Taking the Lead


It was when he left school when he was barely seventeen years old that the Emperor Menelek gave him his first real governorship—that of the rich province of Sidamo—in April 1909.

In order to understand the life and work of a Governor in a distant province in those days, it is necessary to know something of the life and ways of the country people among whom his work lay, and of the problems, military, legal and administrative, commercial and agricultural, with which he would be expected to deal, for the office of Governor covered all these duties.

Sidamo is one of the richest provinces in the empire. Lying at an altitude of about 6,000 feet, it is a fertile and well-watered country; the streams flowing down from the mountains on the west flow into Lake Abaya, and on the south-east there is another series of streams that later join the Ganale Doria. Coffee, cereals, and timber are its chief products. Recollections of a journey through part of the province are of wide open pastures and arable land, and as the road wound up and down the hills that form the backbone of the province, of pleasant forest glades of podocarpus, olive, and blackwood. The houses are largely constructed of bamboo stalks and are surrounded each by their own plantation of musa ensete and coffee-trees. Much also of the coffee is wild, and grows in the shade of the forest trees. The fibre of the musa ensete is now a valuable product, and though it has always been the custom for the Sidamo peoples to plant it round their houses, for they use the root to make bread, the rising value of its fibre on the Addis Ababa market has greatly encouraged its production. The population of the province is very varied as there are a great many different Sidamo peoples, which only half a century ago ruled themselves in comparative independence with their own ‘Balabats’ or chieftains.

Here then Dejazmach Tafari found himself at the age of seventeen ready to put into practice those reforms that he had already seen at work in his father’s governorate. Land registration followed the footsteps of the young man as he went from village to village assessing and collecting the dues that came to him.

He would have maintained an armed body of men, professional soldiers, who would accompany him as he rode on his richly caparisoned mule from place to place. He would be attended by his secretaries, his treasurer, his officers, civil and military; he would expect, as he made his circuit round his province, that all these attendants would be fed and housed by the people of the villages through which he passed. His business would be varied: the maintenance of law and order—for there was no established police force in those days—the administration of justice in those cases where there were appeals from the lower courts to that of the Governor; and this would probably be carried out in the open air at some suitable and customary place. He would sit there, his officials standing around him, his escort in the background, a ceremonial carpet thrown down for his chair, which would be carried behind him wherever he went—possibly a gaily embroidered Indian umbrella over his head and a slave with a fly whisk hovering alongside him. He would listen to the impassioned prosecutor as he waved his arms, with his shamma—a long white ‘toga,’ usually home-spun of Ethiopian cotton, about 4 yards long and 1-1/2 yards wide—wound round him in a ceremonial way; witness after witness would step out of the ring of the attentive crowd, to give his evidence as melodramatically as possible. Judgment must be given; there is no coded law to help him, only a wealth of tradition and precedent that he must follow. He may seek counsel of the old men of the district ‘the elders,’ who will sit with him, as we may picture them, to help him give sentence; and when given, he will leave the execution of the sentence in the hands of the local chief, while he passes on to hear the assessments made in the district (which he will probably ride round and see for himself) of the Government tax which must be paid in kind.

He will ride in through the market, where the whole chattering crowd will rise as one man to bow as he passes by; he will stop to inquire about market dues, to receive reports of produce and prices. As he rides on, a man will run up with a stone on his shoulder and fling himself down with the cry ‘Abet, Abet’—some grievance, some claim to be heard. He will stop to listen, call one of his officers to leave in his hands an investigation into the merits of the case, which will be put before him later. And all this goes on daily, in a province as large as Belgium—hundreds of miles—and that means days or weeks of travel, away from the centre of government. He has the responsibility of keeping his soldiers contented, the countryside quiet, justice maintained, prosperity ensured, so that the Emperor in far-off Addis Ababa may have a good opinion of the young man to whom he has entrusted so much responsibility. And he receives no salary, his officers and soldiers no pay—that must come, willingly or unwillingly, from the people over whom he is set. If they get too little his army is discontented—if they get too much it means the country is plundered and impoverished as in the old feudal days of England. And the Government must receive its dues in grain and cattle, honey and coffee—the more that comes, the more the Emperor in Addis Ababa will think of his young Governor.

