The bandit who became emperor: a role model for all youth
Convinced that he was destined to unite, restore, and modernize Ethiopia, Tewodros, proceeded to dismantle feudal system by overthrowing various feudal lords and distributing their lands to poor peasants. He called for the abolition of the slave trade throughout Ethiopia, and attempted to implement a number of reforms including, land reform, creation of a standing army, the collection of books, and introduction of tax codes, as well as church rules, writes Alem Asres.
I was born in Kaffa Province, some distance away from Jimma—the capital of Kaffa. Due to the dicing and gerrymandering the country, it is difficult, if not impossible, to locate and name the exact place of my birth. If memory serves me right, I recall attending to our and our neighbor’s goats, sheep and cattle on the banks of Omo River and I also remember my mother warning me to keep away from the river and look out for the crocodiles and other river-born predators. As a boy, like any other boys of my day, I spent most of my days, looking after the herds under my care while daydreaming and fantasizing as to what and whom I wanted to be when I grow up.
My mother was not educated woman but she was the best storyteller I know. No matter how tired she was, she would tell us, periodically, about the horrific events she lived through—events such as reoccurring famine and series of feuds between various warlords. With anger in her voice, she would tell us about the second Ethio-Italian war—a war that forced her to move from her birth place to Kaffa region to escape not only the bullets, but also the (mustard gas) a poisonous gas used by the Italian Army against Ethiopians. Then she would continue, and tells us with smile on her face, you know, it was here that your father and I met and got married. He was from Gondar, just like me. Be it attending to her garden, milking a cow, or cooking, she would hum and sometimes she would sound out the name of a man called Kassa. When we wanted to know who Kassa was, she would hesitate for a minute and say, he was a famous shifta (bandit) from Gondar. And then she would say, ‘you see children; Kassa was a good man who became a shifta in order to help the poor and stop the feuds between various warlords who were bent on dividing Ethiopia. She would tighten her fist and biting her lips, would go on telling us with pride: ‘Kassa become a shifta to take from “the haves” and give to “the have-nots”. He was a brave man who gave his life to keep foreigners at bay and Ethiopians united.
Because my mother spoke of Kassa with admiration and with increased reverence, the name Kassa stuck with me. I become very curious about Kassa of Gondar and wanted to know more about him. But there was no literature to read and no one would tell me about Kassa. Even though, I did not know the extent of his deeds exactly, I wanted to be like Kassa of Gondar someday. I kept thinking and dreaming about the bandit named Kassa who left lasting impression on my mother. In my dream world, Kassa was a person living somewhere. Every child needs a hero and heroine to emulate and to identify with. We all need a positive role model to emulate.
The term role model generally means any person whose behavior, strength, bravery, honesty and dedication to humanity can be emulated by others, especially by youth and as well as by young adults. A true role model is the one who possess the qualities that we would like to have and one who have affected us in a way that makes us want to emulate him or her in everything we think and do. A role model may be ones parent, relative, or ones neighbor. A role model may be living or deceased.
I was born and raised in rural Ethiopia during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie. From the Coptic Church, religious scholars and from oral historians, I learned that Haile Selassie was the representative of God on earth who stood-up against the fascist Italy and liberated our beloved Ethiopia. They did everything to convince the youth of my village that Haile Selassie was the savior, defender, and modernizer of Ethiopia. To them, Haile Selassie was all-seeing, all-hearing and all-knowing, and he was an immortal being whom mere mortals would not kill. Like most youngsters of my days, I grew up thinking and believing that there was no greater person on this earth than Haile Selassie. I also thought that if I invoke the name of Haile Selassie, that the Omo River will stop flowing and the birds-in-flight will stop flying in midair.
I was twelve years old when my mother brought my three siblings and me to Addis Ababa. At the age 14, having lied about my age, I was recruited by the Imperial Bodyguard (Kebur Zebegna or የክብር ዘበኛ). In-between field training, I got the chance to listen to songs and conversations between older recruits about Kassa of Gondar, who was known as Emperor Tewodros II. Learning the fact that Tewodros took his own life rather than surrender and face the humiliation in the hands of the British army was sad and at the same time it is uplifting when you analyze why he did what he did. I also discovered that so many Ethiopians, be it at Magdala, Adwa or Maichew, have given their lives in defense of our motherland. Tewodros’s ‘never surrender’ philosophy became the guiding principal of the Imperial Bodyguards of which I remain a member of to this day. The recruits I knew would always want to follow Tewodros’s footstep in a battlefield anywhere.
As a bandit, Kassa Hailu, lived a frugal and simple life robbing and pillaging the property of his wealthy adversaries. He reminded me of the first movie I saw in Addis Ababa called Robin Hood. Robin Hood was a heroic outlaw in British folklore who was portrayed as robbing the rich to feed the poor and fighting in defense of King Richard the Lionheart’s crown. Kassa, on the other hand, lived as bandit taking from wealthy landlords and distributing between the poor peasants and his men in order to rebuild an Empire. The similarity between Robin Hood and Kassa Hailu ends here. Without question, Tewodros was a man ahead of his time—a visionary leader bent on unifying and modernizing his country. Clements Markham, the historian of the subsequent British expedition to Magdala, was quoted to have likened Tewodros to Peter the Great of Russia, saying they, “were both born kings of men, both endowed with military genius; both lovers of the mechanical arts both possessed of dauntless courage; and capable of noble and generous acts”.
