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The Legacy of Emperor Yohannes IV

By Bereket Kiros
March 25, 2012

Emperor Yohannes IV, King of Zion and King of Kings of Ethiopia
 -Tigrai Online Although the full history of Atse Yohannes IV has yet to be written, a hundred and twenty years have passed since one of the greatest Ethiopian leaders sacrificed his life (on the 10, March 1889) to safeguard Ethiopia’s independence against local enemies and outside invaders that threatened to undermine Ethiopia’s sovereignty and existence.

The role of Atse Yohannes IV as a pioneer in the creation of Ethiopia is undeniably clear and not contested. The collective historical consciousness of Ethiopians demands honoring a great leader, like others before and after him.

Attempts to have a proper monument for Ethiopia's greatest defender and protector of Ethiopia’s freedom has, for the most part, been thwarted by fanatic followers of Islam in present day Ethiopia financed by foreign forces and in collaboration with the current Ethiopian government that has opted to believe that the history of Ethiopia is only one hundred years old.  What is being witnessed so far is a movement of endless political deception and a one-sided reading of Ethiopian history skewed to fit the interests of a government.  

Remembering our past history and the sacrifices made by our ancestors and making it part of our social fabric today should enable us to deal with the latest waves of insidious attacks made to one of the greatest uncompromising patriot, defender, and protector of Ethiopian sovereignty during the nineteenth century.

We categorically denounce the latest provocation in Mekelle by surrogates of the government who are responsible for the destruction of a memorial foundation for Yohannes IV after 120 years of silence.  This is the second time that the Atse Yohannes IV first stone foundation monument to honor the value and dedication of the fallen warrior in Mekelle is destroyed under the watchful eyes of the leadership in Mekelle.  A commercial bank named after the great warrior and defender of Ethiopia named Atse Yohannes IV Bank was also forced to change its name or close its doors.

Memorializing Atse Yohannes IV has been a charged issue for a few minority groups who put their loyalty to their faith more than their country. It is not difficult to surmise the influence exerted by powerful individuals close to the government who have made a pledge to derail a cause at heart to the Ethiopian people. The institutional silence following the vandalization of the foundation for Atse Yohannes IV monument is a case in point.

A marriage of convenience has given birth to many pseudo-analysts and self-made-experts that are willing to lie and distort facts. Now the time has come to take a fresh approach to defend the national interest of Ethiopia and Ethiopians. Donald N. Levine, one of the scholars of Ethiopian history, in the  book “Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society ,  “If Yohannes is often remembered for his policy of pressuring Muslim leaders in Wollo to convert to Christianity ---a policy grounded on desperately important national political reasons---he should also be remembered for having many Muslims in his entourage and assigning Muslims to position in his court, as he is fondly remembered by some of the Muslims of Northern Tigray today. That he was not such religious fanatic as he has often been portrayed is shown by his willingness to propose an alliance with the Sudanese Mahdists against England”. 

Atse Yohannes’s opponents took advantage of the incursion of Egyptians and Mahdists and embark on spreading Islamization. Almost all negative comments about Emperor Yohannes come from some religious fanatics with an axe to grind. Sven Rubenson professor of history, describes the following sentiment of Ethiopians in that era “To the vast majority of the Ethiopians this was a religious war, a battle against the decedents of Hagar, the Ismailities ….who had come from across the sea to destroy God’s people.” It was an era of great hostility and mistrust during which the two religions threatened each other to influence their respected faith.

It would be naïve and unpatriotic to reduce his love of country and faith about Ethiopian unity. Did Emperor Yohannes exert influence, yes he did, for unity of Ethiopia and had a positive lasting outcome. He was a defender of the Christian faith and integrity of Ethiopia like other defenders of his time. He was more concerned with the renegades who choose their faith to assist followers of the same faith to spread Islam.  As noted by the great historian Professor Richard Pankhurst in his book, “The Peoples of Africa the Ethiopians A history” page 168, “At Boru Meda, Yohannes also decided to take action against Muslims of Wollo, whose leaders had assumed the militant religious title of Imam. They were reported to be actively propagating Islam among animist populations on the empire periphery. The emperor feared that such determined protagonist of Islam might win over to the Egyptian cause”.  The Emperor’s suspicion was confirmed as per the report in January 1869 to the French government and as documented by Richard Pankhurst “The Egyptians policy may modify itself or cease its activity, but it never changes. A catholic Abyssinia, with a disciplined administration and army, a friend of the European powers, is a danger for Egypt. Therefore she must either take Abyssinia and Islamize it or retain it in anarchy and misery.”  The Survival of Ethiopian independence page 290. This did not give Atse Yohannes much choice.

Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia article titled The Martyred King of Kings: Emperor Yohannes IV of Ethiopia on his concluding remarks puts eloquently “some writers could have a misperception of the times and misconception of Yohannes and his policy in running political affairs. Some, for instance, argue that Yohannes was anti-Moslem and he even declared Ethiopia a solely Christian nation. As I have argued in my book, Ethiopia: The Political Economy of Transition (1995)7 there is no doubt that Yohannes was in favor of one Christian religion and this is certainly wrong….. Yohannes did not order the conversion of Moslems without reason. Long before Metema, Gura’e and Gundet, Khedive Ismael ordered the conversion of Christians in the Habab, Bogos, Mensa’e and Massawa areas. And the dervish, in effect, wrought a Jihad war against Ethiopia. The only way to end the distractive pattern is to embark in defense of Ethiopian territory.  In 1526 Ahmad ibn Ibrahim (Gran) raid and embark a total distraction used scorched-earth tactics, destroying churches and burned crops and massacring villagers. He declares Jihad a holy war against Ethiopia.  Conversion of “the unbeliever” was an essential part of Muslim duty. Jihad movement has served to spread Islam. Thanks to the Portuguese and Atse Lebne-Dengel managed to save Ethiopia from the jaws of defeat and mayhem. Those historical lessons played active role in shaping the present Ethiopia.

The oral unfounded history is based on myth and personal dislike of Atse Yohannes.  Some are heaping personal insults and unfounded criticisms of his legacy. Such sinister motive doesn’t have any moral, political, or educational value to us, but only creates doubt about their own person and intentions. It is a futile attempt at nullifying Ethiopian national pride and history. We must encourage and support his thankless toil.  Professor Tecola Hagos on his article titled Emperors Tewodros II, Yohannes IV, Menilik II, and the Myth of Colonialism  “There is no question that next to Emperor Zra 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 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 is his foundational holding that Ethiopian pilgrims visit when they travel to Jerusalem to this day. His fear of God, humility, and sense of justice, and above all his sense of duty is unmatched by any Ethiopian Emperor or leader ever.”  We have to appreciate the Emperor’s wisdom to his wisdom to be able to unite Ethiopia that remained intact until 1993.

As it was clearly described in one of the Khalifa’s letter to Yohannes: And later we have written you the same as the Mahdi had written to you and told you that if you do not act according to our command [i.e. adopt Islam] there will be no alternative to the entrance of the armies of the Islam into your territories, their fighting you and their killing of your men.   Ras Alula and the scramble for Africa page 128. Despite the absences of historical investigation few relayed on rumors to minimize the degree to which the Khalifa’s were at the core of the aggression. Emperor Yohannes, he had to ensure the security and territorial integrity of Ethiopia. It is perhaps difficult for many of us to capture the feeling of the time when religion war and religious foreign policy was intertwined. Such a threat by Khalifa should be taken seriously to analyze why Emperor Yohannes forced to march to Metema. The war was forced upon him and he has to defend Ethiopia. His nation was threatened with immediate danger and a danger that cannot avoided.       

We should learn from the past to insure justice and human dignity to all Ethiopians; and Ethiopian territory and unity that must be preserved at any cost. History is the reflection of our past failures and successes, weaknesses and strengths. Nevertheless, a handful of figures attempt to twist the truth to fit their agenda and continue to impede the sacrifices and the efforts of our people and deserving leaders.

Political expediency has triggered the authoring of flimsy and rubbish ideas aimed at provoking and getting emotional appeal to distract people from seeking factual answers to legitimate rational questions. Instead of coming up with prudent political program some of us continued to engage our readers in a vindictive agenda of looking to gather sympathizers. Such activity is one of the great tragedies hindering our development to advance our causes in the future. Some of our brothers are paralyzed by religion and faith.

When we do move out of such inertia we engage ourselves in making lofty generalizations to outsmart fellow Ethiopians. It is ironic that some of us have chosen not to act when sad and unpleasant situation unfolds in front of our eyes. The only way we love our Ethiopia is when we defend her legacy. Let us stop all the bickering and think for a moment and cast a glance back on history. Our people are proud having lived independently and tolerate the source to each other in the midst of common enemy that was our source of our cultural wealth. Atse Tewodros, Atse Yohannes and Atse Menilek responded in heroic measures and unified our Ethiopia as well as guaranteed the preservation of her independence.


Ghelawdewos Araia Ph.D. The Martyred King of Kings: Emperor Yohannes IV of Ethiopia (July 3 2006) retrieved March, 14, 2012 from http://www.africanidea.org/atse_yohannes.pdf

Sven Rubensen (1991). The Survival of Ethiopian Independence. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Kuraz publication Agency.

Tecola Hagos Emperors Tewodros II, Yohannes IV, Menilik II, and the Myth of Colonialism (October 15 2004) retrieved March, 14, 2012 from http://www.tecolahagos.com/emperor_yohannes.htm

Donald N. Levine (1974) Greater Ethiopia 2nd edition, the Evolution of a Multiethnic Society. Chicago & London, The University of Chicago Press.

Richard Pankhurst (1998) The people of Africa The Ethiopians a History. USA, Australia and Germany, Blackwell publishing.

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