Nobles of Oromo Descent Who Ruled Ethiopia


By Fikre Tolossa

Ethiopia has not always been ruled by “pure” Amhara and Tigre Monarchs. The fact is that some Oromo blood did indeed flow in the veins of Ethiopian monarchs since the 18th Century. By then the Oromo had already {www:consolidate}d their power after their rise in the 16th Century.

I will indicate in this paper some of the personalities of Oromo descent who {www:exert}ed extraordinary influence on Ethiopian history and governments. The Oromo were important figures throughout the last four hundred years. Crowned as emperors and empresses and granted military and nobility titles, they directed many of the historical events of Ethiopia.

The first close contact between the Oromo and the Ethiopian monarchy occurred when Prince Susenyos, born in 1571, was captured in his youth by the Boren tribe in a battle. This was the beginning of a relationship that marked the political and historical future of Ethiopia.

Prince Susenyos learned the Oromo language and grew up in accordance with the Oromo culture. The Oromo treated him amicably as a prince amongst them.

He joined his relatives at the age of eighteen when he was retrieved in exchange for Oromo captives. When Atse Sertse Dengel died in 1597, some people who feared that Susenyos would ascend to the throne tried to kill him; and he returned to his old friends, the Oromos, for protection and shelter. They welcomed him as a prince once again, and even made him their leader. With the help of his Oromo soldiers, he fought many battles against the Amhara who took over the throne. He was crowned in Gojjam in 1604. He garrisoned two Oromo regiments, Ilmana and Denssa in Gojjam, and made his Oromo soldiers Chewawoch (equivalent to Neftegnoch) over the Amhara peasants. Ilmana Denssa exists to this day as the name of an area in Gojjam.

Atse Susenyos trusted only his time-tested Oromo soldiers. He promoted a number of them to high ranks and filled his palace with them. At times he was so busy with his Oromo friends that he hardly found time to see the Amharas. Inspite of this, some of his Oromo followers who had seen him as their leader felt betrayed when he became an Amhara emperor and left to fight him. The rest remained loyal to him and served him until the end. Even though the Oromo became part of the ruling class during the reign of Atse Susenyos, it was not until the first three decades of the 18th Century that they were able to sit on the Ethiopian throne directly.

The first Oromo empress of Ethiopia was Wabi, whose throne name was Welete-Bersabeh, the daughter of an Oromo chieftain from Wollo. She joined the Solomonic Dynasty when she married Emperor Iyasu Berhan- Seged who ruled Ethiopia from Gonder between 1723 and 1747 Ethiopian Calender. After the death of her husband, Empress Bersabeh’s son, Iyoas, became the emperor of Ethiopia.

Emperor Iyoas appointed Oromos to higher positions like Emperors Susenyos and Iyasu did. He preferred his Oromo kinsmen from Wollo to the Gondere relatives of his grandmother, Empress Mentewab. He brought his Oromo uncles Lubo and Birele from Wollo, and made Lubo his inderasse (viceroy), and appointed Birele as a dejazmach and governor of Begemdir. This was the third time in Ethiopian history when the Oromos and their language dominated the court of an Ethiopian emperor.

A Yejju Oromo chieftain by the name of Ali Gwangul, popularly known as Ali The Great, defeated Atse Tekle-Giorgis I, Emperor of Ethiopia in 1784 and became the ruler of Ethiopia without crowning himself. After his death in 1788 his brother Ras Aligaz succeeded him and ruled Ethiopia for three year.

Around 1802, another Yejju Oromo named Grazmach Gugssa, later called Gugssa The Great, became Ras and reigned over Gojjam, Lasta, Begemdir, Semen, Yejju and Wollo from his capital city Debre Tabor. Upon his death in 1825, his son Ras Imam or Yemam succeeded him and reigned over Ethiopia for three years. His brother Ras Mareeye succeeded him in 1828 and ruled until 1831. Ras Mareeye was succeeded by his brother Ras Dori in 1831. In the same year he marched to Tigrai, took over Axum and defeated Dejazmach Sabagadis, the ruler of Tigrai at the Battle of May Islamay. Before Ras Dori succeeded his brother, he was the governor of Damot. When he left his governorship of Damot, another Oromo by the name Ras Gobena ruled Damot.

Dembia and Quara, the birth place of Emperor Tewodros II in Gonder, were ruled by another Oromo, Dejazmach Alula, the eldest son of Ras Gugssa.

