Emperor Haile Selassie
His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I led Ethiopia through the twentieth century, becoming the most iconic leader the country has ever known.
His story is rich and spans many years, but one episode in particular shows the drama, derring-do, and dedication to his country in which his life abounded.
In the 1930s, the new Italian regime under Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopia a second time, vowing to avenge the defeat at Adwa some forty years before.
Selassie mobilized the Ethiopian army and deployed his troops in the north to repel the invasion. In October 1935, Italy attacked in force from the north, advancing into Ethiopia from her colony in Eritrea.
Emperor Haile Selassie's defenders slowed the invasion and launched their own counterattack, the "Christmas Offensive," at the end of the year.
Eventually, though, the attack failed and the Italians pushed back with renewed vigor. His army retreating, Emperor Haile Selassie, who had been personally leading the campaign, left the northern front and made a solitary pilgrimage to the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela for fasting and prayer.
This pilgrimage was dangerous, as he could easily have been captured if he was discovered in Lalibela, but he completed it in safety and returned to Addis Ababa with a new sense of clarity and resolve.
He and his family and cabinet made the hard decision to go into exile as the Italians advanced on Addis. Emperor Haile Selassie traveled first to Jerusalem and then on to England, where he resided in the town of Bath from 1936 to 1941.
The Italians captured Addis Ababa and occupied Ethiopia during those years, their invasion a success in the short term. From Bath, Emperor Haile Selassie fought tirelessly to make Ethiopia's case to the international community.
In 1937, he planned to deliver a Christmas Day radio broadcast to the United States to thank Americans for their support for Ethiopia's cause.
On the way to the radio station, Emperor Haile Selassie's taxi got into a traffic accident. He fractured his knee during the collision. Heroically, the great leader continued on to the radio station and gave his address as planned, despite being in dreadful pain the whole time.
His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie suffered other personal tragedies during his years in exile. His daughter and two sons-in-law died at Italian hands and he also lost a daughter in childbirth. All was not for naught, however.
In 1941, the "Gideon Force," a joint army of Ethiopian and British forces, liberated Ethiopia from Italian rule. Emperor Haile Selassie returned to his homeland and resurrected the Ethiopian nation. He led the country for the next thirty years, ushering in a new era of prosperity and modernity.
Haile Selassie, the last emperor in the 3,000-year-old Ethiopian monarchy, who ruled for half a century before he was deposed by military coup died in a small apartment in his former palace. He was 83 years old.
His death was played down by the military rulers who succeeded him in Addis Ababa, who announced it in a normally scheduled radio newscast there at 7 A.M.
They said that he had been found dead in his bed by a servant, and that the cause of death was probably related to the effects of a prostate operation Haile Selassie underwent two months ago.
The broadcast said that the once-revered "Lion of Judah's" only surviving daughter, Princess Tenagne-Work, visited the former Emperor Tuesday at his request, after he had determined that his health was rapidly deteriorating.
But in London, Crown Prince Afsa Wossen Haile Selassie, who has been living abroad since the leftist government in Ethiopia formally declared an end to the monarchy last March, said his father had been in "excellent health."
In a written statement issued in London, it was said that "the Crown Prince demands that independent doctors and the International Red Cross be allowed to carry out an autopsy to ascertain the cause of death of Ethiopia's and Africa's father."
Official sources said that burial of the former Emperor would be "in the strictest privacy." According to Ethiopian custom, burial must take place within 24 hours after death.
As a symbol of regal power, His Imperial Majesty the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Haile Selassie I, Elect of God, Emperor of Ethiopia, had ruled his ancient realm as a medieval autocrat.
Seized in a military coup after almost a year of festering discontent with his regime, Haile Selassie, who was accustomed to Rolls-Royces, was hustled from his spacious palace to an army officer's bungalow in the back seat of a blue Volkswagen.
The final confrontation between the aged and frail Emperor and the young and robust army men was like a scene from a Verdi opera.
Haile Selassie scolded and insulted the officers as insolent, and they, with mounting ire, decided on the spot to take him to a military camp rather than to another palace.
And on the way, he was jeered by crowds yelling: "Thief! Thief!"
Haile Selassie's troubles began in 1973 with disquiet in the countryside and in the peasant-based army over Government attempts to hush up a drought that eventually took 100,000 lives in two northern provinces.
The unrest was compounded in February, 1974, when mutinies broke out in the military over low pay; and a secessionist guerrilla war in Eritrea complicated the Emperor's problems.
In the spring and summer, after riots in Addis Ababa, the capital, his absolute power was gradually circumscribed.
