THE ANNEX BLOGThomas Pakenham Introduces Our New Haile Selassie Biography – 2.3.16
Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie with a young Queen Elizabeth II, 1958

– Elizabeth II and Haile Selassie

          He was the scion of a dynasty that was reputed to descend from King Solomon, a pioneer of African unity and independence, a staunch confederate of the Allies in their fight against the fascist Axis powers and the messiah of the Jamaican Rastafarian movement. He was a reformer and an autocrat, whose rule was brought to a brutal and ignominious end when he was toppled and murdered by communist rebels. The impressive, dazzling and complex personality of Haile Selassie, King of Kings, is brilliantly conveyed in a new biographical portrait by Asfa-Wossen Asserate, his great-nephew, and was hailed as ‘magnificent’ by The Guardian.

          Below is celebrated historian Thomas Pakenham’s foreword to King of Kings: The Triumph and Tragedy of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia written by Asfa-Wossen Asserate.

For many years there was a missing piece at the centre of the jigsaw of African history. There was no full-scale biography of the Emperor Haile Selassie. Yet no other African ruler had kept his grip on power for so many decades. Regent from 1916 to 1930, Emperor from 1930 to 1974, he excited the admiration of African leaders of later generations – even those who had come to power by democratic means. To many of his own subjects in Ethiopia he seemed almost like a god. To the Rastafarians of Jamaica he was the Messiah. Yet when he finally fell from power, and was secretly killed by the Derg, the revolutionary junta, he seemed already like a ghost from the past.

Now Asfa-Wossen Asserate has gallantly risen to the challenge. This is an insider’s account, based on many personal sources not available to other historians. He has exploited a unique advantage: the history of his own family was, for three generations, interwoven with the history of the emperor. His paternal grandfather, Ras Kassa, was one of the five leading Ethiopian nobles who had chosen Ras Tafari (as the future emperor was then styled) to become regent after the overthrow of Emperor Lij Iyasu. In fact Ras Kassa was Tafari’s cousin and had a better dynastic claim to the throne than Tafari, as his family was descended not only from the Shoan branch of the Solomonic line, which had ruled Ethiopia since 1889, but also from the Imperial Gondarine-Lasta line, which had ruled the country in previous centuries. But neither Ras Kassa nor Asfa-Wossen’s father, Ras Asserate, had the appetite for imperial power. Both men remained stubbornly loyal to the emperor – by contrast with most of the other feudal nobles. Yet the loyalty of Ras Asserate, as his son poignantly describes, was tested almost to breaking point in the final years of the Haile Selassie’s reign.

Asfa-Wossen begins his story in the declining years of the Emperor Menelik. Ras Tafari’s father, Ras Makonnen, was one of Menelik’s most loyal and most accomplished generals. After helping to defeat the Italians at the Battle of Adwa in 1896, Makonnen was given control of the south-eastern province of Harar, and it was here that the future emperor spent his boyhood and was educated by Europeans. However, the early death of his father catapulted Tafari forward into the dynastic struggle. At thirteen he was already the titular governor of Salale; at eighteen he assumed control of Harar, his father’s old province; at twenty-four he was regent and effectively in control of the country. Already he had had to crush a revolt by Lij Iyasu, Menelik’s wayward grandson, who had been the first heir apparent but was deposed on the pretext he had converted to Islam. (The charge was probably false, but Lij Iyasu was placed under house arrest, watched over by Ras Kassa, Asfa-Wossen’s grandfather.) There was nothing wayward about Tafari. Although slightly built and a head shorter than most Ethiopian nobles, he seemed every inch the man of destiny. He preferred to out-manoeuvre his enemies rather than to crush them, and had a genius for playing off one faction against another. But when directly challenged he could be ruthless enough. After his rival Lij Iyasu escaped from Ras Kassa’s care, Lij Iyasu was recaptured and chained to a post, then mysteriously killed in 1935 – perhaps on the emperor’s orders.

