New historiographical approaches to the reign of LÏjj Iyasu (1910-1916)

Sara Marzagora, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.

The last year in Ethiopia has seen a resurgence of regional and political conflicts. Triggered in November 2015 by the government’s proposal of a new master plan for Addis Ababa, protests soon spread across the country. The demonstrators denounced youth unemployment, economic inequality, lack of civil freedoms, corruption, privatisation of land, and the way all these issues intersect with the historic marginalisation of some ethno-regional groups in the country. Confrontations between demonstrators and security forces intensified in the summer of 2016, leaving hundreds dead, and prompting the government to declare a national state of emergency that started in October 2016 and has just recently been lifted.

In this context, a book published in 2013 acquired new resonance in public debates. Edited by Eloi Ficquet and Wolbert G. Smidt, The Life and Times of Lij Iyasu of Ethiopia extensively revises the historiography of the reign of Emperor Menelik’s grandson. Born in 1897, Iyasu was designated heir to the throne in 1909, and started ruling in 1910, when Menelik was incapacitated by a number of strokes. The young prince broke quite dramatically with Ethiopia’s Solomonic political culture. His reign was characterised by a multicultural and multireligious opening, especially towards Muslims, but also towards Oromo dynasties in Wallaga and Jimma. He sponsored the construction of churches, but also mosques; married into powerful Christian families, but also into powerful Muslim families; and spent a good part of his time in the eastern lowlands of Ethiopia. These policies quickly alienated the old Addis Ababa elites. In September 1916, a palace coup removed Iyasu from power. The main accusation thrown at Iyasu was to have converted to Islam, thus going against the centuries-old Christian understanding of the role of the Ethiopian monarchy. France, Italy and Britain actively supported the coup, worried that Iyasu’s pro-German and pro-Ottoman sympathies during WW1 would lead an Ethiopian intervention in the war alongside the Central Powers.

Iyasu’s successor, Ras Tafari, would rise to become one of the most famous and charismatic figures in Ethiopia’s history as Emperor Haile Selassie. Concerned that his legitimacy would be undermined by having gained power via a coup, Haile Selassie closely scrutinised and censored all historiography of Lijj Iyasu’s reign. On the one hand, historiography produced under Haile Selassie tended to diminish the importance of Iyasu. On the other hand, it tended to denigrate Iyasu’s character, presenting the young prince as hedonistic, insolent, and immoral. As a result of Haile Selassie’s intervention, Iyasu’s photos were concealed and the chronicle of Iyasu’s reign was virtually unknown until the 1990s.

The characterisation of Iyasu as brash, undisciplined and insolent is not completely inaccurate but, the contributors to Fiquet and Smidt’s volume argue, there is much more substance to Iyasu’s political project. The different chapters underline instead how creative and ground-breaking some of Iyasu’s choices were. According to Fiquet, Iyasu “invented a new form of multi-religious sovereignty”, prioritising issues of religious and cultural co-existence over the elites’ rhetoric of modernisation. Augustyniak describes him as “conscious policymaker with a complete and complex vision of his empire”, stressing how his policies were “not arbitrary, but systematically responding to both the domestic and external situation of the country”. Smidt laments that Iyasu’s “new policy of integrating the extremely diverging peoples of Ethiopia into the state” was later “forgotten” under Haile Selassie. Smidt’s analysis of Iyasu’s pro-Ottoman leanings during WW1 is even more striking. Iyasu, Smidt remarks, “was preparing an ambitious inter-alliance with Muslim groups and regions far beyond Ethiopia, aiming at a great Christian-Muslim entity unifying the Horn of Africa (under Ethiopian leadership) and thus radically defying colonial interests in the region”.

The interpretation of Iyasu as pushing for a policy of national reconciliation between the country’s ethno-religious groups has been perceived by many to have immediate implications for recent events in Ethiopia. Protesters and opposition figures accused the current Ethiopian government of continuing Haile Selassie’s centralising and assimilationist agenda. The fact that Iyasu belonged to a Muslim Oromo family gave a particular connotation both to his decentralising choices and his eventual demise. In narrating the 1916 coup, Prof Ezekiel Gebissa notes how “the elite of the political center could not fathom the scion of a Muslim Oromo from Wallo sitting on the throne of the Semitic-Christian Empire. By removing Iyasu, the ruling class instituted a ruling pattern of exclusion and marginalization of the Oromo and Muslims from the political center”. Commentators on Facebook groups dedicated to Ethiopian history praised Iyasu’s “attempt to bring the country closer” and decried how “the conservatives killed him”. His dream, a user said, was to “build a strong United Ethiopia with equal religious and ethnic rights”. Present-day economic grievances about soaring inequality led to retrospectively portraying Iyasu as a leader who “believed in equality of his people. Muslims or Christians, poor or rich, peasants or nobles”. After the damnatio memoriae of the Haile Selassie period, Iyasu is now increasingly remembered, particularly among the opposition, as the things Ethiopia could have become, and did not become; a martyr of multiculturalism, overthrown while trying to make the nation-building process more inclusive.

Despite the recent historiographical attention it has attracted, Lijj Iyasu’s period rule remains severely understudied. Finding enough evidence to verify this new interpretation of his reign would enrich our historical understanding of Ethiopia’s elite politics at the beginning of the twentieth century. It could also impact the way in which history is mobilised in present-day political struggles.

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