Articles in this series:
Series: A History of Early Twentieth Century Ethiopia
04. The Fall of Lej Iyasu
The Religious Issue
Iyasu, a child of the twentieth century, and son of Ras Mika’‚l, a former Muslim, had a significantly different attitude to religion from that of previous Ethiopian monarchs. Extending the secularist attitude of his grandfather, Menilek, who had permitted the practice of smoking, hitherto banned by the Church, he tried to treat followers of the two country’s two main religions, Christianity and Islam, on a more or less equal footing. This was doubtless easier for him than for many members of the royal family, in that Wallo, his father’s homeland, was a province in which members of a single family often included members of both faiths. He was at the same time strongly opposed, like Emperor Yohannes before him, to foreign missionaries.
Determined to weld the country together by dynastic marriages he followed the custom of earlier rulers by marrying into several of the country’s most important families, both Christian and Muslim. His wives, acquired within a span of only a few years, thus included Wayzero Aster, daughter of Ras Mangasha Seyoum of Tegray, Wayzero Sabla Wangel, daughter of Ras Haylu Takla Haymanot of Gojjam, and Wayzero Dasshe, later called Sehin, daughter of Dajazmach Kumsa of Wallaga. He was also married to daughters of King Abba Jifar of Jemma, Dajazmach Jote of Wallaga-Lakempti, Nagadras Abbokar of Chenno in Yefat, an Adal chief of Muhammad Yayyu’s family, and two further Oromo chiefs, one of the Swalih family of Karra Qir‚ in Yefat, the other of the Warra Sah clan of Yajju.
Iyasu actively attempted to accommodate both faiths. As a Christian, he attended Church services, founded the church of Madhane Alam at Qachane, in Addis Ababa, and inaugurated that of St. George, also in the capital. On the other hand he also built a mosque, at Harar, and toured the Muslim provinces, where he consorted with Muslim chiefs, and too often, critics complained, with their nubile daughters. These travels, though in the tradition of Ethiopia’s old rulers, weakened his already tenuous position by taking him away from the capital, which had by then, due to the coming of the telegraph and telephone, become the country’s real centre of political power. His visits to the Muslim periphery also displeased the country’s Christian establishment. The nobles of Shawa did not take kindly to the young man’s attitude and policies. They were particularly incensed when the prince, declaring that he could not become Emperor while his father Mika’‚l was only a Ras, promoted the latter to the title of Negus, or King, of Wallo and Tegray. This was resented in that it gave him precedence over all Menilek’s former courtiers, many of whom had previously regarded him, an Oromo and a convert from Islam, as their political and social inferior.
Notwithstanding growing opposition from both the Shawan nobility, and from the Church, Iyasu, and his counsellors, continued Menilek’s reforming policies. They attempted to improve the system of land ownership and taxation, established a system of government auditing, abolished the traditional system by which plaintiffs and defenders were chained together, banned the traditional institution of lebeshay, or magical thief-catchers, and set up Addis Ababa’s first police force. Iyasu also tended to give his support to populations on the country’s periphery, in many cases oppressed by Amhara settlers or administrators appointed by the central state. In this way for example he reconciled the Yefat and Adal peoples, and others who had long been hostile to the Addis Ababa administration. His rule was on the other hand by no means fully benevolent. It was marred in particular by his participation in an inhuman slave hunt against the “Shanqella” people of Gimirra.
World War I, a Complicating Factor, and Anglo-French Efforts to Reward Italy at Ethiopia’s Expense?
