Ethiopia: Martyr's Day and Lessons for the Ethiopian Youth

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Every year on February 19 (20 every leap year), Ethiopians commemorate Martyrs' Day on which more than 30,000 Ethiopians were massacred by the troops of Fascist Italy 81 years ago following the attempted assassination on Marshal Rodolfo Graziani. That is why February is also marked as a month of martyrdom. The Italians conducted the most atrocious massacre that could have been considered as genocide of the highest proportions.

After 40 years of preparation following its defeat at The Battle of Adwa in Ethiopia, Italy began its second attempt to colonize Ethiopia in 1934. Despite of a letter submitted by the late emperor to the former League of Nations, on May 14, 1934, Italy deployed a massive army ready to annex the entire territory of Ethiopia.

Italy deployed 685,000 soldiers another 4,000 from Eretria and more than 285,000 soldiers from its colony in the former Italian Somaliland. Italy had 6,000 machine guns, 2000 artillery and 599 tanks as well as 390 aircrafts. Italy later ordered and acquired 3,300 machine guns, 275 artillery pieces, 200 tanks and 205 aircrafts. This was no match to the Ethiopian Army which was comprised of 350,000-760,000 trained and untrained peasant soldiers with ammunition of 400,000 mainly old rifles; 234 antiquated artillery and 75 anti-tank guns; 4 tanks and 13 outmoded aircrafts with four pilots.

As an independent country and a member of the League of Nations, Ethiopia should have been provided with the League's fullest solidarity and support against the unprovoked and aggressive invasion by another member of the League, Italy. However, what actually transpired was the League's half hearted and ineffective measures which in fact facilitated Fascist Italy's perpetration of devastating war crimes in and occupation of Ethiopia for five year.

According to Grip, Lina and Hart John in their book "The use of Chemical Weapons in the 1935 Italo-Ethiopian War, the Fascist forces used mustard gas bombs on at least ten localities in Ethiopia including Tekeze area, Ambalage, Borena (Wollo), Sekota, Mekelle, Megalo, Wadla Delanta, Korem, Yirgalem and, Endamehoni.

According to Alberto Sbachi, (Ethiopia Under Mussolini", pp 47-63 ) during the Italian occupation, one million Ethiopians including patriots, women and children were massacred of whom 30,000 were killed, under Graziani's orders, within only three days (February 19-21, 1937) in Addis Ababa as well as over 2,000 monks and parishioners at Debre Libanos Monastery. 2,000 churches and 525,000 homes were destroyed; Destruction of 14 million animals as a result of the environmental destruction caused by the mustard poison gas sprayed in many parts of Ethiopia.

The Hague Convention of 1899 to which Italy was also a signatory was the first instrument that forbade the use of chemical weapons. That was followed by the Geneva Protocol of 1925 forbidding the use of poison gases. Therefore, the Italian Fascist Government used chemical weapons in its war crimes in Ethiopia in utter disregard of the 1925 Geneva Protocol.

On February 19, 1937, two years after the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, Italy conducted a mass massacre on innocent Ethiopians also known as Addis Ababa Massacre among historians and the international media Fascist Italy conducted a three days rampage of an indiscriminate killing of 30,000 Ethiopians mostly composed of the elderly, lactating and pregnant mothers and their children.

Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, Marchese di Neghelli, Viceroy of Italian East Africa, organized a public event at the Genete Leul Palace ( now a building that housed the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University) in Addis Ababa to provide alms to the poor to celebrate the birth of the baby Prince of Naples. Crowd from all walks of life were gathered in an out of the palace with the expectation of receiving gifts without the slightest hint of what will befall them.

On the morning of Friday of February 19, 1937 two young Ethiopians Abraha Deboch and Moges Asgedom resolved to assassinate Marshal Rodolfo Graziani and Marchese di Neghelli. Another young person of their own age cooperated with their plot. According to Richard Pankhurst, a taxi driver named Simon Adefres drove them out of the city. Pankhurst also credits him with providing the grenades that Abraha and Moges threw on Graziani.

In the aftermath of the assassination attempt, the Italian response was immediate. According to Mockler, "Italian carabinieri had fired into the crowds of beggars and poor assembled for the distribution of alms and it is said that the Federal Secretary, Guido Cortese, even fired his revolver into the group of Ethiopian dignitaries standing around him." Hours later, Cortese gave the fatal order which read:

According to Bahiru Zewdie, an Ethiopian historian and author, the attempted murder provided the Italians with the reason to implement Mussolini's order, issued as early as 3 May 1936, to summarily execute "The Young Ethiopians", the small group of intellectuals who had received college education from American and European colleges.

February 1974 is also marked a revolutionary upsurge by the peoples of Ethiopia against feudal oppression and repression. The immediate causes of the upheaval included the skyrocketing of fuel prices triggered by an economic strategy used by Arab countries to wage an economic war on Israel and the western world. The grave consequences of famine in northern Ethiopia, particularly Wollo, strikes by taxi drivers, labor unions, teachers and demonstrations by Muslims in Addis Ababa culminated in the down fall of the imperial regime and subsequent usurpation of political power by a committee drawn from the armed forces.

Over the previous several decades and more particularly in February 1975, Ethiopian students advocated for "land to the tiller," and the military government otherwise known as the Derg declared a rural land proclamation of 1975 that was to shape the socio-economic and political profile of the country over some four decades. The land proclamation did recognize the legal rights of the peasantry to use their lands which are in fact a public property. However, despite the proclamations the peasants remained in poverty and utter destitution as they lacked all the necessary requirements to ascertain their livelihood.

Despite the unprecedented valor exhibited by Ethiopians in defending their territory against all foreign encroachments and aggression, prior to 1991, the peoples of Ethiopia were forced to sustain unfathomable repression and oppression in the hands of the imperial regime and the totalitarian regime of the Derg. Under such oppressive conditions, the peoples of Ethiopia did not choose to be indifferent. The youth in different parts of the country were therefore forced to flee to the bushes to take up arms. One of such armed groups, later named Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) was established on February 19, 1975 to wage a protracted struggle against the military junta of the Derg.

The events that took place in February in Ethiopia undoubtedly transcend the timeline of both Ethiopian and African history.

February is also a month of a popular quest for democracy, good governance, tolerance and smooth transition of power. Feb 15, 2018 Ethiopia's late Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn had submitted a letter of resignation to the House of Peoples Representatives in a surprise move that came amid protracted anti-government protests.

The government has attempted to address popular demands of the public. The Prime Minister filed a resignation letter after is request was endorsed by his own party, South Ethiopia Peoples Democratic Front where upon his request has also been endorsed by the secretariat of the EPRDF. The HPR has to soon made a final decision on his request.

Such formal request for resignation is the first of its kind in the political history of the country and depicts a new stage in the expansion of inclusive and pluralistic democratic process in the country and effectively shows a stance in a democratic transition of political power in Ethiopia.

What lessons can be drawn from these events? Valor, magnetic democratic unity, steadfastness, gender sensitivity solid national commitment and professionalism in implementing the development programs of this nation, perseverance in promoting peace and stability in Ethiopia and Africa, visionary mentality are all there to tap from the historic advents of February.

The youth in Ethiopia naturally shoulder a historic mission of safeguarding the unity and territorial integrity of this country. The war front has shifted from a battle field into nationwide battle against poverty. Close to 20% of the population of the country is still living below international designated poverty line. As poverty is no vice, the Ethiopian youth need to pay sacrifices in pulling the country out of poverty.

Editor's Note: The views entertained in this article do not necessarily reflect the stance of The Ethiopian Herald

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