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Ethiopia’s conquering lion who ruled for 50 years

By -Amos Kareithi | Published Sun, April 21st 2013 at 00:00, Updated April 20th 2013 at 21:29 GMT +3

By Amos Kareithi

Although it has been 38 years since Emperor Haile Selassie died in unclear circumstances in his palace, echoes of this man who was revered and loathed in equal measure still reverberate across the globe

Red-hot coals, Chinua Achebe once warned, beget cold impotent ash.

This appears to have been the case for the crafty ‘Lion of Judah’, who was unwittingly ushered into a nondescript car and metaphorically driven to the slaughter slab by his troops.

Emperor Haile Selassie was only answerable to God, with his mandate and power permanently entrenched by the constitution and also supported by his royal lineage dating back to Biblical times.

Since the 13th Century, the family of Ras Tafari, who later became Haile Selassie, had withstood earthly powers. Not even the 500,000 heavily armed soldiers sent by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini were strong enough to permanently keep the crafty aristocrat from his throne.

In the Caribbean and other parts of the world, Haile Selassie was worshipped as a god, Ras, by the Rastafaris, who considered him holy.

In Jamaica, Rastafaris camped by the ocean shore, waiting for a ship to deliver them from ‘captivity’ to Ethiopia, where 500 acres of land donated by the emperor awaited them.

Closer home, half a century after he first set foot in Kenya, Haile Selassie is immortalised in the naming of two busy avenues in the two biggest cities, Nairobi and Mombasa.


It appears that although it has been 38 years since he died in unclear circumstances in his own palace, echoes of this man who was revered and loathed in equal measure still reverberate across the globe.

Some of the institutions he helped to establish have outlived him and earned his country, Ethiopia, a central place in the Organisation of Africa Unity (OAU) and its replacement, the African Union, which is headquartered at Addis Ababa.

Haile Selassie’s dream of forging closer ties with Kenya persist in the Great North Road, to link Addis Ababa and Nairobi, finally coming to fruition.

All this is coming, 35 years after the flywhisk he supposedly gave Jomo Kenyatta has ceased mesmerising Kenyans.

According to parliamentary records, one of the most historic pacts between the two countries was signed on November 24, 1974, at the State House in Mombasa.

The then Foreign Affairs minister Njoroge Mungai explained to Parliament how Haile Selassie had visited Kenya in June 1970 and ratified an agreement, which among other things, delineated the boundary between the two countries and helped solidify Kenya’s claim to Lake Rudolf (Lake Turkana), although Kenyatta had to cede some ground, too.

“Before the signing of the agreement, there had been no legally defined borders in existence between Kenya and Ethiopia. Even during the colonial times, there was only a vague notion of a border between Kenya and Ethiopia,” Mungai said.

This ambiguity was solved by 30 boundary commission maps, which guided the erection of pillars to designate some of the areas along the boundary to the respective countries.

Consequently, Hara Dawa, Sam Kurar and Gadaduma water points were all ceded to Ethiopia.

Kenya, in turn, gained substantial portions of Lake Turkana, especially the area around Namoraputh Police Post, which was previously in Ethiopia.

The pact also said that the two neighbours would jointly hold inspections of the border every fifth year, although this was not possible as Haile Selassie was deposed four years later.

Before his demise, Haile Selassie had made a name for himself at home, as he had a special place in the lives of the people.

 According to Martin Meredith, author of The State of Africa, Haile Selassie was only four years old in 1896, when the Italians sent 10,000 European troops to Ethiopia. He had been born in Ejarsa Gora, on July 23, 1892, and named Lij Tafari.

However, the Italian invasion was thwarted by the reigning monarch, Menelik II, who had appointed Ras Mackonnen, Selassie’s father, the governor of Harar.

Mackonnen was a cousin and close ally of Menelik II, who had no legitimate direct male heir.

When Ras Makonnen died in 1906, Selassie was summoned to the court at Addis Ababa, where he was schooled in the intrigues of Menelik’s household. However, he was passed over on the death of Menelik II in 1913, in favour of the emperor’s grandson, Lij Yasu. Selassie had married Lij Yasu’s niece, Waizero Menen, after her divorce.

