3. REBELLION AND FAMINE IN THE NORTH UNDER HAILE SELASSIE
Northern Marginalization under Shewan Rule
The northern provinces of Gonder, Gojjam, Wollo and Tigray are the heartland of the
"core" culture of Ethiopia -- the Ethiopian Orthodox church, the Amharic language and script,
plow-based agriculture, and many elements of the social system of the country derive from this
historic region. Most of the Emperors also came from here.
At the end of the 19th century, the center of power in Ethiopia decisively shifted from
the north to Shewa, with the assumption of the title of Emperor by Menelik, King of Shewa.
Menelik was an Amhara, from the dynasty that ruled Manz, at the northern tip of the modern
province of Shewa. The majority of the inhabitants of the rest of Shewa were Oromo -- as is the
case today. In terms of descent, the group that became politically dominant in Shewa (and
subsequently in Ethiopia) was a mixture of Amhara and Oromo; in terms of language, religion
and cultural practices, it was Amhara. The northern Amhara regarded the Shewans as "Galla"
(the pejorative term for Oromo),
1 and together with the Tigrayans and some of the Agau and
Oromo people in Wollo, resisted the new Shewan domination, which led to their economic and
Revolt in Wollo
Between 1928 and 1930 there was a rebellion -- or a series of rebellions -- in northern
Wollo against Shewan domination. The specific political cause was support for Ras Gugsa
Wale, a northern Amhara lord with a strong claim on the throne, against the Shewan Ras Teferi
(who crowned himself the Emperor Haile Selassie after defeating the revolt). The government
suppression of the revolt led to quartering soldiers with local people, interrupting the salt trade,
and involved massive looting and confiscation of cattle. Combined with drought and locusts,
the result was famine.
2 Haile Selassie ordered the importation of grain from India to supply
Addis Ababa, but there was no relief for north Wollo. Political measures were taken after the
revolt, including the replacement of much of the administration, which formerly had local roots,
with appointees from Shewa; and the joining of the rebellious districts to the province of
1 Gerry Salole, "Who are the Shoans?" Horn of Africa, 2, (1978), pp. 20-9.
2 James McCann, From Poverty to Famine in Northeast Ethiopia: A Rural History, 1900-1935, Philadelphia,
southern Wollo, which was ruled with harshness and venality by the crown prince. These
helped to contribute to the further marginalization of the area, and the series of famines which
plagued the area up to the fall of the Emperor.
The cumulative impact of imperial misrule and the petty tyrannies of local landlords
created an atmosphere in which development was extremely difficult, as described by two
consultants investigating the possibility of starting livestock projects:
Wollo is virtually impossible ... there is such an obscuring weight of disbelief, suspected
innuendo and antagonisms; such a mess of mis-government at petty levels, and such a
lading of landlords that there is almost nothing to start with and nowhere to start that
will not go wrong or sour ... [there is] the smothering welter of the weeds of an
entrenched and stagnant society.
The Weyane in Tigray
Following the restoration of Haile Selassie after the defeat of the Italians in 1941, there
was a revolt in Tigray. Known as the Weyane, this was the most serious internal threat that
Haile Selassie faced. An alliance of the Oromo semi-pastoralists of Raya Azebo, disgruntled
peasants, and some local feudal lords, under the military leadership of a famous shifta, Haile
Mariam Redda, the rebels nearly succeeded in overrunning the whole province.
4 British aircraft
had to be called in from Aden in order to bomb the rebels to ensure their defeat. While some of
the aristocratic leaders, such as Ras Seyoum Mengesha, were treated gently and ultimately
allowed to return and administer the recalcitrant province, there were reprisals against the
ordinary people. Most notably, the Raya and Azebo Oromo were subjected to wholesale land
alienation, and much of their territory was transferred to the province of Wollo. This area was
badly hit in subsequent famines, partly as a consequence.
Tax Revolts in Gojjam
Gojjam treasured its independence for centuries, and did not submit willingly to Shewan
rule. The issue around which opposition repeatedly coalesced was any attempt by the central
government to measure land and tax it. Taxation was not only resented as the imposition of
unjust exactions by government, but was feared as the means whereby the traditional land tenure
3 Noel J. Cossins and Bekele Yemeron, "Still Sleep the Highlands: A Study of Farm and Livestock Systems in
the Central Highlands of Ethiopia," Addis Ababa, 1973, p. 2.10.
