Ras Lul Seged

A key figure in late 19th and early 20th century Ethiopia, Ras Lul Seged (died 17 October 1916; also known by his horse name Abba Balay) was a courtier and army commander under the Emperor Menelik II. He was responsible for several successful military campaigns, but was killed in battle during the struggle over Menelik's succession.


Said to be widely admired for his good looks and physical bravery,[1] Lul Seged was a member of the influential Addisge clan of Shewa. His father, Atnaf Seged, held the rank of Dejazmach, and his brother Wube Atnaf Seged was the second husband of Menelik's daughter Zawditu.[2] His cousin was Ras Tessema,[3] who was an influential figure at Menelik's court and Enderase (regent) during Menelik's final illness.

Military and court career

Much of Lul Seged's activity was in the south of the country, particularly in Sidamo, where Menelik's regime had begun showing expansionist interest in the late 1880s, and in 1891 Lul Seged (then with the title Dejazmach) set up a permanent garrison at Shisha.[4] In 1894-5, he mounted a successful conquest of the entire province, while he is also thought to have been responsible for the Ethiopian annexation of Konso in 1896. After 1896, however, Lul Seged was removed from power in Sidamo in favour of Dejazmach Balcha Safo, allegedly because he had failed to appear in the Adwa campaign.[5] Other sources however state that Lul Seged was rewarded by Menelik for bravery at Adwa.[2] As a reward for his role in the conquest of Sidamo he was raised to the rank of ras: in 1907 he was made governor of Bale province, and also governed Kaffa Province.

In common with others of his class Lul Seged sought to increase his influence through marriage, and late in life he married Menen Asfaw, later the wife of Tafari Makonnen (Haile Selassie), with the approval of her grandfather Negus Mikael.[6] After two years she ran away to Addis Ababa and sought a divorce: Lul Seged was reportedly furious, and became an implacable opponent of her new husband Tafari.[6]

After Ras Tessema's death in 1911, Lul Seged was appointed regent by Menelik's heir Iyasu, in the process making an enemy of Minister of War Habte Giyorgis.[7] Despite this, Lul Seged was eventually persuaded to turn against Iyasu, with whom his relationship had remained rather cool following the latter's involvement in Menen Asfaw's divorce and remarriage.


Iyasu was deposed on 27 September 1916 by a council of nobles and clergy; Zewditu I was installed as Empress and Ras Tafari was nominated as her heir apparent. Much to Tafari's reported surprise, Lul Seged brought his army to the capital and was one of the first nobles to declare his allegiance to Zewditu.[8] Following the palace coup a northern army was assembled by Iyasu's father, Negus Mikael, in support of his son: 80,000 men set out from Wollo on 7 October.

The imperial army being still in preparation, Lul Seged was dispatched north to Ankober with an advance guard of a few thousand to put a stop to Mikael's advance. Lul Seged arrived south of Ankober on 16 October, and Mikael initially fell back. However, Lul Seged's vastly outnumbered army was practically wiped out a day later in a furious action at Tora Mesk after it tried to stop Fitawrari Sirah Bazu's troops, supporting Mikael, from taking Ankober.[9] The 'official' imperial chronicle represented Lul Seged as resisting suggestions to retreat: "I will not be the laughing stock of Wollo. If you are afraid, flee! I shall fight as long as I can and I shall die here".[10] Lul Seged was amongst those killed, alongside Tessema Gazmu, commander of the palace guard, and several other nobles.[11] News of the disaster shocked Addis Ababa, but Negus Mikael was to be defeated several days later at the Battle of Segale.

Wilfred Thesiger, who lived in Addis Ababa in 1916, later recalled both the "wailing" at the news of Lul Seged's defeat, and seeing the victory parade after Segale: "The most moving moment of that wildly exciting day was when the drums suddenly stopped and in utter silence a few hundred men in torn, white everyday clothes came slowly down the long avenue of waiting troops led by a young boy. It was Ras Lul Seged's son bringing in the remnants of his father's army, which had gone into battle five thousand strong."[12]

Ras Lul Seged was buried in Debre Berhan Selassie church.[9]


  1. Caulk, R. Between the Jaws of Hyenas: A Diplomatic History of Ethiopia, 2002, p.606
  2. 1 2 Uhlig, S. Encyclopaedia Aethiopica: He-N, p. 557
  3. Prouty, C. Empress Taytu and Menilek II: Ethiopia, 1883-1910, Red Sea Press, 1986, p.324
  4. McLellan, C. W. State transformation and national integration: Gedeo and the Ethiopian empire, 1895-1935, Michigan State University, 1988, p.22
  5. McLellan, C. W. Reaction to Ethiopian expansionism: the case of Darasa, 1895-1935, Michigan State University, 1978, p.85
  6. 1 2 Mosley, L. Haile Selassie: The Conquering Lion, Prentice-Hall, 1965, p.59
  7. Personality and Political Culture in Modern Africa: Studies Presented to Professor Harold G. Marcus, Boston University, 1998, p.164
  8. Mosley, p.88
  9. 1 2 Uhlig (ed.) p.557
  10. Iliffe, J. Honour in African History, Cambridge UP, 2005, p.197
  11. Tafla, B. Ethiopia and Austria: a history of their relations, 1994, p.132
  12. Thesiger, W. Arabian Sands, Penguin, 2007, p.20
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