Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

Firearms in rural and traditional ethiopia and human rights

Of all the European technologies introduced into Ethiopia, firearms have had the longest sustained impact, one that has, directly and indirectly, totally changed the country demographically, socially, politically, and economically. A study of this particular technology is therefore of special importance to an examination of the impact of modern science and technology in Ethiopia. A brief review of weapons technology in Ethiopia prior to the advent of firearms will help to explain the impact of the latter.

Ethiopian Medieval Arms

The medieval arms of Ethiopia (nwayate haql) consisted of bows and arrows, swords and shields, spears, coats of mail, helmets, slings, and rolling boulders.

Bows and Arrows

Bows and arrows (qest and ahtsa) were extensively used by the armies of the Christian establishment, for example in the reigns of Emperor Gelawdewos (1540-1560)35 and Emperor Sussnyos (1607-1632).36 They were also used by armies of neighbouring vassal states, for example those of Yifat,37 Adel,38 and tribal areas not incorporated into the empire, e. g. the Nilotic people of the Tekkeze valley in north-west Ethiopia,39 and even a pagan religious sect.40 A very vivid description of the use of the bow and arrow in battle is given in the chronicle of Emperor Amde Tsion,41 in which the Emperor 'rose leaping like a leopard and roaring like a lion, drew his bow and shot at the King of Hegera. And the arrow struck him in the neck....' The King of Hegera fell and that finished the battle.

Poncet42 states that the imperial army was unable, initially, to cope with the poison (hmz) of the arrows of the Nilotic tribes with whom it often clashed, but that it soon discovered an antidote. This shows us that arrow poison was then unknown in the Christian highlands of Ethiopia, but that some tribal groups used it. We also have the tragic story of the tribe of Elmaya, which sent 2,000 warriors armed with bows and poisoned arrows to help Emperor Lbne Dngl in his decisive battle against Ahmed Ibn Ibrahim El Ghazi - often referred to as Gran. The warriors mistook the Emperor's camp for that of the enemy and entered it to be totally wiped out.43 The Ashmen tribe of Gafat, now incorporated into the Amhara nationality, are also reported to have attacked with poisoned arrows Emperor Sussnyos's small army when he was a wanderer still aiming at the crown.44


Swords (asyft), shields (welatw), and spears or lances (quiyanw) were the standard set of arms of the infantry, with swords and spears being used by the cavalry also. The spear is said to consist of three parts. The sharp piercing point, made of iron or steel, is called quinat, tor, chmara, or chrrie. This is attached to a long wooden handle, the zabia. To the end of the zabia opposite the metal point is an iron ring, the megureb, which gives the whole implement both the additional weight and balance to enable it to be directed at a target and the required momentum to pierce the target.

The spear is the weapon which epitomizes war, and the words for battle are quinat in Tigrinya and tor in Amharic, which means spear in those languages. Virtually every reference to medieval arms in Ethiopian chronicles refers to these three weapons. Only a small sample of references can be given here, from the reigns of Emperor Amde Tsion (1312-1342),45 Emperor Gelawdewos (1540-1560),46 and Emperor Sussnyos (1607-1632).47 These weapons were used even in the nineteenth century, when Emperor Yohannes defeated the Egyptians at Gura'.48

To a more limited extent, the dagger (methaht or shotel) and javelin (armah) were also used, as reported for Yifat.49 The dagger also features in the death of the important warrior, Ahmed Ibn Ibrahim El Ghazi, which was effected by an unnamed poor man in Shire, western Tigray.50

Coats of Mail

Coats of mail (tsrur or dir'a hatsin) and helmets (qur') were used by the cavalry. The coat of mail was obviously inflexible and the neck had a separate tubular piece (borboti) protecting it.51 Not all cavalry soldiers wore coats of mail. Instead they swathed themselves with many turns of a long cloth (qnat, meqennet). It seems that, sometimes, perhaps for flexibility, even the emperors fought in this manner; for example, Emperor Amde Tsion is described, when fighting Gemalding of Yifat, as having been struck with a sword "cutting the belt [qnat] round his waist and the military tunic which he wore." 52

One associates the coat of mail and the helmet with European medieval knights so much that it may sound strange to find them in medieval Ethiopia as well. Nevertheless, they are consistently mentioned and described in the royal chronicles and other records,53 leaving no doubt of their extensive use in Ethiopia.

The Impact of Firearms on Medieval Ethiopia

The arrival of firearms in Ethiopia was traumatic. Ahmed Ibn Ibrahim El Ghazi, the Emir of Harer, one of the hitherto Muslim states of the east which had formerly been vassal states, armed with muskets and cannon from the Turkish Pacha of Zebid, and mercenaries from the Mocha Arabs, India, Persia, Egypt, and Turkey,54 routed the Christian empire. Emperor Lbne Dngl (1508-1540) became a fugitive for 11 years before his death.55 Ahmed's ravaging of Christian Ethiopia was only slightly checked in Tigray, and that was owing to some firearms the Tigrayans had acquired, thanks to their geographical position by the sea.56 Ahmed also failed twice to break the defences of the mountain fortress of Amba Gishen in Wello, perhaps primarily because of the natural impregnability of the fortress, though, at least in the second attempt, firearms were used in its defence.57 Emperor Lbne Dngl's son, Gelawdewos (1540-1560), inherited the throne and obtained military assistance from the Portuguese to the tune of 400 soldiers and a little more than 400 muskets.58 With this assistance, he defeated Ahmed, and the Christian empire was re-established, though it was much weakened. Nineteen years later, Nur Ibn El Mujahid, Ahmed's nephew and successor,59 returned to attack Gelawdewos, who had only 100 musketeers and a very small army at his disposal. Ahmed's nephew, with 500 musketeers and an overwhelming number of soldiers, had the superior power and Gelawdewos was shot dead in the ensuing battle.60 This event was followed by carnage in Shewa.61

