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Haile Selassie I (B)

Orthodox Church

Haile Selassie Emperor Haile Selassie (July 23, 1892 - August 26/27, 1975), born Tafari Makonnen, held power for some 50 years, and ruled as emperor from 1930-74. During the Italian invasion and occupation from 1935-41, when he was driven into exile, he became internationally famous as a symbol of resistance to Fascist aggression. In later years he made a major contribution to the cause of African unity.

Childhood and Education

He was born in Harar province in eastern Ethiopia, the son of Ras Makonnen (q.v.) and of Wayzaro Yeshimbet. His father was from the ruling line of the Shawa dynasty, was a grandson of Sahla Selassé (q.v.) on his mother’s side, and played an outstanding role during the reign of Menilek II (q.v.) [reigned 1889-1913]. He was the first governor of Harar after its reconquest in 1887, and was the envoy of Menilek to Italy and England. He married Yeshimbet in 1876, after which she bore him nine children, all of whom died within a few years of their birth. The tenth child of the couple, and the only one to survive was named Lej Tafari, Haile Selassie was his baptismal name, and hence later his throne name. After Tafari’s birth, he was abducted from his mother, and given to a nurse in the custody of a trusted general, Kegnazmatch Abba Nada. Yeshimbet was never again allowed to see her son. She died when he was 19 months old, from complications following the delivery of her 11th child.

Tafari was only four when the Italo-Ethiopian war of 1895-96 broke out. Before his departure to the war, Ras Makonnen entrusted his delicate son to the care of Monseigneur Taurin, a Catholic missionary in Harar. Tafari remained at the Mission until the triumphant return of his father, after an absence of about a year.

When he was five, a teacher was assigned to him and to his nephew, Emiru (later Ras) to educate them in the traditional Ethiopian manner. Tafari’s first teacher was Walde Kidane, who made a deep impression on him. His second teacher was Gebre Selassie, a monk from Gojam province, for whom Tafari had a special affection and respect. It was he who shaped the young Tafari’s character. After receiving a basic education, which consisted of learning to read and write Ge’ez, he was expected. as was customary, to be ordained as a deacon. In 1900 Abuna Yohannes, an Egyptian bishop of Gojam province, who was returning to his country via Harar, ordained both Tafari and Emiru. Ras Makonnen was keenly interested in giving his son an education in the European style, but no school which provided this was available in Ethiopia. Makonnen therefore asked Dr. Vitalien, a French medical doctor in a leprosy hospital in Harar, to teach Tafari and Emiru to speak French, in his spare time. The doctor, however, eventually found himself too busy at the hospital. Abba Samuel Walda Kahen, an Ethiopian Coptic priest who knew French, was then assigned to teach Tafari both French and Amharic. This priest devoted his time and energy to educating the young prince, but eventually lost his life in a boating accident.

Early Career

Tafari’s career began on November 1, 1905, when he was 13,when his father bestowed on him the title of Dajazmach, the second highest rank after Ras, and appointed him governor of the region of Gara0Mulette, in the province of Harar. It was at this time that the ability and disciplined character of Tafari began to reveal itself. The railway - at that time Ethiopia’s only link with the outside world - ran through Harar province, and envoys and other foreign officials traveling to court of Menilek II at Addis Ababa usually stopped in the city of Harar to pay a courtesy call on Ras Makonnen or on the young prince. In early 1905, the first envoy of Germany, Felix Rosen, met Dajazmach, Tafari, and later described the meeting as follows:

The conversation was limited to the exchange of courtesies and compliments and was as the request of the of the prince carried on in the Amharic language although, as we later heard, he speaks French quite well… Lej Tafari showed his courtly education be receiving the gift with a gracious gesture of thankfulness but neither looking at it nor displaying any sense of pleasure over it, since only lower class people behave thus. The [German] gardes du corps did , however, arouse his curiosity. Son of a great general, his questions about weapons and military equipment showed his great interest in and understanding of such matters. I wanted to take a photograph of the group, but the prince bade me not to do this as his father had given him no instructions in this matter.

In March 1906 his father died, and, together with other princes and nobles, he was summoned to Addis Ababa. Here he was admitted to the newly-opened modern school, named after Menilek II, its founder. Meanwhile he was appointed governor of Salalé, north of Harar, which he administered through a deputy, as he himself was attending Melinek’s court to learn more about imperial practices. In 1907 he was appointed governor of parts of Sidamo in the south, and this time administered the region in person. He later returned to Addis Ababa, and on March 3, 1910, was appointed governor of Harar, his birthplace. He was extremely happy at this appointment, and after two years’ absence went there to administer the province.