Ironically, Haile Selassie initiated the changes that led to his downfall--the military training program that exposed Ethiopian officers to representative institutions in the United States, and Haile Selassie I University, where students learned to think about political economy.
The Emperor, however, could not seem to adapt to new concepts, and he lost touch with his subjects in recent years, showing more affection for his pet cheetahs and dogs, diplomats said, than for his human entourage.
In the working out of Haile Selassie's cautious reforms, a thin layer of technocrats and intellectuals was created, a group that perceived the country far differently from the tradition-bound Emperor.
The reform process, moreover, created a dependency on the United States, which equipped the army and which drew Ethiopia into the periphery of superpower politics.
This came about because of the country's strategic position on the Red Sea. The Soviet Union, likewise alert to geopolitics, equipped the military forces of Somalia, which also lies on the Red Sea and abuts Ethiopia on the southeast.
For years the two countries quarreled over their border, adding to tensions inside both nations.
The combination of circumstances that led to Haile Selassie's downfall tended to obscure his accomplishments in leading a largely illiterate, rural and feudal country with 2,000 languages and dialects into the 19th, if not the 20th, century. And it also shadowed his contributions to African unity.
An African who met the Emperor at the United Nations Security Council session in Addis Ababa in 1972 summed up a widespread feeling when he said: "Haile Selassie is one of the world's great men.
He did a lot for his country and early became a respected voice for Africa and for the third world."
If the pace of change was snailish under the Emperor, it was deliberately so. "We must make progress slowly so as to preserve the progress we have already made," he said frequently of his reign, in which slavery was legally abolished and limited democratic structures instituted.
But he was also regarded as one who ruled too strictly by prerogative for the benefit of his family and friends. And at his ouster he was popularly accused as an exploiter who had secretly sent billions of dollars to private bank accounts abroad.
The drama of his departure from power and the intrigues that preceded it were kin to the events of his long life.
Coming to power in a palace coup and, later, discomfiting his enemies in battle, Haile Selassie was driven into exile by the troops of Fascist Italy after the civilized world had spurned his eloquent and poignant appeals for help.
Restored to his capital in World War II, he obtained for Ethiopia a coastline on the Red Sea, skillfully courted foreign economic aid, strove to improve education, squashed an attempted coup and, despite the anachronisms of his person and the archaicisms of his country, emerged as an elder statesman of African anticolonialism.
The prestige and power of Haile Selassie, waxing over more than a half century, made of him a personage larger than life. With a splendid sense of theater, he lived up to, and even surpassed, the role in which he was cast.
Once the Emperor was distributing gifts to men who served the Ethiopian cause in World War II. After he had finished, one man approached him and complained that he had been overlooked.
"You lie," Haile Selassie replied, calling the petitioner by name and citing the exact place, day and hour that he had been rewarded for obtaining a string of mules for the army.
The man flushed and trembled, for he had never suspected that the Emperor would remember, since scores of others had been honored at the same time. He started to inch away, but the Emperor summoned him back and tossed him a bundle of banknotes anyway.
Such magnificent and munificent gestures tended to obscure the fact that the Emperor looked emaciated, and was only 5 feet 4 inches tall. But he managed to convey an imposing presence and an air of cold command whether he was seated at his desk in military uniform with a blazing array of decorations across his chest; or whether he was standing, caped, on the rostrum of the League of Nations; or whether, seated bolt upright in his green or maroon Rolls-Royce, he was motoring through the dusty streets of Addis Ababa as his subjects lay prostrate while he passed.
What helped to make Haile Selassie so physically imposing was his bearded and dark- complexioned face, his aquiline nose over full lips and his steady, penetrating black eyes.
It was a mien both melancholy and fearsome, the visage of one who ruled by the precepts of John Stuart Mill as well as by those of Niccolo Machiavelli, by compassion as well as cruelty; for he could be generous to loyal subordinates, or he could hang the rebellious, or he could keep a rival imprisoned in golden chains.
The limit of his emotional expression was a sad smile, so enigmatic that his true feelings seemed deeply mysterious.
To many in the West, especially in the United States, Haile Selassie was a storied figure. He was the 225th Emperor of Ethiopia in a line that he traced to Menelik I, who was credited with being the child of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, identified in Ethiopia as Queen Makeda. (The constitution of 1955 specified Haile Selassie's direct descent from Menelik I.)
Unbending on protocol and punctilio, the Emperor, in his public appearances, recalled the splendor and opulence of Suleiman the Magnificent or Louis XIV, with the difference that he lived and worked in a modern atmosphere and journeyed abroad in a commandeered Ethiopian Airlines plane.