4 Gebru Tareke, "Peasant Resistance in Ethiopia: The Case of Weyane," Journal of African History, 25, (1984),
system would be undermined, and the farmers' independence destroyed.
In the 1940s and '50s there was a series of attempts to measure land in Gojjam, prior to
taxation. In the face of peasant resistance, including violence, all attempts failed. In the early
1960s, only 0.1 per cent of the land had been measured, and Gojjam, one of the richest and most
populous provinces, paid less land tax than the poor and thinly populated province of Bale.
1950/1 there was armed resistance, including a plot to assassinate Haile Selassie. However the
most serious revolt occurred in 1968, in response to the most systematic attempt to levy an
agricultural income tax to date.
In February 1968, in reaction to the arrival of parties of government officials
accompanied by armed police, the peasants of Mota and Bichena districts resorted to armed
resistance. After months of stalemate while much of the province remained out of government
control, Haile Selassie sent troops to Gojjam in July and August. The air force bombed several
villages; it burned houses but its main task was probably intimidating the resistance. Several
hundred people died, according to contemporary accounts, but the Gojjamis remained defiant.
Finally, in December, Haile Selassie backed down. He visited Gojjam in 1969, cancelled all tax
arrears, and made no serious attempt to collect the new taxes.
Famines in Wollo and Tigray
In 1974, the Emperor Haile Selassie became notorious for his attempts to conceal the
existence of the famine of 1972-3 in Wollo. This, however, was only one in a succession of
such incidents. Prof. Mesfin Wolde Mariam of Addis Ababa University has documented how
the famines of 1958 and 1966 in Tigray and Wollo were treated with official indifference,
bordering on hostility towards the peasants who were considered sufficiently ungrateful for the
divinely-sanctioned rule of Haile Selassie as to allow themselves to defame his reputation by
dying of famine.
There was severe famine in Tigray in 1958 which went without significant government
relief. In 1965/6, reports of famine from Were Ilu awraja in Wollo arrived at the Ministry of the
Interior in November 1965, one month after the situation became clear to the local police, but no
action was taken. The information took a further 302 days to reach the Emperor, who then
requested the Ministry of the Interior to act -- which it did by asking officials in Wollo to send a
list of the names of the people who had died.
6 A small relief distribution was then authorized.
The only consistent response to famine was to regard it as a security problem -- famine created
5 Peter Schwab, Decision-Making in Ethiopia: A Study of the Political Process, London, 1972, pp. 4, 159.
6 Mesfin Wolde Mariam, Rural Vulnerability to Famine in Ethiopia - 1958-1977, London, 1986, p. 106.
destitute migrants, who needed to be prevented from entering towns, particularly Addis Ababa.
Both the 1958 and 1965/6 famines killed tens of thousands of people.
The famine that struck Wollo during 1972-3 played a crucial role in Ethiopian history:
the revelation of that famine by the British television journalist Jonathan Dimbleby played a key
role in precipitating the downfall of the rule of Haile Selassie. Between 40,000 and 80,000
7 The famine also led directly to the creation of the Relief and Rehabilitation
Commission (RRC), the powerful government department mandated to prevent and ameliorate
future famines, and to coordinate international assistance. The 1972-3 famine was the last one
in which there were no functioning mechanisms for the delivery of large-scale humanitarian
The Wollo famine was popularly blamed on drought, a backward and impoverished
social system, and the cover-up attempted by the imperial government.
8 These factors were all
important -- though it must be remembered that specific actions by the government, especially
after the Ras Gugsa and Weyane revolts, were instrumental in creating the absence of
development. In addition, forcible alienation of resources and violence also played an important
The group that suffered most from the famine were the Afar pastoral nomads of the
Danakil desert. Famine had already gripped them in early 1972. The Afar inhabit an arid semi-
wilderness, utilizing pastures over a large area to support their herds. In times of drought, they
are forced to move to areas which they do not normally exploit. Traditional drought reserves
included the Tcheffa Valley, on the rift valley escarpment, and pastures along the inland delta of
the Awash river where the waters dissipate into the desert. In the 1960s the Tcheffa Valley
became the location of commercial sorghum farms, and small farmers from nearby also began
to use much of the land. Meanwhile, large cotton plantations were developed along the Awash.
