LEAVING THE MEDIEVAL WORLD
Under the Emperors Tewodros II (1855 – 1868), Yohannes IV (1872 – 1889), and Menelek II (1889 – 1913), the kingdom began to emerge from its medieval isolation. Emperor Tewodros II was born Lij Kassa in Qwara, in 1818. His father was a small local chief and his relative (possible uncle) Dejazmach Kinfu was governor of the provinces of Dembiya, Qwara and Chelga between Lake Tana and the northwestern frontier. Kassa lost his inheritance upon the death of Kinfu while he was still a young boy. After receiving a traditional education in a local monastery, he went off to lead a band of bandits that roved the country in a Robin Hood-like existence. His exploits became widely known, and his band of followers grew steadily until he led a formidable army. He came to the notice of the ruling Regent, Ras Ali, and his mother Empress Menen Liben Amede (wife of the puppet Emperor Yohannes III). In order to bind him to them, Ras Ali and the Empress arranged for Kassa to marry Ali’s daughter, and upon the death of his uncle Kinfu, he was made chief of Kwara and all Dembea with the title of Dejazmatch. He turned his attention to conquering the remaining chief divisions of the country, Gojjam, Tigray and Shewa, which still remained unsubdued. His relations with his father – in – law and grandmother – in – law deteriorated however, and he soon took up arms against them and their vassals, and was successful.
On February 11, 1855, Kassa deposed the last of the Gondarine puppet Emperors, and was crowned negusa nagast of Ethiopia under the name of Tewodros II. He soon after advanced against Shewa with a large army. Chief of the notables opposing him was its king Haile Melekot, a descendant of Meridazmach Asfa Wossen. Dissensions broke out among the Shewans, and after a desperate and futile attack on Tewodros at Dabra Berhan, Haile Melekot died of illness, nominating with his last breath his eleven year old son as successor (November 1855) under the name Negus Sahle Maryam (the future emperor Menelek II). Darge, Haile Melekot’s brother, and Ato (Mr.) Bezabih, a Shewan noble, took charge of the young prince, but after a hard fight with Angeda, the Shewans were obliged to capitulate. Sahle Maryam was handed over to the Emperor, taken to Gondar, and there trained in Tewodros’s service, and then placed in comfortable detention at the fortress of Maqedala. Tewodros afterwards devoted himself to modernizing and centralizing the legal and administrative structure of his kingdom, against the resistance of his governors. Sahle Maryam of Shewa was married to Tewodros II’s daughter Alitash.
In 1865, Sahle Maryam escaped from Maqdala, abandoning his wife, and arrived in Shewa, and was there acclaimed as Negus. Tewodros forged an alliance between Britain and Ethiopia, but as explained in the next section, he committed suicide after a military defeat by the British. On the death of Tewodros, many Shewans, including Ras Darge, were released, and the young Negus of Shewa began to feel himself strong enough, after a few preliminary minor campaigns, to undertake offensive operations against the northern princes. But these projects were of little avail, for Ras Kassai of Tigray, had by this time (1872) risen to supreme power in the north. Proclaiming himself negusa nagast under the name of Yohannes (John) IV, he forced Sahle Maryam to acknowledge his over lordship.
After a series of events characterized by short reigns, Ras Tafari Mekonen, later Emperor Haile Sellassie I, emerged as the leader of Ethiopia. Haile Sellassie centralized the state and expanded Ethiopia’s civil society as a counterweight to ethnic forces. He fostered unity through the development of a national army, a pan Ethiopian economy and modern infrastructure and communications. The Emperor was also instrumental in garnering foreign aid while he was in exile in Britain during the late 1930’s when Italy invaded and occupied Ethiopia during 1931 – 1936. Ethiopia’s determination not to be colonized, coupled with the pressures of World War II on Italy, forced Italy out of Ethiopia once more. Haile Sellassie continued to reinvigorate the state. However, the economic benefits were not reaching the peasantry and the working classes, and they eventually rebelled and overthrew Haile Sellassie in 1974. And that ended the history of the Ethiopian Monarchy, and this gave way to the government of President Mengistu Haile Mariam (1974 – 1991).
