Haile Selassie - Ethiopia′s ′Lion of Judah′ | African Roots | DW | 15.06.2018
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African Roots

Haile Selassie - Ethiopia's 'Lion of Judah'

His Imperial Highness Emperor Haile Selassie represented a dynastic line which stretched back centuries. He was an absolute ruler and yet a modernizer who introduced the very reforms which eventually proved his downfall.

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Haile Selassie, Ethiopia's 'Lion of Judah'

When did Haile Selassie live? Haile Selassie was born Tafari Makonnen on July 23, 1892, near Harar, Ethiopia. His father being a cousin and close ally of Emperor Menelik II, he was summoned to the court in Addis Ababa when his father died in 1906.

In 1916 he became Ras Tafari, heir presumptive and regent to Empress Zauditu, daughter of Menelik II, and in 1928 he and his supporters had the Empress crown him King.

In 1930, on the death of Empress Zauditu, Tafari was crowned Emperor Haile Selassie — "Might of the Trinity." He was deposed in a coup by the communist Derg regime in 1974 and died less than a year later, on August 26, 1975, in Addis Ababa.

What were the foundations Haile Selassie laid for his country? He introduced Ethiopia's first written constitution in 1931; it provided for a bicameral parliament and a legal code, and proclaimed all Ethiopians equal. However, both this first constitution and the second one promulgated in 1955 were criticized for granting too much power to the emperor himself — he retained the right to overthrow any parliamentary decision — and for making no provision for political parties.

Was Haile Selassie beyond criticism? From his early days, Tafari Makonnen is considered to have been a good strategist. He may have had a hand in the removal from power of designated Emperor Lij Iyasu, Zauditu's predecessor, who ruled only three years. As emperor, Haile Selassie gave thousands of students the chance to study abroad. Those very students later called for his deposition, decrying a lack of reform. Disenchantment with his monarchy culminated in an attempted coup d'état in 1960, the biggest threat to his rule until he was finally overthrown by the Derg.

Haile Selassie's aspirations for international cooperation. As regent, Ras Tafari brought Ethiopia into the League of Nations in 1923, one of the few independent African nations at the time and the only one to seek and be granted membership.

In 1963, the emperor convoked the first meeting of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), later to become the African Union. He helped devise its first charter and became its first chairperson, and the headquarters were established in Addis Ababa.

How was Haile Selassie viewed in Germany? Underlining his wish for international cooperation, Haile Selassie traveled widely. In 1954, he became the first foreign head of state to visit the newly-formed Federal Republic of Germany, receiving what would be reported as "the most regal and ceremonial reception given to any visitor since the end of the war". He was welcomed as an equal and was above all interested in learning about the kind of technical progress — medical, agricultural and industrial — that he could take back to Ethiopia with him. Ethiopia would remain an esteemed partner of Germany and Haile Selassie would be given another exuberant reception in Bonn in 1973, a year before his deposition.

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Haile Selassie, a lobbyist for Africa

What is Haile Selassie quoted as saying?

"Apart from the Kingdom of the Lord there is not on this earth any nation that is superior to any other. … It is us today. It will be you tomorrow."

(from his address to the League of Nations, 1936, asking for help to oust Italian occupying forces)

"History teaches us that unity is strength, and cautions us to submerge and overcome our differences in the quest for common goals, to strive, with all our combined strength, for the path to true African brotherhood and unity."

(from his acceptance speech on being selected as first head of the Organisation for African Unity, 1963)

What is Haile Selassie's legacy? Haile Selassie gave Ethiopia its first university, schools, hospitals and a centralized government. The reforms he sought meant that Ethiopia was opened to the outside world, and the emperor was recognized internationally as a clever and charismatic leader — a position which he used to the good of all Africa, promoting pan-African efforts. Successive post-independence African leaders saw in him a defender of African values and independence, European leaders hailed him as an anti-fascist and in Jamaica, Rastafarians worshipped him as the Messiah.

Jackie Wilson, Yilma Haile Michael and Gwendolin Hilse contributed to this package, which is part of DW's special series African Roots, a project in cooperation with the Gerda Henkel foundation.

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