When Lij Yasu converted to Islam, the Ethiopian church excommunicated him, providing Haile Selassie with a shot at the throne. He executed a palace coup and declared himself the heir presumptive and Regent for Zauditu, a daughter of Menelik, who became the empress.

Later, he executed Zauditu’s husband and put the empress under his control.

“He also captured Lij Yasu and imprisoned him with golden chains. Yasu was, however, allowed to enjoy a variety of women provided by Haile Selassie,” Alden Whitman wrote in an obituary published by The New York Times on August 28, 1975,.

The wily monarch pre-empted Ethiopian’ colonisation in 1923, when he negotiated for his country to join the League of Nations, the precursor of the United Nations, and then embarked on a tour of Europe.

His tour was memorable in that his six lions and four zebras accompanied him. He also had 30 servants at his beck and call.

He finally eliminated the empress, who had attempted a coup in 1928, and was crowned emperor on November 2, 1930, and given the name ‘His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie’, which means ‘Power of the Holy Trinity’.

Whitman described him as the last emperor in the 3,000-year-old Ethiopian monarchy.

His reign was interrupted four years after his coronation by Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. Believing that belonging to the League of Nations insulated him against such aggression, Haile Selassie protested the invasion on June 30, 1936, in Geneva during a General Assembly, but in vain.

He spent four miserable years in exile in Britain as an unwanted guest until Mussolini joined the Second World War on Germany’s side.

In a bid to clip Adolf Hitler’s militancy, Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill strategically recalled that Haile Selassie was a friend, and went out of his way to assist him.

Churchill organised for the exiled emperor to be smuggled through Egypt as a ‘Mr Strong’, then Sudan. He arrived in Addis Ababa on May 5, 1941, hidden in the back of a car.

After occupying Ethiopia for five years, Italy was kicked out and Haile Selassie restored as emperor.

While he tried to modernise his kingdom to please his subjects, he also created the image of a freedom fighter who never tired in seeking friends. During his 50-year reign, he visited 60 states and outlived more than five US Presidents.



During one of his trips to Brazil in 1960, a coup, which involved one of his sons, Asfa Wossen, was attempted. He predictably crushed the coup, publicly hanged the commander of the bodyguards who had mutinied, and disowned his son.

As he grew older, his photographic memory started failing him. By 1972, his state of mind was such that, as Meredith records, he could barely recognise his guests.

During one occasion, when Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire visited the palace, the emperor summoned one of his officials and loudly wondered who the guest was and what he wanted!

His fall from grace was precipitated by his fading mental capacity and failure to appreciate what was happening around him.

When Wollo was gripped by a devastating famine, which claimed an estimated 250,000 people between 1973 and 1975, Haile Selassie insisted that this was an inevitable natural catastrophe and there was nothing he could do.

Ultimately, in 1973, a broken water pump in a military outpost triggered a mutiny, which kicked off a series of events that convinced Ethiopians that the dreaded lion had lost its tenacity. Selassie’s failure to discipline the mutineers and his concession to their demands led to more mutinies, followed by students and workers demanding for better living conditions.

Taking advantage of the weakened emperor, 108 junior military officers formed a committee in Addis Ababa, from where they plotted clandestinely. The committee systematically entrenched itself and forced senior officials to surrender their assets to avoid confiscation.

They later accused the emperor of corruption and squandering resources by undertaking costly foreign trips. The Ministry of Pen was abolished, as well as other imperial institutions.

In September 1974, nine princesses, among them the emperor’s only surviving daughter and seven grand daughters, were imprisoned. Their heads were shaved and they were only allowed two mattresses to share in the dungeon-like cells.

On September 12 of the same year, the emperor was dethroned but when the charges were read against him, he responded that if the revolution was for the good of Ethiopians, he supported it.

He was then led out of his palace into a green Volkswagen and later detained at the Grand Palace, where he died in controversial circumstances on August 27, 1975.

By then, Mengistu Haile Mariam had already established himself as the leader of the committee and started a revolution, which would haunt Ethiopia for many years.

The writer can be reached on [email protected]



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