KING SAHLE SELASSIE, EMPEROR MENILIK II, AND THE BETRAYAL OF ETHIOPIA
KING SAHLE SELASSIE, EMPEROR MENILIK II, AND THE BETRAYAL OF ETHIOPIA
By Tecola W. Hagos
VI. King Sahle Selassie: The Slave Master
Ethiopia was affected to its very core by Gragn Mohammed’s destructive rampage of looting and burning and killing of twelve years [1529-1543]. Emperor Lebne Dingel, whose Empire was thus affected, sought refuge in the Lasta and Begemder area. For ten years Lebne Dingel launched what may be the first guerrilla resistance war in the world against Gragn. He died of illness during such resistance movement in 1540. His son Gelawdewos was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia, and continued the fight against Gragn Mohammed. Gragn was killed in 1543 at the battle of Foggera [Zenttera|Gragn-Ber]. Starting with Gelawdewos’s Court, the Ethiopian government center remained in the North of Ethiopia for three hundred and fifty years. At first the center of government was established near the present day Gondar and Enfraz, and during the reign of the illustrious Emperor Fasilades, the Court was moved to the new Imperial City of Gondar. Thus, the Government of Imperial Ethiopia remained in Gondar or the North for over three hundred fifty years until the crowning of Menilik at Ankober in 1889.
The move of the Imperial Court to the North served two important purposes: 1) it allowed the consolidation of the newly won victory against Gragn; 2) it put certain distance between the new government center and the centers of Islamic resistance in Harrar and Afar regions. During that period of revival, it is recorded that one line of Lebne Dengil’s children that of Abeto Yacob became the line of imperial descent. Yacob fathered Fasil (the Gondar Solomonic Line), and also Sigwe Qal (the Shoan Solomonic Line) whose descendants survived Gragn and thrived in Shoa. The Gondar line brought about the revival of Ethiopia until its decline in the Eighteenth Century with the era of Zemene Mesafint. The descendants of Sigwe Qal remained in Menz (Shoa) and continued the Solomonic line of descent in relative obscurity with almost next to nothing impact on the social and cultural development of the greater Ethiopia. At any rate, that was the line that all Shoan rulers of the area including Sahle Selassie and Menilik claim as their source of legitimacy to be crowned Kings or Emperors of Ethiopia. Sahle Selassie’s original name was Menilik.
I have studied the travel logs and some of the meticulously recorded social studies of the period by well-educated Europeans, who were, to great extent, keen observers of human nature, such as C. T. Beke (M.D.), the D’Abbadie brothers, William Cornwallis Harris (Major), J. L. Krapf (D.D.), C. W. Isenberg, Mansfield Parkyns, et cetera. I have used such studies to reevaluate the history of Sahle Selassie, to underscore the significance of the massive introduction of slaves into Shoa, to measure the demographic change that took place thereof, and to investigate the birth of the Mehale Sefaris as the new power base for Menilik and others who followed him. I have also considered the official Chronicles of Tewodros and that of Menilik, and the works of distinguished Ethiopian scholars.
European visitors, who came into Shoa in the Nineteenth Century, contrasted the far greater glory and degree of sophistication of the earlier periods of Ethiopian civilization i.e., before the destruction by Gragn Mohammed, namely the periods of Zera Yacob and Libne Dingle, with that of the period of Sahle Selassie. Harris who was favorably disposed and highly complementary to Sahle Selassie was very much appalled by the pervasive and corrupting stance of slavery in Sahle Selassie’s court and elsewhere in Shoa. Harris wrote, “This monarch [Zera Yacob], who was the founder of Debra Berhan, is reputed to have been endowed with the wisdom of Solomon, his great ancestor; and the vestiges that remain of his abode, certainly exhibit an order of architecture far superior to that of the present degenerate day.” [Harris, vol. 2, 51-52] The “degenerate day” Harris is referring to is the reign of Sahle Selassie as king of Shoa.
Long before Menilik was born, during the reign of Sahle Dingle and Yohannes III (1832- 1855), Sahle Selassie, who gave himself the title of “King of Shoa, Ifat, and the Gallas,” was the first and only full fledged slave trader King in Ethiopian history. This is one of those secrets kept under lock by Ethiopian official chroniclers of the time and other court historians. The evidence of the activities of Sahle Selassie is to be found in history books and travel logs of visitors to his Court. The travel books of William Cornwallis Harris, J. L. Krapf and C. W. Isenberg, 1839-1843, et cetera tell us about a Court teaming with tens of thousands of “slaves” engaged in every facet of court life and in every social stratum. Another visitor to Sahle Selassie, Dr. C. T. Beke described in detail the pervasive “slave” trade prevailing in the Kingdom of Sahle Selassie.
The slaves, mostly children and young adults, were captured from the Nile River region and from pockets of isolated communities in the southern regions such as Arisi, Sidamo, Gomu Gefa et cetera. The slavers seem to have been Abba Jeffar Oromo raiders, with some Gurages, Wollaitas et cetera whereby the slaves were transferred to handlers mainly Sahle Selassie’s men at major slave markets such as Enarea Gurage. Some of the slaves brought into Sahle Selassie’s dominion were further transported through either Zeila (somalia) or through Awssa/Assab to Eden and as far as India. The source of wealth to buy weapons and other goods from the West was predicated thus on such internal and international trade of gold, coffee, ivory, and human beings from the interior as far inland to the present day Congo. [The involvement of Gurages in slaving activities might have been very marginal because of the constant raids by Oromos on their territory, and they were in constant danger of being enslaved themselves.]
In all the records left by the individuals cited herein, the single most important reason pointed out again and again as the cause for the “degenerate” situation in Sahle Selassie’s Court and his kingdom was the introduction of vast number of slaves into Shoa. The slaves were brought from further South and from the River Nile area by non-Amhara slavers, or as war booty of Sahle Selassie’s military incursions to expand the kingdom of Shoa further south. The European visitors who left us such great historical records and books were missionaries and medical doctors. They were well educated Europeans not given to exaggerations and very much reserved in their judgments; nevertheless, very seasoned and fair in their assessment of the society that they came in contact with. One such foreigner was Dr. Johann Ludwig Krapf, the extraordinarily gifted linguist and missionary whose observations of the period I found most fascinating and very informative as well. He observed with dismay the corruption of Ethiopia due to the tremendous number of slaves introduced into Shoa by Sahle Selassie. He wrote in his travel log, “Slavery, too, has done much to demoralize the Christians of Shoa. Christians, indeed, are not allowed to export slaves, but they may import them for their own use. In this the King’s example leads the way, and he has many thousands of slaves employed as hewers of wood, drawars of water, bearers of burdens, cowherds, agricultural labourers, and the free subjects’ most feudal task-work.” [Krapf, 41-42] Because he had at times observed in his writing that the Oromos were very intelligent people presumably compared against other Ethiopians, he is perceived as being anti-Amharas. I find the opposite to be the case that he was very appreciative of Ethiopians in general. His problem was with the theological aspect of the Ethiopian Christian Church, which at times led him to make violent outburst of abusive language and observations.
The other observer who left us in three volumes of an extensive account of the slave trade in Shoa and the activities of Sahle Selassie was Major William C. Harris. He was no less sincere or intelligent than Krapf. Harris was the head of the delegation from Queen Victoria’s Court who made his way to the Court of Sahle Selassie in 1843. He was overwhelmed by the number of slaves he observed who were either part of the labor force in the Court of Sahle Selassie (and elsewhere in Shoa) or coming into Shoa or passing through Shoa to far of places like Arabia and India. He described one such slave holding site in Menz. He stated, “Debra Berhan is one of the principal depots for the numerous royal slaves, the possession of whom casts the foulest blot on the character of the Christian monarch.” [Harris, vol.2, 55] This was not a mere transition point but an established site for holding thousands of slaves, some in route to far of lands, and several thousands for local consumption. It is worth quoting at length Harris’s observation of the tremendous influx of slaves into Shoa.
All such records of Harris, Krapf, Beke, et cetera are consistent with each other in identifying where the victims of slavery originated, how they were transported, where they were transferred to, the names of depots where they were kept in transition, the names of the slave-markets where slaves were bought and sold, and the identity of the slavers. The records of the European visitors seem to identify certain groups of people to have been the primary participants as slavers. The Oromos of both Arisi and Keffa|Jima, the Gurages, the Wolaittas, Sidamas, Qotus, Afars, Somalis et cetera were identified as the groups of people overwhelmingly involved in the hunting down of people of the Neolithic tribes mostly further down in the South West, which is now part of the borders of present-day Ethiopia, the Sudan and Kenya. And at times the hunt for slaves was carried out exclusively near the lake regions of Kenya and the Ethiopian border regions. Northerners and highlanders (Amharas, Tygreans, and Lastes) were also involved at some stage of the slave trade or transportation of slaves into the Northern areas of Ethiopia.
It would have been impossible for the Amharas or any person from the Highlands to be front line slavers, not because of lack of interest, but due to the physical impossibility to cross through Oromo occupied territories laying in between the slave hunting areas further south in the Nile River regions and the Highlanders. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church did discourage Christians in the selling of slaves. In fact, a Christian involved in the slave trade business was denied from partaking in the Eucharist. I must point out that a limited number of slaves were present in Ethiopia before Sahle Selassie, the number was negligible. It is during Sahle Selassie’s reign that slavery became an overwhelming fact first in Shoa and gradually in the north.
It is important to note, in general, Ethiopians as a whole have dealt with slavery in a most humane manner compared to other nations around the world. We could understand to some extent from The Fetha Nagast: The Law of the Kings why slavery in Ethiopian must be considered as distinctly different from practices elsewhere. The institution of slavery in Ethiopia seems to have been understood as a temporary reversal of individual fortune, a transient stage, a consequence of war and conflict, and not an inherent nature of any human being. According to the Fetha Nagast, the true nature of a human being is in a state of liberty or freedom. “The state of liberty is in accord with the law of reason, for all men share liberty on the basis of natural law. But war and the strength of horses bring some to the service of the victors…. To free a slave is one of the deeds of perfection which must be done, for it is an excellent form of alms; it is the granting to a man of the right to become master of himself, according to the original law of his natural liberty.” [Fetha Nagast, Chapter XXXI]
[The Fetha Nagast is a jewel of jurisprudence. According to Cardinal Paulos Tzadau, the translator of the version I am referring to, the Fetha Nagast was introduced into the Ethiopian legal system around 1450. There is a record of its use during the reign of Emperor Sertse Dingel (1563-1597). The Fetha Nagast incorporated Ethiopian customary law, Roman Law, and Christian Canon, as well as progressively incorporated the norms and principles of justice and equity of its period. I believe Ethiopians should be rightly proud for having such a sophisticated body of jurisprudence. We can rightly claim that the Fetha Nagast establishes Ethiopia as an independent third legal system in addition to the Common Law, and the Civil Law systems. The Ethiopian Law system is not a subsystem, but a major World-class legal tradition or system.]
