Ethiopian Treasures

Emperor Haile Selassie (1930-1974)

Ras Tefari, the son of Ras Mekonnen (Governor of Harar), was crowned under the name Emperor Haile Selassie in November 1930. He drafted a new constitution for the country and the first parliament was assembled in November 1931, which was designed to give control of the country to the nobility based on hereditary rather than on democracy. The constitution also limited the powers of the regional Princes. This new constitution was only challenged by Ras Hailu of Gojjam. Ras Hailu of Gojjam was jailed for life in 1932, not only for his challenge to the constitution but also for attemptting to assist Iyasu esacpe from prison in Fiche, North Shewa.

In October 1935, The Italian army, with order from Mussolini, invaded northern part of Ethiopia i.e. Adigrat, Adwa and Mekele. Haile Selassie appealed to the League of Nations of which Ethiopia is a member state, but his appeal was completely ignored. The League of Nations, especially Britain and France, turned a blind eye to what was happening in Ethiopia, effectively giving Italy a green light to occupy Ethiopia.

Many Tigrayans fought against Italian invasion and few Tigrayan feudal lords sided with the Italians against Haile Selassie. Haile Selassie sent troops to Tigray in January 1936. The Ethiopian army initially claimed a victory at the Battle of Tembien, however this victory was not sustained and the Italian army overcame them. The Italian army used mustard gas after the battle of Tembien to curb the Ethiopian advances and the Ethiopian army retreated to Maychew. The Battle of Maychew was the final resistance to the Italian occupation. Haile Selassie sent reinforcements and the Italians defeated the Ethiopian resistance at Maychew on March 31, 1936. When Haile Selassie received the bad news of the Italian victory at Maychew; he abandoned his people and country, and went into exile in Britain. Nonetheless, the Ethiopians continued to resist the Italians and waged a guerrilla war on them to undermine and destabilise their hope of colonisation. The Italians responded with brutality and ruthlessness.

As a leader, he could have led the country and people against the Italian occupation. Instead he went into exile in order to save his own life and his family. Even though Haile Selassie deserted his country and people, many Ethiopians courageously exiled themselves into the mountains and forests of the country and fought the Italian army. Haile Selassie did not live up to the reputations of Emperor Tewodros II and Emperor Yohannes IV who gave their life and died for their county in battle against foreign invaders.

In May 1936, Italy occupied the whole country and incorporated it with Eritrea and Somalia into one territory. Under the order of Mussolini, the Italian army looted the tallest Stelae (obelisk) from Aksum in 1937 and stood in Rome for 68 years. The Ethiopians and friends of Ethiopia had been campaigning vigorously for its return to Aksum, Ethiopia. Italy had finally agreed to return the 24-metre granite obelisk to Aksum in April 2005 and was reassembled in 2008 on its original place.

However, the Second World War broke out in Europe in 1939. On June 10, 1940, Italy declared war on Britain and France. The British army advanced into the Italian occupied countries in East Africa (i.e. Ethiopia and Somalia). In January 1941, the British army and the Ethiopian warriors defeated the Italian army. During the occupation, which lasted 5 years, the Italians humiliated and killed many innocent civilians.

On 18 January 1941, Haile Selassie returned from his exile and crossed the border via the village of Um Iddla in Sudan. On 5 May 1941, he entered Addis Ababa to reclaim his throne with the help of the British. Haile Selassie then introduced a new regional administration consist of fourteen provinces to enabled him to centralise his authority and weaken the power of regional nobles and render their administrations.

In the early 1943, administrative maladministration, corruption and greed ignited an open rebellion against Haile Selassie in Raya Azebo, Enderta, Kilete-Awlaelo and Tembien. The rebels formed a resistance group under the name "Weyane" (popular uprising). The Weyane rebels determined to unseat Haile Selassie as they held the view that "there is no government; let's organise and govern ourselves", and Haile Selassie did not deserve to reclaim the throne for his desertion of his country and people while Ethiopia faced unforeseen occupation, killing and humiliation of its people by the Italian army. The local assemblies called "Gerreb" were formed in Enderta, Kilete-Awlaelo and Tembien and sent representatives to a central congress called "Shengo". The Shengo elected Fitawrari Yeebio Woldai and Dejazmach Neguise Bezabih to lead the rebellion. They established their headquarters and military command in Wukro.

On 22 May 1943, the Weyane rebels launched a decisive battle in Abiy Adi in Tembien against well-equipped imperial army led by Ras Abebe Aregai, General Abebe Damtew and aided by British Colonel Pluck and took control of Abiy Adi. Even though the Weyane rebels suffered heavy losses in Wajirat, but they annihilated Haile Selassie well-equipped forces with tanks and modern weapons. In September 1943, Basha Gugusa led a bitter battle in Amba Alaje in Raya and defeated the imperial army. Then after, the Weyane rebels led by Fitawrari Yeebio Woldai (Wedi Weldai) and Dejazmach Neguisie Bezabih defeated Haile Selassie’s well-equipped imperial army decisively at Quiha, in the villages of Ara and Sergien, and moved to Enda Yesus and then Mekele. The Weyane rebels seized modern weapons from Haile Selassie forces and captured Amhara warlords and prominent Tigray feudal chiefs who sided with the Emperor Haile Selassie’s government. Many of those captured were killed and the Weyane rebels started to attract many Tigrayans to join the rebellion. Some of the remaining representatives of Haile Selassie’s government abandoned Mekele.

