By Mulugeta Haile
Ras Mekonnen was one of the greatest Ethiopians who died before he lived up to his potential-becoming Emperor of Ethiopia. His Amhara, Tigrai, and Oromo ethnicity helped him become a shuttle-diplomat, bringing peace to regions that did not comply with Emperor Menelik’s central government.
Due to his Tigrai identity he was able to march to the region of Tigrai and accord peace with Ras Mengesha, the son of Emperor Yohannes, who had rebelled
against Emperor Menelik. His Oromo ethnicity coupled with his father-in-law’s Muslim and Oromo heritage helped him win the favor of locals to eventually become the first Governor of Harar. With 82 mosques and 102 shrines, Harar is the fourth holiest city of the Islamic world. Ras Mekonnen’s introduction of Christian settlers into the region could have been like Israel and Palestine with ongoing conflicts. However, the Ras transformed Harar into a unique hub for people of multi-religious and multi-ethnic backgrounds to live in peace and harmony. Even though he did not live to see it, every ground-breaking vision the Ras initiated in Harar was a success story.
Education was a quintessential element to Ras Mekonnen. In 1900, he sent a young Tekle Hawariat to Russia who later became the author of the first written Ethiopian Constitution. At home the Ras established the first school in his palace compound. His son, Lij Tafari, (The Emperor of Ethiopia) Lij Imeru, (The Most Beloved Ras), Lij Beshawered, (The first mayor of Deredawa), Zewdie Belaynhe (The first Ministry of Labour), and Dr. Malaku (The first degree holder from the U.S., and founder of EWF) were the products of the Harar’s school.
When Lij Taferi, Lij Imeru, and Lij Beshawered moved to Addis Ababa to join the Emperor Menelik School, the school’s professor had to create a special class because their knowledge was more advanced than the rest of the local students, such as Lij Iyasu, the grandson of Emperor Menelik (The leader of Ethiopia from 1913-16).
In 1901, Ras Mekonnen provided means and materials to build the first hospital in Harar at his own expense. Joseph Vitalien, a black Diaspora, was his private doctor and later that of Emperor Menelik. Dr. Vitalien was also mentor to Lij Tafari who became the first Ethiopian Emperor who claimed blacks in the Diaspora as his own subjects.
In 1903, the Ras introduced Haji Abdullahi Sadiq, a native Harari, to Emperor Menelik. The Haji was an adventurer and a master in trade throughout the Middle East. While the Haji was in Istanbul he met Robert Skinner, a US ambassador during the Ottoman Empire. Skinner came to Ethiopia as the first U.S. envoy with the Haji’s connection. Two years later Haji Sadiq became the first Ethiopian envoy to the U.S. and presented Emperor Menelik’s message to President Theodor Roosevelt.
The first high official of Emperor Menelik in Europe was Ras Makonnen. The Ras went to Italy to sign The Treaty of Wuchale in 1892. After he signed the treaty, he learned that this treaty had two different versions. Afework Geberyesus, was a student in Rome, helped him to understand the Italian version, which stated that Ethiopia was a colony of Italy. Upon arrival in Addis Ababa, the Ras informed Emperor Menelik that his signature at Wuchale in Ethiopia was also approved the power of Italy over Ethiopia.
To strengthen Harar’s linkages with the Red Sea and Indian Ocean trade routes, Ras Mekonnen appointed Sheik Mohammed Ali, an Indian business man as a Bejirond(Treasurer) of the Harar. The Sheik was in charge of merchant vessels that were deployed on the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Sheik Mohammed helped the Ras’ army with advanced weapons. It was not by accident that the Ras’ army was armed to the teeth at the battle of Adwa.
The Ras foresaw an inevitable war looming ahead and used Zeila, the Somali port, to secure sufficient equipment and manpower. On his way to the battle, the Ras stopped in Addis Ababa to meet with Emperor Menelik.
Emperor Menelik, after visiting the Ras’s army, with admiration was believed to have said, “አልጋው ያንተ አይደለም ወይ መኮንን?” (Doesn’t the Throne belong to you Makonnen?). The Ras replied, “እኔ አልጋውን ልጠብቅ እንጂ ልገለብጥ አልመጣሁ” (I am here to protect the throne not overthrow it.)
The predicament of Ras Mekonnen before the war broke out; there was a rumor in Addis Ababa that the Italians were using Ras Mekonnen to overthrow the throne of Emperor Menelik. On the other hand, the Ras had the intention of solving the Ethio-Italian’s crisis through diplomacy. He kept writing to the Italian generals while still marching to the battles. His diplomatic effort was taken as cowardice by the Italian generals while Empress Taytu considered it as a fulfillment of the plot against her husband, Emperor Menelik.