Some weeks of this life show him his province—his duties and responsibilities. Then he goes back to his provincial capital with knowledge of his people and their ways, their problems and possibilities, before him. Here there will be religious duties as well, for the Church and its priests are a powerful influence in the country; and further, he himself has a profound religious feeling that his upbringing and his education have implanted and fostered, and that has been later so much in evidence in his life. And feast and fast days are numerous and must be observed with all the time and ritual that is demanded by them.

He had little more than eighteen months in Sidamo, but in that short time he began to create for himself the reputation of being a young man quite out of the ordinary—beginning to put into practice the first principles of good government which his father’s teaching and practice had instilled into him.

In 1907 his elder half-brother, to whom the coveted heritage of Harar had been granted on Ras Makonnen’s death, fell ill and died. The province was transferred to Dejazmach Balcha from 1909 to 1911. Dejazmach Tafari was appointed as Governor and Balcha returned to Sidamo. When the appointment was made he handed over his province, and made his way back via Addis Ababa to his birthplace and his own people.

At once he began with immense energy, and with the useful experience that he had now gained, to thrash out for himself methods of administration suited to the country’s needs at its stage of development at that time, dealing in turn with security, justice, and administration. He had five years in which to put these into practice—an experience that was to stand him in good stead when later on, as Regent, he began his programme of the inauguration of ‘model provinces.’

On coming back to Harar, he installed himself in his father’s palace where he had lived as a child, picked up his old ties of affection and friendship, and in July 1911 married. Waizero Menan was the daughter of Janterar Asfan and Waizero Sehin, and was through her mother the granddaughter of King Mikhail of Wollo. They were married in the church which Ras Makonnen had built in Harar—a union which through years of good and ill fortune, in times of stress and peril, of hope and progress and discouragement, was to prove a source of strength to Ethiopia, of great happiness to themselves, and an object lesson to their people. Their eldest daughter, Princess Tenagne Worq, was born in Harar in January 1913, and their eldest son, Crown Prince Asfa Wassen, in July 1916.

Politically these were exciting years. As far back as May 1906—only two months after the death of Ras Makonnen, who, it was thought by many, might be nominated by Menelek as his successor to the throne—the Emperor Menelek had an illness, probably a slight stroke, which was the preliminary to the long period of incapacitation which was now to supervene. His powers rapidly declined and from the end of 1908 he became almost wholly paralysed, though he had periods of lucidity.

In January 1908 the Emperor Menelek had appointed ministers to the various government departments, in order to ease the burden on his own shoulders, which plan was not, as might have been hoped, a successful one. But in 1909, when another stroke deprived him of the power of speech, he rallied sufficiently on 10th June to proclaim as his heir and successor Lij Yasu, his grandson by a daughter who had married Negus Mikhail of Wollo. At the same time he nominated Ras Tasamma as guardian of the young prince, who was then a boy of twelve. Ras Tasamma assumed full powers and used a seal with a lion on it and the legend ‘Ras Bitwaded Tasamma Regent Plenipotentiary of the Ethiopian Realm.’ But in April 1911 he was suddenly taken ill and died.

The Empress Taitu had much resented the transference of power to Ras Tasamma and tried to regain the Imperial power in March 1910, making appointments of her own choice, for the aged Emperor was entirely losing grip and the powerful Rases, who saw in the weakness of their ruler only an opportunity for their own aggrandizement, were scheming each for his own advantage. There was even a skirmish in the palace grounds between rival factions, and the dying Emperor had to be carried into the cellar for safety. Affairs rapidly fell into confusion; intrigue and self-seeking prevailed.

It was a misfortune that the Regent died thus suddenly, and that the Council of State, instead of waiting to see how the boy grew up, decided that Lij Yasu was now old enough to assume for himself the responsibilities of Regent. Despite a certain irresponsibility he was clever and intelligent, but freed from all real control he consorted with the wrong type of companion, formed dissolute habits, and offended the Council and Menelek’s old officers by his arbitrary acts. Finally and most fatally he turned away from his own Church and faith, and developed leanings toward the Moslem faith.

