Avenging Egypt’s Interference in the Politics of Ethiopia – Lesson from Emperors Yohannes and Menelik
By Alex Sisay
Upon the suicide of Atse Tewodros on the historic mountain of Mekdela for his country, Ras Kassa of Tigray fought his way to the throne of Ethiopia by defeating rivals from Gojam (Ras Tekle-haimanot) and from Shoa (King Menelik), and became Atse Yohannes of Ethiopia in 1872. Though the ambitions of the Ras of Gojam was stopped by Atse Yohannes (Ras Kassa), Atse Yohannes was not able to stop the ambition of King Menelik of Shoa.
At that time, the historic Axumite territory of Ethiopia, the Bahr Negash (the Coast of Eritrea), was divided between at least two regional powers; the port of Massawa (Mitsiwa) was controlled by Egyptians (which was ruled by the Dervish at that time) with the consent of the Ottoman Empire (the world power of that time), and the port of Assab was under Italians.
Realizing Atse Yohannes’ ambition for the Bahr Negash, the rulers of Egypt (the Dervish) sent armies through western Ethiopia to strategically protect their territory of Massawa. Atse Yohannes heroically defeated the Egyptians at the Battle of Gundet and Gura in 1876.
However, upon his return from the western battle fronts, Atse Yohannes was greatly disappointed when he found out that King Menelik of Shoa was invading Tigray from the south in order to take the throne from Atse Yohannes while Atse Yohannes was chasing away the Egyptians from Gondar. In the subsequent battle between Atse Yohannes of Ethiopia and King Menelik of Shoa, Menelik was defeated in Wollo and made to recognize Atse Yohannes and his heirs as the legitimate dynasty for the King of Kings (Atse) of Ethiopia; in return, Atse Yohannes recognized Menelik as the King of Shoa of Ethiopia. This agreement was ratified at the conference of Boru Meda in 1878.
Recognizing that King Menelik was a formidable rival who was not yet defeated, Atse Yohannes married his son, Ras Araya Selassie Yohannes, to the daughter of Menelik, Zewditu, whom later became an Empress of Ethiopia itself, but only years later after her marriage with Ras Araya Selassie Yohannes ended in divorce. The marriage of the two rivals’ siblings took place in 1882, even though the arranged marriage was agreed upon at Boru Meda in 1878. For all practical purposes, King Menelik was still politically bruised, especially after being defeated in Wollo by Atse Yohannes and losing the territory of Wollo to Tigray.
With that victory against Egyptians at the Battle of Gundet and Gura in the backdrop, Atse Yohannes went on to control the historic Axumite coastal territories (Bahr Negash) of Ethiopia, and he fought against the Italians and defeated them under the leadership of the first African army general, Ras Alula, at the Battle of Dogali in 1887.
Having defeated two powers which were still controlling much of the Bahr Negash, Atse Yohannes’s trusted General, Ras Alula, founded the capital of Eritrea in Asmara and became the governor of Medri Bahri (Eritrea).
For Atse Yohannes, with his ambition to return the glorious historic coastal lines to Ethiopia on the right track (though some territories were still under the Egyptian and Italians rules) and the era of princes (Zemene Mesafint) was brutally defeated upon the agreement of the King of Shoa to recognize Tigray as the heir to the throne. Thus, it was a historic moment of Ethiopian Renaissance. Little did he knew about the alliances of his internal rivals and external enemies were forming to undermine his rule.
Upon the defeat in Dogali, Italians started courting King Menelik and supplying arms to Shoa through the port of Assab without the knowledge of Atse Yohannes. At the same time, King Menelik was using Egyptians frustration at the Battle of Gundet and Gura to fuel another war against Atse Yohannes.
Though King Menelik’s attempt to ignite another war between Dervish Egypt and Ethiopia failed to materialize, the Mahdist of Sudan started provoking Atse Yohannes into war in western Ethiopia. Ras Alula successfully defeated the Mahdists at the Battle of Kufit in 1885. Prior to that, the British in Sudan and Ethiopia agreed in the Hewett Treaty of 1884 that, upon the defeat of the Mahdist-Dervish axis, Massawa would be given to Ethiopia.
The last battle of Atse Yohannes, however, came after coordinated attacks from internal rivals and external enemies. The 1888 Battle of Gallabat (also called the Battle of Metemma) was the fiercest in all the wars fought by Atse Yohannes. The Mahdists-Dervish were literally inside Gondar plundering the historic city, when the Italians advanced towards Atse Yohannes based in Tigray from the North coastal territories, and King Menelik of Shoa advanced fiercely (using the weapons he had acquired from the Italians) to control the base of Atse Yohannes and return his territory, Wollo, under his command.
Atse Yohannes fell at the Battle of Gallabat/Metemma in 1889, but only after he drove the Mahdists out of the historic city of Gondar. After his death, his head was chopped off, as history tells us, by the Mahdists. As a consequence of the war, the Mahdist-Dervish also lost their Massawa territory, but instead of Ethiopia as per the Hewett Treaty of 1884 between the British and Atse Yohannes, Italy took control of Massawa.
Meanwhile, Italian forces and Shoan forces advanced fiercely towards Tigray to get control of the historic Axumite seat of the Ethiopian throne. Once allies against Atse Yohannes, these two forces came to a head-on conflict for Tigray. The two forces met each other in northern Wollo at a place called Wichale.
For the Italians, the ambition was to control the entire Eritrean coastal lines. Menelik’s ambition was to take the throne of King of Kings of Ethiopia from Tigray. The two former allies thus agreed to settle their differences at the Treaty of Wichale in 1889. The Treaty gave the Eritrean coastal lines to Italy and Menelik was allowed to go for the throne of King of Kings of Ethiopia unopposed from the Italian side.
As the agreement was being sealed between Italy and King Menelik at Wichale, the rightful heir to the throne, Ras Mengesha Yohannes, whom was announced as the heir to the throne as Atse Yohannes was breathing his last breathes in Metemma, was denied recognition and was sidelined.
Frustrated with the loss of the throne, Tigray refused to recognize Atse Menelik as King of Kings of Ethiopia. This historic opposition also resulted in Menelik being coronated as Atse Menelik at Entoto, not at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum, Tigray. Traditionally, Ethiopian Emperors were crowned at Re’ese Adbarat Kidiste Kidusan Dingel Maryam Ts’iyon for many hundred years. Atse Menelik became the first to break this tradition and be crowned at Entoto.
By opening the door for external enemies to mess with internal affairs, Atse Menelik came to power, but angered our brothers and sisters in Tigray, whose bitter hate to Shoa was only fueled by Egypt when it changed its alliance and started supporting TPLF since its foundation. For the last century, the Egyptian interference in Ethiopia’s politics has resulted in the uncontrolled animosity between Shoa and Tigray.
Then, in order to reclaim their lost territory of the Eritrean coastal lines, which is called Bahr Negash, and to put it back under its influence, Egypt backed and trained the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), which later partially became the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). Egypt has messed up our internal affairs for the last century, and had been in control of our Church, which also crowned our Emperors, through the Egyptian-appointed Abune until 1948. Our opposition leaders must be advised to stop the temptation of being lured by Egypt to undermine Ethiopia’s interest on the Abbay River.
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