Short History of Ethiopian Leaders

Emperor Menelik II

Menelik II (August 17, 1844 to December 12, 1913), Conquering Lion of Judah, Elect of God, King of Kings of Ethiopia was negus negust (emperor) of Ethiopia from 1889 to his death. Menelik II The son of King Haile Melekot of Shoa (1847 to 1855), was born in 1844 in Ankober, Shoa and heir to the Shewan branch of the Solomonic Dynasty which claimed descent from King Solomon of ancient Israel, and the Queen of Sheba. On the death of his father in 1855 he was taken prisoner by Emperor Tewodros II (Theodore II), a former minor noble originally named Kassa of Kwara, who had usurped the Imperial throne from the last Emperor of the elder Gondar branch of the Solomonic dynasty, Emperor Johannis III (John III).

Menelik was imprisoned on Tewodros’ mountain stronghold of Magdala, but was treated well by the Emperor, even marrying Tewodros’s daughter Alitash. However, he would eventually succeed at escaping from Magdala and abandoned his wife, returning to Shoa to reclaim his ancestral crown and at once attacked the usurper claiming the Imperial throne for himself as well. These campaigns were unsuccessful, and he turned his arms to the west, east and south, and annexed much territory to his kingdom, still, however, maintaining his claims of divine right to the Imperial Crown of Ethiopia in addition to the royal one of Shoa.

In 1883, King Menelik married Taytu Betul, a noblewoman of Imperial blood, and a member of the leading families of the regions of Simien, Gojjam and Begemder. Her uncle Dejazmatch Wube had been the ruler of Tigre and much of northern Ethiopia. She had been married four times previously and exercised considerable influence. Menelik and Taytu would have no children.

Menelik had previous to this marriage, sired not only Zauditu ( eventually Empress of Ethiopia), but also another daughter, Shoaregga (who married Ras Mikael of Wollo), and a son Prince Wossen Seged who died in childhood. Menelek.s clemency to Ras Mangasha, whom he compelled to submit and then made hereditary Prince of his native Tigre, was ill repaid by a long series of revolts by that prince. After the suicide of Tewodros II in 1868 following his defeat at the hands of the British at Magdalla, Menelik continued to struggle against the various other claimants to the Imperial throne. The eventual successor, the Emperor Yohannes IV (better known to Europeans as King John of Abyssinia) was however able to better exert his claims due to the large number of weapons left to him by the British whom he had aided against Tewodros.

Being again unsuccessful, Menelik resolved to await a more propitious occasion; so, acknowledging the supremacy of Yohannes. In 1886 Menelik of Shoa married his daughter Zauditu to the Emperor’s son, the Ras Araya Selassie. Ras Araya Selassie died in May 1888 without any issue by Zauditu of Shoa, and the Emperor Yohannes IV was killed in a war against the dervishes at the battle of Gallabat (Matemma) on May 10, 1889. The succession now lay between the late emperor’s natural son, the Ras Mangasha, and Menelek of Shoa, but the latter was able to obtain the aliegance of a large majority of the nobility on November 4, and consecrated and Crowned as Emperor Menelik II shortly afterwards.

In 1880, at the time when he was claiming the throne against Mangasha, Menelek signed at Wuchale in Wollo province (Uccialli in the Italian version), a treaty with Italy acknowledging the establishment of the new Italian Colony of Eritrea with its seat at Asmara. This colony had previously been part of the northern Tigrean territories from which Ras Mangasha had generated support, and the establishment of the Italian colony weakend the Ras.

However, it was soon found that the Italian version of one of the articles of the treaty placed the Ethiopian Empire under Italian domination, while the Amharic version did not. Menelik denounced it, and after negotiations failed, abrogated it, leading Italy to declare war and invade from Eritrea. After defeating the Italians at Amba-Alagi and Mekele, he inflicted an even greater defeat on them, in the battle of Adowa on March 1, 1896, forcing them to capitulate. A treaty was signed recognizing the absolute independence of Ethiopia.