On July 31, 1913, he married Wayzaro Manan Asfaw, later to become Empress Manan (q.v.), from the aristocratic family of Wallo. He had three sons and daughters by her. (By the mid-1970s only one son and one daughter were still living.) Wayzaro Manan was the grand-daughter of Ras Mikael (q.v.), formerly a Muslim under the name of Mohammed Ali.

In December, 1913, Menilek II died, and the reigns of power fell into the hands of his grandson, Lej Iyasu (q.v.), the youngest son of Ras Mikael. At first relations between Tafari and Iyasu had been friendly, and earlier Iyasu had insisted on the marriage of his niece to Tafari. Later, however, the two men were no longer on good terms, as they differed on both internal and external policies. Iyasu, for example, wished to have Harar under his personal control, but was opposed in this by Tafari. Finally, in August 1916, Tafari was removed from the Harari governorship, and was instead appointed governor of Kaffa, in the southwest, but refused to go there.

In the external policy, Iyasu was pro-German, whereas Tafari was not. In the long run, Iyasu’s policy brought about his downfall, and Tafari triumphed. The conservative party, headed by the Metropolitan Abuna Matewos and the Minister of War, Habte Giorgis, succeeded in deposing Iyasu on September 27, 1916, and placed Zawditu (q.v.), daughter of Menilek, on the throne on February 11, 1917. At the same time Dajazmach Tafari was promoted to Ras, and was proclaimed heir-apparent and prince regent.

The Regency

Tafari was the most progressive of his group, and for this reason he was entrusted with external policy, as well as with the modernization of the country. At the end of World War I, in 1918, he sent two delegations. one to Europe, and the other to the United States, to congratulate the Allies on their decisive victory, and at the same time to point out that the policy which had thus far been followed by Ethiopia did not reflect the views and understanding of the people, but only the wishes of the deposed monarch, Lej Iyasu. The delegations further stressed the determination of the government of Ethiopia to support and cooperate with the Allies. When, subsequently, the League of Nations was founded, Ethiopia applied for membership, and was accepted in the world body on September 28, 1923. In 1926 Tafari visited several European countries accompanied by his entourage.

In following the policy of modernization, the first task upon which Tafari concentrated was the abolition and eradication of slavery in Ethiopia. At that time while slavery had been considered illegal since the reign of Téwodros II (q.v.) [ruled 1855-68], it was nevertheless still practised. But the efforts of Tafari achieved results. He mobilized a force to deal exclusively with abolition. Through the operation of the administrative machinery that he established, slavery was gradually but surely abolished in Ethiopia.

His next program was to establish modern schools in the capital and in other Ethiopian cities. Opportunities for education were to be made available to all Ethiopians, including the recently liberated slave children. A number of schools were opened and teachers were recruited from Europe and from the United States. In the same way, he sought to modernize the army. A new cadet school was opened outside Addis Ababa, and instructors were recruited from Europe. The graduates of the school were to play a major role in the Italo-Ethiopian war of 1935-36.

His regency was not, however, entirely a period of peace and tranquillity. Uprisings and bloodshed persisted in may parts of the country, caused by a struggle for power on the one hand, and by tendencies for separation from the Ethiopian state on the other. Thus when Ras Mikael, father of Iyasu, heard of the deposition of his son in 1916, he hastily gathered an army from the Wallo region, and marched towards Addis Ababa, crushing the army of the central government which had been sent to stop his advance. Only the trickery of the cunning Hadte Giorgis halted him some 62 miles (100 km) from Addis Ababa in the region called Salalé. In the meantime, a vast army of the central government was amassed from different areas, and a decisive battle took place here, as a result of which Ras Mikael was taken prisoner. The Ethiopian army, led by Ras Tafari and Habte Giorgis, returned triumphantly to the capital with prisoners and booty. Ras Mikael was then taken to a remote place, where he stayed until his death in 1919.

In Addis Ababa, also, the situation was not calm. The supporters of Iyasu and some conservative elements were strong. The assassination of Tafari was plotted by a certain Mohammed Shanqui from Wallo, but the attempt failed, and Tafari escaped death.

Tafari was alarmed by the situation, and organized a counterplot, by using middle-class people, especially veteran soldiers, who since the reign of Menilek had formed a kind of opposition party. These people met openly for a few days, and after deliberation decided upon two demands - firstly, that Ras Tafari was to be proclaimed Negus (king), and be given wider powers than before, and secondly that the conservative elements were to be removed from the palace. The demand was final, and any compromise was ruled out.