By 1920 Haile Selassie had taken the first steps to modernise the country. He built schools and hospitals and invited Europeans to staff them. There was even a nod in the direction of democracy: promise of a parliament, a senate and a written constitution. In fact he had created an absolute monarchy for himself and his family. But there was one enemy it was not in his power to subdue: Mussolini’s Italy. Smarting over their defeat at Adwa forty years earlier, the Fascist armies pushed south into Ethiopia from their colonial base in Eritrea on the Red Sea. By 1936, their motorised columns had smashed the ill-equipped Ethiopian warriors, and the emperor (accompanied by Asfa-Wossen’s father and grandfather) was a fugitive in England. For most Ethiopians the war was a catastrophe. (Three of Ras Kassa’s sons, fighting with the partisans, had surrendered on the promise of safe conduct and were then shot by the Italians.) But for the emperor this was in a way his finest hour. Out of the humiliation of defeat he had created an astonishing moral victory. He was the first (and last) African ruler to address the League of Nations. He denounced the barbarism of the Italian invasion. And if the world could do little to help him, at least it had ears to listen – and in general to agree.

Five years later, in 1941, the Emperor was back in power, put back on his throne by British and South African forces. And for the next nineteen years, still playing off one opponent against another and depriving the aristocrats of their private armies, he ruled the country unchallenged. For two terms he chaired the Organisation for African Unity and earned much admiration from his fellow rulers. But back in Ethiopia the pace of reform seemed agonisingly slow, especially to the growing number of Ethiopians educated abroad. Of course this was the price of absolute monarchy: an absolute bottleneck. Press, Parliament and cabinet remained puppets in the hands of the emperor. And then, in 1960, the emperor’s throne was shaken by a first political earthquake.

It is from this point that Asfa-Wossen, who was twelve years old in 1960, can speak as an eyewitness. His father, Asserate Kassa, was the leading loyalist who rallied the country against an attempted coup by two of the commanders of the emperor’s bodyguard. The plan was to depose the emperor, while he was absent on a state visit to Brazil, and replace him with his son, the Crown Prince, appointed as a constitutional monarch. To many people’s surprise, the Crown Prince played his part, and broadcast to the nation the news that he had replaced his father. (Asfa-Wossen cites evidence that the Crown Prince made this broadcast freely enough, although the official version, published later, claimed that he spoke with a gun in his back.) But the coup was botched. The main army, the students, the urban public, the landless peasants – they had no shortage of grievances. But who wanted to throw in their lot with the emperor’s bodyguard? The coup ended in a massacre of senior ministers at the palace, which Asserate was lucky to escape. This was followed by the pursuit and suicide of two of the leading conspirators. Others were hunted down and publicly hanged.

What kind of lesson did the emperor draw from the attempted coup when he hurriedly flew back from Brazil? No lesson, perhaps, except that he had been betrayed by two of his most trusted commanders. It was different for Asserate Kassa and many of the others most loyal to the Emperor. Asfa-Wossen describes in graphic detail the torment that his father suffered in the final years of the emperor’s reign, as the last chance for moderate reform was squandered. In 1972 the emperor celebrated his eightieth birthday. Asserate went to the palace to offer his congratulations – then suddenly fell at the emperor’s feet. Lying there, he begged for one favour. ‘Please say this to your subjects: “My beloved people of Ethiopia. I have served you for almost sixty years. Now the time has come for me to abdicate … Here is my son, into whose care I commend you.”

The emperor was visibly moved. Then he told Asserate to get up, and replied: ‘Tell me, did King David abdicate … We shall reign as long as the Almighty allows us’.

Two years later the killer wave of revolution, long feared by the loyalists, swept over the country. Sixty senior ministers, including Asserate, were tied up, two by two, and shot against the wall of the main prison. Tens of thousands died in the bloody purges ordered by the Derg, the Soviet-backed army junta. Tens of thousands more, including Asfa-Wossen himself, escaped and fled the country. Asfa-Wossen’s mother and sisters were less fortunate. For fourteen years they, and other members of the royal family, were imprisoned in a room like a cage. Meanwhile the emperor, still in his own room in the palace, was quietly smothered with a pillow.

It was all so predictable – and avoidable. That was at the heart of the tragedy.

Asfa-Wossen concludes this masterly biography with a cool assessment of the emperor and his legacy. ‘His many services to the country will carry more weight than the great mistakes he undoubtedly made.’ And he might have added Haile Selassie’s many services to the world at large. To Europeans he represented the pioneer in the struggle against fascism. To millions of Africans he came to symbolise their own struggle for independence. He gave them back the dignity robbed by centuries of European exploitation. This was the ultimate irony: a despot at home (even if a benevolent one), he was regarded abroad as the champion of liberty.

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