Q.6. I would like to know more about Zemene Mesafint. What was the source of this dark age of our history. What impact did this period have on the political and social process of Ethiopia. And finally, given the current events unfolding in Ethiopia, would it be justifiable to say that we are yet to recover from the effects of this period.
The final statement is not clear to me. I hope our discussion may throw some light in the direction of your question. The name Zemene Mesafint was taken from the Old Testament which refers to a period of judges when "there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes". Chroniclers used the term to characterize a period in Ethiopian history which resembled like that of the Old Testament judges. In some writings the beginning of the event is associated when Ras Mikael Sehul, governor of Tigre, was involved in the murder of King Iyoas I in 1769, and, instead, appointing the son of another king as the new emperor. Following the use of the term and this event, scholars developed a theory of "disintegration of state" in their political analysis of the period. M. Abir's book (Ethiopia: The Era of Princes. 1969) was taken as a standard work. Following him, some scholars like Sven Rubenson, adopted the theory in their finest work (Rubensson, S. The Survival of Ethiopian Independence. London 1976).
Recently, Shiferaw Bekele tried to refute the theory of "disintegration" in his article: "Reflection on the Power Elite of the Were Seh Mesafint 1786-1853", in Annale D'Ethiopie, vol. XV, 1990. He argued that Zemene Mesafint was the era of the Were Seh lords ruling the country in the name of the Solomonic dynasty. He constructed the pyramid of power in the theory of Lord-vassal relationship. While I agree with Shiferaw's argument, I see Zemene Mesafint in a broader context. Hitherto, the period is defined by its consequences (political chaos, wars, plunder, etc.) not by its cause. I think this approach is important for it covers not only northern but also southern Ethiopia.
As I see it the Zemene Mesafint was caused by the events of the major population migration and resettlement of the 16th and the first half of the 17th centuries. In the historical writings this event was referred as the Wars of Ahmed Gran which lasted from 1527-1541, and the Oromo tribe resettlement into central and northern Ethiopia starting from the early 1530s continuing up to the beginning of the 17th century. This migration was permanent in character and was better organized. An illustrative account of this event is found in Ethiopia: A Cradle of History. Addis Ababa 1989. (Please correct the title in earlier reference list in question one).
Population migration and resettlement of the 16th century had elicited a profound effect on the organization of power structure and governance of society both in north and south Ethiopia. I can go to details, if available, please refer the 400-page volume of Merid Wolde Aregay "Southern Ethiopia and the Christian Kingdom, 1508-1708, with Special Reference to the Gala Migrations and their Consequences", Ph.D. thesis, University of London, 1971; Bairu Tafla, (ed.), 1987. Asma Giorgis and His Work. History of the Galla and the Kingdom of Sewa. Stuttgart; Mohammed Hassen 1990. The Oromos of Ethiopia a history 1570-1860.
In norther and central Ethiopia, Zemene Mesafint was associated with the gradual militarization of earlier provinces. Kings began to give new title called Dejazmach responsible for campaign and safeguarding of troubled provinces. The holder of the D!jazmac title gradually got control over the judicial and fiscal administration of the provinces. By the second half of the seventeenth century, this title had come to replace other tiles in the hierarchical structure of the kings court (See, the title of 1690 in Huntingford; See also the document of Serate Mangest). Gradually the title of Dejazmac became a full prerogative of certain provincial and local hereditary ruling families.
In the province of Tigre the development can be associated with the time of the powerful noble man known as Blatta Michael Sehul who proclaimed himself as ruler of Tigre after he fought against and executed his master Ras Anda Haimanot in 1759.Michael Sehul governed Tigre from the town of Adwa which lay on the import- export trade between Gonder (the capital city) and the Red Sea. When the child king Iyoas 1st (1755-1769) succeeded to the throne upon the death of his father Iyasu 2nd (1730-1755), Ras Mikael Sehul begun to challenge the central authority and occupied the office of prime minister (Ras Bitweded). Later on the powerful local magnets of Amhara and the new aristocrats of the court (in both cases mainly Oromo origin) gathered forces and disloged Ras Mikael out of Gonder in 1771. The Ras returned to Tigre and died in 1779/80 and was succeeded by his son Wolde Gabriel, who was defeated by Ras Aligaz of the Yejju family. From 1770 upto the coranation of king Tewodros in 1855 the guardianship of the king was in the hands of the Yejju family. This family was founded by Ras Ali Gwangwil, known as Ali the Great, who was followed by six members of his family as Ras. In the name of the king they controlled all higher appointments and conducted foreign policy and gave leadership to the princes of northern and central Ethiopia.