He once had three palaces; but after he transformed the Gueneteleul Palace into the Haile Selassie I University in 1960, he was reduced to a palace to live in--the Jubilee--and one to work in--the Ghibi.
Around the clock, he was guarded by lions and cheetahs, protected by Imperial Bodyguards, trailed by his pet papillon dogs, flanked by a multitude of chamberlains and flunkies and sustained by a tradition of reverence for his person.
He took seriously the doctrine of the divine right of kings, and he never allowed his subjects to forget that he considered himself the Elect of God. Indeed, he combined in his person the temporal sovereignty of the state and the leadership of the Ethiopian Orthodox church, the country's established church.
In moments of relaxation--and these were few, for he was an extraordinarily hard- working monarch--Haile Selassie displayed considerable charm.
He spoke softly (in halting English if necessary), and he had a mind well furnished with small talk derived from his daily scrutiny of the world press and from viewing films and newsreels. He also absorbed information from his extensive travels about the world.
His talk, though light, was not likely to be gay or mirth-providing or quotable. He referred to himself always with the imperial "we."
In his latter years he was a lonely man beneath the panoply of office. He had outlived his wife of 50 years, who died in 1962, and four of his six children.
He had, though, more than a dozen grandchildren and some great-grandchildren, with whom he liked to surround himself at dinner.
In African affairs, Haile Selassie's courage and his tenacity as a nationalist gave him a position of leadership among such anticolonialist statesmen as Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Sekou Toure of Guinea and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia.
Despite his autocratic rule, the Emperor represented independence from overt foreign domination as well as the artful acquisition of foreign economic aid.
It was Haile Selassie who convoked the first meeting of the Organization of African Unity in 1963 and devised the charter for the 38- nation bloc. Its headquarters are in Addis Ababa.
Moreover, at Haile Selassie's suggestion a United Nations Economic Commission for Africa was set up. Its secretariat is also in Addis Ababa, in a lavish $1.75-million building erected at the Emperor's bidding.
In Ethiopia, he was an object of veneration to the masses of people until his overthrow, but to the new urban elite the centralization of authority in his person and the tepidity of reform had been unpalatable for some time.
The two constitutions the Emperor granted, one in 1931 and the other in 1955, were both criticized because the Cabinet was responsible to Haile Selassie and because there was no provision for political parties.
Economic reform, especially changes in the age-old system of land tenure, was far too slow, critics said, with the result that the country's agriculture and animal husbandry--the mainstays of its economy--were operated on a primitive level.
Coffee, cereals and beans were the main cash crops; meat and animal products also contributed heavily to the Gross National Product. Manufacturing and power, on the other hand, accounted for only 3 per cent of the G.N.P.
Haile Selassie's kingdom was a wild and sprawling country of 455,000 spare miles (about the size of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma combined) and 26 million people (an accepted guess in the absence of any census).
There were a score of tribes, at least one so primitive that its men castrated their enemies to win favor with an intended bride.
There were many languages, but Amharic, the official tongue, was spoken in some degree by only 50 per cent of the people.
Although the state religion was a Monophysite Christianity, a substantial portion of the population, perhaps 40 per cent, was Moslem.
In addition, there were Animists and Judaists. The multiplicity of religions and customs accented Ethiopia's lack of homogeneity and its general backwardness, for it was a country without a developed highway or rail system and without organized health and social services.
The bulk of the people lived in mud and straw huts, even in Addis Ababa.
In the capital, the contrast between the old and the new was especially striking, for its few modern buildings cast their shadow on the far more numerous ancient structures that included, until a few years ago, the Imperial Brothel and the square in which public hangings were carried out.
Of the dominant Amhara tribe, Haile Selassie was born in Ejarsa Gora, in a mud and wattle house, on July 23, 1892. He was named Lij Tafari Makonnen and he was the only legitimate son of Ras Makonnen, Governor of Harar, to survive infancy.
The boy's father was a cousin and close ally of Emperor Menelik II, who was without a legitimate direct male heir. When Ras Makonnen died in 1906, his son, who already had a rudimentary education and spoke French, was summoned to the Court at Addis Ababa, where he was further schooled both in book learning and in the devious intrigues of Menelik's household.
Tafari was passed over on the death of Menelik II in 1913 in favor of the Emperor's grandson Lij Yasu, a handsome, dissolute and athletic young man.
Tafari, meantime, had married Lij Yasu's niece, Waizero Menen, after her divorce, and had attained practical experience in government as governor of a province.