After the death of Ras Alula, his son Ras Ali ruled Gonder. His widowed mother was Weyzero Menen, the daughter of Liben Amede, an Oromo ruler of Wollo. When Atse Yohannes III married her she became Itege, and as such, and Ethiopian empress.

When Atse Tewodros subdued all the Ethiopian princes in his effort to unite Ethiopia, his wife, Itege Tewabech, who was one of the daughters of Ras Ali II and the grand daughter of Itege Menen, became an Oromo empress of Ethiopia.

Ras Gugssa’s grandsons, Merso and Betul (The father of Empress Taitu, Emperor Menelik’s wife), were important noblemen of Oromo descent. When Ras Ali was defeated by Ras Wube, Merso and Betul captured Wube. As a result, Ras Ali rewarded Merso with the governorship of Semen. As the brothers were heading for Semen, Ras Ali changed his mind and arrested the brothers for a while. After a short while he reconciled with them and made them governors of some districts in Gojjam.

Ras Betul had a son named Wele. Emperor Menelik II favored Wele so much that he promoted him to Ras and appointed him to be the governor of Gonder and Yejju. Ras Wele Betul was one of the heroes of the Battle of Adwa. Ras Wele’s son, Ras Gugssa married Queen Zewditu, the daughter of Emperor Menelik, who became the empress of Ethiopia a few years after the death of her father. Upon her ascension to the throne she divorced Ras Gugssa Wele. He retreated to Gonder which he continued to govern.

Negus Mikael of Wollo, whose name had been Muhamed Ali before he was converted to Christianity, was the Oromo king of Tigre and Wollo respectively. His son, Lij Iyasu, who was the grandson of Emperor Menelik, reigned over Ethiopia without crowning himself for three years (1913-1916.) Lij Iyasu’s mother, Woizero Shewarega Menelik is said to be half Oromo through her mother Desta, who was supposed to be an Oromo from Wollo.

An Ethiopian empress of Oromo descent who played a vital role in Ethiopian politics and history in the 2nd half of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century was Taitu Betul, the wife of Emperor Menelik II. It is true to say that she reigned with Menelik in that unforgettable era of Ethiopian history. She was Menelik’s counselor, as well as policy maker in many state affairs. As a matter of fact, it was she who encouraged Menelik to fight the Battle of Adwa against the Italians, in order to save Ethiopia from European colonization and humiliation. She herself fought at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. She was brilliant and her determination discouraged the Europeans who had colonial {www:scheme}s for Ethiopia.

Dejazmach Wolde-Mikael Gudissa was another great nobleman of Oromo descent who ruled Gola, near Ankober in Shoa. Negus Sahle-Selassie, the great king of Shoa, was his grand father. Emperor Menelik was his cousin.

The Oromo also functioned as military and administrative leaders. Fitawrari Habte-Giorgis Dinegede, was an Oromo who was raised to noblehood by Emperor Menelik II who esteemed his merit very highly. He became a counselor in the government and commander-in-chief of the Ethiopian army in 1896 at the end of the Battle of Adwa. Even though many prominent Amharas, including Liqe-Mequas Abate, wished to be in that post, Menelik appointed Fitawrari Habte-Giorgis.

Fitawrari Habte-Giorgis was known for being a wise statesman who played a vital role in Ethiopian politics. It is true to say that it was because of his influence that Lij Iyasu was replaced by Tefferi Mekonen (Haileselassie I). Had he not been loyal to Emperor Menelik, he had the power and influence to crown himself after the overthrow of Lij Iyasu.

Dejazmach Balcha Aba Nefsso was another great Oromo general who fought in the Battle of Adwa. He ruled Sidamo and Harer and died at the age of eighty fighting against the fascist Italians in 1936.

Ras Gobena Dachi was one of Emperor Menelik’s highly revered generals. As the commander Menelik’s army, he participated in several military campaigns to the south. He was famous for being a great military strategist. He is the most controversial figure among Oromo intellectuals. Some Western-educated Oromos do not even want to hear his name blaming him for conquering the south. Others defend him stating that, after all, he was a great soldier who believed in Ethiopian unity, and who acted in a fashion appropriate for his time to achieve that goal.

The most recent example of Oromo {www:genealogy} involves Empress Menen Asfaw and her husband Emperor Haile Selassie. The last Oromo Empress of Ethiopia, Itege Menen Asfaw was the granddaughter of Ras Mikael of Wollo and the niece of Lij Iyasu. Crown Prince Asfawossen, is her son.