Convinced that he was destined to unite, restore, and modernize Ethiopia, Tewodros, proceeded to dismantle feudal system by overthrowing various feudal lords and distributing their lands to poor peasants. He called for the abolition of the slave trade throughout Ethiopia, and attempted to implement a number of reforms including, land reform, creation of a standing army, the collection of books, and introduction of tax codes, as well as church rules. He “actively recruited instructors, engineers, and artisans of all kinds from Europe to provide the technical assistance deemed necessary for his active domestic and foreign policies”. Experts he recruited, constructed roads, bridges, and houses and even assisted in the manufacture of some crude firearms including his famous but odd-shaped cannon.
Above all, Tewodros wanted to establish a “centralized political system with respective administrative districts”. In order to accomplish such task of unifying a nation that was falling apart, he was forced to ‘subjugating and imprisoning regional princes, and nobilities’ that refused to recognize his mission and respect his authority. Because of his determination and uncompromising actions, he lost popularity among many regional princes and feudal lords and began losing his political power. The British government, who have been keeping an eye on the politics of the Horn of Africa, saw the wreaking of Tewodros’s political muscle and decided to cash-in by dispatching the Napier Expedition. After Tewodros’s death, the British army looted the country’s treasures, precious manuscripts, and religious artifacts and took his son Alemayehu with them. Thus, the Napier Expedition not only put an end to Tewodros’s dream of re-building the Ethiopian Empire but also left the door open for European interference in the internal affairs of the country.
As young recruits of the Imperial Bodyguard, I was shocked to learn that there was no adequate literature to read about men and women who made great sacrifices in defense of Ethiopia. I considered myself to be very lucky to have had a mother who was impressed by Kassa of Gondar and was willing to tell me about him as much as she did. However, driven by my own curiosity, I was able to discover names of other Ethiopian patriots who gave their lives in defense of Ethiopia—patriots like Belay Zeleke, Abdissa Aga and Zerai Deres, just to name a few. Ethiopia has produced many heroes and heroines who did not hesitate to give their lives in defense of their country. However, the names of many brave men and women who may have been a role model and promote an undying love and loyalty for their country remain hidden from most Ethiopian youths who grew-up under Emperor Haile Selassie regime just like me.
Having spent five years in Europe, during the fascist occupation, Haile Selassie returned as the liberator accompanied by British Generals. Once the crown was secured, the Emperor faced rejections from some home-grown leaders. Leaders, who fought against fascist occupation during the emperor’s absence from the country, began to question emperor’s right to rule. Haile Selassie saw the urgency for dealing with the threat to his authority by any means necessary. It is a well-known fact that Haile Selassie was not in the habit of sharing stage with anyone nor would allow anyone who criticized or disobeyed him to live. He wished to be known as the only guardian, liberator, and the only shining star on the stage. To fulfill his wish, he activated feudal machinery designed to divide and conquer his opponent. The action included, giving lower post, demonizing and removing those individual who earned the respect of their countrymen for fighting the Italian army during the emperor’s absence and those he saw as a threat. The action taken against Belay Zeleke demonstrates the unforgiving nature of the Emperor.
It was believed that Belay Zeleke never “allowed the Italians anywhere in Gojam let alone leave a legacy of any sort”. After driving the Italian army out of Gojam and from parts of Wollo, Belay put himself in charge of the two regions with the support of the local population. Seeing him as a “remorseless” warrior, the Italians fought him as hard as they could. “Not only did he defeat the Italian army that was sent to destroy him, he took into custody the army’s general and executed him by hanging”. According to R. Greenfield, Belay Zeleke presented a “serious challenge to Haile Selassie’s rule”. Belay was very reluctant and showed unwillingness to serve under an Emperor whom he thinks had “deserted the country in its hour of greater needs”. For challenging and refusing to obey the Emperor’s authority, Belay Zeleke was executed by hanging with his brother and 17 other Ethiopians. Is it not ironic, that Emperor Haile Selassie hanged the patriot who fought the hardest for five years in defense of Ethiopia, a patriot who not only defeated the fascist army again and again but also hanged its general in public, for questioning his authority?
The purpose of this article is to share with the readers, how as teenager, I dreamed to be someone—someone greater than me, someone who have accomplished something of lasting value, someone whose bravery and accomplishment commands respect. Children, who choose to emulate a person of great achievement, tend to reject anything that will deter them from their chosen path. As a young man I was fascinated with Kassa Hailu of Gondar, otherwise known as Emperor Tewodros II. Even though his dream of uniting and modernizing Ethiopia was short lived, his legacy will live forever. The legacy of Tewodros whom some Europeans referred to as: “The Barefooted Emperor” or “the mad-king”, as well as the heroic deeds of men like Belay Zeleke, Abdissa Aga, and the bravery of Zerai Deres will continue to live in the hearts and minds of every Ethiopians. The future generation will remember them if we, Ethiopians and our friends as well as our institutions of higher education engage in reconstructing true and transformation history of Ethiopia and endeavor to uplifting the role of those brave men and women who gave their lives willingly in defense of Ethiopia. Our generation is duty-bound to arming the future generation with true and transformative knowledge about Ethiopia and Ethiopians. If we fail to do so, we will be denying the future generation the truth about Ethiopia and about the Ethiopians who handed us free and independent nation to pass it on to the next generation.
Ed.’s Note: Alem Asres (PhD), (former Alemayehu Wondemagegnehu) earned his Doctor of Philosophy in Social Foundations of Education with emphasis on Comparative and Multicultural Education from the University of Maryland, College Park. He received his MA degree in Urban Sociology and Urban Planning from Howard University, Washington DC, and his BA in Political Science with emphasis in International Relations, from the University of Maryland, College Park. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]