All this the young Dejazmach Tafari watched from his governorates of Sidamo and Harar. He saw the action of the Ethiopian chiefs who in 1910 had compelled the Empress Taitu to stop interference in affairs of state and to lead a life of retirement, devoting her time to the care of her invalid husband. He saw the way of life of the young ruler and its repercussions on the people whom he governed—most of all on the nobles who had feared though half resented Menelek’s nominal rule. All this time he kept out of the broil of the internal affairs of the Government, busied in his own work, consolidating his own position as a successful governor.

An incident occurred in June 1915 which has often been referred to as an omen revealing that Providence had preserved Tafari for a special role, for great tasks and achievements in the future. It has already been mentioned that out of a family of ten he was the only child to survive the perils of infancy. In a boating accident on Lake Haramaya he and two others alone escaped. In this tragic occurrence he lost his old friend and tutor Aba Samuel, a cause of great personal sorrow. ‘I have lost my best friend,’ he is reported to have said. ‘Never shall I find another like him.’ Indeed with Aba Samuel passed the last links with his home and childhood.

The outbreak of the First World War led perforce to a slackening of the interest of the European Powers in Ethiopian affairs, but it also led to an increase in internal chaos. In 1915 Lij Yasu issued a pronouncement that he was descended from the Prophet Mahomet, and he donned the Moslem turban in public. He went so far as to present the Turkish Consul-General in Harar with an Ethiopian flag on which was embroidered the crescent and the motto ‘There is no God but Allah.’ His intrigues with the Turkish Consul-General naturally perturbed the allies—the British, French, and Italians; but this was nothing to the scandal he caused among his own people by this renunciation of the faith they had guarded so jealously.

In the beginning of May 1916 Dejazmach Tafari was summoned to the capital by Lij Yasu. The order was peremptory and the summons seemed ominous of Lij Yasu’s displeasure. He did not return, and by June it became definitely known that he had been relieved of his province and transferred to Kaffa without any of the usual forms of courtesy which accompany the transfer of a chief from one province to another. This transfer caused considerable dissatisfaction in Harar, where Tafari was very popular, and it became clear that Lij Yasu intended to place all the power in Harar in the hands of Mohammedans. No governor was appointed to succeed Tafari, and it was understood that Lij Yasu would retain Harar as a royal reserve.

The story of an eye-witness of the events that followed is of signal interest. At the end of July 1916, Lij Yasu arrived secretly at Dire Dawa, having left Addis Ababa without giving any indication of his intentions. He arrived in this Moslem centre in time for the feast of Bairam, and celebrated the occasion by attending the mosque in person and offering prayers as a Moslem. During his short stay in Dire Dawa he carried on his intrigues with the Mohammedans in quite an open manner, and distributed to them broadcast some hundreds of rifles which he found in the customs houses. He adopted the dress of a Danakil, shaving his head and trimming his beard after the manner of that tribe.

After paying a flying visit to Djibuti, where he attempted to persuade the French authorities to supply him with arms, Lij Yasu left Dire Dawa for Jigjiga on 17th August, accompanied by a handful of Ethiopians and a large following of Somalis. At Jigjiga he appears to have ingratiated himself with the Somalis by giving them rifles, ammunition, clothing, and money.

These doings caused consternation amongst the leaders of the nation in Addis Ababa, which was not lessened by the receipt of a strong protest from the Allied Legations there, and led to the sending of priests and chiefs to Lij Yasu to point out to him the folly of his ways; but he remained indifferent and obstinate.

He arrived in Harar on 5th September and, instead of taking up his quarters at the palace there, went into residence with the Ydlibi family, Syrians, personal friends of his.

It was on 27th September 1916 that the storm broke, the day after the Maskal celebrations. On that day the Council of State and the Ethiopian chiefs took the law into their own hands. Gathering their forces together at Addis Ababa and sending a contingent of soldiery down to Harar, they declared that Lij Yasu was deposed, that Zauditu, Menelek’s daughter by a former wife, was appointed Empress, and that Dejazmach Tafari—perhaps as his father’s son, perhaps because he had given evidence of energy, ability, and constructive policy—should be Regent and Heir to the Throne with the title of Ras. ‘We will never submit to Islam,’ they declared. ‘We do not wish our country to be delivered to the foreigner through the malice of Lij Yasu, who is leading our kingdom to ruin.’1 The Abuna (Archbishop) Mattheos put the seal on this unprecedented action by declaring Lij Yasu excommunicate.