Empress Zawditu acceded to the demand, but people in her circle opposed it strongly, and decided instead upon the an open struggle. A certain Abba Wuqaw, commander of the Imperial Guard and right hand of the empress, gathered a large army in the compound of the palace in order to repulse any action by the opposition. Only the direct intervention of the empress saved the situation. Affa Wuqaw was caught, and Ras Tafari succeeded in achieving his goal. On October 7, 1928, he was acclaimed Negus, or king, and publicly crowned. Similarly, when the conservative elements in the palace were removed, and Empress Zawditu was also fulfilled.

Although Ras Tafari had succeeded in seizing power without bloodshed in Addis Ababa, he did not find it so easy to established his authority in the provinces. Serious resistance began in the north under the leadership of Gugsa Wale (q.v.), consort of Menilek II. Rus Gugsa Wale had been the husband of Zawditu before her coronation. When, however, the assembly of nobles decided in 1916 on the succession of Zawditu to the throne, he had been forced to separate from her, and to limit himself to the governorship of Gugsa with Tafari had been no more than formal, with a clear tendency towards deterioration. Gogsa was grieved by the situation as a whole, and was awaiting the appropriate time to retaliate for his humiliation. The occasion appeared when he was asked by Negus Tafari to mobilize his army and march to Wallo in pursuit of the fleeing monarch, Lej Iyasu. Formally, Gugsa accepted the order, and led his army to Wallo, but returned without fulfilling his duty. The action was taken as a defiance of the order, and a serious conflict began between Ras Gugas and Tafari, which ended in an armed struggle in which Ras Gugsa was defeated and killed at the battle of Wadla (Anrchim) on March 31, 1930. Two days later Empress Zawditu died, and Tafari’s accession to the throne was in sight.

By his own preference, November 2, 1930 was decided upon as his coronation day, upon which he ascended the throne under the name of Haile Selassie I. His coronation was the most colorful one recorded in the history of the country, Not only did the nobles and dignitaries of Ethiopia participate in the ceremony, but also representatives of many foreign countries

His coronation resulted in most of the nobles submitting to his authority. Only one potential rival was determined to overthrow him and to end his reign. This was Ras Haylu Takla Haymanot (q.v.) of Gojam. Haylu, who was not on good terms with the emperor, organized a conspiracy of overthrow him and to bring Lej Iyasu back to power. After his capture, Iyasu had been entrusted to the care of Ras Kassa Haylu, a close relative of Tafari. The deposed monarch was closely guarded, and it was almost impossible for outsiders to penetrate the defenses which surrounded him. Ras Haylu, however, succeeded in doing so. He bribed the guards, and began a regular correspondence, in which he laid out plans for Iyasu’s escape. Finally, in 1932, Iyasu managed to escape, and for several days his whereabouts remained unknown. But a search party eventually recaptured him, together with his followers, in Gojam province. Ras Haylu, as the architect of his defection, was also detained and condemned to life imprisonment.

The Italian Occupation

The Italian invasion and occupation of Ethiopia, which lasted from 1935-41, forced Haile Selasse into exile in England. He had not expected any immediate confrontation with the Italians, hoping that the member states of the League’s Covenant by taking common action against the aggressor. But the Italian troops invaded Ethiopia on October 3, 1935, without a declaration of war, and continued their slow advance with tanks, airplanes, and poison gas, without interference from the League. The Ethiopian army, although determined to defend the national territory, was much inferior to Italian forces in its armament. Above all the Ethiopians lacked military leadership. At the battle of Adwa in 1896, Emperor Menilek had been present. Emperor Haile Selasse was still in Addis Ababa when the war began on two fronts. He arrived on the battlefield only after the Ethiopian army had become demoralized, and had begun to withdraw. The emperor did his best to rally the army to stop the steadily advancing Italians. But March 31, 1936, when the battle of Maychaw was fought, was the fateful day for the Ethiopians. The lost the war, and the enemy advanced towards the capital. In the aftermath of the military defeat, a council of nobles and generals was called, under the chairmanship of the emperor, to decided the country’s future. It was agreed that the emperor should go to Geneva and present the case of Ethiopia to the League of Nations, while the army continued its resistance in various places. The emperor accordingly left Addis Ababa on April 2, 1936 for Europe, via Jibuti and Jerusalem, and on June 30, 1936, delivered his historic and prophetic speech to the League of Nations, in which he stressed that the invasion which Ethiopia had suffered would be the fate of other peace-loving nations if common cause was not made against the aggressor. The speech moved most of the members, who expressed their sympathy. But as far as practical measures were concerned, the League remained indecisive. Hesitantly it applied sanctions against Italy, which had little effect.