Harris, in particular, laid out the slave trade operation from origin to distribution in far more detail than the other Europeans who visited Ethiopia or any part thereof because of the purpose of his mission that included the identification of centers of the slave trade that England was trying to eradicate or contain. He wrote: “From Enarea Guargue, the two slave marts principally frequented by the dealers in human flesh who trade through the Abyssinian states, the traffic is conducted to the sea-coast via Sennaar, Argobba, Aussa, and Harrar–importations into Shoa passing through the kingdom by two great highways from the interior. The first is by Ankober to the market-place of Abdel Russool, where purchases are eagerly made by the caravan traders from Hurrur, Zeyla, and Tajura; the other by Debra Libanos to the market of Antzochia adjoining Asselleli, the frontier town on the north, whence they pass through Upper Abyssinia to Massowah and Raheita, supplying also the Aussa caravans, which come to Dowwe, on the frontier of Worra Kaloo.” [Harris, vol. 3, 307]
Sahle Selassie benefited greatly from taxing the slave trade transactions within Shoa and by exacting over ten percent on the selling price of the tens of thousands of slaves who were transported through Shoa. In addition, he had tens of thousands of slaves on his own account that he distributed locally and further north into the rest of Ethiopia. This huge source of revenue allowed Sahle Selassie the luxury of importing the first firearms into central Ethiopia, foreign goods, and even foreign experts, including a flour mill. Harris who had great relationship with Sahle Selassie was able to visit different parts of the kingdom, even joining in military expeditions into what would be present days Arusi, whereby he recorded the capture of slaves, the transportation of slaves, and the social interactions between the people from Shoa with those in the newly added territories. He also recorded the economic system of Shoa including taxation on the slave trade, transition fees, and other such revenue sources for Sahle Selassie.
“In addition to a tax of one in every ten, Sahla Selassie possesses the right of pre-emption of all slaves that pass through his dominions, his governors selecting and submitting for the royal approval those which appear best worthy of consideration, when a price placed by the holder on the head of each is modified by His Majesty at his pleasure. A transit duty of four pieces of salt is further levied upon every individual, male or female, of whatever age, exposed for sale or barter; and the number annually exported by the roads above named being estimated at from fifteen to twenty thousand, the revenues derived from the traffic in his fellow-men by the Christian monarch may be averaged at eight hundred pounds.” [Harris, vol. 3, 307]
Although different writers put the number of slaves at Sahle Selassie’s Court at very high count, nevertheless, Harris seems to be the most reasonable and thorough because he had kept contemporaneous accounts in other matters also. Harris wrote, “It is calculated, upon good data, that His Majesty’s [Sahle Selassie] Household slaves, male and female, exceed eight thousand. Of the latter, three hundred are concubines of the Royal harem; and of the former, fifty are eunuchs. The residue of both sexes are employed in a variety of servile offices, and they each receive a portion of barley sufficient to compose two small loaves….Marriage between free persons and the slaves of His Majesty are thus by no means unfrequent; the bondsman, after the performance of his allotted task, enjoying liberty to return daily to his family, and to appropriate the residue of his time.” [Harris, vol. 3, 307-310] The numbers provided by Harris is limited to Ankober and does not include the number of slaves in the service of Sahle Selassie in all other estates he owned in other parts of Shoa.
It is reasonable to ask how vast or pervasive the ownership of slaves was within Shoa. We may enquire also how widely spread the practice was in the rest of Ethiopia. Most important is to find out how well or badly slaves were treated. Almost every European who visited Shoa pointed out the fact of the large number of slaves. Both Krapf and Beke as well as Harris had stated that slaves, who were mostly young when bought, were treated as members of the family fully integrated and their humanity fully acknowledged. “From the governor to the humblest peasant, every house in Shoa possesses slaves of both sexes, in proportion to the wealth of the proprietor; and in so far as an opinion may be formed upon appearances, their condition, with occasional, but rare exceptions, is one of comfort and ease. Mild in its character, their bondage is tinctured with none of the horrors of West Indian slavery. The servitude imposed is calculated to create neither suffering nor exhaution. There is no merciless taskmaster to goad the victim to excessive exertion–no ‘white man’s scorn’ to be endured; and, although severed from home, from country, and from all the scenes with which his childhood had been familiar, his lot is not unfrequently improved. Naturalized in the house of his master, he is invariably treated with lenity–usually with indulgence–often with favour; and under a despotic sovereign, to whom servile instruments are uniformily the most agreeable, the caprices of fortune may prefer the exile to posts of confidence and emolument, and may even exalt him to the highest dignities” [Harris, vol.3, 309-310]
The tremendous influx of slaves into Shoa had profound effect on the social behavior of the leadership including the behavior of Sahle Selassie. It seems the Shoan society of the period was losing its moral grasp, and more so the leadership more than any other group. The availability of free labor and the easy access to young beautiful female slaves for intimacy must have had similarly corrupting and disastrous consequences as prostitution has done in our present day Ethiopia. “[B]ut concubinage is habitual and general, the King [Sahle Selassie] and his five hundred wives leading the way with a bad example; for whenever a beautiful woman was pointed out to him he sent for her. The daughters of many grandies must in this way serve to effect political alliances, and Sahle Selassie actually wished for an English princess to consolidate his alliance with Great Britain!” [Krapf, 41] The five hundred number must strike us very much of an exaggeration except for the fact that another observer stated that same number in describing the romance side of Sahle Selassie. Harris also confirmed the fact that “[f]ive hundred concubines complete the royal harem, of whom seven reside under the palace roof, thirteen in the immediate outskirts, and they reside in various parts of the empire. By these ladies, the king has a numerous progeny.” [Harris, vol.3, 17]
Of course, the activities of Sahle Selassie or any of the nobility is contrary to the teachings of the Ethiopian Church and the Canon. The Fetha Nagast, the authoritative book of both secular and Canon law in use at the time of Sahle Selassie forbids such relations. [See, Fetha Nagast, Chapter XXV] I wonder what happened to all the children of such sexual liaison between the members of the aristocracy (and the nobility) with their slave maids. We have concrete evidence how well such children thrived in wonderfully tolerant Court, at least when it comes to “bastard” children. For example, Sahle Selassies’s older half brother born of a slave-maid was appointed governor of Merhabete, and even better, consider the case of Menilik who became King of Shoa and latter Emperor of Ethiopia.[See Section VIII (A), infra] More important, I believe the new political structure starting with the kingship of Menilik to date is the result and the ongoing process of the consequence of the introduction into Ethiopia massive number of slaves by Sahle Selassie, whose progeny made up the core of the Mehale Sefaris.
The slave trade coming into Sahle Selassie’s Kingdom was a trickle compared to the floodgate slave trade carried out in some of the major slave-markets further down in the Southeast of Africa, such as Mombassa and Zanzibar in the present day Kenya and Tanzania respectively. Millions of Africans from those areas were sold into slavery and departed to a life of slavery in Arabia, India, and South East Asia. It is to be recalled that in the early part of the Nineteenth Century, the British Government was under great pressure from its cantankerous Parliament to eliminate slavery and its scourge from the face of the Earth. It is to be recalled that Britain abolished slavery in 1833. At that time, the British Government did identify hundreds of leaders involved in some way with the slave trade all over the world, and did conclude treaties of trade and friendship with the aim of adding in those treaties an article or two on banning and outlawing of slavery by local leaders.
During that period, in the first half of the Nineteenth Century, the British government did not conclude with any Ethiopian Emperor any trade or friendship treaty. True, both Emperors Sahle Dingle and Yohannes III were very weak Emperors. Even then, they were the symbolic representation of the Ethiopian Empire, and the British were fully aware of the political structure of Ethiopia, which can be shown to be the case since there is a draft treaty with a “Ras” of either Emperor Sahle Dingle or Emperor Yohannes III. However, the British were very much aware of the activities of Sahle Selassie or the area under his control as a major slave originating or processing center involved in the slave trade to the Middle East and India. The huge “slave” population in Sahle Selassie’s Court and his Kingdom of “Shoa, Ifat, and the Gallas” was an undisputed fact. It was that source they had wanted to dam up. And it was with such purpose that the Harris delegation was organized and dispatched to Shoa.
Sahle Selassie was conducting his own international relations with dangerous colonial powers: the French and the British. Because of Sahle Selassie’s slaving activities he brought attention and risk to Ethiopia. Nevertheless, the intrusion of the British into the very center of the Ethiopian Empire marked also the period when Shoa started taking shape as a distinct and separate political unit from its rather loosely aggregated remnant of mountainous fortification against Islamic marauders of surrounding lowland Sultanates such as Ifat, a leftover garrison problem from Gran Mohammed’s time. The colonial ambition of European powers aside, by just examining carefully Ethiopian’s long history, one is confronted with the fact that Sahle Selassie may have been the only Ethiopian [not counting Aba Jiffar] political leader who was involved in the African slave trade. The eyewitness accounts by travelers such as Johann Ludwig Krapf, Major William C. Harris and several others who visited Sahle Selassie’s court and Shoa cannot be that easily discounted as to the existence of slavery in Shoa or the huge stock of slaves at Ankober. Some of those slaves made up Sahle Selassie’s own vast household domestics, and some of those slaves later, in a generation, were transformed into the core of the nascent Mehale Sefaris who brought Menilik and later Haile Selassie into power.
I have attached the Treaty of Amity and Commerce signed by King Sahle Selassie and the British Government at Angollah on 16 November 1841 (10 Hedar 1834). We must note the absence of any mention of the Empire of Ethiopia or the name of the Emperor in power. [Evidence: One] It is not unique to Sahle Selassie to enter into a relationship with a foreign power, or to communicate with a foreign official especially at a time when the Central Ethiopian Government was weak or undergoing some form of turmoil. Sehul Mickael, Wubie, Sebagadis, Hanafari et cetera have had such communications with foreign governments or officials, and at times some form of agreements were entered with such colonial powers.
It is a fact that slavery did not affect the social condition of Begemder, Gojjam, Gondar, Lasta, Tygrei, Wollo as much as it did Shoa. All the authors such as C. T. Beke (M.D.), the D’Abbadie brothers, William Cornwallis Harris (Major), J. L. Krapf (D.D.), C. W. Isenberg, Mansfield Parkyns et cetera had a chance to observe most of the Northern Ethiopian regions, nevertheless, they did not write even a fraction of the amount of what they wrote about slavery in Shoa. It is a fact that there were few slaves in those areas of Ethiopia than in Shoa. It will be interesting to note here that the agreement reached between Yohannes and Menilik in 1877 provided for five hundred slaves to be delivered to Yohannes as part of the yearly tribute or tax by Menilik. Northerners had tried their hands at slavery in the Tekezze and Mereb river basins against the Baria tribes without much success because they were repealed with poison arrows.
If we examine the whole Ethiopian tragedy of the Nineteenth Century, we can deduce what was even more devastating to Ethiopian civilization more than the moral corruption of the society due to slavery to be the shift that came about following the footsteps of the illegitimate children of the new Ankober based aristocrats and children of their retainers who succeeded in manipulating to their advantage a particularly tumultuous period in Ethiopian history. The short-lived reign of Tewodros magnified the problem, at least in Shoa, as evidenced by the coming into power of a completely new set of group surrounding the new government of Menilik. Tewodros fought a losing battle to restore Ethiopia fully to its old glory of a great Empire. After his death, the vacuum of leadership at the center allowed the emergence of a new breed of closely knit conspirators who had a common experience engaged as personal retainers and attendants of Kings Sahle Selassie and Hailemelekot. Since Ras Darge Sahle Selassie, the most senior and the most legitimate of all the descendants of Wosenseged, was still in detention in Tewodros’s Court, they championed the next best thing, Menilik, who had just escaped in 1865 and found his way to Shoa. Ato Nadow, who was the most faithful guardian-protector to the young Menilik during his “captivity” since the age of nine and growing up in Tewodros’s court, was credited for the escape of Menilik and for the coordination of the network of the Mehal Sefaris who formed the military core of the new King of Shoa.