In Sewa there was an important development of the rise of the Shewa dynasty. The founder of this dynasty was called Negasi (1696-1703). He and his successors conducted a successful war against rival local noble families and brought many districts under their control. During the time of Amha Iyasu (174-575) the aristocrats of Shewa were consolidating their power. His son and heir Asfa Wasan (1755-1808) continued the crushing of smaller nobilities and expanding his family control. The name itself meant expanding the frontier. He succeeded by Wasan Seged (1808-1813) who was given for first time the title of Ras by the king of Gonder. In Gojjam we see an establishement of royal house by Ras Hailu (the great) who died in 1794. Ras Hailu (the great) was succeded by Ras Maderd (d.1821) Dej.Gwalu (d.1826) and Dej.Goshu (d.1853.).
There was Zemene Mesafint in Southern Ethiopia during the period under discussion. Though, this sounds odd, again, as I have said, it is a mater of definition. After all Zemene Mesafint means a rule by princes at a time when royal authority was in decline or usurped. As with north and central Ethiopia, there were princes in southern Ethiopia as well. Whether these princes were royal descent or self-made aristocrats, that is another question. Who were the princes and how the process came about?
The formation of princely rule in southern Ethiopia is the synthesis of migration and existing political culture and social organization. Before the migration of the Oromo tribes, the wide area between Awash, Muger, Gibe, Abay, Didesa and Baro was inhabited by people known in literatures as Peoples of Gonga (See, Lange, W.J. History of Southern Conga, South Western Ethiopia, pp. 1-18). The most important once were the kingdoms of Damot, Enariya and Kaffa. By coming in touch with these principalities (through war and assimilation politic "Gudifecha") the tribal confederation of the Oromo people began to disintegrate and formed what has come to be called Gibe States (See, Hassen Mohamed). In western parts of Wollega and in other regions new centers of power were formed as land and office began to be transfered to individual families. For a hypotetical explanation of this process, see Tekalign Wolde Mariam " Land, Trade and Political Power Among the Oromo of the Gibe Region, A Hypothesis" in Proceedings of the Third Annual Seminar of the Department of History. 1986. For the political organization and rule of Kefa princes, see Antoniyo Cici, Keffa and Its History 1390-1897 (Amharic translation). For the region of Harar, see Waldron, Sydney, "The Political Economy of Harari-Oromo relationship, 1559-1874", in North- East African Studies. nos.1-2. 1984. There is a recent work on the region of Awsa princes, for it is not my reach, I can not give you the title.
The difference in the Zemene Mesafint in the North and South is related to the very factors that shaped their process and organizational make up. Northern princes were militarized as there was no enough resource for the bulk of disintegrated ("demobilised") royal army (after the wars of Gran) and displaced clergies who moved to the north. Resource acquisition could then be at the cost of another, and thus needed a mediating power, which we see in the role played by the Were Seh princes. There was a relative stability in southern Ethiopia and princes were engaged in the promotion of trade. This is in fact a hypothetical suggestion and needs detailed empirical studies. Did the internal competition in northern Ethiopia encouraged growth of towns and trade? Or did the huge consumption of peasant's surplus by the military and clergy hinder urbanization process? This require more empirical studies and until such a time, I think, we have to be cautious in projecting Zemene Mesafint as a wasteful social system which dislocated the economy. One aspect of the Zemene Mesafint, which I believe to be the dynamic aspect, namely, the art of organizing a military force, mobilization of human and material resources for the accomplishment of military ends was a great experience that helped Ethiopia defend its independence during the colonial scramble for Africa.
That is all I have for today. Good days until next time.