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Emperor Yohannes IV of Ethiopia


By Bereket Kiros
June 10, 2006

Emperor Yohannes IV, King of Zion and King of Kings of Ethiopia
Emperor Yohannes IV did not die of old age or sickness in bed surrounded by conniving courtiers in intrigue filled palace, but on the battle field among his great generals and worriers

In celebrating this Anniversary of the establishment of the only high school named after Ethiopia’s great Emperor Yohannes IV in that part of Ethiopia of our Tigrai no less than four million people we need to reflect on the painful journey we Ethiopians have to travel to this point in our lives in the Diaspora. I am wag in between great satisfaction, of celebrating the anniversary of the only monument of some note to one of Ethiopia’s greatest Emperors (who defended Ethiopia against all foreign and domestic disruptive forces), and sadness, of the realization that even after a hundred and eighteen years after the death of Emperor Yohannes IV (1889) that we do not have a proper monument for Ethiopia’s greatest defender and protector. As one scholar once said, "all the great men of history were driven by ambition. It goes hand in hand with power. Contrary to public opinion, the world is not divided by good and evil, but between those who do and those who do not, the visionaries and the blind, the realists and the romanticists. The world does not turn on good deeds and sentiments... but on achievements." We cannot let the great legacy of Emperor Yohannes IV to become just a leaf in the many pages of history, and we must not permit history to be falsified.

Without a doubt our Emperor was an achiever and visionary. We have streets named after foreigners whose service to Ethiopia at best is quite dubious, and yet we do not have a single monument to Emperor Yohannes IV in the Capital City of a nation he preserved in freedom and dignity. Emperor Yohannes IV died from wounds received in a battle fighting against a vicious enemy (the successors of the Mahdi, Sudan) that was scourging the region with fanatic brutality and stopping it on its track to Gondar. Emperor Yohannes IV did not die of old age or sickness in bed surrounded by conniving courtiers in intrigue filled palace, but on the battle field among his great generals and worriers, the true sons of Ethiopia, in the wastelands of Ethiopia’s Northwestern borderlands defending the honor and freedom of his people and nation.

At times, particularly insidious groups of people, the Mahel Sefaris, have been writing and revising history about the Napier Expedition trying to undermine the patriotism and dedication with which Yohannes fought to preserve the independence and territorial integrity of Ethiopia. In an effort to cover the far more serious treasonous agreements and collaboration of Emperor after him with the Italians selling off Ethiopia's vital interest for money and political power, such individuals try to divert our attention by writing about what Kassa (before he became Emperor) did or did not do to counter the Napier Expedition of twelve thousand well equipped professional soldiers who were armed to the teeth with the latest "modern" guns and canons. The British Government sent the Napier Expedition (1867-1868) in order to free its illegally detained diplomats and other citizens by Emperor Tewodros II, who had alienated at that stage of his reign most of the leaders of Ethiopia and theEthiopian Orthodox Church. Almost all the leaders of the great houses of Ethiopian politics, including Menilik of Shoa, Gobeze of Lasta, Wube's descendants of Semine (Gondar/Begemder), Workit and Mestawot of Wollo et cetera were all against Emperor Tewodros.

By contrast, Kassa with his eight to ten thousand men was the least important political personality at that time compared to Wubei's family, with over thirty thousand; Gobeze, with sixty thousand; Menilik, with over twenty thousand; and Workit and Mestawot, with another twenty to thirty thousand armies. None of those leaders, who were actually near or about Meqdella (the fort of last stand of Tewodros) and who could have easily defended the Emperor if they wanted to, simply looked on waiting for leftovers when the British liquidated the diminished Imperial force of Emperor Tewodros. Blaming Kassa, a minor leader with limited military capacity, for not stopping the British is unconscionable and a distortion of history and the responsibilities of leaders. It is like asking the Cheka-shume to mount a military attack on a formidable enemy while the Dejazmatches are doing nothing.Moreover, those same leaders Menilik, Gobeze et cetera were also sending envoys to General Napier trying to make favorable arrangement of succession once the British finished off Tewodros II. One of the British Diplomats, Henry Blanc, who was one of the freed prisoners from Meqdella, summed up his views at that time on the rebellious leaders as follows: “Gobeze and Menilek, had both in view to themselves rulers of Abyssinia, by the possession of Magdalla... All wanted Mr. Rassam, not merely to help them, but to give them the mountain.” [Blanc, 271-272]

The fact of the matter is that Emperor Tewodros brought about his own violent end through his own action even endangering Ethiopia's national security. Of course, I grieve too at the loss of an Emperor who started out with such wonderful and great vision of Ethiopia, and later turning that vision into a nightmare of indiscriminate killing and all kinds of atrocities and breaking international law principles and norms of diplomatic hospitality. Even if accepting the insignificant part played by Kassa as a young man before he became Emperor Yohannes IV as regrettable a mistake; nevertheless, Yohannes's many great deeds as Emperor completely overshadow any such mistakes. Even the briefest sketch of the life of Emperor Yohannes IV shows us his continuous struggle against the World powers of his time to preserve the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ethiopia. To wit, consider four of his dramatic military engagements: Even the briefest sketch of the life of Emperor Yohannes IV shows us his continuous struggle against the World powers of his time to preserve the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ethiopia. To mention among four of his greatest military achievements and engagements:

1. Gundet, 16 November 1875 against Egypt
2. Gura , 8-9 March 1876 against Egypt
3. Dogali, 26 January 1887 against Italy
4. Gallabat/Metema, 12 March 1889 against the Mahdists where Yohannes died in battle.The British were intimately involved with the political life of the people of Egypt and Sudan. In fact, at one time the British were completely controlling the foreign policy of those nations and were throwing their weight behind the schemes to undermine the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ethiopia, a monumental mistake in their foreign policy, which ultimately and negatively affected everyone in the area dearly to this day.

