Obituary: Crown Prince Asfa Wossen Haile Sellassie

Richard Greenfield
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:25

The death of Asfa Wossen, Crown Prince of Ethiopia since 1930, almost certainly marks the final demise of thousands of years of Ethiopian monarchic tradition.

He was born in 1916 in the ancient Adare walled city of Harar, for centuries an important Islamic centre of learning and trade in the Horn of Africa. Thirty years previously, in 1887, Harar had been captured and incorporated into the expanding (and traditionally Christian) Ethiopian Empire by Emperor Menelik II, King of the Kings. Menelik had appointed Asfa Wossen's grandfather, Makonnen, to be its first "Abyssinian" Governor, and in due course Makonnen's son Tafari (Asfa Wossen's father, later the Emperor Haile Sellassie) succeeded to the Harar governorate.

It was an unsettled period throughout Ethiopia. With the decline of the historic power centres in Northern Ethiopia and Tigray and the growing role of influential Muslims, Menelik's grandson and heir, Eyasu (who ruled uncrowned from 1913) spent a lot of time in the conquered provinces. In 1916 Tafari, then governor of Harar, was recalled to Addis Ababa, where he played a prominent role in a coup d'etat against Eyasu being prepared by the traditional Orthodox Christian leaders and the Shewan nobility, with clear foreign support.

Tafari had his wife, Menon (grand-daughter of the Negus - king - Mikael of Wello, Eyasu's father) and son smuggled out of Harar. The young Asfa Wossen was left, in a traditional cradle attended by two servants, at the British Legation in Addis Ababa, to the supposed embarrassment of the Minister, the Hon Wilfred Gilbert Thesiger (father of the explorer). On 27 September 1916, at a meeting of notables and Orthodox clerics in Addis Ababa, Abuna (bishop) Mattheos announced the deposition and excommunication of Eyasu, accusing him of apostasy, by way of submission to Islam, and treason.

Eyasu's angered father, the Negus Mikael, at once took the field against the Shewan conspirators but surprisingly was defeated. On 11 February 1917, Zaudito, a barren daughter of Menelik, was crowned Queen of the Kings; a Ras (leading nobleman) was made Negus and the youthful, modern Tafari became Regent with the title of Ras.

It was still some years before Asfa Wossen's position was further secured. His father was created Negus in 1928 and, finally, on 2 November 1930, crowned King of the Kings Haile Sellassie (Power of the Trinity); Asfa Wossen was himself given a Shewan royal title, Merid Azmach. In conversation most people began to refer to his new status by the popular term Algorash. He grew up fast in the strict court, fashioned after that of Sweden by the reformist Emperor with the help of an adviser from that neutral country.

Asfa Wossen was only 16 when he, in turn, was married to Walata Israel, great-grand-daughter of the Tigrean Emperor Yohannes. Although, with others at the coronation, he had publicly pledged his loyalty to his stern autocratic father, and accompanied him on state duties whenever possible, Asfa Wossen was always closer to his mother. Over the years a seeming gulf developed between the prince and his father, who openly favoured his second son, Makonnen.

Asfa Wossen was appointed governor of Wello in the early 1930s, and after a major flare-up, in which his mother interceded, he began to spend more time in Dessie, Wello's capital city. The wily and suspicious emperor filled his son's household with informers.

In the early 1930s Mussolini sought to create a situation by which he might invade Ethiopia without incurring military reaction from members of the League of Nations, particularly Britain and France. Ethiopia's feudal and ethnic divisions were exploited by Italy, but Asfa Wossen and his father - unlike several other nobles - resolutely refused all offers to their own advantage, endeavouring to safeguard the last outpost of African independence.

When in 1935 all else failed and the Emperor's mobilisation order arrived, Asfa Wossen and his mentor Dejazmach Wodajo Ali found it difficult to raise troops, for the local people were bribed and many retained some allegiance to the Negus Mikael and Eyasu, unaware of the latter's mysterious death that year at his prison near Harar. Eventually, Asfa Wossen had to slip out of Dessie to the capital via Warra Hailu, after being warned of imminent treachery.

The under-equipped Ethiopian armies were repeatedly defeated and on 2 May 1936, the Imperial Ethiopian family fled by train to the coast and on to Jerusalem and Bath in England, but not before Asfa Wossen had witnessed the horrors of modern warfare. The Italian forces had used mustard gas, which burnt the soldiers' often bare feet and their lungs. Even Red Cross field hospitals which the prince visited were bombed by Capronis which enjoyed undisputed control of the skies.

