Biography Catagories






















Haile Selassie


On June 30, 1936, a short, seemingly frail man wrapped in a long, black coat addressed the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. He was striking, with chiseled features, light brown skin, a curly black beard, and dark, deep-set, penetrating eyes. His rigid bearing and dignity, almost as much as his impassioned words, captured the attention of the assembled delegates.


Haile Selassie, exiled emperor of Ethiopia, denounced the then-recent invasion and conquest of his country by Italy, a precursor of the continued aggression that would lead to World War II. He demanded the League take concerted action against the Italians, warning, “It is a question of collective security; of the very existence of the League; of the trust placed by states in international treaties.… It is international morality that is at stake.” He prophetically stated, “It is us today. It will be you tomorrow.”


Despite the failure of the League to act upon his appeal, Haile Selassie’s dramatic speech turned him into an international figure overnight. No longer was he just the obscure ruler of a little-known northeast African kingdom. Instead, he became recognized as a world leader and an acknowledged symbol of resistance to fascism—the dictatorial system of government that grew in various European nations during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.


With British help, Ethiopia was liberated from the Italians in 1941 and Haile Selassie returned to rule for more than 30 years with the absolute power of a medieval king—holding court, dispensing gifts from a golden cashbox, and throwing coins to peasants on trips throughout his empire. Abroad, he was worshipped as a divine figure; in Jamaica, he is still considered by Rastafarians to be the spiritual leader of blacks worldwide.


As many African nations gained independence from European domination in the turbulent 1950s and 1960s, Haile Selassie stood out as an international statesman. His leadership in the subsequent Pan-African movement was rewarded when the Organization of African Unity (OAU) established its headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. But growing social unrest, the continued poverty-stricken existence of most Ethiopians, and then a widespread famine led to his overthrow in 1974; he died the following year.


At a Glance…

Born Tafari Makonnen, July 23, 1892, in Ejarsa Goro, Harer province, Abyssinian Empire (later Ethiopia); died August 27, 1975, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; son of Ras Makonnen (governor of Harer province and chief adviser to Emperor Menelik II) and Yishimabet Ali; married Wayzaro Menen (name some times spelled Waizero Menin; great-granddaughter of Menelik II) in 1911; children: seven (six with his wife, one before his marriage). Education: Private European tutors. Religion: Coptic Christianity.


Commander of local militia, 1905; provincial governor of two progressively larger provinces, 1906-10, culminating in governorship of Harer province, 1910-16; aided overthrow of Ethiopia’s emperor, 1916, becoming prince, regent, and heir to the throne; negotiated Ethiopia’s membership in the league of Nations, 1923; toured European nations, 1924; named king, 1928; crowned emperor, 1930; defeated by invading Italian army, went into exile, then addressed League of Nations, 1936; returned to power, 1941; helped establish Organization of African Unity (OAU), 1963; overthrown by coup, 1974. Author of autobiography My life and Ethiopia’s Progress, l892-1937.


Haile Selassie was born in a round mud-and-wood hut near the ancient walled city of Harer in 1892, when Ethiopia was still known as the Abyssinian Empire. Named Tafari Makonnen, he was the tenth child born to Ras Makonnen, a prince (or ras) and. governor of the Harer province, and his wife, Yishimabet Ali; he was the only one of their eleven children to survive through adulthood.


Abyssinia was little changed through the centuries: a poor, proud, fiercely independent African empire with several religious groups—Christians, Muslims, Jews, and ani-mists—ruled by a constantly warring network of kings, princes, dukes, and lords. Tafari was an Amhara, the dominant ethnic group that had adopted Coptic Christianity in the year 325 AD. Coptics hold that Christ was solely divine, a belief later denounced as heretical by most of the Christian world except in Egypt and Ethiopia.


His father, Makonnen, was a cousin, confidant, and chief adviser to Emperor Menelik II, a shrewd and powerful ruler. After Italy invaded Abyssinia in 1895, Menelik’s army soundly defeated their forces at the battle of Adowa the following year, preventing the country from being colonized. Over the next few years, Menelik enlarged his empire, establishing Addis Ababa in the center of the kingdom as his capital. He began to centralize power and modernize the country, ending centuries of constant warfare.


When Tafari was 18 months old, his mother died giving birth to one of his siblings. Young Tafari grew up with a sound education in Abyssinian and Coptic traditions, and he was tutored in European thought and ideas by Father Andre Jarosseau, a French missionary priest. Such exposure to foreign ways and thinking was extremely rare for an African son. Tafari proved to be a model student— intelligent, hardworking, with an excellent memory and attention to the smallest detail—capacities that would serve him well throughout his life.


Recognizing his abilities, his father proclaimed him de-jazmatch (commander) of a local militia in 1905 at the age of 13, and established a separate household for him with his own servants and soldiers. Makonnen died the following year, entrusting Tafari to the care of Menelik II. The emperor summoned young Tafari to court and appointed him governor of a small province.


