It is often good to have a new look at history, because new scholars, and new historical situations, breed new ideas – evaluations and interpretations. This is true of Ian Campbell’s new book The Plot to Kill Graziani, which has just been published by Addis Ababa University Press.
In former days we always used to write that Ethiopia’s struggle for independence during the Italian occupation was based on the resistance of the Arbenyoch, or Patriots – and that their struggle was assisted by the events of Yekatit 12, 1929, – in the international calendar, 19 February 1937. That was when two young men of Eritrean origin, Abraha Debotch and Moges Asgedom, attempted to assassinate the hated Italian Viceroy: General Rodolfo Graziani (whose repression in North Africa had earned him the name of Hyena of Libya). These two events, the struggle by the patriots and the subsequent attempted assassination, though both serving the cause of Ethiopia’s independence, were treated as two entirely separate phenomena. The Attempt of Yekatit 12 was regarded as the work of two isolated young men, who happened to come from the Italian colony of Eritrea.
What is particularly interesting in Ian Campbell’s book is that it shows beyond a shadow of doubt that the assassination attempt was not the contribution of only those two individuals. It was, on the contrary, the culmination of a much wider plot involving a significant number of Ethiopians from differing backgrounds, and various parts of the country. We could almost call it an Ethiopian national effort.
To see the book in its historical context we may perhaps briefly recall the chronology of those days, long ago, yet not so long ago. Some of us here gathered remember the unfolding of those events, almost as if they had taken place yesterday. To recapitulate Fascist Italy launched its unprovoked invasion of Ethiopia on 3 October 1935. Emperor Haile Sellassie’s armies were defeated in the spring of the following year, 1936.The Invading Fascist army occupied Addis Ababa a few months later, on 5 May 1936 – but the Ethiopian Patriots continued guerrilla resistance throughout the occupation, most notably in Shewa, Bagemder and Gojjam. The Attempted Assassination of Yekatit 12 took place, as we have seen, on 19 February 1937.
During these years the Italian so-called “conquest” was gradually recognized by most of the world community – with a few significant exceptions, among them the United States and the Soviet Union. Opposition to recognition owed much to the continued resistance of the Ethiopian Patriots –and of others, including the Plotters about whom the author has written.
It is difficult today to gage the military strength of the Patriots in that period. Many of them seem to have been biding their time in the expectation that Fascist Italy would, sooner or later, come into conflict with the European Democracies: Britain and France. Be that as it may, it seems highly probable that the Italian occupation forces were becoming increasingly powerful. The invaders had complete control of the air – and were building strong forts, particularly in the north-west of the country. Increasing numbers of Ethiopians – including noblemen and even some of the so-called “Young Ethiopians” – were surrendering; and many, known as Banda, were being recruited into the relatively well-armed Italian colonial army.
Moreover, there was little hope of help for Ethiopia from the international community, which was supremely uninterested in giving assistance. It was in this critical situation that the idea of Assassinating Graziani was born.
The plotters, like many other political groups in history, had differing ideas and objectives. This was particularly true of the men of Yekatit 12 who came from differing educational, ethnic and social backgrounds.
Ian Campbell’s book, which is lavishly illustrated with contemporary photographs, brings the various plotters to life. The Plot to Kill Graziani reveals the differing strategies they were pursuing – and which culminated in Abraha and Moges hurling at the Viceroy the famous grenades, or so-called “bombs”. It is clear that they had the co-operation of many other dedicated figures, most notably the driver Semon Adefres, whose grave can be seen to this day in Gulele cemetery.
What were the consequences of the Yekatit 12 Plot?
Clearly it was a failure, as the author insists, because Graziani survived, though he was seriously wounded.The hand-grenades of Yekatit 12 nevertheless had far-reaching consequences. First and foremost was the ensuing three-day massacre for ever associated with Graziani’s name.The author tends to consider that Abraha and Moges bear some responsibility for this tragic event, but many of us would rather argue that in a struggle such as that against Graziani, the plotters could not afford to count the inevitable cost of retaliation.
The Massacre, we may argue, had several important consequences. It resulted in Graziani’s ignominious dismissal as Viceroy; and at the same time did much to show the world the extent of ruthless terror to which the Fascists were capable. The Massacre served, furthermore, to discredit the idea of Ethiopian collaboration with the invader – and led innumerable Ethiopians to join the ranks of the Patriots, who were thereby greatly strengthened. In the last analysis, the Plotters of Yekatit 12 showed the extent of Ethiopia’s determination to maintain her age-old independence.
The historic action taken by Abraha and Moges nevertheless soon moved off stage – for it was out-classed three years later by a more important event: Mussolini’s declaration of war on Britain and France on 10 June 1940, which made Ethiopia’s liberation virtually inevitable.
But to come back to the book: Addis Ababa University Press has produced a volume which does it credit. A work of almost 500 pages on which the Author has been toiling for close on two decades, it is an important and extensively researched tome, which opens up a significant but little-studied aspect of Ethiopian history. Supported by an extensive bibliography of over a hundred entries in both Amharic and foreign languages The Plot to Kill Graziani may qualify as Ethiopia’s Book of the Year. At times it reads almost like a detective novel, and contains many revelations, as well as some intriguing, but still debatable hypotheses. Raising almost as many questions as it answers, it will, we hope, encourage further study and research.