From New International, Vol. II No. 3, May 1935, pp. 99–101.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
WILL WAR, retarded in Europe, flare up in Eastern Africa? It is around Ethiopia that the great game is now being played, and by this fact, the empire of the Negus finds itself the nerve center of world imperialist lusts.
Only last year, on the heels of the so-called internal disturbances provoked, as will be recalled, by the flight of the ex-emperor Ligi-Yasu, a press campaign of the kind customary to the “civilizing” powers was launched to justify the eventuality of an action in Abyssinia, or more exactly, as we shall see, in Ethiopia.
The present pretext for putting into effect the plans for expansion in Ethiopia (to win over the last corners of the Black Continent to the “civilization” of the imperialist powers), is taken from the series of incidents which recently came to light on the frontier between Abyssinia and Italian and French Somaliland. Before examining the real causes at the root of these frontier incidents, we deem it worth while and necessary first of all to locate the position of Ethiopia in Eastern Africa.
The imperialist press – particularly the Fascist Italian press – speaks of Ethiopia as a country of brigands and “savages”, and consequently unworthy of belonging to the honorable League of Nations, within which, nevertheless, Ethiopia has sat since 1923 on the same plane as the “civilized” powers. In a word, the aim is to deny the Abyssinian empire any political or physical individuality.
At the same time that the government of Addis Ababa is accused of an inability to establish order in the country, the Abyssinian emperor is reproached for having subjected other Ethiopian peoples by force of arms. Reason enough, therefore, why the European imperialist powers, in starting to execute their plan for conquest, should present themselves both as the defenders of the oppressed native peoples and the bearers of the benefits of “civilization” in Ethiopia.
What actually is this empire of eastern Africa which is surrounded by so many legends and mysteries?
Ethiopia is a continental state, without a waterway to the sea, and whose center – a virtual fortress – is constituted by an overhanging plateau, with an altitude of a mile and a quarter, with deserts separating it on the East from the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, and on the South and the West from Kenya and the Sudan Plains.
The economico-social situation of this country would recall, according to some French colonizers, that of Morocco and Tunis before the French occupation; according to the Italian Fascists, that of a mediaeval country of the time of Charlemagne. It seems to us right to assert that Ethiopia, like many other countries, is traversing a phase similar to that experienced by the capitalist states at the dawn of modern times. In this resides the most important oddity of the internal evolution gone through by this country, one which makes it possible to explain the “modernism” with which the present government of the Emperor Haile Selassie is inspired.
From the geographic, natural point of view, Ethiopia makes one think either of the position of Mexico, or of that of an “African Switzerland”. Ethiopia’s position is that of a tropical country (actually, considerably closer to the Equator than to the Tropics). But by its mountainous structure, it offers us the singularity of the cultures of all climates. Near the sea, in the torrid zone, there are the lowlands, warm and humid, unhealthful, not greatly cultivated or inhabited, the kolla almost a desert where the thermometer rises to 114° and even higher. In coming towards the interior, the climate becomes softer; one arrives at the lands of the voina dega (a mile to a mile and a half in altitude), an agricultural zone in which vineyards grow and the earth is fertile with leguminous and cereal plants. It is also the coffee zone, the land of origin of that product which has rightly taken its name from the “Kaffa” country.
From the voina dega, which is the most populated region for the reasons just mentioned, one passes finally to the cold lands of the dega, mountains with rich pasturage where cattle, sheep and horses graze. Breeding is actually the second occupation of Abyssinia, following agriculture. Animal products of any value include: ivory, wax, wild animal skins, which are the most important articles of export. In the line of imports, cotton, sugar, oil, etc., figure principally.
If it is true that communications and transportation represent the most important index of the degree of development of a country, it must be avowed that Abyssinia is truly still backward. The only railway (486 miles) is the trunk line which unites Djibouti, a French possession, with Addis Ababa, the capital of the empire. Seventy-five percent of Ethiopian traffic flows over this line which is administered by a French corporation and has a stretch of 56 miles running over French territory. An automobile road (suitable for trucking) had been planned and agreed to by the Italo-Abyssinian friendship pact of 1928; but this road, aimed to connect Assab (where port concessions had been granted Abyssinia by Italy) with Dessje, has not yet had the work begun on it. The same fate has been reserved for another project for a railway agreed to between Italy and England, and aimed at connecting the North country with the South, from Massawa, through Addis Ababa, down to Mogdichu. As to roads, in the ordinary sense in which we understand the term, with the exception of a few miles around the capital, Addis Ababa, they simply do not exist. The Abyssinian mule remains the commonest and most practical means of locomotion of the Abyssinian plateau.
