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The Little Red book and Ethiopia’s Regress

Source: BBC.COM
The seizure of power by armed force, the settlement of the issue by war, is the central task and the highest form of revolution. This Marxist-Leninist principle holds well universally, for China and for all other countries. -Mao Zedong

The Little Red book and Ethiopia’s Regress

By Zekre Lebona  

Haile Selassie, the Lion of Judah and the Red Emperor, Mao Zedong, had lived a long life, ruled a long time in Ethiopia and China respectively. They resemble a lot, but with a major difference. While Haile Selassie was an absolute monarch, Mao was a totalitarian. While the Ethiopian nobleman embarked on the road to power and court intrigues as Lij Teferi, in the early 20s, the Chinese rich peasant’s son was equally involved in a long and complicated plots of a communist conspiracy to seize power.

While Mao died peacefully in bed, the Ethiopian ruler was violently murdered, a sizable number of the nobility were cold bloodedly slaughtered, thousands of urban dwellers and particularly the youth were killed in various towns, and possibly tens of thousands were decimated in the complex civil wars waged in the rural areas. Undoubtedly, the Little Red Book and the radical communist ideology played an infamous role in the mass violence. Almost all political actors: regime, or insurgents were fully implicated in the large scale violence. What has Mao to do with Ethiopia’s turmoil?

The two famous figures had crossed paths only once, in 1971, when Emperor Haile Selassie made an official visit to Beijing, China. Haile Selassie probably knew more about Japan, but little about China. Mao however had observed, Abyssinia, the former name of Ethiopia, during the Fascist Italian occupation; he had lamented the fall of the country to the invaders, in 1935. Mao grieved again the fall of the emperor and his bad treatment under the military junta, in the mid-70s.

The irony is that Mao had played an important role in the dissemination of the infamous subversive book: the Little Red Book, which his communist regime made available to people in the rest of the world and among whom, were student radicals in Ethiopia. According the BBC “more than a billion copies of it have been published.” [1]

The Little Red Book is a primer for mass violence, which caused the death of hundreds of thousands during China’s Cultural Revolution, and created the atmosphere for the death of tens of thousands in Ethiopia’s complex civil wars. While this was in progress, the emperor was aloof and delusional. Oriana Fallaci interviewed him in June, 24, 1973. [2] Here is a small section of it:

Q. Your majesty, what do you think of the new, disconnected generation? I mean the students rioting in the universities, especially in Addis Ababa and …

A. Young people will be young people. You can’t change the uncouth manners of the young. Besides, there is nothing new in that: There is never anything new under the sun. Examine the past: you’ll see that the disobedience of the young has occurred all through history. The young don’t know what they want.

New under the sun

In contrast to Haile Selassie, the Chinese leader knew how to exploit the young in his own country and the rest of the world, he didn’t dismiss them. Mao’s ideological influence was also backed by training and the provision of arms to students who later became rebels in Ethiopia. The Red Book was loved and cherished by almost all the political groups opposed to Haile Selassie, except the EDU, which was a feudal-led organization. It was widely quoted by the cadres of ethno-regional movements, such as, the Eritrean fronts, the TPLF, and not excluding the multi-ethnic parties, including the EPRP, MEISON, etc. The enthusiasm was so big that, it once led to a short-lived attempt to translate the book by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front.

Source: unknown Chinese instructors, holding the Little Red Books, with Isaias Afwerki, the current president of Eritrea, and his ELF comrades. Circa 1967.

While Egypt’s role and the contribution of other Arab nations in sabotaging the Ethiopian Empire, which had allied itself with the West, has been widely debated; China’s role had been relegated to obscurity. The rebels who have a complete political hegemony in Ethiopia and Eritrea now, want the public to see only the flow of the huge monies (renminbi) from China and the infrastructure built with it. As yet, they seem reluctant to openly acknowledge the ideological influence and the brief supply of arms made by Mao Zedong to the Eritrean cause. [3] China, on the other hand, is busy opening Confucius Institute as its soft power. China presently respects the political sovereignty of nations and doesn’t interfere, we are told.