Menelik II’s French sympathies were shown in a reported official offer of treasure towards payment of the indemnity at the close of the Franco-Prussian War, and in February 1897 he concluded a commercial treaty with France on very favorable terms. He also gave assistance to French officers who sought to reach the upper Nile from Ethiopia, there to join forces with the Marchand Mission; and Ethiopian armies were sent towards the Nile, but withdrew when the Fashoda Crisis between France and the United Kingdom cooled off.

A British mission under Sir Rennell Rodd in May 1897, however, was cordially received, and Menelik agreed to a settlement of the Somali boundaries, to keep open to British commerce the caravan route between Zaila and Harrar, and to prevent the transit of munitions of war to the Mahdists, whom he proclaimed enemies of Ethiopia.

In the following year the Sudan was reconquered by an Anglo-Egyptian army and thereafter cordial relations between Menelek and the British authorities were established. In 1889 and subsequent years, Menelik sent forces to co-operate with the British troops engaged against the Somali mullah, Mahommed Abdullah.

Menelik had in 1898 crushed a rebellion by Ras Mangasha (who died in 1906) and he directed his efforts henceforth to the consolidation of his authority, and in a certain degree, to the opening up of his country to western civilization. He had granted in 1894 a concession for the building of a railway to his capital from the French port of Jibuti, but, alarmed by a claim made by France in 1902 to the control of the line in Ethiopian territory, he stopped for four years the extension of the railway beyond Dire Dawa. When in 1906 France, the United Kingdom and Italy came to an agreement on the subject, granting control to a joint venture corporation, Menelek officially reiterated his full sovereign rights over the whole of his empire.

Emperor H. Selassie

Haile Selassie - Ethiopia's 'Lion of Judah'

His Imperial Highness Emperor Haile Selassie represented a dynastic line which stretched back centuries. He was an absolute ruler and yet a modernizer who introduced the very reforms which eventually proved his downfall.When did Haile Selassie live? Haile Selassie was born Tafari Makonnen on July 23, 1892, near Harar, Ethiopia. His father being a cousin and close ally of Emperor Menelik II, he was summoned to the court in Addis Ababa when his father died in 1906. In 1916 he became Ras Tafari, heir presumptive and regent to Empress Zauditu, daughter of Menelik II, and in 1928 he and his supporters had the Empress crown him King.

In 1930, on the death of Empress Zauditu, Tafari was crowned Emperor Haile Selassie — "Might of the Trinity." He was deposed in a coup by the communist Derg regime in 1974 and died less than a year later, on August 26, 1975, in Addis Ababa. What were the foundations Haile Selassie laid for his country? He introduced Ethiopia's first written constitution in 1931; it provided for a bicameral parliament and a legal code, and proclaimed all Ethiopians equal. However, both this first constitution and the second one promulgated in 1955 were criticized for granting too much power to the emperor himself — he retained the right to overthrow any parliamentary decision — and for making no provision for political parties.

Was Haile Selassie beyond criticism? From his early days, Tafari Makonnen is considered to have been a good strategist. He may have had a hand in the removal from power of designated Emperor Lij Iyasu, Zauditu's predecessor, who ruled only three years. As emperor, Haile Selassie gave thousands of students the chance to study abroad. Those very students later called for his deposition, decrying a lack of reform. Disenchantment with his monarchy culminated in an attempted coup d'état in 1960, the biggest threat to his rule until he was finally overthrown by the Derg.

Haile Selassie's aspirations for international cooperation. As regent, Ras Tafari brought Ethiopia into the League of Nations in 1923, one of the few independent African nations at the time and the only one to seek and be granted membership.

In 1963, the emperor convoked the first meeting of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), later to become the African Union. He helped devise its first charter and became its first chairperson, and the headquarters were established in Addis Ababa.How was Haile Selassie viewed in Germany? Underlining his wish for international cooperation, Haile Selassie traveled widely. In 1954, he became the first foreign head of state to visit the newly-formed Federal Republic of Germany, receiving what would be reported as "the most regal and ceremonial reception given to any visitor since the end of the war". He was welcomed as an equal and was above all interested in learning about the kind of technical progress — medical, agricultural and industrial — that he could take back to Ethiopia with him. Ethiopia would remain an esteemed partner of Germany and Haile Selassie would be given another exuberant reception in Bonn in 1973, a year before his deposition.What is Haile Selassie quoted as saying?

