873-1

Yekatit 12 Monument in memory of the 1937 Massacre, Siddist Kilo, Addis Ababa

This week, Oxford’s Horn of Africa Seminar hosted Ian Campbell to present his research on the events surrounding both the assassination attempt on Italian commander Rodolfo Graziani in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 19 February 1937, and the reprisal killings and massacre that occurred in the days and months which followed.

Ian presented a harrowing and detailed account of the extent of the massacre which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 18-20% of the population of Addis Ababa, the majority of whom were women and children. While Graziani lay in a coma at Ras Desta Hospital following the grenade attack, a killing force comprised of members the Italian Army, Black Shirts, and civilians was organised. Forces were loosed on the city as the Italians feared the grenades thrown at Graziani were a precursor to wide-scale Ethiopian insurrection. Ethiopian servants were dragged out of houses in the Greek and Armenian neighbourhoods of the city and shot in the street. Black Shirts began burning down whole residential sections of the city, targeting Ethiopian homes with the residents still inside, and throwing any babies or young children who tried to escape back onto the flames. Hundreds of intelligentsia and young Ethiopians were rounded up and shot opportunistically, despite their obvious lack of involvement in the plot against Graziani.

The killings in Addis went on for three days, until Mussolini himself sent orders to stop. Graziani emerged from his coma, but remained in recovery in hospital for months. Reprisal killings were then taken outside city borders – mobile gallows were erected and transported across the countryside, with the Italians targeting local aristocracy and community leaders. Graziani also targeted the Debre Libanos monastery for its symbolic link to the Orthodox church and Ethiopian cultural heritage, killing 3,000 monks, priests, and local residents.

Ian Campbell has spent twenty years amassing documentary evidence on the extent of the reprisal killings in the months following February 1937. While the massacre has been memorialised in Addis at Yekatit 12 square in Siddist Kilo, the extent of the destruction has largely been hidden over the last decades. Ian has collected film and photographic evidence of the burnings and murders, the majority of which were taken by Black Shirts themselves as souvenirs of their time in Ethiopia. The photos were initially gathered by Sylvia Pankhurst for her anti-fascist newspaper, New Times and Ethiopia News, in addition to other foreign diplomats and Ethiopians living in Addis in the late 1930s. Ian has also unearthed critical documents within the national archives in Rome demonstrating that the massacre was deliberately planned and orchestrated by senior Italian leadership, and was not, as often asserted, a random act by a group of belligerent Black Shirts.

Ian’s careful collection of evidence demonstrates the extent to which the full picture of this massacre has largely been erased from history, and the way in which its erasure has contributed to the myth of Italy’s “benign” occupation of Ethiopia. Why was such an atrocious series of events forgotten in time? Not only by the international community, but to a large extent by Ethiopians themselves? Ian argued that the forgetting was a deliberate political tool, both by prominent British politicians intent on securing Italy’s alliance at the end of World War II, and even Haile Selassie himself. The Emperor’s quick forgiveness of the Italian occupiers is striking given the widespread destruction, violence, and oppression they enacted in Ethiopia, but is symptomatic of Haile Selassie’s desire to merely move on and begin industrialising his reclaimed empire. Territorial disputes with the British, both Eritrea and the Somali Ogaden region, also left the Emperor with little choice but to capitulate to foreign pressure to not pursue justice against the Fascist occupiers.

Post-war political juggling aside, the fact that no war crimes trials were conducted for the Italian occupiers of Ethiopia is striking, especially given the new evidence unearthed by Ian Campbell. His scholarship begs larger questions about the politics of memory in relation to acts of violence, especially in colonial contexts. In the wake of ongoing revelations about the extent of organised killings and brutality across colonial Africa, we must continue asking why certain acts of violence are allowed to be committed with impunity, and how to most effectively memorialise atrocities from the past.

Leave a comment

Filed under Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Haile Selassie

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Development, Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, Health