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Military Tradition in National Life


Haile Selassie I inspects Ethiopian troops before their departure to join a United Nations peacekeeping force in the former Belgian Congo in 1960.
Courtesy United Nations

Wars, insurrections, and rebellions have punctuated Ethiopia's history. Kings and nobles raised and maintained armies to defend the "Christian island" against Muslim invasion or to conquer neighboring territories. Even after consolidation of centralized authority under "Solomonic" emperors in the thirteenth century, subordinate neguses (kings) and powerful nobles, some of whom later carried the high military title of ras (roughly, marshal; literally, head in Amharic), ruled different regions of the kingdom and commanded their own armies as they struggled for power and position. According to a seventeenth-century European, only nature could temper the bellicosity of the Ethiopians, whom he described as "a warlike people and continually exercised in war" except during respites "caused by the winter, at which time by reason of inundation of the rivers they are forced to be quiet."

From the time of its establishment in the thirteenth century, the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia was fundamentally a warrior society. Both the Amhara and the Tigray, the two dominant peoples of the kingdom, were imbued with a military ethos that placed great value on achievement in battle and the spoils to be gained thereby. Military values influenced the political, economic, and social organization of the Christian kingdom, while senior state officers often bore military titles. Additionally, military symbolism and themes occur frequently in Amhara and Tigray art, literature, and folklore of the period. Other ethnic groups, particularly the Oromo, also had warrior traditions and admired courage in combat, although the social systems that encouraged these values differed substantially from those of the Amhara and the Tigray.

Generally, soldiering has been the surest path to social advancement and economic reward in Ethiopia. Kings and nobles traditionally awarded land, titles, and political appointments to those who proved their loyalty, competence, and courage on the battlefield. As a result, warriors traditionally gave allegiance to that commander who could assure the fruits of victory to his followers, rather than to an abstract notion of the state or to government authority.

In early times, the army's command structure, like the nation's social structure, resembled a pyramid with the emperor at its apex as supreme military leader. In the field, a hierarchy of warlords led the army. Each was subordinate to a warlord of a higher rank and commanded others at a lower rank according to a system of vertical personal loyalties that bound them all to the emperor. At each command level, the military drew troops from three sources. Each warlord, from the emperor to a minor noble, had a standing corps of armed retainers that varied in size according to the leader's importance. Many landholders also served several months each year in the local lord's retinue in lieu of paying taxes. Most troops, however, came from the mass of able-bodied adult freemen, clergy alone excepted, who could be summoned by proclamation on an ad hoc basis when and where their service was required.

Each man provided his own weapon and was expected to acquire skill in its use on his own initiative. He brought his own food for the march or foraged en route. Often a soldier brought his wife or a female servant to cook and tend mules. Indeed, the authorities recognized women as an integral part of the Ethiopian army insofar as many officers believed that their presence discouraged cowardice among the men. More important, women formed an unofficial quartermaster corps because men believed it was beneath their dignity to prepare food.

In an environment in which war was the government's regular business, the mobile army camp became the capital of its leader, whether emperor, negus, or ras. Only rarely before the late nineteenth century did a ruler maintain his court at a fixed location throughout the year. Constantly moving over his domain, a ruler took his court with him, issuing laws and decrees from the army camp, collecting and consuming taxes paid in kind, and supervising trade. So integrated was military command with government that army officers also functioned in civil capacities.

The organization of military camps remained virtually unchanged for centuries. In the royal camp, the emperor's tent, customarily pitched on an elevation, marked the center of the encampment. The tents of his immediate retinue surrounded the royal tent. The bodyguard was posted in front of the camp, thus indicating the direction of march. The highest ranking subordinate in the royal army was the dejazmatch (general of the door), who was in charge of the center of the battle formation. The gannazmatch (general of the right wing) and the gerazmatch (general of the left wing) and their troops camped to the right and left, respectively. At the rear of the main encampment was the rear guard, whose commander usually was a trustworthy counselor and the leader's chief minister. Subordinate warlords and their troops camped around the emperor's compound in small-scale replicas of the royal camp. The advance guard was a standard feature of this mobile army, and in times of war it might travel several days' march ahead of the main body.