But it would be wrong to ignore, in face of this indubitably backward state of affairs, the steps forward taken by Ethiopia especially in the course of the last thirty years.
To the economico-social evolution of the country, corresponds a political evolution of the Abyssinian state, a new stage in Which has just been marked by Haile Selassie, the present emperor, by virtue of his essay at a “constitution”.
Ethiopia is the only native state of Africa, except for Egypt and Liberia. Some 360,000 square miles in area, it is populated by eleven million inhabitants who belong to 20 different races, speaking at least 16 languages, and having three religions. The most blended, yet most refined and most intelligent of all these tribes are the Abyssinians, who have given the Ethiopian geographical complex its unity and its political organization. Thence the current usage of calling the whole of Ethiopia Abyssinia. But the Ethiopian empire is not merely composed of the Abyssinians; there are the Gallas, cultivators of the South; the Somalis, towards the coast of the Red sea; the Dancalis, etc. The human origin of this whole mixture of tribes remains Hamitic, almost always without any Negroid character, and particularly pure among the Gallas.
Another singularity of Ethiopia: isolated in its mountains, it has remained a Christian country in the midst of Islam, having a native ecclesiastical hierarchy, one of the pillars of the empire. Slavery has been spoken of a good deal; but what remains of the regime of slavery today is quite different from the past: the slave is a part of the family of the master, on the same basis as the latter’s children. Upon the death of the master, he inherits a bit of ground and a part of the natural goods, and he is emancipated. The Arabian servants in the French colonies hardly have better conditions. The contingents of slaves who traverse Ethiopia to gain the coast, are, generally, Sudanese Negroes “picked up” in the Sudan and in English Uganda by European “whites”, by civilisers.
After the death on April 2, 1930, of Zauditu, daughter of Menelik II, the supreme power passed into the hands of Ras Tafari, now emperor under the name of Haile Selassie I. With the advent to power of Ras Tafari, everything changes in Ethiopia. To unify his kingdom; to exploit the country on the European style – that is the program which the new chieftain has assigned himself. All the “civilized” powers sent representatives and gifts to his coronation (November 2, 1930). Mussolini sent an airplane, Breda 15. A propaganda brochure announces: “Let Negus Tafari do his work: he will make another Japan out of Ethiopia.”
On July 16, 1931, Haile Selassie gave the country a constitution which caused the “civilizers” to smile. Indeed, just as the moment when there is a mounting fury against Parliaments in Europe, Ras Tafari thought of creating an Ethiopian Parliament! The new constitution decreed the formation of two chambers: of deputies and of senators. The former, provisionally, “and until the people are qualified to elect them themselves”, are selected by the local chieftains. The senators are designated by the emperor from the ranks of the dignitaries.
Haile Selassie bought back the old English bank that controlled Ethiopian finances and founded the National Bank of Ethiopia. At the same time, work went on to effect the reorganization of the army. The military organ of the Rome government gives the following data on the military capacity of Ethiopia: in case of war, there not existing any age limits, 30% of the population could be mobilized, so that two million soldiers might be put into the field. But the armament is still primitive: 500,000 rifles, a million side-arms, about 280 machine guns and 180 cannon. Further, the renowned horsemen of the Gallas. In addition, 5 or 6 armored cars. The only cartridge factory is at Addis Ababa, established in 1908 with French machinery. The air force is made up of a collection of the most diverse planes. In brief, the Ethiopian army, according to the Rome paper, is not a regularly organized complex, but an assemblage of armed men, of differing value and effectiveness, held together by personal ties and bonds of dependence.
Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that it was these poorly armed and poorly equipped troops who inflicted such severe defeats upon Italian troops at the end of the last century! Will the troops of Mussolini encounter the same fate found by Crispi’s troops in the Abyssinian mountains, and is the dictator of Rome heading towards the fate of his Sicilian predecessor? The game is pregnant with consequences. There has been talk of a Belgian mission and of French and Japanese instructors in the army and air force of Ethiopia. One fact is beyond discussion: that the Ethiopia of today is no longer the Ethiopia of 60 years ago. Great steps forward have been taken by this people.
