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A century later Ethiopians recall reformist ruler

Seleshi Tessema

Ruler Lij Ilyasu’s plans to ensure justice, inclusivity angered nobility, church and colonial powers

At a time, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel laureate is trying to implement a host of reforms, Ethiopians recall a similar contribution by Lij lyasu, who ruled the country a century ago.

Almost 104 years ago, Prince Ilyasu undertook societal reforms to bring inclusivity and ensure justice to country’s Muslim population, who were reeling under oppression, in the country, where Christianity had been declared state religion.

Enraged at his anti-colonial attitude and having a soft corner for Muslims and Turkey, the country’s political elite and the Orthodox Church overthrew him, by teaming up with colonial powers like France, Italy, and Britain.

Ahmed Mazhar Bey, the then Turkish envoy to Ethiopia had lamented that the coup had derailed the planned efforts of Ethiopia and Turkey to forge an anti-colonial alliance.

Experts believe that unseating of lyasu, who was the designated Emperor of Ethiopia from 1911-16 put brakes on many societal reforms including, ensuring equality among religions, inclusion, unity, and extending friendship with Muslim nations.

At the time of the coup, Iyasu who had assumed power at the age of 16 was in the town of Harar, an ancient city of mosques and shrines which is located 518 km (322 miles) east of Addis Ababa. He was extensively touring Muslim majority regions of Ethiopia, Afar and Somali.

During his tour, the tall leader with brown complexion used to frequently join religious leaders in mosques during prayers.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Azaryas Haile Giorgis, a historian with the Ethiopian National Archives and Library said during his extensive tour Iyasu encouraged and helped Muslims to build mosques, schools and practice their religion without fear.

“One of the possible reasons that led Iyasu to reach out to Ethiopian Muslims was the advice and encouragement he was receiving from his Turkish friend, Manzar,” said the historian.


Invoking ire of Church

Iyasu took several Muslim wives, which led to rumours that the ruler has converted to Islam, invoking the ire of Church.

Mohammed Ali, a lecturer with Addis Ababa University told Anadolu Agency that Iyasu’s friendly relations with Ethiopian Muslims were aimed at correcting the injustices deeply entrenched in the country originated from the days of his grandfather, Menelik II, who ruled Ethiopia from 1844-1913.

As Menelik did not possess any living male child, he had appointed his grandson, Iyasu as heir to the throne.

Ali said the predominantly Christian Menelik’s state had failed to be an inclusive establishment.

‘’Iyasu wanted to see Ethiopia that is inclusive and does justice with Muslims. It was an attempt to make Muslims dignified members of the nation. The goal of the policy was to transform a state policy that had established and promoted Christianity as a state religion to a system of equality and interfaith peaceful co-existence, “said Ali.

Iyasu had also appointed Muslims in different positions of his government.

Close to the end of his reign in 1916, Iyasu had decided to join the World War I on the side of the Central Powers that constituted Germany, Austria, and Turkey, which put him on a collision course with the Allied Powers — France, Britain, and Italy who wanted Ethiopia to be on their side or remain neutral.

At the time, Britain ruled Sudan and present-day Somaliland while Djibouti and Eritrea were under the rule of France and Italy, respectively. Italy had also a colonial presence in Somalia.

His interest to join Central Powers was to regain then Ethiopian territories Eritrea and Djibouti from colonial powers.

“Iyasu believed that building trustworthy relations with regional leaders and Muslim nations, Turkey and Somalia were vital to maintaining Ethiopia’s independence. To this end, Iyasu sent weapons and ammunition to the leader of Somaliland freedom fighters, ‘’ said Giorgis.

He also supported Muslim leaders of Somalia in their fight against the British and Italians. Teaming up with Turkey, which provided military support, he helped anti-colonial movements in Africa against British, French, and Italian rule.

-Colonial powers unseated ruler

The Allied Powers, in turn, collided with the Ethiopian nobility and designed the coup which preceded with a concerted smear campaign against Iyasu, Ali noted.

‘’The ruling class accused Iyasu of allegedly converting to Islam and planning to establish an Islamic state in Harar which would be allied to Turkey and will further expand to the rest of Africa,’’ he added

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church excommunicated him, accused him of apostasy and subversion.

According to Kamil and Ali, there was no proof that Iyasu converted to Islam.

‘’Iyasu was Christian and had built churches,” Ali said.

Even 100 years later, the Orthodox Church has not yet forgiven the ruler, for his soft corner for Muslims.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Deacon Berhanu Admass, a theology expert said Iyasu was officially viewed as a real threat to the sanctity, continuity of the church, and Ethiopia.

‘’Iyasu was fooled by foreign non-Christian elements bent on destroying the church and a nation. Overthrowing him was a landmark decision in the history of the church and the country,” he said.

But others say the ruling class had feared the reforms could threaten the continuity of Ethiopian Christian monarchical rule.

lyasu had attempted to fight back but were defeated by the army of the ruling class. He was later captured and died in 1935.


Aborted reforms hit Muslims

According to Ali the aborted reform had thwarted an early inclusion of Ethiopian Muslims into the establishment and led to the continuation of oppression against Muslims under Emperor Haile Selassie, who replaced Iyasu and ruled Ethiopia from 1930-74.

Over the last three decades, Ethiopian Muslims had achieved a significant degree of freedom, equality, and inclusion. However, a century after the aborted Islamic reform, we are still struggling to become a respected community of believers,” said Iyasu.

Ali said that a century later, the current Ethiopian political landscape is preoccupied with diametrically opposite narratives and ideologies of building an inclusive, united, and democratic society.

‘’This is what the reformist Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and other political actors are trying to achieve. The whole thing is a replay of the aborted reform agendas of Iyasu,” he said.

According to Giorgis, overthrowing of Iyasu, not only derailed reform but went down into the pages of history as missed national opportunity that could have advanced state-building and brought inclusivity in the society.

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