One of the more anomalous heroes of the anti-fascist struggle was Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia. Overrun by fascist Italy in 1935, Ethiopia and its leader became symbols of the fight for freedom, and when British troops put Selassie back on his throne in 1941 it was generally assumed that such a restoration was in accordance with the sentiments of his people. In fact the reinstatement of Selassie was a dry run for the more important and bloody restorations of France, Greece, Vietnam and Korea: under the Axis occupation a guerrilla movement had arisen which fought the fascist invader, but which also sought to replace the Emperor. This had to be, and was, put down by British troops and administrators.footnote1
Since then the Ethiopian Emperor has been a stalwart defender of western interests in Africa. The British made sure that he did not encourage nationalists in their colonies to the south, and in 1953 he allowed the us to build a communications base at Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. His army did loyal service in Korea, fighting for the un, and received western support in return. Between 1953 and 1970 Ethiopia received $147 million in us military assistance, nearly one half of all us military assistance to African countries in that period, and at the moment Ethiopia receives $12 million a year in military aid, two thirds of us military aid to the continent. In February 1971 Ethiopia’s importance was underlined when us Army chief of Staff, General Westmoreland, visited the base at Asmara.
The Ethiopian régime gets this special treatment for several reasons.footnote2 First of all it has a more secure ruling class than many other African countries, possibly the most secure of all. The country was only under direct colonial rule for six years and the indigenous pre-capitalist ruling class was not undermined in the way it was elsewhere; the cracks resulting from the anti-fascist struggle were papered over by the British. The ruling class is also one that rests on agrarian exploitation, akin to European feudalism, in which most land is owned by the Coptic Church, and its head, Haile Selassie. Moreover, Ethiopia is officially Christian, and more sympathetic to the white west than the Muslim North Africa and the religiously diverse black South. (In fact, the majority of Ethiopia’s population are probably Muslims, but the Amhara Christian ethnic group dominate the country and fiddle the population statistics.)
With these features, Ethiopia has been given a specific role to play. It has hegemonized the enfeebled Organization of African Unity, which has its headquarters in Addis Abbaba, Ethiopia’s capital. It has, even more importantly, served as a base for us and Israeli penetration of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The situation in much of Africa is now, from imperialism’s point of view, under control and the oau happily anaesthetized. The Uganda coup against Obote was welcome. Where the major threat comes from is the Soviet build-up in the Indian Ocean and the threat to neo-colonial ‘stability’ in the Persian Gulf.footnote3
To meet these developments the us and Israel have stepped in behind Ethiopia. The base at Kagnew, Asmara, now has 4,000 us personnel, including dependants, and serves as the main communications base for the western Indian Ocean, with its eastern partners at Canterbury, New Zealand, and North West Cape, Australiafootnote4; this base, using very-lowfrequency (vlf) transmitters can control Polaris submarine movements in the Indian Ocean, and relay us diplomatic radio from the whole of the Middle East back to Washington. The other major problem comes in the Red Sea: shipping coming from the Persian Gulf to Israel or the
The greatest single threat to the Ethiopian Emperor comes from the guerrillas in Eritrea, the Ethiopian province that runs along the whole of Ethiopia’s coast, and contains both the us communications base at Asmara, and Ethiopia’s two ports, Assab and Massawa. Eritrea was annexed by Ethiopia in 1952 and there has been armed resistance since 1961. By the end of 1970 the situation was serious: an Ethiopian general was killed and Ethiopia declared a state of emergency throughout the whole province. However, the Eritrean guerrilla movement was in an ambiguous position: at the moment of greatest military success, it was politically divided, as a result of tensions within the movement that had been growing for several years.
Eritrea is an area of about 47,000 square miles, with a population of between 1·5 and 2·5 millions.footnote5 Most of the country is uncultivated scrubland, with only 3 per cent cultivated at the present time. Some of the population, in the northern highlands, are settled farmers owning their own land and being ruled by village chiefs subject to communal pressures. These farmers are Christians, of the same religious affinity as the Ethiopian Amhara but speaking a different Semitic language, Tigrinia.