Lij Yasu, who was never formally crowned, was converted to Islam and excommunicated by the Ethiopian church. And in the palace coup that followed, Tafari made himself the heir presumptive to the throne and Regent for Zauditu, a daughter of Menelik, who was proclaimed Empress.
Emerging as the strong man, Tafari got rid of the husband of the Empress, putting her under his control, and, capturing Lij Yasu, imprisoned him for the rest of the life.
The golden chains in which he was held were not so confining, however, as to prevent him from enjoying the variety of women with whom Tafari plied him.
With his other warlord enemies among the nobles Tafari was less indulgent. "He creeps like a mouse, but he has the jaws of a lion," one of them said.
By force of arms and executions he brought an end to the chaos that threatened to envelop Ethiopia and turned his country's eyes ever so slightly toward the outside world.
In 1923 Tafari had the kingdom accepted as a member of the League of Nations. He acted in the hope that league membership would exempt Ethiopia from the colonial ambitions of other countries.
In the following year Tafari, having bulwarked his power at home, undertook an extensive foreign tour. "We need European progress," he explained, "only because we are surrounded by it."
Everywhere he went in Europe, Tafari, with his six lions and four zebras and 30 attendants, created a lasting impression. His modern outlook won him friends; so did his assertions that Ethiopia required innovation and development.
One fruit of his trip was the Tafari Makonnen School, which he founded and staffed with European teachers. (Education was one of the chief interests of Tafari when he became Emperor, and he established primary and secondary schools throughout the country as well as the Haile Selassie I University.
image credit: wikipedia.org
Even so, at the end of his reign, only 500,000 school-age children of a potential 3.2 million were enrolled.)
Friction between the Empress and her Regent grew in the late nineteen-twenties. Believing in 1928 that she had the upper hand, the Empress attempted a coup, but she was thwarted by the cunning and alertness of Tafari, who forced her to crown him King of Ethiopia.
Two years later, after her mysterious death, Tafari was crowned Emperor and took the name of Haile Selassie, which means "Power of the Holy Trinity."
The coronation on Nov. 2, 1930, was an event of unparalleled sumptuousness in a city that, one observer said, "resembled a shanty town with wedding-cake trimmings."
There were only one or two buildings of more than one story, the rest being a tumbled mass of mud huts. Distinguished foreign delegations mingled with the city's 20,000 prostitutes.
Describing the coronation, Leonard Mosley wrote in his book, "Haile Selassie: The Conquering Lion":
"Shortly before dawn on the morning of Nov. 2, before the world press, the foreign guests and a great concourse of rases [nobles] in their lion's manes and most resplendent robes, Abuna Kyril [the Archbishop] anointed the head of Haile Selassie and placed on it the triple crown of Ethiopia. "Simultaneously, the rases put on their coronets, then made their obeisances to him, after which the celebratory shooting, shouting, loolooing, feasting, dancing and drinking broke out all over the city."
The Emperor's initial ventures into reform, in which he changed the status of his people from chattels of the nobles into subjects of the state, culminated in a constitution in 1931.
Although its limits on the royal prerogative were negligible, it was a step away from feudalism.
At the same time, administrative changes improved the civil service, and a tax system was introduced. Road-building and other public works were undertaken.
Moreover, several edicts against slavery were promulgated, if not enforced. Virtually total abolition was not accomplished until 1964.
In 1934 Benito Mussolini, the dictator of Fascist Italy, moved against Ethiopia in a border incident. His pretense, that of bringing civilization to a backward country, concealed Italian imperial ambitions for an African colony to supplement Italian Somaliland and Eritrea.
In the diplomatic footwork that followed the border clash, the Emperor referred the dispute to the League of Nations for mediation; but Britain and France gave Mussolini to understand that he could expect a free hand in Ethiopia.
"Could we not have called Musso's bluff and at least postponed this war?" Winston Churchill asked later. "The answer I'm sure is yes. We built Musso into a great power."
Deserted by Britain and France, Ethiopia fell to Italian arms shortly after the Fascist invasion began on Oct. 2, 1935.
By April, 1936, the conflict ("This isn't a war, it isn't even a slaughter," a British eyewitness said. "It's the torture of tens of thousands of men, women and children with bombs and poison gas") was over. On May 2 Haile Selassie went into exile.
The Emperor went first to Jerusalem to pray and then to Britain as a private guest. Still convinced that the League could be rallied to his cause, he appealed to it and its members not to recognize the Italian conquest.
Shamed, the League permitted him to state his case, and his appearance before the delegates assembled in Geneva on June 30, 1936, was a moment in history that few who witnessed it ever forgot.