By the time Ras Darge was freed after the death of Tewodros, which was three years after Menilik’s escape, Menilik was already crowned King of Shoa. It is reported that when Ras Darge found his way back to Ankober in 1869, he had no followers to his side. It is reported by people who were present at the occasion that when Menilik met with Darge he offered him the Crown. However, the far older Darge wisely declined since he was in the lion’s den so to say. For the rest of his life he was nothing more than a puppy in the hands of Menilik.
The Mehale Sefaris replaced the influential fathers of the Ethiopian Church and the loosely connected galaxy of royal aristocratic leaders scattered in all parts of Ethiopia, as the new movers and shakers and king makers in Ethiopia after the death of Yohannes IV. Those secretive and conspiratorial groups of royal household retainers mostly descendants of Sahle Selassie’s “slaves” and domestics became the king makers, and shakers of Ethiopian politics with devastating results for over one hundred years until they were temporarily replaced by another breed of conspirators from the same stock of people: Mengistu Hailemariam and group. They are now engaged in a life and death struggle with Meles Zenawi’s version of conspiratorial group.
Such was the origin of the core of the Mehale Sefaris, a group mostly made up of individuals from a group of people who had almost nothing to do with Amhara Shoans in general neither by birth nor cultural affinity. For the original Mehale Sefaris were an apparition and an unusual growth on the main political body of Shoa and the Imperial Court of Ethiopia. They succeeded in maintaining Menilik, an illegitimate son of a Shoan ruler and a “slave” maid, first as King of Shoa and later as Emperor. The Mehale Sefaris succeeded because they were “foreigners” in the middle of potentially hostile population, with no affiliation to any of the great houses and families of the Empire that claimed linage to the Solomonic Line. The Mehale Sefaris had only themselves and any kind of fracture in their rank by allowing such established houses and families within their structure would have meant a disaster to their survival. Thus, they maintained their unity and secretiveness for the last one hundred fifty years to date.
The decline of the Ethiopian aristocracy started with the devastation caused by Ahmad Gran, and was later continued through out the Zemene Mesafint (Age of Warlords) when ignorant peasant leaders such as Sehul Mikael, a self-made man who could not even write his own name, came to power. The negative impact of such monumental disruption manifested itself in the types of leaders who succeeded to the Ethiopian Throne down the line a hundred years later. The Ethiopian aristocracy never truly recovered from either the devastation of Gragn or from the disruption of authority and chain of command of small war-lords welding state power affecting the structure of the Imperial Ethiopian Government. One of the reasons why even a strong leader as Tewodros failed to bring back Imperial structure to the Ethiopian government was due to the disruption created by Gragn’s destruction, and the coming into power of local powerful war-lords as well as the Ethiopianization of a new force that followed in the footsteps of Gragn—the Oromo movement into Ethiopia proper.
Ethiopia was changed in profound ways by the events that were brought about due to Gragn. To this day, Ethiopia is still struggling to get back its footing and equilibrium. Every single individual who became King or Emperor of Ethiopia including Menilik, and all the way down to Haile Selassie’s descendants, have very difficult time establishing authority and legitimacy due to that rapture. In fact, the most successful Ethiopian Emperor in holding together the Empire and establishing some form of common “Ethiopian” identity for the diverse people of Ethiopia was Emperor Haile Selassie, an individual who was the least connected with the Ethiopian Solomonic Dynasty or with the Ethiopian aristocracy. He was a self-made man with exceptional abilities, and that, no one will deny. Thus, the shift from kingmakers composed of vassal-peers of the Emperor and the aristocracy, who used to choose the next emperor, to conspiratorial household retainers and their issues lowered, the “quality” and the legitimacy of such Emperors who came to power through conspiratorial groups. Menilik, Zewditu, Haile Selassie, Mengistu, and now Meles are all a product of such conspiratorial secretive groups of lowered expectations and questionable legitimacy.
The obvious consequence of the enormous number of new individuals brought into Shoa as slaves, and some of them redistributed to the rest of Ethiopia, acted as a source of fresh blood unrelated with the old regime. Thus, such group as the new base of power brought about a different form of bureaucratic structure, which is identified as the centralization of Ethiopian political structure. That type of administrative format introduced by the new Mehale Sefari controlled “aristocracy,” rather than stabilizing the political and economic system of the country created a kind of blackhole that pulled everything [economic or political activities that used to be defused] toward one center to Addis Ababa and the Emperor in situs. Ethiopia entered a chaotic unpredictable state of existence leading to social breakup and the rise of bureaucratic corruption and societal moral decay.
In other words, the centralization of the Ethiopian Government and the aggregation of all first-tire office holders around the Imperial Court brought about the cancerous political concentration in Addis Ababa that created an economic and political vortex that was the root cause of Ethiopia’s political turmoil and the reason for the chronic shortage of food or outright famine several times over. This monumental transfer of the power base resulted in the destruction of the very heroic and chivalrous traditional base of the Ethiopian society, which was manifestly in its aristocratic refinement before the creation of the new power structure. That was also the beginning of a money based economic system thereby preempting the necessary village based industrial bridge to modernity. We inherited, instead, mediocrity, poverty, small time tyranny et cetera, all from the end of the Eighteenth Century down to our own time. The “heroic” as the base of our ethics was irretrievably lost and was replaced by “bilgena” culture of modernism started with Menilik’s Reign as could be observed in its most grotesque manifestations in our own time. We have had the likes of Mengistu and Meles and the numerous opposition leaders, aspiring to become the decision makers on the fate of our ancient country, whose connection with the people of Ethiopia is as dubious as those of the Mehale Sefaris.
The origin of the term “Shewa” (Shoa) is very much clouded in mystery. Before the time of Merid Azmatch Asfawossen, there were small fiefs under the control of this or that house or family but not a large unified Kingdom. My question is whether Shewa (Shoa) is connected with the word “Saba” implying a very ancient connection with the North of Ethiopia. It is Sahle Selassie who used the term “King of Shoa” for the first time. At any rate, the present day administrative area, even though incorporated within the larger designated area of Amhara Kilel, at the present time, may be traced back to show how far it was progressively expanded during Haile Selassie’s government compared to the time of Sahle Selassie.
VII. The “Mameluk” Syndrome
A. The Political Impact of Slavery
The “Mameluk” syndrome is a crucial thesis in my analysis of the power base of Menilik and those who followed after him. However, I need to be careful with my analysis on how the Mehale Sefaris originated and developed into a powerful political block, lest I be accused of racism or racist attitude. I have no such ideation. In fact, if it were not for the fact that the Mehale Sefaris were responsible for most of the difficulty that all Ethiopians have lived under in a system that was sustained relentlessly by those groups of individuals for over a century, and still continued to be the most destructive political undercurrent in our own time, I would not have bothered even to mention the Mehale Sefaris.
I must make it absolutely clear that I condemn slavery or bondage of any human being at what ever time period and wherever it occurred. I am glad that descendants of those “slaves” brought into Ethiopia have enjoyed full participation in this Ethiopian experiment as Ethiopians over the period of the last one hundred and fifty years. It matters not to me how or from where they originated, or how they became Ethiopians, for every Ethiopian has some very interesting tall-tell on how he or she came to be an Ethiopian. The reason I brought up the issue is to have us all understand that there is a non-supernatural explanation for our chronic political and economic (social) problems that at times seem insurmountable. Maybe, I believe, if we understand how the problems started, we may have a better starting point to solve our political and economic problems.
Now, we need to ask whether Ethiopia was better off politically and economically before the coming into power of Menilik and his successors. I tend to say, yes, it was, notwithstanding some of the worst famine and political disorder that occurred. At any rate, that form of question is meaningless, since I am comparing relative progress between the system of government and economy of Ethiopia during Menilik’s reign and after, with that of the non-empirical conjecture of a possible unitarian enlightened pre-industrial political system leading us into liberal democracy by now. That in itself is a tremendous supposition beyond verification. However, if we see progress in terms of types or forms of social services and government administrative charts et cetera, there is no comparison. Menilik and his successors did introduce unheard of systems of education, communication, bureaucracy, and general urbanization.
In light of what transpired in the last one hundred fifty years in Ethiopia, since the time of Sahle Selassie, one can conclude that Ethiopia’s political power structure has undergone profound transformation. It is not the first time in world history that “outsiders” coming in large number into a community as “slaves” or domestic workers had in time taken over the power structure of such host community. In some cases, such “intruders” are totally absorbed by the society without a trace; however, in few others, the social tension thus created between the marginalized locals and highly regimented “outsiders” resulted in vicious bloodshed for power.
A parallel development that could be considered a good analogy to the development of the Mehale Sefaris was the ascendance to power of the Mameluks, white slaves, in the service of Moslem leaders. To a lesser extent, the Janissaries of the Ottoman Turks also had some developmental similarities to that of the event that took place during the reign of Menilik. The Mameluks were mostly from the area known today as Georgia and Cireassia, who were sold at a young age to Moslem leaders in Egypt, Baghdad and other nations in the area. The first Mameluks were the praetorian guards for the Abbasid Caliphs at the turn of the first Millennium where they were used to put down local tribal challenges to the Caliphs. In time, they became the commanders and high government officials of that dynasty. In Egypt, they were so successful in their role as soldiers and power brokers that they took over in 1250 the Ayyubid dynasty and ruled independently or as vassals of the Ottoman Turks (after 1517) until their defeat by Napoleon in 1798.
Moreover, the Mameluk continued their influence until they were completely wiped out by Mohammed Ali Pasha in 1811. Even as far as India, they were able to establish a dynasty that lasted for almost a century what is known as the Delhi Sultanate. The fact that we find such phenomenon in vastly dissimilar communities and covering such vast areas, suggest certain structural similarities in each takeover of government or the acquisition of power by the Mameluks. What was common in each instance of the Mameluk either taking over a government or acquiring political power was the fact of the existence of social disorganization as the consequence of the confusion that ensued during a transitional period of power-vacuum where the indigenous local power structure and its connections to its local base had been disrupted or demolished and replaced with a tightly knitted group of outsiders with no or minimal connection to the traditional local power structure(s) .
The Mameluk’s most attractive feature to the Caliphs and Sultans was the fact of the Mameluks being alien to the community where they were serving, and thus completely dependent and loyal only to the individuals or dynasties in whose service they were employed. Usually they were hated by the locals whom either had replaced or violently suppressed on behalf of such sovereigns. The problem of all despotic leaders has to do with having loyal subordinates. In all social structures, I can assert that there are contending power structures based on familial lines and/or pecuniary lines of interests. Coupled with the fact that in any community not everybody is a follower, and the fact that there are a few with the “alpha-genes” who aspire to be leaders, it is quite understandable why a leader would go to such great extent to secure his person and that of his dynasty. There is no one to be considered a hundred percent loyal to a particular leader, thus a leader would try to create a structure that would insure his and his dynasty’s continued place in power. That is why there were special guards, spies, murder squads, Mameluks et cetera employed by leaders to make sure that they remain in power.
However, there seems to be some critical mass whereby such security blanket or organization, which was supposed to protect the power center and the sovereign, transform itself qualitatively as the primary center of attraction and overwhelms the very power center and the sovereign in whose service it was initially employed, and becomes itself both the center of authority and the dispenser of sanctions – thereby starting a dynasty of its own. In the Ethiopian setting, one may consider the case of the Tygrean Governor Ras Sehul Mikael (1769-71), an “outsider,” coming to rescue a battered Emperor Iyo’as who ended up replacing the imperial power with his own, and became the king maker starting the era of the Mesafints (warlords) that lasted until 1848 with the coming into the picture of Tewodros.
