ADDIS ABABA was entered by the Italian Army on May 9, 1936, thus putting an effective end to the government of the Negus, who had fled abroad. Since that date Italian occupation has gradually been extended to the rest of Ethiopian territory. The time has therefore come when we can sketch at least the broad lines of the political, administrative and economic organization which Italy is giving her new East African Empire.

First of all, let us take the designation "empire." It was not chosen accidentally or arbitrarily. A country that for thirty centuries had been governed in one way or another as an independent state could not be considered as of the usual type of colonial territory inhabited by primitive tribes in a semi-savage state. Rather it had to be regarded, like the vast British domain in India, as a geographic, historical and political unity of which the sovereignty had been transferred by right of conquest, a right re-enforced by the conqueror's superior civilization. Hence it was logical that the term "empire" should be applied and that the King of Italy should assume the title, "Emperor of Ethiopia."

The basic lines to be followed in the political organization of the new Empire were laid down by Mussolini in his speech of May 5, 1936: "With the population of Ethiopia peace is already an established fact. The defeated and fugitive chiefs and rasses no longer count and no force in the world can ever make them count again." This statement was a solemn promise to the peoples of Ethiopia whom the Italian victory had liberated not only from slavery but from all sorts of servitudes and barbarous tyrannies. In making it, Mussolini reaffirmed the ethical reasons for Italy's African enterprise. A year later, Signor Lessona, Minister for Italian Africa, restated the concept in a speech before the Senate: "No continuation and no resurrection, either open or covert, of what was Ethiopian feudalism."

From these declarations it was plain that the Empire would be organized under a form of "direct rule" similar to that already to be found in Italy's other colonial possessions, either in East Africa or along the Mediterranean. No other form of government was really practicable. Had Italy wished to rule the country through the feudal hierarchy of the old native chiefs, she would have had to reëstablish the authority and privileges of those chiefs. It might have been easier to set up that sort of government than a régime of direct rule. But it would automatically have led to the reappearance of the hordes of chieftains, great and small, who used to attach themselves like leeches to the bodies and the goods of the miserable native populations. The Italian conquest would then have meant nothing more than the replacement of the Negus by the Viceroy representing the new white emperor. Things would have gone on much as they had done for some three thousand years. But, by this mere substitution of one monarch for another, could Italy have fulfilled her civilizing mission in the decrepit African empire?

Any discussion of the relative merits of direct versus indirect rule as applied to Ethiopia raises the preliminary question concerning the extent to which feudal institutions still persisted in Ethiopia. It is well known that Haile Selassie, though he himself came from the ranks of the great feudatories, had after his ascent to the throne used every means to replace feudalism with a centralized, authoritarian régime. On the pretext of endowing his country with a politico-administrative system inspired by European civilization--which no one in Ethiopia understood and very few desired--he had tenaciously carried on a program of gradually eliminating all the great regional chiefs. In their places he put his own trusted men, in large part Shoans, whom he sent out from Addis Ababa to govern the provinces on his behalf.

This program, already initiated by Menelik, founder of the empire, had not yet been fully carried out at the time of the outbreak of the Italo-Ethiopian war. The feudal régime still remained in Tigré, Shoa and in certain minor peripheral provinces. From the rest of the empire, however, it had disappeared and the population was governed by imperial officers. Geographically, the proportion was that feudalism persisted in only five percent of the area of the empire while the remaining ninety-five percent was administered directly by imperial authority.

In ninety-five percent of Ethiopia, then, the Shoan or Abyssinian officials have automatically, so to speak, been replaced by Italians. In the remaining five percent of the country the solution of the problem has depended on the attitudes manifested during and after the war by the feudal chiefs in those provinces. Some of them -- e.g. the principal feudatory of eastern Tigré -- not only spontaneously submitted to the Italians but faithfully fought throughout the campaign under the Italian flag at the head of their troops. Some -- like the overlord of western Tigré -- fought under the Negus and only submitted to the Italians after the occupation of Addis Ababa. Others -- perhaps the most important -- followed the Negus into exile. Still others -- undoubtedly the most numerous -- continued to carry on hostilities against the Italian forces even after all organized Ethiopian resistance had ceased. Many in this latter group have died in combat, or have been executed as rebels and traitors for taking up arms again after having spontaneously submitted.

