The Downfall Of Lidj Yassu

The character of Lidj Yassu, like so many other things in Ethiopian history, is a puzzle hard to solve. Of his disgraceful conduct towards his dead grandfather there can be no question, nor is it easy to deduce any reasonable explanation. But it seems unlikely, in view of the many tributes which have been paid to the prince’s charming disposition, that there was no reason whatever for his almost unforgivable actions.

Perhaps the clue to all these strange happenings lies in the fact that he had from his grandmother a strong strain of Wollo Galla blood in his veins. This made him always turn towards the teaching of the Prophet, for the Gallas have maintained the faith of Islam. Then, also, there is the fact that he was called to the throne at the beginning of the most tremendous war which the world has ever known. The disturbance caused by the conflict spread everywhere and took in Abyssinia a most serious form.

One of the lesser known aspects of the war is the attempt by the German agents working in the Near East to raise a vast Mohammedan “Jehad” or holy war against the Allies. Money was not stinted in this task and Lidj Yassu, with his known Islamic leanings, was fair game. His kingdom lay between Egypt (including the Egyptian Sudan) and British East Africa. Now the Turks were attacking Egypt, and south of British East Africa was German East Africa, a vigorous colony which, after earlier maladministrations, had adopted British methods with great success. (The last fact is not British complacence. It was openly suggested in the report made by the German Commission sent to reform the colony that British systems should be tried.)

It will thus be seen that Lidj Yassu’s kingdom occupied a strategic position of the very highest importance. Both to the Turks attacking Egypt and to the German East African colonists attacking the British possessions to the north of them, Ethiopia, if she could be secured as an ally, could give the most valuable aid, since she could take both Egypt and British East Africa in the rear.

Now this fact was not a sudden discovery after the outbreak of war. It had long been foreseen by German “men on the spot.” In Yassu they had seen their opportunity to embarrass Great Britain on two fronts. There were also the adjoining territories of France and Italy—open to attack while the major forces required for their defence were sorely needed in Europe.

Against the German agents worked the British Secret Service. Both sets of workers concentrated on Lidj Yassu, offering him money, promising him Empire. And the Germans won hands down.

Their attack was directed towards the social side of Yassu’s character. “Wein, Weib und Gesang” was their slogan. He was invited to parties, flattered—not only by men but by women imported for the express purpose, and given not only unlimited Rhine wine but the very best champagnes.

All this occurred before the actual outbreak of European hostilities, and was viewed with great concern by the British authorities, who were at a loss to know how the German ascendancy might be combated. It was thus that Lidj Yassu, courted by the Ethiopians as heir to the throne and surrounded by Europeans anxious to grant his every whim in order to obtain influence over him, lost his sense of proportion completely. His character was undermined by excesses, and his judgment clouded by the whispers of foreign advisers. Few men could have withstood so insidious an assault upon their personalities. Lidj Yassu came to a bad end, but the fault was partly to be found in circumstance.

Within less than a year of the death of Menelek war broke out in Europe, and immediately those who had sown commenced to reap. The Mullah of Somaliland was in the field again threatening destruction to unbelievers—by which was meant particularly his British and Italian neighbours. German agents told Lidj Yassu that here lay his chance. The best fighters in his own dominions were Mohammedan. The Coptic priests were unpopular because of their exactions. To the south there were powerful Mohammedan allies, while to the north in the Egyptian Sudan the faith of Islam was strong. Let him declare for the Prophet. The Christian Church would soon be overthrown and all its riches might be seized. He could become the centre of a vast Mohammedan revolt which would give him a mighty empire. The Mullah was an old man, in the north there were no great leaders; he, the son of Menelek, could carry all before him. The great thing was to strike at once and strike hard.

But Lidj Yassu had no love for war. He was too easy going. He listened with interest to the vision of empire placed before him, but his shrewd mind must have realised that it was not out of pure friendship that he was offered immediate aid to make the dream come true. He knew, also, that for all the stories which reached him of German conquest, the Suez Canal was in British hands and that there were many Arabs fighting for the Allies.

