ITALY THE UNPAID DEBT
Written by Yebio Woldemariam:
The article was first published at Awate.com in the Summer of 2008. In the light of the recently published paper by Mia Fuller at Asmarino.com: Italy’s Colonial Futures: Colonial Inertia and Postcolonial Capital in Asmara. I found it useful to reprint it again so the reader may benefit yet wider perspective on Italian colonialism in our region. The lies and distortions fed to its citizens and to many innocent Eritreans (not Ethiopians) was laid bare by the Scholar DelBoca unconfined by narrow nationalism or intellectual prostitution.]
During the scramble for Africa, Italy was a junior partner to the major competing powers namely France and Great Britain. It was the bitter rivalry between this super colonial powers that enabled Italy to expand its Empire from the malaria infested enclave in the Danakil bay to the entire Horn Region, including Ethiopia that lasted for five years. The fact that Italy was economically impoverished and militarily weak nation at the time did not prevent her from entrenching itself at some of the strategically positioned areas of the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. At the time of its expansion, Italy was barely a nation. It was simply pawn in the big game of land aggrandizement by the major powers. As major players in the region, England and France had their eyes focused on the Nile basin with the Rift Valley and the Indian Ocean in their mind. In point of fact, Italy was neither trade nor a manufacturing power in the mid 19th century. Thus, the Italian principalities independent and fearsome were often at loggerheads until Giuseppe Garibaldi brought an end to the constant feuding among the kingdoms and established a unitary system in the 1860s (Qui si fa l’Italia o si muore, that is, Here we either make Italy, or we die ). A little after the unitary system of government was achieved, her attempt to subdue Ethiopia proper and re- live the legendary march of the ancient Roman legions toward central and northern Europe was met with fierce resistance by the peasant army who crushed Italy’s ambition to the ground. The victory at Adwa not only dashed the hope of Italy to be an imperial power on its own right but also shattered European perception of superiority over the black and colored race.
The damage made by the Italian intervention in the region is numerous to account. One of the most obvious with adverse consequence was the disruption that it had caused on the lives of the ordinary people in the region. In its quest of establishing an Italian East African Empire, Italy has consistently used one set of people over the other. The divide and rule dictum well practiced by rulers the world over, was perfected by Italy favoring one nationality over the other. Italy’s diabolic design did not stop here, but continued investing superior but false identity on some while propagating savage and backward image on the other. In comparison to itself, it made sure that all colonial subjects, without exception, are inferior to whites and therefore are expected to adhere strictly to the segregation codes on dwellings, transportation as well as in the fulfillment of professional aspiration. That explains, why it refused to open educational opportunities for the indigenous people on the handful schools that it had built in Eritrea and elsewhere in the colonies. The Italians put a limit to which a black child could go to school. Quarta classe was the maximum and considered as a wonderful achievement for a black child only made possible but Italy’s benevolent gesture.
The unsuccessful attempt to incorporate all the peoples in the Horn of Africa into one Empire block necessitated the use of large indigenous forces in place of its own. Many hundreds of thousands of locals lured by temporary economic gains enlisted in the colonial army and many more were forcibly conscripted to meet the quota demanded upon them. As the result hundreds of thousands died and maimed while their families left to fend themselves. In this regard the Eritreans played an indispensable role by facilitating the conquest of Ethiopia, the subjugation of Somalia and the defeat of Omar Mukhtar in Libya. Although, in a limited scale, the Libyans, the Ethiopians and the Somalis, were not spared from taking part in the fulfillment of the Italian design of conquest either. It is not difficult to imagine, therefore, that such unhealthy interaction among peoples in the service of Italy had left discordant effect that we all have to live with today. In retrospect, one surmises that it is this uninvited presence of an alien power which took it upon itself to destroy all locally inspired trading and manufacturing activities and replace it with its own (one that is outwardly focused with weaker economic base) that hurt the region most from achieving economic integration and peaceful coexistence today.
Leaving the philosophical argument aside that the presence of Italy may or may not have contributed to our underdevelopment, one thing remained certain; hundreds of thousands of indigenous soldiers and innocent citizens in Libya, Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea died in the service of Italy. Some, 7104 Eritreans took part in the battle at Adwa on the side of the Italians. I declare with utmost certainty that Eritreans constitute the most and in particular Eritreans those from the central highland including the Asawr’ta. It is also known that around sixteen hundred irregulars stayed behind in rear camps. My own father’s uncle, Aboy Embaye, was one of those who retreated from Quaatit camp to his own village upon hearing of the Italian loss at Adwa. In this historical but brutal battle 2,261 Eritrean soldiers lost heir lives. The number of those severely wounded and those by order of the Emperor amputated as war criminals was close to 1,360. In the first Italo-Ethiopian war, the Eritreans carried the brunt of Italy’s criminal adventure.
Four decades after the Italian debacle at Adwa, fascist Italy came stronger and more prepared than ever to fulfill the deferred dream of conquering Ethiopia. While the region with Ethiopia at the hub, proved no match to the superiorly armed European Italy. In May 1936, less than a year after the campaign begun the Italians occupied Addis Abeba and spread southward to Jima, Gambella and Nekempt. The second Italo-Ethiopian war cost the life of 50,000 regular and 50,000 irregular indigenous soldiers. This number includes Somali, Libyan and Ethiopian conscripts. No doubt, larger portion of the 256,000 Italian standing army in the region, were from Eritrea. Record also shows that between 1889 and 1941, 130,000 Eritreans served in the Italian army. At the height of the Italian aggression of 1940, the number of colonial but indigenous soldiers was estimated at 182,000. Using this fact as a background, therefore, one can not help but conclude that the Eritrean men and women served Italy well to the extent of idealizing Italy. Many also became dependent on Italian handouts and survived on meager income. Many more civilians including 700,000 peasants died during the short lived occupation of Ethiopia.
