Thursday, August 23, 2012
Monarch Profile: Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia
In 1906 his father died and in that year Ras Tafari (“Ras” being a title of leadership) became governor of the minor province of Selale. Around 1910 he was given the more prestigious governorship of Harar after the previous overseer proved incompetent. In 1911 he married Menen Asfaw of Ambassel, niece of the heir to the throne Lij Iyasu, later Emperor Iyasu V. During World War I the Emperor, who had long had a difficult relationship with the local chieftains, did something dramatic which opened a way to national power for Ras Tafari. The Emperor converted to Islam and made an alliance with the renegade Somali leader Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd Allah Assan (aka the “Mad Mullah”) who had been waging a guerilla war against the British and Italians on the coast. He was supported by the Turks and Iyasu V also hoped for such an alliance and offered to place Ethiopia under the spiritual authority of the Ottoman Sultan who was also the Caliph of Islam. The Coptic clerics declared him excommunicated for this and his throne forfeit and many believed he had gone insane. However, it is more probable that this was not entirely genuine but an effort to unite the Somalis and the Muslim Galla tribes of eastern Ethiopia in crushing the power of the nobles, solidly unifying the country under his control and driving out the European elements on the coast to dominate East Africa with the help of Turkish forces in southern Arabia and German troops in what is now Tanzania.
After World War I, Ras Tafari traveled extensively across Europe and the Middle East as his position in Ethiopia was relatively weak. He lacked funds and other chieftains had more powerful forces than his own. However, he worked to remedy this by making many agreements with European powers to develop his country, equip at least his own troops with the latest weaponry and put Ethiopia on the international stage. Initially Italy supported him in this and was the sponsor for Ethiopia entering the League of Nations in 1923 which was allowed after Ras Tafari promised to end slavery in his country. However, this was something virtually every emperor had promised to do, going back to the nineteenth century but without effect, mostly because power remained in the hands of the local chieftains who had no desire to get rid of the practice. Ras Tafari, however, was determined to change all that by centralizing power. But, he did not yet have that power and a civil war broke out in the northern province of Tigre as the nobles rebelled against the program of modernization and centralization Ras Tafari was implementing. Those opposed to the new order took the side of Empress Zauditu but refused to submit to Ras Tafari. This civil war, effectively between Ras Tafari and his Empress, went on for many years but Ras Tafari had the better organized and better-armed forces and by 1928 he was victorious and the Empress was forced to crown him King, cementing his place as her successor though effectively it meant that Ethiopia had two monarchs; one held the nominal position of Empress but her nominal vassal the King held the real power.
Tensions came to a head after a clash at a small oasis called Walwal in 1934. The following year, after a build-up of forces, Mussolini ordered the invasion of Ethiopia and Emperor Haile Selassie ordered all able-bodied men and boys to mobilize to defend their country. The initial Italian advance was successful but slow and the Emperor hoped that he could amass overwhelming numbers to defeat the Italians. However, his great “Christmas Offensive”, while it succeeded in putting the Italians on the defensive, did not destroy them. Fascist amateurs were replaced by Royal Army professionals and the Italians renewed their attack with greater speed and success. Native forces in the Italian colonial contingents, particularly the Somali Muslims, were eager for revenge and fought with great tenacity while many Christian natives in the Italian colonial units abandoned them to fight for Ethiopia. However, this was not a religious conflict. One of the most effective commanders on the Ethiopian side was a Turkish general who was anxious to fight Europeans wherever he found them. Ultimately, the weapons, tactics and discipline of the Italians proved decisive and within seven months the Ethiopian armies were destroyed and the country brought entirely under Italian control.
This was the high point in the reign of Haile Selassie who was never so revered by his own people and so widely respected around the world. The following year he ordered the abolition of slavery and after World War II, in the re-drawing of the map by the Allies, Ethiopia was awarded the Ogaden region (which had been claimed by Somalia) as well as Eritrea as an autonomous protectorate. Still, the local nobility blocked some of his efforts such as forcing the Emperor to enact a flat tax rather than the progressive tax system he preferred. Efforts to increase taxation on the nobility were usually passed on to the peasantry. Nonetheless, modernization efforts went forward as the Emperor was at the height of his personal prestige. Through his efforts the Ethiopian Orthodox Church gained independence from the Patriarch of Egypt, clerics were made subject to secular law for the first time and Church properties were subject to taxation like all others. The Emperor remained a firm believer in collective security (though he had certainly had ample reason to give up on the idea) and sent a battalion of Ethiopian troops to fight in the Korean War.
None of this, however, dampened his desire for African unity and in 1963 the revered Emperor oversaw the creation of the Organization for African Unity (later the African Union) and he was the first to propose all of the peoples of the continent coming together to create a “United States of Africa”. As the leader of the oldest, continuously independent African state, and one which had shaken off European rule, there was certainly no better qualified candidate to make such a case. The Emperor also remained a prominent figure on the international stage and in 1963 addressed the United Nations General Assembly, calling to mind his earlier appeal to the League of Nations and he spoke of the UN as “the best, perhaps the last, hope for the peaceful survival of mankind”. Admired all around the world, Emperor Haile Selassie continued to have trouble at home though. In 1966 he finally obtained the progressive tax he had long sought but the enforcement of it was discontinued when it sparked a rebellion in Gojjam province. Communism also began to increasingly spread its poison web of unrest and disloyalty to everything Ethiopia was based on, primarily the monarchy and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Those who believed the propaganda that abolishing the monarchy and deposing the Emperor would bring prosperity to Ethiopia learned the hard way how they had been deceived. A brutal communist dictatorship was established which presided over a period of intense poverty, starvation and oppression for decades afterward. Decades later the communist regime did finally come down but overall there has still been relatively little improvement. The same social democratic coalition party has held power ever since that time. A costly war with Eritrea further weakened the economy and international observers have often dismissed the elections as blatantly fraudulent. These are often violent affairs and those who oppose the government are frequently arrested. Few countries have suffered so much from the loss of their monarchy as Ethiopia has.