Emperor Sussnyos's chroniclers62 tell us that in the battle against Yacob in 1607, though there was much firing from Emperor Yacob's side, only one per son on Sussnyos's side was killed by a bullet. The impact of firearms at that time must, therefore, have been primarily psychological. Speke,63 describing of his visit to the northern part of Somalia, relates that, among the Somalis, it is the loudness of the report of a firearm and not its accuracy in hitting the target that counts. At any rate, the fact that the sound of firearms was used effectively by the imperial state to intimidate the leader of a peripheral tribal people has been recorded in the Ethiopian royal chronicles.64 The realization that the enemy possesses an incomprehensible novel means of killing would unnerve an army. An illustration of this can be given from the period of Emperor Iyassu (1682-1706).65 Iyassu's army was attacked by the ferocious Nilotic tribal people living downstream on the Mereb river, but it took only musket shots and the death of two individuals from the attacking side for the whole tribal army to scatter. A larger-scale and more dramatic instance of the psychological impact of firearms is given by the chronicler of Emperor Sertse Dngl (1563-1597).66 The imperial army attacked the Biete Israel (Jews) of Smyen. The mountain fortress of the Biete Israel looked impregnable, with huge boulders ready to be rolled down on the attacking army. But cannon fire so frightened the defenders that they lost. When their boulders were later rolled down to render them harmless, the chronicler tells us that one of them, on landing below, buried itself, leaving a hole in the ground two cubits (about one metre) deep, and rightly states that if it had landed on people, their bones, let alone their flesh, would not have been left in a recognizable state.

The awe with which the impact of firearms was held has been vividly described by the authors of the chronicles: "And the sun became shrouded in the smoke of the fire of war as if enveloped in a thick mist." 67

It seems that though the emperors saw the need for firearms, initially they used foreigners, mercenaries or others, to fire their arms. We know that the muskets and cannon used in Amba Gishen to defend it against Ahmed Ibn Ibrahim El Ghazi were handled by Arabs.68 In 1607, during Emperor Sussnyos's last battle to attain power, it was Turks that fired the opposite side's muskets and cannons.69 Even as late as 1693,70 we find references to Turks operating as musketeers for the Emperor.

It is understandable that, as a new technology, the firearms came in with their operators, the equivalent of modern "advisors" or "experts." What seems strange is that it was Turks and Arabs and not Portuguese and Spaniards who were used as "experts," in spite of the fact that the Turks and Arabs were on the opposite side when firearms were so traumatically introduced into Ethiopia. One possible reason is that both the Portuguese and Spaniards were too overstretched in their extensive colonies to afford the men required. A more likely explanation is that the arms were acquired through commerce with the Arabs and Turks, and that the "experts" that came with them were simply the mercenaries associated with them. One should note here that Ahmed Ibn Ibrahim El Ghazi's Arabs were mercenaries.71

The use of mercenaries as musketeers and artillery soldiers in Ethiopia should

not be taken to mean that Ethiopians shunned firearms totally. Rather, it indicates that, as is the case with the adoption of any new technology, they needed time to get used to firearms. That they soon did so is attested to by the records. Emperor Sussnyos (1607-1632), for example, is said to have learned marksmanship with muskets as a component of the military training he underwent in his youth.72 Poncet73 says that Emperor Iyasu I (1682-1706) was an excellent marksman.

Familiarity with firearms probably came to Christian Ethiopians through their Muslim compatriots. It is worth noting that until 1670,74 when Emperor Yohannes I decreed separation of habitation,75 Muslims and Christians often used to live together as one community, as they have gone back to doing now.

From the fact that the Emir of Harer, then a vassal state, was instrumental in the introduction of firearms into Ethiopia, it is clear that the central imperial government did not have a monopoly of firearms. We have references to other vassal states who also acquired firearms early. For example, the King of Adel brought Emperor Sussnyos (1607-1632) a gift of lead for making bullets,76 indicating that he himself had firearms. Giediewon, the King of the Biete Israel in Emperor Sussnyos's reign, is, unlike his predecessors in Sertse Dngl's (15631597) time, reported to have used firearms.77 On the other hand, vassal states far away from the sea do not seem to have acquired firearms. Even as late as 1882, for example, the kingdom of Jimma Abba Jifar, in south-western Ethiopia, is reported to have had a total of only 50 rifles and a few pistols.78

It seems that not only vassal states but also regional governors had firearms at their disposal, sometimes to the detriment of the central government When the rebellion against the religious changes introduced by Emperor Sussnyos started in Damot, for example, the rebels fought him with firearms and arrows.79 The Governor of Dakhena is also reported to have joined Emperor Sussnyos with 28 musketeers in his fight with Emperor Yacob for the throne.80

Since their introduction, firearms have figured prominently in Ethiopia in all kinds of situations, ranging from imperial murders,81 the killing of priests by a governor,82 civil wars,83 successful wars against other countries - e.g. against Funj in the Sudan84 and against the Ottoman Empire85 - to the scaring off with cannon shots of hippopotami on Lake Tana which threatened to capsize a small reed boat!86 We even have the record of a foolish accidental death: in 1584 Abadir, Emperor Sertse Dngl's brother, ignited gunpowder and he and his wife and children died as a result of the explosion that followed.87

The Oromo Expansion

As we have seen, the arrival of firearms saw the devastation of the Christian highlands and a general weakening of the state. The state was unable to regain its original strength because of two continuously disruptive influences, one external and one internal, which came on the scene at approximately the same time. The external influence was that of the Ottoman Empire, the internal that of the Oromo migration. The latter influence, unaccompanied as it was by the use of firearms, enables us to note an important limitation on the apparent invincibility of firearms technology. The Ottoman Empire made its first effort to occupy the Ethiopian highlands in the reign of Emperor Gelawdewos in 1557.88 Gelawdewos, we are told by his chronicler, was too preoccupied with fighting the Oromo and other internal enemies to march north from Shewa and fight the Turks.89 But the people of Bur, in eastern Tigray, fought them, killed their general Isaac, and sent his skull to the Emperor.90 The Turks rearmed themselves and came back, but they were successively defeated, no doubt with arms that came from or through them, by Emperor Minas in 156391 and Emperor Sertse Dngl in 159092 This seems to have convinced them for some time that they could not take highland Ethiopia, and they restricted themselves to the island port of Mitswa' until their next try in the nineteenth century.

