WE WUZ KANGZ
Ethiopia has the second largest population in Africa.
It also has one of the most important and revealing stories to tell about Black Africans. This is because Ethiopia was the one country in Africa to escape colonization during the Scramble for Africa in the late 19th century. Emperor Menelik II defeated the Italians at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. Along with Liberia, Ethiopia was the state where European imperialism had the slightest impact in Africa.
In Black History Month 2018: The Kangs of Aksum, we saw how modern Ethiopia and Eritrea trace their origins back to the Kingdom of Aksum. Modern Ethiopia isn’t a continuation of Aksum which collapsed in the 10th century. It was either conquered and destroyed by a Jewish queen named Gudit or overrun by barbarian tribes from the south. Either way, there was Dark Age in the Middle Ages and Abyssinia emerged from the ruins as a small state that dominated the far north of Ethiopia and Eritrea.
As an ancient Christian state in Africa surrounded by pagans and Muslims, Abyssinia developed a unique relationship in Africa with Europeans. The Portuguese came to Africa for many reasons – trade, gold, slaves, other commodities – but one of the main reasons was to search for the legendary kingdom of Prester John. Ethiopia was part of Christendom and the Portuguese Navy arrived just in time to prevent Abyssinia from being conquered by the Ottomans and Muslims expanding out of Somalia.
Europeans sent missionaries to Abyssinia and protected the country from the Ottomans. No Ethiopians were ever brought to the New World during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade which brought slaves from West Africa and Mozambique. In the 17th century, Emperor Susenyos I converted to Catholicism. It proved hugely controversial and didn’t last long and ended with the expulsion of the Jesuits. Afterwards, Europeans had little contact with Ethiopians until explorers came searching from the origins of the Nile in the late 18th century. It was their adventures which inspired the exploration of Africa in the 19th century.
The Portuguese helped their ally the Ethiopians build these amazing castles in Gondar after they established a presence in the Ethiopian highlands in the 16th century:
Abyssinia was unmolested by Europeans until the late 19th century.
The country that we now call Ethiopia though isn’t synonymous with Abyssinia which was a small state in the highlands of northern Ethiopia. Instead, it is largely the creation of Emperor Menelik II who engaged in his own version of the Scramble for Africa. Having acquired European firearms, Menelik II went about conquering huge territories in Central and Southern Ethiopia which were never part of Abyssinia.
Emperor Menelik II kind of created his own version of the Belgian Congo in the 1880s and 1890s. He also founded Addis Ababa in 1886 which is now the capital of Ethiopia. As we previously noted, the Italians attempted to invade Ethiopia from their new colony Eritrea and were defeated by Emperor Menelik II’s forces (who had machine guns) at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. In the larger scheme of things, this battle wasn’t as significant though as what he was doing in the south.
MENELIK II’S EMPIRE
MENELIK II EXPANDS EMPIRE
MENELIK II CONTINUES TO EXPAND EMPIRE
Emperor Menelik II was glorious, right?
Here was an African ruler who beat back the Italian invasion of Abyssinia and more than tripled the size of his empire. Ethiopia alone survived the Scramble for Africa and remained uncolonized. It is a far less rosy picture when you realize that a third of Ethiopia’s population died in the Great Famine of 1888 to 1892 – probably around 4 million people – and another 5 million were killed and enslaved under Emperor Menelik II’s conquests of the Oromo, Somalis and other tribes in the south.
Ethiopia under Emperor Menelik II was kind of like the Belgian Congo under King Leopold II in reverse. Whereas the Congo Free State pushed out Tippu Tip and the Arab slave traders from Zanzibar and abolished slavery, Emperor Menelik II conquered a vast swath of Africa and enslaved the natives. He is said to have personally owned 70,000 slaves which utterly dwarfs even the largest New World sugar planters. He was a black monarch though so we don’t hear much about what he got away with in the West.
EMPEROR HAILE SELASSIE
Emperor Haile Selassie was crowned “King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and Root of David” in 1930. The Ethiopia he inherited as regent from Emperor Menelik II was centuries behind the West even though European colonialism had never touched Ethiopia.
In the 19th century, the British had led the way in abolishing the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. During the Scramble for Africa, one of the justifications for the European colonization of Africa was to abolish slavery. Europeans succeeded in stamping out slavery virtually everywhere else in Africa … except Ethiopia.
As slavery receded elsewhere in Africa in the early 20th century, it remained buoyant in Ethiopia in spite of laws that were passed to assuage the European conscience. Ethiopia was the first black country to join the League of Nations in the 1920s although this was controversial at the time due to the persistence of slavery. Strangely enough, Haile Selassie became the focal point of the Rastafarian cult in Jamaica in the 1930s – who worshiped him as a living God and believed he would lead New World Africans to freedom – in spite of being the monarch of the world’s largest slave state.
Ethiopia was their Wakanda and Haile Selassie was their Prince T’Challa:
The man who actually ended slavery in Ethiopia and liberated 2 million Africans from bondage was none other than Benito Mussolini, the Il Duce of Fascist Italy, who invaded in 1935.
The Italians invaded in 1935 and were driven out by the British during the Second World War in 1941 who restored Haile Selassie to the throne. Thus, Ethiopia has the distinction of being under European rule for only 5 years and the major legacy of that time was that slavery finally came to an end there.
The Ethiopia that emerged from Italian occupation during the Second World War was still a backward, underdeveloped feudal society albeit one that formally abolished slavery for good in 1941. Haile Selassie spent the next twenty years attempting to extend Ethiopia’s borders to the Red Sea.