It must be kept in mind, however, that the native population, in those regions where the large-scale military and police operations took place, have not always imitated the behavior of their feudal chiefs or of the emperor's officials. The great majority of the inhabitants in Western Tigré, for example, received the Italian troops with sympathy, often with manifestations of joy, heralding them as liberators from the dreaded yoke of Shoa. It is obvious that Italy could not with decency reimpose upon these people the chiefs whom they had voluntarily abandoned in the grave hour of decision. Much less could the Italian Government invite the fugitive and exiled feudal lords to return to Ethiopia and confide to them the administration of their old provinces.

There is consequently no doubt that Italy is faced with the moral obligation and the practical opportunity to establish a form of "direct rule" over her new subjects in all parts of Ethiopia. This form of government does not exclude the natives from all participation in the administration of their districts, nor does it necessarily imply that all local usages will be abolished en bloc in favor of Italian law. Given the differences in the mentality, the levels of civilization and the social development, religion and customs which exist between the Italians and the peoples of Ethiopia, and among those peoples themselves, an extension pure and simple of Italian jurisprudence to the whole of the new empire would be absurd and unjust. No one has ever thought of doing any such thing. Indeed, in his speech before the Senate, Signor Lessona clearly defined the fundamental principles of direct rule as understood by Italy and as already applied in her older colonies. These fundamental principles may be briefly stated as follows: (a) Political power is to be exercised in its totality by the Italian authorities, with no compromises or half-measures. (b) Native notables may be attached to the central government as advisers. (c) Native notables may be called upon to participate in the local administrations. (d) The governmental action of the Italian authorities can be exercised through these native functionaries and in a manner that involves the least possible departure from local law and custom, whenever the latter are not in conflict with public order and with the ethical principles of European civilization.

The fundamental regulations concerning the political and administrative government of the Empire so far published have been modelled on the ones already in force in Eritrea and Somalia, for the inhabitants of those regions possess customs, traditions, religions and languages common to those of the peoples in the former empire of the Negus. Given this close similarity, the older colonies were fused with the territory newly conquered to form the Italian Empire of East Africa.

In dividing the Empire into regional governments, which for convenience we shall call provinces, efforts were made to group together peoples with similar languages, traditions and economic interests. In so far as possible, account was also taken of ethnic and religious factors, as is necessary in any government of African peoples. The subdivision of the provinces into commissariati, residenze and vice-residenze was inspired by these same criteria, in the hope of finding a happy solution to the complex problem of governing diverse and often mutually hostile peoples. This best of all policies -- respect for the usages and traditions of the subjects -- constitutes the basis of the Empire's political organization.

Further evidence of the desire to preserve local customs is found in the regulation that official acts are to be drawn up in Amharic, Tigrigna or Arabic, depending on the province; that in the native schools instruction is to be imparted in Amharic, Tigrigna, Galla, Caffino, Harari and Somali; and that in all Moslem regions the teaching of Arabic is obligatory. The Viceroy may, if he sees fit, decree that in certain regions instruction is also to be given in a language other than these just mentioned. All this demonstrates that Italy intends to preserve the linguistic patrimony of her subjects and to protect their ethnic individuality within the framework of her civilizing mission.