Reform and Intrigue

Tafari was a progressive administrator whose policies increased the power of the central government at the expense of the feudal nobility. He developed a salaried civil service, lowered taxes, and created a court system that extended legal rights to the peasantry. Promoted to a larger province in 1908, two years later he was made governor of Harer, just like his father. And in 1911, he married Wayzaro Menen, a great-granddaughter of Menelik. During the course of their marriage, they had six children, and they remained together until her death in 1961.


Menelik died in 1913 and his grandson, Lij Yasu, became emperor. But Yasu was seen as pro-Muslim, alienating Ethiopia’s Christian majority. Tafari became the rallying symbol for opposition noblemen and high church officials, who cunningly maneuvered Yasu’s overthrow in 1916. Zauditu, Menelik’s daughter, became empress, the first female to rule the nation of Ethiopia since the Queen of Sheba, while Tafari was named a prince (ras) as. well as regent and heir to the throne. Ras Tafari was interested in modernizing Ethiopia; Zauditu was conservative and more concerned with religion than politics. The two maintained an uneasy alliance as various rival factions of nobles vied for power.


The young prince proved to be the master of intrigue and survival. Gradually, he replaced conservative members of the Council of Ministers with his own pro-reform supporters. By 1919 he felt secure enough to begin his program of modernization by creating a centralized bureaucracy. Two years later, he established the first regular courts of law in the country. Ethiopia’s first printing press began operating in 1922, soon followed by the introduction of a regularly published newspaper, as well as motorcars, electric generators, telephone service, and a reformed prison and justice system.


International Recognition

Greater success awaited. Ras Tafari turned his attention to foreign affairs, gaining Ethiopia’s admission to the League of Nations in 1923. The following year, he visited France, Italy, Sweden, Greece, and England, garnering favorable recognition from the international press.


His trip coincided with the growing interest among North American blacks in rediscovering their cultural heritage. Seeing a noble, dignified African leader of an independent nation dealing as an equal with European rulers made an indelible impression. Jamaicans, in particular, were in awe, identifying him as the future king of blacks everywhere in the world. These idolizers, called Rastafarians, started a new religion in his honor that continues today.


Back home, Ras Tafari profited financially from his modernization program and international contacts by enacting a tax on all imports. He used his new fortune wisely, financing the foreign education of a new generation of future Ethiopian government ministers and buying the loyalty of the army. In 1928 his growing supporters demanded that Zauditu name him king. With only limited followers of her own, the empress agreed, appointing Tafari negus (king). Two years later, rebels allied with her attacked the capital but were defeated by Ethiopia’s armed forces. Two days after the battle, Zauditu died—some claimed from poison. Tafari was coronated as emperor, taking the name Haile Selassie ( “Power of the Trinity”), in a ceremony widely covered by the international press.


The new emperor enacted Ethiopia’s first constitution in 1931. It proclaimed all Ethiopians equal and united under one law and one emperor; it also created a two-chamber parliament with a popularly elected lower house, though the emperor retained the right to overthrow any parliamentary decision. Traditional church law was supplanted by the country’s first legal code, and all children born to slaves were eventually freed.


His continued efforts toward modernization and centralizing power were cut short in 1935. Mussolini, the Italian fascist leader, was eager to avenge his country’s 1895 defeat by Menelik and enhance his belligerent image. He dispatched a 250,000-man modern army equipped with superior weaponry, airplanes, and poison gas to invade and conquer Ethiopia. It was the first exhibition of the fascist aggression that would eventually lead to World War II. Defeated, Emperor Haile Selassie fled his country in 1936, appealing without success to the League of Nations for assistance before going into exile in England. Ethiopia had lost its independence for the first time in recorded history.


Once World War II began, a joint force of British soldiers and Ethiopian exiles recaptured Addis Ababa, restoring Haile Selassie to power in 1941. During the next decade he improved health care, enhanced transportation, increased foreign trade, expanded education, and created the country’s first college. But he made no attempt to reform the feudal agricultural system that maintained class distinctions and limited land ownership. Throughout the 1950s he extended his power in Ethiopia’s outlying provinces and maneuvered to annex its neighbor, the former Italian colony of Eritrea, to provide landlocked Ethiopia with a port on the Red Sea. Success finally came in 1962 when Eritrea became an Ethiopian province.


Haile Selassie celebrated his 25th year as emperor in 1955, using the occasion to present a revised constitution. Though it gave the appearance of liberalizing the political system and broadening the power of parliament, in reality all power still resided in the emperor and his one-party government. As proof, the country’s first general election in 1957 resulted in a parliament composed almost entirely of members of the landlord class. But the outward show of reform stimulated the desire of many for a taste of the real thing. When the emperor was visiting Brazil in 1960, dissidents backed by the Imperial Guard and students at the university seized control of Addis Ababa. They demanded a constitutional monarchy with genuine democracy, fundamental economic and agricultural reform, and a concerted effort to end the chronic poverty of most Ethiopians.


