Putting the House in Order

‘You are to collaborate with us in our endeavours to develop the country, to enrich the people, to increase agriculture, commerce, and education throughout the land, to protect the life and wealth of the nation, and to complete those changes in administration necessary to our new condition.’ There must have been many who gasped at the calm assumptions involved!

The Emperor stood at the top of the double flight of steps that lead to the great reception hall of Menelek’s old palace. He had pulled up the Ethiopian flag as below him there stood the guard of honour of British troops provided by General Cunningham who had been at the gates of the palace to welcome him. In the open spaces between the hall and the gateway—that same gateway from which had been read the proclamation of war against the Italian aggressor—stood the people, the priests of Addis Ababa churches, the men and women who had waited, suffered, and hoped for this day. The sun shone fitfully, the rain clouds gathered behind the eastern rim of the Entotto hills. The Italian population of Addis Ababa—25,000 in all—had all been bidden to keep within their doors. It was, as the Emperor said, a day ‘which neither men nor angels could have foreseen or known.’

In this era of cataclysmic changes memories tend to become short; and it is hard to recall how formidable was the task to which the Emperor now committed himself and his people, when he returned to his country and took up the reins of government. There was no part of the country which had not been visited by war in the six months preceding his entry, and many districts had been ravaged over and over again during the previous six years. Shattered buildings, broken bridges, and abandoned transport met the eye wherever one went. The country was full of rifles, machine-guns, and bombs captured from and flung away by the fleeing enemy. Just about a year later a friend of mine found a hand grenade in the drawer of her kitchen table. ‘Where did this come from?’ she asked the cook, with some asperity. ‘Oh, I found it lying about,’ said he, ‘and it’s useful to throw at the “jibs” [hyenas] when I go home at night. ’ And a bullet fell through my roof one night in 1942.

These weapons were by no means all in the hands of house-boys or peaceful peasantry, desiring nothing better than to get back to their homes at night or to their ploughing by day. They were largely in the hands of disbanded soldiers of the Italian native army, or of patriot guerrillas, who after years of outlawry required time and opportunity to become once more members of a peaceful community. These unruly, or at best unsettled, elements of the population had to live, or were in fact living ‘on the country.’ The Italian administrative machinery had, of course, disappeared. Means of communication had been dislocated, and the roads were dangerous in more ways than one. Trade was dead, and in many districts there was a shortage of the necessaries of life—of salt, clothing, and, in some large areas, even of food.

The progress made in the first few months in bringing some sort of order out of this chaos was astonishing and reassuring. In general the whole country remained quiet, and there were few districts to which normal life had not returned. Roads, with some exceptions, were safe; the country markets were thronged. The roads and tracks leading to the capital again resounded to the shouts of the muleteers bringing in their loads of hides and skins, coffee, wax, and grain. Driving up from Nairobi about a year later I was warned that it was not safe to go ahead of the military convoy of vehicles as we climbed the steep escarpment below Mega—but my car would not keep to the chugging pace of the lorries, so we went on and drew up to wait at the top. An oldish man came along the road and, interested in my car load, stopped. ‘Four children!’ he said. ‘Why, you’ll want some milk for them,’ and he handed me an old Menelek silver coin; ‘get it for them in the next village.’ We sat down to lunch to drink it outside the ruined Italian fort that crowned the hill.

Within a short time governors and judges had been appointed to all provinces and districts. The distribution of these posts had been far from a simple matter, many of the old and well-tried men had disappeared in the turmoil of the past five years and it had not been easy to find others to replace them. Neither rank nor merit could be the sole password to office. There were patriot leaders to be justly rewarded for past services, and the fighting soldier is not necessarily the best administrator.