Weakly he toyed with the proposed plans but did nothing irrevocable.

It was noticeable, however, that his attitude of friendliness to those of his chieftains who were followers of the Prophet (these were mostly from the south and west) grew more pronounced, and that when an attempt was made to prevent arms from reaching the Mullah he took steps to ensure that the arms got through. It was alleged that when the Mohammedan Galla tribes rebelled he sent a force against them, but at the same time advised the rebels of its movements so that they were able to massacre the attackers. The story was told that a band of some fifty Somalis were received by him as guests after they had slain the Ethiopians—while his people had expected them to be put on trial for their lives.

The fact that no effective protest was made against any of these actions of his convinced him that his power was absolute and his next moves were more open. He built a mosque at Diredawa and was present with the Mohammedan chiefs at its consecration; he put Islamic symbols upon his flag, took for the motto of his house “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is the Prophet of God,” and finally went so far as to call in the Turkish Consul, who having joined in the ceremony of installing the new flag, told Yassu that he must now consider himself under the protection of the Ottoman Empire.

The representatives of the other European governments in Ethiopia were not slow in pointing out that this was a serious step since Turkey was at war with the Allies. But Lidj Yassu plunged even further into his mad career, and to an audience of Galla and Somali chieftains publicly proclaimed his allegiance to the Prophet. It is said that he had embroidered upon the flags of his household troops the figure of a man with a scimitar declaring to the priests that there was nothing Mohammedan in the design which, he said, was a portrait of Suleiman. No one was deceived by this evasion.

The German Secret Service had so far won all along the line, but it was soon to be the turn of the British agents to strike back. Despairing of bringing Yassu to his senses they looked around for some prince of noble birth who could be relied on to espouse the Christian cause. There was only one person whose claim could be held to equal Yassu’s and that was Tafari Makonnen who, as can be seen from the genealogical table, had Sahele Selassie for great-grandfather, and was therefore in the line of the blood royal.

The British were more subtle in their approach to the problem than the Germans had been, and this fact completely deceived Yassu, who was entirely unaware of their intrigue against him until it was too late. Tafari was asked “How many chiefs would follow you if you could give them guns?” He said that he did not think there would be any chance of securing a large following while Yassu was still the chosen successor of Menelek, but he recounted the words which the Emperor had used when appointing Yassu his heir—“if he breaks faith with you let him be excommunicated”—and indicated that the Abuna Mattheos had the situation in his hands.

The priests did not care much for Ras Tafari since they suspected him of caring too much for foreign ways and of having too critical an outlook upon the sacred books of the land; but he was, nevertheless, as far as outward conformity was concerned, a devout communicant of the Coptic Church and as such a better ruler from their point of view than Yassu who had scandalised and not a little perturbed the entire priesthood by his favours to the Islamic chiefs.

Little by little the foundations of revolt were laid. The least error of judgment on the part of the plotters would have cost the Ras Tafari his life, but so cleverly were the plans concealed that in 1916 Yassu went south into Somaliland to raise a force and to join the Mullah without the least idea that rebellion was brewing in Addis Ababa and that his hold on the throne was insecure.

As soon as he had left events moved swiftly. First a congress of chieftains approached the Abuna Mattheos reminding him of Menelek’s words and asserting with many corroborative instances that Yassu, by his conduct, had forfeited their loyalty. He had insulted the Holy Church, had plotted against the lives of his Christian subjects, had given his country into the hands of foreigners, and would bring destruction upon them all.

The Abuna Mattheos temporised. He had little liking for Yassu, but he did not wish to indulge in active rebellion until he was sure that he was on the winning side. To start an ineffectual revolt would merely give Yassu the excuse he needed for a direct attack upon the Christian Church. It was best to find out what was the spirit of the chiefs, what the people felt, and above all who had the rifles.

So the Abuna was cautious. While he admitted that Lidj Yassu had done much that conformed ill to his most holy vows, he pleaded that he was young, that bad influences were at work upon him. Given time he would doubtless see the error of his ways.

