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#TbT – Empress Zewditu, the first Female Head of State of the Ethiopian Empire

by Milicent Atieno
Empress Zewditu, the first Female Head of State of the Ethiopian

Ethiopia is now the talk among feminist circles around the globe after its recent nomination of Sahle Zewde as President. But one should not be too quick to call her the first Female President of Ethiopia, as that title was long taken by the Empress Zewditu who ruled Ethiopia from 1916 to 1930.

Empress Zewditu was the eldest daughter of Negus (King) Menelik of Shewa, and her administration is said to be of staunch conservatism and strong devotion to religion. She was married off at a very tender age to Ras Araya Selassie Yohannes the son and heir of Emperor Yohannes IV.

Their marriage was perfectly aligned with both families political interest. Zewditu’s father Menelik himself arranged for the marriage as he agreed to submit to the rule of Yohannes. Though the marriage lasted for just two years, as Ras Selassie dies in 1888, and Yahannes had to send back Zewditu to her parents’ home; she was sent off with a valuable heard of cattle as a show of affection by her in-laws.

Zewditu path to Power

After her first marriage to the Yahannes, she had two other brief marriages before marrying her stepmother’s nephew Ras Gugsa Welle, who was an army commander and a member of the royal family.

Then in 1889, the Emperor Yahannis IV died at the Battle of Metemma, and Zewditu’s father Negus Menelik of Shewa assumed power and the Emperor of Ethiopia. Menelik of Shewa ruled for 24 years, and upon his death, Lij Iyazu (son to Zewditu’s half-sister) took the throne after he was declared the heir to his grandfather’s crown.

After Iyazu took power, he exiled Zewditu and her husband to the countryside as she was a threat to his rule. But as fate would have it, Iyazu was never crowned, mostly due to the fact that he was not popular with the people. As he was deemed to have an unstable behavior for nobility and the church itself was suspicious of him having abandoned the ways of religion. It was an uphill task for him to take the crown, and was eventually removed and Zewditu crown in 1916.

Negiste Negest (Queen of Kings)

Zewditu’s official title was Negiste Negets (the Queen of Kings) though her rule was regency. She was not allowed to exercise the power that comes with being crowned, so her cousin Ras Tafari Makonnen was appointed the regent.

As things would play out, Tafari Makonnen and Zewditu had a varying approach on how the direction Ethiopia should take. While Makonnen backed by the nobles were of the view Ethiopia should embrace the rest of the world and progress in its technology revolution. The Empress Zewditu backed by the church was of the view Ethiopia should remain conservative and closed off to the rest of the world.

Empress Zewditu therefor became less relevant in the day-to-day politics of the then Ethiopia, though she was very active in the religious activities in the country. On the other hand, Ras Tafari was at the epicenter of the then Ethiopian politics and was on the front line in the abolishment of slavery

Ras Tafari was a reformist whose changes reform agenda rubbed some people the wrong way, and hence there were many attempts to replace him. However, he ironically got strong support from Empress Zewditu despite their differences.

Empress Zewditu passed away in 1930 under unclear circumstances and Ras Tafari succeeded her and became Negus Makonnen and took on the name of Emperor Haile Selassie from then on. Empress Zewditu was the last monarch in direct agnatic descent from the Solomonic dynasty, which is also referred to as the House of Solomon. The former ruling Imperial House of the Ethiopian Empire, in which members claim patrilineal descent from the King of Solomon and Queen of Sheba in the Bible.

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