The last emperor of Ethiopia: Haile Selassie’s legacy remains divisive

Considered by some to be Ethiopia’s greatest modernizer, Haile Selassie is also the man who left his people starving during several major famines. The story of Selassie, who was overthrown in a 1974 coup, was put in the dustbin of history for years before rekindling her interest in 2019. Our journalists have traced her controversial legacy.

“King of kings”, “Conquering lion of the tribe of Judah”, “Light of the world” … During his reign, there was no shortage of superlatives to describe Haile Selassie I – a direct descendant, according to legend, of King Solomon and the Queen of Saba. Today, 45 years after his death, the emperor is still considered by many to be one of the greatest modernizers of Ethiopia.

At the head of the country for more than 40 years, Selassie carved out an anti-colonial image during his victory over the invasion of Mussolini’s forces in 1937. With the help of the United Kingdom, he allowed his country to preserve its independence. Although occupied militarily for five years by the Italians, Ethiopia is the only African country to have never been colonized.

The emperor also shaped Ethiopia through his reforms: he is responsible for the University of Addis Ababa, as well as the creation of Ethiopian Airlines. But his greatest achievement remains the decision to build the headquarters of the Organization of African Unity, now known as the African Union, in the Ethiopian capital. Selassie is still considered one of the founding fathers of the Pan-African organization.

Man and myth

His aura even extends far beyond Africa. The Rastafarian movement born in Jamaica idolizes it, seeing in Selassie the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. Meanwhile, singer Bob Marley immortalized his 1963 UN speech, exposing the atrocities of Italian fascists, in the song “War” in 1976.

But the last emperor of Ethiopia also has a dark side, which his critics want to emphasize. He is the man of the terrible famines of 1958, 1966 and 1973. The memory of his sumptuous birthday party costing 35 million dollars, while his population was starving, spoiled his heritage. His inaction caused the death of hundreds of thousands of people, before causing his fall. Driven from power on September 12, 1974 by the Marxist-Leninist junta Derg, led by Colonel Mengistu, the emperor died shortly after in unexplained circumstances.

The memory of Selassie, consigned to the dustbin of history by the communist dictatorship, suddenly returned to the fore in 2019. A statue of him was inaugurated at the headquarters of the African Union, in Addis Ababa, in tribute. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed also paid tribute to him during the opening to the public of the historic Imperial Palace, seat of all governments for over a century, which was previously reserved only for the elites. As for its old apartments, currently being renovated thanks to French aid, they too should soon become accessible.

Just as Emperor Selassie and his policies have divided Ethiopia over the past 80 years, the myth of this multifaceted emperor continues to fascinate more than ever.