Africa Orientale Italiana

Important political and other changes were brought about by the Italian occupation. Italian East Africa, also known as Africa Orientale Italiana (A.O.I. ), was created after the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia.

As a result, the majority of the Horn of Africa was for the first time governed by a single entity.

There were six individual units that made up the area:

Three indigenous Ethiopians under Italian rule passing on a road where the colonist soldiers had set up a gigantic portrait of Mussolini and salute, Roman-style, the image of the 'Duce'.


  • Eritrea, which includes the former province of Tegray in Ethiopia, with its capital at Asmara;
  • Amhara, formed from the old provinces of Bagemder, Gojjam, Wallo, and northern Shawa, with its capital at Gondar;
  • Galla and Sidamo, comprising lands to the west occupied by people of that name, with its capital at Jemma;
  • Addis Ababa, later renamed Shawa;
  • Harar These agreements resulted in Ethiopia losing its legal status.

The six provinces of Italian East Africa.

User:Themightyquill - Wikimedia Commons

The occupying Italian force was made up of 150,000 soldiers, but they were dispersed widely. By 1941, the garrison had grown to 250,000 soldiers, including 75,000 Italian citizens.

The chief goals

The Rome and Addis Ababa governments had prioritised two key objectives: establishing Italian colonists and making Ethiopia profitable for the mother country.

Italians were particularly interested in the agricultural sector since it might supply food and material resources for the Italian peninsula as well as a haven for struggling Italian farmers. Italian immigration to Ethiopia was intended to be encouraged with the promise of social advancement and financial incentives.

As a matter of prestige and practical comfort for Italian colonists, other objectives included acquiring control of the export of Ethiopian goods in exchange for foreign currency and the development of Ethiopia in general.

The archaeologist Ugo Monneret de Villard and the Italian military personnel recovering a stele to transport it to Italy, Axum, Ethiopia, 1935-1936.

Getty Images

Mussolini makes his mark

Mussolini went out to destroy any reminders of Ethiopia's longstanding independence.

He personally ordered the dismantling of the two most prominent statues in Addis Abeba, one of which was of the Lion of Judah and the other of Emperor Menilek, the Adwa victor.

Later, he gave the go-ahead to steal one of the large Aksumian obelisks and bring it to Rome.

The aforementioned Lion of Judah statue, five Ethiopian royal or other crowns, and a number of historically significant paintings that had graced the Ethiopian Parliament building were were among the booty brought to Italy.

He was slowly but surely eroding the concept of Ethiopia as a separate political entity.

Selassie standing in front of Monument to the Lion of Judah, 1930's.

The Lion of Judah at the obelisk to the fallen of Battle of Dogali in Rome, Italy.

Public domain

A serious investment

Dreams of financial opulence drove fascist Italy, which had to defend its invasion of Ethiopia to both itself and the rest of the world. In spite of fierce ongoing patriotic resistance, this goal had to be accomplished in a vast area with a still extremely basic infrastructure.

Along with receiving criticism from all around the world, the occupation was expensive. From 1936 to 1937, the AOI budget required 19,136 billion lire for infrastructure, despite Italy's annual revenue being only 18,581 billion lire.

Addis Ababa, Africa: A total of 2023 miles of pivotal highways in Ethiopia constructed under appalling difficulties in thirteen months actual working time by 60,000 Italians and 60,000 natives have just been completed according to official construction reports as of July 30 detailing work on each of six major road building projects.

Of this 1180 miles have been finished in every detail including asphalt surfacing. Freight rates have dropped from $350 a ton (Asmara to Addis Ababa 688 miles) to $30 a ton.   A total of 4,448 small bridges, 128 large bridges, 501 construction camps, and 1700 building have been constructed in this gargantuan undertaking.

What did the Italians ever do for Ethiopia or Eritrea? – Martin Plaut

In this rather unenviable situation, Mussolini was prepared to invest far more money and resources in his newly acquired empire than the former colonial powers, who had mostly been focused on short-term profits, had ever done.

