Layers of Time
- A History of
Ethiopia by Paul B. Henze, Published by Christopher Hurst & Co. London,
paperback, £16.95, pp 372. Also published in hard-back, £40.00. ISBNs:
1-85065-393-3 (hard-back) and 1-85065-522-7 (paperback).
‘Ethiopia has a strong claim
to being the oldest country in the world’. So begins this remarkable book of
epic dimension, a broad and inclusive history of Ethiopia by Paul Henze. Between
its covers you will find not only a lively, well-researched account of
Ethiopia’s history from pre-Dinkanesh times to the present, but a wealth of
references, in scrupulously produced foot-notes, to other source material.
The author’s great strength
is that, not only has he both lived in and frequently visited Ethiopia but, when
there, he has engaged in conversation a wide range of people in many regions and
this has given him an insight into both past and recent history that many others
have lacked. Like all good history books, this one offers the reader the
opportunity to benefit from knowing history so as to better understand the
present, not least the recent conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, where
expansionist Italy is the main culprit.
Early on, Mr Henze stresses the
multi-ethnic nature of Ethiopia and says: ‘It is surprising that ...
considering its division into natural regions sharply defined by mountain
barriers and deep gorges, that Ethiopia evolved into a large unified polity at
all’. But it did – even if its capital did shift over the centuries from
Axum (the Axumite kingdom was once one of the four kingdoms of the world) to
Lalibella, Gondar and then to Addis Ababa. The author also cites the
‘spectacular geography’ which ‘predisposed the country toward
regionalism’ - an interesting observation that puts into its historical
context the recent devolution of power to the regions.
We read much of widely varied
rulers and their offspring (legitimate and otherwise) who, with few exceptions,
seem generally to have agreed upon who took power when a ruler died. Where there
was conflict, Mr Henze comments that many Ethiopian rulers took it upon
themselves to be surprisingly forgiving toward those who had taken up arms
against them, sometimes even giving up territory to them. (Ethiopian rulers seem
to have been far more civilised, for example, than English rulers of the time
with their gruesome beheading of potential rivals and their self-glorifying
attempts to quell ‘the infidel’). But the book is not all about domination
by benign or despotic rulers. It covers culture and coinage, agriculture and
infrastructure, politics and foreign relations. We witness a talented population
growing until it reached 24m in 1967, and near to 60m at the end of the
twentieth century. The reader must look elsewhere for an account of the plight
of the average peasant farmer for this is no social history. Colonialism, on the
other hand, is dissected and its arrogant shamelessness exposed for all to see.
We are presented with an
insight into the diverse ethnic groups and their history. The Oromo, nomadic
pastoralists who began to make their way northward in the latter part of the 16th
century had ‘a remarkably egalitarian culture with a complex age-class system,
through which all men rotated in their lifetime’. A form of democracy that was
way ahead of its time. Christian chroniclers were allegedly astonished at the
Oromo’s ability to defeat them, despite having far fewer arms, no doubt
naively overlooking the Oromo’s shock and indignation at having their
territory invaded by marauding Christians!
At times the book reads like a
history of arms dealing, with western powers all vying for political clout or
favour; then, as now, he who was furnished with the better weapons often won the
war, with some remarkable exceptions such as the Battle of Adua, which Ethiopia
won in spite of Italy’s vastly superior armoury. With reference to many little
known details the author evokes the feel of what it was like to be there at the
time. Through contemporary records – both official and otherwise – and with
psychological insight and later with the aid of oral accounts Mr Henze is able
to build up a fully fleshed account of the characters and events that make up
In the sections on modern times
the Derg regime comes in for the fiercest criticism, quite justifiably. The
sheer range of evilness common at the time is exposed and presents an
explanation of why, even nowadays, nearly ten years on, there is a common
reluctance among civil servants and others to take the initiative, scarred as
everyone was by memories of past severe punishment for alleged stepping out of
the totalitarian line.
Mr Henze gets behind the façade
and public relations work that so often distorts reality. A good example of this
is Israel’s cynical attempt to shore up an obviously ailing Mengistu by
exchanging arms and military know how for falashas (Israeli advisers were
detected in the Derg’s army field units), a decision that Mr Henze describes
as ‘surprising’. Israel seems genuinely to have believed that the Mengistu
regime would survive. However, the whole truth is revealed - saving the falashas
was not the initial reason for Israel’s late and misguided interjection but
became a ‘credible humanitarian cover’ for its actions. ‘There is little
evidence that [saving the falashas] was originally the motive of the
undertaking’, which makes the episode even more shameful than it seemed at the
Later chapters cover the
evolution of the main opposition movement, the EPRDF, from its early days
onwards. In keeping with both Ethiopian history and its own democratic
principles, it always worked closely with peasant farmers. Its leaders always
stressed the importance of bringing the people with them, a two-way process that
involved listening, a rare quality in politicians worldwide! It is no
exaggeration to say that this is the secret of its success in overcoming ‘the
largest and best equipped army in Africa’, but an army by then demoralised and
totally unconvinced by its might is right credo.
