Finding Haile Selassie
By Doug Eadie (Addis Ababa 1964–67)
EMPEROR HAILE SELASSIE I, “Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah,” had been dead for almost 40 years when I returned to Ethiopia this past May for my first visit since returning to the United States in 1967 after three years as a Peace Corps teacher at Tafari Makonnen School in Addis Ababa. In 1967, His Imperial Majesty had seemed the very embodiment of the proud spirit of this exotic, never-colonized kingdom, but on my return I found that the Emperor had apparently become a dusty relic of ancient history to the great majority of Ethiopians.
Haile Selassie might be largely forgotten now, but my Ethiopian friends Berhane Mogese and Tesfagiorgis Wondimagegnehu and I encountered him often as we traveled around Addis during my visit
this past May, even though we hadn’t consciously set out in search of the late Emperor. For example, we found the Emperor at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University, where Ato Mammo Haile, who’d been a member of the Emperor’s household staff and was now in his 80s, proudly showed us uniforms that Haile Selassie had worn, and where Tesfagiorgis and I posed for the camera before a photograph of the Emperor at his most majestic.
And we found the Emperor at the beautiful Kiddist Selassie (Holy Trinity) Cathedral, where an elderly Ethiopian Orthodox priest who had seen the Emperor worship at the cathedral many times showed us the tombs of Haile Selassie and his wife, Empress Menen, and the ornate thrones where the Emperor and his Empress sat during Mass at the cathedral.
Every encounter with His Imperial Majesty during my visit brought the Emperor vividly back to life in our minds, so he was very much with us in spirit during those ten days, which isn’t surprising when you realize how large he’d loomed in our lives back in the 1960s. Since Haile Selassie was such a constant and vivid presence as Berhane, Tesfagiorgis, and I toured Addis and enjoyed many meals of injera and wat together, we naturally spent a lot of time talking about the still-mysterious, endlessly fascinating ruler who’d sat on the throne of Ethiopia for almost a half century — and pondering his place in Ethiopian history and his contribution to Ethiopia’s economic and social development. As I think about our discussions over those ten days, some highlights stand out in my mind. First and foremost, the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah was not only a masterful politician, he was also a true statesman, in the sense that he was genuinely and passionately committed to Ethiopia’s modernization — certainly technologically and economically speaking, although his commitment to social and political development is more questionable. However, we agreed that it would be a mistake to idealize or romanticize the Emperor, who was, in fact, an absolute feudal monarch who didn’t brook dissent and never hesitated to have opponents of his regime imprisoned and even hanged in public squares.
But in stark contrast to the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, who was a brutal and systematic destroyer of human capital responsible for the imprisonment, torture, and execution of thousands of educated Ethiopian youth, Haile Selassie made a tremendous investment in education, which of all development tools was probably closest to his heart. Tesfagiorgis and Berhane along with many of their compatriots will never forget receiving their university diplomas from the hands of the Emperor himself. As it turned out, Haile Selassie’s deep faith in education and the high priority he placed on expanding educational opportunities in Ethiopia are somewhat ironic, since many, if not most, newly educated Ethiopians had by the mid 1970s become vocal critics of the feudal monarchy and certainly played a major role in bringing the Solomonic line to an end. And what most saddened us as we reflected on the Emperor’s legacy during our many long discussions during my Addis odyssey was Haile Selassie’s failure to lay the foundation for an orderly transition to some kind of representative government after his death. In the end, apparently, he was so enmeshed in the absolute feudal monarchy that he was incapable of reaching out to, and building an alliance with, the new educated class that he had created and that might have led a peaceful, post-monarchical transition. Instead, the Emperor became an isolated, out-of-touch leader, leaving a vacuum that the astute Mengistu Haile Marian so adroitly exploited, at a horrific cost to Ethiopia.
You can read more about Doug’s return to Ethiopia at http://www.dougeadie.com/blog/