Large tracts in the empire are very sparsely inhabited, despite a salubrious climate and a favorable soil. In most cases this depopulation of fertile regions took place during recent decades as a direct result of the barbarous Shoan domination. Take, for instance, the case of Caffa, where scarcely a half century ago the Capuchin missionary, Cardinal Massaia, found an industrious population of over a million souls engaged in raising coffee, bananas and other tropical products. Today that region contains only 50,000 inhabitants, while nine-tenths of its area has reverted to equatorial jungle where the coffee bushes continue to produce in a wild state with no one to harvest them! The abuses of the Shoan overlord -- the continual wars, the punitive expeditions and the large scale slave raids -- have reduced this people from prosperity to a primitive state of barbarism. The new political imperial organization will permit the rehabilitation of these vast and desolate areas through the settlement of Italian farmers and workers. This immigration, contrary to the fears expressed in some quarters, will in no way injure the rights of the natives.

Italy is obliged to keep in view the vital necessity of directing at least a part of her superabundant population towards the virgin lands of Africa. In setting up a politico-administrative organization in Ethiopia, then, she could not neglect to provide for the immigrants who presumably will arrive from the homeland in increasing numbers, due to the favorable conditions for white settlement on the Ethiopian plateau. The juridical foundations of the Empire have therefore been made sufficiently elastic to allow Italians and natives to live side by side in tranquillity and with respect for each other's spheres of activity.

The prohibition against marriages between Italian citizens and native subjects, recently promulgated, is to be rigidly enforced; for it aims to prevent dangerous cross-breeding and the consequent damage to morality and public order. The interdiction is due partly to a desire to protect the race. An even weightier consideration, however, was the necessity of preserving the personal dignity and prestige of the Italians who take up permanent residence in the Empire. It can thus be said that the politico-administrative organization of Italian Ethiopia contemplates the harmonious coexistence of two societies -- Italian and native -- coöperating to develop the economic resources and insure the well-being of the Empire. Experience with the new laws and the example of industry set by the Italian immigrants will stimulate the natives to improve their methods of work and thought, and will bring them more and more into conformity with the standards of European civilization. This evolutionary process will be expedited by the various branches of the colonial administration. That represents for Italy a debt of honor, both towards herself and towards the civilized world.

What I have written above is not merely a program for the future; parts of it are already in process of realization. Schools are being opened throughout the Empire, with a steadily increasing native attendance. In Addis Ababa, for instance, the local fascio has assembled over a thousand native children in its schools, where they are given free lunch and are clothed in the uniform of the "Gioventù Etiopica del Littorio." This institution already has important ramifications in most of the large centers of the Empire. Likewise in Addis Ababa the fascio has set up special evening courses for native adults. The lower officials of the former Ethiopian régime are particularly anxious to attend these courses; already several hundred of them, after learning Italian, have entered the civil service of the Empire.

The imperial territory is also being dotted with hospitals, infirmaries, ambulatories and hygienic institutes, which are now carrying on praiseworthy work on behalf of public health and the preservation of the country's livestock resources. All the public services, particularly water supply, transport and electricity -- almost non-existent before the Italian conquest -- have already been greatly expanded and are receiving constant attention from the governing authorities. A country which had only a few primitive mule tracks and caravan routes, and these impassable for many months in the year, today possesses several thousand miles of asphalt roads, constructed by over 250,000 Italian and native laborers.

To maintain internal order and guard the frontiers a Colonial Army of the Empire has been created. It consists of "African detachments" composed entirely of Italians, and "colonial detachments" in which the soldiers are natives and the officers Italians. The basic unit of the colonial detachments is the battalion. Each battalion contains three rifle and one machine gun companies, has fixed headquarters and recruits its men within a certain region. The fixed headquarters does not interfere with the battalion's mobility: it can be employed at great distances from its base for limited periods of time. As has been demonstrated in the case of the Eritrean, Somali and Libyan ascaris, native battalions, in addition to their military value, form effective instruments of political penetration and of civilization among the local populations. This is due to the system of regional recruitment and to the old and well-tried institution of the "family-camp," in which the soldiers live with their families while on service.