Neither the Turkish colonial wars nor the religious civil wars, however, changed the face of Ethiopia as much as the Oromo migration which, unlike the Ottoman influence, was unaccompanied by firearms.

The Oromo first figured in recorded Ethiopian history in 1532, when, the royal chronicler states,93 Emperor Gelawdewos fought them, defeated them, and enslaved their young. Their rapid expansion into the highlands has been recorded by Bahry.94 We are told that in 1573 Emperor Sertse Dngl fought them around Lake Zway in the central part of the Rift Valley.95 Then, in Emperor Sussnyos's reign (1607-16323, they reached the Lake Hayq area in eastern Wello,96 southern Gojam,97 Begemdr (now southern Gonder),98 Weleqa (now Merha Bietie in northern Shewa),99 virtually the whole of Gojam100 and southern Tigray,101 and Smyen (now the eastern part of northern Gonder)102

The Oromo had no access to firearms. The royal chronicles record many wars with them and firearms are mentioned only on the imperial side. The chronicles of Emperor Sussnyos are particularly informative in this respect as, in most cases, the arms of the combatants are recalled in most of the battles. Emperor Sussnyos fought about ten battles against the Oromo,103 being defeated only once, and defeating those who defeated him soon afterwards.104 The spoils of war are described, and firearms are not mentioned even once. We have information about Oromo regiments that had been serving Emperor Sussnyos, and according to the description even their weapons did not include firearms,105 in spite of the fact that they are repeatedly mentioned in the various wars as being standard equipment of the imperial army.

If the Oromo had no firearms, how could they have defeated the heavily armed state which defeated the Ottoman Turks? One clue is found in the life of Emperor Sussnyos, who was captured by the Oromo in his childhood and lived with them for some years.106 Later, when he was fighting for the throne, he used to take refuge in Oromo-held areas. When he did, he and his men were subjected to intense hunger: no food was available as, in their conquest, the Oromo had destroyed every cultivated crop and all stored grain to the extent that cultivation had been discontinued.107 The pastoralist Oromo needed only forage for their animals and thus found it advantageous to destroy agriculture in the areas they occupied. They lived on milk from their cows, and there is usually not much milk to spare in a nomads camp, certainly not enough to feed even a small army. The medieval armies of Ethiopia did not carry much food, depending essentially on the food they could take from the communities they came upon. This meant that once an Oromo army, which moved with its milch cows, had devastated an area, it became practically out of reach to the imperial forces. In this way, the Oromo destroyed the traditional highland agricultural communities and gradually reshaped them to suit their own way of life.

But their way of life was not static. As they interacted with the settled cultivators they were destroying, initially some and eventually the whole of the Oromo society that occupied the agricultural highlands changed its way of life. Some of them gave up their nomadic lifestyle, and by the time of Emperor Iyasu I (1682-1706), there were enough Oromo communities that had become Christian and trusted citizens of the imperial regime for them to be forced to settle along the northern edge of the River Abbay (Blue Nile), forming a cordon sanitaire against invasions by other Oromo bands.108

Firearms and the Era of the Princes

In spite of the exceptional impact of the firearms-lacking Oromo, the picture emerging from this brief survey is one of firearms technology breaking down the old Ethiopian social and political structure. This trend was carried over into the era of princes, which began in 1737 with Meridazmach Abiye, Prince of Shewa, refusing to pay tribute to Emperor Iyasu II of Gonder. In the words of Emperor Yohannes, writing to Queen Victoria of Great Britain in 1872,109 since the time of Mohammed Gran [Ahmed Ibn Ibrahim El Ghazi] to the present day, the Ethiopian monarchs have always been getting weaker... The weakening of the emperors accelerated and the country broke up into small principalities. Firearms technology was an important contributory factor in this fundamental transformation.

When in 1737 the Prince of Shewa refused to pay the imperial tribute, an army was sent from Gonder to subjugate him, but was defeated and lost 600 muskets to him. Shewa then became virtually independent.110 The kings of Shewa continued to grow in authority. This was made possible largely because Shewa had access to firearms through Zeyla. Isenberg and Kraft111 tell us that in one military parade in 1839 alone, King Sahle Sllasie of Shewa had 6,000 troops firing muskets file past him.

Gonder had seen some Oromo attacks, but since it was the imperial seat, defence had been quick to materialize. The rulers of Gonder inherited the imperial armies with their firearms and continued to obtain additional firearms through both Tigray and the Sudan. According to Rubenson,112 there were over 1,000 muskets in the Gonder area in 1809. Gonder was the least disturbed part of the country.

Tigray (which then included present-day Eritrea) was culturally the least influenced by the Oromo. Tigray continued to use its position by the sea to arm itself, and in 1809 there were about 8,900 muskets in the region.113 Thus it seems that, in terms of firearms, Tigray led the three large regions in the Era of the Princes, followed by Shewa and then Gonder.

