Haile Selassie I the 225th and last Ethiopian Emperor was born on 23 July 1892 in Ethiopia in a region called Ejersa Gora. He was named Lij Tafari Makonnen by his parents when he was born. Being the only surviving son of the governor of Harar, Ras Makonnen Wolde Michae, Selassie traced his linage back to Menelik I, who was lineage back to Emperor Menelik I, believed to be the son of King Solomon of Israel and Makeda the Queen of Sheba. He has a strong Christian background and educated by private European tutors. When his father died in 1906, he was taken under the wing of his uncle Menelik II who did not have a son to succeed him and that made Selassie I to be the favoured successor.
Haile Selassie spent his youth at the court of the emperor of Addis Ababa which made him exposed to political plots and learned about the use of power. At the age of fourteen, he was positioned as the governor of Gara Muleta in the province of Harar because of the capacity of his memory, mastery of detail and hard work. Later, at the age of twenty, the emperor appointed him as commander of the extensive province of Sidamo.
However, his anticipated succession of Menelik II didn’t come to pass when Menelik II died in 1913. Lij Yasu, the grandson of Manelik II, who was not a Tafari succeeded the throne. Yesu, being a Muslim in a Christian dominated country never gained favour with the Christian population. His religion Islam cost him his leadership position as he maintained close ties with Islam making him unpopular with the majority Christian population of Ethiopia. Selassie became the rallying point of the Christian resistance and later took power in 1916 and imprisoned Yasu for life. Zauditu, Menilek II’s daughter contested the throne and became Empress in 1917, and Selassie was named regent and heir apparent to the throne.
As the emperor of his country, he was a symbol of hopes and dreams of his country, as he tries placing his country in the map. With time, his influence and power grew as he led his country, Ethiopia into the League of Nations in 1923 and by travelling to Europe made him the first for an Ethiopian ruler in 1924. Unlike the empress who showed less interest in politics but in religion, Selassie’s interest was in turning the country into a more modern one. Taking control of the army in 1926 made his position stronger and allowed him to assume the title of king. He came a self-proclaimed king in 1928 and when Zauditu passed on in 1930, he demanded the title of King of Kings, taking the name Haile Selassie, which means “Might of the Trinity”.
As the ruler of his country and governnment for forty year, he instituted a new constitution and centralized his power. His efforts were cut short when Italy under Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935. Haile Selassie led the resistance with some of the feudal lords supporting him and others siding with the invaders. However, after the defeat of the his army, Ethiopia lost its national independence and in May 1936 he was forced into exile. However, the Ethiopians continue to fight the Italians through various means, especially by waging guerrilla war. During the World War II, he remained exiled but banded his country together in the fight against the Italians. In a memorable speech he delivered on 30, 1936 in Geneva, he appealed to the League of Nations but was unsuccessful. He then went to British for help and finally secured assistance in forming an army of Ethiopian exiles in the Sudan. In January 1941, British and Ethiopian forces invaded Ethiopia and freed the country from the Italian control several months later. Haile Selassie was reinstated as the emperor and he found his administration destroyed on his return. He had to recreate the authority he had previously exercised by dedicating himself to rebuild his administration and improving Ethiopia’s defence. Backed by the Western powers, he concentrated on improving the country’s infrastructure by building bridges, hospitals, factories and schools and also implementing social, economic, and educational reforms in an attempt to modernize Ethiopian government and society. He sent many youths to study abroad and learn what they could from other cultures. Many viewed him as a great reformer.
Despite the great reforms witnessed, he ruled with an iron fist. He went against and dislodged the partisans who had stayed behind and fought the Italians because he felt intimidated by their bravery. After removing them from position of authority, he went ahead and placed those who collaborated with the enemy (Italians) in their positions so as to keep them easily in line, believing they would be open to his methods. He used financial rewards and promotion of government officials as his method of maintaining power. Gradually, he grew more cautious and gave room for few new leaders into his new government. He succeeded to absorb Eritrea into Ethiopia in 1962.
However, all was not well in Ethiopia as Selassie suppressed political parties and opposition. He was accused of living a lavish lifestyle while peasants were starved. Also, he was accused of breeding corruption and creating a system that makes millions of his subject lived in poverty and oppression. Western journalists were no longer allowed in the country as media was censored. Some foreign journalists finally succeeded in exposing the suffering of his people which caused great embarrassment to his reign.
The situation became worse by the 1970s with unemployment increasing, and the government’s inability to respond to the country’s economic crisis, thus making Selassie’s rule undermined. The deteriorating situation made him lost control over the army as many left the army due to low pay. His defense was weakened and as the result, he was ousted from power in a coup. He was kept under house arrest in his own palace until his death in 1975. The cause of death was disputed; official reports at the time attributed his death to natural causes but another one revealed that he had probably been strangled to death on the orders of the military government. In 1992, his remains were discovered and in November 2000, he received a proper burial in Addis Ababa’s Trinity Cathedral.
The followers of the Rastafari movement in Jamaica, still worship Haile Selassie as God incarnate. The movement (taken from Haile Selassie’s pre-imperial name “Ras” “Tafari”) emerged in Jamaica during the 1930s. Haile Selassie is seen as the messiah who will lead the African people and the African diaspora to freedom. The official titles given to the Emperor includes “Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah and King of Kings of Ethiopia”, “Lord of Lords and Elect of God”, this was because his traditional lineage is believed to have originated from Solomon and Sheba.
On 21 April 1966 when Haile Selassie visited Jamaica, approximately one hundred thousand Rastafari from all over Jamaica descended on Palisadoes Airport in Kingston to welcome him. He arrived the airport but he was not able to alight from the plane as the crowd rushed the tarmac. Many scholars regarded this day to be a major turning point for the movement, as Rastafari still commemorated it as Grounation Day. This day is marked as the anniversary celebrated as the second holiest holiday after 2 November, the emperor’s Coronation Day.
Below are powerful quotes of Haile Selassie believed to be his philosophies.
“We must become bigger than we have been: more courageous, greater in spirit, larger in outlook. We must become members of a new race, overcoming petty prejudice, owing to our ultimate allegiance not to nations but to our fellow men within the human community”
“Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted, the indifference of those who should have known better, the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most, that has made it possible for evil to triumph”
“Do not worship me, I am not God. I’m only a man. I worship Jesus Christ”
“Above all, we must avoid the pitfalls of tribalism. If we are divided among ourselves on tribal lines, we open our doors to foreign intervention and its potentially harmful consequences”
“No one should question the faith of others, for no human being can judge the ways of God.”
“Education develops the intellect, and the intellect distinguishes man from other creatures. It is education that enables man to harness nature and utilize her resources for the well-being and improvement of his life”
“History teaches us that unity is strength, and cautions us to submerge and overcome our differences in the quest for common goals, to strive, with all our combined strength, for the path to true African brotherhood and unity”.