After Menilik “escaped” from Tewodros’s “confinement” (1 July 1865), he came to Wollo and stayed with Workit for almost two months. Workit supplied him with provisions and an escort force to help him establish a beachhead for his claim of the Crown of Shoa. He had to develop his communication channel and web of supporters before he could challenge Bezabih who had declared his independence though he was initially appointed to govern over Shoa by Tewodros. Menilik’s supporters mainly were the court attendants and domestic servants of his “father” Hailemelekot, who could identify with Menilik as one of them, and who were also overwhelmingly settled in Ankober and vicinity. It is to be recalled that Ras Darge Sahle Selassie, who may have been the real and legitimate successor to the Shoan Crown, was still a prisoner of Tewodros. Thus, the Shoan nobles did not flock to Menilik right away; it was only after his Mehale Sefari soldiers won against Bezabih at the Battle of Gaddilo on 2 September 1865 (17 Nehase 1857) that the Shoan nobles started to support Menilik.
In the case of Ethiopia, as was the case in Egypt, Baghdad, Turkey, and India, the “slaves,” who were brought into Shoa, were mostly young boys and girls. They grew up well assimilated, and in most instances, as witnessed by Krapf and others, well treated as members of the family they served with. Those who were in the service of the court were the most favored. Moreover, the children of both Sahle Selassie and other nobles born from such “slave” women were treated with respect, and were readily accepted into the system and often given responsible posts. In a short time, they were effectively replacing the courtiers and immediate servants of the King and the servants and retainers of those of the other important leaders in Tegulet, Merhabete et cetera as well. It is to the great credit of the Ethiopian society that we find in our awn time the least discrimination based on family origin. However, this did not prevent the Mahle Sefaris from gravitating toward each other for protection and economic advantages. They could not become farmers because they lacked the genealogy that would have connected them to a piece of land. The next best thing was to serve as courtiers and personal attendants to the Emperor and his nobles, and join the army as well.
We lived through a period in the 1970s whereby the critical mass of such members of a disfranchised class of people, aggregated to serve the interest of the ruling class as soldiers, acquired a life of its own and took over the government of Haile Selassie. Mengistu Hailemariam represented those disfranchised members of society. The out come of such takeover by a disfranchised group is always disastrous. I need not recant the horror unleashed by Mengistu and his tugs. There is a lesson in all this other than my effort in setting the record straight. No future Ethiopian government should take soldiering for granted as a third rate profession. We must make sure that soldiers are not drawn from the fringes of society, but rather from its very center. Those who should serve as soldiers and guardians of Ethiopia must not be drawn from a bunch of disfranchised individuals, urban hoodlums, and drifters, but from those who are socially integrated and part of the pillars of society such as young men and women from farming families with proper place of origin and homes.
B. The Social and Economic Impact of Slavery
The introduction of massive number of “slaves” mostly into Shoa by Sahle Selassie, and the subsequent distribution of vast number of “slaves” into the rest of Ethiopia had profound effect on the social life and economy of the people of Ethiopia. It is not just for moral reason that people objected to the institution of slavery, but there was tangible negative impact on society clearly measurable and assessable.
The social impact of slavery is most dramatically illustrated in how it affects the domestic relations of families. The availability of tens of thousands of individuals with reduced rights in itself, did affect the very fiber of society. Individuals in such a community, irrespective of their status, are in some way degraded by the mere fact that some human beings in the same community are treated with a status almost without rights and protection. The evil of slavery permiated society so thoroughly that no section of society would escape from being corrupted at some level and time. Of course, the first victims are those who were enslaved and degraded. Nevertheless, the social impact of slavery had remained with us ever since the influx of massive numbers of slaves into Shoa and then into the rest of Ethiopia during the time of Sahle Selassie and Menilik corrupting and downgrading the quality of our lives.
One disconcerting almost universal consequence of abuse and degradation of some Ethiopians one can observe is the extreme swing between groveling toward persons in positions of power (or in favor) and equally disgusting vilification of individuals (sometime the same individual) if there happens to develop some form of “reversal of fortune” or disagreement. Such unruly behavioral swing is a good indicator of some serious social maladjustment. It is a manifestation of a deeply felt disrespect to ones own person that a number of young children in general experience in their childhood from circumstances of abuse, hunger, and neglect.
It seems to me that the most important aspect of social engineering is effectively carried out, through out human social history, by the control of sex. The fact of who is allowed sexual access with whom seems to be a result of both biological and social function. Because of slavery, a large number of defenseless individuals were introduced into society dramatically making it possible for the male resident population to have easy access to tens of thousands of female slaves. The female slaves were victimized because of their status because they were denied their right from having autonomy and control their sexuality. Such easy access to sex lowered the status of females even further in their relationship to men as well as society in general. It is not without reason that there is a catchy proverb in Ethiopian communities that addressed the issue in a quite dramatic manner. Set sibeza, gommen teneza. We are witnessing the same moral deterioration in our own time because of the availability of cheap sex due to prostitution, loose family structure, out of control urbanization, poverty, the introduction of large number of foreigners et cetera in Addis Ababa. This statement should not be misconstrued to read as if I am blaming the victims. No female is to be blamed for society’s failure to enforce or meet a standard of decency that respects the autonomy of the individual of whatever gender and age.
Abuse feeds on itself; in that those who were victims of abuse as children in their turn become abusers as adults, and that includes most everyone, such as leaders, law enforcement officers, commanders, soldiers, parents, teachers et cetera. As abuse becomes commonplace, society as a whole develops unhealthy degree of tolerance of such abusive behavior: parents abuse their children, teachers abuse their students, households abuse maids and servants, and everyone abuses everyone else. The cumulative effect of all the indicated handicaps in society affects our economic and social growth.
I want to emphasize that on the economic side of the issue, slavery cheapens the value of labor since it is acquired arbitrarily under degrading circumstances. In any society where labor is not respected, it is also a sure sign that such society is in steep decline. The simple man or woman of Ethiopia suffered much for lack of proper valuation of his or her labor due to the degradation of the activities of farmers, craftsmen, artisans et cetera supplanted by the those of soldiers and the elite.
VIII. Menilik II and Ethiopia
A. Menilik’s Birth and Bogus Claims of the Ethiopian Throne
I am examining the genealogy of Menilik and others not because I see any intrinsic value in such exercise for our time, but in order to keep our history straight from the deformity and lies it suffered on the issue of Menilik and other claims of legitimacy. Menilik was the “bastard son” of Hailemelekot Sahle Selassie. [The word “bastard” is both a legal and moral term as understood at the time, and is not a personal insult.] [For it is said in Deuteronomy (xxii. 2,) “A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of Jehovah even to the tenth generation.”] Hailemelekot fathered Menilik in his youth in a liaison that was simply the antic or past-time of all young noblemen learning about their sexuality at the expense of “slaves” or “domestic” girls, an activity that is no different from rape. Those types of dilly-dallying resulting in the birth of “bastard children” were commonplace of the time. Tsehafi Tezaz Gebre-Selassie, the official Chronicler of Menilik, tried hard to put a spin on that fact without much success for Menilik’s mother identity was public knowledge and should not be glossed over or lied about for there is nothing dishonorable the poor woman did; she was simply a victim of circumstance.
By the time Sahle Selassie became King, it was already an accepted practice of court-life that the aristocracy and the nobility frequently were having bastard children by slave maids. Even King Sahle Selassie Wosen Seged had an older brother named Bakruye Wosen Seged who was a “bastard son” whom Wosen Seged begot through a liaison with one of his “slaves” from his household. The name of the elder illegitimate son means “my first born” with a hint of a successor or heir-apparent. Such preference, as the name of the first-born indicates over the legitimate second son, might have been the reason why Wosen Seged was assassinated there by preemptively preventing any declaration by Wosen Seged that might have been in favor of the first-born “bastard” son. Incidentally, the assassination was carried out by a disgruntled slave in the middle of the night. It cleared the way for Sahle Selassie to become King since no one at that time could dare champion the “bastard” son over the “legitimate” son and heir. It was not only a matter of cultural stigma, but a practical question of having the most extended family support system. When history is looked at from multiple trajectories, what emerges is complex, but far closer to the truth.
It is understandable why Sahle Selassie did not acknowledge Menilik as his Grandson. Sahle Selassie himself had been threatened by the possible ascendance of a “bastard” elder brother born from a domestic “slave,” to the Shoan “kingship.” Such a possibility would have made him cautious about his choices for descendants and successors. Let us not understate the stigma attached to being the son or daughter of a “slave” and the fact of illegitimacy. At any rate, in case of Hailemelekot, Menilik was born well before Hailemelekot became king succeeding his father Sahle Selassie. Although Sahle Selassie had ample time to acknowledge Menilik as his Grandson, and despite the pressure and intrigue from his wife and other members of the household, he never recognized Menilik as his Grandson; neither did Hailemelekot acknowledge Menilik as his son. Oral history holds that Hailemelekot hated Menilik so much that Menilik, as he was growing up, was under the constant protection of Hailemelekot’s mother, Sahle Selassie’s wife.
There never was any public declaration on the issue of succession or legitimacy of Menilik. What was claimed at the beginning and during the reign of Menilik, that King Sahle Selassie had acknowledged Menilik as his Grandson, was an absolute fabrication, in the same way the Royal “Genealogist” now has upgraded the status of the mother of Menilik to that of the “first Wife” of the youthful Hailemelekot. As far as I can tell from all of my reading and inquiry, there was no public declaration, as was the official custom in such grave circumstance of creating or accepting an illegitimate son born of a slave-mother, as heir to a Crown. At least there should have been a contemporaneous record in one of the Churches. There is no such record to be found anywhere except in the official Chronicle of Menilik, a self serving skim of no validity. It seems rewriting history is a particularly devious preoccupation of Ethiopian Court-Chroniclers and court-historians.
Since Hailemelekot did not have any legitimate male descendants, the Sahle Selassie line of leadership was to pass to the descendants of the other branches of descendants of Sahle Selassie’s brothers and sisters. The assertion of the succession to the Crown of Shoa was simply the work of the household male servants, who were in captivity along with Menilik in Tewodros Court, who later formed the core of the future Mehale Sefaris, and who were able to take advantage of the disarray caused by the disintegration of Tewodros’s administration to install Menilik as the leader of Shoa. The disastrous shift of the power of king-makers from the peers and heads of aristocratic families of old to the domestics and personal servants was a monumental event that Ethiopians are still suffering under for the last one hundred years. There is no written documentation to prove that Sahle Selassie had legitimized and accepted Menilik as his Grandson even though there are documents of much less importance left behind by Sahle Selassie on frivolous or mundane matters.
At any rate, Menilik had several defects that would not have allowed him to be consecrated and anointed as “King” or “King of Kings” of Ethiopia at the great Cathedral of Mariam Tsion, the great Mother-Church where all Ethiopian Emperors sought at some point the legitimizing acceptance through the anointment ritual. According to the Fetha Negest and ancient practices of the anointment procedure, which is Judaic by origin, Menilik might not have been acceptable to be Ethiopia’s anointed Emperor because of three important reasons: 1) he was a “leper” (lemtsam), 2) he was “unclean” with a life of debauchery, and 3) he was born outside of marriage, i.e., illegitimate. And to a lesser extent an additional challenge to his anointment would have revolved around his claim to the Solomonic Line, which was questionable.
