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Articles in this series:
Series: A History of Early Twentieth Century Ethiopia
15. 1941: The Italian Departure, and the Arrival of the British
We saw last week how Mussolini’s entry into the European war, on 10 June 1941, led directly to Ethiopia’s Liberation, and to the country’s occupation by British troops. Now read on:
The Italian Legacy
The collapse of fascist rule, the termination of Italian investment, upon which the Italian East African empire had hitherto been based, the demobilisation of colonial soldiers, many still in possession of their weapons, the disruption of the economy, the consequent drying-up of trade, and hence of government revenue, created major problems for newly liberated Ethiopia, in 1941.
Neither the Emperor, whose pre-war administration had been disbanded five years earlier, nor the British, who lacked any experience of the country, were well equipped to run an efficient post-liberation state. Ethiopian administration was further handicapped by the fact that a significant section of the educated class had died, in some cases been massacred, during the occupation, and because education of “natives” during that period occupation had largely ceased.
Post-liberation problems were compounded by the Ethiopian Government’s virtual inability to raise taxes, as well as by the presence in the country of 40,000 Italian civilians. The latter were enemy nationals, and hence a security risk, but were expected, in accordance with then contemporary racial values, to be provided, as Europeans, with food, and medical facilities, at the level to which they were accustomed.
Returnees, Collaborators, and Patriots
The politics of the immediate post-liberation era were further complicated by the widespread diffusion of Italian arms, many in the possession of former colonial troops, and by the fragmentation of the Ethiopian elite into three different groups: the Returnees, who had been in exile with the Emperor, and were therefore to some extent out of touch with the situation in Ethiopia; the Collaborators, who had worked with the invaders, and were therefore better informed, but held in disrepute in patriotic circles; and the Patriots, who had played a major role in the liberation, but were in many cases unfamiliar with modern administration. All three groups expected, and to some extent received, posts in government service, as a reward for past services, or in recognition of their influence, or loyalty to the monarch.
Tensions between the Centre and the Provinces
Tensions between the central government and the provinces had to some extent been acerbated by fascist policy, which had tried to divide the “native” population on both ethnic and religious lines. This disintegrative tendency had, however, been largely counter-balanced by other developments of the occupation period. These included the improvement of roads, and the installation of a public radio address system in the principal towns, as well as an awakened sense of Ethiopian patriotism. The political power of the centre was likewise much strengthened by the triumphant return of the Emperor, and by the visible support he received from the British, who in the immediate post-war period enjoyed a virtual monopoly of military power. Like previous rulers he also exercised many forms of patronage, not only, as in the past, in respect of land and political appointment, but now also in the allocation of school places, and scholarships abroad.
A not-insignificant rebellion was, however, soon to flare in Tegray.
The Emperor, after his return to Ethiopia, was largely preoccupied with relations with the British. The latter, who had entered the country as liberators, had in fact replaced the Italians as an occupying power. Relations between the Ethiopians and the British were from the outset ambiguous. British policy towards Ethiopia was first enunciated, in general terms, by Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, who told the British House of Commons, on 4 February 1941, that his government “would welcome the re-appearance of an independent Ethiopian State and recognise the claim of Emperor Haile Sellassie to the throne”. Official British policy was further clarified in high-level talks, held shortly afterwards in February and March. These were based, in accordance with Eden’s statement, on the “rejection of any idea of a protectorate”, or of “the provision of a strong western administration of the country”.
Differing Views on Ethiopia’s Future
After the Emperor’s return to Addis Ababa, in May, there was, however, considerable tension between the Ethiopians and the British. The two parties differed greatly in their views on the country’s future government. The Ethiopians expected to assume full sovereignty without delay, whereas the British considered the country’s independence only as a long distance objective. A first clash on this question occurred as early as 11 May 1941, when the Emperor appointed his first post-war cabinet. The British representative, Brigadier Maurice Lush, sternly informed him that such appointments could not be made “until a peace treaty has been effected with Italy” Haile Sellassie was, not surprisingly, indignant. A compromise was, however, duly effected, whereby the British accepted the appointment of the ministers, but “chose to regard them as merely advisers” to the British military administration of the country.
It was symptomatic that the Emperor’s private mail was for a time subject to British censorship, and opened by British censors. His Imperial Majesty, we are informed, was not amused.
“Liberators” or “Looters”?
Tension was further increased by the decision of the British military authorities to appropriate, and take out of the country, some of the principal factories earlier installed by the Italians, as well as weapons, and military and other transport. Ethiopia was thus very visibly impoverished by its liberators, who soon came to be popularly regarded as its looters. Friction was also created by the presence, in the Ethiopian capital, of white South African troops, who attempted to perpetuate the strict colour bar earlier instituted by the Italians.
British opinion in relation to Ethiopia’s independence varied greatly. Sir Philip Mitchell, the chief British Political Officer in the Middle East, sought to impose particularly strong control over Ethiopia, but others in London took the view that Great Britain should demonstrate to the world that it could liberate a country without imposing political strings. Sir Philip, because of his official position, was nevertheless able to press the Emperor to abide by British “advice” in “all important matters, internal and external, touching the government of the country”; to levy taxes and allocate expenditure only with “prior approval” of the British Government; to grant British courts jurisdiction over foreigners; “to raise no objection” if the British Commander-in-Chief “found it necessary to resume military control over any part of Ethiopia”; and not to raise armed forces, or undertake military operations, “except as agreed by His Majesty’s Government’s representative”. Taxation, expenditure, communications, and the jurisdiction of foreigners were to be under British control. In return for this extensive control he proposed that the Emperor be offered a subsidy, British advisers, and the opportunity of discussing proposals for a treaty. British Economic Controls
Ethiopia, as a result of its liberation by the British troops, was at this time firmly under British economic as well as political control. The country was incorporated into the British-based Sterling Area, used British East African Shillings, was dependent on a British bank, Barclay’s, and was served exclusively by the British Overseas Aviation Corporation, B.O.A.C. Virtually all political power was likewise in the hands of the British military, who went so far as to censor the Emperor’s private correspondence. The local British officials were so bent on perpetuating that paramountcy that an American Government memorandum of June 1941 bluntly asserted that Britain was seeking to “establish a protectorate over Abyssinia”.
Proposed Partition of the Country
Some British officials at this period, and for the next few years, moreover sought to partition the country. In the north there were plans to unite parts of Tegray with the adjacent highlands of Eritrea, to form a new state under British protection. In the south-east the British Government proposed incorporating the already British-occupied Ogaden with British-occupied Somalia, to create a Greater Somalia, under British trusteeship. British official thinking also for a time envisaged the partition of Eritrea, with the western portion annexed to the then Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.
For all the above reasons, the fund of Ethiopian good-will towards Britain, the Country’s Liberator, was steadily dissipated, giving way to fear, suspicion, mistrust, and even anger.