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Ras Abebe Aregai (18 August 1903[1] - 17 December 1960) was Prime Minister of Ethiopia from 27 November 1957 until his death. During the Italian occupation, he led a group of resistance fighters (collectively known as the Arbegnoch or "Patriots") that operated in Menz and Shewa. He was a victim of the unsuccessful 1960 Ethiopian coup.

Life as an Arbegna

Abebe was born in Axum, a city in Ethiopia. He was the chief of police of Addis Ababa when the Italians invaded Ethiopia in 1936, remaining in the city after the departure of Emperor Haile Selassie but departing for the northeast with ten men before the Italians occupied the capital.[2] He took part in the unsuccessful attempt to retake the capital in July of that year, and his soldiers almost reached the Imperial Palace before being beaten back by two Italian battalions.[3] By the spring of the next year, he was left with only 40 men, so he was forced to limit his activities to the mountainous region of Menz,[4] although in May of that year, he ventured out of Menz to proclaim Meleke Tsahai, the 16-year old son of the late Lij Iyasu emperor at the Three Ambas, alarming the occupiers. On 1 June, General Ugo Cavallero moved north to surround Abebe, and keep him from returning to Menz, and although Abebe made three unsuccessful attempts to break through the Italian lines before the rainy season, after the rains his Arbegnoch were able to return to the comparative safety of Menz.[3]

Although Meleke Tsahai died not long afterwards of illness, Abebe remained at large, and following the death of Olana Dingili (1939), became the leading rebel leader – although one not entirely trusted by the exiled Emperor Haile Selassie. Abebe presented himself to the Italians as ambivalent about his role as an Arbegna, always seeming to be at the point of submitting to the occupiers in return for money, arms, honors or power, yet always changing his mind at the last moment.[5] "In negotiations he conducted with General Nasi, then deputy viceroy and governor of Shewa, Abebe gave intimations of his readiness to surrender. Simultaneously, he wrote to other patriotic leaders explaining the actual reason for engaging in the talks: to buy time. After he had made sure that his forces had sufficiently recovered from the reverses they had suffered in the preceding months, he broke off negotiations, using as a pretext the killing by the Italians of patriots in another locality."[6] The Italians continued these talks, obsessed with the hope of recruiting the best-known resistance fighter to their side, until 15 March 1940, when General Nasi learned that Abebe Aregai, who had promised to take the oath of allegiance if the General would make a visit to his location in person, was laying an ambush for him with 20,000 men.[7]

It was not until Emperor Haile Selassie returned to Ethiopia that he was let in on the secret. As the Emperor entered Addis Ababa with his entourage, the streets were lined with Abebe's men, cheering their returning Emperor. Abebe presented himself and his son to the Emperor, and Mockler reports that the Arbegna told Emperor Haile Selassie, bowing low before him, "I am your loyal subject. I never submitted to the enemy. I never hoped to see you alive again and I am grateful to God for this day, when I have seen the sun shine."[8]

Later career

Now Ras, Abebe Aregai proved to be a valuable retainer to the Emperor. One of the few Arbegnoch to receive a major government post, Ras Abebe was appointed governor of Addis Ababa and Minister of War in 1941 soon after Haile Selassie's return. He was subsequently made governor of Sidamo province from 1941 to 1942.[1] When the Woyane rebellion broke out in Tigray in 1942, with the rebels under Haile Mariam Radda at one point capturing Mek'ele, Ras Abebe marched north to suppress the violence with the help of British air power, and captured the rebel headquarters at Wukro on 17 October 1943. The Emperor subsequently made him governor of Tigray, and Ras Abebe brutally pacified the province.[9] After serving as governor, Ras Abebe once again served as Minister of War (1947–1949), Minister of the Interior (1949–1955), and Minister of Defence before becoming Prime Minister.[1][10]

By the late 1950s, he had become the leader of one of the major factions that vied for the Emperor's favor; the others were led by potentiates who included Makonnen Habte-Wold (brother of Aklilu Habte-Wold), Ras Andargachew Masai and General Mulugeta Bulli. Thus, when the brothers Mengistu Neway and Germame, supported by the Imperial Bodyguard and the government security force, seized control of the capital on 13 December 1960, these three men and Ras Abebe were taken hostage. The rest of the military, however, remained loyal to the Emperor, and rushed to Addis Ababa and crushed the coup, although many of the hostages, including Ras Abebe Aregai, were killed by machine-gun fire as the army stormed the Genetta Leul palace on 17 December. Although the leaders of the coup had fled, they did not outlive the Ras by more than a week.[11]


  1. ^ a b c David Hamilton Shinn, "Abebe Aregai, Ras," Historical Dictionary of Ethiopia. The Scarecrow Press, inc.: Lanham, Maryland; Toronto; Oxford, 2004, p.3.
  2. ^ Anthony Mockler, Haile Selassie's War (New York: Olive Branch, 2003), p. 138
  3. ^ a b Mockler, Haile Selassie's War, pp. 159f
  4. ^ Mockler, Haile Selassie's War, p. 183n
  5. ^ Mockler, Haile Selassie's War, pp. 201f
  6. ^ Bahru Zewde, A History of Modern Ethiopia, second edition (Oxford: James Currey, 2001), pp. 172f.
  7. ^ Mockler, Haile Selassie's War, p. 202
  8. ^ Mockler, Haile Selassie's War, p. 379
  9. ^ Paul B. Henze, Layers of Time (New York: Palgrave, 2000), p. 251
  10. ^ Henze, Layers of Time, p. 239
  11. ^ Henze, Layers of Time, pp. 254f. Bahru Zewde identifies Genetta Leul palace as the present Administration building of Addis Ababa University, in Seddest Kilo (A History, p. 214).


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