The legitimization of usurpers seemed to simplify the requirement and process of crowning of Ethiopian Emperors, since it makes the succession to the Ethiopian Throne free for all and chaotic. The far more restrictive anointment at Tsion Mariam Cathedral was supplanted by the more permissive process of “Coronation” by an Abun. I believe such view has merit and worth considering carefully. It is not, as was argued by some individuals, that one gets to be Emperor just by sheer force. There was a process of legitimization, and a process of censor. Except three or four individuals who became Emperors whose legitimacy may be questioned, every Ethiopian Emperor, in a pool of over a hundred was a legitimate son, often from a Church marriage, or properly acknowledged as a legitimate son, and with clear line of decent from the ancient “Solomonic” line of kings. Menilik does not satisfy any of the requirements of legitimacy, and that is why his right to be “King” or “King of Kings” cannot be compared as equal to that of Mengesha Yohannes, who was declared as Heir by Emperor Yohannes by a nuncupative will, thus his legitimate Successor. It is no secret that Mengesha Yohannes’s paternity was questionable, whether he was the son of Gugsa Mirtcha (older brother of Emperor Yohannes) by his wife Walete Teklehimanot (daughter of King Teklehimanot of Gojjam). That is a settled and old news in that the declaration of Emperor Yohannes on his deathbed that Mengesha Yohannes was his “son” and “Heir” to the Ethiopian Throne was an adoption and not an acknowledgment of paternity. It is an impossibility for Yohannes to have fathered Mengesha.
We hear much about the personal qualities of Menilik, especially about his wisdom, statesmanship, and generosity. However, all that adulation of Menilik is a propaganda spin, in the same way Mengistu was sung to in those same glowing forms. We know how vicious and merciless Mengistu was during the time of his dictatorial reign. The reality is quite different as well in case of Menilik. Starting from his youth, Menilik has shown how treasonous and untrustworthy he was. When he “escaped” from the court of Tewodros, he left behind (abandoned) his young wife (daughter of Tewodros) without ever making an effort to have her back or explain his actions even after the death of Tewodros. When Tewodros was informed of Menilik’s “escape,” the Emperor’s first question was how any man could abandon a young wife. Later, after Menilik had consolidated his power and crowned himself King, he turned on the same people who helped him in his effort to become King of Shoa—Workit and Wollo. When it comes to his private life, there are numerous stories how his courtiers hid their wives and those of the other aristocrats from his wandering eyes. Judging from numerous oral stories, I believe that it was due to his years of promiscuity with countless partners and established concubines that he suffered health problems that ultimately drove him insane and to his horrible death after totally losing control of his body function. Even his death was shrouded with mystery, some claiming that he died totally insane three years earlier and others claiming five years earlier than was officially announced i.e. in 1913.
Menilik as a statesman (Emperor) displayed particular cruelty on those he vanquished. It is a fact that he allowed his generals to mutilate viciously people he subjugated in the South, cutting off women’s breasts and men’s limbs in Keffa and Sidamo. He allowed the enslavement of tens of thousands of people from such assimilated areas. One such commander who committed unspeakable atrocities in the South was Ras Darge Sahle Selassie. In fact, the type of cruel punishment Menilik exacted after the Battle of Adowa on the soldiers locally recruited by the Italians from Akale Guzi, Hamassien, Serie, and elsewhere shows how violent and savage he truly was. He cut off limbs of prisoners of war in violation of international custom and common decency. Some supporters of Menilik, have tried to shift the blame to Mengesha Yohannes for the mutilation of prisoners as an act of vengeance. The story of blaming Mengesha for the mutilation of prisoners was a total fabrication after the fact as a spin control to the damage done to the reputation of Menilik. All one needs to do is investigate who had used such barbaric punishment and practice in the past. It is not Mengesha Yohannes, but Menilik and his commanders who were used to mutilating not only captured enemy soldiers but also civilian populations all over the South (Arisi, Sidama, et cetera). He punished the very same people who were his victims to begin with because he abandoned or outright sold them to the Italians in treaties he signed in 1889 and after. By contrast he did not touch a strand of hair of the real enemies of Ethiopia—the Italians. Menilik’s viciousness could be personal as well, as was the case when he had the tongue of an advocate, who was too loose with his language appearing in the Imperial Chilot, be cut out.
[This same trend of disrespect of Subjects of the Empire (Ethiopians) was played out again and again during the time of Haile Selassie. Haile Selassie treated Ethiopians like dirt while foreigners were given special consideration of great respect and difference. In fact, that same trend is still with us to date.]
Let us not fool ourselves by revising the history of our past leaders in an attempt to redeem our own short-comings for serving under them and the fact that we did not overthrew them much sooner. In order to find out how brutal we can be, there is no need to dig up old bones of our leaders; it suffices to examine how we dealt with each other in our own time since 1977. It is easy to establish how capable we are to commit violent and cruel acts against people who might have merely disagreed with our ideas by simply observing how we behave toward our adversaries currently. The unprovoked personal insult heaped on me by my adversary is the moral equivalent of such physical mutilation and torture as committed by Menilik’s torturers.
I need not remind anyone how our “elites” solved their problems of political competition during the era of the Derg. We all know the events of the “Red” and “White” Terror that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Ethiopians. A number of individuals now vying for political power in the guise of being in the amorphous “opposition” have committed some of the worst crimes against the children of Ethiopia. Their hands are drenched with the blood of their innocent fellow Ethiopian victims. I have no illusions about the type of vicious competition that is going on with Ethiopian politicians, and it will not surprise me if every single Ethiopian competing for office at this time is a potential Mengistu Hailemariam.
B. Menilik II: Treasonous Activities – Treaties
It is claimed by supporters of Menilik that Menilik exerted tremendous effort and energy to improve international relations with neighboring nations and European governments. Of course, such statement is either naive or too devious and calculated to mask the harm done to Ethiopians due to the divisiveness of Menilik. In order to understand the real harm done by Menilik to the people of Ethiopia, it is important that we consider his activities in two distinct periods: 1) the period of his Kingship of Shoa, 1865-1889; and 2) the period after he became Emperor of Ethiopia, 1889-1913.
France started out with a significant relationship with Ethiopia with a lot more far- reaching interest than the one that existed either with Italy or with Britain. Despite Menilik’s alleged great achievements in preserving the independence of the core Ethiopian civilization, specially the monumental victory over Italy, an upstart European nation, the fact is that he did commit great treason that overshadowed his many modernization programs among which may be the establishment of modern state structure, the Franco-Ethiopian Railway Agreement et cetera. In order to understand his pattern of behavior, Ethiopians should pay special attention to Menilik, as King of Shoa, negotiating and signing in 1883 a series of agreements [Evidences Three and Four]. Menilik was making his own secret negotiation and treasonous arrangement with Italy where he was giving up Ethiopia’s vital interest and territory of Assab by an agreement of 21 May 1883 [ratified by Menilik in January of 1884] and endorsing Hanafari’s (Awssa) arrangement with Italy’s Antonelli [See Evidence: Three, Articles 8-13; and Evidence: Four].
Of course, long before the signing of those agreements in 1883, there was extended negotiation, smuggling of weapon through Awssa and the Somali border. The famous book by the French romantic poet, Jean-Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud, [1854-91] A Season in Hell, was written with the background of arms smuggling even before the Italians showed up in that part of the world in 1883-84. But more pointedly in the collection From Absimthe to Abyssinia, we find an account by the mature Rimbaud, who had by then become a gunrunner for Menilik, how 3,000 Remington Rifles and 3,000,000 rounds of ammunition was consigned in 1887 by Ras Mekonnen for Menilik. In fact, in that same article/letter, Rimbaud asserted that Menilik had acquired over 25,000 rifles (10,000 standard rifles and 15,000 percussion rifles) between the period 1880 to 1887. We are not dealing here with some minor ambition, but with a full fledged major treasonous activity. With the signing of the Treaty of Friendship (Amity) and Trade of 1883 at Addis Ababa, Menilik was fully engaged as a collaborator in the grand design of Italy to have a colony in East Africa. Italy for the first time hoisted its flag in a foreign territory in January a year later.
What is most hurtful is to realize that Menilik after giving his daughter, Zewditu Menilik, in marriage to Ras Araya Yohannes, the older son of Emperor Yohannes, on 23 October 1882 [Araya 13, Zewditu 7], that in less than a year [Menilik] would sign a series of treasonous treaties with Italy in secret undermining the effort of his own in-Law, Emperor Yohannes. Even by the standard of common human social interactions, cutting your own in-laws is not a mark of acceptable behavior. In Ethiopia, as was the case with most traditional societies, marriage was a sacred act between families not just the parties to the wedding. Who would betray one’s own in-laws to a stranger except the most despicable human being?
Menilik, as pointed out by Svern Rubenson, seems to have been obsessed with becoming Emperor. He was willing to cooperate with Italy even defying traditional taboo betraying his in-laws. By collaborating with the enemy of the people of Ethiopia, Italy, he was receiving money and weapon, which he was stockpiling in anticipation of challenging Yohannes; he was also seeking recognition as a Sovereign of a much-reduced Ethiopia or a blotted Shoa once both Menilik and Italy have achieved their diametrically opposed goals. No matter from what angle we look at the activities of Menilik, there is no way we could be able to vindicate him from being called a traitor.
By 1888 Menilik’s treason was openly communicated to the Italian Government. Menilik had informed Antonelli that Menilik and Teklehimanot of Gojjam will be wagging war on Emperor Yohannes and that the Italians “occupy the Eritrean plateau.” [Zewde, 246] Menilik had called on his army to fight against Yohannes on 24 November 1888 publicly announcing a call for arms in market places with the rolling of thunderous Negarits! However, when Yohannes marched into Gojjam and the co-conspirator King of Gojjam run away and sued for mercy, Menilik broke his promise as usual and did not try to help Teklehimanot except having sent to him some rifles. Menilik heard that his co-conisparator King Teklehimanot has made peace with Yohannes on 16 December 1888, Menilik who had no pride at all, shamelessly swallowed back his vomit and immediately tried to be back in good favor with Yohannes, lowering himself to the extent of asking Ras Darge to lie and to swear in writing to Yohannes “that all the plotting had been instigated by the Gojjam King.” [Prouty, 60] [Zewde, 246-248]
At the same time, Menilik was groveling to get back into the good grace of Yohannes, he was conspiring with Antonelli how the Italian Government from the North and Menilik from the South would coordinate their attack against Yohannes. “Menilek was asking Antonelli why the Italians did not create a diversion in the north to draw Yohannes away from him.” [Prouty, 61] It is really shameful for any one to try to cover-up such gross treasonous activities by Menilik when our national security or the wellbeing of our fellow Ethiopians was at such great peril.
By failing to come to the support of Yohannes at Metema, when Ethiopia was under attack for the second time by the Mahdists from the Sudan, Menilik committed the most devastating act of treason and betrayal against both Emperor Yohannes and the State and People of Ethiopia. The subscript of events surrounding Yohannes in the last year of his life was even more illustrative of how a great Emperor makes choices under difficult circumstances. The story goes that Yohannes having learned [some say from the Awssa leader Hanafari] about the back room deals and treasonous agreements Menilik had made with the Italians, was on his way to Shoa to punish Menilik for his treasonous activities when he was informed that the Mahdists were marching toward Gondar. The choice was either to leave the Mahdists to the local leaders of Gondar/Semien to deal with the problem and simply march down to Shoa, or change his plan and confront the Mahdists to protect Gondar, the great center of learning and Christianity. Emperor Yohannes, a deeply religious and ethical man, chose to protect Ethiopia first and deal with a treasonous vassal later. Here is an example how a great Ethiopian Emperor makes choices under extremely difficult circumstances.
