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Series: A History of Early Twentieth Century Ethiopia
05. Empress Zawditu, and the Tafari Makonnen Regency
We saw last week that after the fall of Lej Iyasu, in 1916, the Ethiopian nobility arranged for Menilek’s daughter Zawditu to ascend the imperial throne, while Dajazmach Tafari Makonnen, son of Menilek’s cousin, Ras Makonnen, was nominated Heir to the Throne. Now read on:
Zawditu, and Tafari
The political settlement of 1916, which divided power between the Empress Zawditu, and the Regent and Heir to the Throne, Tafari, inaugurated a difficult, and unprecedented, period of dual government. Power become further polarised in 1918, when Menilek’s old ministers were dismissed as a result of popular agitation, in which the palace guards, played a major role.
The two rulers had two separate palaces, groups of followers, and policies. Zawditu, who had received only a modicum of Ethiopian church education, and was innocent of foreign languages, represented patriotic, somewhat xenophobic, conservatism, earlier personified in Empress Taytu. Tafari, the son of the widely travelled Ras Makonnen, had by contrast been brought up in Harar, a city with outside contacts, and had received something of a modern education. He had studied with French missionaries, most notably Father AndrJarosseau, known in Ethiopia as Abba Endreyas, and had attended the country’s first modern educational establishment, the Menilek School. He was, doubtless for these reasons, more aware than Zawditu of the need for modernisation, and of the necessity of taking the outside world seriously into account. He thus emerged as a protagonist of reform in the tradition of Twodros and Menilek, and gathered around him a small, but increasing, number of foreign-educated young men, not a few of whom he had himself dispatched for study abroad. One other difference between the two leaders deserves mention: Zawditu owed her position almost entirely to her royal birth; Tafari, though the grandson of King Sahla Sellase, and hence, as he increasingly insisted, of imperial descent, had risen largely through his own efforts and ability. He had moreover administrative experience, having been governor of Harar and Sidamo successively.
The More Active Political Figure
Though Zawditu, as empress, held sovereign power, Tafari was doubtless the abler leader. Younger than the Empress by almost twenty years, he soon emerged as the more active political figure. He was in particular in charge of foreign affairs, and matters connected with foreigners. The latter, on visiting Ethiopia, were graciously received by him, and tended to give him their admiration and support. They welcomed him as the first ruler of his country (since at least Aksumite times) to be familiar with a European language – French, and were pleased that he saw a role for Europeans in the development of his country. One of his first steps, on gaining power in 1916, was to recruit a number of White Russian officers to train his troops. In the following year he established an Imperial Bodyguard, a modern force composed largely of Ethiopians who had served with the British in Kenya or the Italians in Libya.
The Country’s International Image
Anxious to improve his country’s international image, which was then being severely criticised on account of its age-old institution of slavery, and faced the possibility of foreign intervention on that account, he promulgated a symbolic decree, in 1918, abolishing the practice. With a view to improving the system of government he also extended the ministerial system, earlier established by Menilek, by setting up a Ministry of Commerce and a Public Works Department, both in 1922. A certain amount of road-building also took place at this time, in Addis Ababa, as well as in the provinces, where Gor and other western towns were in particular linked with the inland port of Gambla. Internal customs posts, a vexatious institution and a major hindrance to trade since time immemorial, were likewise gradually removed.
Entry into the League of Nations
Tafari’s most spectacular achievement came in the field of foreign affairs. On 28 September 1923 he succeeded in gaining Ethiopia’s entry into the League of Nations, which had been founded only four years earlier, in 1919. Admission to the international body was a notable step in overcoming the country’s age-old isolation, and was potentially important in withstanding pressures from Italy and other neighbouring colonial powers. An Ethiopian diplomatic corps came into existence at about this time, and was later issued with decorative, official uniforms. In 1924, Tafari began to grapple, more effectively than before, with the question of slavery. He had a first practical decree enacted for the gradual eradication of slavery, and established a bureau and a school, for freed slaves. This edict, like the earlier proclamation, served to counter foreign criticism, and thus to rehabilitate the country’s international image.