By 1972, 50,000 hectares of irrigated land had displaced 20,000 Afar pastoralists.
During the years of good rainfall, the loss of the drought reserves was not noticed by the
Afar, but when repeated drought struck, they found that a necessary resource they had utilized
sporadically for generations had been alienated, without compensation. Famine among the Afar
7 John Seaman and Julius Holt, "The Ethiopian Famine of 1973-4: I. Wollo Province," Proceedings of the
Nutrition Society, 34, 1975, p. 114A. The Ethiopian Nutrition Institute calculated a figure of 200,000 deaths but
this appears to have been based on over-pessimistic assumptions about the size of the famine-affected population.
8 Failure to relieve a famine already under way can scarcely be called a cause of that famine, but popular
coverage of "the politics of famine" continues to focus on the politics of famine relief, failing to draw the necessary
distinction between the two.
9 Maknun Gamaledin, "State policy and famine in the Awash Valley of Ethiopia," in D. Anderson and R. Grove
(eds.), Conservation in Africa, Cambridge, 1987, p. 335.
was certainly caused by drought -- but by drought acting on a society that had been deprived of
the means of responding to that threat.
Official indifference to the plight of the Afar is illustrated by an incident in 1974, when
the flood waters of the Awash river were directed to the Dubti valley in order to irrigate cotton
plantations. The resident Afar population was not informed, and 3,000 lost their homes, while
100 were "missing."
Mobility is crucial to survival among the Afar. Nomadic in normal times, the ability to
move freely over large distances becomes a vital concern when resources are short. In the early
1970s, the Afar's mobility was further restricted by the flow of weaponry to their nomadic
neighbors and competitors, the Issa (who are ethnic Somali). The Issa themselves were
suffering from the alienation of much of their pasture and restrictions on their movement. The
result was an attempt by the Afar to appropriate wells formerly used by the Issa. This led to
widespread armed clashes, especially in 1972. One Afar reported "Many people die. Disease is
the first cause but the Issa are the second."
11 Meanwhile, a survey done among the Issa reported
that homicide by the Afar was a major cause of death.
12 The famine also resulted in large-scale
armed clashes between the Afar and their Oromo neighbors in Wollo.
The second group which suffered severely from the famine included farmers in a narrow
strip of middle-altitude areas of northern and central Wollo. Those who suffered most were
tenants. The Raya and Azebo Oromo had been reduced to that state by massive land alienation
after they participated in the Weyane revolt against Haile Selassie in 1943. Others were forced
to mortgage or sell their land by the stresses of repeated harvest failures in the early 1970s.
Landlords took advantage of their tenants' penury by insisting on the payment of large rents,
often in kind. This demand could be backed up by force, as most influential landlords had a
retinue of armed guards. The enforcement of crippling tenancy contracts in time of shortage had
the effect of taking food from the hungry. Thus, during 1973, the famine area exported grain to
the provincial capital, Dessie, and to Addis Ababa.
The famine was much less severe in Tigray province, despite the drought affecting both
provinces. The difference can be largely accounted for by the different modes of land tenure --
in Tigray, most farmers owned their own land; in middle-land Wollo, most were tenants.
10 RRC, "Food Shortage Report on Wello, 1979; Annex: A Profile of Disasters in Wello," Addis Ababa, 1979, p.
11 Quoted in: Noel J. Cossins, "No Way to Live: A Study of the Afar Clans of the North-East Rangelands," Addis
Ababa, Livestock and Meat Board, 1972, p. 51.
12 J. Seaman, J. Holt and J. Rivers, "The Effects of Drought on Human Nutrition in an Ethiopian Province,"
International Journal of Epidemiology, 7, 1978, p. 37.
13 K. J. Lundstrom, North-East Ethiopia: Society in Famine, Uppsala, 1976.
Finally, the Emperor Haile Selassie considered that the peasants and nomads of Wollo
were shaming His reputation by starving, and resolved to ignore them. Reports of famine were
consistently ignored or denied. In response to a report by UNICEF documenting famine
conditions in July 1973, the Vice-Minister of Planning retorted: "If we have to describe the
situation in the way you have in order to generate international assistance, then we don't want
that assistance. The embarrassment to the government isn't worth it. Is that perfectly clear?"
