Ethiopia: Haile Selassie – dictator, Messiah, or progressive reformer?

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Selassie Museum in Addis Ababa

Mount Entoto raises 3,200 m above sea level and offers spectacular views of Addis Ababa. On the way up, one can see elderly women and donkeys transporting dry wood from the forest down to the city, an image that probably hasn’t changed in centuries.

The mountain is where you can visit the palace of emperor Menelik II (the monarch who led his country to a renowned victory over an invading Italian army), a small museum and a few churches. The palace itself comes as a bit of a shock – it is in fact a modest white-washed hut, a far cry from what one would imagine as imperial lodgings.

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Old quarters of emperor Menelik’s on Mount Entoto

Emperor Menelik’s modest taste comes in sharp contrast with the style of his successor. The museum (no photos allowed) boasts an array of imperial regalia suggesting that the monarch enjoyed luxury. You can see even more of that in downtown Addis in the small Selassie museum (no photos allowed). Next to it, there is the splendid¬†Holy Trinity Cathedral where the emperor’s tomb has pride of place.

Haile Selassie reigned over Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974. He is often praised for modernising the country and bringing it onto the international arena. At home, the emperor abolished slavery, constituted modern courts, hospitals and schools, including the first university, built roads and introduced electricity and cars. To be fair though, the country was starting off from a very low base, and the benefits of modernity were far from evenly distributed.

Internationally, under Selassie Ethiopia joined the UN and fought a brave (albeit unsuccessful) war against the Italian invasion. The emperor himself was living a good life in exile in England, but it wasn’t unusual at the time for those ruling conquered nations to seek refuge abroad. The emperor presided over the Organisation of African Unity (the predecessor of the African Union). He spent a lot of time on official state visits overseas and enjoyed great popularity abroad.

One of the most interesting facts about Haile Selassie is that he was revered by Rastafarians as the Messiah, God incarnate who will unite Africans and lead them to freedom. The Rasta movement (the name was taken from Selassie’s given names before he became emperor) originated in the 1930s in Jamaica and spread across the world thanks to prominent worshippers like Bob Marley. The Selassie cult is still alive and well these days.

But there is a darker side to the story of the great moderniser and Messiah. To say that Haile Selassie’s commitment to human rights was a light one is a major understatement. The acclaimed documentary novel by a Polish travel writer Ryszard Kapuscinski, entitled ‘The Emperor,’ sheds light onto Selassie as a bloody dictator holding absolute power. Kapuscinski interviewed dozens of employees of the Selassie court, from generals and ministers to the man whose only function for 10 years was to wipe off urine that the emperor’s dog sprinkled on court officials’ shoes.

The picture that emerges from the book is that of a little man with an enormous ego, intoxicated with power. He made all decisions concerning national, regional and even local affairs himself and demanded absolute loyalty. Rampant corruption was one of his tools to enforce obedience. Allegedly he never left any written traces of his decisions, so that they could not be questioned and so that he could hold supreme power over information. He enjoyed almost obscene luxury: he owned a massive fleet of expensive cars and had champagne regularly flown from Europe while his barefoot and illiterate subjects starved. He continued living his life of luxury and stuffing his Swiss bank accounts with aid money when famine was ravaging the country in in 1972-4, leaving 200,000 dead.

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An image of the great famine that struck Ethiopia in 1972-1974, National Museum in Addis

It took years, but finally the Ehtiopian people could take no more. Selassie was overthrown by a coup d’etat in 1974 and died a year later.

Many years have passed, but as I walk around Addis Ababa, I see tributes to the late emperor everywhere. It seems like to his countrymen and to the Rasta followers around the world, he remains a hero and a saviour.

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Haile Selassie, Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

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