In a "colonial brigade" there are four battalions; an artillery group composed of one battery of 65/17 guns and two of 81 mortars (which in the Italian Army are assigned to the infantry but in the Colonial Army function as artillery); an engineer company; specialists from various services; and a small field hospital. In all there are seventeen colonial brigades, of which eleven are organized as just described. The remaining six, being stationed in regions better supplied with horses, consist of three infantry battalions and a platoon of cavalry. The Empire is covered by a chain of "centers of mobilization" which assure the annual quotas of enlistments; these take place "on an exclusively voluntary basis."

The African detachments, composed entirely of Italians, constitute the mobile reserves. One of them is at the immediate disposition of the Viceroy in Addis Ababa. This consists of a division, the "Savoy Grenadiers," which contains two regiments of grenadiers, one regiment of artillery, three companies of engineers, and the relevant supply services. Attached to it is a special motorized unit of the "Black Shirts of Africa," capable of transporting the entire division. The rest of the reserves are at the disposition of the regional governors and consist of nine motorized battalions of the Black Shirts of Africa. Though the Savoy Grenadier division functions as guard to the Viceroy in Addis Ababa, it still is primarily a fighting unit. To relieve it of garrison or purely defensive duties, four battalions of Black Shirts and eight batteries have been detailed to serve under the "Comando della piazza di Addis Ababa." The army organization in Ethiopia is completed by a special unit, called the "Engineers of Africa," containing various specialists, including a railway company. In addition, there are all the necessary supply services complete with magazines and depots.

The aggregate strength of this army is as follows: 2,000 permanent officers; 500 officers di complemento; 1,800 non-commissioned officers; 20,000 Italian and 40,000 native troops. In all there are around 65,000 men and 12,000 horses and mules. At the top of this military hierarchy is a general staff (Stato Maggiore del Governo Generale), located in Addis Ababa and composed of the chief, the assistant chief, the inspector of artillery, the inspector of engineers, the inspector of the Black Shirts, and the head of the supply services. Attached to each regional government there is also a "command of the armed forces."

As can readily be seen, the fundamental idea of this military organization is to give the Empire military autonomy. Defense of the imperial frontiers and the preservation of public order must not entail drawing on the military resources of the home country except in most exceptional circumstances. This new system will gradually be extended to the army in Libya, and perhaps also to the naval and air forces there. Furthermore, it was recognized from the start that the presence of Italian troops was required not merely to uphold the prestige of the dominant nation, but because of their military value. Hence the necessity for creating, alongside of the greater mass of native troops, a powerful nucleus of Italian forces that would constitute in itself an effective and autonomous military instrument.

As can readily be seen, the Colonial Army established for the defense of the Empire is extremely modest -- 65,000 men occupying a territory of more than 650,000 square miles inhabited by nearly 8 million natives. That cannot be thought excessive for maintaining internal order and guarding lengthy frontiers. Evidently the reality is very different from the spectre (invented by foreign propaganda) of an enormous army of 400 to 500 battalions of Ethiopians which could easily conquer Africa. In point of fact, it would not have been impossible to create that sort of army. But it would have required an enormous financial sacrifice and it would have conflicted with any rational plan for the Empire's rapid economic development. Above all, Italy intends to accustom the populations of the Empire to work: the participation of native labor will be indispensable in the development of Ethiopia, especially on the plantations of the lowlands and foothills. The Italian Government has no intention of taking the native workers away from useful labor in the fields in order to create a gigantic military apparatus disproportionate to the requirements of internal order and imperial defense.

Before leaving this question of military organization, I should allude to one more thing: the enrollment of Italian laborers employed in East Africa in the Voluntary Militia for National Security. At the end of last May there were 135,000 of these men, in large part employed in constructing roads and buildings, and dispersed all over the Empire in groups of varying sizes. The officers of these groups have two functions: they are the natural protectors of the workers' rights vis-à-vis the contractors; and they constitute the hierarchy through which discipline is maintained. The enrollment of the workers in the militia also assures them constant sanitary and religious assistance as well as organized facilities for recreation. And finally -- this is the most important consideration of all -- the organization of the Italian workers into military units each having its own uniform, arms and regulations, helps greatly to maintain their prestige and at the same time furnishes a powerful element of security.