The Patriots, on the other hand, continued their resistance, particularly in the highlands of Ethiopia, although the Italians were ruthless in crushing resistance movements. A massacre of Ethiopians by Italians occurred on February 20, 1937, in which numbers of Ethiopians were indiscriminately killed, and that date has remained a day of mourning to the present time.

The Italian occupation lasted five years, and four of these the emperor spent in exile in England, becoming established in the city of Bath. the entry of Italy into World War II on June 10, 1940, changed the situation, however. On June 25, the emperor arrived in Alexandria, Egypt, from where he entered Sudan. Patriot forces crossed into the Sudan to rally to him, and on January 20, 1941 he crossed the frontier into Ethiopia. On May 5, he re-entered Addis Ababa in triumph. It should be noted that, in the long history of the country, the Italian occupation represented the first time that Ethiopia had fallen under the sway of a foreign power. It was also the first time that an Ethiopian emperor had to seek asylum abroad before returning to his throne.

Post-War Developments

After liberation, the emperor placed emphasis on education, Many schools, including boarding schools, were opened in the capital, and , gradually, in the province as well, while school attendance grew steadily. The need for higher education also became apparent, and in 1951 the University of Addis Ababa was opened. A decade later it was renamed Haile Selassie I University; after the emperor’s death the university’s name was reverted to its original form.

Eritrea had remained under Italian rule for 68 years, and throughout this time Ethiopia had been landlocked. In 1952, however, after a long struggle, Haile Selassie succeeded in his aim of having Eritrea reunited with Ethiopia. The reunification at first took the form of a federation, concluded under United Nations auspices.

In African affairs, the emperor became known for his contribution to the cause of African unity. For many years he worked for the independence of African countries by supporting freedom fighters. Many leaders of now-independent African countries benefited from the emperor’s help, both morally and financially, when they were in need. At the Accra Conference of Independent African States in 1958. Haile Selassie proposed a scholarship scheme for African students to pursue their studies in Ethiopia. In consequence, many young Africans attended the University of Addis Ababa, and were later assigned responsible posts in their own countries after independence.

As the number of independent African states grew, the need for unity on the continent became increasingly apparent. In the early 1960s, the African states were split into the Monrovia and Casablanca groups. After intensive diplomatic efforts, the emperor succeeded in bridging the gap about unity. May 23, 1963 became a date of historic significance when the Charter of African Unity was signed in Addis Ababa. To a great extent this result was attained thanks to the emperor, and in consequence he was called the “father of African unity”.

In the years that followed, he continued not to spare his efforts in this respect. Whenever problems arose between members of the Organization of African Unity (O. A. U.), he attempted to have them settled peacefully. In this way the border dispute between Morocco and Algeria was settled peacefully. But his most tireless efforts were put forth at the time of the civil war in Nigeria (1967-70), when his unreserved support of the national unity of federal Nigeria was clear. In the long run his efforts were crowned with success, and Nigeria national unity was maintained.

In internal policy he was less fortunate in achieving his aims. He was not able to apply equitable economic measures to minimize poverty in Ethiopia, and was also not able to have justice administered equitably. Although the courts were theoretically independent, in practice they were not. Partiality and nepotism were manifest in many instances, and this caused dissatisfaction among the urban population of Ethiopia. For the peasants, however, Haile Selassie was the ideal emperor, and they prayed for his health and long life. Dissatisfaction was limited to the urban population, and to members of the younger generation. But the dissatisfaction led to plots against the emperor’s rule. On many occasions he discovered underground movements which aimed at his overthrow. For example, in the summer of 1951 a plot was discovered which had the support of many progressive elements as well as of some Patriots who had fought against the Italians. The participants were condemned to life imprisonment with hard labor. Unfortunately, however, the government did not become sufficiently concerned to introduce reforms, but concentrated instead upon the suppression of dissidents.

In December 1960, in the absence of the emperor abroad, an abortive coup took place, under the inspiration of Garmame Neway (q.v.), supported by the commander of the Imperial Body Guard, chief of security, and the police commissioner. The army and the air force remained outside the plot. At first the coup seemed successful. A change of government, under the same form, was announced, and a number of social reforms proclaimed, over Radio Addis Ababa. When the emperor, who was in Brazil, heard of the attempted coup, he returned home. Fighting had broken out between the army and the Imperial Body Guard, costing many lives, but by the time the emperor arrived the army had gained the upper hand.

