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Intrigue and Power: Hayle Giyorgis

Addis Ababa's first Mayor

by : Peter Garretson

Addis Ababa's first real mayor ruled at the beginning of the last century, a period of transition for Ethiopia and its urban areas, much as is the case today. His life was full of intrigue, the calculated pursuit of power, and the callous use of marriage to further his political career. He was an extremely controversial figure, widely seen as being corrupt and presided over Ethiopia's small but growing number of monied capitalists. He ruled Addis Ababa not with the actual title of mayor (Kentiba), but as Negadras (or head of the merchants) from 1900 to 1917. Hayle Giyorgis was an extremely powerful national figure who, as we shall see, became Bitweded, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, and basically ran the country on Lej Iyasu's behalf from about 1914 to 1916, as well as the most important early formative influence on the growth and development of Addis Ababa.

Hayle Giyorgis's origins are obscure but it is fairly clear that he was neither a peasant nor an aristocrat. There seems to have been no discernible commercial background in his family's past. His father was put in charge of the Empress Taytu's granaries in Adda, an important but "middle level" management position in the mid to late nineteenth century Ethiopian court. However, this meant that his family already had at least some access to influence and contacts on behalf of their children. In about 1890, Hayle Giyorgis obtained his first administrative position as an assistant to the new Negadras of Addis Ababa, Aggedew. To obtain such a position he almost certainly must have performed well in the traditional education system of Ethiopia and become sufficiently literate in Amharic to become attuned to the subtleties and procedures of the imperial court. His rise, thereafter, was swift.

First, he took over the administration of the Addis Ababa customs (Wanna Yegumruk Sehafi) in 1894. This was an extremely important and lucrative position in the Ethiopian empire ruled by Emperor Menilek and Empress Taytu. By the beginning of the twentieth century it was the second largest market in Ethiopia, surpassed only by Harar. The head of the capital's customs was in a position to make large amounts of money for the Emperor and for himself. Menilek increasingly insisted that all imports and exports had to be funneled through the capital so that they could be more efficiently taxed. You can be sure that the Emperor would insist on an official totally loyal to him to supervise this most lucrative of revenues. His second big break came when his mentor, Negadras Aggedew died in 1900 and Menilek appointed him the new Negadras of Addis Ababa.

The Negadras was an important position in the Ethiopian court, but of course, did not compare, at least yet, to the wealth and prestige of the nobles of the land, like a Dejazmach or Ras, let alone a Negus. Nor was a Negadras really comparable in the history of Addis Ababa to the major figures of either of the imperial households, each headed by a figure like the Azaj. However, the power of the position had steadily increased during the tenure of Aggedew. He had been a national figure. Born in Gondar, he was from an important and prestigious trading family of this former Ethiopian capital and he and his family had helped to settle and give their name to the Gondari sefer in Addis Ababa. Remember, Addis Ababa was founded and named by Empress Taytu in 1886. It must have seemed natural to her that a member of her entourage should succeed to this important position. As Negadras and head of the merchants of Addis Ababa Hayle Giyorgis inherited jurisdiction over the Gonderi sefer, as well as the central market of that time the Arada (the merkato replaced the Arada as the central market when the Italians segregated the capital during their occupation of Addis Ababa from 1936 to 1941). The power and prestige of Addis Ababa and the Negadras increased significantly in the wake of the Battle of Adwa, which brought widespread international recognition of Ethiopia and permanent diplomatic and commercial representatives established in the new capital. The Negadras was increasingly delegated to keep a day to day eye on all the foreigners, commercial and diplomatic resident in the Addis. He also played an increasingly important part in the giving of monopolies to Ethiopians and foreigners, always a lucrative and often a corrupting source of power. Thus soon after the turn of the century he was de facto Minister of Commerce and Minister of Foreign Affairs. It would be some years before he was actually given these foreign and imported titles. Furthermore, Menilek was already using Hayle Giyorgis to control the far-flung commerce of his empire through a network of Negadras spread throughout the major towns of his expanding empire. Each was to report to the Addis Ababa Negadras, Hayle Giyorgis who would control and administer them on behalf of the Emperor. The first of which we have proof was the Negadras of Addis Alem, the short lived replacement capital of Ethiopia, founded in about 1900. Eventually, most of the Negadras of Ethiopia like, Gondar, Harar, Jimma, Gambela etc. would come under Hayle Giyorgis's control, but that is beyond our story here, which is to focus on the history of the capital of Ethiopia and its early mayor.