The rest of the country (Wello, Lasta, large parts of Gojam) was more thoroughly divided into small, usually warring units, each unit defending itself from its neighbours. For example, the entrance to Tenta at Werrehimeno in Wello was guarded by a ditch and a wall,114 and Shewa was separated from Wello to the north by a fence and a ditch.115 The petty leaders had their own armies, usually with at least some firearms. For example, Imam Liban of Werre Himeno in Wello had 1,000 matchlock guns;116 Birru Aligaz of Wadla in Wello had an unspecified number of gunners;117 Iman Faris of Bati in Wello had some firearms bought from Mocha;118 the leader of Wag, north of Lasta, was reported as having several thousand matchlock muskets.119 The southern parts of the country, as well as the centre and west, probably had no firearms, as they had no access to sources of supply. Even in the lowlands east of the Ethiopian massif, firearms were not very common; for example, Isenberg and Krapf120 state that the Somalis knew nothing about firearms and used only bows and arrows, and that the Weema tribe of the Afar did not even use bows and arrows, but had to employ 100 Somali bowmen as mercenaries.121

The traditional soldier stratum, the chewa, used to be recruited from among the poorest in society122 and even offenders were reduced to chewa as a punishment.123

In Gonder and Tigray, we are told by Isenberg and Krapf,124 individuals owned the firearms they used, implying that the chewa in these regions became quite independent. In Shewa and the other parts of Ethiopia, firearms were owned and kept under the control of the rulers. We know that in the lawlessness of the Era of the Princes, the chewa of Gonder took the law into their own hands and went on the rampage in the city.125 This is even more likely to have happened in the countryside, far from the seat of power. The chewa, therefore, would have controlled the helpless rural communities and used them in their struggle for survival in the chaos of that period.126

The smaller political entities of northern Ethiopia went a similar way. Even if firearms were a monopoly of the rulers, the chewa had enough by way of traditional arms and military training to make them community leaders. Throughout northern Ethiopia, therefore, the chewa came to be the reference social group; the present-day peasant identifies himself as chewa to the extent that the term has not only lost its original connotation of senseless ravaging hordes that must be kept in check by authority, but has come to imply good breeding and nobleness of spirit, and every peasant is proud of being of chewa descent.

The Impact of Firearms on Modern Ethiopia

In the latter part of the Era of the Princes, knowledge about Europe and its ways grew.127 This awareness focused people's attention on both the dangers from the outside world and the advantages that could be gained by finding out more about it and adopting its better aspects.128 A strong country was seen as a prerequisite for this, and the timid experiment of Gonder in more democratic government had to end. The Era of the Princes was brought to a close by the establishment of supremacy in Gonder by Emperor Theodros over the other contending aristocrats. Instead of continuing to legitimize his authority by appointing a puppet emperor, however, he crowned himself in February 1855, thus restoring the less democratically conceived, traditional, highland, Christian, absolute, royal rule.

Firearms figured importantly in Emperor Theodros's rule. As we have already seen, Tigray had more firearms than Gonder; but Emperor Theodros defeated Dejazmach Wubie, Prince of Tigray and Smyen, and Tigray then accepted his rule. As Rubenson129 has painted out, at the time firearms were not decisive in the outcome of internal struggles within Ethiopia. In any event, with the soldiers and arms of Tigray at his command, Theodros gained superiority in arms even over Shewa and the rest of Ethiopia. But his aim was to establish facilities for arms manufacture in Ethiopia rather than obtain weapons from abroad.130 He did, in fact, establish a cannon-making foundry in Gafat, Begemdr, in what is now southern Gonder, coercing European missionaries to make cannon and to train Ethiopians in the art, as described by Dufton.131 This process of coercing missionaries, and the imprisoning of a British Consul, resulted in a very expensive British military expedition to capture Theodros and free the European captives.132 Theodros, who had tried to rush through Ethiopia's modernization, had made so many enemies that he was deserted by most of his retainers, and many of his former followers helped the British expedition. He seems to have trusted in his home-made cannon133 and his mountain fortress of Meqdela, as well as in his army, a small force estimated not to exceed 8,000 men, which faced a much better equipped British army of 42,000 men. During the assault, the first and biggest of his home-made cannon exploded on firing. The others fired, but were ineffective. His army was routed, and his best general, Gebryye, was killed. According to Tekle Tsadq Mekuria,134 Theodros then considered withdrawing from the battle. This would have been possible earlier on, for, had he chosen to use guerilla tactics, the heavy British expedition would have foundered. De Coursac's view is that Theodros naively trusted in his own rather crude firearms technology, which, in objective terms, could not possibly have compared with the refined British artillery. Theodros was succeeded by Emperor Tekle Giorgis (1868-1871), whose rule was too short to count in our present study.

After Tekle Giorgis came Emperor Yohannes (1872-1889). Yohannes seems to have been much better informed than Emperor Theodros about the standard required of firearms. He had been one of the aristocrats disenchanted with Theodros, and he made a pact with the British, providing their expedition with 15,000 kilograms of grain per week and guaranteeing its safety en route in return for a roward.135 As he aspired to the throne anyway, the elimination of Emperor Theodros counted as a reward. When the British expedition left, it gave Yohannes six howitzers, six mortars, 725 smooth-bore muskets, and 130 rifles with 350,000 rounds of ammunition for the small arms. His request for three officers for three months to train his own officers was turned down.136 Other arms were obtained through Mitswa', following the established tradition of the rulers of Tigray. According to Rubenson,137 Yohannes had no more than 6,000 swift-firing rifles. However, this enabled him to defeat Emperor Tekle Giorgis of Lasta and obtain the submission of King Menelik of Shewa.

