Finding Haile Selassie

FROM CONQUERING LION TO DUSTY RELIC

His Majesty Haile Selassie I, “Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah,” Emperor of Ethiopia – the absolute monarch of a feudal kingdom for nearly 44 years – had been dead for almost 40 years when I returned to Ethiopia for my first visit since returning to the United States in 1967 after three years as a Peace Corps teacher at Tafari Makonnen School in Addis Ababa.  The Emperor had been deposed by a group of military officers known as the “Derg” in 1974 and was most likely murdered in 1975 by the Derg, which under the brutal dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam began a reign of terror that resulted in the deaths of over 500,000 Ethiopians – many of them educated youths – by the time Mengistu fled Ethiopia in 1991.  When I arrived in Addis on May 15, most of the obvious signs of Haile Selassie’s long reign had disappeared.  For example, the former Haile Selassie University was now Addis Ababa University; Tafari Makonnen School (named after Ras Tafari Makonnen, Haile Selassie’s name before his coronation in 1930) had become the Entoto Technical and Vocational Education Training College; Jubilee Palace, which the Emperor had built to commemorate the silver anniversary of his reign, now housed government offices; and, of course, the once ubiquitous photographs of  the Conquering Lion no longer graced the walls of countless offices and homes.  In 1967, Haile Selassie had seemed the very embodiment of the proud spirit of this exotic, never-colonized kingdom, but on my return I found His Imperial Majesty a dusty relic of ancient history to the great majority of Ethiopians.

ENCOUNTERS WITH THE EMPEROR IN ADDIS

Haile Selassie might be largely forgotten now, but during my ten-day visit, my Ethiopian friends Berhane and Tesfagiorgis and I encountered him often as we traveled around the sprawling capital city of over 4 million, even though we hadn’t consciously set out in search of the late Emperor.  We met His Imperial Majesty:

  • At the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University, where Ato Mammo Haile, who’d been a member of the Emperor’s household staff and was now in his 80’s, proudly showed us uniforms that Haile Selassie had worn and where Tesfagiorgis and I posed for the camera before a photograph of the Emperor at his most majestic.
Looking at Haile Selassie Uniform at the Institute for Ethiopian Studies
  • At the former Tafari Makonnen School, where we were pleased to find that a handsome bust of Ras Tafari Makonnen had been re-installed in the foyer of what had been the main administration building during my teaching days there.
Ras Tafari Makonnen Bust at Former TMS
  • At the beautiful Kiddist Selassie (Holy Trinity) Cathedral, which Haile Selassie completed after the Italian occupation and where an elderly Ethiopian Orthodox priest who had seen the Emperor worship at the cathedral many times showed us the tombs of Haile Selassie and his wife, Empress Menen, and the ornate thrones where the Emperor and his Empress sat during Mass at the cathedral.
Plaque at Kiddist Selassie Cathedral
Tesfagiorgis, Doug and Priest on Tour of Kiddist Selassie
  • And at the main gate of the former Jubilee Palace, where as we walked and drove by Berhane, Tesfagiorgis, and I could see in our mind’s eye the Emperor emerging in his Rolls Royce for a drive around his capital city.

VIVID MEMORIES OF HIS IMPERIAL MAJESTY

Every encounter with His Imperial Majesty during my visit brought the Emperor vividly

back to life in our minds, so he was very much with us in spirit during those ten days, which isn’t surprising when you realize how large he’d loomed in my and my Ethiopian students’ lives back in the1960s.  I’ll never forget first encountering Haile Selassie in my modern history course at the University of Illinois-Urbana, when I read his stirring address to the League of Nations in 1936 after the Italian invasion of Ethiopia.  It wasn’t much later that I saw the Emperor in person for the first time – in November 1963, walking beside French president de Gaulle, who towered over the diminutive ruler, and other world leaders in President John Kennedy’s funeral procession to Arlington Cemetery.  Standing on the street that sad day in Washington, watching the procession pass, I thought to myself, “Haile Selassie is a lot shorter than I imagined, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a man who cut such a dignified and regal figure; this is a king if there ever was one.”  So when, having joined the Peace Corps my senior year at Illinois, I learned that I’d been assigned to teach in Ethiopia, whose face came immediately to mind?  The Conquering Lion of Judah, of course

Berhane and Doug Looking at Haile Selassie Throne at Kiddist Selassie 

ASSESSING HAILE SELASSIE’S REIGN

Since Haile Selassie I was such a constant and vivid presence as Berhane, Tesfagiorgis, and I toured Addis and sat at the table enjoying traditional Ethiopian meals of  injera (a very nutritious and delicious kind of flatbread with a tangy, mildly tart taste and rubbery texture ) and wat (a variety of vegetable and meat stews), we naturally spent a lot of time talking about the still-mysterious, endlessly fascinating ruler who’d sat on the throne of Ethiopia for almost a half century – pondering his place in Ethiopian history and his contribution to Ethiopia’s economic and social development.  As I think about our discussions over those ten days, some highlights stand out in my mind.  First and foremost, the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah was not only a masterful politician, he was also a true statesman, in the sense that he was genuinely and passionately committed to Ethiopia’s modernization – certainly technologically and economically speaking, although his commitment to social and political development is far less certain.  However, we agreed that it would be a mistake to idealize or romanticize the Emperor, who was, in fact, an absolute feudal monarch who didn’t brook dissent and never hesitated to have opponents of his regime imprisoned and hanged in public squares.

Haile Selassie and Empress Menen Tombs at Kiddist Selassie

But in stark contrast to Mengistu Haile Mariam, who was a brutal and systematic destroyer of human capital responsible for the imprisonment, torture, and execution of thousands of educated Ethiopian youth, Haile Selassie made a tremendous investment in education, which of all development tools was probably closest to his heart.  Tesfagiorgis and Berhane along with many of their compatriots will never forget receiving their university diplomas from the hands of the Emperor himself.  As it turned out, Haile Selassie’s deep faith in education and the high priority he placed on expanding educational opportunities in Ethiopia are somewhat ironic, since many, if not most, newly educated Ethiopians had by the mid 1970s become vocal critics of the feudal monarchy and  certainly played a major role in bringing the Solomonic line to an end.  And what most saddened us as we reflected on the Emperor’s legacy during our many long discussions during my Addis odyssey was Haile Selassie’s failure to lay the foundation for an orderly transition to some kind of representative government after his death.  In the end, apparently, he was so enmeshed in the absolute feudal monarchy that he was incapable of reaching out to, and building an alliance with, the new educated class that he had created and that might have led a peaceful, post-monarchical transition.  Instead, the Emperor became an isolated, out-of-touch leader, leaving a vacuum that the astute Mengistu Haile Marian so adroitly exploited, at a horrific cost to Ethiopia..

Note:  The Associated Press Wire Photo of Emperor Haile Selassie I walking with other world leaders in President Kennedy’s funeral procession appeared in the November 25, 1963 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

©Douglas C. Eadie  All Rights Reserved

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