It was probably at this time that Hayla Giyorgis began a series of political marriage alliances when Empress Taytu gave him her niece Yetemegnu in marriage. Her previous husband had been the Shum Tembien. For a man with no aristocratic pedigree, this was a major step up into the higher reaches of the Ethiopian court. The Italians also recognized his upward mobility when he was given a sizeable bribe, 600 Lire, according to an anonymous 1902 memo in the Italian archives. During the first six year of the new century Hayle Giyorgis's political and economic influence grew steadily. He raised the revenues of the Addis Ababa customs to about 210,000 Maria Theresa Dollars (when the annual income of an ordinary Ethiopian soldier was only a few Maria Theresa dollars a year).

In 1906 three major events would further Hayle Giyorgis's career. First and most important, the major figure of the imperial household, Menilek's right hand man, who had supervised many aspects of Addis Ababa for the Emperor, Azaj Gezaw, fell from favor. He was almost certainly Hayle Giyorgis's major competitor for power in the capital and the Negadras and his assistants took over many of the functions of Gezaw. We can almost certainly date Hayle Giyorgis's day to day involvement in the city's growth and administration, outside the purely economic sphere of the Negadras, from this date. Secondly, he was made balemwal or favorite by the Emperor, to show his increasingly close link to the imperial couple. Finally, also in 1906, Ras Mekonnen, the father of the future Hayle Sellassie, died. There were spontaneous riots in Harar and in Addis Ababa; Hayla Giyorgis reestablished order and moved to create a more efficient police force. The crisis allowed the Emperor and his chief Negadras to take over more and more of the influence and wealth of Mekonnen's center of power, Harar, and finally make Addis Ababa the dominant economic center of the empire. British archival sources, based on the analysis of their diplomatic representative in Addis Ababa, now described Hayle Giyorgis as: "the richest man in ready money in Abyssinia" and Addis Ababa's annual customs revenue topping 700,000 Maria Theresa Dollars. They also called him the "principle merchant, civil magistrate, chief of the customs and... head of the police" of Addis Ababa.

Hayle Giyorgis had arrived as one of the major movers and shakers of Ethiopia, but there was a significant difference between him and the other major powers at court. Their power rested on land and influence at court by marriage and birth. Hayle Giyorgis's power rested on money and influence. He was the first major figure on the Ethiopian political scene whose power was not based essentially on control of land. His power signals the rise of capitalism in Ethiopia, or if you prefer the coming of significant change and modernization. Land would, of course, continue to be the major index of wealth in Ethiopia, but from now on wealth in terms of cash, liquidity would play an increasingly important role. Negadras Hayle Giyorgis can be seen as a symbol of this new important class.

The first time foreigners in their diplomatic reports to Europe recognized Hayle Giyorgis as a major player in Ethiopia and Addis Ababa came when Menilek announced his new cabinet in 1907. The Negadras was listed as Minister of Commerce and Minister of Foreign Affairs. As we have seen he already performed the functions implied by these new foreign titles, but Menilek saw that an appointed a western style cabinet, at least in name, would help persuade the west that Ethiopia was serious about building a modern state. This did not however, prevent the British and Italians from objecting strenuously to his appointment, calling him "corrupt" and an "intriguer". It helps to realize that these two powers saw the Negadras as being too close to the Germans and not sufficiently pliant to their wishes. Intrigue is often in the eye of the beholder.