A leader of an Oromo descent who reigned over Ethiopia longer than any monarch was, believe it or not, Emperor Haile Selassie I, whose given name was Teferi Mekonen. His father Ras Mekonen was the son of Dejazmach Wolde-Mikael, the governor of Gola, near Ankober, who was the son of (Ato?) Gudissa. Teferi Mekonen was reputed for being fluent in the Oromo language, even though he spoke it only when the need arose. I believe his mother Yeshimebet Ali, too, was an Oromo whose father was a Muslim. The name of her mother is said to be Wolete-Giorgis. It seems that HaileSelassie was not interested in having the genealogy of his mother revealed for reasons known only to himself. Maybe, it was to conceal the fact that his maternal grandfather was a Muslim. That could be one reason why his biographers, when he was still alive, mentioned only his mother’s first name dropping her father’s name.

There was a rumor that she was a Gurage. However, as I pondered upon the name of her father Ali, I suspected that Ali was an Oromo from Wollo, as there were a number of Alis from there who played a vital role in Ethiopian history. As I posed this question to an elderly lady who happens to be a relative of Emperor Haileselassie, she informed me: “I have heard that Ali was an Oromo from Wore Ilu, Wollo, where my relatives come from. The mother of Yeshimebet was indeed Wolete-Giorgis. She had a half-sister by the name of Mamit Balcha. Balcha was an Oromo.”

From all these facts we can see that those leaders who ruled Ethiopia during the past 250 years were not “pure” Amharas or Tigreans. They were nobles of Oromo descent. Some pseudo-historians do not accept these leaders as Oromos arguing that the mentality and ways of life of these leaders were the same as the Amhara rulers. Others {www:refute} this argument saying that all rulers, regardless of their ethnic background, are the same. It is the nature of power which determines their mentality, behavior and ways of life and not their ethnic identity. Still others assert that Emperor Iyoas, Ali The Great, and Ras Aligaz at least, ruled in a purely Oromo fashion, if there was ever such a fashion.

In spite of these arguments, one fact still remains unchallenged. Ethiopia was also ruled by people of Oromo descent. The Oromos, both nobility and commoners, have influenced the Amhara in a number of ways as evidenced by linguistic, cultural and religious assimilation for the past 400 years.

(Fikre Tolossa, Ph.D., is Assistant Dean of Faculty at Colombia Pacific University in San Rafael, CA and Associate Editor of Ethiopian Review.)


17 comments on “Nobles of Oromo Descent Who Ruled Ethiopia

  1. temp tomp tee on

    Not sure what prompted this article but there are some omissions in this article I want to fill in.

    First, the author should have mentioned how Susenyos was captured. It would have been a very illuminating account if that was mentioned.

    Second, Yeju people are originally from Shewa Robit area. They were displaced from there by Gragn Ahmed. They were eventually “Oromized” if you will because they took in a lot of Oromo migrants in Wollo where they themselves were migrants.

    So the Oromoness of many of the people mentioned is NOT historically accurate in the way the author writes it. But as an “ambiguous” case of Oromoness, it can be admitted. Or if one implements the standard used in the USA to identify someone as “Black” even if he-she has white or asian ancestory.

  2. OMG! on

    Come on people! Over 80 million Ethiopians from East to west and from North to South who are muzzled and oppressed by TPLF regime and go to bed hungry every night, don’t have the luxury to go back in history and weary about who ruled who and when, they just want to be free from tyrant Meles and raise their children in peace.

  3. koster on

    Let us move forward and tackle the current problem which is woyane ethnic politics and state terrorism. In a free and democratic Ethiopia everybody can live in peace without fear of repression or AGAZI. When we talk of Amharas, Oromos, Tigreans the new “ethiopians”/Punjabis/Chinese are dominating us not only economically but also politically in the near future.

    If we really care for Ethiopia and Ethiopians say no to state terrorism whether it is carried out by an Oromo, Amhara or Tigrean. Stand for truth and justice and move forward, Time and the World are running forward while we are going backward.

  4. Alem (Ethiopiawi) on

    It is a great article. Thank you Fikre. LET US REMOVE WOYANE TODAY!!!! It is already decayed from within. There is an inner fight within EPRDF and the military is divided. I heard it from a reliable source.

    A Peaceful Ethiopia will arise sooner as we think.