As we have already seen, Eritrea and northern Ethiopia had been a part of the Kingdom of Askum centuries before, and this was used to justify putting the Eritreans under Ethiopian rule. It was the equivalent of France claiming its right to rule Tunisia because Gaul was a province of the Roman Empire. Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia went about stripping Eritrea of its independence and reducing it to another Ethiopian province. The Eritrean War for Independence broke out in 1961 and dragged on for thirty years until 1991.
MENGISTU HAILE MARIAM WITH FIDEL CASTRO
This brings us to the culmination of Ethiopia’s history.
By the 1970s, Haile Selassie was a senile old man and had been in power for 44 years except for the brief period when the Italians were in control and ended slavery. In 1973, a devastating famine broke out in Wollo Province and 40,000 to 80,000 people died. A British television station made a documentary about it called The Unknown Famine which was hugely embarrassing to Ethiopia.
By 1974, Ethiopians were chafing under the rule of 82-year-old Haile Selassie in their underdeveloped East African state. It was during the middle of the Cold War when the regime collapsed under the pressure of the Wollo famine, rising energy prices and student riots.
A military committee called the Derg seized power and overthrew the Ethiopian monarchy. Over the next three years, the Derg proclaimed the advent of Ethiopian socialism and nationalized all the banks and insurance companies in Ethiopia, followed by all industrial and commercial companies, and finally all rural and urban land and urban houses and apartments.
In 1976, Comrade Mengistu Haile Mariam appeared on radio and television to announce that Marxist-Leninism had become Ethiopia’s official ideology. In typical Marxist fashion, Mengistu progressively eliminated his rivals in the Derg and launched a series of purges to consolidate power and destroy all opposition to his regime. The Black Undertow of the urban ghettos were organized into neighborhood defense squads called “kebeles” and were armed by Comrade Mengistu with the “revolutionary sword” to spread “Red Terror” into the camp of the reactionaries as Lenin had done in Russia.
During the Ethiopian Red Terror, 10,000 to 20,000 counter-revolutionary students, teachers, and intellectuals – most of whom were Marxists who had supported the collectivization of agriculture – were rounded up and executed. The corpses of thousands of children were publicly displayed in the streets of Addis Ababa attached with signs that labeled them oppositionists.
The Ethiopian Civil War broke out when the Derg seized power in 1974 and raged until 1991 when Mengistu was finally driven out of power. Eritreans in the north were fighting the Eritrean War of Independence. Somalia invaded the Ogaden in southeast Ethiopia to annex their Somali kinsmen to “Greater Somalia” who had been conquered by Emperor Menelik II. Tigrayan secessionists in the north also attempted to breakaway from the Mengitsu regime.
Ethiopia under Mengistu aligned itself with the Soviet Union and became the most important communist satellite in Africa. A friendship treaty between Ethiopia and the Soviet Union was signed in 1978. Massive assistance from the Soviet Union and Cuba followed including a Soviet airlift and sealift of tanks, aircraft, artillery, armored personnel carriers, a 17,000 strong Cuban fighting force, and up to 10,000 experts and specialists of various kinds from the Eastern bloc. The Somalis were crushed in the south and the Eritreans and Tigrays were pushed back in the north.
It was in the context of Mengistu’s nationalization and collectivization of agriculture, the shift to state farms in the south, the subordination of the peasantry to urban workers in the cities, and especially the civil war against the secessionists in Tigray and Eritrea – in which everything from mines to napalm to poison gas was used by the military against the rural insurgency – that the disastrous Great Ethiopian Famine of 1984 struck northern Ethiopia.
Tens of thousands starving Ethiopian peasants descended upon Save The Children relief centers. The sensational images of starving black children were broadcast around the world and became one of the most memorable scenes of the 1980s. The West responded with over $1 billion dollars in relief assistance to save the poor, starving Ethiopians who Mengistu didn’t care about. Bono organized the Live Aid concert which became one of the most watched television events in history.
While the Great Ethiopian Famine of 1984 was striking Tigray and Wollo, Mengistu was more interested in spending $150 million dollars to celebrate the ten year anniversary of the Ethiopian Revolution. He believed millions had starved when when nature had restored the balance under Emperor Menelik II. He built a Great Hall of the People on the Chinese model. With the help of North Korean engineers, triumphal arches with revolutionary slogans were constructed in Addis Ababa with gigantic red stars displaying the hammer and sickle. Huge posters of Marx, Lenin, and Mengistu were hung around the city.
The slogans around Addis Ababa included “Forward with the Revolutionary Leadership of Comrade Mengistu Haile Mariam,” “the oppressed masses will be victorious,” “Marxism-Leninism is our guideline,” “Down with American imperialism” and “Temporary setbacks shall not deter us from our final objective of building communism.” In between the Ethiopian Red Terror, the Ethiopian Civil War, and the Ethiopian Great Famine of 1984, 1 million to 1.5 million Ethiopians lost their lives under the revolutionary leadership of Mengistu Haile Mariam who so skillfully used the “food weapon” against his political enemies.
Eritrea won its independence in 1991:
As I write this, Ethiopia has entered a state of emergency. The government has fallen amid rising ethnic tensions between the Tigray, Amhara and the Oromos in the south. A new prime minister hasn’t been appointed. The conflict with the Oromos has been going on for years and a reckoning appears to be on the horizon between the colonizers and colonized.
Ethiopia is ranked #174 in the UN Human Development Index in spite of being ruled by Europeans for only 5 years in its history who managed to abolish rather than impose slavery there. It is one of the poorest countries in Africa in spite of the protection of Europeans, the abolition of slavery by Europeans, the relative absence of colonialism and the thousands of lives that were saved there by European humanitarians in the 1990s.
Some of the most primitive and exotic tribes in Africa – bonafide unspoilt Africans untouched by evil modern Europeans – live in the colonial marches of southern Ethiopia. It’s all a front though … they are really the Wakandans hiding behind their vibranium based invisibility shield.