[One such other example of great moral choice is that of Emperor Gelawdewos who had to choose from a prophesied death if he fought the remnant army of Gragn Mohammed the next day, wherein the Emperor’s trespass of having kept by force the beautiful wife of a priest as his concubine would be forgiven, or retreat and save himself to fight another day and win and live a long life, but his Soul would be damned. He chose to fight the next day in order to receive forgiveness for his Soul, and died as predicted (March 20, 1559).]
Moreover, Menilik instead of going to the aid of Yohannes to fight a common menace to Ethiopia, he was sending messengers to the Caliph-Khedive to act as a go between to appease a determined foe. It is to be recalled that Menilik conspired with Teklehimanot after the Mahdists had devastated Teklehimont, who was ordered by Yohannes to face off the attack of the Mahdists while Yohannes was engaged in the north against the Italian incursion into Ethiopia. Menilik used that situation to incite Teklehimanot into his treasonous scheme against Yohannes as if it was Yohannes’s fault that Tekelehimanot suffered defeat. The fact was that Menilik failed to go to the assistance of Teklehimanot though he had been ordered to do so by Emperor Yohannes. If we consider the activities of Menilik during that time period, we find him negotiating with Antonelli, the Italian representative, and cooperating with the Italian government to undermine the effort of Yohannes to protect Ethiopian territorial integrity one hand, and negotiating with the Mahdists and the Caliph-Khedive compromising and endangering the Ethiopian people of Gondar, Semien, Gojjam and the Blue Nile and Lake Tana Basin. Menilik was the real enemy of the People of Ethiopia not just treasonous to one Emperor.
By his own admission, Menilik stated in a letter to the Caliph the extent of his treasonous behavior. “When you were at war with Yohannes, I was also at war with him. Between us there has been no war.” [Prouty, 119] Is this the type of leader any person, let alone an Ethiopian, can be proud of? For far too long we have been victimized by the lies and spins of so called historians and political scientists who have lied and misconstrued historic events to fit a political goal. Menilik was a truly devious and crafty person. We owe it to our own sense of justice that such a despicable person be debunked from the high position of fame and respect we have been according him and be put in a place of great dishonor as the most vile person ever to ascend to leadership position in Ethiopian history.
The treasonous crime of Menilik in deliberately stalling and not supporting Emperor Yohannes at Metema was particularly heinous when we take into account how Menilik had sworn to support and be loyal to Emperor Yohannes in 1877. Menilik stood in front of Emperor Yohannes begging for forgiveness carrying a stone on his shoulders in the traditional form of showing great humility, with the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church with all its glory [Abun, Fathers of the Church, Great Scholars] standing as witnesses for that solemn occasion at Boru. (Wollo). [I have seen a picture of Menilik and another man with small rocks on their shoulders, which was quite disconcerting to me.] The fact that Menilik was an in-law to Yohannes did not seem to matter to Menilik that much either. In fact, oral tradition holds that Yohannes was killed by hired assassins sent by Menilik, shot from behind during the heat of battle at a point when the Ethiopian Army was clearly winning against the Mahdists. Menilik all his life displayed characteristics of deviousness, betrayal, cowardice, promiscuity, and greed for money. I am not in anyway dictating to anyone how to choose personal heroes, but I do question having someone with such despicable record being held as a national symbol of heroism for all of us.
[In 1966 I was a Second Year University student, and as Editor of a student literary magazine called Something, I interviewed an old ascetic man who claimed to have been in the same Royal tent where Emperor Yohannes was being treated for the wounds he received on the battlefield. The old man was then a young alter-boy with the Abun and the Clergy who were accompanying the Taboot and the Emperor. The point is that according to the old man, Emperor Yohannes was wounded in his upper body, although the old man could not recall if the wound was a chest or back wound. He recalled that the Emperor died after he named his successor to be Mengesha Yohannes. It was during the late hours after mid-night that the resurgent Mahdists sneaked in to the camp and during the confusion were able to enter the Royal Tent and cut off the head of the dead Emperor. However, there are other individuals who claim Emperor Yohannes was already dead for a couple of days when the Mahdists stormed the Ethiopian camp.]
Menilik was sulking around in the safety of the boudoir of his wife in North Wollo while the great heroes of Ethiopia were fighting and falling with their Emperor for their faith and country at Metema. The action of Menilik, moving into Wollo rather than joining in the battle against an exceptionally brutal enemy, was a strategic move to counter possible repercussion from the inevitable fallout with Yohannes, if Yohannes is successful in his campaign against the Mahdists. One of the commanders of Yohannes, who accepted the challenge to fight along Emperor Yohannes, was his God-son, Ras Michael of Wollo whose fiefdom was being threatened by Menilik.
Emperor Yohannes died in battle on 12 March 1889, and the Wutchale Treaty was signed by Menilik on 2 May 1889, barely two months from the death of Emperor Yohannes. Before that Menilik as King of Shoa had signed a series of secret agreements on 21 May 1883 with Italy pledging that he will not interfere with Italy’s interest in the new colony of Eritrea and Afar coastal areas, and received five thousand modern rifles and money. Wutchale was simply the culmination of a long standing treasonous relationship Menilik had been carrying behind the back of Yohannes [Evidence: Three, Four]. All those back room deals and agreements were undertaken while Yohannes and his great General Alula were fighting the Italians defending Ethiopia against the incursion of Italians into “Eritrea” and the Mahdists on the Western front. As was objectively analyzed by Sven Rubenson in his book The Survival of Ethiopian Independence, the Wutchale Treaty first draft of August-September 1888 predates by a year and three months the death of Yohannes and the final signing of the Treaty itself by a year and five months. No sane person can accept the argument that there was colonial threat against Menilik in 1883 or in 1888 forcing him to negotiate and sign any of those treasonous agreements or to maintain a clandestine and conspiratorial relationship with Italy against Emperor Yohannes.
The depth of the inhumanity and greed for power of Menilik was clearly established by the manner he reacted when the death of the great Emperor reached him. Menilik’s behavior was reported by Antonelli himself that there is no doubt as to the recklessness and insensitivity of Menilik. “When the news of the death of the emperor reached Menilik, he and the queen were in Wollo, at Wuchale, a fief belonging to the queen. Also, present in camp was Antonelli who had just delivered 5,000 Remington rifles. Via Antonelli’s courier, Menilik informed the king of Italy that he would like Italian soldiers to occupy Asmara, in order to discourage the imperial pretensions of Mengesha Yohannes.” [Prouty, 61] As usual Menilik’s first reaction was focused on protecting his own interest not the security of the nation, Ethiopia. What kind of leader would ask a foreign and hostile government to occupy part of ones own country and people as part of his game plan to become the leader of that same country? By any standard of decent measurement, Menilike’s behavior was both inhumane and treasonous.
I must point out that I am not claiming that everything that happened in the Nineteenth Century was a total loss. No doubt, that Ethiopian ancient, medieval, and “modern” history, is rich in monumental events. Ethiopians have contributed greatly to the history of Africa and the world in general. For example, our Ethiopian experience of demographic movements and integration, without a shadow of doubt, shows the intimate relationship of the land and people that comprise of the present people of “Eritrea” with the present people and Empire of Ethiopia. It is extremely important to remember that the Nineteenth Century history of Ethiopia represents only a small fragment of the long history of a nation and a people whose political, cultural, and economic lives have been forged and molded over thousands of years through demographic movements, intermarriages, enduring faith both Christian and Moslem, and in the melting-pot of Ethiopia’s traditional market-place system.
Much of the dispute among Ethiopians (“Eritreans,” Oromos, Sidamas, Somalis et cetera) at the present time, revolves around the issue of the type of relationships that might have existed throughout history between the Ethiopian central government (power) and the diverse ethnic groups that constituted Ethiopia. Those who want to pursue independence have asserted that the relationship that existed between the Ethiopian Central Government and such groups of people was loose and did not involve more than the payment of tribute or tax, and that the Ethiopian Central Government has nothing to do with the political, social, or cultural lives of most of the groups of people who were paying such tributes. On the other hand, individuals who want to keep the integrity of modern Ethiopia see in the same history an Ethiopian central government very intimately involved with the political, social, and cultural lives of the diverse people that constitute Ethiopia. They see Ethiopia as a mosaic of cultures, languages et cetera but with one single modern Ethiopian identity.
Menilik continued his treasonous activities as Emperor of Ethiopia after the untimely death of Emperor Yohannes by entering the following several more agreements, conventions, or international instruments:
1) the 1889 and 1890 Treaties [Evidence: Five A, B, C, and D],
2) the 1896 Conventions [Evidence: Six A, and B],
3) the 1900 Convention [Evidence: Seven],
4) the 1902 Treaties [Evidence: Eight A, and B],
5) the 1908 Conventions [Evidence: Nine A, and B], and
6) the 1908 Additional Act [Evidence Ten].
Those series of agreements with Italy have been the singular source of all of our problems for the last one hundred years. And the devastating 1902 Treaty [Evidence: Eight A] signed with Britain limiting Ethiopia from using for development purpose such as irrigation, damming et cetera Lake Tana, and the Blue Nile and other rivers in the basin. It is this treaty that Egypt and the Sudan invoke to this day as giving them absolute veto on anything in connection with the Blue Nile River, Blue Nile River Basin, and Lake Tana. There is a dispute whether Sudan was mentioned in the original Treaty but was later added to without the approval of the Ethiopian government. However, such allegation is a non-issue due to principles of state succession.
C. Menilik II: At the Battle of Adowa and Empress Taitu
The most significant historical modern period for both Ethiopia and the people of the region is the reign of Emperor Menilik II. Menilik pursued, almost obsessively, two important politically significant programs: 1) the expansion of Shoa and that of Ethiopia by recovering lost territories by annexing and assimilating independent or semi-independent people in the South, South-East, and South-West; and 2) a heightened international relations with European governments and states in pursuit of his ambition to acquire weapons in order to challenge Emperor Yohannes. The two goals were complementary. By ceding land to the Italians and the British and the French in the North, North-West, South-East, he believed wrongly that he would be gaining military aid and money from the colonizers, which he would have used first to defeat Yohannes to become Emperor, and then with that leverage to expand his Empire South. I find both of Menilik’s approach most objectionable and treasonous, I have established that fact beyond any doubt with documentary evidence of agreements he signed.
I hold that Emperor Menilik’s “expansion” South though brutal in some areas of operations, was not a European type colonial subjugation of people, but assimilatory, and a process of nation building. There are fundamental differences between colonialism and Menilik’s expansionism. Liberation movements such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and others who are claiming that their constituencies are colonies of the Ethiopian Empire are misapplying or misusing the fact of assimilation as proof of colonial occupation. If we persist in using such absurd lexicon, the better pronouncement would be “the colonization of Amhara people by the Oromo people” rather than the Oromo people being colonized by the Amhara people. Neither paradigm is good. The reality on the ground shows great strides being made by the people of Ethiopia themselves laying down the ground work for a great democratic unified people with pronounced national identity as opposed to a “state” federated or confederated but divided across ethnic lines.
The Wutchale Treaty, as stated above was the first openly treasonous treaty Menilik signed as Emperor of Ethiopia. During the dispute of the Wutchale Treaty leading to Italy’s threat of military attack, Menilik was willing to give additional territory consisting of the whole of Tygrie, part of Begemder/Semen, and a chunk of Afar to Italy. It was the indomitable and exquisitely brave Empress Taitu who mobilized her relations in Begemder, Wollo, and of Tygrie and confronted Menilik with a war plan (either he fights or risk being ejected and possibly be replaced by Taitu’s favorite Mengesha Yohannes). Almost all of the Shoan warlords and some of the Oromo commanders, who supported Menilik’s inclination to recapitulate to the demands of Italy, were corrupted by Antonelli, the Italian Ambassador in residence in Addis Ababa, although some of whom later distinguished themselves as great commanders and warriors at the Battle of Adowa. Such cowardice behavior of Menilik or his supporters was not the general feeling or characteristics of ordinary Shoans or lower level commanders nor of their soldiers.
