Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Ethiopian Mistake

It was on September 12, 1974 that the last Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, was overthrown in a Soviet-backed military coup that brought his more than fifty-year reign to an end. Not surprisingly, given the Bolshevik way of doing things in any country, the former Emperor was soon dead, probably murdered by the new government (they had already carried out a massacre of top imperial officials as soon as they took power). How could such a thing have happened? It comes down, as with many such events, to a combination of mistakes on the part of the self-made monarch and outside events that were totally beyond his control. No matter what policies the emperor enacted, for example, there was nothing he could do about the oil crisis or the treason of disloyal officers. Yet, looking over his reign, it can often seem that Haile Selassie, with the best of intentions, made every mistake that European monarchies made over a span of centuries over a span of just a few decades or even a few years. This includes taking power from and so incurring the resentment of the nobility and clergy at home as well as adopting an ambivalent foreign policy that left him with few real friends but many bitter enemies. The lesson should be learned as to what went wrong but the lesson is also even more clear and obvious that the real Ethiopian mistake was not anything the emperor did but was rather his removal.

One of the most baffling things that characterize the post-World War II reign of Haile Selassie (who was placed back on his throne by the allied British, French, Belgian and Ethiopian troops who drove out the Italians and their native forces) was his commitment to the idea of “collective security” and his unbounded admiration for the United Nations. One would think that, of any national leader in the world, Haile Selassie would be the last one to put his faith in collective security which had failed to prevent his country from being conquered by the Italians in 1936. Nonetheless, he had nothing but glowing remarks for the UN, the same organization which gave a security council seat to the country (USSR) that would ultimately bring about his downfall. A major problem with this, as would become only too clear later, is that the UN care nothing for legitimacy. An example of this was when the security council seat originally held by the Republic of China was handed over to Communist China. However, the same could be said for the international community as a whole, at least since World War I (the Paris peace conference was certainly no Congress of Vienna). The emperor might have recalled that the international community had eventually recognized the Italian conquest of Ethiopia and Haile Selassie was restored, not because of legitimacy, but because Italy was a member of the Axis and the Allies were the side that won.

Moving on, traditionally, in most countries, the twin pillars of support for monarchy have been the aristocracy and religious institutions. Haile Selassie had long had a contentious relationship with the Ethiopian aristocracy over his efforts, throughout his reign, to centralize power. There were, of course, reasons for this. Battles between feuding nobles had long troubled Ethiopia. This was partly how Haile Selassie himself had come to power, leading a rebellion of nobles in deposing the emperor in 1916, after which he was able to consolidate power further and ultimately the empress handed power over to him. Haile Selassie wanted to end all of that and was likely concerned that internal strife could be taken advantage of by foreign powers with designs on the country. As far as the Ethiopian Church was concerned, although they always remained largely supportive of the monarchy, tensions were certainly raised when the emperor made Church lands subject to taxation and claimed the right of the government to judge clerics whereas previously a cleric could only be judged by a church court. They, however, could be dealt with, but the nobles remained problematic, especially when they offered staunch opposition to his effort to enact progressive taxation in Ethiopia.

On the international front, Haile Selassie was an outspoken critic of European colonialism and supported anti-colonial movements across Africa. Again, this is not surprising but it also meant that the emperor sacrificed the support of the very foreign countries which had restored him to his throne; namely Britain, France and Belgium. This policy also failed to take into account the fact that in almost all of these anti-colonial movements the rebel factions were supported by either the Soviet Union or the United States, neither of which had a favorable view of monarchy in general. As these anti-colonial movements gained strength so did the influence of the Soviet Union on the continent of Africa. All of this was, of course, an outgrowth of the Cold War and Haile Selassie was determined to have nothing to do with that conflict. Most monarchies in the world took the side of the United States which, while certainly never pro-monarchy, was nowhere near as stridently anti-monarchy as the forces of international communism. By placing himself solidly in the non-aligned group, the emperor could expect little assistance from the United States but it in no way moved the Soviet Union to see him as anything other than an “enemy of the people”. His denunciation of the war against communism in Vietnam won him praise from the anti-war movement but, again, did not make the Soviet Union view him as anything less than an enemy of their entire world view.