Though the governor of Wollo, Crown Prince Asfa Wossen, was both greedy and
incompetent (at the time of the famine he forced the closure of commercial sorghum farms in
the Tcheffa Valley by engaging in litigation, claiming their ownership), Haile Selassie was
never in ignorance of the conditions in Wollo. A UN official visited him in early 1973 and
found him well-informed -- his attitude was that peasants always starve and nothing can be
done, and that in any case it was not the Shewan Amhara who were dying.
15 On belatedly
visiting the province in November 1973, his one remedial action was to announce that all who
had sold or mortgaged their land in the previous year could return and plow it during the coming
season, only leaving it to their creditors afterwards.
16 Even this minimal and tardy gesture was
The 1975 Northern Rebellions
The Wollo famine contributed to the downfall of Haile Selassie, not because the hungry
peasants and nomads revolted and forced him out, but because the issue gained political
currency among the students and middle classes of Addis Ababa. However, that is not to say
that the famine, and more generally the eight decades of political marginalization and economic
stagnation that preceded it, did not have serious consequences at the time of the 1974 revolution
and the years following.
In the early 1970s, "peasant risings in various provinces [were] an even more closely
guarded secret than the famine".
17 These revolts intensified in during the revolution, with a
series of rebellions led by feudal leaders in each of the northern provinces. In Wollo, there was
a revolt by a feudal lord, Dejazmatch Berhane Maskal. In March 1975, he destroyed an
14 Quoted in: Paul H. Brietzke, Law, Development and the Ethiopian Revolution, Lewisburg, 1982, p. 127.
15 Brietzke, 1982, pp. 126-7.
16 Lundstrom, 1976, pp. 52-3.
17 Lionel Cliffe, "Capitalism or Feudalism? The Famine in Ethiopia," Review of African Political Economy, 1,
1974, pp. 34-40.
Ethiopian airlines DC3 at Lalibella. In October, he rallied supporters after a spree of killings of
former landlords by peasants and government security officers. Dej. Berhane's ill-armed force
of 5,000 was defeated by government militia and air force attacks near Woldiya in December
1975, but he continued to cause problems for the government for years. Another feudal leader,
Gugsa Ambow, had brief military successes in northern Wollo, before the army foiled an
attempt to capture Korem in mid-1976, reportedly causing 1,200 fatalities among Gugsa's
peasant army and local villagers.
18 Other smaller revolts occurred in Gojjam and Shewa.
The most significant rebellion started in Tigray. This was an insurrection led by the
former governor, Ras Mengesha Seyoum (son of the governor at the time of the 1943 Weyane).
Ras Mengesha fled to the hills with about 600 followers in November 1984, when the Dergue
executed 60 officials of the previous regime. Ras Mengesha combined with other members of
the aristocracy, notably General Negga Tegegne (former governor of Gonder) and formed the
Ethiopian Democratic Union (EDU) in 1976. They obtained encouragement from western
countries. With Sudanese military assistance, the EDU occupied the towns of Metema, Humera
and Dabat (all in Gonder province) between February and April 1977,
19 but was defeated by the
militia force sent to the province in June-July.
The EDU remained active in Tigray, where two other rebel groups were also
operational. The Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) was set up in February 1975 by a
group of left-wing students and peasants, incorporating the Tigray National Organization,
created three years earlier. Prominent among its early leaders was Berihu Aregawi; later the
front was headed by Meles Zenawi. In 1978, the TPLF set up the Relief Society of Tigray
(REST), headed by Abadi Zemo. It espoused a mix of Tigrayan nationalism and socialist
transformation. The Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP), after defeat in the urban
Red Terror (see chapter 6), retreated to a base in rural eastern Tigray in mid-1977.
The EDU was rent by divisions between its leaders, and its aristocratic leaders failed to
gain popular support among their erstwhile tenants. Crucially, it suffered defeat at the hands of
20 The EPRP was also defeated by the TPLF and driven into Gonder, creating lasting
bitterness between the two organization.