An Italian assessment of Menilik is not flattering at all. “Menilek is weak, uncertain, and in the hands of his wife. Everyone is sick of his long rule, and awaits with resignation the arrival from Jerusalem of a European who will bring peace to the country … No one in Ethiopia believed any longer in the good intentions of Italy, but still Menilek resisted pressure from many in his entourage to use military force to remove Italy from Ethiopian territory. The pro war faction was said to be led by the empress herself.” [Prouty, 119 – 120] There were several articles assessing the relative strength of Menilik and Taitu in newspapers. It is interesting to note that even though Italian papers were negative toward Taitu, French and English papers were more balanced or more supportive of Taitu than Menilik. At any rate, it was common knowledge in Menilik’s Court that the Empress was the one who was the most patriotic of the two. Oral tradition has it that Empress Taitu was so incensed of the issue of the infringement of Ethiopian sovereignty that she had banned Menilik from her bed.
As was proven time and again, ordinary Shoans like all other ordinary Wolloies, Gojjames, Oromos, Tygreans, in short all other ordinary Ethiopians have done extraordinary acts of great courage in defense of our country whenever called upon. As far as I know, from all the oral tradition I heard, and the numerous books I read, ordinary Ethiopians never once failed to show up when called upon to defend Ethiopia in the thousands of years of our existence as a free people and the countless battles we fought for that freedom.
People do not realize that Menilik had never commanded an army in any actual battle before Adowa. Even his so called skirmish with Bezabih to become king of Shoa was fought by his Commanders as were all the battles ever fought to promote and expand his Kingship. He was what would be called a remote-control-commander, never facing his enemies in battlefields except in Adowa. Even at that he was safely tucked in a safe area miles away from the battlefield.
Menilik’s treason against the people of Ethiopia continued in his not pursuing the battle won at great sacrifice at Adowa because he did not get Italy out of Ethiopian historic territory. He failed to secure our coastal territories and outlets to the world. It is not his being afraid of other Western colonial powers in the area that deterred him from freeing the whole of Ethiopia’s Territory from the Italians. Anyone can check the history of the period to see if there was any military design and military preparedness by either France or Britain on Ethiopia. There was none. In fact, it insults our intelligence for anyone to argue that Menilik’s retreat and abandoning of Ethiopians (Eritreans) for the second time after winning a great battle is for the preservation of Ethiopia’s independence from the other colonial powers (France, Britain). [See Section V. (C) The Myth of the Threat of Colonialism]
Such ridiculous argument of the threat of “colonial” occupation of Ethiopia does not take the obvious fact into account that if Britain and France had design on Ethiopia at that particular time [The Battle of Adowa], what better opportunity was there for them to move their occupation armies into the very heart of Ethiopia and colonize Ethiopia while Menilik and the entire Ethiopian Army was cooped up in Adowa and vicinity? All of my ill-informed critics argue that it was the fear of attack (non-existing as matter of fact) of Western colonizers, a revisionist and recently contrived reading of history, the reason why Menilik did not pursue the Adowa victory to free Ethiopia (Eritrean) from all foreign occupation. There are also those who have forwarded a more reasonable assertion that it was a matter of logistic, meaning questions of shortage of supply and problem of health that forced Menilik to retreat back to Addis Ababa before clearing the Italians from Ethiopian occupied Territory of “Eritrea.” However, such conjecture also falters when we consider what happened in Italy after their defeat at Adowa. The Crispi government fell, Italy was in disarray and was not in any position to mount a counter offensive on Ethiopian Army. In March of 1896, the Italian Commander Baratieri, who was captured by
Taitu’s soldiers at the Battle of Adowa and freed later, was tried by an Italian military
court and declared unfit to command. A new Italian Government was installed, and new commander was sent to Asmara. There was nothing to stand in the way for Menilik (except a garrison at Adigrat) to march on to Asmara. In fact, it took Italy almost a decade to recover from the crises.
As the consequence of its defeat at the battle of Adowa, the Crispi Government fell on 16 March 1896. A new government was established under a new leader, Marquis di Rudini. It was reported that the new Italian government spent more money to put a new face on the disastrous consequence of its adventurous effort to create a colony in Ethiopia compared to the money spent to its war effort on Ethiopia. Hundreds of millions of lire was earmarked to pursue such a goal. It was not without reason that Menilik marched back to Shoa rather than carrying on his victory to its logical conclusion. They were obviously bribed and corrupted. There is much buried from public view of events in those crucial couple of years after the defeat of Italy at the battle of Adowa. For the next four years there was nothing done about the Eritrean question or the occupied Afar Coastal Ethiopian territory. What happened to the millions of lire allocated to deal with the crises by the new Italian government.
The truth is that Menilik was just being Menilik, as was his temperament of cowardice, intrigue, narcissism and disloyalty. He was only concerned about his own survival in power. To begin with in the aftermath of the Battle of Adowa, he was already on a shaky ground since he was literally forced by his commanders who were mobilized by his Empress to confront Italy. For example, Ras Mengesha Yohannes, as well as Ras Sebhate, who was very reserved about Menilik’s leadership to begin with, was already questioning the treatment of the local commanders. The battle configuration and deployment shows also that Menilik was very insecure at the encampment for the Battle of Adowa, never letting his almost thirty thousand “praetorian” guard away from him; he did not let them participate in the fighting at Adowa except at the very end to claim some war trophy. It was the Tygrians, Wolloies, the Gojjames, the Gonderes, the Oromos who did the fighting and dying too. [If you had paid attention you would realize that I always refer to the Battle of Adowa as the people’s war and as the single most war that united the Ethiopian “People” as one. They fought not for their King or Emperor, and won a monumental battle for themselves and their children.]
Menilik being a usurper of the Ethiopian Throne from the legitimate successor to Yohannes IV, his adopted son Mengesha Yohannes, would have exposed himself to possible overthrow and replacement by Mengesha Yohannes or others if he had stayed for long in Tygrei. Some of the commanders from the North had joined the battle at Adowa at the last minute for they were not sure as to the commitment of Menilik; they have been victims of Menilik’s treachery too often before. Some of the descendants of Yohannes had great reservation on the leadership of Menilik. Menilik being far from his power center and in the center of the people he had humiliated in the past was very vulnerable to such possibility of being overthrown if he had stayed around and ventured out into Eritrea. Thus his decision to retreat and abandon Eritreans to their fate a second time was purely his selfish interest to preserve his power and Crown at the cost of Ethiopians and not because of the threat of Colonial Western Powers. In fact by reestablishing Ethiopian Sovereignty in “Eritrea” would have given him more leverage vis-à-vis the Europeans. However, even liberating a portion of Akale Guzi, Kunama, and Afar Coastal Territories would have created a far larger block of Tygrean dominated challenge and a real treat to Menilik and the Shoan “aristocracy.”
The famous equestrian bronze statue of Menilik at Arada Giorgis, Addis Ababa, says a lot more than meets the eyes. The statue that depicts Emperor Menilik II in Imperial Regalia mounted on his charger “Aba Dagnew” caught in a frozen moment as the Charger is surging forward and rearing on its hind-legs, is one of the greatest propaganda piece shoved down the throat of the people of Ethiopia bronze and all. The statue was erected a day earlier by a shaky to be crowned Emperor Haile Selassie seeking legitimacy and endorsement from the “old-guards,” to appease any resentment of Haile Selassie’s Crowning. After all Haile Selassie had driven out Eyasu the legal Heir to the Ethiopian Throne and installed a puppet Empress whose husband his soldiers had just killed, which might have accelerated or caused the death of the Empress soon after. I am diverting into another story. Oral story tells us that it was Haile Selassie eager to be crowned Emperor who accelerated the death of the ill Empress by having her attending physician inject her with a deadly dose.
The hero that should have been sitting on that equestrian bronze statue should have been Empress Taitu, the true hero and the real commander-in-chief of the Ethiopian Army at the battle of Adowa, and a long time leader of the resistance against the Italian ambition and aggression against Ethiopia. Even her enemies, the Italians, had great respect for her as opposed to Menilik whom they thought of as a push-over of a man. The editorials and articles printed in Italian Newspapers of the time depicted her as the single most formidable force who was incorruptible, proud, and with infinite sense of Ethiopian history and legacy, and was the only person who was giving the Italians difficulties in their colonial ambition. She was all over their news media at the time, a far more accurate reporting than the reporting of revisionist historians and pretenders writing silly apologetic polemics in our time in cheap Websites. Menilik was literally forced to launch the defense of Ethiopia by his Empress, the indomitable Taitu, who was the one wearing the trousers in that family. If you seek truth, there is your Hero of Adowa in skirt!
We do not need to bend history or create a myth in comparing the patriotic and heroic characteristics of Yohannes IV and the contrasting treasonous and cowardly characteristics of Menilik II. All we need to do is listen to the words of Menilik’s own wife, his Empress Taitu, as quoted in Zewede Gebre Selassie’s book from a dairy of Augusto Salimbeni contemporaneous with that crucial moment in time: “How is Emperor Yohannes never to cede a hand’s breadth of land, beat the Italians, beat the Egyptians, and for this was killed, and you [Menilik], after such an example, wish to sell your country? What will history have to say about you?” [Zewde, 254-255]
D. Menilik II: Greed for Power and Money
By observing the modus operandi of Menilik, one can easily identify two things that Emperor Menilik valued the most above anything else: power and money. In order to acquire both, he was willing to compromise the integrity of Ethiopia as a sovereign nation and diminish the freedom or outright sell millions of Ethiopians into slavery or colonial subjugation. All it took for Italy to make Menilik dance to their tune was to jingle some lire by way of “incentive”. The idea that he was sacrificing the periphery to keep the center free from colonialism is a very idiotic explanation and excuse. There is more to Menilik’s decision to forego the northern Ethiopian territories and people as shown above.
I will show here below, with the help of authentic documentary evidence, that Emperor Menilik II through his trusted Ambassador, Ras Mekonnen, and on his own signature was able to get as loan or outright “gift” of almost twenty million lire from Italy within the period of ten years 1889 to 1908, the equivalent with a buying power of a billion US dollars in current value, a form of incentive (As the Boundary Commission reminded us in its Decision of 13 April 2002, page 33). This computation does not take into account the weapon he received since 1883 through treasonable back room deals with Antonelli, the Italian “spy master” and Ambassador to Menilik’s Court. It does not include either the millions of lire that the new Italian Government, after Crispi’s Government fell on 16 March 1896, headed by Marquis di Rudini spent probably corrupting Menilik and his Courtiers. During the same ten-year period Menilik had ceded all the territories that are now the causes of our being the most populous landlocked country in the World. He had also signed on an agreement that prevents us from developing the Blue Nile River Basin. Our hands are tied no matter where we look. And all this is caused by Emperor Menilik and his greed.
