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 consolidated their power after their rise in the 16th Century.

I will indicate in this paper some of the personalities of Oromo descent who exerted 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 schemes 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 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 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.)