The inability to subdue the Weyane rebellion prompted Haile Selassie for support of aerial bombardments from Britain to put down the Weyane rebellions. In October 1943, the British Royal Air Force flew from Yemen and indiscriminately bombed a weekly open day market in Mekele, Corbetta Raya and Hintalo Enderta relentlessly. Thousands of civilians died and the market in Mekele became the graveyard of the victims of the British air bombardments. Subsequently, Haile Selassie's imperial army captured the Weyane rebel leaders (i.e. Basha Gugsa Mengesha, Dejazmach Negussie Bezabih, and Blata Hailemariam Reda) and imprisoned in Debre Birhan. Thus, the British and Haile Selassie committed unimaginable sufferings and indescribable mass genocide against the people of Tigray.

Following the defeat of Weyane rebellion, Haile Selassie imposed a new system of monetary taxation on the people of Tigray. Haile Selassie then continued to implement Menelik’s policy of dismantling Tigray territorial boundaries and heritage resulting in a smaller Tigray further in order to deter future rebellions. He enlarged Wello province to include Southern Tigray territories (i.e. Ale-Weha, Kobo, Alamata and Korem). In the same way, he incorporated western Tigray territories (i.e. Welkaite, Tsegede and Kafta Humera) to Gonder province. He then appointed his son Crown Prince Asfaw Wossen as Governor of the enlarged Wello province. The rule of Haile Selassie’s systematic marginalisation, oppression and destruction of Tigrayan heritage has led to the decline of Tigrayan ethnic population resulting in the increasing of ethnic Amhara population in Korem, Alamata and Ale-Weha. Nevertheless, Tigrayans in Welkaite, Tsegede, Kafta Humera, Alamata and Korem continued to maintain their Tigrayan heritage and officially reunited into Tigray State in 1992.

Haile Selassie went further to diffuse the mistrust and rebellion by the Tigrayans; he made Ras Mengesha Seyoum of Tigray district governor of Hager Selam in 1948. A year later, he arranged for his granddaughter to marry Ras Mengesha Seyoum in January 1949. It was a good move politically. Soon after Haile Selassie went to Aksum to be officially consecrated as Emperor of Ethiopia. Traditionally, when leaders are crowned they must be consecrated in the Church of Saint Mary of Zion, Aksum, in order to claim their direct descendant from the King Solomon and Queen of Sheba otherwise their throne becomes invalid.

The great achievement of Haile Selassie was that he lobbied the US and Europeans for the reunification of Eritrea with Ethiopia, which had remained under the British rule after the Italian defeat in 1941. With the blessing of the United Nations, Eritrea was re-united with Ethiopia in 1952. Undoubtedly, Haile Selassie was skilled in diplomacy and was know for his restless efforts of campaigns against colonisation in Africa. He became a voice for the whole African county independence, but he did little to develop his country's infrastructure and improve the life of ordinary Ethiopians.

Haile Selassie modernisation of the whole country was based on divide and rule policy. He worked against Tigray in many ways to weaken the power of nobles and elites of Tigray. He continued to isolate Tigray by obliterating its economic, social, political, cultural and linguistic development, and it became one of the poorest and most underdeveloped regions in Ethiopia. Consequently, in 1958, a famine struck Tigray. Haile Selassie then refused to send emergency food aid, and over 100,000 Tigrayans died of the famine. After the unsuccessful coup d'état against Emperor Haile Selassie in 1960, Haile Selassie elevated Ras Mengesha Seyoum to the title of Leul Ras (Prince) and appointed him Governor of Tigray. The promotion of Leul Ras Mengasha was immensely designed to suppress the Tigrayans’ grievances and rebellions if Tigrayans were governed by a Tigrayan than by an Amhara.

The lack of infrastructure, the increase of poverty in the country, the lack of democracy, the famine in Wollo and Tigray regions in 1973, the Eritreans demand for independence, the cries for land reform by peasants and the fuel crisis led to unrest in the country. Teachers, students, peasants and workers went on strikes and held demonstrations. After seven months of unrest, Haile Selassie was overthrown and imprisoned by the military on September 12, 1974 and later executed by the Derg (Military Committee) including his cabinet members, monarchist, and the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. Haile Selassie's downfall and the Derg's ruthless and authoritarian rule led to the rebirth of the "Second Weyane" under the name "Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF)" on 18 February 1975 in Dedebit, North Western Tigray. To read more, click the rise of "Second Weyane" or TPLF.


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