It did not take long for the poison of communism to begin to take root in Ethiopia and when natural disasters, the oil crisis or famines caused immense suffering in Ethiopia the communists were quick to seize on each crisis as an excuse for turning people against the emperor even though, obviously, all of these things were quite beyond his control. The Soviet Union made Ethiopia something of a priority and turned out massive amounts of propaganda in an effort to turn the Ethiopian people against their monarch. This was the same country that had, in World War II, been allied with Haile Selassie and which had awarded him the military Order of Suvarov in 1959 (just as they gave King Michael I of Romania the Order of Victory shortly before deposing him). Realizing too late the danger of communist infiltration and communist subversion, the emperor tried to move against them but this, as usual, was seized upon by the communists and their fellow travelers as “proof” of what a harsh, reactionary autocrat the emperor was. Mutiny broke out in the army, led by leftist officers of course, and the emperor tried to placate them with land grants and higher salaries but, as usual, this did not work. Any effort to negotiate with communists goes the same way; you give them what they demand and they promptly demand more. In 1974 a small clique of army officers seized power and arrested the emperor, deposing him and, the following year, announced his death.

This military clique, known as the Derg, took absolute control of the country and was, of course, backed the whole time by the Soviet Union and their masters in Moscow. The emperor had certainly made mistakes which hurt his cause, however, he certainly cannot be held responsible for the treason of others and the issues they seized on in order to take power were almost invariably due to things far beyond the ability of the emperor to control (unless one assumes the King of kings should be able to control the weather or global oil prices). The mistakes he made shrink in insignificance compared to the mistake of his overthrow and the dismantling of the monarchy which was the only government Ethiopia had ever known in its entire, ancient history. Why was this so? A simple look at the subsequent history of the country proves it beyond all doubt. How did Ethiopia fare without a monarch? Well, there was one coup after another in this communist dictatorship that couldn’t even manage to agree on a single dictator. There were numerous rebellions, all of them bloodily suppressed, there was drought, famine, massive starvation and soon Ethiopians were fleeing their homeland in record numbers. Part of the country was even conquered by the Somalis and the Somali incursion was only beaten back with massive assistance from the rest of the communist bloc. I do not wish to sound too offensive here but, when you need the help of the Soviet Union, East Germany, North Korea and Cuba to defeat a country like Somalia -you are not doing very well.

The man in charge of all of this, the man who had taken the place of Emperor Haile Selassie, was Mengistu Haile Mariam. Remember that name. What Stalin was to Russia, what Choibalsan was to Mongolia, what Mao was to China, Mengistu was to Ethiopia. He instituted a reign of terror in Ethiopia on a scale that made even the French revolutionaries look like slackers. Hundreds of thousands of people were massacred, hundreds of thousands were arrested and tortured and hundreds of thousands more were starved to death. All told, even by conservative estimates, Mengistu caused the deaths of more than two million of his fellow Ethiopians. Some believe he may have killed his former emperor personally and given what a vicious, hateful man he is, it is not beyond the realm of possibility. The Ethiopian people experienced a level of suffering under his rule that none of them had ever known before. No emperor, nor even any foreign conqueror, was so brutal and barbaric toward the Ethiopian people as Mengistu was. He intentionally murdered people by slow starvation and if there was one constant throughout his decades in power it was probably widespread starvation, some of it purposely inflicted and much of it the result of his idiotic, Marxist policies. He remains one of the most despicable villains in African history.