Obviously this did not all come about with the waving of a wand. Pending the time when the Emperor could get all the threads back into his own hands, some rough and ready machinery had to be devised for preserving law and order and maintaining essential services. The problem was complicated by the presence in the country of an Italian civil population numbering 40,000, who had to be evacuated, but in the meantime protected, housed, fed, and medically cared for. All these services had to be organized at top speed. There was no means of supplies reaching Ethiopia from Djibuti, the roads to and from Nairobi and Berbera were rough; lorries were short.

The machinery introduced for these services was the Occupied Enemy Territory Administration—a singularly ill-chosen name in the case of Ethiopia—which was controlled by the political branch of the military command headquarters at Nairobi. That these heavy responsibilities were successfully shouldered—and they included such tasks as organizing staging camps for the Italians and their families on the way to the coast, the upkeep of roads and railways, the maintenance of light and water services, such as they were, in the bigger towns, and the organization of transport for bringing in supplies—was a feather in the cap of an efficient and very hard-worked staff.

The British military authorities did not always perhaps fully appreciate the magnitude and extreme urgency of the problems facing the Emperor. The soldiers had, in truth, little time to consider them. They were concerned, to the exclusion of everything else, with winning the war against the Axis. Having, by the elimination of the Italian forces in Eritrea and Ethiopia, removed a threat to their rear, their first duty was to rush the troops northwards again, to meet the assault that was being mounted against them in the Western Desert. When the fall of Gondar in November 1941 released the British troops employed in that operation, Haile Selassie asked that they might be employed temporarily in disarming the Raia and Azebu Gallas, disaffected and war-like tribes, inhabiting the low country in the east of Tigre province. They had been armed by the Italians for the special purpose of causing trouble along the main line of communications between Eritrea and Addis Ababa. He was told by the British commander that no troops could possibly be spared for this, as they were behindhand in the time-table for moving northwards. This was no doubt true, but the rapid and complete withdrawal of all British troops before his own forces of law and order could be adequately organized was to create a dangerous situation for the Emperor.

Haile Selassie, of course, from the moment General Cunningham’s troops reached Addis Ababa, realized only too well what the tasks before him were, and was in a fever to get full control into his own hands, so that, as master in his own house, he could deal with them. A perhaps absurd illustration of the differing points of view may be given. In the early days after his return, certain of the legal advisers of O.E.T.A., far from wishing to expedite his gaining control, were worried about the legal aspect of his position.

‘His Majesty Haile Selassie I,’ they said, ‘cannot fully reassume his status and powers as Emperor until a peace treaty with Eritrea has been signed with Italy.

‘Until that happens’ (and of course everybody knew that a peace treaty was a matter for the dim and distant future) ‘the King of Italy must remain the legal ruler of Ethiopia! ’

In any case the difficulties inherent in any system of dual control made it imperative not to prolong the life of the British administration for longer than necessary. For dual control it was from the start. It was of course to the Emperor, from the moment he entered his capital, that the people looked to for orders and for justice, and not to any foreigner, friend, benefactor, or comrade-in-arms though he might be. It was a matter of satisfaction, therefore, to all parties when the Anglo-Ethiopian Agreement, which provided for the full re-establishment of the Ethiopian Government, was signed at Addis Ababa on 31st January 1942.

This agreement was a working arrangement, providing for collaboration and mutual assistance between two allies, during the period that must elapse before world peace could be restored. It was subjected to a good deal of ill-informed criticism, as was also the military convention that accompanied it. It was forgotten that these agreements were never intended to have more than temporary force to tide over a phase of restoring order out of disorder, and that it was impossible at that stage to be precise about the shape of things to come. The two governments wisely confined themselves to making practical arrangements for the near future, with regard to the fact that the war outside Ethiopia was still raging. Within the next few months came the fall of Singapore, the retreat of the British Army from Libya, and the fall of Tobruk. The immediate objects in view were to safeguard Allied military interests, pending the final expulsion of the enemy from the remainder of Africa; to ensure the safe removal from Ethiopia of all Italian prisoners of war, and of all but a small proportion of the Italian civil population; to provide a judicial system which could be satisfactorily applied to both Ethiopians and foreigners; and to supply the Emperor with such assistance, financial and otherwise, as to enable him to re-establish his administration. That all these objects were achieved so quickly that the agreements outwore their usefulness before the minimum period (two years) of their currency had elapsed, was proof that the confidence of the British Government in Haile Selassie had not been misplaced.