Negadras Hayle Giyorgis was now reaching the first highpoint of his career. Although he was appointed to take over parts of Wellega that had formerly been under the control of Dejazmach Joti, he remained largely in the capital and took over more and more responsibilities from the ailing Menilek. In Addis Ababa he directed the reform of the Addis Ababa police force, reformed the registration and making of deeds for land in Addis Ababa and heard more and more judicial appeals of commercial cases. He brought in experienced foreigners to help in the reform of the city and used them in advisory positions. Of greatest significance were the reforms in the land tenure in the city. Police and security in the capital were constantly being changed but something basic and most important happened in so far as property in the capital was concerned. It seems clear that during this period the buying and selling of city lots was first introduced and later during his tenure become more and more common. This was the first time in Ethiopian history that this was allowed on a significant scale. Previously, Menilek and his predecessors had simply allowed nobility and merchants the use of sefers or plots of land for unspecified periods of time. The Emperor carefully kept the right to revoke their rights over the land in his own hands. Foreigners and Ethiopian capitalists complained vociferously that they should be able to legally own land in perpetuity, otherwise no one would have the incentive to invest significant amounts of money to build permanent structures. Menilek eventually agreed, once it was clear that the Addis Ababa site was permanent and would not be moved again. Hayle Giyorgis carried out his wishes. While Hayle Giyorgis had been steadily gaining power in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, over the last few years his relationship with Empress Taytu had been growing increasingly tense. As the Emperor grew increasingly ill and was unable to carry on the day to day activities of governing, members of the court competed to fill the vacuum and to expand their own powers. By 1909 Hayle Giyorgis began to clash more and more with the Empress, first she forced him to give up the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and then she gave most of his power over money in Addis Ababa to the new Minister of Finance.

On December 24th, 1909 Taytu removed him from power and had him chained. This last indignity shocked everyone. But Taytu went further and insisted that her niece divorce him. However, the next day, according to a contemporary Ethiopian source, Hakim Warqeneh: "there was a great demonstration and joy at the release of Haile Gorgis. All the merchants ... became guarantee for him." Hayle Giyogris was not a figure many in the capital loved, but he was someone on whom many depended for their livelihood and so thousands gathered at the palace to offer their support. Taytu had all his "shady" financial dealings investigated by her Minister of Finance. It was several months before the Ministry of Commerce was restored to him and that only after Taytu herself was forced out of power by Ras Tessema Nado, one of Menilek's most famous generals and the man he selected to act as Regent on behalf of his grandson Lej Iyasu. It was a national power struggle that determined who would rule the capital. Hayle Giyorgis, ever the pragmatist, single mindedly pursued power. In March 1910 he was reappointed Minister of Commerce by Tessema. By now he now must have become a member of the Council of State made up of the dozen or so most powerful individuals in Ethiopia.

Hayle Giyorgis again used marriage to further consolidate his position. This time he managed to win the hand of a natural daughter of Ras Tessema improving his prospects in the changed court of the new Regent. He spent 100,000 Maria Theresa dollars on the marriage festivities. Tessema slowly replaced the Empress's other appointments to those who would be loyal to him. He could depend on Hayle Giyorgis to be adamantly opposed to Taytu, after the way she had treated him. However, Hayle Giyorgis had moved too cynically and quickly. Within six months Ras Tessema had a stroke and died and the Negadras focused his attention on the heir to the throne, Lej Iyasu Mikael (still a teenager) and his father Ras Mikael.