  5. Fekade on

    I wonder why we need this article at this time. No matter what you say, Ethiopia started at Tigray. That is the basuc truth and reality. Despite the slandering and insulting of Tigrians, Ethiopia is not Ethiopia without Tigray…

  6. I understand that the true reflection of our people is now starting to be revealed. One reality I know is the wisdom and strong culture and tradition that the Oromo people have to live with others very peacefully and coordinate, and lead. This is being beginning to get recognition, which sounds good. Please understand my true reflections to all other ethnic groups as well who have been having wisdoms and sound cultures which support humanity, respect and love. In the past we have ignored and undermined this reality and have really caused us to suffer to the level this has pained us too deep.

    For sure, Weyane is removed in very short time if the Oromos and other groups of Ethiopians work genuinely, in unity and harmony and love and respect. Weyane has used all those bad words and things of the past for them to rule and give our great country and people way to colonisers. Deal beloved people of Ethiopi, Colonisation is looming and speeding fast. By the way, The Europeans, and Asians have devoted their long time to strategise the divide and rule to re-colonise Africa. Ethiopia has been the strongest nation who has ever resisted the colony but becasue of Meles regime- She is at the verge of falling into this magnanimous trap. Meles is a single person and he thinks he lives as long as he gets the support from China, UN, IMF, World Bank and the West. You know how they are doing it? they choose leaders like Meles, Museveni, Kigami of Rwanda who will allow the Chinese and Westerners to easily infiltrate and conquer. Once they infiltrate, their key target is grabbing the fertile lands and mine rich resources. During this nasty process, they flow their money and resources in mass to equip the regimes like the weyane to strengthen their military capability, support them with technologies and trainings to get protection while they are sucking precious resources and labours of our innocent people. Dear All Beloved Ethiopians, this is what I am seeing clearly and which must require urgent attention by all stakeholders to start up and strengthen the movement, and to put flames on it. We can do this wherever we are. Please dear all fellow Ethiopians- let me tell you one secret- Land is the most important resource which will determine your livelihood and our people’s livelihood. If you are denied access to your own land- you will be powerless, without economic power and will then be subject to slavery. This is what happened in the past, and why is Chinese, Indians, Arabs and Westerns are targeting on the land. The land grabbers will then exploit you/our people as cheap labourer. You can be enslaved but the regime still stands for that to continue to give protection to the colonisers. This situation will make you/our people the poorest of the poor. Then follows is suicide and very barabric crimes committed by our people who are not able to tolerate the burden.

    What next is that once they (colonisers) are sure of their grabbing, then they will gradually and slowly develop their own strong security system- including private security companies who will be fully equipped with all modern ammunitions and given all the rights by the puppet regime to kill the poor and deprived people when they try to ask about their right. How selfish are the current leaders of Africa?.Congratulations, we are initiating the movement in the continent of Africa, and bearing some fruits, waking up, people of Ethiopia and Africa. The Meles regime and the like are nourished with everything and being corrupted by the colonisers. The colonisers suck and dries up the resource as soon as they can to return their investment cost and harvest the maximum profit possible. All the activities are unsustainable and very harmful to the whole nations of Ethiopia (lovely and great people), degrading the environment, causing pollution, eviction of millions of people from their land, and they become jobless and no means of survival. Dear all, We must not give time to the enemy-our colonisers who are fully fledged and who continue to give full support to the brutal leaders like meles Zenawi. Time is the most important tool we have to re-organise ourselves and make all the efforts to free our nations-Ethiopia and Africa at large. Please this is not time to bite and beat one another, but with full admission and the wrongs of the past, forgiveness, love and respect, is a time to rise up…

    May God Bless Ethiopia and her beautiful people
    Prof. W.S.

  7. Tola on

    Dr. Fikre want boost our Morale/probably his morale, and claim the Solomonic dynasty , convince us that we the Oromos are the traditional Imperial House of Ethiopia …so we are citizenery to live the life we want with unshakable confidence …. and sing and keep on singing “Ethiopia Hagree Memekiye Kibree…..hmmmmmmmmm… .”
    Dr. Fikre is too late to suggest a correction on Ethiopian History. Even though Dr. Fire’s article has truth to tell, for now the issue is a bit past the political history of genealogy. It sounds like it will not be the toolkit anymore. The current one rather says the Oromo’s and other Ethiopian subjects are coward herds to service their master as needed and required.

  8. Garo. on

    Everybody speaks about democracy,but nobody is willing to say what this democracy is going to look like in the Ethiopian context because that’s when our understanding of the word and our interests are exposed.Let’s face it we like to define it from our own interest. If you ask the supporters of current government they will tell you there is democracy in the country.

  9. Ilman densamo on

    Dr. Tolosa,
    thank you for your histor 101 lecture.