The money paid by the Italian government represent a major payment by the new Italian State barely twenty years old at the time it committed payment to Menilik. It was payment that was of great national significance and its tangible proof as to Italy’s commitment to acquire a colony in Africa arranged with an African King for signing all kinds of boundary agreements affirming the Italian claim over a part of Ethiopian territory that included the highlands of Akale Guzai, Hamassien, Serie, and the lowlands of Barka, Kunama, in the West; and Afar, Adal, Somalia et cetera in the East. The equivalent buying value that Menilik was to receive from the Italian Government, over a period of time synchronized with the signing of Treaties or some form of International instrument including the hasty Peace Treaty respecting the status quo despite the fact that Ethiopians had won a decisive battle at Adowa, was no less than a billion US dollars in today’s money,. And there was no reason whatsoever to sign off Eritrea one more time to a foreign power, except for the question of the ‘incentive’ for Menilik and Menilik’s desire to stay in power unchallenged specially by Tygrean aristocrats. [It is not of material importance whether Menilik received all of the money promised or agreed to by Italy.]
Just after signing the Wutchale Agreement [Evidence: Four], Menilik signed a Loan Agreement on 1st October 1889, done in Naples, for a loan of four million (4,000,000) lira, and later another Loan Agreement for two million (2,000,000) lire 26 October 1889 [Evidence: Five] Those so called “loans” were never repaid because that was not intended to begin with. The payment was carried out before the Battle of Adowa. Soon after the end of the Battle of Adowa, the Crispi Government of Italy was replaced by the Government of Marquis di Rudini who was allowed more money than the cost of the of the war itself, in order to secure peace with Menilik. The Boundary Commission in its Decision of 13 April 2002 took notice of Menilik’s acceptance of money for land; the Commission bluntly stated, “Emperor Menelik of Ethiopia at first sought a frontier considerably to the north of the Mereb-Belesa-Muna line, but eventually agreed in 1900 to keep to the line in exchange for a payment of five million (5,000,000) lire, apparently for forgoing a more extensive claim.” [Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission, Decision on Delimitation rendered April 13, 2002, page 33]
A more comprehensive treaty was aimed seven years later after the Battle of Adowa. On the same day i.e., 16 May 1908, Menilik entered into two Conventions with Italy setting the Frontier between “the Italian Colony of Eritrea and Ethiopia” [Evidence: Nine A]. And another Convention of 16 May 1908 for the Delimitation of the Frontier between the Italian possession in Somalia and the provinces of the Ethiopian Empire [Evidence: Nine B]. By the Additional Act granted on the same date [Evidence: Nine C] Menilik received another three million (3,000,000) lire. Although this Additional Act only mentioned the delimitation dealing with Italy’s possession (colony) of Somalia, the reason for receiving such large amount of money from the Italian Government was also the price of the signing of the Convention allowing Italy to keep Eritrea, despite the fact Italy was defeated at the battle of Adowa.
One possible reason for Menilik’s attempt to separate the agreement about the Somali Border in the South-East from that of the “Eritrean” one in the North may have to do with Menilik’s exceptional greed for money. It is to be recalled that the Tygrean Nobles were not too happy with Menilik’s manipulative marginalization of both the Mirtcha and Sebagadis families and supporters of Tygrei pitting one against the other. Ras Sebhat is one good example who had great reservation about the motives and commitment of Menilik. In fact, Empress Taitu was in favor of Mengesha Yohannes, the descendant of Emperor Yohannes and the Mirtcha family, whereas the Court lead by the senior members of the Shoan “aristocracy” such as Ras Darge and the Mehale Sefaris were promoting Sabagadis’s descendants who ultimately was instrumental in the marginalization of the aristocracy in favor of the Mehale Sefaris.
It was after the death of Mengesha Yohannes [by possible poisoning on 29 December 1906, in prison at Ankober] that the Shoan aristocracy and the Mehale Sefaris had designed to insure that the Crown will remain in Shoa or most importantly away from Tygrei. With the support of Seyoum, Hagos and other rival Tygrean warlords to Mengesha Yohannes, the Mehale Sefaris succeeded in isolating and marginalizing and finally in throwing out Empress Taitu from the Ethiopian Government power structure that she had controlled for few years by then due to the failing health of Menilik. At any rate, if the money Menilik was receiving in some form was tied to the Battle of Adowa or the “Eritrean” boundary agreements of 1900 and 1908 agreements, the Tygrean “Warlords” would have demanded a share of the payment. Thus the devious attachment of the “gift” payment by Italy to Menilik to Somali border agreement may have such an explanation of greed.
By using the advanced logic of my critics, should we say Menilik was forced and “coerced” to agree to take money since those agreements were entered during the period of colonialism? Or maybe gifts do not count as parts of international agreements? The historian whom one critic quoted to justify the argument of coercion have stated contradictory statements in a couple of public addresses: one time claiming that the money received by Menilik was some form of compensation for the death of Ethiopian soldiers and the destruction of property, and at another time claiming such payment was an incentive for Menilik for signing the boundary Treaties. Thus, I would not put much credibility to such words on that issue. At any rate, if the payment was compensatory, then I want to know what unfathomable compelling reason was there not to state in the Treaty that the payment was “a compensation” rather than adopting a more precarious form that is open to suspicion (loan/gift/grant). Nevertheless, such argument fails completely when we examine the fact that Menilik’s hands were used to jingling Italian lire since he had already drawn on the five million lira through his agent Ras Mekonnen before the battle of Adowa [Evidence: Five B, C, and D]. Thus the “compensation” argument for taking money from the Italians does not apply even as a lame excuse because of the time differential.
[Since the time my last two essays had been posted, I have received some interesting letters. A couple of letters in particular I found peculiar; those letters on one hand entreat me not to post the letters, but at same time wanted me to read the diatribe and defamatory statements comparing the insignificant amount of money or weapon received by Kassa Mirtcha (Yohannes IV) at a time when he was a struggling provincial leader during the Napier Expedition, with that of Emperor Menilik who racked the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars from Italy selling off Ethiopian territory and its people. How could any sane person compare the two.]
Here is my personal observation on Menilik. I believe Menilik II has been over-sold, and has been used by Court retainers and Imperial household members to undermine legitimate traditional decentralized government administrative structures. Menilik was at best a very mediocre leader; however, at his worst, he was a treasonous, cowardly, devious, greedy, and cruel Emperor, not to mention his insatiable sexual promiscuity. After reading the treaties signed by Menilik, and after considering the magnitude of the amount of money he took from a hostile colonial power, and after studying how he pitted Ethiopian leaders at each other’s throat, I cannot make any other conclusion except to state that Menilik II was not a good symbol for our time. The harm he committed against Ethiopians and the State of Ethiopia far outweighs the good he has done for “Shoa” or more specifically for the Mehale Sefaris. In good conscience, I cannot sit quietly without correcting the inequities and injustice and betrayal committed by Menilik II against the people of Ethiopia from north to south and east to west.
Making Menilik as the “battle cry” of the Mehale Sefaris and those who are seeking office in a future Mehale Sefari controlled Ethiopian Government is tragic and divisive. The Adowa victory is promoted in order to mask the underlying treasonous activities of Menilik that lead to that famous battle. In order to galvanize the Ethiopian people to move against the current rulers, new enemies have to be created in the fashion of the now defunct Soviet Government secret services used to doing. And for the Mehale Sefaris and few Tygrean allies, one such individual target is this author, for having the dare to speak truth to power in an effort to bring about total change of the power structure that had been in place since 1868.
There is also this argument by some Ethiopians, no doubt motivated by a desire to serve a much universal purpose, that Menilik should not be criticized or diminished in any manner because he has become a symbol for People of African origin allover the world. I have thought about such argument carefully and have rejected it completely. Let people find their own heroes from their own communities and history. I do not give a hoot about what the world thinks about Ethiopia or Ethiopians and our culture. The judgment or values of other nations is simply secondary and not a factor that would make me hide the truth, especially a type of truth helpful to build a healthy society based on justice and equality for all. I am not in any way bashful to state openly and bluntly that of all the histories of nations, communities, and societies I have studied, none had impressed me as that of the history of the people of Ethiopia. I find in Ethiopians great nobility of spirit, great moral principles, and tremendous strength of character and surviving with great dignity against tremendous man-made and natural disastrous situation of recurring famine, civil war, inept leaders, et cetera. I cannot see how a people from the West or the East could give us any moral lesson when their history is drenched to its core with the blood of hundreds of millions of innocent victims. What is important to me, more than technological and industrial development, is the moral and ethical content of a society. Development without the corollary moral and ethical development leads to social disaster as evidenced in the death and destruction of the Second World War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf Wars et cetera. We need to be careful what we wish for—we might end up getting it.
There is no existential or logical contradiction in my assertions in this essay. One must realize that when dealing with complex issues, it is inevitable that an author may have to use layers of statements that may look on the surface contradictory. However, such statements may have different referential trajectories as opposed to being part of a single matrix of an idea or syllogism. Thus, I suggest that the best way to read my essay is never to lose sight of the general theme or thesis of the article. I am as annoyed as the next person with clumsy logical fallacies or contradictions, especially in a work that should not afford such handicaps.
My interest in writing all these articles is solely to promote what is beneficial to Ethiopians and Ethiopia. I believe such goals could be achieved by debunking myth and false grandeur of Ethiopian leaders, in order to reinvigorate our social responsibility with renewed commitment for social justice and freedom to all. The entrenched group coming out of Addis Ababa|Ankober has for far too long emasculated us all, taking away our patrimony, dehumanizing and degrading us by elevating itself as “modern” and “educated” and diminishing the rest of us as “backward,” draining almost all of our meager economic resources while living a life of affluence at our cost. This same insidious group with dubious hold on our political and social life has undermined our history and our glory, destroying the possibility of a healthy transition, from autocracy to democracy, based on local needs. After all, we are the Ethiopians who created and maintained this nation called Ethiopia for thousands of years, defending and dying for it. We are not some recently grafted individuals attached to our political and economic structure, who joined our franchise in the last one hundred and fifty years, whose timeframe is a blink.
I stand against the Mahle Sefaris because they work as a group protecting a narrow group of interests overriding the interest and welfare of the people of Ethiopia. Had members of the group acted as individuals, competing for political power or anything else in the context of Ethiopia as a whole, I would have welcome such process of social/political interactions. This is also the main reason why I criticized all forms of ethnic based political structures in the current Ethiopian government and in the formation of the opposition groups. However, I also support the view that may seem to be contradictory in that if a group of people identified by their ethnic background are attacked or severely disfranchised, such group has every right to fight back and even leave the union by organizing itself on ethnic lines. That goes beyond mere political skirmish and becomes a question of primordial instinctual fight for survival. In our Ethiopian setting, there is not a single instance of persecution of a group at such heightened level that would justify any secessionist movement.
In concluding, I must make absolutely clear that my criticism of any of the individuals identified by name and the members of groups discussed, is not meant to undermine their humanity or their rights, but is wholly aimed at their activities. The right of an individual for autonomy and self-fulfillment, though absolute in principle, seems to me contextual, in that it may not be considered in the abstract only, but must be appreciated by taking into account the effect and impact of such exercise on society. My discussion of “slaves” is simply an analysis of history that should have been discussed openly by scholars and everybody else because it was one of the significant events that led directly to the present state of affairs. Without understanding the role played by such a group in shaping the political life of Ethiopia, it is very unlikely that we will be able to overcome the type of spiraling political and economic problems with which we are faced to date. It is time to envision an Ethiopia managed not by a tiny group of individuals who are reactionary with a mentality of being under-siege, but by all of us with a stake in the both the glory and the struggle. It is time to restart a new era of horizontal political and economic developmental system. Most of all, I truly believe that no solid nation can be built on lies and deceptions of such magnitude.