Late in his life, Emperor Menelek II of Ethiopia was confronted with the problem of his succession; if he did not explicitly name an heir before he died, the nation he had built would likely dissolve into civil war and be devoured by European colonial powers. He had four possible heirs. According to the traditional rules of succession, the next direct patrilineal descendant was the grandson of Menelik's uncle, Dejazmach Taye Gulilat. His other three heirs were all in the female line: his oldest grandson, Dejazmach Wosan Seged, son of his daughter Shewa Regga by her first marriage to Wedadjo Gobena; his younger grandson Lij Iyasu, son of Shewa Regga and Ras Mikael; and Menelik's third daughter Zauditu, who was married to Ras Gugsa Welle, nephew of the Empress Taitu.
Menelik refused to consider Taye Gulilat whom he deeply disliked, and Wosan Seged was eliminated from consideration due to dwarfism, and was at any rate in poor health, dying of tuberculosis in March 1908. It was clear that the aristocracy would not respect a woman as their leader so Zauditu was also not seriously considered at this time. After experiencing a stroke while on pilgrimage to Debre Libanos, on 11 June 1908 he informed his ministers that Iyasu would succeed him; due to Iyasu's youth, however, Menelik agreed to the suggestion that he appoint a regent until the heir came of age.
Shortly before the Emperor made this decision, Lij Iyasu was married to Romanework Mengesha, the granddaughter of Emperor Yohannes IV, and niece of Empress Taitu. However, that marriage was annulled without having been consummated after a few years, and Iyasu then married Seble Wongel Hailu, the granddaughter of Negus Tekle Haymanot of Gojjam.
Not long after this decision, Emperor Menelik succumbed to further strokes, which eventually left him a mere shell of his once-powerful self, until his death in 1913. During his last years, in a bid to retain power, the Empress Taitu intrigued against his choice, intending to substitute either her daughter Zauditu or her husband Ras Gugsa for Lij Iyasu; in response, a number of nobles organized in an ever-closer alliance against her. After a massive stroke (28 October 1909), Menelik's choice of Lij Iyasu as his heir was made public, with Ras Bitwoedded Tessema Nadew as regent.
Ras Tessema found his authority undermined not only by the still living but paralyzed Emperor Menelik, but also by the Empress; for example, she insisted that questions from the foreign legations in Addis Ababa be directed to her, not to the regent. Further, Tessema was himself suffering from an illness, which left him appearing helpless and apathetic and would take his life within a year. It took a coup engineered by a group of aristocrats and the head of the Imperial Bodyguard to convince Ras Tesemma and Habte Giyorgis to decisively limit her influence. Despite these developments, the imperial government continued to falter: administrators were unwilling to make decisions because Tessema himself might be overthrown, and foreign affairs likewise suffered. Despite this, Harold Marcus notes that the regent's presence "did curb ministerial dissensions and intrigues and was a reminder of the existence of central authority.
When the council met to appoint a successor on the death of Ras Tessema (10 April 1911), Lij Iyasu demanded a role in the process. When asked whom he desired in the position, he is reported to have replied, "Myself!" On 11 May, his seal replaced that of his grandfather's, although not with the style of Emperor.
Marcus describes Lij Iyasu's abilities as a ruler:
From the very beginning of his de facto reign, Lij Iyasu showed that he was not the stuff from which great monarchs were made. He was bright, but also impulsive, cruel, lascivious, prone to depressions and egocentricities, and politically inept. Despite his vision of an Ethiopia in which religion and ethnic affiliations made no difference in a man's political or private career, he had no clear comprehension of the power realities in the empire, nor of his own position as its ruler.
In the first year, he was faced with several serious challenges to his rule. On 31 May Ras Abate attempted a coup by seizing the arsenal and its modern weapons in the palace, but was eventually convinced to make a public submission in return for being allowed to depart for his estates in the southern provinces. On 14 July an attempt was made to poison Iyasu. That same year Menelik's soldiers sent a delegation demanding back pay and regular supplies, which made clear that the government was on the brink of financial insolvency. Intelligence reached Iyasu's father, Ras Mikael, of another plot, and he arrived on 14 November in Addis Ababa with an army of 8,000 men. This was only the first of many efforts Ras Mikael made to keep his son on the Imperial throne.
At this point, Lij Iyasu decided to leave the capital, ostensibly on a military expedition against the Afar, but he simply traveled through eastern Shewa and into Wollo, meeting with the common people. He had promised to return to Addis Ababa in May 1912, but instead visited Debre Libanos, then Addis Alem, before joining Dajazmach Kabbada's expedition into southwest Ethiopia. Here Lij Iyasu took part in a series of slave raids, in which 40,000 people of both sexes were captured, "half of whom died en route of smallpox, dysentery, hunger and fatigue. Marcus explains this constant journeying beyond the capital "to prove that the government could not function without him and to force the ministers to authorize his immediate coronation. Once he finally returned to the capital, he came into conflict with the commander of the Imperial Bodyguard, which was eventually settled by the mediation of Abuna Mattewos. Iyasu indulged in a lavish celebration, which led the European diplomats to conclude "that he was purposely neglecting urgent business and impeding the ministers from carrying out their duties".