This adroit speech revealed to the chiefs that the Abuna was with them but was not yet ready to show his hand, but at that moment the British agents brought off a piece of propaganda which brought to every Christian in Abyssinia proof indisputable that Yassu was a Moslem of the deepest dye.

All countries let loose a flood of propaganda among the African peoples during the war. A good deal of it was directed towards making Mohammedans take sides. In England some of the ablest writers of the day were employed to write manifestos to the Arabs. The story goes that one chief of propaganda on receiving from Mr. Bernard Shaw a brilliantly persuasive appeal to all true followers of the Prophet to unite against Germany, said to his staff: “Splendid stuff. Now just add that the Prince of Wales has turned Mohammedan and stick in a photograph of a mosque in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. Then you can print two million of these and send them out at once!”

This tale, though doubtless inaccurate as to detail, is fairly true in principle. British propaganda was amazingly successful among Eastern peoples largely because it never told a direct lie but always worked on an underlying modicum of truth. This was the policy adopted in dealing with Lidj Yassu. A big photograph was taken of a Mohammedan festival and the face of the leader who, in full Moslem regalia, was pronouncing a blessing upon the crowd, was changed by an adroit piece of double printing to that of Lidj Yassu, ruler of the Great and Most Christian Empire of Menelek, “whom angels guard.”

The effect of the strewing broadcast of this picture was sensational. The priests rose as one man to demand excommunication of the vile apostate. It was believed at once that there was a plot to exterminate all Christians and seize their goods. The chiefs renewed their demand that Yassu be desposed.

At the same time the European governments, acting through their Consuls General, took a hand. Following the episode of the Turkish Consul and the flags, they had addressed strong protests to Yassu and since he had ignored them, they had prepared to take further action. From the first they had done their best to prevent any arms or ammunition from reaching the Germanophile king and now they mustered three forces to close in upon him.
These troops, though not numerous, for very few men could be spared, sufficed to make a tremendous impression on the Christian chiefs, who immediately marched their men to the palace and issued an ultimatum. At the same time the Italians at Massawa, the French at Jibuti and the British at Berbera got their columns on the move, while every precaution was taken to cut off any German supplies of arms for Yassu.

Ras Tafari, acting on good advice, had kept in the background till this stage, partly to escape the wrath of Yassu and partly so as not to cause jealousy among the other rebel chiefs. It was now revealed that he was receiving guns from the Allies and that money had been placed at his disposal as well.

The last unknown in the equation—the position of the guns—was thus revealed, and the chiefs declared to a man that Ras Tafari should lead them.

“Release us from our oaths! ” they cried to the Abuna. “We will never permit a Moslem to rule us. Yassu deceived us when he changed his faith. The curse of Menelek shall rest upon him! Let him be cast out from our Kingdom as from our Church.”

“This I will do,” said the Abuna. “Upon the head of the traitorous Yassu there shall fall the curse of the Most Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, the anathema of the Twelve Apostles, the wrath of the Three Hundred and Eighteen Most Holy Fathers of the Council of Nicea, the curse of Arius, the shame of Judas, the fury of all the angels, and the most sacred and potent anger of every Blessed Saint in the Great Heaven!” ... He paused, “and to these I add my humble word,” he ended. “I hereby excommunicate him.”

“And now chieftains, faithful sons of the Church, who shall rule in the traitor’s stead?”

“The Princess Zawditu, daughter of Menelek,” was the answer. “She shall reign over us with the wisdom of her father and Ras Tafari Makonnen, son of the great warrior, shall be Regent and Heir to the Throne!”

“You have chosen well,” said the Abuna. “Zawditu and Tafari shall reign. Their word shall be as the word of the Great Menelek, the Angel of Menelek shall guard them, and if any man in all Ethiopia shall fail to do their will on him shall alight the sevenfold curse that is the portion of Yassu!”

Thus, on September 27th, 1916, Ras Tafari Makonnen ascended to the throne of Ethiopia to reign beside the Princess Zawditu. But he had yet to fight for that throne.

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