Belay Zeleke (Ge'ez: በላይ ዘለቀ, bälay zälläqä; horse name ኣባ ኮስትር "Abba Koster"; 1912 – 12 January 1945) was an outstanding leader of the patriots in Gojjam and Wällo, who participated in the resistance against the Italians during the occupation. He emerged as a brigand leader to become a national hero after his five-year struggle against Italian rule in Ethiopia.
Belay Zeleke was a hero and patriot leader who distinguished himself during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia in 1936–1941. He was born in 1912 in Caqqäta, Wällo. His father, Bašša Zälläqä Laqäw, was a native of Lämcän in Goggam and his mother, Wäyzäro Taytu Asäne, was a native of Gérru Gonta in Wällo. Bälay’s father was a loyal and close servant of Lég Iyyasu, who bestowed him the title of Basha, and is said to have had a considerable number of troops under his command. After the fall of Lég Iyyasu, Basha Zeleke first moved to his wife’s residence, in Caqqäta, and later to Lämcän in Gojjam, and there submitted to Ras Hailu Täklä Haymanot.
After a while, Zeleke killed a man and refused to submit peacefully to Fitawrari Émbiýalä, the governor of Bićäna. The Fitawrari marched to Lämcän to arrest Zeleke. In the skirmish that followed, Zeleke was killed in Qänto Maryam, and at Bokkänna his body was hung on a tree for a day in order to intimidate the local people. This event had a huge impact on the young Bälay and his entire family and relatives. Bälay with his brother, Éggégu, and his mother left Lämcän for Caqqäta. It was there that Bälay mastered his father’s rifle and began his career as a šéfta (‘bandit’), cherishing the idea of avenging the blood of his father.
Bälay, Éggégu (later known as Abba Qästo) and another companion were operating between Lämcän and Caqqäta and, in the lowland areas of the gorge of Abbay. Bälay’s company was joined not only by his relatives but also by other brigands, criminals and outlaws who sought refuge in the bush. Bälay’s popularity grew after he avenged the death of his father some time in the middle of 1927, and later, looted cattle, captured firearms and defeated local officials. Bälay was noted for his courage and determination; he was elected the leader of the group in April 1935.
The invasion of Ethiopia by fascist Italy changed the precarious situation in Gojjam. Bälay and his followers, who numbered some 50 at that time, got an opportunity to fight for a good cause and legitimize their rebellion. They tried to mobilize and recruit the local people, both peacefully and forcefully. They ambushed the Italians and attacked them in their fortifications, capturing numerous firearms. Italian attempts to subdue Bälay Zälläqä through persuasion failed. Bälay soon emerged as a prominent patriot leader; between 1937 and 1939 most of the districts in Eastern Goggam were gradually brought under his control; he was communicating with patriots in other regions, particularly with Ras Abäbä Arägay in Šäwa. It has been documented that Bälay and the other patriots fought in over 23 important battles between 1937 and 1941 at various locations including: Abära, Bäränta, Bićäna, Caqqäta, Däbrä Wärq, Dägän, Dances, Dibisa, Dima, Délanta, Gonga, Gubaya, Garso, Énnäbse, Lämcän, Mäkanä Sälam, Malka, Somma, Tiq, Waseda, Waššage and Yage. Bälay bestowed traditional titles and military ranks to the patriots and established his own administration.
As Italy was defeated and Haylä Séllase I returned from his exile through Däbrä Marqos on 6 April 1941, Bälay reportedly had 40,000–45,000 combatants, who presented themselves in a military parade in front of the emperor, singing war songs and heroic recitals. Haylä Séllase was impressed and rewarded Bälay with 12,000 Thalers, and then invited him for a private talk. After the liberation, the history of Bälay Zälläqä was dramatic. He was appointed the governor of Bićäna, his home province, with the title of Däggazmać; he was supposed to keep Gojjam’s nobility in check. However, Bälay was disappointed: several districts that were previously under Bälay’s control were given to other noblemen. Bälay’s adversaries began to disseminate rumours and send reports to Addis Ababa telling that Bälay refused to accept government orders and revolted against the imperial administration. Troops from Goggam, Wällo and Šäwa were sent to Bićäna to arrest him. Bälay decided to resist, and, together with his followers, he fortified himself in Somma. After three weeks of heavy fighting, some of his combatants were killed, some wounded, others weakened, and some defected; finally, Bälay was arrested, taken to Addis Abäba and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Later it was reported that on the way to Goggam after he attempted to escape from custody with other prisoners, he was brought to court again and was sentenced to death. The emperor confirmed the death penalty, and Bälay was publicly hanged, together with two of his brothers, on 13 January 1945 in Addis Abäba. He was 35 when he died; by four wives, he had three daughters (Yärome, Yäšašwärq and Yäšimmäbet) and four sons (Admasu, Goššu, Bahru and Mälaku).
Second Italo-Ethiopian War
When Belay learned that Italians had invaded Ethiopia he decided to fight. Within a few days he found a convoy of the Italian army proceeding from Debre Marqos to Bicheno, where he ambushed and killed most of them and took their weapons. He was successful in most of his further fighting with the Italians in Gojjam, Wollo and Shewa. As his war activities intensified and his followers increased, many began to address him as leul Belay ("His Highness Belay") and atse begulbetu ("King by his own might"). Belay bestowed upon his followers the traditional titles, such as qenyazmach, dejazmach, Fit'awrari, and ras. When his brother, dejazmach Ejigu, asked him "what title is left for you, as you have given all to your followers?", he replied: "I need no title as my mother had already called me Belay" (in Amharic Belay means "one who is superior to others").
In April 1941, the British forces led by General Wingate liberated Debre Marqos from Italian occupation led by Italian Commander Maraventano. By April 5, the Italians fled to Shoa, the Debre Marqos fell under the control of ras Hailu Tekle Haymanot who then requested Belay to come to Debra Marqos by offering him his daughter for marriage. Ras Hailu then insisted on meeting Haile Selassie and had a confrontation with the British forces. When Belay arrived in Debre Marqos, General Wingate ordered that he remain outside of the city at gunpoint and Haile Selassie eventually met him.
After the restoration of independence in 1941, atse Haile Selassie I gave Belay the title of dejazmach and appointed him the governor of Bicheno. He tried to fill the subordinate position with his past comrades-in-arms, but his superiors wanted to appoint judges and other functionaries themselves. When Belay refused to appoint those proteges, the superior Gojjam officials reported this to the Emperor, alleging that Belay was revolting against the Emperor's government. He did not carry out the order even when Haile Selassie summoned the quarrelling parties to Addis Ababa. The Emperor sent an army to arrest him, but Belay resisted by holding out in a fortress on Somma mountain. After losing many men, the Emperor dispatched a delegation to him with a promise that he would pardon him, but after Belay surrendered, he was tried by a special commission and sentenced to death.
Belay's death penalty was confirmed by the Emperor, but changed later to life imprisonment. After a few years in prison he made an escape attempt under pressure from lij Mammo Haile Mikael, an Itallian collaborator who was imprisoned in the compound of the Grand Palace with him. They were re-arrested and brought to justice. Belay was arrested and executed by hanging in Teklehaimanot Square in Addis Ababa along with his brother Ejigu and other rebels on 12 January 1945.
Dejazmach Belay Zeleke is remembered as a hero in Gojjam. In order to acquiesce the province, after Belay's hanging, the imperial government changed the taxation policy in Gojjam to the pre-war system. The major road and school in Addis Ababa are named after him: dejazmach Belay Zeleke Street and dejazmach Belay Zeleke Secondary School. There is also a Belay Zeleke road in Bahir Dar.