In exile, Asfa Wossen amicably divorced his wife, who had been unable to give him a son, and married Medfariashworq Abebe. For years he kept in secret touch with several patriot leaders who fought on in the Ethiopian mountains and meantime studied at Liverpool University and, once Italy declared war on Britain, at the Sobat Military Academy in the Sudan. There he lived at the "Pink Palace" on the Nile north of Khartoum, but was with his father and younger brother when, on 20 January 1941, their small force crossed the Dinder River into Ethiopia.

British Commonwealth forces had already invaded Eritrea and Somalia and were converging on Addis Ababa. Asfa Wossen accompanied his father, Orde Wingate, Brigadier Sandford and others into Gojjam. After its liberation, he travelled north to co-ordinate the patriot forces in the last phase of the liberation struggle at Gondar. Having been promoted Major-General by his father, he resumed his governorate in Dessie, Wello. Leul (prince) Makonnen was increasingly favoured in the capital until, in 1957, he is said to have been accidentally killed in a car crash. Most Ethiopians believe there was a cover-up, for he had acquired a reputation as a philanderer.

Attention reverted to the first son, though his relations with his father did not improve. He was reticent, but always dignified, and was kept so short of funds by the Emperor that his mother, a rich land-owner, was constrained to make him a secret allowance.

As the winds of change swept over Africa in the 1950s, Asfa Wossen's name was linked, most probably without his knowledge, to a number of conspiracies. Then, on the evening of 13 December 1960, he was escorted to the Headquarters of the Imperial Guard by its commander, Brigadier General Mengistu Neway. He, with his brother Girmame and the heads of the Police and Intelligence, conspired peacefully to change Ethiopia into a modern constitutional monarchy. The Emperor was away on a series of state visits and that night many, but not all, of the empire's powerful officials and ministers were rounded up on the pretext that the Empress was ill. The Crown Prince broadcast more than once in support of peaceful change and the myth has developed that he had a pistol at his back and also later that a loyal officer shielded him from machine-gun bullets. In fact, although he had no prior knowledge of the coup attempt, there was no coercion and his speeches were tape-recorded in an office and taken to Radio Addis Ababa.

He left the Palace during the confusion and fighting and was of course at the airport to welcome the Emperor on his return, inspiring much press speculation - the headline, "The Once and Future King", was fairly typical - but Haile Sellassie made no public display of his anger. Privately, he was sad and often furious. "We forgive you and forget you," he is said to have told Asfa Wossen, and although he thought it prudent to excuse the prince from participation in the show trial of the surviving conspirators - several had taken their own lives - the Emperor spent many evenings listening to secret tapes of the trial grasping for hints of what had really happened.

In later years, Asfa Wossen's mother and younger brother Leul Sahle died. For several years he remained in the background, not invariably unpopular with the new generations, although they were becoming increasingly radical in their disaffection with the imperial regime.

Then, in 1973, he suffered a serious stoke, and paralysed down one side and, barely able to communicate, was flown to London. When the revolution eventually occurred the following year, some announced that Asfa Wossen would be their choice for constitutional monarch, but they were soon displaced by more radical forces. Surviving royals were incarcerated and in subsequent struggles for power many atrocities occurred.

However, even the revolutionary regime (1974-91) which the most violent eventually established in Ethiopia, could not cope with the regional and ethnic pressures which had played so large a role in the rise to power of Tafari's family. Abroad the descendants of other prominent nobles began to adopt styles and titles and otherwise promote themselves until, in 1989, resentful and probably equally ambitious relatives prevailed on the ailing prince to hold a reception at the Ghibbi (palace) on a third floor in Portland Place, in London, to declare himself Emperor Amha Sellassie, his son Zara Yacob Crown Prince and his late father "Haile Sellassie the Great". It was a non-event and ill-advised. In 1990, the family moved to the United States.

In north-east Africa today, distantly related sons of important northern families and their followers have re-established independence in Eritrea, and in Ethiopia the influence of Tigray has been greatly restored. The national President is an Oromo, but the absorption of Negus Mikael's people and particularly their cousins in the south-west and south, is by no means complete. There remain many questions to be answered about the Somali peoples on all sides of Ras Makonnen's borders. Had his son Haile Sellassie not clung to power for so long and had his son Asfa Wossen's own health not failed him, the basic realities of Ethiopian politics would still have had to be addressed.

Richard Greenfield

Asfa Wossen, crown prince: born Harar, Ethiopia 27 July 1916; Merid Azmach 1930; Governor General of Wello Province, Ethiopia; married 1932 Woizero Walata Israel (marriage dissolved; one daughter), Woizero Medfariashworq Abeba (one son, three daughters); died Fairfax, Virginia 17 January 1997.