Aloof, dignified, gazing in contempt at the Fascist journalists who shouted at him, and looking directly at the uneasy, shuffling delegates, he began his speech in Amharic by saying:
"I, Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia, am here today to claim that justice that is due to my people and the assistance promised to it eight months ago by 52 nations who asserted that an act of aggression had been committed in violation of international treaties."
After reciting the principal events of the war and his betrayal by the big powers, he continued:
"I assert that the issue before the Assembly today is not merely a question of the settlement in the matter of Italian aggression. It is a question of collective security; of the very existence of the League, of the trust placed by states in international treaties; of the value of promises made to small states that their integrity and independence shall be respected and assured. . . . "In a word, it is international morality that is at stake. . . . "Outside of the Kingdom of God, there is not on this earth any nation that is higher than any other. If a strong government finds that it can, with impunity, destroy a weak people, then the hour has struck for that weak people to appeal to the League of Nations to give its judgment in all freedom. God and history will remember your judgment. "Placed by the aggressor face to face with the accomplished fact, are states going to set up the terrible precedent of bowing before force? "I ask the great powers, who have promised the guarantee of collective security to small states--those small states over whom hangs the threat that they may one day suffer the fate of Ethiopia: What measures do they intend to take? . . . What answer am I to take back to my people?" As Haile Selassie concluded what was certainly his saddest (and greatest) hour and moved from the tribunal to a scatter of embarrassed applause, he murmured: "It is us today. It will be you tomorrow."
In practical terms the Emperor's speech was a magnificent but futile gesture, for one by one the powers recognized the Italian regime in East Africa.
Haile Selassie, meantime, went to live as an unwanted guest in Bath, England; he was so broke that the local bookshop stopped his credit.
From this seedy oblivion the Emperor was rescued on May 10, 1940, when Italy entered World War II as an enemy of Britain. Churchill, long a friend, had him flown incognito, as Mr. Strong, to Africa.
Landing at Alexandria, he spent the night in the men's room of the Italian Yacht Club before going on to Khartoum in the Sudan. There he helped to organize an army of liberation with the aid of Orde Wingate, one of the most picturesque British officers in the war.
The result of these exertions was that Haile Selassie returned to his country on Jan. 20, 1941, and made his state entry into Addis Ababa on May 5 in the back of an Alfa Romeo motor car.
It was five years to the day since the Italians had entered the city. The country remained under British administration, however, until Jan. 31, 1942, when London recognized Ethiopia as a sovereign state.
In the years that followed the restoration, Haile Selassie enhanced his personal power while acting slowly to solve the country's grave economic and social problems.
Some advance in education was also made, for 200 school buildings were put up between 1942 and 1952. In this period, too, a new force was reaching manhood in the kingdom--the educated elite whose travels and schooling abroad made them restive over their nation's introversions.
Partly as the result of pressure from this group and partly because of the rising tide of anticolonialism in Africa, Haile Selassie granted a new constitution in 1955.
It promised his subjects equal rights under the law, plus a vote; but it also retained his traditional prerogatives.
One clause read:
"By virtue of His Imperial Blood as well as by the anointing which He has received, the person of the Emperor is sacred. His dignity is inviolable and His Power indisputable. He is, consequently, entitled to all the honors due Him in accordance with tradition and the present Constitution. Anyone so bold as to seek to injure the Emperor will be punished."
The surface placidity of Ethiopia was shattered in 1960, when Haile Selassie was absent on a state trip to Brazil.
The Imperial Bodyguard mutinied and some members of the royal family, including Crown Prince Asfa Wossen, joined an attempt to dethrone the Emperor and promote faster social and economic progress.
The Emperor returnedto Addis Ababa, crushed the revolt and had the commander of the bodyguard publicly hanged for treason. The Crown Prince was put out of favor, from which he finally emerged, but slowly.
The attempted coup led the Emperor to try to communicate more directly with his subjects in radio talks and to indicated what he was doing for them in his paternal fashion.
One such advance was foreign aid. In the final years of his reign he contrived to obtain help from diverse sources without creating crosscurrents among the donors.
Italy and Yugoslavia build dams for him; the Addis Ababa airport was constructed by the United States; the Soviet Union put up a polytechnic institute on the shores of Lake Tana, source of the Blue Nile.
The Emperor much enjoyed state visits--to Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia, to Queen Elizabeth II of Britain, to the United States, where he was the guest of the last five Presidents before Gerald R. Ford.
In all, he traveled to more than 60 countries, including China, where he was received in 1971 by Mao Tse-tung.
By Alden Whitman