Articles in this series:
Series: A History of Early Twentieth Century Ethiopia
18. Emperor Haile Sellassie’s Post-War Foreign Policy
We saw last week that Ethiopia, in the 1950s, edged ever closer to the United States. Now read on:
The Future of Eritrea
Emperor Haile Sellassie’s foreign policy, during the post-war years, was largely preoccupied with the future of the Italian colonies. This was a seemingly intractable question, which led to lengthy international discussions. The Ethiopian Government, for historical reasons, was particularly interested in the disposal of Eritrea. The colony, much of which prior to the late nineteenth century had formed part of Ethiopia, had been the base for two major invasions of the country, in 1895-6 and 1935-6. Acquisition of Eritrea likewise offered access to the sea, for which Ethiopian rulers had long hankered.
The future of Eritrea first came to the fore during the 1941 Ethiopian Liberation Campaign when the British had promised the colony’s inhabitants freedom from Italian rule. Later, in October 1944, British Foreign Secretary Eden had declared, in answer to a Parliamentary question by a Labour MP (drafted incidentally by my mother) that the Italian colonial empire in Africa was “irretrievably lost”. Italy in a Peace Treaty with the United Nations, signed in Paris on 10 February 1947, was accordingly made to surrender its colonies.
The disposal of these ex-colonies was to be the responsibility of the then four Great Powers, i.e. the Soviet Union, Great Britain, the United States, and France. The treaty laid down, however, that, if they failed to agree within a year, the matter would be transferred to the United Nations General Assembly.
The Four Power and United Nations Commissions of Enquiry
The Four Powers, as it turned out, did not agree. They despatched a joint Commission of Enquiry to the ex-Italian colonies in 1947. It found the Eritrean population divided into three main factions: pro-Ethiopian Unionists, for the most part Christians, who demanded “reunion” with Ethiopia; adherents of a Muslim League, strongly opposed to such union; and members of a Pro-Italia party, many of them Italian pensioners, who advocated the restoration of Italian rule. The commissioners, whose findings reflected the political biases of their respective governments, produced divided conclusions and recommendations. The question of the colony’s future was then transferred to the United Nations, which, after inconclusive discussion, appointed a further commission of enquiry for Eritrea. Its members came from Burma, Guatemala, Norway, Pakistan, and South Africa.
Opinion in the ex-colony had by then crystallised into two factions: the Unionists on the one side, and an Independence block, formed by a coalition of the Muslim League and pro-Italia party, on the other. The new commissioners, like their predecessors, came forward with different proposals.Guatemala, representing the pro-Italian position, then held by the Latin American countries, and Pakistan, a strong protagonist of Islam, both favoured independence for the colony; Burma and South Africa, supported its federation with Ethiopia; and Norway, outright union.
The UN General Assembly influenced by the proposals of the three latter powers, finally decided, at the end of 1950, that Eritrea should be federated with Ethiopia, under the Ethiopian Crown. The Assembly further laid down that it would appoint a Commissioner for Eritrea, and that an Eritrean Assembly would be democratically elected by the people. The first task of the latter body was to approve an Eritrean Constitution, to be drafted by the UN Commissioner in consultation with the then British administration of the territory as well as the Ethiopian Government.
The Eritrean Assembly was duly elected, under UN auspices, and chose the Unionist leader, Tedla Bairu, as the territory’s Chief Executive. This seemed, to many observers, to give the Federation a stamp of popular approval. The Eritrean Constitution was likewise drafted, and approved, in 1952. The text of the constitution was, not surprisingly, considerably more democratic than Ethiopia’s old 1931 Constitution.
Relations with Italy
The Italian Peace Treaty of 1947, which explicitly applied to the period as from Mussolini’s invasion of the country, on 3 October 1935, also included articles of direct relevance to Ethiopia. Provision was thus made for Italy to return all loot taken from Ethiopia. Most of the loot was eventually returned. At least three gold crowns, which had been in Mussolini’s personal possession at Dongo at the time of his attempted escape to Switzerland, in April 1944, however, mysteriously disappeared, and were not returned.
Despite many Ethiopian attempts to secure its restoration a twenty-four metre high fourth century stone obelisk, looted from the ancient Ethiopian city of Aksum, and placed by Mussolini in front of the Ministry of Italian Africa building (later the UN Food and Agriculture building) was similarly not repatriated.
The treaty also provided for Italy to pay Ethiopia up to 25 million US dollars as war reparations. These were largely spent in the erection, in the next few years, of a hydro-electric plant at Koka, south-east of the capital, a cotton factory at Bahr Dar, by Lake Tana, and several small ships.
The treaty likewise provided for the trial of Italians guilty of war crimes in Ethiopia, and for the return of historic and other articles looted from the country. Attempts by the Ethiopian Government to prosecute Badoglio, Graziani and others whom it accused of having committed war crimes were, however, in one way or other frustrated.
Cordial, and Friendly Relations
Cordial diplomatic relations between the two countries were nonetheless eventually re-established in 1956. Despite much wrangling over the implementation of the Peace Treaty, particularly in the matter of loot, and memories of fascist atrocities, the Italians, by the mid-1950s, constituted perhaps Ethiopia’s most popular foreign community.