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The life and times of Haile Selassie, 1892-1975

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Tue Aug 12, 2014

by David Fergusson,

local historian

Haile Selassie I was born during the era of the scramble for Africa. Between 1880-1900, almost the whole of Africa was overrun by European colonialism, imperialism and conquest. South of the Sahara only the African-American republic of Liberia was left untouched and only the kingdom of Ethiopia, under Emperor Meuelik II (1889-1913), repulsed a colonial invasion by Italy at the battle of Adwa in 1896.{{more}}

Rastarfari was born into the royal family of the former kingdom of Shoa. Rastafari is a great grandson of King Sahela Selassie of Shoa, and the son of Ras Makonnen. Haile Selassie was born Lij Taffah Makonnen to RAS (the most senior title just below that of Negus – comparable to “Duke”) Makonnen, the governor of Harar province and a cousin, close friend, advisor, important general and counselor to emperor Menelik II and Yishimabeth Ali.

Young Tafari received a traditional religious education from Ethiopian Orthodox priests, who also taught him French. The young Tafari made a good impression on Menelik II, whom he met through his father. Tafari’s chances for political advance would have been weakened by his father’s sudden death in 1906, had he not been called to Menelik’s court afterwards. He continued his education in Addis Ababa and was appointed governor over a small province. He later rose to the governorship of the important Harar province (1910). In 1911 Tafari married (lady) = (Woyzaro) Menen, the future empress, by whom he had three sons and three daughters. Rastafari was born without any reasonable prospect of ascending to the throne.{{more}} His education was traditionally given to young Ethiopian noblemen, but his attainments, intellectual powers and great personal dignity soon became apparent and had already been recognized by emperor Menelik.

Upon Menelik’s death in 1913, his grandson Lij Yasu became emperor. Yasu, however, was considered too sympathetic towards Islam, which offended the dominant Amhara Christians. Amhara began to see Tafari as their champion. In 1916, he and his supporters deposed Yasu and installed Menelik’s daughter, Zawditu, reputedly Ethiopia’s first empress. Who are the Amhara? The Amhara: one of the two largest ethnic groups of Ethiopia, who occupy central and western Ethiopia. Traditionally, the Amhara, have been Ethiopia’s dominant people – all but one of the Ethiopian emperors were Amhara – and their language, Amharic, a Semitic language like Hebrew or Arabic, has been the country’s official language. Historically, the Amhara belonged to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which was the Ethiopian state religion. The origins and early history of the Amhara remains the subject of speculation. Archaeological evidence suggest that sometime before 500 B.C.E. a Semitic-speaking people, from whom the Amhara are descended, migrated from present day Yemen. Christianity spread to Ethiopia during the fourth century, and has played a central role in shaping Amharic culture and society. The Christian empire of Ethiopia was ruled by Amhara dynasties 1260-1974.

The dyareny of Empress Zawditu and the young Regent was a difficult and delicate arrangement, but it brought peace and prosperity to Ethiopia. Tafari assumed the title of ras and served as her regent and heir apparent. In 1916, when the decisive hour arrived, Tafari displayed both judgment and courage. It was during the 14 years of his regency that Ras Tafari prepared the ground for the great work of reform and education, which, after 1930, he carried out as emperor. Over the next 14 years Tafari served as head of government and assumed an increasingly dominant role. By the standards of traditional Ethiopian society, he was a progressive reformer, working to extend Ethiopia’s contacts with the western world. In 1919, he created a centralized bureaucracy. His first application for the admission to the League of Nations in 1919 was rejected, because of the existence of slavery in Ethiopia, but he obtained League of Nations membership in 1923, a conspicuous foreign affairs success, and then moved to abolish slavery.
 
In 1924, he visited Rome, Paris and London and thus was the first Ethiopian ruler ever to go abroad. In 1928, not long after the death of Fitawrari = (Commander of the spearhead: title of intermediate seniority) Habre Giyorgis, one of the most powerful men in the kingdom, Empress Zawditu attempted to curb Tafari powers. However, he staged a successful palace coup and forced her to recognize his complete authority. By Zawditu’s hand he was crowned Negus= king. Two years later (1930), he suppressed a revolt led by the empress’ husband Ras Gugsa Wolie, the governor of the Northern provinces. The Empress died almost immediately afterwards. Upon Empress Zawditu’s death in 1930, Tafari assumed the throne under his baptismal name Haile Selassie I (Power of the Trinity). The coronation of Tafari, whose dynasty claimed descent through Lebna Dengel from the biblical King Solomon, inspired Jamaican followers of Marcus Mosiah Garvey to found a new religion, known as Rastafarianism, that idolized the emperor. All the great powers attended his coronation.
 
