Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia and architect of modern Africa

The last Emperor of the 3,000-year-old Ethiopian monarchy was an accomplished politician for the modern age, as well as being revered as a living god, writes Nige Tassell…

Haile Selassie in the 1970s © Getty Images

Armed with a thick wad of papers, a diminutive, middle-aged man from East Africa slowly approached the podium at the General Assembly of the League Of Nations in Geneva on 20 June 1936. His gait was both measured and defiant, the poise of a man with a purpose. He was the Emperor of Ethiopia and his name was Haile Selassie.

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The Emperor had travelled to Switzerland to test the League Of Nations’ solidarity. As the leader of one of the few African countries not under colonial rule, Selassie was there to request assistance in defeating a violent aggressor.

In October 1935, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had ordered the invasion and occupation of Ethiopia as part of his grand design to create a latter-day Roman Empire in the Horn of Africa. The Ethiopian army couldn’t withstand the might of the Italian forces, whose use of air power and chemical weapons overwhelmed them. Selassie – the man known as the Lion of Judah to his subjects – was pushed into exile.

As he stepped forward to the microphone, a noisy disturbance broke out in the chamber as unsympathetic quarters voiced their disapproval. But Selassie didn’t falter. He offered a considered and reasoned appraisal of why the League had to unite against Mussolini and his expansionist actions.

To Selassie’s eyes, the League’s 50-plus member states had, eight months previously, promised assistance. But none had come. “What answer shall I take back to my people?” he asked the congregation of ministers and statesmen, before making a chillingly prophetic declaration. “It is us today. It will be you tomorrow.”

Despite Ethiopia having been a member of the League since 1923, Selassie received sympathetic applause and little else. Instead, the League actually decided to lift the sanctions imposed on Italy.

But, while he failed to mobilise the Western world against Mussolini, Selassie’s appearance in Geneva did make him known worldwide. Named as TIME magazine’s Man Of The Year, he would become one of the 20th century’s most recognisable African leaders and a man still revered – even, worshipped – in certain parts of the world today.

Birth rights

Selassie had been Ethiopia’s sovereign for half a decade when Italy launched its invasion. Born in a mud-and-wattle hut in 1892, his birthplace belied his genealogy and pedigree. His given name was Tafari Makonnen Woldemikael and he was a member of the Solomonic dynasty descended from King Solomon of Israel.

He married the niece of the heir to the throne and, after notable depositions, by 1916 Tafari Makonnen had worked his way up to the position of Crown Prince. Appealing to both traditional and modern quarters in high-ranking Ethiopian society, he was now heir to the throne. On the death of Empress Zewditu in 1930, Tafari became Emperor, taking the name Haile Selassie.

In rising to power, Selassie had shown his political agility when outflanking his opponents. He was undeniably ruthless, too – a characteristic that his short, wiry frame seemed to disguise. One political enemy described him thus: “He creeps like a mouse, but has the jaws of a lion.” Operating many years before the phrase came into circulation, here was a fighter who very much punched above his weight.

The 225th Emperor in a lineage stretching back three millennia, Selassie was its most worldly. As Crown Prince, in 1923, he had signed Ethiopia up to membership of the newly formed League Of Nations.

His thinking behind the decision was clear-eyed and pragmatic: “We need European progress only because we are surrounded by it.” Where his many imperial forebears had stayed insular, Selassie was a true internationalist, one confirmed by his later adoption of the ideals of pan-Africanism.

While still a believer in the divine right of kings, Selassie attempted to reduce the iniquities in Ethiopian society that were highly conspicuous in the early years of his rule. The capital, Addis Ababa, was described, in the year of his coronation, as resembling “A shanty town with wedding-cake trimmings” – the trappings of the monarchy were very much at odds with everyday existence on the streets of the capital.

In 1931, he introduced the country’s first written constitution, before embarking on a programme to establish schools across the country. Ethiopia had taken its first steps on the road to modernity when Mussolini’s troops landed in the autumn of 1935.

Churchill and Mr Strong

Forced into exile as the Italians approached Addis Ababa the following spring, Selassie travelled to Britain, initially staying in London and Worthing before spending four years in Bath. By 1940, though, Mussolini’s grand ambitions in East Africa had been thwarted.

When the Italians attacked British Somaliland, a devastating counter-offensive pushed them back. Ethiopia was now under British control and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill authorised Selassie’s return to Africa, flying the Emperor to Egypt incognito, under the pseudonym of Mr Strong.