It should not be forgotten that when the agreement and military convention were signed, Djibuti was still held for the Vichy Government and was under blockade by the Allied forces; the critical days of the invasion of Egypt by Rommel were yet to come. It was reasonable that while these conditions prevailed the vital allied communications which passed through the Ethiopian Empire should be secured by British troops, and that special powers and responsibilities should be vested in the Allied Commander in Chief in certain areas. Happily for all, Africa was soon purged and freed, so the conditions which necessitated these arrangements disappeared.

It was in 1944 that the Emperor made his trip to Suez to meet President Roosevelt, who had flown over to Cairo to confer with Winston Churchill, and it was at this meeting that the President issued the invitation to visit the United States, which was later implemented by President Eisenhower, and resulted in the state visit of 1954. But it is clear evidence of the settled state of the country that within three years of his return the Emperor should be able to leave with a quiet mind in order to pay this complimentary visit.

Though the restoration of law and order was the main task during the first three years, an immense amount of general constructive work was carried through at the same time. A glance at the Statute Book will tell the tale. Between 30th March 1942, when the Negarit Gazeta—as the official gazette is called—was first established, and 30th December 1944, seventy-one proclamations or laws were promulgated. These covered such differing subjects as the administration of justice and the composition of the law-courts and their rules of procedure; the organization of the police force and the administration of prisons—a pressing and most essential piece of legislation; the powers and duties of ministers and administrative regulations for the provinces; public health, the control of dangerous drugs, and the registration of medical practitioners; the control of enemy aliens and the custody of enemy property—there was plenty of it lying about all over the country; the establishment of a State Bank and the regulation of currency and legal tender; the establishment of a land tax and of personal and business taxes and export duties. One of the laws concerned the abolition of the legal status of slavery—the fulfilment of a promise made by Haile Selassie to the Anti-Slavery Society some twenty years before.

By the end of 1944 the Emperor’s administration was firmly established. In spite of gloomy prognostications from a few pessimists it had only once been seriously challenged—by malcontents in Tigre province in the autumn of 1943. When we reflect on the size of the empire, the diversity of the elements of which it is composed, and the state of chaos in which the Emperor found it on his return, we can pay tribute not only to the skill, sympathy, and patience with which he carried out his task, but safely affirm that he succeeded because his people believed in him, trusted him, and wished him—and no one else—to succeed.

The short-term phase of reconstruction was now over. Law and order were restored, the government once more functioned adequately. This state of affairs was signalized by the signature, on 19th December 1944, of a new agreement with the United Kingdom, placing the relations of the two governments on an equal footing without any special privileges being accorded to the British Government, except in one respect. The Ethiopian Government agreed—not very willingly—that the territory known as the Ogaden, which borders on French and British Somaliland and the former Italian colony of Somalia, and which is inhabited by nomadic Somali tribes, should remain under British military administration for the time being. It is questionable whether there was adequate justification for British insistence on this provision. Their relinquishment of it in the agreement recently entered into has certainly removed a cause of resentment.

All these and many other pressing problems were dealt with in these busy years—and to have accomplished this in the face of the dissolution of the old semi-feudal system which preceded the Italian war, and the demoralization and anarchy prevailing during the Italian occupation, is a tribute that should be duly paid to the Emperor and those who advised and assisted him. The actual physical labour—his hours of work are from early morning to late at night—must have been terrific; but also the mental effort involved to re-create a state from its elementary beginnings and raise it to the dignity of a world recognized polity, would alone place Haile Selassie among the great men of our time.

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