Mao’s policy for active involvement in the internal affairs of Ethiopia is a direct continuation of his belief in the Marxist-Leninist principle quoted from the Red Book at the top of the page. His policy probably did more damage to the chance of good governance and continuity in Ethiopia. What did this revolutionary write about Ethiopia in his rebel-sojourns?

Why was Abyssinia vanquished? First, she was not only weak but also small. Second, she was not as progressive as China; she was an old country passing from the slave to the serf system, a country without any capitalism or bourgeois political parties, let alone a communist party, and with no army such as the Chinese army, let alone the Eighth Route Army. Third, she was unable to hold out and wait for international assistance and had to fight her war in isolation. Fourth, and most important of all, there were mistakes in the direction of the war against Italy. Therefore Abyssinia was subjugated. But there is still quite extensive guerrilla warfare in Abyssinia, which if persisted in, will enable the Abyssinians to recover their country when the world situation changes.” [4]

There is some truth to his statement. Haile Selassie’s open confrontation with the Fascist army, in 1935, and the military debacle at Mai Chew is well recognized by some historians. On the other hand, Ethiopia was politically isolated, arms sanctions was imposed on her, it didn’t have the huge political and military support that Mao had from the Soviet Union, which borders China. Mao wrote some more on Abyssinia. He instructed his army to “learn from Abyssinia”. He noted:

“If we concentrate our forces on a narrow front for a defensive war of attrition, we would be throwing away the advantages of our geography and economic organization and repeating the mistake of Abyssinia.” [5]

Mao’s writing notwithstanding, Ethiopia wasn’t totally vanquished under the might of the Italian occupiers. The realm was restored and traditional institutions were re-instituted and slowly reformed, until the collapse of the monarchy in 1974. What was instead totally vanquished several decades later, was the state. The lethal weapon for its demise were the various rebel organizations, who espousing the left ideology and conducting total war finally conquered none other than traditional Abyssinia and the age old institutions. The political travails in present day Ethiopia are to a great extent a product of emulating the Chinese communist dogma, which doesn’t tolerate dissent and the rule of law.

The Ethiopian generation loves to romanticize its history; it decries the role of the Red Terror in Ethiopia’s modern history, but so far has failed to acknowledge its love with the violent teachings in the Red Book. This generation has failed to make the connection between the influence of the Red Book and the propensity of the modern regimes in Ethiopia to drift into violence and suppression.

Unexpected friend

Mao and the Red Book caused havoc in Ethiopia. What they did, hurt the country immensely, but the hypocrisy of Mao and China, which occurred a little before the demise of the Emperor Haile Selassie was even worse. This is how a historian compared the first visit of a U.S. President, Nixon to Communist China with Haile Selassie’s:

From inside the plane, the head of the president’s security radioed his agent who had come with the advance party to ask his usual question on presidential visits: “What about the crowd?” The answer came back, “There is no crowd.” “Did you say, ‘no crowd?” “That is an affirmative.” Nixon, joked one reporter, was enjoying his best reception since he had been to the annual meeting of American trade unionists in Bal Harbour, Florida.

The Chinese were making a point, but it remained obscure. Perhaps they intended to demonstrate that even the head of the most powerful nation in the world did not impress them. Perhaps it meant that they feared the Americans, for their part, would be cool on their arrival. Perhaps they wanted to show that the trip was strictly about business and not friendship. After all, the Chinese authority could summon up pliable crowds whenever they wished. Haile Selassie, soon to be deposed from the throne of Ethiopia, had visited Beijing in October 1971. For him, the airport had been alive with dances and workers and school children, all waving enthusiastically. The Ethiopian emperor’s drive in the city had been seen by some 250,000 people, waving Ethiopian flags and Little Red Books, which contained Mao’s wisdom, banging drums and clashing cymbals, and cheering as though they actually knew where Ethiopia was and its friendship mattered to China. Tiananmen Square, the monumental parade ground in the heart of the city, had been draped with banners of welcome in English and Chinese, and in the city, had been draped with banners of welcome in English and Chinese, and on the stands teenagers had spelled out “Haile Selassie” in red and yellow paper flowers. [6]

