His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie Ras Tafari Makonnen – the last emperor in the 3000-year-old Ethiopian monarchy – is a triumphant figure of Black History that will forever be celebrated for his passion, his power, and his leadership by example as a Pan-African and an Ethiopian.
Born as Ras Tafari Makonnen, His Imperial Majesty (H.I.M.) Haile Selassie (whose royal name means “Power of the Trinity”) was the last Emperor of Ethiopia in an unbroken line that traced its origins to the 13th Century – back to King Solomon and the Axum Empire.
Haile Selassie was revered in his time as a God in the flesh who would lead his people (and ultimately all African peoples) into a new Golden Age of peace and prosperity. It is from his name, Tafari, that the Rastafari movement arose.
Today, there are 800,000 men and women who identify as Rastafarians. Selassie, however, was an Orthodox Christian his entire life, and never attempted to found a religion solely based on his personal views.
Ascent To The Throne
According to African tradition, Royal blood can only be passed on through the woman’s womb – it was the woman that carried and qualified royal blood. Selassie received his royal blood from his Father’s mother and was born on July 23 1892 in Ethiopia’s Harar region. His paternal grandmother, Sahle Selassie, also carried royal blood as the aunt of the legendary Emperor Menelik II .
The early life of Selassie was dominated by education in warfare, philosophy, and Christianity. His father, the Governor of the Harar region where Selassie was born, died shortly after Selassie’s 15th birthday and after briefly being held by one of Menelek , the position of Governor was passed on to his son.
Later, the daughter of Menelek II who served as Empress Zewditu rightly promoted Tafari to the position Ras (Duke), making him the heir apparent and Crown Prince. In the power arrangement that followed, Zewditu would govern while Tafari would administer. But this arrangement would not last, and Empress Zewditu had tasted power and wanted the throne to herself.
Once he became Crown Prince, Tafari went into campaign mode. He traveled the provinces of Ethiopia to unite politically fragmented clans and build support amongst the people. Corruption was rampant in 1928 post-Menelek Ethiopia and when the Crown Prince attempted to regulate it, Balcha Safo – the Governor of the coffee-rich Sidamo Province – was recalled to the Capital to account for some missing funds. Balcha came (insultingly) with a large Army, snubbed his nose at Selassie, and declared “I only obey the Empress. You are nobody”. Rather than getting into it with the old man, Ras Tafari bought out his Army, had the Army arrest him, and replaced Balcha with a more just Governor.
Zewditu used the conflict and other political maneuvers to have Tafari tried for treason. That attempt failed, along with a coup attempt a few months later. When confronted by Tafari and a company of his troops, the ringleaders of the coup took refuge on the palace grounds in Menelik’s mausoleum.
Tafari and his men surrounded them only to be surrounded themselves by the personal guard of Zewditu. More of Tafari’s khaki clad soldiers arrived, outgunned Zewditu’s guards, and ended the coup. Popular support, as well as the support of the police, remained with Tafari. Ultimately, the Empress relented and, on 7 October 1928, she crowned Tafari King. When the Empress died suddenly on April 2, 1930, Selassie became the sole authority in Ethiopia.
World War II
On October 3, 1935, Italy attacked Ethiopia, plunging the country into World War II. Benito Mussolini sought to turn Ethiopia into an economic colony, and to use the conquered land to to resettle 10 million Italians in a unified East Africa. Selassie addressed the League to ask for their support in repelling the attack, but the League responded with only mild sanctions against Italy. Whites tend not to attack other whites if they can help it.
Britain and France, both fearing that a general war would be harmful to their collective security, proposed secret negotiations with Italy, and auctioned off parts of Ethiopia without the Emperor knowing. Ethiopia would only be told later, so if Selassie rejected the terms, France and Britain were off the hook, looking like they made a “good faith” effort at peace.
They could then oppose further sanctions against Italy, even propose that the ones in place be removed, thereby sparing themselves a confrontation with Mussolini. But the plans for the secret negotiation were leaked to the press, and both Britain and France were humiliated publicly for selling out a weaker League partner.
Regardless, Selassie became one of the few leaders to actually ride out in battle with his troops, declaring its better to die free than to live without liberty. After several battles, Haile Selassie took the field with the last Ethiopian army on the northern front. On 31 March 1936, he launched a counterattack against the Italians himself at the Battle of Maychew in southern Tigray.
The Emperor’s army was defeated and retreated in disarray. As Haile Selassie’s army withdrew, the Italians attacked from the air along with rebellious Raya and Azebo tribesmen on the ground, who were armed and paid by the Italians. The display on the part of the Emperor was no less impressive, and his courage is rarely seen today amongst so-called world leaders (Would Bush or Obama put on a flack jacket and command an infantry?).
