In a world dominated by Blacks through millennia advancing civilizations, technology and creative works, power shifted when the global white minority became the dominant force from 1492 onwards.
White global rule and black oppression was an anxious situation for melanated people all over the world. It is with this background that Marcus Garvey’s prophetic call resounded so well with people hopeful for liberation.
“Look to Africa, when a black king shall be crowned for the day of deliverance is near!” the Jamaican Pan Africanist rallied. For Rastafarians, the reference to “Africa” was reinterpreted to mean Ethiopia and the link to “a black king” – the coronation of Selassie in 1930 fulfilling Garvey’s prophecy.
While some historians say Garvey’s rallying call was misinterpreted, what did the man who died in London from two strokes in 1940 aged 52 make of Selassie who was crowned as emperor on November 2, 1930?
Before Garvey died, he had witnessed Selassie rule for at least a decade and wasn’t impressed.
He condemned him as a “great coward” for fleeing Mussolini’s troops in 1935, when Italy invaded Ethiopia. He also criticized Selassie’s practice of slavery, which was not abolished in Ethiopia until 1942.
In Garvey’s own words: “It is preferable for the Abyssinian Negroes and the Negroes of the world to work for the restoration and freedom of the country without the assistance of Selassie, because at best he is but a slave master. The Negroes of the Western World whose forefathers suffered for three hundred years under the terrors of slavery ought to be able to appreciate what freedom means. Surely they cannot feel justified in supporting any system that would hold their brothers in slavery in another country whilst they are enjoying the benefits of freedom elsewhere. The Africans who are free can also appreciate the position of slaves in Abyssinia [Ethiopia]. What right has the Emperor to keep slaves when all the democratic sections of the world were free, when men had the right to live, to develop, to expand, to enjoy all the benefits of human liberty?” (1937, p.741).
So that put paid to the romanticization of Selassie with Garvey, but to Rastafarians, a black messiah figure was needed hence settled on him as a deity.
For them, Ethiopia is Zion and the Promised Land. It helped that in 1948, Selassie granted them land in the Rift Valley for a settlement in Shashemane. Although the anticipated mass exodus of Rastas to Ethiopia, never happened and while they number about 1000 at their peak, they don’t assimilate.
Haile Selassie, a distant relation of Menelik II (1889-1913), claimed descent from the Solomonic dynasty.
The Kebra Nagast (also known as the Glory of Kings) is the ancient text from which Selassie’s mythology stems. It narrates the relationship between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and their son Menelik I, who supposedly hid the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia.
His full official title was: “His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings and Elect of God.” Selassie is strongly influenced by the Rastafarian belief that he is God incarnate.
Inspired by the ideology of being special people, Ethiopian kings and emperors have conquered lands and enslaved ethnic groups not least the Eritreans.
And while Selassie ruled Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974 and died in 1975 through assassination, Jamaican reggae star Bob Marley would espouse him in songs, making global citizens to hold him in high esteem. That saintly view of the emperor will further be propagated in songs by Ethiopian pop star, Tewedros Kassahun, better known as Teddy Afro.
So was Emperor Haile Selassie a benevolent ruler who resisted Italian colonisation, a god or a tyrant?
On claims Selassie was a fatherly benevolent ruler and a champion of blacks, academic Dr. Yohannes Woldemariam said, “the perception that Selassie was a proud African and a champion for black people is not supported by the facts. He only reluctantly later embraced the Rastafarians because he understood their public relations value for his cult of personality. Some of his dedicated followers would be dismayed to learn that Selassie revered not his “own people” but the Ferenjochu (Europeans) and Americans, who were routinely invited to his lavish parties in his palace.”
The scholar added that Menelik II who Selassie succeeded “reconstructed image as a historical agent of black liberation does not fit recorded events. For instance, his state of mind was revealed through a comment to a Haitian dignitary that he did not consider himself to be a black man.”
Emperor Haile Selassie is said to have also told pan-Africanist, Benito Sylvain “I am not a Negro at all; I am Caucasian.”
So we have two rulers Menelik II and then Selassie who didn’t see themselves as Africans or Black, despite sitting on an African throne in the Africa state of Ethiopia.
So what was Selassie’s drive? Dr. Woldemariam who has his high school education in the country sheds more light.
“It should be noted that Haile Selassie’s global prominence was due to his position as a very loyal client of the West – much like the Shah of Iran and Mobutu of Zaire. These clients maintained power through repression and the murder and silencing of true patriots. Unlike Selassie however, history accurately remembers Shah Reza Pahlavi and Mobutu Sese Seko as tyrants. Yet, efforts are underway to depict Selassie as a pan-Africanist and a visionary. Some have campaigned vigorously for his statue to be erected in front of the African Union building in Addis Ababa. Sadly, the African Union has acceded to the request.
“First, it is well-established that he spent $35 million for celebrating his 80th birthday during the Wollo famine. He travelled widely, visiting the United States many times, only stopping once in Jamaica in 1966. Perhaps less well-known are Selassie’s crimes and his associates, such as Asserate Kassa in Eritrea. These are too numerous and ghastly for the scope of this piece. For further reading on this, I recommend Michela Wrong’s book titled I Didn’t Do it For You. How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation.
“Similarly, the autocrat is remembered in Tigray for inviting the British Royal Air Force to bomb the region in 1943 to quell what came to be known as the first Woyane Rebellion. He consolidated his power by weakening the provinces after Italy’s defeat by the British in 1941.”
He continues: “He was also harsh towards those Ethiopian patriots who fought against the Italians while he fled to Britain. For example, Belay Zeleke, a national war hero was hung on his orders.”
While Selassie is credited with managing to get African leaders together for the Organization of African Unity (OAU) project alongside Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, the romantic rewriting of his legacy fly in the face of the historical facts which should require well-meaning people to view Selassie as the man he truly was.