Dejazmach Balcha Safo (1863 – 6 November 1936), popularly referred to by his “horse-name” of Balcha Aba Nefso, was an accomplished Ethiopian military commander and lord protector of the crown, who served in both the First and Second Italo-Ethiopian Wars.
Originally of humble birth in the Shawaa zone, he was made a dejazmach.[further explanation needed] Balcha also became a provincial Governor (Shum), and was a renowned warrior under Emperor Menelik II, famously becoming one of the leaders in the Battle of Adwa. He later eventually became a key member of the conservative provincial elite who, in the 1920s, were often at odds with the modernising reforms and rising power of the Regent, Ras Tafari Makonnen (later Emperor Haile Selassie I). Tafari would force Dejazmach Balcha into retirement, albeit an honourable one, in 1928, from which he would emerge in 1935 to fight the Fascist invaders during which he was killed in 1936.
Balcha was born in the Shawa Zone and was of Oromo origin. ‘Balcha’ means ‘taming, assimilating or making familiar with’ in Oromo. Found on the battlefield after having been emasculated, which at the time was a tribal tradition of some the Oromo soldiers Menelick II upon the captured resistance militia of non-Amara ethnic groups, he came to the notice of Emperor Menelik II, who brought him back to Addis Ababa where he was educated. He distinguished himself at the imperial court and showed particular skill in military exercises and theory. He made his reputation, according to oral tradition, in the Battle of Mek’ele, and later at the Battle of Adwa (March 1, 1896), and was rewarded with elevation to the aristocratic status of dejazmach.
From 1898 to 1908, Balcha was Shum/Governor of Sidamo province. After the death of Dejazmach Yilma Mekonen in 1907, he became the Shum/Governor of Harar from 1910 to 1914. From 1917 to 1928, he again served as Shum/Governor of Sidamo.
A conservative who had been loyal to the memory of the deceased Emperor Menelik, Balcha was one of the leading nobles who challenged the growing power of the regent Ras Tafari (who later became Emperor Haile Selassie). A blunt old warrior, he did not trust the young Emperor, who was an advocate for modernizing Ethiopia. In a deft political maneuver, which has since been seen as an example of Haile Selassie’s genius, in 1928 the Emperor invited Balcha to the capital for a feast in Balcha’s honor. Balcha arrived 11 February with several thousand men, and camped right outside of Addis Ababa at an area called Nifas Silk, and spent the evening “generally insolent and threatening in conversation.” Ras Tafari was nervous in private. The Empress begged Balcha by the name of her late father Emperor Menelik II.
Meanwhile, the regent sent Ras Kassa Haile Darge to Balcha’s camp, where he lied to the troops stating that Balcha and Regent Ras Tafari were in agreement, and paid the soldiers Balcha had left there. At the same time the Emperor appointed Dejazmach Birru Wolde Gabriel to replace Balcha as governor of Sidamo. These simultaneous acts deprived Balcha of his ability to resist, a loss he discovered only after he returned to the camp. Balcha promised a peaceful transition to the empress and lay down his sword, which was the traditional way of giving up his power in respect of the Empress.
When Italy invaded in the Second Italo-Abyssinian War, Balcha Safo came out of retirement to fight against the Italians. Major Mesfin Seleshi, an agent of the imperial government in exile who was coordinating resistance in occupied Ethiopia, writes of his fate in a letter to Haile Selassie I thus:
The enemy went as far as አገምጃ, where his Excellency Dejazmatch Balcha lives, and campaigned against him. The people betrayed him, and all his men were annihilated. He and two of his servants, three people all together, were surrounded. A white man came to him and asked, are you Dejazmatch Balcha? When he said ‘Yes I am’, the white man said ‘Surrender your arms, and untie your pistol belt’. Dejazmatch Balcha said, ‘I am not here to surrender my arms’, and he killed the white man; then, he and his two servants died instantly without having much suffering.
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