A final section – Looking
Forward – gives an overview of what the future could hold. The EPRDF
government is praised for its understanding of Ethiopia and for putting forward
and implementing plans that best suit the prevailing situation. The author is
concerned about a rapidly growing population but does not mention the
increasingly terrifying scale of deaths from HIV/AIDS, which is robbing Ethiopia
of many of its most talented individuals. (It is encouraging to note, however,
that at least a new body has been established to tackled the problem, which has
been largely neglected until recently. Experience in other countries shows that
effective public awareness campaigns can at least reduce the number of those who
So we leave Ethiopia on the
threshold of the 21st century with much optimism and praise, but with
a wish list of what problems must be tackled. An assessment with which, given
the contents of the Five Year Plans, the government would no doubt largely
agree. ‘Ethiopia’s tradition of independence and self-government, its
ability to produce effective leaders, its cultural pride and the population’s
deep-seated sense of history give it intangible advantage in facing the
The future lies in the hands of
both the government and the people. The author’s political assessment of the
immediate post-Mengistu era is that many opposition groups ‘failed to adjust
to realities’ and ‘were naïve in expecting fighters who had defeated the
Derg – while many of their own members had contributed little but rhetoric to
the anti-Derg struggle – to share responsibility for governing without
demonstrating their ability to do so and without engaging in competition for
popular support by participating in elections’. He is reluctant to believe
that current opposition groups have drawn lessons from their past mistakes and
says so. In doing so he challenges these groups to ‘abandon rejectionism and
futile obstructionist tactics and evolve into constructive political
instruments’. It remains to be seen if they can take up the gauntlet.
* Italy is soon to return a third century obelisk that Mussolini had taken from Axum in 1937, a cause of great excitement.
Telegram from Guernica by Nicholas Rankin, Faber and Faber Hardback, £14.99 pp290, ISBN 0-571-20563-1
This review originally appeared in the May 2004 edition of Eastern Africa Magazine.
We learn from history, or at least we do if we bother to listen. In a pre-cursor to what was to follow, Mussolini’s troops invaded Ethiopia in 1935 killing, over a period of almost six years, 750,000 Ethiopians with guns, bombs and mustard gas and exhibiting an intense cruelty, at odds, perhaps, with the image of kindly incompetence many have of Italian soldiers. Emperor Haile Selassie fled the country and his prophetic words to the League of Nations that “it would be next” were ignored. If the League and others had listened, the outcome of the Second World War might have been very different. Determined action could have stopped Mussolini in his tracks but few saw the implications of what the Italians were doing in far-away Ethiopia. ‘What did that have to do with us?’ Europeans no doubt felt. But it had everything to do with us, as Telegram from Guernica makes perfectly clear.
This very moving book tells of the extraordinary life of George Steer, adventurer and special correspondent, whose incisive eye-witness reporting inspired Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica. Yet the book’s title is deceptive, as much of it describes events in Ethiopia, the early chapters covering the Italian invasion and later ones the efforts to rid Ethiopia of the Italian occupation.
George Steer’s childhood had been spent in South Africa and he felt ill-at-ease in an English public school environment where he is reported to have “showed a colonial disregard for the conventions of his country.” He was more at home in Ethiopia where he became a friend and supporter of Emperor Haile Selassie. Aged 24, bluffing his way through an oral exam in Amharic and despite what one of his past employers considered his “quixotic” political judgement, Steer became special correspondent for The Times newspaper, on £60 a month, “pipping [the novelist] Evelyn Waugh to the post in the only medieval Christian kingdom in Africa.” Unlike Waugh - whose satirical novel Black Mischief, based on his Ethiopia experience, is marred by its racist tone and that brand of sneering contempt at which certain English writers excel - “Steer was sympathetic to the Emperor”.
In the absence of their emperor the Ethiopian Patriots fought long and hard throughout the six-year occupation, outwitting the Italians and driving them out of vast areas of the country. We hear little of their efforts, though, to be fair, this would be the topic of another book. (Incidentally, Ethiopia was occupied; those who claim it was colonised should ask themselves if France was colonised by Germany).
Like Steer, certain diplomats worked well with the Emperor. British Minister (Ambassador) Sir Sidney Barton “supported with character and enthusiasm the Emperor’s efforts to modernise his country”. But the British did not always get it right. They backed an arms embargo on both Ethiopia and Italy; the latter was richly endowed with all the deadly weapons it could possibly need so this served simply to render Ethiopia almost helpless. (Do arms embargos ever serve any purpose than to expose the hypocrisy of those that inflict them on others?). But it was the bravery and dedication of certain British individuals such as Steer, the officers Wingate and Sandford and seasoned campaigner Sylvia Pankhurst that helped the Ethiopians liberate their country.
Steer had a remarkable instinct for getting the whole story, something that certain of his modern counterparts could learn from. Estimating correctly that, because Italy had already breached a 1925 Anti-Gas Treaty it was likely to err once again, Steer wrote in the Spectator of 5th July 1935 concerning Italian troops, “Materials of war, lorries, tanks and armoured cars, gas and barbed wire, are poured into the Italian colonies every day”. As Rankin points out, this is either a shrewd guess or good intelligence. (Rankin is even-handed, pointing out that Churchill had recently condoned use of gas on “uncivilised tribes” in Iraq). Steer and a Greek journalist were the last reporters to leave Addis Ababa. Later, Steer was to gather the story that everyone else missed – the full story of Guernica which all other journalists covered at face value, taken in by the mendacious statements and propaganda. In Ethiopia Steer had seen what the Italians were capable of first hand, and was determined that the true nature of the Italo-German alliance should be known, even in the face of massive denial from the enemy and inferior and misguided reporting.
War correspondents are a particular breed and reporting is a skill taught at many media colleges. But it falls to those with natural talent and an instinctive intelligence to seek out the whole truth of an apparently obvious scenario. George Steer was such a man. He foresaw what the fascists would do in Africa and Europe. It is a great shame that not enough people were capable of hearing the lessons that he so deftly delivered. Steer must sometimes have felt like the Cassandra of correspondents, doomed to have his views shunned and his warnings ignored. But we are no better than his contemporaries; the West’s refusal to castigate Eritrea for its May 1998 invasion of Ethiopia led to large-scale loss of life. Will we ever learn?