Italy’s selfish use of our human resources was not confined to Eritrea alone, which was considered as the crown Jewel of the Italian possession in the Horn of Africa at that time, but extends to the Ethiopians, Libyans and Somalis who enlisted in the army and became an integral part of the expeditionary forces. There may have been as much as 60,000 conscripts from the region who followed the Eritrean footstep. One thing is certain, that the Libyan revolt led by Omar Mukhtar was put down with the help of the Eritrean and Somali colonial subjects. In the Libyan campaign of 1911 – 1932 an estimated 60,000 indigenous army took part. Similarly, in Somalia the short lived Ogaden revolt by Mohammed Abdelle Hassen was totally squashed by two indigenous army battalions sent from Eritrea.
If for one minute the table is turned around and justice is allowed to follow its course in order that it conforms to the law of universality of good and evil, then Italy stand accused not so much so for its war crimes but also for fundamentally crippling the socio-economic base of the people in favor of its own. Italian colonialism that imposed its will, its economic development recipe without allowing the indigenous people participate, can not escape the judgment of history. Italy who victimized the people through its war of aggression bears full responsibility for making the indigenous economy subservient to it. Who in his sane mind will deny that, no matter how crude and rudimentary the indigenous economy might have been at the time, Italy had willfully arrested and cynically replaced it with the vertically projected and out word looking economy of its own. The human resource that was wasted and the material resources that were squandered are the grim reminders of the state of affairs prevailing in the Horn of Africa today. I, therefore, refuse to accept the notion that Italy brought prosperity, harmony and enlightenment to the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea. To the contrary, such a conclusion does not stand the test of time when viewed against the background of underdevelopment, regional wars and debt that the people of Horn of Africa are experiencing today. It is a high time that Italy acknowledges for the mess it had created in the region. Accept full responsibility for leaving trail of destruction and a shameful legacy of perpetual poverty in the Horn. Among others, Italy is to blame for designing the blue print of unending warfare that plagued the region today. Italy must bear full responsibility for its unprovoked aggression against the peoples of the Horn in particular for using the Eritreans as the primary instrument of its aggression. Italy, alongside England and France conspired to hold back Ethiopia’s progress by putting legal impediments and forbidding it from interacting freely with the outside world by the so called tripartite agreement of the late 1910s. Italy without due process of law has unlawfully imprisoned hundreds of Eritreans in desolate islands of the Red Sea. It kept thousands of Libyans in interment camps away from their homes for years end. Italian fascist troops slaughtered 30,000 innocent Ethiopians in a span of three days in Addis Abeba, in February 19, 1937. This notwithstanding, Italy up to its ignominious exit from Eritrea had expropriated prime lands belonging to peasant farmers and pastoralists alike, thus, subjecting them to extreme poverty.
In all my life, if there is one thing that made my blood boil and I might add for a good reason, it is the Italian occupation of Eritrea and the rest of them. My father served in the Libyan campaign and took part as auxiliary in the rear camp at the battle of Tunkulhas, Keren. My grandfather lost his life fighting against the Ethiopian patriots at Zukala. Two of my uncles and my aunts’ two husbands also engaged in the so called pacification campaign against the enemies of Italy in Libya and Ethiopia. One of them stood his ground with general Gugliemo Nasi at the besieged Italian garrison of Gonder for nearly six month in 1941. I, like many of my generation do not have the first hand experience of Italian colonialism. But its effect is still felt among many of us who grew up hearing the horrific stories of racial discrimination. This notwithstanding, as inheritors of the broken political system and beneficiaries of the poorly structured Italian economy, my generation and those who come after me are entitled to ask what went wrong and shouldn’t those wrongs be redressed.
Incidentally, this is question that the Libyans have been asking for a long time. In fact the Libyans were so blunt in their message and clear of their intent that they even expelled many Italian residents in Libya when Colonel Khadafy assumed power in 1969. In contradistinction, Emperor Haile Selassie visited Italy in 1953, as if to apologize for the fierce resistance that the patriots had put against Fascist Italy in the 1930s. Libya’s steadfastness finally paid. News report coming out of Tripoli indicates that Italy agreed to apologize for the ‘pain’ that it caused on the Libyans during its occupation of their country. How proud the Libyans must have felt when the Italian Prime Minister declares that “In the name of the Italian people … I feel the duty to apologize and show our pain for what happened many years ago and which affected many of your families,”. Mr. Berlusconi, also pledge to fund 5 Billion dollars worth projects in Libya. Not bad at all.
What if the crippled nations of the Horn come together for once and demand that Italy do the right thing by apologizing to us, the living and pay homage to our dead? Is it too much to ask an apology for her intrusion into our life, uninvited and enslave us? Should not Italy pay compensation for the lost lives of our ancestors and for the destruction of our eco-systems? I am sure Italy’s indictment would please many people including my late mother who in her own ways was an anti-colonialist at heart and resentful of Italy’s treatment of her people. When Italy is ready to stand up and share responsibility and consequently do the right thing, I am sure my mother will smile in her grave with joy.