Italian colonialist invasion in East Africa predated Mussolini, with the First Italo-Ethiopian War seeing Italy defeated in 1896. The Second Italo-Ethiopian War began in 1935, and in 1936 Italy succeeded in annexing the Ethiopian Empire into Italian East Africa, a merger with its existing colonies in Eritrea and Somaliland.
Among the key armed resistance movements in Ethiopia was the Arbegnoch (Amharic for ‘Patriots’). Active throughout the Italian occupation, the Arbegnoch, alongside British and Sudanese troops, inflicted defeats on Mussolini’s forces, enabling Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I’s return from exile in May 1941 (although a guerrilla war would begin in November 1941 between Italian soldiers and the Allies and Ethiopian forces, which did not end until 1943).
Much of Ethiopia’s resistance efforts came from women’s groups, including the Ethiopian Women Humanitarian Association, founded by Selassie’s daughter Princess Tsehai, and his consort, Empress Menen. As Minale Adugna writes, through the organisation Tsehai rallied women in Addis Ababa to “prepare clothes, mattresses, gas masks, bandages, and to pack rations for the troops”. Joining her father in London during his exile, Tsehai continued to organise, including supporting Ethiopian refugees in various nations.
Among Ethiopia’s most notable resistance heroes was Shewareged Gedle, a longstanding political activist who formed the Ethiopian Women’s Welfare Organisation in 1935 with Senedu Gebru, who would go on to be the first female Ethiopian MP. Gedle raised funds for her group by selling her land, and she gave financial support to the Red Cross operating in the country. She supported other resistance networks in Ethiopia, and was adept at gathering intelligence. As Adugna writes, Gedle used an Ethiopian source “in the service of the Fascist political office” to gather “valuable information on contemporary political and military affairs”.
In 1937, following suspicion of her involvement in the attempted assassination of the Italian Viceroy in Ethiopia, Gedle was captured and deported to a Sardinian prison for two years, and although tortured, revealed no secrets. She promised not to engage in further subversion on her release but in fact continued to work for the Arbegnoch gathering intelligence, raising funds, collecting ammunition, clothes and medication. In November 1940 she coordinated an Arbegnoch attack on an Italian ammunition depot and prison in Addis Alem, central Ethiopia. The attacking group killed 70 Italian soldiers, set free the prisoners and took around 2,700 rifles and grenades.
Fleeing to Becho, central Ethiopia, Gedle informed local resistance fighters about efforts elsewhere and the planned return of exiled leader Haile Selassie I. Recaptured and sentenced to death in December 1940, she was saved by the liberation of Ethiopia in 1941.