In 1911 Hayle Giyorgis continued to rebuild his national power base and grew closer to Lej Iyasu. He was reappointed Minister of Foreign Affairs and became controller of the Jibuti to Dire Dawa railway for the first time. Increasingly he began to be identified as one of the two or three most powerful men in Ethiopia after Iyasu and Iyasu's father Ras Mikael. Mikael made only occasional visits to the capital and Lej Iyasu detested day to day administration and increasingly left it to others. Hayle Giyorgis was never shy when in came to filling a power vacuum and steadily gained influence from 1911 to 1916. In Addis Ababa he carried out only one reform project in this period, the reorganization of the police force. Veterans from colonial Italian military or paramilitary units that had recruited from among Eritreans and had fought with the Italians during the Italian takeover of Tripoli and Cyrenaica (what is today Libya), were recruited for a new Addis Ababa police force. The Addis Ababa nickname for the unpopular police was Tribolis. Internationally 1914 was of great importance with the beginning of World War I, but had little immediate effect on Addis Ababa and Ethiopia. The long term implications were to be serious because Iyasu and Hayle Giyorgis were increasingly closely linked to the German side in the war and, as we shall see, this had major implications for their long term survival in power. Meanwhile, Hayle Giyorgis managed to carry out a third marriage coup. In 1914 he dumped his previous wife, a relative of the now dead Ras Tessema, and married the daughter of Negus Michael and half sister of Lej Iyasu, Weyzero Sehin (she was also the mother of Empress Menen). This was the most important of all his marriage alliances. Within two weeks he was raised to the status of Betweded (Beloved) by Iyasu, made President of the ruling Council of State and given the rich province of Sidamo. From 1914 to 1916 he took over the day to day running of the Ethiopian empire to a greater extent than any other single individual. Lej Iyasu delegated most all irksome administrative duties to his supervision. Hayle Giyorgis had now reached the pinnacle of his power. He would not be there long.

At this time he focused a good deal of his energies on the capital. He reorganized the municipality appointing an advisory council of foreigners made up of his old cronies who had advised him over the years. They included Baldassare, Chefneux, Michel, Mayer and Sourvis. For the first time Addis Ababa would have its problems tackled in an organized manner. However, few of the changes were long lasting. He had monopolies imposed on gasoline and salt in order to pay for the planned improvements of the capital. He also increased the efficiency of the administration of municipal taxes and customs in Addis Ababa. This inevitably led to immediate and vociferous complaints from its merchants.

Hayle Giyorgis's position of preeminence remained unchanged from 1915 until the coup of September 1916 when Ras Tefferi, the future Hayle Sellassie came to power. This, perhaps, is not the place to go into the details of that complicated event. Suffice it to say that Hayle Giyorgis was seen to hesitate and prevaricate during the crisis. After Iyasu was overthrown and Negus Michael defeated at the Battle of Segele (in October of 1916), Hayle Giyorgis, also in October 1916, had his troops taken away. In July 1917 Teferi put him in chains and stripped him of all his important offices. The Negadras barricaded himself in his house in the Arada and Teferi was forced to surround his home with troops and physically remove him from power. This was Teferi's first trial of strength after having been appointed heir to the throne. It was bloodless and eminently successful. Some would say that the future Hayle Sellassie inherited far more than he was willing to admit from the first mayor of Addis Ababa, in his methods and manner of ruling, especially when it came to money and the role of Negadras. During the last seven years of his life, Hayla Giyorgis supported several intrigues attempting, unsuccessfully, to return to power between 1917 and 1924. However, these last years never again saw him wield significant power either nationally or in Addis Ababa as he had from 1900 to 1917. He died in 1924.


Negadras Hayle Giyorgis was the major figure to guide Addis Ababa through its first two decades in the twentieth century. In so far as it had an organized government and functioning municipality, the credit should go in these early years to this one man. His most important achievements were to organize the first municipality, set up efficient taxation systems, institute a new land tenure system, based on the buying and selling of land and finally the organization of the cities first real police system. He was controversial and autocratic, manipulating marriage and money to increase his own power and prestige, but also had a reputation for fairness. It can be taken as a given that Ethiopia's and Addis Ababa's history will always be complex, but also that personalities tend to play a large part in its history. Hayla Giyorgis clearly was one of the most important individuals in the overall sweep of Addis Ababa's development.

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