The awareness in the country as a whole of the dangers from the external world came none too early, as Emperor Yohannes and/or his general, Ras Alula, had to fight a series of battles against the Turks, the Egyptians, and the Italians. Unlike Emperor Theodros, Yohannes was continually conscious of the inferiority of his arms.138 Therefore, he always tried to resolve differences diplomatically; but since the differences arose from the colonial ambitions of the attacking parties, diplomacy usually failed. However, his awareness of the inferiority of his weapons seems to have led him to devise tactics for warfare that took this fact into account, and he and Ras Alula always won. When fighting the Egyptians with their superior artillery power, for example, his attack was so swift and decisive that only 350 of his soldiers were killed, as against 6,000 Egyptian dead and 1,500 prisoners.139 It is therefore perhaps surprising that the only battle he lost, and lost his life in, was with an equally ill-equipped army - that of the Mahdist Dervishes of the Sudan. Like Emperor Theodros, Yohannes was preoccupied with weapons. But his greater realism seems to have robbed him of the somewhat naive ability that Theodros had to dream of his own arms industry. Emperor Theodros's experiment thus vanished without a trace.

Emperor Yohannes's successor, Menelik II (1889-1911) had, while Yohannes was fighting foreign aggressors, been acquiring arms and continuing the large-scale expansion of his kingdom into Oromo-held territory to the south and west. When he ascended the imperial throne, however, Yohannes's erstwhile enemies became his enemies, and he had to go north to Adwa in 1896 to resist an Italian invasion. In retrospect, all the previous accumulation of arms was just as well, as Menelik brought to Adwa 40 cannon, 100,000-110,000 rifles, and an unknown number of larger guns and matching ammunition, all more or less new and modern.140 Assessing the seriousness of the Italian threat, Menelik had in fact ordered 100,000 more rifles and 10,000,000 cartridges from Hamburg, but this was disallowed by the German government. However, the Italians were humiliatingly defeated and both the purchase order by Menelik and the embargo by the German government were shown to have been unnecessary. Menelik obviously understood his need for weapons and how to satisfy it. He also did much to introduce technological innovations, but he did not try to repeat Emperor Theodros's experiment.

After Emperor Menelik II came a period (1911-1916) during which the Crown Prince was attempting to have himself crowned. He finally failed, and the throne was occupied by a minor monarch, Empress Zewditu (1916-1929), during whose reign actual power was in the hands of her crown prince, who finally became Emperor Haile Sllasie I (1930-1974). In his reign, Emperor Menelik's policies of modernization were continued, and importation was the source of arms. The Italian aggression that had been checked in Emperor Menelik's time resurfaced during the period of Mussolini's rule in Italy. The embargo by arms-manufacturing powers, which had been imposed on Ethiopia from time to time since the second half of the nineteenth century,141 and had only been relaxed because of Yohannes's and Menelik's successes, was reimposed just as Italy was arming itself with sophisticated modern weapons including tanks, aeroplanes, and poison gas.142 Its revenge for its defeat at Adwa was thus assured. Ethiopia lost and Italy ruled it as a colony for five years amid continuous guerilla activity. If Emperor Theodros's experiment had been continued, at least the guerilla fighters would have been better equipped, even if the conventional war had been lost.

During Emperor Haile Sllasie's time, modern arms were used ruthlessly to suppress opposition, for example in Tigray, Balie, Smyen, and Gojam, but the bulk of the weapons were used against the threat of external aggression.

In 1974, Emperor Haile Sllasie was deposed and a Provisional Military Council took over power. Soon, many opposition groups formed in the country. Though reliable figures are not available, Ethiopia is now said to be the best armed country in Black Africa. These arms were used for defence during the Somali incursion of 1977. Ever since then, the importation of weapons into the country has been growing at an alarming rate. The country is riddled with warring groups, all well armed and well endowed with fighting men and women. The country, especially the northern part, is being devastated.

The Extent of Adoption and Adaptation of Firearms Technology

As soon as firearms had been introduced into the country, the emperors at least saw their importance. They all wanted better and more firearms, but this was expressed by different emperors in different ways. Emperor Sertse Dngl (15641597) was intimidated by his own governor of the Red Sea area, Bahre Negasi Yishaq, who befriended the attacking Ottoman Turks. The Turks gave Yishaq some cannon, and he sent cannonballs as a gift to Sertse Dngl, implying that he now had a new and much better armed master, the Pacha of Mitswa. Sertse Dngl was so affected by this that he kept one of the balls with the ark (tabot) in the chapel of his court and used to pray daily holding the ball.143 Because of this, he sought allies in Europe. He saw that Spain was now the main European power, and, instead of cultivating his existing Portuguese links, he wrote to the King of Spain requesting technicians who could make cannons, muskets, and gunpowder.144 Emperor Zedngl (1597-1607), who succeeded him, repeated this request and proposed also that his son marry a Spanish princess in order to draw the two countries closer together.145

Even a number of the rulers in the Era of the Princes hoped to obtain technicians who would start an arms industry, as well as other industries, in the country and train Ethiopians.146

These efforts invariably failed. This is perhaps partly because "most requests for craftsmen when unheeded." 147 The major reason, however, is social. The early firearms were rather simple and any society with an established iron-working tradition should have been able to make them itself, and then build up to more sophisticated versions later on. The fact that the Axumites (300 BC to AD 900) used iron effectively can be seen from their remains in Axum and elsewhere. The literature makes various references to artisans coming from the Biete Israel, or black Jews, as they are often referred to.148 For a long time, the Biete Israel were competitors to the Christian highlanders for hegemony, and wars were frequently waged between the two sides.149 After they had been repeatedly defeated, Emperor Yohannes I (1667-1682) decreed that they should not live in the same villages as Christians.150

Quirin151 traces the process which marginalized the Biete Israel, changing them from a mainstream farming nation to artisans and finally to an endogamous inferior caste. Their land was first taken away and given to Christians, unless, of course, they became Christians themselves. Lack of land then forced them to become artisans, especially blacksmiths, goldsmiths, potters, builders, weavers, and rug-makers. The rise of the city of Gonder in their vicinity in the sixteenth century stimulated these crafts, especially that of masonry. The importance of the artisans to the city raised their status to tolerable levels, though they were still considered inferior to the Christians and Muslims. The decline of Gonder in the Era of the Princes denied artisans employment, except as blacksmiths making and maintaining the agricultural implements of the farming communities. This forced their dispersal into all of northern Ethiopia and induced an endogamy among blacksmiths scattered in the countryside, and within the small remnant communities of goldsmiths and silversmiths in the remains of former towns, mainly Gonder, Axum, and Adwa. The resulting almost total identification of the Biete Israel with blacksmiths and their endogamy prepared the ground for their typecasting.