Iyasu’s difficulties, which owed much to his youth and inexperience, were compounded by the outbreak, in August 1914, of World War I, a cataclysmic event from which it was difficult for Ethiopia to isolate herself. The country, after Italy’s tardy entry into the war in 1915, was entirely surrounded, and in a sense encircled, by territories under Allied rule. Italy’s involvement in the conflict had moreover a direct bearing on Ethiopia. The British, French and Italian Governments at that time signed the London Treaty of 26 April 1915, which laid down that “in the event of France and Great Britain increasing their colonial territory in Africa at the expense of Germany, these two Powers agree in principle that Italy may claim some equitable compensation, particularly as regards the settlement in her favour of questions relative to the frontiers of the Italian colonies of Eritrea, Somaliland and Libya and the neighbouring colonies belonging to France and Great Britain” The significance for Ethiopia of this agreement was later noted by the American author Ernest Work. “There could have been no other possible place for Italy to expand from Eritrea and Somaliland than into Ethiopia”, he wrote, “except at the expense of England and France and no one would accuse these nations of having that in mind when they agreed that Italy might expand in Africa”.
Iyasu: Anti-Allied, Pro-German and Pro-Turk
Iyasu, faced with the opening of hostilities, adopted an official policy of neutrality, but showed himself distinctly favourable to the Central Powers, Germany and Austria, and to their ally, the Ottoman Empire. There were two main reasons for this. Firstly, he was unsympathetic to the Allied Powers, i.e. to the Italian, British and French, with which his grandfather, Menilek, had earlier been obliged to contend. They had partitioned his country by the Tripartite Convention of 1906 into spheres of influence, and the existence of their colonies or protectorates on the coast prevented his access to the sea. The Germans, by contrast, rejected the Convention, and spoke of their wish to maintain Ethiopia’s political integrity. Secondly, he had to allied himself to his country’s Muslim population, in the Ogaden, Jemma, and elsewhere, which for reasons of religious solidarity tended to be pro-Turkish. To manifest his sympathies he reportedly crossed in secret into British and/or Italian Somali territory, He also displayed support for the Somali nationalist leader, Muhammad Adbille Hasan, the so called “Mad Mullah”, who had for over a decade challenged British and Italian colonial rule. Iyasu also made friendly contact with the authorities in German East Africa, later Tanganyika, to whom he despatched at least one good-will mission.
Allied Intervention Threatened
All this angered the British, Italian and French, who, reverting to a nineteenth century policy of the colonial powers, prevented him from importing fire-arms. The Legations of the three powers later acted even more forcibly. They warned the Ethiopian Ministers, on 12 September 1916, that if their young master continued to support their enemies they would intervene militarily.
This threat, which recalled the British expedition against Emperor Tewodros fifty years earlier, caused a number of the nobles finally to decide on rebellion against their still uncrowned monarch. They were helped in this by Iyasu’s reportedly pro-Muslim affinities, which eventually caused Abuna Matewos to free them from their oath of allegiance. On 27 September, which was symbolically Masqal, or the Feast of the Cross, they announced that Iyasu, who was then in the Harar area, had been deposed, for the crime of abjuring the Christian faith. Menilek’s daughter Zawditu was thereupon proclaimed Empress. She was, it is said, the first Ethiopian woman since the Queen of Sheba to rule in her own right. Ras Makonnen’s son Dajazmach Tafari, who had been one of the principal nobles working against Iyasu, was at the same time promoted to the rank of Ras, and designated Heir to the Throne. The latter was a previously unknown title, and gave him considerable powers. These were shortly afterwards formalised, and strengthened, when he assumed the rank of Regent.
A Coup d’Etat
Iyasu, on hearing news of the coup d’etat, tried to hasten back to the capital, but was defeated at Miesso, half way from Dire Dawa. His father, Negus Mika’‚l, meanwhile marched south in an attempt to re-establish his son’s rule. Two major engagements ensued. The first was at Toro Mask, near Ankobar, where the Wallo army was victorious. The second, and more decisive, at Sagale, north of Addis Ababa, on 27 October 1916, when the Shawan army, deployed by Ras Tafari, captured Mika’‚l, and thus brought the struggle to and end. Iyasu had little option but to flee into the Afar lowlands, where, refusing, it is said, to seek asylum abroad, he roamed among a friendly population for the next half decade. He was eventually captured, in 1921, after which he remained in close confinement at Garamulata, in the east of the country, until his death in the autumn of 1936.