After the ill-fated Peasants' March of 1976, the government launched a series of five
18 Michael Dobbs, "A bloody farewell to feudalism," The Guardian, London, November 24, 1976.
19 Sudanese military support for the EDU was given in retaliation for the Ethiopian government's backing for the
Sudanese opposition National Front, headed by Sadiq el Mahdi, which had staged an unsuccessful armed
insurrection to overthrow the government of Jaafar Nimeiri in July 1976.
20 The two organizations later fought in the refugee camps in Sudan, for example in May 1979 and July 1982.
The latter attack, in which eleven refugees died, was instigated by the EDU. Ahmad Karadawi, "Refugee Policy in
the Sudan, 1967-1984," DPhil thesis, Oxford, 1988, pp. 181, 193.
military offensives in Tigray: November 1976, June 1978, October-November 1978, March-
April 1979 and May-June 1979. Small towns such as Abi Adi changed hands several times. By
1979, REST estimated that 50,000 people in Tigray were displaced on account of war.
Refugees from Tigray and Gonder began to arrive in Sudan in early 1975. By May there were
34,000; by 1978 there were 70,000. In February 1979, the Ethiopian army invaded Sudanese
territory at Jebel Ludgi, forcing the evacuation of the nearby refugee camp of Wad el Hileui.
Fighting against the Afar
Another serious though short-lived rebellion occurred among the Afar. The Afar leader
and Sultan of Awsa, Ali Mirrah, had been accorded a high degree of autonomy by Haile
Selassie, and the well-armed Afar had never come fully under the administrative or military
control of the government. Ali Mirrah was also a large landowner and feared the confiscation
of his cotton plantations in the land reform. This brought him into conflict with the
government, and on June 1, 1975, a military force was dispatched to arrest the Sultan at his
headquarters. Ali Mirrah escaped to Djibouti, but his followers launched a coordinated series of
attacks on military outposts on June 3, and claimed to have killed several hundred soldiers.
Many unarmed Amhara laborers in the Awash cotton plantations were also massacred.
Government reprisals were swift. Starting at Assaita in the Awash valley on June 3, and
expanding to an arc stretching from Mille in the west, passing through Awsa to Serdo in the
east, the army attacked towns, agricultural schemes, and Afar nomads' encampments.
The cotton plantations had a large labor force, including Moslem Eritreans, local Afars
and highland Amharas. The army selectively killed Eritreans and Afars. Refugees in Djibouti
reported that 221 Afar workers were killed. Women and children were gunned down as they
tried to flee on tractors. In one incident in mid-June, 18 men were shot dead on a bridge. The
killing then spread to the towns. An estimated 300 died in Awsa and 100 is Assaita, including
the Imam, killed in his mosque. The soldiers also spread out into the countryside and attacked
small Afar villages and cattle camps. While many of the casualties were armed Afar men (the
distinction between a civilian and combatant is a fine one among the Afar) women and children
were also killed when tanks and artillery bombarded cattle camps and troops opened fire. The
killing lasted six weeks. Estimates for the total number of civilian casualties amount to more
than 1,000; some run as high as 4,000.
One of those killed was a young British social anthropologist, Glynn Flood, who was
arrested by the army and detained. According to other people detained in the same prison, after
21 Karadawi, 1988, p. 117.
two weeks he was taken out by four soldiers, and then they heard a scream. It is assumed that
he was bayonetted to death and his body thrown into the river Awash. Government officials
had tried to stop Mr Flood from going to the area a week earlier, and it is probable that he was
murdered in order to prevent him from producing evidence of the killings.
In exile, Ali Mirrah founded the Afar Liberation Front (ALF). His son, Hanafari
conducted military operations and succeeded in closing the strategic Assab-Addis Ababa
highway. The government responded by the twin tactics of another military campaign, and
giving some leading Afar positions within the administration and a measure of autonomy. A
faction led by Habib Mohamed Yahyo was given a large quantity of arms, and proved to be a
loyal supporter of the government.
22 These tactics prevented the ALF from posing a major
military threat, though it was able to mount occasional attacks throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
22 There is a dispute over the Sultanate of Awsa between the families of Ali Mirrah and Habib Yahyo going back