Thursday, August 23, 2012

Monarch Profile: Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia

The last Emperor of Ethiopia was born Lij Tafari Makonnen on July 23, 1892 in Ejersa Goro, Ethiopia to Ras Makonnen Woldemikael Gudessa and Weyziro Yeshimebet Ali Abajifar. His father was the governor of Harar province and he was related to the royal line through his maternal grandmother through whom he would base his future claim to the throne. At the time of his birth Ethiopia was still only a loosely organized collection of tribal states ruled by local feudal chieftains with the “King of Kings” holding the supreme place of honor more than anything else. At the time of his birth the “King of Kings” or Emperor was Menelik II who himself had taken the throne against the wishes of the previous emperor who had named one of his many “natural” sons as his heir. For the most part, power resided amongst the powerful chieftains and influential clerics of the country with some emperors having more direct control than others depending on how well they were able to suppress their enemies or win the allegiance of those on the ground. At the time of his birth there was no thought of Lij Tafari ever ascending the throne but his father, Ras Makonnen, was an important man and a major figure in the First Italo-Abyssinian War who played a key role in the crucial victory over the Italian colonial army at Adowa.

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.

Whatever his true motives, it was an opportunity for Ras Tafari who led a powerful coalition of local rases to topple the emperor in September of 1916. However, the whole coup was not well organized and turned into a bloody mess with the deposed emperor escaping to join his allies and civil war broke out. In a move that was to have long-lasting consequences, during the ensuing chaos Ras Tafari took his personal army to Harar and massacred most of the Muslim population, which included many Somalis, as all were seen as actual or potential supporters of the deposed Iyasu V. Although not realized at the time, the bitterness and resentment this created would come back to haunt Ras Tafari in the future. In the end, the Christian chieftains were victorious but, at the age of 25, Ras Tafari was considered too young to take the throne himself and so the daughter of Emperor Menelik II, Zauditu, was proclaimed Empress with Ras Tafari as her ‘heir apparent’ and regent. Although they held nominal power in the capital, the chieftains held actual control in the provinces but in this Ras Tafari was ahead of most. He was ambitious, forward-thinking and determined to modernize as his father before him had been.

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.

There was one further rebellion by the consort of the Empress and other allied nobles but these were crushed in 1930 and immediately thereafter the Empress died. So it was that on November 2, 1930 Ras Tafari was crowned Haile Selassie I (“Holy Trinity”) the “Elect of God, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah and King of Kings of Ethiopia”. The coronation was an extremely lavish affair, attended by dignitaries from around the world and the following year Emperor Haile Selassie put his modernizing attitudes into effect with the first written constitution in Ethiopian history, establishing the framework for democracy but initially putting power directly in the hands of the Emperor. Haile Selassie also limited the succession to his own descendants, which angered many of the other princes of the previous imperial lines but these were easily controlled. In 1932 the Kingdom of Jimma was easily occupied and annexed to Ethiopia and the country was developing rapidly. Military experts were brought in from various countries to train and modernize the Ethiopian army, starting with the Imperial Guard. Many foreign countries participated but the Emperor made a point of excluding Italy, wishing to keep them at a distance.

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.

Emperor Haile Selassie left for Djibouti (a French colony) and was given transport by the British to Jerusalem. After visiting the Holy places, Haile Selassie went to Europe where he made his famous appeal to the League of Nations at Geneva. He spoke in his native tongue, reprimanding the League for their failure to take aggressive action against Italy and calling upon the principle of collective security to protect the underdeveloped nations of the world, arguing that without such international military action, treaties were meaningless. Although he was a defeated and deposed monarch, with that speech, Haile Selassie I became world famous and a living symbol of all who opposed Fascism. His speech and his example were invoked by many in the future to counter those who argued against going to war. The Emperor himself settled into a comfortable life of exile in England though he always considered it a temporary relocation and he was justified by events in doing so. Although his appeals for action by the League of Nations continued to be ignored, after the outbreak of World War II, Italian East Africa was invaded by the Allies and Emperor Haile Selassie issued an appeal calling upon the Ethiopians to rise up and fight. British Imperial forces, Free French troops and forces from the Belgian Congo along with Ethiopian irregulars played a part in defeating the cut-off Italian forces and on May 5, 1941 Emperor Haile Selassie I returned in triumph to his palace in Addis Ababa after five years of exile.

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.

In 1955, as part of the festivities surrounding his Silver Jubilee, constitutional amendments were passed which increased democracy while still upholding the “indisputable power of the monarch”. Funds from the United Nations poured into the country and new schools were established, making education more widely available and greatly improving the infrastructure of the country. In the aftermath of World War II, Emperor Haile Selassie also became a vocal champion of African unity and a leading figure and powerful symbol of the anti-colonial movement in Africa. However, many of these anti-colonial groups were or contained communist factions and in the modernization of the country, revolutionary ideas began to spread amongst the student population and many educators. In 1960 this led to an attempted coup by the Imperial Guard which was not supported by the people and was relatively easily suppressed. To keep the military and police firmly on side a land reform act was passed which granted property to these groups. The anti-colonial movement also had an effect on Ethiopia itself which in 1961 saw the beginning of the decades long guerilla war for the independence of Eritrea. The Emperor responded to the outbreak of violence by closing down the Eritrean government and formally annexing the region to Ethiopia in 1962.

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.

Communist infiltration and communist subversion grew in the following decades, preventing the Emperor from enacting all the changes he wished and forcing him to suppress radical leftist groups. His opposition to these far-left ideas which were becoming increasingly popular around the world and the actions taken to suppress agitators, began to erode the widespread popularity of the Emperor. Much of domestic policy was left in the hands of the prime minister while the Emperor, always a man of “big ideas” focused on “big picture” issues but the insidious influence of the traitors continued to spread. Discontent was greatly aggravated by a devastating famine in the north of the country that cost tens of thousands of lives. Foreign aid poured in but corrupt local officials often prevented it from reaching those most in need and the Soviet Union itself began to spread slanderous propaganda about the Emperor, eager to make a communist Ethiopia one of their puppet regimes in Africa. The 1973 oil crisis also hit Ethiopia hard and the communists were always reliable in portraying the Emperor as the cause of every misfortune in the country. Finally, in February of 1974, revolution broke out with much of the army turning against the monarchy. No amount of concessions from the Emperor were able to pacify the revolutionary frenzy and on September 12, Emperor Haile Selassie I was deposed and arrested by rebel military forces. The fallen monarch died the following year in captivity on August 27, 1975, allegedly from complications following a surgery though most believed the communists simply killed him.

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.


  1. Haile Selassie is a truly fascinating man. He did his best for his great country.

    Meles Zenawi died a couple days ago. With him out of the picture, the Ethiopian monarchists might have a better chance at installing Selassie's grandson. That is, if we're lucky...

  2. Is the timing of this piece intended or coincidental seeing as the prime minister, and ruler for the past twenty-one years, just died? He had quite the Stalinist credentials and was very clever in keeping the aid coming and western leaders happy while ruling with an iron fist.

    Very interesting as usual.

    1. Coincidental, I had this on my "to do" list for a while now but no one should shed any tears for Zenawi in my book. I would have more confidence if only the many, many people around the world who so revere and admire Haile Selassie would turn that energy toward restoring his descendants to the Ethiopian throne. In my experience there seems to be an unfortunate gap between the many who revere and even idolize the late emperor and the minority who actually work for the restoration of the Ethiopian Empire.

    2. I have no sorrow for the death of Meles Zenawi. But it's kind of sad that he's dead and the real murderer of the Ethiopian monarchy, Mengistu Haile Mariam, is still alive.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...