The Ras, in the middle of this dilemma, marched 1640 km to face the enemy while Menelik and Taytu’s huge armies were behind him. If he did not receive a response letter securing a peaceful solution from the Italians he would be forced to begin the war before they arrived. However, if he failed to do either, he probably would have been detained by Empress Taytu’s men as a traitor.
With this background, the Ras had to begin his first battle against the Italian and its alien forces (Eritreans, Somalians, and Libyans). The Ras’ first victory at the battle of Amba Lage had paved a way to the victory of Mekele, and Adwa, which put Ethiopia’s, Emperor Menelik, and Empress Taytu’s names on the international arena.
The following article is translated from the book of His Excellency, Heruy Wolde Selassie, which depicted the prelude of the Battle of Adwa from the bird’s eye view.
Enjoy the reading
“The battle of Ambalage was led by Ras Mekonnen as a commander in chief. Ras Makonne and Ras Mikayel on the rear side, Ras Mangesha and Ras Alula on the right flank, Ras Wolay on the left, and Fetwarari Gebeyehu on front. Headed on horseback, each led their army towards to the Italian trench.
“To avoid bloodshed, Ras Mekonnen wrote the following message to the Italian Major Pietro Toselli, ‘Though I am here to fight, I still don’t want bloodshed so I would advise you to lead your camp and retreat. Emperor Menelik with his army is advancing swiftly; please let us avoid this preventable war. I have also an unanswered letter which I wrote to your boss, General Oreste Baratieri, I hope your help to get the answer to my letter.’
“Major Toselli’s answer was ‘The letter has reached to Geneal Baratieri and his response would come in due course. However, if your intention is peaceful, you should have waited in your camp for the answer.’
“Ras Mekonnen concluded that peaceful settlement was not attainable and decided to proceed. Fetawrari Gebyhu’s army advanced throughout the night, and at day break it reached the Italian trench and the Italians started to shoot.
“When the heavy sound of gunfire exchanged between Fetawrari Gebyhu’s army and the Italian, the rest of the Ethiopian army advanced quickly from all sides to join Fetawrari Gebeyhu. In a few minutes, the Italian trench was encircled. From the left, as the Ras Wolay’s army pushed forcefully, the Italian army started retreating to the hill and began to fire the mortar from the distance. From the center, the armies of Ras Mekonnen and Ras Michael jumped over the trench and dashed to the hill. They mixed themselves with the Italian army and fought fiercely hand to hand with sword and shield. From the right side, Ras Mangesha’s and Ras Alula’s armies ran into the rear side and began a surprise attack. Within one hour, the Italian army was completely defeated, and tried to escape, however, the passage was too narrow so they decided to throw themselves from the 400 meter-high cliff while only a few succeeded in escaping and most were forced to surrender.
“Major Toselli was a courageous soldier and refused to surrender and fought until he was killed. The casualties from both sides were numerous, the Italian lost about three thousand, and one thousand on the Ethiopian side with many injured.
“After the victory, the Ethiopian soldiers assembled themselves in various groups and began to weep and cry to mourn their dead. When Ras Mekonnen heard the weeping and crying, he chided. Standing in the middle of his army he said, ‘My friends, this is not a time to weep but to rejoice.
“It is a great honor to die for our country and for our Emperor, instead you should now address your heroic deeds,’ upon which the mood changed into war songs. They boasted about their captives and captured weapons.
“After this, Ras Makonen ordered that all dead bodies should be buried, irrespective of whether they are Ethiopians or Italians. He personally attended the burial ceremony of Major Toselli and ensured that it was done honorably.
“After Ras Mekonnen wrote a report to Emperor Menelik he marched to the next battle ground, Mekele. In his report, he mentioned that Fetawrari Gebeyhu and Kengazmach Taffese have been detained because they had breached the principle of the war; they laid their army into battle without informing to the Command Center.”
What continued in Mekele and Adwa are the histories of triumph of the united people of Ethiopia, which sent a message to the attendees of the Berlin conference that their intentions would not come to pass in Ethiopia.
I will leave you with final statement of General Baratari, the commander in chief of the Italian army, which he wrote only a few hours before he began the battle of Adwa, “The battle spirit of my soldiers is so high, but the enemy’s is fearless and belittle death.”
Happy 124th Adwa’s victory Day!!!