Did the emperor, the royal entourage and the ministers notice the farce in the official reception? Perhaps, they did, but ignored it for geo-political reasons: Ethiopia was disappointed with the U.S. and was looking for a new power. Perhaps, the emperor had been neglecting the domestic challenges, as some have indicated, and was investing a lot of time to secure international legitimacy; a legitimacy that was gradually eroding under the influence of the Little Red Book, the radical students and the disgruntled army officers. Whatever his rationale and the diplomatic endeavors made, it was too late.

It also didn’t mollify the radical students at home. Failing to procure more military aid from the United States, Haile Selassie, fell into the laps of Mao, who wrote the dangerous app: the Red Book. His dynasty from Solomon was a weak and dying ideology; it was no match to the communist theory of the Chinese version.

The emperor however was surprisingly impressed about the journey. Here is what he said to the famous journalist: [7]

Q. Some surprising voyages, your Majesty, in search of unexpected friends. You have even been to China and met Mao Tse-tung.

A. We had a long talk and Mao Tse-tung pleased Us greatly. He made and excellent impression on Us. Excellent. Exactly like Paul VI. He is a good leader, and earnest leader, and people were well-advised in choosing him.

We liked China, too. There is a completely different life there, but each in his fashion, as We also stressed in Our dialog with the Chinese that yielded a favorable result.

“Red” terror

Haile Selassie’s host, the Great Helmsman, had hurt the Ethiopian empire, and mocked the emperor in a cruel way. Likewise, Mao’s policy resulted in the death of tens of millions of people from man-made famine and violence. And yet, present day China now appears largely rich and affluent. It seems the last century’s catastrophes haven’t interrupted its progress in a major way. It is safe to argue, however, Ethiopia has still not escaped the trauma of the last century inflicted largely by its own elite.

The Ethiopian elite must take the full responsibility for dogmatically trying to apply Mao’s “wisdom”, to a disastrous end, in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian elite must take the full blame for spreading and using Mao Zedong Thought, and particularly for introducing the Red Book: the major disruptor in Ethiopia’s recent history. Its role in the long period of chaos and turbulence should not be underestimated; among which the so-called “red” terror was the most damaging episode.

”The storm broke out in September 1976 and raged unabated for nearly a year. Government executions of EPRP militants went in tandem in the latter’s campaign of urban terrorism that claimed many ideologues and functionaries of the regime. Recriminations of who fired the first shot are futile [emphasis mine], as the showdown was in the making one way or another”, wrote the Ethiopian historian, Bahru Zewde. [8] His observation has not surprisingly, created some furor among some of the political actors.

Nonetheless, there is a grain of truth in his scrutiny. The old Ethiopian left still accuses the military regime for the large scale killings, but glorifies its past. The book: To Kill a Generation: Red Terror in Ethiopia’s narration is nothing but biased, for example. Its attempt glorify the Ethiopian left and the youth has yet to be surpassed by other writers.

The Little Red Book was after all loved and worshiped as a Bible by every sort of left oriented organizations in the empire, the multi-ethnic organizations such as the EPRP, MEISON, etc., including the ethno-nationalist fronts in Eritrea and the province of Tigray. They all adopted violence as a modus operandi and irrespective of their differences in military tactics, they remained all loyal to the creed.

They all made a campaign against imagined land lords in northern Ethiopia, where land alienation has been minimal. They all invited themselves into poor peasant house-holds, where famine is often part of the landscape. Innocence, on their part is therefore out of the question. They were no Samaritans, or liberals.