It seems that the association of the forge with supernatural powers is old. In the acts of Abba Samuel of the Monastery of Wegeg, who dedicated his life to stamping out the pagan cult of Desek, the saint is said to have confronted, single-handed and armed only with a cross, an army led by the Desek cult leader and consisting of 400 soldiers with spears, shields, and swords, 300 with bows and arrows, and, finally, 300 blacksmiths carrying bellows and hammers.152 The Biete Israel, therefore, identified both as blacksmiths and as members of a different religion, besides being scattered over a large area, ended up as a despised endogamous caste.

Given this socio-economic setting of the workers in iron, it is clear that mainstream Ethiopians could not be involved in the making or even mending of firearms. Nor did the ever-dwindling and defeated Biete Israel community now reduced to a few villages north of Gonder city and a few others in northeastern Gonder and western Tigray- have either the resources or the political motivation to be come involved.

This notwithstanding, that the Ethiopian blacksmiths had the technology to make firearms is seen from the fact that they have always smelted their own iron.153 Dufton154 tells us that it was the standard Ethiopian bellows, primitive though they looked to him, that were used in Emperor Theodros's foundry in Gafat that was started by the conscripted European missionaries. The idea of a mould for pouring molten metal into is well known, as silversmiths and goldsmiths have always used it in Ethiopia. The ingredients for a firearms-making technology were thus there. The role of the conscripted missionaries, in fact, seems primarily to have been to induce the Emperor to give the necessary resources, as well as the social, political, and, most important, the psychological inputs, to harness the incipient Ethiopian technology. This view is based on the fact that the conscripted missionaries had neither the training nor the equipment to make the cannons requested by Emperor Theodros.155 All the metal-working technicians and equipment came from the Ethiopian side, no doubt from the traditional blacksmiths.

According to an informant in Tigray, well versed in his community lore, in the reign of "King Inenay" and "Ayte Baskimos" (these have not been found in the existing historical records), before the time of Ras Michael Shul (recorded as an important historical figure from 1744 to 1771), a short musket, called quat, was believed to have been made locally. Though the quat was probably imported rather than locally made, its maintenance, and The manufacture of the necessary gunpowder and balls, as well as the means to fire it, were all done by local smiths.

The quat, which was the length of an arm, was essentially a tube with a handle and a kindling mechanism. A piece of cloth was pushed into the tube, followed by some gunpowder, followed by the bullet. More cloth was then packed into the tube. The kindling mechanism consisted of a hole on the lower part of the tube, through which access to the lowermost cloth layer was possible. The cloth was lighted through this hole, kindling The gunpowder and resulting in a shot being fired.

That gunpowder was locally manufactured has been recorded by visitors to Ethiopia. Emperor Theodros's army made its own gunpowder and bullets.156 According to Rubenson,157 these were inferior to imported ammunition. This is hardly surprising, since in order to bring about improvements in bullets, a functioning and developing metallurgical tradition is necessary. Even the inferior quality that was produced was made possible because its production method was not tied to the blacksmith taboos.

The gunpowder was mined. Informants from Tigray have described the following procedure. The stone that produced it was called gunfal, which was found in, among other places, Segli, Bamba, and May Misham, all in the Adwa area. A white powder was found stuck to the stone. The powder was scraped off with a sharp blade, and the powdery scrapings were boiled in water. On cooling, the gunpowder floated on top; this was lifted off and dried. The resulting powder was mixed with charred wood -either from the widely distributed trees gnchb (Euphorbia tirucalli) and quiha (Salix subserrata) or from the equally widespread shrub called tch'ndog (Otostegia integrifolia) - and sulphur, which came from the Dalol Depression in the east. The gonpowder was then ready for use. The balls for shooting were made either from lead or, in the absence of lead, from a stone called shashmme, which can be easily scraped down to the desired dimensions. If the object was the hunting of wild fowl (e.g. guinea-fowl), sand was used instead of shashmme.

At least since the latter part of the nineteenth century, the firearms coming into Ethiopia have required pre-manufactured bullets and gunpowder, with an igniting mechanism in a shell, ready for striking and firing. In The days when the quat was used, fire had to be provided from outside, and there were no matches. People then used a flint ('mni blad) to create sparks, which were used to light a thread, and then a piece of cloth, and then something more lasting, for example a candle, which kept The fire going until the end of the long process of repeated loading and shooting.

Because of the poor state of metallurgical technology, the shell, originally imported as ready to fire, could not be made but was kept and reused. The part of the shell to be hit with the striking mechanism of the gun was hammered back into shape, a match head was put in the bottom, and the shell was filled with gunpowder to its original level and capped with a bullet made from lead or shashmme.

According to informants, before The availability of matches the use of a very slow burning candle made from the latex of cheqente (Ficus sycomorus or similar fig species) and a piece of thread improved the firing technology, making the repeated use of flint unnecessary. Salt158 reports the use of The tree but he calls it chekumt and says that it was the inner bark that was stripped, dried thoroughly and "used as match [fuse] for their firearms." Either procedure could produce a candle whose slow-burning component is the latex.

