King of Kings: The Triumph and Tragedy of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia. Asfa-Wossen Asserate, Haus Publishing, $29.95.
In late January 1941 a party of soldiers and civilians crossed the border from Sudan into Italian-occupied Ethiopia. The men in uniform included British political advisors, some peculiar soldiers of fortune, and the shambling, eccentric and driven figure of Major Orde Wingate. There were priests of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in their robes, and a group of aloof Ethiopians who looked very far from home as they assembled for a ceremony in the dried-up riverbed. Among them there was a very small, black-bearded man of bearing, a man who the British had been referring to as ‘Mr Smith.’ This was Haile Selassie the First, The King of Kings, Emperor of Ethiopia. A few months earlier he had been living in straitened circumstances in a cold villa just outside Bath. Now, thanks to the machinations of war, he was on his way to Addis Ababa to reclaim the throne of the 225th monarch in the House of David, in one of the greatest comebacks of all time.
It was an example of the luck of the Emperor. Haile Selassie – or Tafari Makonnen as he was first named, Ras Tafari as he was later known – was born in 1892 into a world of secrecy and intrigue in one of the poorest countries in the world. With its endless procession of kings and princes and peasantry, Ethiopia was an empire from the dark ages living on in the 20th century. But it was also the only African state that had resisted European colonization, and an inspiration for African independence. The Ethiopia of Haile Selassie provided a model for the liberation of modern Africa, but also for its enslavement – an influence that continues to play out in Africa today.
Ethiopia is a mountainous country, and mountainous countries maintain their monarchies and their arcane traditions. Cities built on rising ground are full of narrow winding lanes, with shuttered houses huddled close – a stage set for the politics of ancient courts. That was the world that Haile Selassie was born for: a moth-eaten theatre of mystery, where princes were played off against princes, and where exercising power was often the art of doing nothing while appearing to do everything. The author of this new account of the King of Kings is a man who knew something of the court at first hand, but in the end it is debatable whether this is a story that can ever be completely unravelled. Mystery was its beginning and end.
Ras Tafari was lucky. He was lucky that his cousin Iyasu, who had better claims to the throne, was impetuous and self-destructive. He was lucky that as regent to the unpolitical Empress Zauditu he had the opportunity to consolidate power almost unseen. He was lucky that he came to power at a moment when colonial competition in Africa was at a pause, with Europe embroiled in the First World War. Above all he was lucky in his personality, which somehow drew people to him, yet caused the ambitious to destroy themselves.
Italian forces invaded Ethiopia in 1936, and proceeded to spend the next five years brutalising the country. The removal of the Italians by allied forces in 1941 was the decisive event in the history of the country, of Haile Selassie’s rule, and arguably the decisive event in the modern history of Africa. The principle of self-determination had been re-asserted in an African state, and this turned Ethiopia into a kind of guiding star for the independence movement that would sweep through Africa after the war. For Haile Selassie the defeat of Italy opened the road back to the imperial throne, but it was also his undoing.
The return of the exiled emperor was not universally welcomed. There were those who thought he should never have gone into exile. There were those who resented his decision to rehabilitate people who had collaborated with the Italians. Above all there were those who saw that the post-war Ethiopia needed reforms that went beyond the paving of a few roads and the accumulation of more imperial limousines. But Haile Selassie was completely impervious to reform: he believed that the principle of autocratic rule was an absolute law of the universe. His fundamental inertia, which had served him so well in the shadowy world of court politics, was also his weakness.
On the one hand Ethiopia became the definitive African state, the image of independence – for example the Emperor played a role in the creation of the Organization of African Unity, now the African Union, which was headquartered in Addis Ababa. And the magnetic influence of the King of Kings was felt beyond Africa, in Europe (where the popularity of the tirelessly travelling Emperor was often seen on the streets) and in America. Haile Selassie became a symbol of black empowerment. In Jamaica he became the figurehead of a fringe religion, Rastafarianism, which revered him as the third earthly incarnation of the biblical god. Haile Selassie never endorsed these claims – when pressed he rather wearily pointed out that as far as he knew he was a human being – but he did not undermine them either.
But the Selassie effect could also be malignant. It was the source of the monarchical fantasies of the worst of independent Africa’s despots. The imperial trappings of the King of Kings reappeared in the gold braid dicatorships of Idi Amin of Uganda, of Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, of the grotesque Emperor Bokassa of the Central African Republic, and of Gaddafi in Libya. Ethiopia symbolised independence, but it was independence at the mercy of an imperial fantasy.
Like all absolute rulers Haile Selassie eventually lost all touch with the reality around him. After the famine in Tigray and Wollo in the early 1970s – a disaster that the Emperor was completely unfitted to deal with or even understand – his mysterious power suddenly melted away and an equally mysterious but infinitely more brutal power took his place, the shadowy committee of socialist military men called the ‘Derg’. Haile Selassie was taken away, not in one of his Rolls Royces, but in a VW Beetle. “What, in here?” he asked as the car door was opened.
Haile Selassie died a year later, in circumstances that are unlikely ever to be clarified. The author believes the 83-year-old was murdered in the two-room apartment where he was being held under a kind of house arrest. Others think that was just the inevitable rumour. Mystery was the fabric of life in Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia, and this book does as good a job as is likely to be done of depicting it. Solving it is another matter.