A European Tour
Later that year Tafari embarked, with Ras Haylu Takla Haymanot of Gojjam and several other nobles, on a major tour of Europe. This took them, via Egypt and Palestine, to nine European countries, France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Sweden, Italy, England, Switzerland and Greece. While in Paris, Rome and London, the Regent attempted to acquire Ethiopian access to the sea, or at least a free port on the coast of one or other of the neighbouring colonial territories. His requests were, however, turned down, in one way or another, by the three powers concerned. Despite this failure, his visit was important. Sometimes compared to that of Peter the Great to Western Europe two centuries earlier, it encouraged Ethiopian society to become aware of the rest of the world, as well as to adopt foreign inventions. Tafari and Haylu both acquired a number of motor cars, besides sundry European gadgets. Tafari also returned with Emperor Twodros’s crown, which he received on Zawditu’s behalf from the British who had looted it from Maqdala fifty-six years earlier.
Modernisation in the 1920s
Tafari also emerged as a moderniser in other fields. In 1923 he founded a modern printing press, the Berhanenna Salam, i.e. Light and Peace. It printed an Amharic newspaper with the same title, which carried articles popularising the cause of reform, which some Ethiopian intellectuals of the time believed should follow the Japanese model. A steady flow of literary, religious, and educational books in Amharic were also published. Zawditu meanwhile established a scriptorium, with a staff of about 250 men, for the copying of Ge’ez religious texts. Since the institution of the lebeshay, earlier banned by Lej Iyasu, had not yet been eradicated, further action against it was also taken.
Other institutions established at this time included a modern hospital, the BSayda, founded in 1924, and a new secondary school, the Tafari Makonnen, in 1925. On the opening of that establishment, which taught in English as well as in French. Tafari urged his fellow nobles to follow his example by founding schools. Later, in 1928, he decreed symbolic fines for parents who left their children illiterate. The number of students abroad for study meanwhile was substantially increased. Several hundred were sent to France, Egypt, Lebanon, Great Britain, and the United States.
Difficult Relations with Britain and Italy; French Support
Ethiopia’s international position meanwhile was once more endangered by the British and Italian Governments. Reverting to a policy dating back to the late nineteenth century, they persuaded the League of Nations to ban the export of fire-arms by member states to much of Africa, including Ethiopia. The prohibition on Ethiopian arms imports was rigidly enforced by the two colonial powers, which between them controlled most of the territory on Ethiopia’s borders. Tafari, however, opposed this arms restriction. He contended that it was incompatible with his country’s League membership. He had, very conveniently, the support of the French Government, which wished to keep the port of Djibuti open to the arms trade. This was partly because this commerce was lucrative, and partly because it was considered a means of winning Ethiopia’s friendship. French opposition to the arms ban proved decisive, and the League finally agreed, in 1925, to exclude Ethiopia from the restriction zone.
Further Anglo-Italian Intrigues Foiled
A further diplomatic crisis between Ethiopia and the British and Italian Governments erupted shortly afterwards, in 1926. The two colonial powers, cooperating together in the spirit of the Tripartite Convention of 1906, agreed to put joint pressure on the Ethiopian Government, to grant them concessions in two areas of the country in which each was interested. The British thus supported Italy’s demand to construct a railway to link the Italian colonies of Eritrea and Somalia, west of Addis Ababa, while the Italians reciprocated by backing Britain’s ambition to build a dam on Lake Tana. Tafari, who, on account of his country’s membership of the League, was in a stronger diplomatic position than Menilek twenty years earlier, immediately protested to the international organisation. He declared, once again with the support of France, that the Anglo-Italian agreement, entered into without consulting Ethiopia, a fellow member of the League, was incompatible with the principles of that body. He pithily inquired whether members of the League desired “means of coercion” to be applied against Ethiopia “which they would undoubtedly dislike if applied against themselves”. The British and Italians, embarrassed by this strongly worded reaction, protested their innocence of trying to exert undue pressure on Ethiopia, and were obliged, at least ostensibly, to abandon their policy.
The Duke of Abruzzi’s Visit, and the Ethio-Italian Treaty of 1928
In the following year, during a visit to Addis Ababa of the King of Italy’s cousin, the Duke of Abruzzi, the Italian Government reopened the question of Ethiopia’s request for access to the sea. They proposed making Assab a free port, and building a motor road to link it with Das, which, it was assumed, would be connected by a road to Addis Ababa. A twenty-year Treaty of Friendship and Arbitration between the two countries was duly signed, on 2 August 1928. Evidence of Italian intrigue and fear of future Italian intervention, however, prevented the Ethiopian Government from permitting the building of the road, and the free port of Assab was never established.