Tafari’s acquiescence and lead in these events needs the following comment. He had been up to that moment, and indeed has been ever since, very careful to do nothing to impair the prestige of the throne. When in 1911 Lij Yasu was confirmed in the Regency by the Council of State he had thought it expedient to bind to his side the man whom he felt to be his most potent rival, and he had therefore made a contract on his oath with Tafari whereby he on his side engaged never to remove the latter from his governorship of Harar, while Tafari on his side promised to render him continuous and loyal support. But when Lij Yasu deposed Tafari from the governorship of Harar and transferred him to Kaffa, this automatically released Tafari from his side of the bargain, and from then onwards he felt there was no course open to him but to throw in his lot with the Shoan chiefs, whose natural leader he soon became.

On the morning of 28th September rumours began to fly about the town of Harar, like fire over dry stubble, that Lij Yasu had been officially deposed at the capital and Waizero Zauditu had been proclaimed Empress of Ethiopia. On the same day it became common knowledge that a telegram signed by Tafari as Ras and Regent, addressed to the Governor of Harar, instructing that chief to seize and enchain Lij Yasu, had been received at the telegraph office, but that this had been delivered into the hands of Lij Yasu himself by the official in charge of the posts and telegraphs. Immediately after this, telegraphic communication with the capital ceased, as also the postal services.

On receiving the telegram Lij Yasu summoned the leading priests in Harar and made them swear that they would excommunicate any chiefs and soldiers who proved unfaithful to him. At the same time he swore on the Cross and Bible that he was a true Christian and remained absolutely faithful to the interests of his country. On the evening of the same day he promoted three Fitauraris to the rank of Dejazmach, and imprisoned Kagnazmach Imeru, the cousin and faithful adherent of Tafari.

On 1st October, at midday, these Dejazmaches were ordered to proceed at once with their troops to oppose the forces coming from Addis Ababa. One of them, the Syrian Ydlibi, went down to Dire Dawa and enlisted three hundred Turkish Arabs and others. In the meantime Lij Yasu remained at the palace in Harar. He was, like everyone else, without reliable news from Addis Ababa, but he must long before this have realized that he had completely lost the confidence and goodwill of his people, and that his one and faint hope lay with the Mohammedans.

By midday on 8th October it became known that Lij Yasu was leaving the town that night, which he did shortly after dusk. Before he left news was circulating in the town that the officers sent to oppose the troops that had been sent from Addis Ababa had deserted, and with their men gone over to the enemy. The night passed quietly and a tour of the town before midnight found the streets deserted except for groups of Somalis looking for a way to get out of the town. This was denied to them as the gates were closed, and they were prisoners within the walls. At daybreak the town guard lined up outside the walls, and those Somalis who attempted to scale them were shot. Inside the town those who surrendered quietly were disarmed; those who offered resistance were killed. At 11 a.m. a stream of soldiers coming through the Shoan Gate indicated the entrance of the Shoan army, and shortly afterwards a fanfare of trumpets proclaimed the arrival of their commander. Seated on a gaily caparisoned mule, clothed in rich silks and protected from the sun by a light blue parasol, Dejazmach Balcha entered the market and took formal possession of the town. In the ensuing clean-up many Somalis were slaughtered, but a refreshing tale is told of an old priest who mounted guard over some forty Somali mullahs, stopping the soldiers who came to kill by offering his own life first. To the Somalis he said: ‘We are all priests though of a different creed. I will save you to-day; and maybe one day you will save me.’

Under the stern hand of Dejazmach Balcha excitement quickly abated and order was restored.

Meanwhile Lij Yasu, unmolested, made his way with a few followers into the Danakil country.

Thus the overthrow of Lij Yasu was accomplished without bloodshed in the capital, and with general acceptance by the majority of chiefs throughout the country.