Selassie arrived back in Addis Ababa on 5 May 1941, in the back of an Alfa Romeo, exactly five years to the day since the Italians had entered the capital. There, he received a cable from Churchill: “It is with deep pleasure that the British nation and Empire have learned of Your Imperial Majesty’s welcome home. Your Majesty was the first of the lawful sovereigns to be driven from his throne and country by the Fascist-Nazi criminals, and you are the first to return in triumph.”

Ethiopia remained under British administration for a few months, before having its sovereignty returned the following January. Back on the throne, Selassie wasted no time in continuing Ethiopia’s – albeit slow – march towards modernity.

In 1942, he abolished any legal basis for slavery, making several slave-related offences punishable by death. At the end of World War II, he continued his commitment to collective security – despite the disappointment of Geneva in 1936 – by signing his country up to the new United Nations. He even sent troops to aid the United Nations Command in the Korean War (1950-53).

Selassie continued to advance Ethiopia domestically too. In 1955, a second constitution extended voting rights to every citizen, making the Ethiopian parliament’s lower house an elected chamber. However, the Emperor’s critics would suggest these were piecemeal reforms that actually solidified the status quo while offering the veneer of progress.

After all, the wording of the constitution itself reiterated that “The person of the Emperor is sacred. His dignity is inviolable and His Power indisputable.”

In 1963, Selassie helped found the Organisation of African Unity, drawing up its charter and successfully persuading 31 other independent African nations to join. The political agility that had originally brought him to power seemingly knew no bounds; at the very height of the Cold War, he was even able to secure foreign aid from both the US and the USSR.

Religious Idol

Despite being the subject of a failed coup in 1960 while in Brazil, Selassie continued his state visits. In 1966, he made his most symbolic overseas appearance since his appeal to the League Of Nations 30 years before when he visited Jamaica.

In 1916, the Jamaican black nationalist activist Marcus Garvey had instructed his followers to “look to Africa for the crowning of a black king. He shall be the redeemer.” So, when Selassie ascended the Ethiopian throne in 1930, to many Jamaicans, he was the redeemer Garvey had spoken of, the black messiah. A new religion that took its name from Selassie’s birth name – Rastafarianism – was born.

Even so, as his plane landed at Palisadoes Airport in Kingston on 21 April 1966, Selassie couldn’t have been prepared for the scenes. The island’s Rastafarians – instantly recognisable for their dreadlocks and unkempt beards, in marked sartorial contrast to Selassie’s full military garb – had convened in their tens of thousands. “They broke police lines and swarmed around the Emperor’s DC-6,” reported a correspondent from LIFE magazine.

“They kept touching his plane, yelling ‘God is here!’… But Selassie seemed to love the attention these strange, wild-eyed, lawless and feared Jamaicans gave him.”

On the wane

As symbolic as the trip had been, back in Ethiopia Selassie’s star was on the wane. Having encouraged the education of his subjects, often at schools and universities overseas, the Emperor was now open to criticism from these same citizens who could measure the slow speed of social and economic progress in their homeland. And, now well into his 70s, Selassie’s sharp political brain was losing its edge.

A famine between 1972 and 1974, with estimated losses of life into the hundreds of thousands, gravely damaged Selassie’s popularity and destabilised his regime. In February 1974, Addis Ababa saw four days of rioting, followed by an extended general strike the following month.

Members of the military were among the most angry. Voicing their dissent about low pay – and not placated by Selassie’s promises of a 33 per cent rise in salaries – they deposed the Emperor in September 1974, placing him under house arrest.

The intention was to put Selassie’s son, Crown Prince Asfaw Wossen, who was out of the country at the time of the deposition, on the throne. However, when the Prince condemned the events of Bloody Saturday – which saw 60 high-ranking Selassie loyalists executed – the interim military administration, known as the Derg, renounced his right to succession. The Derg remained in power, ending 3,000 years of monarchical rule.

On 27 August 1975, at the age of 83, Haile Selassie died. The official reason given was respiratory failure after a prostate operation. His supporters, though, continue to believe he was murdered by the Derg.

In 1992, after the fall of the Derg, Selassie’s bones were discovered under concrete in the grounds of his palace. Some reports even suggested he had been buried beneath a latrine. If true, it was an inauspicious, ungracious end to the life of one of the chief architects of modern Africa.

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This content first appeared in the April 2016 issue of History Revealed