"Apart from the Kingdom of the Lord there is not on this earth any nation that is superior to any other. … It is us today. It will be you tomorrow." (from his address to the League of Nations, 1936, asking for help to oust Italian occupying forces) "History teaches us that unity is strength, and cautions us to submerge and overcome our differences in the quest for common goals, to strive, with all our combined strength, for the path to true African brotherhood and unity." (from his acceptance speech on being selected as first head of the Organisation for African Unity, 1963)

What is Haile Selassie's legacy? Haile Selassie gave Ethiopia its first university, schools, hospitals and a centralized government. The reforms he sought meant that Ethiopia was opened to the outside world, and the emperor was recognized internationally as a clever and charismatic leader — a position which he used to the good of all Africa, promoting pan-African efforts. Successive post-independence African leaders saw in him a defender of African values and independence, European leaders hailed him as an anti-fascist and in Jamaica, Rastafarians worshipped him as the Messiah.

Jackie Wilson, Yilma Haile Michael and Gwendolin Hilse contributed to this package, which is part of DW's special series African Roots, a project in cooperation with the Gerda Henkel foundation.

Col. Mengistu

Mengistu Haile Mariam was an Ethiopian politician and a former military officer who gained power through a intricate, ingenious and extremely violent campaign against his opponents. He became the most prominent figure within the Derg and went on to become the Head of State (Feburary 4, 1977-1987) and the first President of Ethiopia (September 11, 1987 to May 21, 1991). With the assistance of the United States, Mengistu fled into exile for Harare, Zimbabwe, after advancing rebels were closing in on Addis Ababa in May of 1991.

Mengistu's Early Life

Mengistu was born in Jimma, Ethiopia on May 21, 1937 to a Konso mother and an Amhara father. His father, Haile Mariam, was a sergeant under Haile Selassies's administration, while his mother was said to have died when he was 8 years of age.

Growing up as a child, Mengistu was described as a trouble maker and a street-smart savoy kid who can instantly size up his opponent. He often faced discrimination and ridicule for his darker complexion, something that would later shape his polices against discrimination. After attending school for a few years, Mengistu followed in his father's military path by joining the Holeta Military Academy.

In 1960, Mengistu was assigned to the tough Third Division stationed in the Ogaden for disciplinary reasons. In 1963, Mengistu went to the United States to receive further military training. Ironically, it was his time in the US that he began to adopt Marxism–Leninism and became anti-American after sympathizing with the African-American struggle for equal rights.

After widespread mutiny had become rampant in the armed forces of Ethiopia in 1974, a committee of military officers called the Derg were called upon to maintain order in June of that year. In order to broaden its membership, the Derg started including representatives from the 40 units of the Ethiopian Defense Forces, where each unit was expected to send three representatives. Mengistu, who was promoted to a major the previous year, was selected by the Third Division to represent them.

Mengistu's rise to power

Political instability coupled with mutiny in the army, led to the Derg to consolidate power in a drawn-out coup d'etat of Haile Selassie on September 12, 1974. With the official ouster of the monarchy, the Derg renamed itself as the Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC) and elected Mengistu as the first vice-chairman. After a serious of assassinations against political rivals, Mengistu became the chairman (head of state) of the PMAC on February 3, 1977. He would go on to hold this position until September 11, 1987, when he abolished the PMAC and became the first president of the Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

Mengiustu's fall from power

Despite Mengistu's firm control on power, he faced a number of internal and external challenges including 3 coup attempts in 1976, 1977 and 1989 and a war with Somalia in 1977 over the Ogaden. With the stunning victory of the battle of Afabet by the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Soviet collapse, which ended billions of dollars in aid to Ethiopia annually, it became apparent even to his closest confidants that Mengiustu's days in power were numbered. After a serious of military setbacks and outright lopsided defeats at the hands of Eritrean guerrilla fighters, Mengiustu was forced to flee Ethiopia as EPLF and TPLF rebels swiftly advanced on Addis Ababa On May 21, 1991.