THE DERG PERIOD
After a period of civil unrest which began in February 1974, the aged Emperor Haile Selassie I was deposed. On September 12, 1974, a provisional administrative council of soldiers, known as the Derg (“committee”) seized power from the emperor and installed a government which was socialist in name and military in style. The Derg summarily executed 59 members of the former government, including two former Prime Ministers and Crown Councilors, Court officials, ministers, and generals. Emperor Selassie died on August 22, 1975. He was allegedly strangled in the basement of his palace.
Mengistu Haile Mariam assumed power as head of state and Derg chairman, after having his two predecessors killed, as well as tens of thousands of other suspected opponents. The new Marxist government undertook socialist reforms, including nationalization of landlords’ and church’s property. Before the coup, Ethiopian peasants’ way of life was thoroughly influenced by the church teachings; 280 days a year are religious feasts or days of rest. Mengistu’s years in office were marked by a totalitarian style government and the country’s massive militarization, financed by the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, and assisted by Cuba. In December 1976, an Ethiopian delegation in Moscow signed a military assistance agreement with the Soviet Union. The following April, Ethiopia abrogated its military assistance agreement with the United States and expelled the American military missions.
In July 1977, sensing the disarray in Ethiopia, Somalia attacked across the Ogaden in pursuit of its irredentist claims to the ethnic Somali areas of Ethiopia. They were assisted in this invasion by the armed Western Somali Liberation Front. Ethiopian forces were driven back far inside their own frontiers but, with the assistance of a massive Soviet airlift of arms and Cuban combat forces, they stemmed the attack. The last major Somali regular units left the Ogaden March 15, 1978. Twenty years later, the Somali region of Ethiopia remains under developed and insecure.
From 1977 through early 1978, thousands of suspected enemies of the Derg were tortured and/or killed in a purge called the “Red Terror”. Communism was officially adopted during the late 1970s and early 1980s; in 1984, the Workers’ Party of Ethiopia (WPE) was established, and on February 1, 1987, a new Soviet style civilian constitution was submitted to a popular referendum. It was officially endorsed by 81% of voters, and in accordance with this new constitution, the country was renamed the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia on September 10, 1987, and Mengistu became president.
The regime’s collapse was hastened by droughts and famine, which affected around 8 million people leaving and 1 million dead, as well as by insurrections, particularly in the northern regions of Tigray and Eritrea. In 1989, the Tigraian Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) merged with other ethnically based opposition movements to form the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). In May 1991, EPRDF forces advanced on Addis Ababa. Mengistu fled the country to asylum in Zimbabwe, where he still resides.
POST DERG PERIOD
Between 1528 and 1540 armies of Muslims, under the Imam Ahmad Ibn Ibrihim Al -Ghazi, entered Ethiopia from the low country to the southeast, and overran the kingdom, obliging the emperor to take refuge in the mountain fastnesses. In this extremity recourse was again had to the Portuguese. John Bermudez, a subordinate member of the mission of 1520, who had remained in the country after the departure of the embassy, was, according to his own statement (which is untrustworthy), ordained successor to the Abuna (archbishop), and sent to Lisbon. Bermudez certainly came to Europe, but with what credentials is not known.
In response to Bermudez’s message, a Portuguese fleet under the command of Estêvão Da Gama, was sent from India and arrived at Massawa in February 1541. Here he received an ambassador from the Emperor beseeching him to send help against the Muslims, and in the July following a force of 400 musketeers, under the command of Cristóvão Da Gama, younger brother of the admiral, marched into the interior, and being joined by native troops were at first successful against the enemy; but they were subsequently defeated at the Battle of Wofla (28 August 1542), and their commander captured and executed. On February 21, 1543, however, Ahmad was shot and killed in the Battle of Weyna Daga and his forces totally routed. After this, quarrels arose between the Emperor and Bermudez, who had returned to Ethiopia with Gama and now urged the emperor to publicly profess his obedience to Rome. The Emperor refused to do, and at length Bermudez was obliged to make his way out of the country.