Lij Iyasu left the capital after little more than a month, and during this time engaged in a raid upon the Afar, who had reportedly massacred 300 of the Karayu Oromo at the village of Sadimalka on the Awash River. Unable to find the responsible parties, he made a punitive raid upon the general population which provoked a general uprising of the Afar. After repeated messages from his father to return to the capital, on 8 April he finally did arrive at the city, managed to accomplish nothing, then left to meet his father in Dessie on 8 May.
Iyasu continued Menelik's program of modernization, including the establishment of the first police force in Addis Ababa.
Lij Iyasu showed a pronounced lack of interest in the day to day running of the government, leaving most of the work for the ministers to deal with. However, the cabinet of ministers remained largely unchanged from the days of his grandfather, and by now the ministers wielded much power and influence. That being said, they were constantly subject to insults and disparagement by Lij Iyasu who referred to them as "my grandfather's fattened sheep. He constantly spoke of his intention of dismissing "these Shewans" as he called them, and appointing new officials and creating a new aristocracy of his own choosing. His essentially reformist orientation clashed with the conservatism of his grandfather's old ministers. As Paul Henze notes, Iyasu "seems deliberately to have antagonized the Shoan establishment. He lacked the diplomatic skill and the refined sense of discretion that came naturally to Tafari.
Iyasu's many capricious acts served only to further alienate the aristocracy. One was his betrothal of his royal-blooded cousin Woizero Sakamyelesh Seyfu to his former driver, Tilahun. Another was the appointment of his Syrian friend and crony Ydlibi to the position of Nagadras (Customs-Master) at the railway depot at Dire Dawa, thus controlling the vast tariff and customs that were collected there. All this, combined with his frequent absences from the capital, created the ideal environment for the ministers, led by Fitawrari Habte Giyorgis, the Minister of War, to plot his downfall.
However, the foreign legations in Addis Ababa had been lobbying for him to join their sides in World War I. According to Marcus, many of the Ethiopian nobility and commoners were impressed by the early successes of the Central Powers, and both listened eagerly to German and Turkish propaganda concerning events. Both sides sought Ethiopian support: the Central Powers wanted the Ethiopians to drive the Italians out of Eritrea, and rumors circulated that in return for Iyasu invading Sudan with 50,000 soldiers that he would be rewarded with the strategic port of Djibouti. The Allies meanwhile sought to keep Ethiopia at least neutral.
In August 1915 Iyasu went to French Somaliland in disguise, and without informing either the French diplomats in Addis Ababa or even the colonial government. There he spent two days in mysterious meetings. Although Marcus states, "What actually happened, will not be known until information from the French archives becomes available," Fitawrari Tekle Hawariat, a fervent reformer and a onetime friend of Iyasu, states in his recently published autobiography that the Djibouti trip was something of a vacation for Lij Iyasu, and that he spent much of his time consorting with Muslim notables in the city and consuming large amounts of Qat as well as completely depleting the funds of the Ethiopian mission in the French colony. Around the same time, the British reported that documents preaching jihad against the Europeans had been posted in the Harar marketplace. That August, the British reported that supplies were being sent to Jijiga to support the activities of Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, a devout Muslim who was at war with the British and Italians in Somalia. Then that September, the Italians revealed that one of their Somali agents had witnessed Iyasu declaring to an assemblage of Muslim leaders that he was a Moslem, and swore to his apostasy on a Koran. Although Harold Marcus accepts these reports at face value, Bahru Zewde is more suspicious of their veracity. Bahru Zewde argues that Iyasu's intent was to integrate the Somali people into the Ethiopian empire, but "Allied ingenuity lent palpability to Iyyasu's apostasy (which was the main charge levelled against him) by forging pictures and documents to prove the charge. Whatever the truth, these reports brought the simmering discontent with Iyasu to a fierce boil against him.
While at the city of Harar, Lij Iyasu was deposed 27 September 1916 in favor of his aunt Zauditu. Iyasu sent an army to attack Addis Ababa, which was met at Mieso and turned back. His father initially hesitated, then marched south from Dessie with 80,000 troops, and was defeated at the Battle of Segale on 27 October. According to Paul Henze, Iyasu had reached Ankober the morning of the battle with a few thousand loyal followers, and after witnessing his father's defeat, fled towards the Eritrean border. On 8 November Iyasu appeared in Dessie where he vainly sought the support from the nobility of Tigray, then the Italians, before fleeing 10 December. Next he took refuge with his followers on the abandoned amba of Maqdala, where he was surrounded and subjected to an uninspired siege before slipping through their lines 18 July 1916 and rallied the peasantry of Wollo to revolt; troops under Habte Giyorgis defeated the rebels 27 August, capturing many of Iyasu's generals including Ras Imer. After this defeat, with a few hundred picked men Iyasu fled to the desert of the Afar Depression, where he roamed for five years before being taken into custody by Gugsa Araya on 11 January 1921. He was handed over to the custody of his cousin Ras Kassa Haile Darge, who kept him in comfortable house arrest at his country home at Fichte.