Selassie fled into exile while continuing to plead for League intervention and to voice his certainty that “God’s judgment will eventually visit the weak and the mighty alike”,though his attempts to gain support for the struggle against Italy were largely unsuccessful until Italy entered World War II on the German side in June 1940.
By 1941, the war was over and the Emperor returned home.
Haile Selassie and Pan-Africanism
Emperor Selassie was one of the few African leaders to award land to Black people, regardless of their country of origin. After he was restored to his throne he set aside 500 acres of his personal land in Shashemene, Ethiopia as a “thank you” gift. Over 2200 blacks, mainly Rastafarians, accepted the offer and moved to Shashemene during the 1960’s.
Emperor Selassie served as both the very first and the fifth head of the legendary Organization of African Unity – a position that would also be held by Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, and Muammar Gaddafi. The OAU would serve as inspiration for Malcolm X’s Organization of African American Unity. In a speech, Haile Selassie said;
That until there are no longer first-class and second class citizens of any nation; that until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes; that until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race; that until that day, the dream of lasting peace and world citizenship and the rule of international morality will remain but a fleeting illusion, to be pursued but never attained; and until the ignoble and unhappy regimes that hold our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique and in South Africa in subhuman bondage have been toppled and destroyed; until bigotry and prejudice and malicious and inhuman self-interest have been replaced by understanding and tolerance and good-will; until all Africans stand and speak as free beings, equal in the eyes of all men, as they are in the eyes of heaven; until that day, the African continent will not know peace. We Africans will fight, if necessary, and we know that we shall win, as we are confident in the victory of good over evil.
The original Charter of the Organization of African Unity was signed by 32 independent African states. The organization sent a powerful message to the rest of the world, but in reality, it was little more than a think tank. With a policy of non-interventionism and no standing, NATO style Army, the organization was powerless to mediate conflict in the region or do anything more than talk about what should be done.
The OAU did, however, set up the African Development Bank, Africa’s version of the World Bank which was designed to help newly independent African nations to become economically stable. While this was an important step towards a United States of Africa, the African Development Bank was corrupted by external influence.
Today, the ADF’s sources are mainly contributions and periodic replacements by white nations, with an annual service charge of 0.75%, a commitment fee of 0.5%, and a 50-year repayment period including a 10-year grace period. The Tenth United Kingdom replenishment of the ADF was in 2006. While the ADF persists, there hasn’t been an OAU Summit since 2001.
Pan-African leader Marcus Garvey said of Emperor Selassie after his coronation;
The Psalmist prophesied that Princes would come out of Egypt and Ethiopia would stretch forth her hands unto God. We have no doubt that the time is now come. Ethiopia is now really stretching forth her hands. This great kingdom of the east has been hidden for many centuries, but gradually she is rising to take a leading place in the world and it is for us of the Negro race to assist in every way to hold up the hand of Emperor Ras Tafari.
The Murder and Legacy of H.I.M. Haile Selassie
The 1970s saw the decline of Ethiopia and the destruction of the longest dynasty in Africa up until that point. Drought and famine swept across the nation killing as many as 200,000 Ethiopians. The economy was crippled by high oil prices (see the 1973 Oil Spike). The Soviet Union saw an opportunity to extend their influence in Africa, and funded a rebel group of “revolutionaries” to topple the Emperor.
On November 23 1974, sixty former high officials of the imperial government were arrested and executed without trial – including the Emperors grandson and two former Prime Ministers. The Emperor was placed on house arrest in the Grand Palace, the Solomonic dynasty was dissolved, and a Communist government was briefly established. Selassie’s son, Crown Prince Asfa Wossen had escaped to the U.S. where he died in 1997.
On 28 August 1975,the Emperors body was found in his room by his servants. They would later testify that guards had demanded they leave the Emperor alone the night prior, and that when they left he was in good health. The room wreaked of a strong chemical smell. The government claimed that the Emperor died due to complications from a previous surgery, but his doctor testified that his patient had completely recovered from the effects of the surgery and that there had been no complications.
The Emperors remains went missing until 1992, when his bones were found under a toilet in the Grand Palace.
It wasn’t until November 5, 2000 that his body was finally laid to rest in an imperial-style funeral by the Ethiopian Orthodox church. The post-communist government refused calls to declare the ceremony an official imperial funeral.
But while they denied him the honors deserved, he lives on as a martyr, and one of the greatest Pan-Africans who have ever lived.