Although infantrymen made up the bulk of the army, cavalry participated in most military operations. The standard attack formation was a crescent-shaped mass of foot soldiers in which both wings advanced to outflank and envelop the enemy's defenses. Once engaged, the individual soldier was the army's basic fighting unit, and a final charge to bring the enemy to hand-to-hand combat usually decided a battle. Mutilating slain enemies and abandoning the wounded and dead on the battlefield were accepted practices.

Leadership, especially among emperors and powerful nobles, was intensely personal, and commanders at all levels led their men in combat. Success or failure often depended on the leader's fate; upon his death, whole armies frequently scattered and fled.

The army lived off the ruler's subjects wherever it camped in his domain. When troops exhausted food and firewood, they struck their tents and moved on. Often, soldiers turned to brigandage. During Emperor Menelik II's reign (1889-1913), for example, many Ethiopians complained that soldiers "eat, drink, sleep, and grow fat at the expense of what the poor have." Popular feeling against the military was strong in newly conquered territories, where at least a portion of the army would settle as colonists. The granting of tracts of conquered land to soldiers survived into the 1930s. Soldiers benefiting from this system became the landlords and the tax collectors in areas they had conquered. Not surprisingly, the army's demands on local populations often prompted rebellions.

The titles of rank in the traditional military system indicated position in society at large. Soldiers won promotions--and therefore enhancement of their social status--by demonstrating military ability. Titles were not inherited, and distinctions had to be earned. Even those starting at the bottom of the social scale could attain wealth and position if they could draw attention to themselves by displays of loyalty, valor, and ruthlessness. The traditional system's strength and weakness lay in the fact that every warrior strove to become great and as such saw himself the potential equal of the greatest warrior or noble.

Modernization of the Ethiopian army started during the regency of Tafari Mekonnen (who took the throne name of Haile Selassie I when crowned emperor in 1930). In 1917 he formed the Imperial Bodyguard as a regular standing force, recruiting into it some Ethiopian veterans of the British campaign in German East Africa (present-day Tanzania). The regent also hired foreign officers to develop training programs (see Training, this ch.). In the 1920s, he sent Ethiopian officers to the French military academy at Saint- Cyr and arranged for a Belgian military mission to train the Imperial Bodyguard. In January 1935, with Swedish assistance, Ethiopia established a military school at Holeta to turn out officers qualified in modern techniques. The first class, which had been scheduled to complete a sixteen- month course, never graduated because of mounting tensions with Ethiopia's nemesis, Italy, this time under the fascist leadership of Benito Mussolini.

When Mussolini's forces crossed into Ethiopia from the Italian colony of Eritrea and from Italian Somaliland in 1935 without a declaration of war, provincial armies raised by the nobility moved and fought against the mechanized Italian forces in traditional fashion. Haile Selassie's mobilization order typified the Ethiopian way of waging war: everyone would be mobilized, and all males old enough to carry a spear would be sent to Addis Ababa. Married men would bring their wives to carry food and to cook. Those without wives would take any woman without a husband. Women with small babies were not required to go. Men who were blind or who could not carry a spear were exempted.

At the time of the Italian invasion, the regular Ethiopian army had only a few units trained in European warfare and led by officers schooled in modern fighting. These included the Imperial Bodyguard and the Harer garrison. About 5,000 strong in combat against the Italians, many of these troops failed to implement tactics they had learned during training exercises. Most of the army that opposed the Italian invasion consisted of traditional warriors from the provincial militia, armed with spears and obsolete rifles and led by the provincial nobility. Even the 25,000-member regular army marched barefoot and lacked a logistical support system. By early 1936, the Italians--who used chemical weapons and air power with deadly accuracy--had inflicted a severe defeat on the Ethiopians.