The Last Years

Although the coup had failed, new ideas and new self-awareness were gained by the people as a result of it. Inevitably a new horizon in social and economic life was opened, to which the government reluctantly and temporarily bowed. The emperor promised to delegate power to the parliament, and at one time hinted at his retirement. The parliament also began to discuss the thorny problems and land reforms, but without result. All discussions of change amounted to no more than academic exercises. Dissatisfaction and frustration mounted among the young people in particular. Student riots began at the university and soon spread to secondary schools. The demands of the students, however, received negative responses from the authorities, who used force to repress student demonstrations. But finally the government succumbed to the situation. The immediate cause was the famine in Wallo province, which the authorities had in vain attempted to keep secret from the world. The publication of eyewitness accounts, however, shook the foundations of the government. To this circumstance was added the mutiny of the third division of the Ethiopian army to the north, which in February 1973 demanded the resignation of the cabinet. The mass resignation of the government was accepted by the emperor, and Endalkachew Makonnen (q.v.), the former minister of posts and communications was asked to form a government. Meanwhile the emperor delegated power to the parliament, and a commission was formed to draft a new constitution. But the action taken was little appreciated by the younger generation, and the situation lent itself to a military takeover.

Thus the Ethiopian Revolution , as it has been called, began. High government officials were imprisoned, and finally the emperor himself. On September 13, 1974, he was deposed and imprisoned by the Forth Army Division, and was later removed to the grand palace of Menilek II, where he lived until the day of his death.

After the announcement of his death by Radio Ethiopia, the official version of the cause of his death was published in the Ethiopian Herald on August 28 , 1975:

The former Emperor had been receiving treatment for an enlarged prostate gland from his private physician, Dr. Asrat Woldeyes, along with a team of foreign doctors, first at his special residence and later in hospital where he was successfully operated on. His condition improved until recently.

Of late, however, the doctors who were attending him found his health deteriorating and continued giving him adequate treatment. As his condition continued to deteriorate further, the former Emperor asked the Provisional Military Administrative Council to be allowed visits by members of his family and accordingly his daughter Tenagne Work [Warq] Haile Selassie, and his granddaughter Aida Desta, spent August 23, 1975, the Ethiopian Feast of the Assumption, the whole day and night with him and returned to their residence the next day.

As the former Emperor was 84 years of age and as his illness worsened, he was visited by a doctor on August 25, and received treatment the whole day. The next day, August 26, when his condition worsened, attempts were made to find his private physician, Dr. Asrat Woldeyes, until 10:30 p.m.. But he could not be located. Dr. Asrat was asked to come and see the former Emperor this morning together with the other doctors. But before the doctors arrived to see him, the former Emperor was found dead in his bed by his personal attendant.

The next day, August 28, 1975, Radio Ethiopia announced the burial of the Emperor without any funeral service. The place of burial had not been specified. Such was the end of Emperor Haile Selassie I, who held the reins of power virtually since 1916, for almost 60 years. Precisely speaking, however, his reign lasted for 40 years, excluding the five-year Italian occupation.

Sergew Hable Selassie


Atnafu Makonnen, Ethiopia Today, Tokyo, 1960.

G. Bernoville, L’epopée missionaire d’Ethiopie, Monseigneur Jarosseau (“The Missionary Epic of Ethiopia: Monseigneur Jarosseau”), Paris, 1950.

R. D. Greenfield, Ethiopia, A New Political History, London, 1965.

Haile Selassie, Hiywetenna Ye Atiopya Ermijja (“My Life and Ethiopia’s Progress”), Vol. 1, Addis Ababa, 1972, English translation by E. Ullendorf, published as The Autobiography of Haile Selassie I, London, 1976, Vol. 2, Addis Ababa, 1974.

H. Jenny, Äthiopien, Land in Aufbruch (“Ethiopia in Disintegration”), Stuttgart, 1957.

Kebede Mikael, Ethiopia and Western Civilization, Addis Ababa, 1949.

L. Mosley, Haile Selassie: The Conquering Lion of Judah, London, 1964.

S. Pankhurst, Ethiopia, A Cultural History, London, 1954.

Christine Sandford, The Lion of Judah Hath Prevailed, London, 1955.

E. Ullendorf, The Ethiopians, London, 1960.

This article was reprinted from The Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography (in 20 Volumes). Volume One Ethiopia-Ghana, ©1997 by L. H. Ofosu-Appiah, editor-in-chief, Reference Publications Inc., New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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