Italian state spending under the Italian occupation was therefore very significant, but most of it was mispent, squandered or lost through corruption.


Rome named Amedeo, 3rd Duke of Aosta, as the new Viceroy and Governor General of Italian East Africa on 21st December, 1937, with instructions to adopt a more conciliatory stance towards the Ethiopians.

3,200 km (2,000 mi) of new paved roads, 25 hospitals, 14 hotels, dozens of post offices, telephone exchanges, aqueducts, schools, and retail establishments are just a few of the public works initiatives that Aosta put in place.

The development of roads required a significant initial financial commitment due to both immediate strategic goals and long-term economic considerations.

Up to 60,000 Italian labourers were working on the roads in 1936–1977, but by 1939, this number had dropped to 12,000 Italians, with 52,000 "local" labourers helping out. In this way, the pre-war Ethiopian road system, which was basic and centred on Addis Abeba, was incorporated into a larger grid based on the Italian colonial ports of Massawa and Mogadishu.

Prince Amedeo, Duke of Aosta, who succeeded Marshal Rodolfo Graziani as Viceroy and Governor General of Italian East Africa in December 1937.

Prince Amedeo, Duke of Aosta Wiki (

This led to a significant increase in Ethiopias's amount of drivable roads. Although impressive, such road construction came at the expense of delaying and drastically reducing investment in other, maybe more lucrative, economic sectors.

Ras Seyoum Mengesha, Ras Getachew Abate and Ras Kebbede Guebret offered support to Mussolini in February 1937.


An Italian outpost

The total population of Italians throughout the empire was just over 130,000 by 1939 - an impressive number, reflecting the Italian's commitment to maintaining the country as part of its empire. However, this was much less than the fascists had actually planned, but it nonetheless resulted in the construction of many structures of a European style, including government buildings, businesses, apartments, and homes, in the major towns.

Their position was determined by the strict segregation of Europeans and "natives" in metropolitan areas. Transportation in buses and other vehicles was rigidly segregated, and inter-racial marriage or even cohabitation was outlawed.

Italians Building roads in Ethiopia 1937.

Italians Building roads in Ethiopia 1937 - YouTube

Addis Ababa

Unsurprisingly, the capital city, Addis Ababa, saw the most urban development.

Two separate Italian residential neighbourhoods were built in the city: Casa Popolare, or workers' flats, and Case INCIS, a section designated for government employees and named for its controlling organisation, the Istituto Nazionale per Case degli Impiegati dello Stato. 

Approximately 20,000 Ethiopians were relocated to the west of the settlement, which was intended to be a "local city." The market for the city, which had been situated in the town's centre close to St. George's Cathedral since Menilek's time, was relocated west to this "native" region.

 Ethiopia's first taxi compnay. Around 1937, about a year and half through the second invasion of Ethiopia by Italy, a taxi company was operating by an Italian businessman named Sighnore Fernondo. The company opened its doors for service around Georgis Church of Arada, Addis Ababa, as seen in the image. At the time, the taxis were dark brown and served only European residents around the city.

The city's amenities, especially for its white population, were greatly enhanced. A para-statal firm, Compagnia Nazionale Imprese Elettriche, also known as CONIElL, managed the establishment of the electrical system, while the construction of a dam at nearby Gafarsa increased the water supply.

However, concerns that it would compete with businesses in the Italian "motherland" and imperil Italian exports restrained industrial expansion across the empire. 

However, a number of minor manufacturers were set up, most notably in Dire Dawa for cement and textiles, in Jemma for hessian rope and sacks, and in Kalite, close outside Addis Abeba, for pasta and biscuits.

A postcard depicting Addis Ababa in 1938.