They practiced red terror as a method of suppressing dissent within their own organizations, and the peasant population “harboring” them. Though, the Derg was prone to violence like any military institution in Ethiopia’s past history; it also uncannily learned most of the communist dogma and the art of violence from the Ethiopian left. Once again, the Ethiopian historian, Bahru Zewde, has rightly said, “It was the taunts and derisive comments that pushed them into the political arena. The Darg, too, realized that, if it wished to hold on to power, it had to engage in the prevalent political discourse. For something like two years, the Darg was engaged in a desperate struggle to catch up with the left, which was always a step ahead.” [9]

Hence, the total violence, or what is known as a “historical aberration” was the work of all political actors. The impact of the violence had left its imprint in Ethiopia’s history to this very day. Bahru, in one instance compared the killings to the decimation of the educated Ethiopian elite under the terror of the Fascist Graziani. Recent Ethiopian writers have done a more objective examination of Ethiopia’s turbulent modern history.

Chaotic transitions

In the recent issue of Discourse: Debating African Issues, two writers have excellently discussed the absence of a peaceful transition in Ethiopia’s history. The monarchs, the military elites, and the student radicals are all implicated in it. Here is a long quote:

The Ethiopian political system appears to have suffered from a wrong modelling that can be fairly characterized as the change-then-continuity. In the last 150 years of political history, leaders took power by unseating their predecessors almost all the time by force. With every change of a leadership came a change that had had completely weeded out the preexisting political system almost entirely.

New rulers mobilize political constituencies and resources and started building their own new political system by dismantling and undoing the one prior to them. The deconstruction and construction of the state took much of their energy, time and resource as huge as to cover establishing and reconfiguring new institutions that could support the new system. This has usually made transitions chaotic, disruptive and bumpy. Peace has always been short, incomplete, fragmented and vulnerable. State building has always been a journey of a step forward followed by another step backward. Nation building never started and continued. [10]

Being an absolute monarch, Haile Selassie, had stubbornly refused to discuss the hand over power to his heir. Being an absolute ruler, he wouldn’t listen to the advice of his relation, Ras Asrate Kasa, who on his knees begged him to abdicate in favor of his son. [11] Worse, the delusional king wouldn’t even discuss his inevitable death. Here is a gem from Fallaci: [12]

Q. Your Majesty, you are Ethiopia. It’s you that keeps it in hand, that keeps it united. What will happen when you no longer there?

A. What do you mean? We don’t understand this question?

Q. When you die, Your Majesty.

A. Ethiopia has existed for 3,000 years. In fact, it existed ever since man first appeared on earth. My dynasty has ruled ever since the Queen of Sheba met King Solomon and a son was born of their union.

It is a dynasty that has gone on thru the centuries and will go on for centuries more. A king is not indispensable, and, besides, my succession is already ensured. There is a Crown Prince and he will rule the country when We are no longer there. That is what We have decided and so it must be.

Q. On the whole, Your Majesty, yours has not been a very happy life. Those you love have all died: your wife, two of your sons, and two daughters. You have lost many of you illusions and many of your dreams. But you must, I imagine, have accumulated great wisdom, and of this I ask: How does Haile Selassie view death?

A. What? View what?

Q. Death, Your Majesty.

A. Death, Death? Who’s this woman? Where does she come from? What does she want? Enough, go away, ca suffit! Ca suffit!

Was the emperor wising death to “go away”, too? We know, how his life ended violently. He was reportedly strangled, and buried under a latrine, located near the office of Mengistu Haile Mariam (the military dictator). In light of this information, his reluctance to quickly abdicate and stare at death is incomprehensible. Is present day Ethiopia immune from calamities of the past?

Probably not, the legacy from the Red Book that China sold to the youth generation as a “soft” power, which promoted the culture of violence in the region, has not disappeared from the Ethiopian scene. A plethora of Ethiopian armed groups instigated and trained by, Isaias Afwerki, the totalitarian leader, who had a brief stint in Mao’s China,[13] appear to continue the tradition of “deconstructing and constructing” the state. They seem not to have learned from the turbulent history of the recent times. For fifty plus years, since the start of armed rebellion in northern Ethiopia, the development of the country had been interrupted.