Empress Zauditu, who in spite of having been treated harshly by her nephew seems to have had considerable sympathy for Iyasu's fate, and is said to have tried to have him handed over to her personal custody in order that he "be brought back to Christ and salvation" under her guidance. In her view, the most serious part of his fate was his excommunication, and she deeply wanted to save her nephew from what she regarded as assured damnation. While her plea to have her nephew moved to the Imperial Palace in Addis Ababa was vehemently vetoed by both Fitawrari Habte Giorgis and the Crown Prince, Ras Teferi Makonnen, the Empress took care that Iyasu lived in luxury and supplied with whatever he desired. Ras Kassa also adhered to this policy for as long as Iyasu was in his custody, so the terms of Iyasu's imprisonment were not particularly harsh.
Iyasu's death was announced in March of 1936. The circumstances surrounding his death and his burial place remain shrouded in mystery. One rumor that persists to this day is that Emperor Haile Selassie ordered his guards to kill him. Others dispute this and allege that Iyasu died of natural causes. His burial place remains a mystery. Due to the fact that he had been excommunicated, the claims of his grandson and current Iyasuist claimant to the Ethiopian throne, Lij Girma Yohannes, that Iyasu's body was brought to the Church of St. Mark at Addis Ababa's Guenete Leul Palace (since 1961 the main campus of Addis Ababa University) and buried there in secret, are extremely unlikely. Another recently published account states that Iyasu was interred in the grave prepared for Emperor Haile Selassie's confessor and almoner, Abba Hanna Jimma, at Debre Libanos, and that upon the priest's death, Lij Iyasu's remains were moved to the crypt of St. Tekle Haimanot's Church at the monastery, and placed below the tomb prepared for Ethiopia's first Patriarch, Abuna Basilios.
Iyasu seems to have had at least thirteen secondary wives and an uncertain number of natural children, several of whom have been Iyasuist claimants to the Imperial throne, as well as grandchildren like Girma Yohannes. Lij Iyasu's only legitimate daughter was Emmebet-hoy Alem Tsehai Iyasu, by Seble Wongel.
...encouraged by German and Turkish diplomats. He made the fuqaha construct a genealogy deriving his ancestry on his father's side from the Prophet. He made prolonged stays in Harar where he adopted Muslim dress and customs. He put away his Christian wife, Romane-Warq, and started a harim by marrying the daughters of 'Afar and Galla chiefs, including a daughter and niece of Abba Jifar of Jimma. He built mosques at Dire Dawa and Jigjiga. In 1916 he officially placed Abyssinia in religious dependence upon Turkey, and sent the Turkish consul-general an Abyssinian flag embroidered with a crescent and the Islamic formula of faith. He sent similar flags to his own Muslim chiefs and promised to lead them to the jihad. He entered into negotiations with Muhammed ibn 'Abd Allah, the Mahdi of the Ogaden, and sent him rifles and ammunition. He then issued a summons to all Somalis, some of whom regarded him as true Mahdi, to follow him in a jihad against the Christians, and went to Jigjiga to collect an army.
According to Fitawrari Tekle Hawariat Tekle Mariyam, Lij Iyasu at one point announced "If I do not make Ethiopia Muslim, then I am not Iyasu." He also adds that, during his visit to Dire Dawa in 1916, Lij Iyasu walked into a Roman Catholic church in that city (this alone an act that would scandalize the Ethiopian Orthodox establishment) and commenced to light and smoke a cigerette while Mass was being conducted.
Bahru Zewde on the other hand, while admitting that "contradiction and inconsistency were the hallmark of his character and policies", notes that Iyasu's reign was characterized by "a series of measures which, because of the social and economic security they implied, may well be considered progressive." Iyasu modernized many sections of the Ethiopian criminal code, and created a municipal police force, the Terenbulle. His overtures to the Muslim inhabitants of Ethiopia "can be interpreted as one of trying to redress the injustices of the past, of making the Muslims feel at home in their own country. Tekle Hawariat, says of Iyasu V that he was completely unsuited for the throne, and that his deposing was necessary for the survival of the Empire and the good of the people.
However, Iyasu had the misfortune of being succeeded (in Bahru Zewde's words) "by a ruler of extraordinary political longevity who found it in his interest to suppress any objective appreciation of the man." According to Paul B. Henze, during the reign of his cousin Haile Selassie, Iyasu was "practically an 'unperson'. If he was referred to at all, it was invariably in extremely negative terms." While admitting the lack of information about this man, Henze suggests that "the fairest conclusion that can be reached on the basis of present knowledge may be to credit him with good intentions but condemn him for intemperate, inept and in the end, disastrous performance.
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