Articles in this series:
Series: A History of Early Twentieth Century Ethiopia
03. Menilek’s Failing Health, European Attempts to Partition Ethiopia, and the Rise of Lej Iyasu
Having, in the last two weeks examined the beginnings of modernisation in the last part of Menilek’s reign, we turn now to the political crises of the time:
The last years of Menilek’s reign, like those of several earlier Ethiopian rulers, were bedevilled by the problem of succession. This became particularly serious after 1904, when the Emperor’s health began visually to deteriorate. The question of the royal inheritance was the more serious in that the ageing monarch by then had no recognised living son. The presumption was that the throne would pass to the monarch’s cousin, Ras Makonnen, but he predeceased his ailing master in March 1906, thus leaving the succession wide open.
The European Diplomats, and the Tripartite Convention of 1906
The impending demise of Menilek, victor of Adwa and founder of the modern Ethiopian state, gave rise to the persuasive idea, on the part of European diplomats in Addis Ababa, that his empire, which they regarded as an anachronism in the era of the Scramble for Africa, would soon disintegrate. The three neighbouring colonial powers, Britain, France and Italy, whom Menilek had played one against the other, now came together with a view to mutual cooperation. The British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, and the French and Italian ambassadors in London accordingly signed a Tripartite Convention, on 13 December 1906. It declared, in Article 1, that it was the “common interest” of the three powers to “maintain the integrity of Ethiopia”, while “arriving at an understanding as to their conduct in case of a change in the situation”, by which they meant Menilek’s demise. The three signatories jointly agreed, in Article 3, that in such an eventuality they would maintain a policy of neutrality, and refrain from military intervention, except to protect their legations and foreign nationals, and that not one of the three powers would take any military action in the country except in agreement with the other two.
Economic Partition of the Country
To ensure their respective interests they agreed, however, in Article 4, to partition the country into three spheres of influence. These were defined as a British, and Egyptian, interest in the Nile basin, and in particular in the regulation of the Nile waters; an Italian interest in the “hinterland” of the Italian colonies of Eritrea and Somalia, and in their linkage west of Addis Ababa; and a French interest in the “hinterland” of the French Somali Protectorate, and in the territory along which the railway from Addis Ababa to Jibuti was then already partially built.
The three signatories further agreed, in Article 10, that their representatives in Addis Ababa would keep each other mutually informed, and would cooperate in protecting their respective interests. If they were, for one reason or other, unable to do so, they were to inform their respective governments.
Without Consulting the Emperor
This agreement was concluded, significantly enough, without consulting the Emperor. When he was afterwards presented with a copy he ironically thanked the representatives of the three powers for acquainting him with their governments’ desire, as the treaty put it, to “consolidate and maintain” the independence of his realm. He observed, however, that the convention was “subordinate” to his authority, and could not `in any way’ bind his decisions.
“In the Interests of Whites against Blacks”
The British representative in Addis Ababa, John Harrington, one of the drafters and keenest supporters of the convention, was insistent that he and his French and Italian colleagues should abide closely by it. He urged the Foreign Office, most forcefully, in February 1907, that all three representatives should receive “strict orders to follow a policy in the interests of whites against blacks”, and that if any of them were “not in accord about any particular point, they should not disclose their difference of opinion to King Menelik, but refer the question to their respective Governments”.
Despite his displeasure with the Convention, Menilek entered into a Treaty of Friendship and Commerce with France, on 10 January 1908. Signed by Antony Klobukowski, the French Minister in Addis Ababa, and generally referred to by his name, it laid down, in Article 5, that Ethiopia had the right freely to import fire-arms. This important proviso was intended to legalise the entry of weapons through Jibuti and the French Somaliland Protectorate. Menilek in return accepted a measure of French extra-territorial privilege. Article 7 specified that French subjects in Ethiopia involved in legal cases had to be tried according to French law, and, if detained, placed in the custody of the French Consul.
The Appointment of the First Ministers
Failing health, the increasing complexity of government, the danger to national independence inherent in the Tripartite Convention, and the need to take account of the question of succession, caused the Emperor to decide on the establishment of the country’s first cabinet. Established in October 1907 it consisted initially of nine trusted noblemen. They were respectively responsaible for justice, war, the interior, trade and foreign affairs, finance, agriculture, “writing”, i.e. of diplomatic correspondence and the royal chronicle, public works, and the palace. Their appointment stemmed, according to his chronicler, Gabra Sellas, Menilek’s desire to “implant European customs”.
Menilek also attempted to solve the succession question more directly. By then largely incapacitated by several strokes, he took the decisive step of designating a successor in May 1909. In a remarkable proclamation he reminded his subjects of the political difficulties which had followed the deaths of his predecessors Twodros and Yohannes, and announced that his twelve-year-old grandson Lej Iyasu, the son of his daughter Shawaragga by Ras Mika’el, the Oromo and former Muslim ruler of Wallo, was his chosen heir.
Despite Iyasu’s nomination as heir power was soon usurped by the dying monarch’s formidable wife Empress Taytu, who claimed to be acting in accordance with her incapacitated husband’s wishes. She succeeded in ousting some of her principal opponents, as well as in arranging a number of politically advantageous marriages. Her influence was, however, resented by many of the Shawan nobles, who feared that she, as a woman of Gondar, was bent on destroying their own political power. They rallied against her, and with the help of Abuna Matwos, and of the mahal safari, or palace guards, banished her from the capital. The government was then entrusted to one of Menilek’s loyal chiefs, Ras Tassama Nadew. He was appointed as Lej Iyasu’s regent, but soon afterwards fell ill, and died in April 1911. Two and a half years later Menilek himself finally passed away, on 13 December 1913.
On the death of Ras Tassama the Council of Ministers proposed appointing a new regent, but Iyasu, who had begun to enjoy his freedom, refused to accept one. Brushing aside the Ministers, he impetuously declared, “My father Menilek gave me a Regent, but God took him away!” Thus asserting his independence, he took control of the government, and toured the country. Returning to Addis Ababa he tried to remove his dying grandfather from the palace, but was prevented by the latter’s wife, Taytu, and daughter, Zawditu, supported by the palace guards. When eventually Menilek died Iyasu insisted on keeping the news secret, and offended many of his subjects by forbidding public mourning. He later became increasingly disrespectful to Menilek’s old nobles, and sneered at them that they had “grown old, and fat”. Not long after this he exiled both Taytu and Zawditu from the capital. The vested interests of Shawa retaliated by using his youth as a pretext for preventing him from being crowned.