    I have one question for you.

    Asumming that those you mentioned persons are Oromos in building the present Ethiopia (as a backbone), what makes them different from the present oromos who are serving the present Weyane Adminstration?
    E.g. Kuma Demeksa, AA Mayor
    Dr. Negasso , Ex. President of Eth.
    Lut. Girma Woldegiorgis, Today’s President of Ethiopia (at the age of 90)

    Abba Dula Gemeda (Menase), an so on…….

    Please compare those and this systems …

    Thank you

  10. EWENETU on

    wow
    I appereciate doctor fikre tollossa, he is very honest , he uses to defend Ethiopia and Ethiopianism, i like his wisdom, knowledge and courage.
    Let God bless him
    Ethiopia will prevail

  11. Oromo-Ethiopian on

    Dear Dr Fikre ,

    I always appreciate your effort of bringing nations and nationalities of Ethiopia together. The move to bring the nations of Ethiopia together should not solely based on true and genuine history of the past ; it ought include the principles of democracy and equality! It should uncover the truth and be open; should not be like Meles regime, which grants freedom of language and culture, but not property!

    Though I do not support Meles regime much , I wanted to share what Abba Duulaa, Meles loyal stated: “Oromoness is not measured in descent but by work”. When we talk about all those Oromo descent we need to consider their contributions to the Oromo majority of Ethiopia. The same should hold for other rulers representing their nation. A man who leave bulidinh his ho,me for building other home is considered unfaithful in sight of God and man!

    What could we learn for the past, if any, is we Oromo’s together with other fellow nations can build a democratic and free country governed by rule of law, respect, freedom, equality and equity!

  12. Mamo on

    Dear Dr Filre,

    I am thankful again. Another super article to me and my confused generation. I believe that understanding our history is the most important basis for our future.

    Some people still failed to understand the intention of the article. Thus, I would appreciate if you could continue enlighetning our ignorance on the significance of langudge in future Ethiopia. Because current gov. is literally destroying the young generation and our education system.

    Thanks you for your time

  13. Tulemaw on

    Is this another “wanna be Amhara” article. By the way i have full respect for the Amahra people who are brave and intelligent. I also have respect for oromo and tigre people who are brave and intelligent. But i have utter disrespect for those oromos who are more catholic than the pope, who want to share history or glory of “the ruler” by associating themselves with former ethiopian rulers by blood lines. Those oromos, or precisely speaking “wanna-be-amhara” oromos have disrespect for the southern people and other ethnic groups much worse that the racism shown by other narrow minded amharas and tigres. The wanna be oromos keep on telling us say and night how close they are to the semitic amhara and tigre in looks, deeds, history, etc. This thing really sucks. Haven’t you seen that most of the chauvinist and racist ranters are these wanne be ormos who want to outsmart amharas and tigres in ethnic racism. The people of tigre and amhara are very independent people and do not need your service. Please the likes of Dr. Fikre tolossa, look inward at yourself. Please include mengist hailemariyam wolde ayano, for he is also half oromo. Do not filter him. If you do so you will end up filtering the arsis, gujis, tulemas, etc. So adopt a holistic approach.

  14. Geremew on

    Mr. Tulumawlet,
    Please let us ,Love GOD,let us Love our people,and love humanity.Let us make a difference in the life of our people while we have breath .Enough of the past. History is replete of bad deeds,I am helpless about what takes place in the past.I want to know what I as a person with other fellow Ethiopians can do to rectify the past.We live one life,let us together make a difference.Each is entitled to belive in what he/she chooses,and it is not up to me to question why.
    I am resposible for myself in what I believe;I am certain everyone knows what is best for him/her,and freedom of CHOice is GOD given.

  15. Tokichaw Hannibal on

    Nice article.as a oromo/amhara ethiopian i only want the unity of all ethiopians.however i have to correct certain ignorant comments made above

    1st @temp tomp -i can tell you as being the direct descendant of ras mikael that the yejju are not oromized amharas but 100% oromos. i dont know why you made that one up!

    2nd @Fekade while fully acknowledging the rich history the tigreans have contributed to ethiopia since the beggining of the first millenia after the birth of our Lord it is completly ignorant to say ethiopia started in tigray. the name ethiopia itself is a greek translation of the word Cush which refers to a people not a specific land.and the biblical ethiopia is referring to the people who inhabited the land south of egypt which includes sudan,somalia,eritra,kenya; these are all ethiopians who are mentioned in the bible.

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