Thus far in speaking of the political, administrative, juridical and military organization of the new Empire, I have been able to stay within the bounds of a clearly defined program already in process of being put into effect. Now we come to the question of the Empire's economic development, and here we must enter into the less precise realm of probability. Our scientific knowledge of most of the territory of Ethiopia is so inadequate that any statement in regard to it must be taken as merely a rough approximation. Nevertheless, it is possible to establish certain fundamentals of the economic program that is already under way.

Faced with the obligation of rationally exploiting a vast reservoir of raw materials, Italy naturally sought to create an economy which as far as possible would complement rather than compete with her own. To attain this end the great corporative organisms of Italy have been called upon by the Ministry for Italian Africa (formerly the Ministry of Colonies) to collaborate with it in the regulation of private enterprises operating in the imperial territory. In view of certain important factors -- the distance of the Empire from the mother country, the burdensome tolls of the Suez Canal, the existence of established Ethiopian markets in Africa and Asiatic countries -- it has been thought wise to permit the Empire to develop a large degree of economic autonomy. The results desired were that Ethiopia should provide most of the necessities required by her native and Italian population; that she should be in a position to send Italy those primary products and raw materials in which the latter is deficient; and that the export of her own products to other African and Asiatic countries should increase.

In order to accomplish these ends the demographic colonialization of Italian East Africa is, and will remain, one of the fundamental objectives of the Italian Government. However, the Government is determined that this colonization take place gradually, methodically and with proper regard to the country's capacities of absorption. The wage scale will be adapted to the returns from local production, and the cost of living will be controlled (as it has been for years in Italy, with undeniable success). Further, the Government intends to see that Italian workers in Ethiopia shall pass as quickly as possible out of the class of wage-earners into that of small proprietors, each with his own modest farm on which he can support himself and his family.

The Italian Government believes that the state has the right and duty to supervise the essential productive activities fundamental in the life of the Empire and the mother country. But, "supervision" does not mean "monopoly." No obstacles will be put in the way of healthy private initiative; no exclusive monopolies will be granted, either to individuals, companies or state entities. The recent concession granting German mining companies certain rights in Ethiopia shows that Italy is disposed, under proper guarantees, to admit the participation of foreign capital and technical assistance in the private enterprises which will develop the Empire's resources. The principal items which the Italian colonists are engaged in producing at the present time are: precious metals, meat, milk, wool, skins, cotton, coffee, oil seeds and cereals.

Studies are being actively pursued in all parts of the Empire in order to determine the forms and the proportions which demographic colonialization can take. One of the first things that must be done is to carry out a special survey to establish the ownership of the land. Italian colonization has always managed to avoid conflicts with native populations over questions of this sort, and will do so in Ethiopia. At the present time there are 250,000 Italians in Ethiopia, engaged in public works, commerce, industry, communications, etc. When the situation permits, these Italians will be joined by their families. There will then be nearly a million Italians in Ethiopia, for whom there will be plenty of room and adequate means for earning a livelihood. Nor is it exaggerated to predict that in the next few years the figure will be tripled or quadrupled.

The solid nature of the Italian Government's projects for the new East African Empire is shown by its announcement of a six-year plan of public works to be financed out of the ordinary budget. It will include: construction of a road network; the improvement of the principal ports; the construction of hydraulic and hydroelectric works; hygienic improvements; exploration and exploitation of mineral resources; housing; drainage, reforestation and other activities to prepare the land for settlement; construction of telegraphic, telephonic and radio communications; and military works.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • CORRADO ZOLI, former Governor of Eritrea, now President of the Royal Italian Geographical Society and author of several works on Ethiopia
  • More By Corrado Zoli