Surrounded by European possessions, Ethiopia has more than half of its frontiers in common with the British empire, about a third with Italy, and the rest with France. For the Anglo-Egyptian countries, Abyssinia is the source (Upper Nile) upon which depends British cotton-raising. England seeks to have the trade of Northern Ethiopia flow through the Sudan to Port Sudan, which is equipped for the purpose. France holds Djibouti and the only railway that connects Addis Ababa with the outside world. Italy is installed in Massawa and Assab.
Just as an outlet to the sea is an elementary necessity for Ethiopia, so is the latter a necessity for the states holding the coast (France, England, Italy), because the occupation of the hinterland would multiply tenfold the value of the unproductive colonies which now extend along the sterile coast. For the last thirty years, conventions have been concluded among France, England and Italy seeking to partition the Ethiopian plateau into zones of influence. America too has intervened, and more recently Japan has manifested a special interest in it.
It is not, therefore, in the fixing of the frontiers that the nub of the present conflict must be sought, but in the competition of these various powers in assuring themselves the seizure of Ethiopian resources. Moreover, so far as the question of frontiers alone is concerned, the right is with Ethiopia, which efforts are being made to depict as the aggressor. The accord established between Menelik and the government of Rome on May 16, 1908, with regard to the frontier between Italian Somaliland and the Ethiopian province of Ogaden, says in Art. 4, to which Italian Fascism is appealing for justification of its military action:
“From Uwebi-Sabeli, the frontier continues in the northwestern direction along the line adopted by the Italian government in 1897; all the territory along the seaboard belongs to Italy; the territory situated on the other side, towards the interior, remains with Abyssinia.”
The wells of Wal-Wal and of Wader, by the terms of this article belong to Addis Ababa. Thus, if it is a question of aggression, then it is being openly mediated by the government of Rome which aims to annex the wells in question which are indispensable to the Ethiopian frontier tribes for the watering of their stocks. But as usual, it is only a matter of finding a pretext.
Japanese activity in Ethiopia is above all the fact that disturbs the European powers. Recent conventions between the Tokyo and Addis Ababa governments grant important advantages to the interests of Nipponese trade. But much more disquieting is the fact that the period of experimentation in cotton culture, conducted under the direction of Japanese experts, has just been terminated. Measures have been taken to promote Japanese immigration in order to develop this new activity. Installing themselves in Abyssinia, thanks to the exceptional conditions accorded them by the government of that country, the Japanese would be able to develop the cultures indispensable to their cotton industry, and would thereby be able to free themselves in part from the customs threat with which they collide on the part of British trade in India, as well as in England and the Dominions. At the same time, the import of cotton fabrics like abudjedid, utilized for the manufacture of the Abyssinian toga (shanmas), would be replaced by the home production of this same fabric.
Thus it is that around Ethiopia is unfolding a new phase of the Anglo-Nipponese commercial struggle on the world market. The Japanese seizure of those sources, rich in promise and possibility, represented by the Abyssinian lands, halfway between the Orient and the Occident – there is the fact that disturbs above all else the three powers, France, England and Italy, which, as far back as 1906, sought by their accord the partition of Ethiopia. Have they returned today, in face of the Japanese menace, to a new tripartite accord? And is Italian Fascism merely operating as the instrument to execute these tacit agreements?
Ethiopia is acquiring the importance of a new “Eastern question”. The operations of Italian Fascism which, with the complicity of France and of England, has undertaken the task of the armed conquest of the Abyssinian lands, will be neither simple nor easy. These operations may arouse the entire Black Continent, especially Egyptian nationalism, which is striving to give leadership to the vast emancipation movement of all the Islamic peoples of Asia and Africa, from the Atlantic to the Indies. The Coptic nationalism of Abyssinia, despite its Christianism, might find powerful allies in this movement, which, moreover, Japan is seeking to convert, as in the Far East, into its own rampart against its European rivals.
The Ethiopian game is pregnant with consequences for the African map and the map of the entire world. Let us recall that the Italo-Turkish war of 1911 was the precursive signal of the world massacre of 1914. Are we now face to face with a similar danger in the Ethiopian conflict? Today, as yesterday, everything will depend upon the strength of the international proletariat.
Paris, February 17, 1936
Last updated on 26 February 2016