The Duke of Gloucester represented Britain, and there was a vast array of journalists and special correspondents. The great Rases now bowed in homage before the Imperial throne. Haile Selassie, the new scion of the Tribe of Judah, has indeed prevailed. According to the traditional account contained in the national epic Kebra Negast (Ge’ez for “The Glory of the Kings”), the Amhara and related groups such as Tigrinya are descended from Israelite King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Therefore each Ethiopian emperor held the title “Lion of Judah.” One of the first things the Emperor Haile Selassie did after his coronation in 1930 was to offer his people a written constitution. In 1931, Selassie introduced Ethiopian’s first constitution which proclaimed all Ethiopians equal under the law and the emperor. His reform movement was interrupted in 1934 at the onset of a border dispute with Italian Somaliland. He appealed to the League of Nations for help, but none was forthcoming. In 1935, however, Italian forces invaded Ethiopia. Although Selassie attempted to rally his forces, they proved no match for the better equipped Italians. When defeat appeared certain, Selassie gave an impassioned speech before the League of Nations, pleading for help. None came, and in 1936 Selassie fled into exile in Bath, England. An autobiography by the Emperor, entitled Heywatenna ya-Ityopya ermejja (My Life and Ethiopia’s progress) written in Amharic, Vol I 1892-1939, appeared early in 1973: 264 pp: plates and genealogical table. It was dictated during the Emperor’s exile in Bath, England.

During WWII, Selassie helped the British liberate Ethiopia and in 1941, a joint force of British soldiers and Ethiopian exiles restored Selassie to the throne. He spent much of the next decade rebuilding the country. He expanded Western education, in part by founding the country’s first university, improved health care, and expanded the transportation network. However, Selassie left Ethiopian society and most notably the feudal agricultural system intact. This fact encouraged class distinctions and left many Ethiopians in poverty. In the 1950’s, Selassie worked to consolidate his power in outlying areas, and the country’s coffee exports created an economic boom that enhanced his popularity for a time. In 1952, Selassie’s government annexed the providence of Eritrea to provide Ethiopia with an outlet to the sea. In 1955, he promulgated a new constitution; however, until 1974 he surrended little real power, while he curbed the power of the landed aristocracy, curtailed the independence of the church, and built a strong army.

Despite Haile Selassie’s long record of cautious and progressive reform, many Ethiopians found the pace of change too slow. During his state visit to Brazil in 1960, officers of his palace guard attempted a coup and placed his son Asfa Wosson on the throne. However, the army remained loyal and Haile Selassie returned home. After the coup attempt, Selassie, who had spent his life attempting to modernize Ethiopia, adopted a more conservative course.

In addition, he then focused on foreign policy, ignoring the increasing domestic problems that faced Ethiopia. Selassie commanded great respect throughout Africa as an elder statesman, embraced pan-Africanism, and sought African unity. Through the 1960s Haile Selassie played an increasingly active role in inter-African affairs. The first conference of the organization of African unity met in Addis Ababa, which was made O.A.U. headquarters (1963). The O.A.U. was formed in 1963 by 32 independent African states. In 2001, this organisation was replaced by the African Union (AU). The main aims of the AU are to provide unity and solidarity between its members to eliminate colonialism in Africa, and to promote international cooperation.

Troubles at home demanded Selassie’s attention, however. In 1962, the province of Eritrea sought independence from Ethiopia and Eritrea rebels took up armed struggle. The educated elite, seeking democratic reforms and jobs, began to demonstrate to demand change. In April 1966, a special meeting of the UWI senate was convened to consider a proposal from the pro-chancellor in Trinidad that an honorary degree be conferred on His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, on an official visit later in the month. All campus authorities agreed, and in mid- April His Imperial Majesty, at Mona, received the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa. His visit was enthusiastically welcomed by the Rastafarians, his spiritual followers.

An Ethiopian student protest in 1969 ended when soldiers opened fire, killing 23 and wounding 157. Continued economic problems, high unemployment, and famine caused by prolonged drought led Ethiopians to demonstrate for higher wages and against the continuing economic woes. A military contingent led by junior officers deposed Selassie on September 12, 1974 after a gradual, bloodless coup. Selassie stepped down and was held under house arrest until his death on August 27, 1975.

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