The coup failed and many of its leaders were publicly executed. But their demands pinpointed the growing dissatisfaction with Haile Selassie’s rule at home. The attempted overthrow also jolted his sense of security. From this point on, he began to side with Ethiopia’s conservative faction rather than its modernizers. No longer would he be a force for change within his own country.


Instead the emperor turned his attention to foreign affairs, partly to enhance his international status and partly to take his compatriots’ minds off the lack of domestic reforms. Instead of focusing on Europe as in the past, he concentrated on Africa, becoming a role model and elder statesman to many leaders of the newly independent African nations.


Haile Selassie became a leader in the Pan-African movement, stressing African unity to deal with common problems and concerns. He supported independence for former European colonies, condemned South Africa’s foreign and internal policy of racial segregation (apartheid), and sought to limit French nuclear tests in the Sahara. He also took a leading role in the formation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). Having the organization establish its permanent headquarters in Addis Ababa further enhanced his international prestige.


More and more of Haile Selassie ’s time was spent traveling in foreign countries and away from Ethiopia. He successfully mediated the border dispute between Morocco and Algeria in 1963 and then intervened on the side of Nigeria during its bloody civil war, which began in the late 1960s when Christians in the South broke away and formed a separate nation called Biafra. (Biafra later surrendered to federal troops.)


Unrest at Home

While he was being honored abroad, trouble was brewing at home. Islamic Eritrean rebels had begun a civil war in 1962, seeking their independence from Christian Ethiopia. The struggle would last into the 1980s. Neighboring Somalia demanded the return of the Ogaden region. That conflict, too, would escalate to warfare in 1977. The United States and Israel, fearful of an Islamic Eritrea and Somalia, supported Ethiopia with advisers and military aid. Meanwhile, demands by dissidents and students continued to escalate. The educated elite’s mounting frustration with the lack of jobs and democratic reforms in Ethiopia was fueled by economic stagnation, rising unemployment, and growing urban poverty. In December of 1969 a student protest turned violent; guards opened fire, killing 23 and wounding 157.


In 1973 a drought and crop failure caused a widespread famine. Tens of thousands of Ethiopians starved while the emperor reportedly denied the existence of any problem. Angry students aided foreign journalists to surreptitiously observe and then report on the desperate conditions. Western governments began to distance themselves from the fading emperor. At the same time, the Arab oil embargo quadrupled the price of oil, depleting the Ethiopian treasury and sending prices skyrocketing. The government responded with austerity measures; the frustrated populace countered with major demonstrations.


The next year, many of the army’s junior officers mutinied, forcing the emperor’s cabinet to resign. The successful mutineers formed a dergue (military junta or council) and began vying for total control of the government, accusing the emperor of embezzling millions and causing the famine. Finally, in September of 1974, 82-year-old Haile Selassie was arrested and taken away to prison. More than a half century of actual rule by the emperor had come to an end. He was never seen in public again and was reported to have died and been buried without ceremony the following year.


During the violent years after his overthrow, Ethiopia nearly disintegrated. Infighting among members of the dergue became deadly. Hundreds of former political leaders were executed. Major (later Colonel) Mengistu Haile Mariam took over and turned the country into a Marxist state. Thousands of internal political opponents were massacred. The wars with Eritrea and Somalia drained the budget and devastated the countryside. Combined with another drought and crop failure in 1983, millions of Ethiopians either starved or fled to refugee camps in the Sudan and Somalia.


Some of Mengistu’s internal opponents allied with Eritrean guerrillas in 1989 to topple his rule two years later. A semblance of peace descended on Ethiopia, though the ethnic and tribal conflicts unleashed during the 17-year military dictatorship still threatened to undo the kingdom that Haile Selassie had spent a lifetime creating.


The Legacy

When Haile Selassie took power as regent in 1916, Ethiopia had progressed little through the centuries. Though independent, it was dominated by feudal lords wielding nearly absolute power, ruling through archaic laws and traditions. He set about modernizing the country, abolishing ancient practices, promoting reform, and creating a powerful centralized government. Ethiopia was opened to the outside world and its emperor became recognized in international circles.


But Haile Selassie always ruled absolutely. As times changed and his citizens demanded more political freedom and democracy, he grew more conservative. At the same time, poverty and illiteracy were taking their toll on the Ethiopian people. Having lost touch with political reality, the emperor refused to surrender his power and was overthrown. However, despite his downfall, he continues to be remembered as “Lion of Judah, King of Kings, Elect of God”—and as a charismatic, near-mythic figure in Ethiopian politics for more than half a century.