It was not to be supposed that Negus Mikhail, Lij Yasu’s father, overlord of the warlike Wollo Gallas, himself a man of proved valour and a good soldier, would acquiesce in all this. ‘I cannot look on quietly,’ he said, and prepared for war. Gathering his forces, he set them in motion early in October against Shoa. The Shoan chiefs found themselves at a grave disadvantage as they were unable to assemble their forces and the forces of those who sided with them so quickly. Some of the big chiefs who under Menelek had been comrades-in-arms with Mikhail and had fought with him against the Italians at Adowa, found it difficult now to decide quickly to make common cause against him. In particular Ras Demissie who was connected with him by marriage; Ras Seyum who was his son-in-law; Ras Walda Giorgis of Gondar; and of course Ras Hailu who, true to type, was sitting on the fence. Ras Tafari had set himself with great address and patience to gain these men over, but he needed time. Ras Lul Seged was sent out with a totally inadequate force to try to hold up Mikhail’s advance, but was killed in the bloody battle which ensued, and his troops cut to pieces. Thereupon the Minister of War, Fitaurari Habta Giorghis himself, gathering all the troops by then available, sallied forth to do battle. From Debra Berhan, about eighty miles north-east of Addis Ababa, he sought to save time for reinforcements to come up by opening negotiations with Negus Mikhail. The latter fell into the trap and time, all precious to him, was lost in fruitless parleying. Fitaurari Habta Giorghis even went so far as to send him a gift of ammunition to allay his suspicions.

Fifteen days later Tafari felt himself strong enough to move. Leaving Dejazmach Balcha, who had returned from Harar, to guard the capital, he moved out and the two armies made contact at Sagalle, near Sendafa, only fifty miles from Addis Ababa. The country there is an open rolling plain. The Shoan army was drawn up on the forward slopes of gently rising ground covered in front by marshy land. Ras Tafari himself, taking post with the reserve, directed operations, with Ras Kassa on the right and Fitaurari Habta Giorghis in the van. Negus Mikhail essayed a night attack but his troops got into difficulties in the swamp, where at dawn they were fiercely attacked by the ‘Arada Zabagnoch’ (town guards of Addis Ababa) under Aka Gabru supported by the men of Sidamo. There was great slaughter and for a time the day appeared to be going against the Shoans, whereupon Ras Ali, commanding Negus Mikhail’s main body, seized the opportunity and launched his men against Ras Kassa’s position. The issue hung in the balance until, in the confusion, and in the middle of a furious fight, Ras Ali was taken prisoner. This was the turning point. The Wollo troops gave way and were overwhelmed, and Negus Mikhail himself was captured. The Harar troops, Ras Makonnen’s old men, did notable service throughout the battle, and were chiefly instrumental in the capture of Mikhail, who, however, refused to surrender until called upon to do so by Ras Yasaw, who was known to him personally and trusted by him. The Shoans claimed that the prisoners taken by them numbered four to one of their own numbers. Many stories are told of the fight. Ras Kassa was seen at a critical moment to be serving a machine-gun himself. The War Minister, whose position was conspicuous by reason of the green umbrella, the badge of his office, borne beside him, when the umbrella bearer was killed seized and strapped it to his own back, and so continued to rally his men.

The victorious army marched back to Addis Ababa and there was a review on Jan Meda—the racecourse and polo ground. The army, which had camped for the night on the plains below the British Legation, entered from the south end. The review lasted three hours, all the chiefs arriving with their armies and each group having several warriors to rush up to the Empress’s tent and vaunt their daring deeds.

The Fitaurari had a great reception, as also did Ras Tafari, who came up with a radiant face. Then Negus Mikhail was led by on foot escorted by Kagnazmach Imeru. The survivors of Ras Lul Seged’s army, about one hundred, were a sad sight, marching past in absolute silence. Afterwards his son, wearing just a sheepskin and no head-dress, came, bowed, and sat to one side, where he received the condolences of the other leaders. Finally came Ras Kassa and the review was over.

1 Jones and Monroe: Proclamation 1916, p. 159.

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