From what we have seen so far, we can conclude that the existing traditional geological and chemical knowledge was enough to make gunpowder, or at least to understand and import such a technology.

According to Merid,159 the social status of artisans in the Axumite period of Ethiopia (300 BC to AD 900) was good. He attributes the fall in their status in The Middle Ages to the conquest of the highlands of Ethiopia by a pastoralist or agrarian society, which subjugated the urban society based on artisans and merchants and regarded them as inferior, relegating them to a very low caste. The merchants, who of necessity lived in the coastal lowlands, were not routinely encountered and thus escaped with a lower level of stigmatization. Whether the relegation of artisans in the highlands to a despised and feared caste arose in this way, or simply as a result of the collapse of commerce, and thus also of crafts-manship, resulting in the isolation of Ethiopia following the rise of Islam and Arab nationalism, it is certain that such an abused caste of artisans as existed in Ethiopia in the Middle Ages could not have achieved technological excellence. Though culturally quite peripheral to medieval Christian Ethiopia, the Gurage area on the southern part of central Ethiopia had, and still has, perhaps the best-built houses.160 Because "Fuga [the artisan caste] rituals and beliefs, apparently, have been completely merged with the religious organization of the Gurage," 161 their position in society is not as precarious as in the rest of Ethiopia, even though they are still believed to possess evil supernatural powers.162 This would support our view that it is the alienation of the artisans that stunted the growth of Ethiopian technology.

If the artisan caste failed to develop its technological capability because it had neither the resources nor the will, why did the establishment not harness it with its own will and resources, as indeed Emperor Theodros did (although he thought it was the capabilities of the conscripted European missionaries that he was using)?

As we have already seen, the establishment had, in relation to the peoples living round it, more than enough imported arms. There was thus no incentive for the members of the establishment to work closely with the despised and feared artisans, or even to think that they could be the source of such highly prized objects as firearms. In addition, it must be remembered that it requires foresight and long-range planning to programme and supervise the work of an unwilling caste. That it could be done can be seen from the technological achievements of the Jimma Kingdom, which, though its independent history was brief (1800-1884),163 made it possible for crafts to prosper, for excellent wide roads to be built, and for good bridges to be constructed, simply because the organization of the state was conducive to this kind of activity. To that end the craftsmen enjoyed, as did those in Emperor Theodros's foundries in Gafat, royal protection and supervision.164

The arms imported from abroad were often not of good quality. Salt,165 for example, states that the weapons brought in were rejects from the Bombay government. Nevertheless, in an area where they were the only arms available, they could not be compared to better ones and they had to suffice. It was only in cases of armed foreign aggression, for example when Emperor Yohannes had to fight the Egyptians, that the inferiority of the imported arms became clear. By then it was too late to remedy the absence of technological know-how by encouraging artisans to make local substitutes.

Even if some rulers in the past had wished to organize and support artisans in developing a firearms-making tradition, as indeed some probably did if the information about quat is correct, it could not have worked in the prevailing political atmosphere. As every royal chronicle attests, Ethiopian wars have always involved pillage. Emperor Theodros, in fact, burnt his own capital city on his way to Meqdela to fight the British!166 Each of the many wars of succession to the throne resulted in pillage and wanton burning. This happened primarily because the weakening of the empire after Ahmed Ibn Ibrahim El Ghazi encouraged rebellions and challenges to the throne. The succession became peaceful only after Emperor Menelik - but pillage to subdue rebellion continued. Even though there is no precise information on the matter, Emperor Theodros's foundries were probably destroyed when he burut his capital. In such a setting, it is not possible to built a lasting technological tradition. It is, in fact, a testimony to the endurance of man that any technological tradition at all survived in Ethiopia. One can only agree with Merid167 that Ethiopia's "failure to develop or adopt better technology [can be attributed] to the failure of its ruling classes to develop traditions and institutions for the secure ownership and transmission of property and offices." By the time Emperor Menelik came to power and the wars of succession stopped, the armaments industry in the outside world had progressed so far that the indigenous technological capabilities had become irrelevant. Sophisticated technologies had to be introduced de novo, coupled with a commensurate educational system. Since Menelik's time, that, in fact, has been the strategy adopted, though, for various reasons that we need not discuss here, it has met with little success.

Though firearms production technology has failed to take root in Ethiopia, firearms quickly became a part of its life. As pointed out earlier, the Ethiopian peasant has largely been influenced by the tradition of the chewa, the army class. We have also seen that in the nineteenth century, the people of Gonder and Tigray, though not those of Shewa, could own their own firearms. The northern Ethiopian peasant thus soon became attached to the rifle. In the northern regions of Ethiopia and some parts of Shewa, even in the second half of this century, every male's aspiration has been to own a rifle, and it is said that, at the birth of a son, the father buys a rifle for the baby even before he buys clothing! It seems that in the latter part of the nineteenth century, even the peasants of Shewa were allowed to own firearms, and the peasant of Shewa is as attached to firearms as the peasant of Tigray or Gonder.

Human Rights in Traditional Ethiopia

Medieval Ethiopian society was divided into social strata and castes.168 The ideology was one of frank exploitation. The ruling class, headed by the Emperors, had unlimited rights to exploit or suppress - in short, to treat according to whim - the serfs and slaves. But some of the minor strata and castes had recognized rights. Bahry169 tells us that only the aristocracy and the chewa, a class of soldiers, were expected to fight in battles, all others being exempted. Members of the caste of professional beggars could praise or revile any individual with impunity. They often used this right to make apt social and political comments.

