EMPEROR Haile Selassie of Ethiopia was honoured by the 32nd African Union (AU), Summit in February 2019. His Statue was unveiled at Africa Hall in Addis Ababa with pomp and ceremony by the new Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Mohamed who has reconciled his country both with its immediate past and with its neighbours, including hitherto arch enemy, Eritrea.
Emperor Selassie was one of the greatest African leaders of the past century, credited with the founding in May 1963 of the AU’s predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) whose inaugural conference he chaired. The fact that his country was not colonized thanks to his successful repulsion of Italian dictator Mussolini’s invasion, was a great inspiration to African freedom fighters.
Although a pro-Western political moderate, he supported Pan-Africanism and decolonization. A Pan-African conference he hosted in Addis Ababa in 1960 fired the imagination of nationalist leaders from Julius Nyerere to Nelson Mandela. When I first saw him with President Nyerere during his state visit to Tanzania in 1964 I was inspired and moved by his formidable personality and charisma.
He hosted the OAU headquarters whose two main functions were to push for Africa’s total liberation and its unification. Thus Ethiopia and Liberia brought the case of Pretoria’s occupation of South West Africa (Namibia) before the International Court of Justice in 1962. The Court’s 1966 decision to throw out the case on the excuse that both countries had no jurisdiction to bring it up rationalized and energized the wars of national liberation.
The South West African Peoples’ Organization (SWAPO) of Namibia launched the armed struggle the same year.
By the early 1960s Emperor Selassie’s stature had risen so much that when he was invited to Kenya’s independence celebrations the British fearing that he would overshadow the official Guest of Honour, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, they put pressure on Premier, Jomo Kenyatta to withdraw the invitation.
The Emperor was a towering figure in meetings of the OAU. If he had not arrived OAU Summits would be postponed to await his arrival. He was a key leader in the resolution of conflicts in Africa. He chaired an OAU Heads of State Committee on the Nigeria-Biafra war over 1967-1970 and the Sudan-South Sudan conflict.
Although unsuccessful in the former, through the 1972 Addis Ababa Accord conferring semi-autonomous status to South Sudan, he ensured their peaceful co-existence until the mid-1980s. A dominant figure in OAU Summits he was always at hand to soften inter-state squabbles. He sat between President Julius Kambarage Nyerere and the Ugandan military leader General Idi Amin at the 1973 OAU Summit in Addis to avoid the two antagonists seating next to each other.
However, his governance over a feudal system, a 1973-1974 famine blamed on skewed land distribution and his advancing age, contributed to his rule being challenged by radical army officers, who saw his eventual overthrow in 1974 and death in 1975. He was overthrown not through a classic coup d’ etat but through a slow weakening of the government. Following the disastrous 1973 famine, a group of leftist army officers started clandestine meetings to discuss the political future of the country.
Although in July 1974 they declared their loyalty to the Emperor, they soon arrested ‘criminals’ around the Royal Court partly to test the mood. Many politicians and aristocrats were put behind bars with some guillotined. Eventually in September 1974 they detained the Emperor. By December 1974 they had declared Ethiopia a socialist country, with a Marxist-Leninist orientation.
African leaders were silent during the Emperor’s torment including those who had benefited immensely through his tutelage. I ounce discussed this development with a former Zambian Foreign Minister and one time Head of Administration at the OAU Headquarters in its formative years Dr Siteke Mwale.
The discussion went as follows:
Question: Africa seems to have betrayed Emperor Haile Selassie by its silence during the period when radical army officers (the Derg) slowly but surely usurped his powers?
Dr Mwale: Africa’s hands were constrained by the OAU principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other member states. However, individual Heads of State including President Kaunda were very irritated.
Question: Although Africa is against coups when he was eventually overthrown there was no protestation from any quarter?
Dr Mwale: The coup took on a very ideological angle; it was of a Marxist-Leninist orientation providing music to the ears of leftists, socialists and communists. Furthermore the Emperor was aging and his command of the situation had weakened. It was difficult to turn the hands of the clock back.
Question: After his overthrow he was locked up in a mud hut in the centre of Addis and subsequently killed. Even on humanitarian grounds Africa should have expressed outrage !
Dr Mwale: It was a very sad development. Given Ethiopia’s strategic location African governments seemed to have reconciled themselves with the situation and moved on.
Question: And then there were the purges and killings first of the Emperor’s people and later of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s own colleagues, including two successive Heads of State – Generals Michael Andom and Tefari Benti before Col Mengistu took over in 1977? Africa embraced Mengistu as if nothing bad had happened!
Dr Mwale: Yes, it was sad. It was a classic case of the revolution feasting on its own children. The killing of General Andom fueled the Eritrean war of independence from Ethiopia to which it was tied by Emperor Selassie in a controversial 1962 Decree. Internally the overthrowing of Emperor Selassie shock Ethiopia to its very foundations, sowing the seeds of future discord. His rehabilitation amongst ordinary Ethiopians began in the 1980s.
During a visit to Addis in 1991, I could see partially hidden small portraits of the Emperor hanging in some shops. The extent of the warming of hearts towards the Emperor was reaffirmed in a discussion I had with the Emperor’s veteran Foreign Minister Ketema Yifru who after his release from prison was working for the World Food Programme in Nairobi. He regretted the loss of many lives and the consequences of a failed communist dictatorship.
Externally, the 1974/75 revolution led to the war with Somalia over the Ogaden in 1978; the war with Eritrean separatists resulting in Mengistu’s overthrow in 1991 and Eritrean independence in 1993; not to mention the bloody war with Eritrea 1998-2000 and the ensuing state of “no war, no peace” from which the two countries are just emerging thanks to new Premier Abiy’s unique statecraft-ness.
Africa has done its bit in honouring their hero, whose statue now stands side-by-side with that of the Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. Most African states have named a major road in his honour. Ethiopia needs to complete the journey. The greatest honour would be the renaming of the new Bole airport as the Haile Selassie International airport. Given the Emperor’s international outreach especially to the Caribbean where the Rastafarians adore him as a’ God’ it could increase both Ethiopia Airways passengers and tourists.