Trade performed poorly and, in some sectors, even dropped. There were primarily three causes behind this:

  • There was fascist xenophobia, which led to the expulsion of numerous long-standing Indian and European businessmen, most notably the important Indian enterprise of Mohomedally and the French corporation, A. Besse.
  • Attempts were made to replace the dated and popular silver Maria Theresa thaler with Italian paper money, whose value had decreased over the occupation and was virtually universally despised.
  • The creation of top-heavy, bureaucratic, and occasionally corrupt state trading corporations.

A place in the sun

Gaining Italy a "place in the sun" by settling tens of thousands, if not millions, of Italians in the empire to address what was officially referred to as Italy's "surplus population" was a major fascist goal that was widely publicised at the commencement of the invasion.

Achieving this would have helped justify the enormous material and financial cost of the invasion, as well as the significant amount of Italian casualties inflicted during the war. Accordingly, settlement plans were made in Bishoftu and Holata, on the outskirts of Addis Abeba, as well as at Wagara, Charchar, and Jemma in the provinces. But these endeavours were a miserable failure.

The difficulties of beginning agricultural labour in a familiar area, the absence of suitable infrastructure, the instability brought on by Ethiopian patriotic resistance, and the scarcity of Italian state funding because they had been diverted elsewhere discouraged would-be settlers. Fewer than a thousand Italians were able to settle as a result.

The empire had to import large amounts of wheat from Italy because it could not even feed its Italian populace. Already it had become clear what an enormous undertaking controlling and maintaining Ethiopia was becoming.

 A priest from the Amhara, dressed in a burnoose and white headgear.

Schottenloher, Rudolf

Hospitals and schools

The Italian populace received the majority of the social and welfare services. Numerous tiny new hospitals were built, primarily for Europeans. However, a comprehensive immunisation campaign for "natives" was launched.

A number of Ethiopian schools from the pre-war era were reopened to teach Italian pupils. It was sworn to avoid the establishment of a "native intelligentsia" by strictly regulating the education of "native" youngsters. 

Nevertheless, a large number of Ethiopians found manual labour in the construction of houses or roads, served in the colonial army, and picked up at least some of the Italian language.

An old woman from Sirie, Arsi c.1938.

Racism and antisemitism

An additional downside for the Ethiopians soon began to appear once the Italian occupation was bedded in. Prior to the takeover of Addis Abeba, Italian fascism had little interest in race, but the tightly controlled Italian press soon started to pay great attention to the subject once Ethiopia came under the control of Italy.

"..the fascist kingdom must not be an empire of half-castes," declared the Gazzetto del Popolo in an unsavoury outburst on 21st May 1936. Many publications believed that keeping Italian colonists "rigidly isolated" from the "natives" was important to prevent such a scenario.

The following months saw an increase in the racial vehemence of the Italian media which constantly stoked up public feeling and inflamed racial tensions. According to a not uncommon article, fascism "protected the race" and sought to "keep it pure." Once again, fascism and racism could be found walking arm in arm.

Cartoon depicting Mussolini Embracing an Ethiopian Woman.

La Stampa Libera, August 11, 1935

With such unpleasant racist undertones now apparent, it is little surprise that they became a springboard for the adoption of a number of racially restrictive laws:

The first, which Vittorio Emanuele, the Italian king, enacted on 19th April, 1937, forbade relationships between Italians and "local" people (albeit it did not stop the former from dating "native" prostitutes). Later, other ordinances establishing urban and other forms of segregation were published.

A virulently racist Italian magazine called La difesa della razza, or Defense of the Race, was founded on 5th August as a result of the racist impact and increasing power of Nazi Germany, which grew more and more visible in the autumn of 1938.

The rise of antisemitism - both in Ethiopia and Europe itself - sparked off a wave of protests.


An anti-Semitic royal proclamation, which among other things made the union of Italian Aryans and Jews illegal, was issued on 5th September as a result. The "Penal Sanctions for the Defense of the Prestige of the [Italian] Race in Face of the Natives of East Africa" law was passed as additional legislation on 29th June.