Now, most histories will tell you that the nightmare of Mengistu and his communist tyranny ended in 1991. Do not be fooled. The nightmare has not ended and will not until traditional government, the monarchy, is restored to Ethiopia. As the Soviet Union began to fold, the primary source of aid to Mengistu dried up and his regime was toppled. He fled to Zimbabwe and the open arms of his friend and fellow tyrant Robert Mugabe where he remains to this day, despite being indicted by an Ethiopian court for genocide. However, the party that replaced Mengistu was the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a democratic socialist party. In other words, communism for slow learners. Unfortunately, this is not unique to Ethiopia as we have seen the same all over the world. When communist regimes fall, the party renames itself the social democrats or democratic socialists and continues on just as they did before. They took power and held on to it, giving the world some show-elections just to make everyone happy while continuing on the tradition of corruption, wars and poverty that characterized the preceding regime. It is still a country of starvation and repression with a government that continues to denigrate the monarchy that went before it.

None of these facts are in dispute. The important thing to remember is this; Emperor Haile Selassie may have made some mistakes that hurt his own cause. His overthrow (and probable murder) was a mistake that hurt every last Ethiopian man, woman and child in the entire country, and many in surrounding countries for that matter. The loss of the monarchy brought about a nightmarish era of murder, starvation and misery. Since 1991 things have improved somewhat but actually quite little. There is still no real freedom, no prosperity and no true connection with the ancient history of Ethiopia which can only happen when the monarchy is restored and sacred, traditional authority resumes its rightful place.


  1. There are similarities with the Pahlavi Shahs of Iran whose drive to modernisation also put them at odds with important sectors of society. Reza Shah effectively dismantled the centuries-old system of allowing local princes and chieftains govern their regions. Today, however, the IRI regime fiercely persecutes ethnic and religious minorities.

    It is worth noting that France remains quite actively involved in the affairs of her former colonies, whereas Britain today doesn't seem to think as much of it even with the Commonwealth. What vision Haile Selassie may have had for Africa has never been realised.

  2. There are many good points in the article, I think there that the lack of research into His Imperial Majesties Life and further studies would reveal even more to you, namely His Auto Biography. I think that the essence of the article wasnt to really study the overall works of the Emperor but to make the bigger point that Ethiopia has paid a bitter price by forsaking the Root of David. This was made, as well as the hidden players. Many have written large books of His Imperial Majesty and it would be difficult to be fair unless one looks at the mass improvements He made for Ethiopia, Africa and the World. Namely, the 13th founding member of the UN, He help create it as well as co wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He is unparalleled in human history. There is a great book called, " The Lion of Judah in the New World" that is solely about his influence in the American Civil Rights Movement. Yes, we could write for days.....even years about His Contributions.

    1. Crediting him with helping found the United Nations is not something that would impress someone like me. It shelters some of the worst violators of "human rights" in the history of the world.

  3. Sorry to grave dig, but I just found this page.
    I'm not a monarchist, but I understand why some people need a figurehead to personify their nation's identity as well as serve as a focus for their nation's efforts. Nations like the United States and France, whose tradition is based upon the repudiation of monarchy, should not implement one. But nations like England and Japan, whose tradition is based upon the embrace of monarchy, should not abandon theirs.
    And no nation in the world that's monarchy has been abolished should be restored more than Ethiopia's. A restored emperor (or empress), standing as a beacon to guide the nation's efforts to rebuild itself. Not just in Ethiopia, but all of Black Africa.
    So how do we do it?

    1. It starts with a more inclusive cultural identity. The House of Solomon needed to place more emphasis on building bridges to the various ethnicities of Ethiopia, mainly the Amharic and Oromo people and unify them under a single cultural identity that was inclusive of their identities. The nobles should have then outlayed a plan of conversion to a constitutional monarchy which would have ceded direct control to a democratically elected government while still retaining the moral authority to direct developmental and social progress and the overall direction of political discourse. They would remain as the keepers of the nation's cultural identity and history and be a point of pride of the country's past, much like the Zulu Kings are for South Africa.

      Even Xhosa people take pride in the accomplishments of the Zulu kingdom at Islandwana. The Ethiopian monarch Menelik achieved an even greater victory in not only defeating Italy in battle, but effectively driving them from the country completely prior to the second Italian invasion that came later.


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