Words by Martei Korley
Emperor Haile Selasse I and Empress Menen with their children at the time of their coronation
On November 2nd, 1930 the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie I and Empress Menen ushered in a new wave of pride in the black diaspora. Haile Selassie, whose name means ‘power of the Holy Trinity’, is the baptismal name of the child born Tafari Makonnen on July 23rd, 1892 in the province of Harrar to Ras Makonnen and his wife Yashimabet. His Majesty (Or Haile Selasse I, R.R. as he wrote it himself), has cut an impressive, if controversial, figure and continues to mean a lot of different things to different people. Adjectives abound when discussing the long-reigning monarch; his political legacy is complex. But even his detractors tend to credit him with, for better or worse, ushering Ethiopia into the 20th century.
Marcus Garvey at first glorified the African Monarch only to revile him after the onset of the Italo-Ethiopian war.
Political Science professors around the globe marvel at Selassie’s shrewd political genius and his address to The League of Nations in 1936 (The 1936 invasion of Ethiopia for the purposes of resettling Italian farmers in the large and fertile country by fascist Italy was Mussolini’s version of Hitler’s “Lebensraum” concept–arguably the root cause of World War II) is part of many curricula at campuses around the world.
Magazines repeatedly named him “Best Dressed Monarch” and as such, he entered the minds of the European and American public in a way that no other African monarch had since Cleopatra. This is evident, for instance, in the US magazine covers on which he appeared decades before desegregation. Not even the election of Barack Obama can be compared in scope with the coronation: Ethiopia had at the time never been occupied by a foreign power and remained the only uncolonized territory on the African continent. The nobility of the Ethiopian court and the respect it commanded through the League of Nations–and the success with which its head negotiated the hostile waters of the international political scene post-WW I–was lost on few.
National Geographic published an issue with the coronation as the cover story and lavished accolades onto the monarch in a way that was unprecedented in talking about Africans. Indeed, many attempts were made by media to discredit Selassie’s “blackness”–after all he was a descendant of King Solomon!
Even Rastas vary greatly in their perceptions of Haile Selasse’s divinity. Some see him as God incarnate while eschewing the European ideal of Jesus Christ, others as the greatest teacher and reformer with the oldest of bloodlines, Christ in his second coming. All, however, study the political history of Selassie and celebrate his works and writings.
With the rise of post-colonial independence in Africa following the independence of Ghana in 1957, Selassie became the founder of the Organization of African Unity, focused on development and countermeasures to the effects of colonialism and postcolonialism. The mere fact that so many new heads of state entered the political landscape (Julius Nyerere, Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta and Abdel Nasser to name a few) shifted some of the focus from Ethiopia, although internationally Selassie was still regarded as “The Father of Africa”.
As a result of the political legacies of both his predecessor, Menilek II and the Italian government, internal conflict with Eritrea became a blight on the monarchy in the eyes of many. Western media jumped at the opportunity to rebuke the Emperor during a 1968 famine, notwithstanding the fact that WWII blanket bombings with mustard gas by Italian fighters had deforested large tracts of land, rendering them infertile. Internal ethnic prejudices also exacerbated the situation and Selassie repeatedly rebutted accusations of favoritism towards the Amhara ethnic group. “Misguided people sometimes create misguided ideas. Some of my ancestors were Oromo. How can I colonize myself?”
-Haile Selasse I
In the end, the dissent which toppled his government came from the same group of elite intellectuals to which he had afforded support and education, contrary to the hegemony of feudal tradition.
Custodianship of the popular opinion of Haile Selassie has gradually moved towards the Rasta movement as the movement itself has gained more freedoms, not least through the spread of reggae music. This tradition has proved very efficient in disseminating basic knowledge of Selassie into popular conscience, especially in the Caribbean. Just as old Ethiopians swear on Selassie as Janhoy (meaning the Elephant, as in the Emperor who is greater than the King of the jungle, the Lion), throughout the English-speaking parts of the region it is common to substitute “God knows” with” Selassie I know”and iconic images of His Imperial Majesty can be found virtually anywhere. In fact he far surpasses any regional Icon: Che Guevara and Castro hardly registers on the scale and Obama would surely covet the adulation.
As a political and historical event, the coronation is not to be taken lightly; it was epic in scope and took seven months to prepare. And indeed it was true when Rastas in Jamaica would say: Seventy-two nations bowed down before the Lion of Judah. All governments had their representatives in Addis Abeba, the Ethiopian capital, for the occasion. As Burning Spear sings:” The Lion was crowned the King.” Or too be exact: The Kings of Kings of Ethiopia, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the tribe of Judah, Elect of God and light of the world, Haile Selasse I, Rightful Ruler.