Lij Iyasu

Lij Iyasu was the uncrowned emperor of Ethiopia from 1911-1916. Iyasu was handpicked by Menelik to be heir to the throne, a controversial pick that would eventually lead Ras Tafari to become crowned the next emperor of Ethiopia as Haile Selassie.

Lij Iyasu was Menelik's grandon. His father was Ras Mikael, ruler of Wello. His monther was Shewaregga, an illegitimate daughter of Menelik. At a very young age, he moved to Addis Ababa to live with Menelik. Soon after, Menelik's health began to decline. Menelik did not have a son of his own, so he elected to name Lij Iyasu his successor. The decision to name him his successor was controversial because his father, Ras Mikael, had a Muslim background. Initially Menelik's decision was kept a secret but as his illness worsened, the political situation in Addis Ababa began to deteriorate. Starting in 1909, Menelik's wife started to have an active role in governing. By this time, he no longer was able to rule. However, real power rested with the Shoan nobility. They were not in favor of the queen being in control, so in 1910 they forbade her from participating in government. They instead chose to bring Lij Iyasu to power with the help of a regent. In 1911, the regent passed away. Although he was only 16, he refused the appointment of a new regent and took the reins of power. However, since Menelik had yet to die, Lij Iyasu was not crowned as emperor (Marcus 251)

Just a few months after taking control, he would face his first threat to his authority. Led by Ras Abate, members of the nobility surrounded Iyasu with a force of 3000 men, demanding they have more involvement in the governance of the nation. The conspirators soon realized their show of aggression was doomed to fail and quickly agreed to arbitration. Iyasu came out of this crisis even stronger than before and his detractors chose to bide their time before striking again (Marcus 253-4). For much of 1912 Iyasu spent his time outside of Addis Ababa. Upon his return to the capitol at the end of 1912, he had to shoot his way back into the palace after facing the disgruntled palace guards (Marcus 259). He also spent much of 1913 outside the capitol, ignoring the duties of power. At the end of 1913, Menelik finally passed away. A month later, all the great leaders of Ethiopia were summoned to Addis Ababa. They couldn't agree to crown Iyasu but they instead agreed to elevate his father, Ras Mikael, to negus (Marcus 260-2)

Iyasu showed an unusual amount of attention to the Muslim population of Ethiopia. He had a dozen wives, of which many were Muslims (978..768 pg 45), built mosques and spent a lot of time amongst Muslims. The Shoan nobility would say he had converted to Islam, although Iyasu never admitted to it and proof that he had converted did not exist. Iyasu's exact reasons for his closeness to Islam is not known. Ethiopia at the beginning of the 20th century was dominated by Shoan and Christian elites. It may have been Iyasu's plan to create a nation that did not marginalize Islam. To this end, he sought alliances with regional leaders that previous Ethiopians emperors would not have entertained. His main tool of diplomacy was marriage; he himself married several women because he had no children of his own (978..768 pg 193). Another theory goes that he saw his relationship with Muslim nations (Turkey and Somalia) critical to keeping Ethiopia independent. Iyasu was especially weary of the Italians and the British. Iyasu is rumored to have wanted to join World War 1 on the side of the Central Powers. Had they prevailed in the war, they could have been depended on to counter the British and Italians in East Africa.

Starting in 1915, Iyasu focused his attention towards eastern Ethiopia. He spent much of the year in Harar and surrounding areas, which Ras Tafari had been assigned governorship. He slowly started stripping away power from him, removing his power to police and later appointing a foreigner to a position that rivaled Tafari's. The following year, he removed Tafari from his position as governor, which would turn out to be a critical event that would cost Iyasu the crown (Marcus 1995, 267-272 ). By this time, Ras Tafari was back in Addis Ababa and shortly after the Ethiopian new year (September 1916), the Shoan elites assembled once more but this time to depose Iyasu. Menelik's daughter, Zawditu, was crowned Empress and Ras Tafari named regent. Iyasu at the time was in Harar and when news reached of his removal from the crown, he went into hiding. His father, Ras Mikael, assembled a force of 80,000 and marched towards Addis Ababa but it was soundly defeated by the forces assembled by the central government. Lij Iyasu would eventually get caught in 1921 (Henze 195-6). He died in 1935 under suspicious circumstances.


Harold G. Marcus, The Life And Times Of Menelik Ii: Ethiopia 1844 1913. 1975.

Henze, Paul B. , Layers of Time: A History of Ethiopia. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.