Emperor Yohannes IV was a very religious man. As a mater of fact, towards the last years of his life, he was to abdicate his Throne and join a monastic life, but stayed in power because he was pressured to do so by his loyal generals and the Church fathers who pleaded with him that if he were to abdicate Ethiopia will be left without a great defender against the vultures surrounding her. There is no doubt about Emperor Yohannes’s integrity, ethics, and compassion for his people. “There is no question that next to Emperor Zera Yacob, Emperor Yohannes was the most devoted and faithful servant of the Church of Ethiopia. He established great holdings and churches throughout his reign. Even at a time he was a struggling contender to the Ethiopian Imperial Crown with limited means, he devoted almost all of his personal fortune to buy land and built a church and sanctuary for Ethiopian pilgrims who traveled to the Holy City of Jerusalem. It was his foundational holding that Ethiopian pilgrims to this day visit when they travel to Jerusalem. His fear for God, humility, and sense of justice, and above all his sense of duty is unmatched by any Ethiopian Emperor or leader ever. It is his sense of duty to his people that led him back [to Gallabat/Metema] when he was halfway coming to Shoa to demonstrate his mighty army against the forces of Menilik for his uncooperative stance when Menelik decided to turn back instead of facing the Mahdists, who were on their way to attack Gondar, destroy Churches and massacre Ethiopians.

Emperor Yohannes IV was truly an Ethiopian Emperor of the people who envisioned one great Empire and a glorious people living in peace, harmony, and justice. In his effort to unite the people of Ethiopia he foresaw the importance of having a common language. In his great wisdom of statesmanship, rather than trying to make his own mother-tongue (Tigregna) as the national language of Ethiopia and his Court, he opted to institute the Amharic language, a language that he himself was learning to speak, as the official language of his Imperial Court and Ethiopia’s national language. The Amharic language being a relatively young language was very much susceptible to great changes, growth, and incorporation of different words from sources from the diverse people and cultures of Ethiopia was attractive and ideal to use as an instrument to forge “unity” among the diverse people and cultures of Ethiopia. It takes a real genius to understand that sociological factor and proclaim such a language as a national Court language.

Emperor Yohannes IV tried to create close relationships with the great houses around the country by appointing courtiers and representatives from all over Ethiopia. His court was dynamic and inclusive. There has been some revisionist lie written by some Mahel Sefaris trying to paint the actions of Emperor Yohannes IV, actions taken in defense of the unity and territorial integrity of Ethiopia against the encroaching Turkish/Ottoman insurrection into Ethiopia, as a campaign against Muslim Ethiopians. Nothing could be further from the truth for his military campaigns were not aimed per se against Ethiopian Muslims but against Ottoman Turks aggression and collaborators. Because of his devotion to Ethiopia and his heroic decisiveness, he brought stability and stopped the local rivalries between the descendants of Mestawat and Workit in Wollo. The threat of disruptive factions against the unity and territorial integrity of Ethiopia involved at some level with the Ottoman Turkish expansionist policies was the reality of the period not some academic interpretative indulgence. Emperor Yohannes IV supported the claims of Ras Michael, (Later elevated to the status of a King, to be succeeded by his son Iyassu, the future contender as the legitimate Heir to the Throne of Emperor Menilik II.) whose claims and service to Ethiopia deserved such recognition and thereby succeeded in bringing stability to the region. At that time the national stability and security of Ethiopia were threatened by the infiltrations of the Turkish/Ottoman agents.
Further proof of his love for all Ethiopians is best illustrated in the choice he made in his private life: he chose as his wife an Afar Moslem lady with whom he was truly in love. It is to be recalled that he spent his youthful years in the Afar area mobilizing his supporters who were mostly Afar Moslems before he challenged Wag Shum Gobeze who was claiming the Ethiopian Crown. It is during such period in the Afar region that Yohannes wedded the daughter of one of his Afar leader’s supporters. When his wife tragically died at a young age, Yohannes never remarried, rather contemplated to abandon his crown and enter a monastic life. It is one of the great love stories in the world that we all should appreciate and learn from. Even more important is the fact that during his fight against the Egyptians and later the followers of the Mahdi of the Sudan, his great army consisted of contingents of Kunama Moslem leaders and soldiers, as well as, Ben Amir commanders and soldiers.

During Emperor Yohannes IV reign, Ethiopia did gain some part of its territories that was occupied by foreign forces. Yohannes never signed a single treaty or international instrument that jeopardized Ethiopia’s sovereignty or territorial integrity. He never received a single penny from any foreign government undermining any Ethiopian king or leader. As a matter of fact, he sealed his unwavering commitment in his own blood by dying on a battlefield defending Ethiopia—a true sacrifice of love, honor, and courage. There is much we all can learn from the courageous act of Emperor Yohannes IV about the price we must be prepared to pay for our Ethiopia. It is not enough to throw darts of insidious insults from the safety of comfortable dwelling places in the West; one must follow in the footsteps of such heroic and dignified Ethiopians.

Bereket Kiros
Seattle, Washington
Saturday, June 10, 2006

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