Granted, in these times there is a high growth rate of the GNP in Ethiopia, mushrooming skyscrapers and some factories in Addis Ababa, highways and mega-dams in the rest of the country. The large percentage of the loan money, which is financing the development of the country is coming from China. Ethiopia is in the meanwhile getting dangerously indebted to China. “Blessings” or “curses”: all are from the same country that was promoting the Little Red Book several decades ago. Dismissing this historical interruption for an alleged economic boom in the country, however, is being simplistic and being full of hubris. Why?

Ethiopia’s burgeoning youth has become restless and combative. Despairing for lack of jobs, rising expectations and perceiving ethnically oppression, the youth was in recently rebellion: burning farms, industrial facilities, government properties, and tourist lodges. In panic, the government soldiers have killed hundreds of people. It seems neither the youth, nor the government have learned from the wrongs of the Ethiopia’s past.  

The elite involved in the fratricidal war era of the last century, has yet to stop portraying itself in a good light. It has become a bad model for the present youth. While the challenges of nation and state building will remain facing the country for the foreseeable future. Who is to stop them from emulating their politics? The generation opposed and fought the old emperor, who refused to abdicate his power; without realizing that the communist dogma was also a monopoly of power, was arcane and had also lost its luster in many parts of the world. How will history judge the epochs?

Will history be fair to Imperial regime, whose economy based on the ox-plow agriculture, didn’t have the domestic capacity to generate the capital needed for infrastructure, nor was the regime averse-free to a high burden of foreign loans (other countries in Africa had a huge foreign debt), nor did the emperor stash billions of dollars in Switzerland as some accused him (a shame on the elite), nor was huge finance available from the West. For example, the World Bank refused loans for a hydropower dam on the Nile. In short, there was no sovereign wealth.

What Imperial Ethiopia tragically had was, the Little Red Book, the extraordinaire disruptor of progress, which may have denied the nation: the brief window for a sizable middle-class, strong institutions, an educated force, and a manufacturing base. More ominously, another disruptor, the robotic age, is here. It may be too late.

The absolutist ruler, Haile Selassie, wrote the book: My Life and Ethiopia’s Progress (the Amharic version), [14] a few years before his demise, and the withering away of his dynasty, while the young generation, which opposed him; ignored the autobiography, and fanatically adopted the, Little Red Book (besides other revolutionary literature), as a talisman of progress.   


[1] Fallaci, Oriana. Journey into the Private Universe of Haile Selassie, Chicago Tribune, June 24, 1973.

[2] Seifudein Adem. Imperial Ethiopia’s Relations with Maoist China, the China Monitor, African East-Asian Affairs, Issue 1, August 2012, p.41.

[3] Mao Zedong, On Protracted War, p.127.

[4] ----------, Problems of war and strategy November 6, 1938, selected works, Vo.11. p.219.

[5] MacMillan, Margaret. Nixon and Mao: The week that changed the World p.20.

[6] Fallaci, Oriana. Journey into the Private Universe of Haile Selassie, Chicago Tribune, June 24, 1973.

[7] Ibid.                      

[8] Bahru Zewde. A History of Modern Ethiopia, 1855-1891, Eastern African Studies, Second Edition, 2001, p.247.

[9] Ibid. p.244.

[10] Dade Desta and Medhane Tadesse. Nation Building in Ethiopia in Discourse: Debating African Issues, Jan-March 2017.

[11] BBC, Forum (audio) April 4, 2017.

[12] Fallaci, Oriana. Journey into the Private Universe of Haile Selassie, Chicago Tribune, June 24, 1973.

[13] Seifudein Adem. Imperial Ethiopia’s Relations with Maoist China, the China Monitor, African East-Asian Affairs, Issue 1, August 2012, p.50.

[14]Haile Selassie I. My Life and Ethiopia’s Progress, Oxford University Press, 1976.