Mengistu's Legacy

Mengiustu's legacy will be remembered for his disastrous land policies that created the conditions of the Ethiopian famine of 1984-5, in which a million Ethiopians died from starvation. His viscous Red Terror campaign from 1977-8 against the leftist Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party and other political rivals have placed him on par with Idi Amin in ruthlessness. In total, An estimated 500,000 Ethiopian citizens were killed during his reign and tens of thousands more were placed in prisons. Despite his ruthlessness, many Ethiopians still see him as staunch nationalist who put his country's interest above everything else.

Mengiustu's family

Mengiustu married Wubanchi Bishaw in 1968 and live in exile in Harare, Zimbabwe. During his rule, Wubanchi played a miner role politically, even though she was often seen accompanying her husband on many official state visits. Together, they have three children: Tigist (42), Andenet (40), and Tilahun (36).

Meles Zenawi

Meles Zenawi, who died in hospital at the age of 57, was the cleverest politician to emerge from the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), one of the armed movements which spear-headed the struggle against Ethiopia's military regime in the 1970s and 1980s. Born into a middle-class family in Adawa, Tigray, in Ethiopia's northern highlands, he dropped out of university to join the insurrection. After the military council (Derg) led by Mengistu Haile Mariam was finally overthrown in 1991, Mr Meles first became president in a transitional government and then, in 1995, prime minister. He went on to dominate Ethiopian public life until his death. There were some challenges to his leadership, notably after the secession of Ethiopia's most northerly region, Eritrea, when he was blamed for letting it go too easily, and after the subsequent border war. Ethiopia won that war at a huge cost but the prime minister outmanoeuvred or sidelined his critics within the party, and emerged more powerful than before.


He was known to enjoy playing tennis, but did not take holidays, and almost never smiled Mr Meles was marked forever by his years in a guerrilla movement, when sloppiness or lack of discipline could lead to the death of comrades and the failure of a mission. He himself was austere and hardworking, kept a very tight grip on even minor details of government and dealt ruthlessly with any signs of dissent within the leadership. He married another TPLF veteran, Azeb Mesfin, a businesswoman and member of parliament. The couple had three children and lived, by all accounts modestly, in a small house inside the old imperial compound in the centre of the capital, Addis Ababa. He was known to enjoy playing tennis but did not take holidays and almost never smiled.

The one time when he was seen relaxed and smiling - at the country's millennium celebrations - wearing Ethiopia's comfortable traditional dress and dancing with his wife, everyone talked about it for days. Under his leadership, a closed and secretive country gradually opened to the outside world. Despite his own Marxist roots, he welcomed outside investment. Big foreign companies are coming in - especially in the agricultural sector - and skyscrapers are rising above the capital. But some things have not changed. State- or party-owned companies dominate the economy while land is still owned "by the people", making it impossible for farmers to buy or sell their farms. And Ethiopia is still a tightly controlled society, retaining the old system of Kebeles - local committees which oversee almost every aspect of daily life.

For a time Mr Meles was an international favourite, the preferred face of a "New Africa", praised for his emphasis on grassroots rural development and his government's relative lack of corruption. He was also formidably intelligent, an extremely articulate speaker and a welcome ally in the US war on terrorism. Ethiopia has fought a long rebellion in its own Somali-speaking region and the rebellion's backers within Somalia itself. He was able to link this to America's preoccupation with what it saw as an Islamist threat in the Horn of Africa, and forge a military and political alliance with the United States. However, Mr Meles's reputation as the face of the African renaissance flagged as repression inside Ethiopia increased.

Huge shock

A brutal crackdown followed a surprisingly good opposition showing in the 2005 elections. More recently, new anti-terrorism legislation was used against journalists, bloggers and other critics of the government. And attempts to extend government control over what was being said in mosques brought Muslim protesters out on to the streets.

Meles Zenawi's personal dominance has also raised questions over the succession. He led Ethiopia for more than 20 years and, although still only in his fifties, had said before he became ill that he would stand down from the premiership at the next election. There is a deputy prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, who is also foreign minister, but what one commentator described as Mr Hailemariam's "less-than-driven persona" may make him a better deputy than a leader. And the issue is complicated by the fact that although Ethiopia is ruled by a coalition of regional parties, the party from Tigray, the TPLF, has continued to hold most of the real power, in both the army and the government.