After the country's liberation by allied forces in 1941, Haile Selassie started to transform Ethiopia into a centralized monarchical state. The creation of a strong national army was an important part of that transformation. The imperial regime abolished the ancient military hierarchy and abandoned the traditional method of raising armies by provincial levies. In 1942 the emperor signed a military convention with London under which the British government agreed to provide a military mission to assist in organizing and training an army that would be capable of restoring order throughout the country. Under the terms of the convention, the British assumed responsibility for policing Addis Ababa and for exercising military control over the country's principal towns (see Foreign Military Assistance, this ch.).

Another aspect of Haile Selassie's transformation strategy was the creation of the Territorial Army, whose mission was to disarm the numerous guerrilla bands that were roaming the countryside after the war and engaging in banditry. The emperor authorized the recruitment of many shifta (bandits) into the Territorial Army, provided they brought their weapons with them. The Territorial Army was never anything more than a loosely organized auxiliary forces; when and where it existed, it served mostly to aid in local police work and not in national defense.

In the immediate postwar period, the Ethiopian government expended about 40 percent of its annual budget on defense and internal security. Haile Selassie also diversified his sources of foreign military assistance. Over several years, he appointed Swedish officers to train Ethiopia's air force, asked Norwegian naval personnel to organize and develop a small coastal navy, signed a military assistance agreement with the United States, invited Israeli advisers to train paratroopers and counterinsurgency units, and arranged for an Indian military mission to staff the faculty of the military academy at Harer. During this period, a number of Ethiopian officers attended military schools in the United States, Britain, and Yugoslavia (see Training, this ch.).

After their modernization, Ethiopia's security forces saw action in several foreign conflicts. For example, upon the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, Haile Selassie raised a volunteer battalion from the Imperial Bodyguard and authorized its deployment to Korea with the United Nations (UN) forces. The Kagnew Battalion, as the unit was known, reached Korea the next year and joined the United States Seventh Division. Before the 1953 cease-fire, three Ethiopian battalions, totaling 5,000 men, had rotated to Korea, where they fought with distinction.

From 1960 to 1964, some 3,000 Imperial Bodyguard personnel- -about 10 percent of the Ethiopian army's entire strength at that time--and part of an air force squadron served with the UN peacekeeping force in the Congo (present-day Zaire). In 1967 four Ethiopian air force F-86 fighter-bombers were deployed to Zaire to help dislodge a concentration of European mercenaries fighting there on behalf of secessionists in Katanga Province (present-day Shaba Region).

The reforms instituted by Haile Selassie, including the establishment of a relatively large professional standing army, separated military and civilian functions in a way that was unique in the country's history. By 1974 much of the population maintained an ambivalent attitude toward the reorganized and modernized military establishment. On the one hand, civilians, many of whom were university students, often complained that the military drained the national budget and failed to help the country develop. On the other hand, many Ethiopians expressed pride in the armed forces' ability to maintain the country's territorial integrity. Much of the civilian sector also believed that the military represented the best chance for change in Ethiopia.

After the 1974 revolution, the Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC; also known as the Derg --see Glossary) designated the armed forces as the "vanguard of the revolution" and apparently had expectations that military personnel would become involved in social and economic development programs. The drain on manpower and matériel caused by the wars in Eritrea, Tigray, and the Ogaden prevented the realization of this objective. However, military cadres became active in peasant associations, political organizing, drought relief, and other duties once assigned to the regular police. The army also undertook projects to improve the country's transportation infrastructure.

Despite the repressiveness of the Mengistu regime, public demonstrations of discontent with the armed forces grew in frequency in the 1980s. The army's inability to achieve victory in Eritrea and Tigray disillusioned many who had supported the 1974 revolution, and the conflicts in north- central Ethiopia caused divisions within the military itself. On May 16, 1989, a group of senior officers attempted a coup against President Mengistu. The coup failed, but it was a key factor in the fall of the military government in late May 1991.

Data as of 1991


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