As early as the beginning of the sixteenth century, travellers to Ethiopia remarked on the destruction caused by armies. De Almeida170 comments that the troops were "worse than locusts." We are told that Emperor Amde Tsion (1312-1342) "bound the governor of Saraka and laid waste his country." 171 The invasion by Ahmed Ibn Ibrahim El Ghazi and, following him, the Oromo migration did very little to change this situation. But the Oromo were much more democratic,172 and it is obvious that, once normal life returned, the people living under them enjoyed greater individual human rights than those under the imperial establishment. Human rights in the parts of Ethiopia unoccupied by the Oromo continued to be grossly violated.

Emperor Yohannes I forbad Muslims and Biete Israel to live in the same villages as Christians.173 Emperor Iyasu I (1682-1706) forbad women to ride mules and horses astride, stipulating that they could ride only with both legs dangling on one side.174 Dejazmatch Wubie, who ruled Smyen and Tigray in the first half of the nineteenth century, had both legs of a man amputated for treason.175 Even a figurehead of an Emperor during the Era of the Princes had both the feet of a thief cut off and the rest of him dumped in a street in Gonder.176 During the reign of Emperor Bekkafa (1721-1730), the bodies of executed political criminals are reported to have been stripped naked and left lying in the streets of Gonder to be eaten by scavengers at night.177 In the nineteenth century, villages were raided, or defeated in war, and the people enslaved; or slavery was imposed as a punishment for crimes, including theft.178 According to Gobat,179 Biete Israel and Muslims were seen as sorcerers. Law enforcement in cases of complaint by an injured party was the onus of the injured party. Gobat180 reports that in Smyen an old woman was chained to her brother's murderer awaiting justice. During the Gonder period, Welqayt, to the north of Gonder, was a place of imprisonment or exile for political prisoners.181 These are all gross violations of human rights as we now conceive them.

There have also been institutions and situations conducive to respect for human rights. Muslims and Christians are said to have been living together182 in spite of Emperor Yohannes l's decree separating them. Slaves are reported to have been well treated and addressed as equals, and never to have been sold, though they could be given away.183 They could even achieve high political office.184 If a man got into serious debt, he could become a monk, and his debts would be automatically cleared; if he gave up monastic life, however, his debts would be revived.185 Battles, though frequent, were apparently carefully fought to minimize killing. Even in battle, a fighter would kill only if he knew whom he was killing; he would not kill indiscriminately for fear of a vendetta by surviving relatives.186 A defeated enemy was protected by tradition from being killed. 187 Ethiopians were said to be kind to animals.188 Churches, on the whole, were considered as sanctuaries during pillage, where people could shelter with their belongings.189 There also were specified churches where criminals, including political offenders, could find refuge as long as they stayed within church grounds. Examples of sanctuaries are Waldbba,190 Holy Trinity of Atsbi,191 and Mekane Yesus of Debre Tabor.192 There is even a report of a whole village, that of Qddus Giorgis Feres Sebber in Smyen, which was immune from pillage because tradition has it that St George, the patron saint of the village, deals severely with any soldier that dares try to pillage it.193 Political and social commentaries, usually in verse, were allowed at funerals and weddings, and no ruler took reprisals out of offence.

Human Rights and Firearms in Ethiopia

In the Era of the Princes, authority devolved into the hands of progressively smaller and smaller units of the country, each headed by a complete autocrat. The spread of firearms increased the seriousness of human rights violations when compared with traditional violations of human rights. The reunification of the country in the second half of the nineteenth century might have been expected to improve the observance of human rights. But the improvements in firearms, transportation infrastructure, and telecommunications have enabled rulers to retain a firm grip over most of the country, whereas in the past they could only control small areas. As a result, those in power have usually continued the tradition of ruthless exploitation and repression.

With the arrival of firearms, the traditional pillaging became even more horrendous. Influenced by misconceptions regarding "modernization," the armed state or rebel group, or even individual, has disregarded even the few safeguards that existed, so that now commentaries at funerals and weddings are muted, and often totally suppressed. Churches are no longer accepted as sanctuaries; even the churches that had charters to that effect194 have lost that status. Armies travel long distances and are no longer circumspect about whom they kill; since they are drawn from all over the country, the fear of identification and later vendetta195 no longer has any meaning for them. The civil wars have cost so many lives that Gobat's196 statement that Ethiopians would rather spare than kill the defeated now rings hollow. The one political prison of Welqayt has now been replaced by many, with the various protagonist groups in the civil wars each imprisoning their captives, if they have not already killed them.

But perhaps the worst violation of human rights is in the negation, through the use of firearms, of the advantages that would have accrued from other technologies. Respect for human rights cannot be realized without technological and economic development.

Development cannot occur without peace and stability. The continuous disturbances of the last four centuries, the causes of which we have examined, have stunted the country's development in general and held back technological development in the particular fields basic to the realization of human rights, for example food production, transportation, and health care. The use of firearms in Ethiopia today has brought about a social climate unconducive to the realization of human rights. The last three decades, starting after the federation of Eritrea, have witnessed the proliferation of firearms and their use on an ever-increasing scale. The civil war now being waged between the government and the main opposition groups has reached such a pitch that the government has been forced to use over 50 per cent of the country's meagre budget just for the war effort. Most of this resource goes for the purchase of firearms and other modern war technologies.

The economic situation in Ethiopia today is such that millions of Ethiopians are suffering from inadequate nourishment, with a good proportion of these facing recurrent famine. The civil war is tying down a significant proportion of the economically most productive members of the population. They are absorbed into the war machine, which either kills or disables large numbers. These people could have been used to alleviate the famine and to create better economic conditions, which would have provided the environment for an overall improvement in human rights. The other non-human resources deployed for the war could also have been used gainfully for economic reconstruction and development. Unfortunately, the machinery of war is also fed by the self-interest of the developed countries that supply the armaments. The priority accorded to the acquisition and use of firearms has diverted attention from the acquisition of productive technologies. This is retrogressive development, which, in turn, means retrogression in the realization of human rights.

Contents - Previous - Next