The status of "half-castes" was later downgraded to that of the "native" population by a decree dated 13th May, 1940. Even if the fascist party fully supported them, racial laws went against Italy's "Latin character." Many Italian males who had travelled alone to Africa discovered methods to interact with Ethiopians of the other sex, and many of them were expelled or subjected to severe sanctions as a result.

Final years

The last few years of the occupation were very challenging. The fascist leadership implemented a stringent policy of autarchy to make the empire as self-sufficient as possible since they anticipated the Duce's aggressive posturing on the international stage would lead to Italy's inevitable involvement in a European war. For instance, horse-drawn garries, or carts, were used to replace gasoline-powered automobiles.

Benito Mussolini, King Victor Emmanuel III, and high officials of the Italian military photographed in Ethiopia in 1936.

Alinari via Getty Images


Italy struggled greatly to turn the conquest of Ethiopia into a favorable outcome from the moment they captured it. This was made possible by a startling lack of planning and a lack of understanding of the area.

Early research by Italian specialists suggested that Ethiopia would be most productive if emphasis was placed on agriculture, but they had doubts about the administration's ability to effectively take control of the majority of regions.

Italian propaganda poster portraying the colonisation as a harmless, positive concept. The use of children in this image was of course, deliberate, 

Throughout the duration of their occupation, the Italian government would struggle with poor communication, which would make it difficult to integrate Italian colonists and connect with provincial governments, cause protracted bureaucratic delays, and give the Ethiopian resistance room to operate.

Additionally, a large population of Ethiopians already lived in the areas where land was deemed ideal for this agricultural colonisation.

The Italians had to take extra care in these areas to prevent Ethiopians from joining resistance groups.

It was a catch-22 situation since Italy spent too much of its profits fighting the resistance, yet if Italy ran Ethiopia profitably, they ran the risk of inciting the indigenous to join resistance organisations.

An Ethiopian shielding from the sun. Yirgalem, Sidamo 1938.

Road building was an extensive - and expensive - undertaking by the Italians. It also provided employment for local residents.

Eritrea Focus (

Lack of public works to support Italian immigrants in Ethiopia was another barrier to their colonisation, and the Addis Ababa government did not want large numbers of immigrants to enter if they could not be permanently placed.

The Italians colonised Ethiopia slowly in order to reduce costs because successful colonisation would take a long period. They had not considered that they may not break even and that Ethiopia would turn out to be a resource black hole for Italy, hurting their economy and ultimately their Second World War effort.

In February 1937, Viceroy Rodolfo Graziani was the target of an assassination attempt in Addis Abeba, which set off three days of horrific retaliation that included some of the bloodiest atrocities on a par with what would later be witnessed in the Second World War. It should come as no surprise that this led to widespread alienation of the Ethiopian population, which encouraged some to engage in violent opposition and impeded Italian development attempts.

 This 1945 photograph shows just west of Addis Ababa’s city hall, on the main road to Merkato where the Abune Petros square with its imposing statue is located. This was the spot where the Ethiopian Orthodox bishop of Wollo, Abune Petros, was executed on the 29th July, 1936 for openly condemning the invasion and colonisation of Ethiopia by Italy. 

In July 1936, the Ethiopian patriots planned and executed an attack on Addis Ababa. During this time, Abune was captured and charged with treason, of which the penalty was death. He was taken to the square, where many hundreds were gathered and was given a final ultimatum by the Italians before his death, to which his final reply was: “The tears of my countrymen caused by your gas and your machines will never allow my conscience to accept your ultimatum. How can I stand before God if I do not condemn a crime of such magnitude?

The Ethiopians ferocious resistance cost Italy in military maintenance and reduced the number of locations they could even penetrate, much less Italianize. Due to this resistance,

Ethiopia went from being an already unsuccessful colony to a catastrophe, which ultimately made it more difficult for Italy's ability to support their military effort in the Second World War.

Further Reading