Don't hold your breath. We are not talking about Emperor Haile Selassie I. The name Haile Selassie conveys reverberations of pan-Africanism, peace, Rastafarianism and great leadership. But there was another Haile Selassie, whom history will not forget. Haile Selassie Gugsa was an army commander and member of the royal family who betrayed Ethiopia.
The Italo-Abyssinian war was devastating, but much of the blame can be put on Haile Selassie Gugsa. Haile Selassie Gugsa was born in 1907, and he was the son of Gugsa Araya Selassie. Gugsa Araya Selassie was the Shum (governor) of eastern Tigray Province as well as the great grandson of Emperor Yohannes IV.
When Gugsa Araya Selassie died in 1932, Haile Selassie Gugsa became the Shum of eastern Tigray. He assumed power with the title Dejazmach, which was meant for non-royal commanders of the army. On 15 June 1932, Dejazmatch Haile Selassie Gugsa married Leult Zenebework Haile Selassie, Emperor Haile Selassie's second daughter. He was about 25 and it is though Zenebework was around 14 years old.
Zenebework died in 1934 amid allegations of poor treatment at the hands of her husband. Relations between Emperor Haile Selassie and Dejazmatch Haile Selassie Gugsa became quite cold after this. The strain between them was especially apparent when the Emperor insisted on bringing his daughter's body back to Addis Ababa for burial rather than allowing her husband to bury her in the capital of eastern Tigray, Mek'ele. This was a clear sign of Emperor Haile Selassie's unhappiness with his son-in-law. Dejazmach Haile Selassie on his part was very bitter that he was not elevated to the titles of "Leul" and "Ras" which had been held by his father before him, and were held by his rival Seyum Mengesha of western Tigray.
At the time Italy invaded Ethiopia, that is October 3 1935. Gugsa was the commander of the army and he was the one in charge of the army. Emperor Haile Selassie ordered Seyum Mengesha, the Commander of the Ethiopian Army of Tigre, to withdraw a day's march away from the Mareb River. Later, the Emperor ordered Mengesha to move back fifty-five miles from the border. Haile Selassie Gugsa, who was also in the area, was ordered to move back thirty-five miles. This was done with the intention to prove to the League of Nations that it was Italy at fault, that it was Italy which was the aggressor.
However, Gugsa did not consider these instructions at all and ignored them. Haile Selassie Gugsa went to the advancing Italians and announced his submission to their rule. He had betrayed Ethiopia. He had become a traitor. The Italians were willing to accommodate him, and they immediately released photos of Gugsa working together with the Italians and attending war councils.
His moves provoked retaliation from Tigrean patriots, who burnt down his home. A few days later Mek’ele fell and was occupied by the Italians for five years. The Italians used Gugsa for their propaganda machinations during the balance of the invasion and during the five years of occupation.
The Italians recognised him as "Ras," a title he had been denied by Emperor Haile Selassie. He was even granted Italian pension. Even when the British thought Gugsa would be amenable to their whims for the liberation of Italian East Africa, they found out that he was loyally in correspondence with the Italians. Mengesha did not want the Ethiopian Empire to be broken apart so they had turned to Gugsa. The plan was o separate Tigray from Ethiopia and join it to Eritrea. The plans also involved making it the Great Tigray region under Ras Gugsa or Ras Mengesha.
The British took Gugsa into custody and kept him in British held Asmara. Emperor Selassie's government wanted Gugsa to be extradited to Ethiopia, listing his crimes including treason, but the British were reluctant because they wanted a punishment that would not include death. Gugsa was later sent to Seychelles for safe keeping.
After numerous requests for extradition, Gugsa was returned to Ethiopia in 1946. In 1947, he stood trial and was declared a fascist collaborator and a traitor. Haile Selassie Gugsa then threw himself on the mercy of the Emperor. As a result, his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He served his life sentence at Gore and later Ambo.
His Italian-backed "Ras" title was stripped and he was restored the Dejazmach title. his province was integrated into western Tigray under Mengesha.Even status for his family went sideways; his familiy fell from grace and could not enjoy favours from Mengesha or Emperor Haile Selassie.
The Ethiopian Monarchy was toppled by the Derg in 1974, and Gugsa was freed. However, the Derg continued to regard Gugsa as a fascist collaborator and a traitor. He was kept under house arrest until the time of his death in 1985.
Header image credit: Face to Face Africa