Ethiopian Treasures

Emperor Haile Selassie (1930-1974)

Ras Tefari, the son of Ras Mekonnen (Governor of Harar), was crowned under the name Emperor Haile Selassie in November 1930. He drafted a new constitution for the country and the first parliament was assembled in November 1931, which was designed to give control of the country to the nobility based on hereditary rather than on democracy. The constitution also limited the powers of the regional Princes. This new constitution was only challenged by Ras Hailu of Gojjam. Ras Hailu of Gojjam was jailed for life in 1932, not only for his challenge to the constitution but also for attemptting to assist Iyasu esacpe from prison in Fiche, North Shewa.

Haile Selassie modernisation of the whole country was based on a divide and rule policy. He worked against Tigray in many ways. He continued to isolate Tigray and it became one of the poorest and most underdeveloped regions in Ethiopia.

In October 1935, The Italian army, with order from Mussolini, invaded northern part of Ethiopia i.e. Adigrat, Adwa and Mekele. Haile Selassie appealed to the League of Nations of which Ethiopia is a member state, but his appeal was completely ignored. The League of Nations, especially Britain and France, turned a blind eye to what was happening in Ethiopia, effectively giving Italy a green light to occupy Ethiopia.

Many Tigrayans fought against Italian invasion and few Tigrayan feudal lords sided with the Italians against Haile Selassie. Haile Selassie sent troops to Tigray in January 1936. The Ethiopian army initially claimed a victory at the Battle of Tembien, however this victory was not sustained and the Italian army overcame them. The Italian army used mustard gas after the battle of Tembien to curb the Ethiopian advances and the Ethiopian army retreated to Maychew. The Battle of Maychew was the final resistance to the Italian occupation. Haile Selassie sent reinforcements and the Italians defeated the Ethiopian resistance at Maychew on March 31, 1936. When Haile Selassie received the bad news of the Italian victory at Maychew; he abandoned his people and country, and went into exile in Britain. Nonetheless, the Ethiopians continued to resist the Italians and waged a guerrilla war on them to undermine and destabilise their hope of colonisation. The Italians responded with brutality and ruthlessness.

As a leader, he could have led the country and people against the Italian occupation. Instead he went into exile in order to save his own life and his family. Even though Haile Selassie deserted his country and people, many Ethiopians courageously exiled themselves into the mountains and forests of the country and fought the Italian army. Haile Selassie did not live up to the reputations of Emperor Tewodros II, Emperor Yohannes IV and Menelik II who gave their life and died for their county in battle (except Menelik) against foreign invaders.

In May 1936, Italy occupied the whole country and incorporated it with Eritrea and Somalia into one territory. Under the order of Mussolini, the Italian army looted the tallest Stelae (obelisk) from Aksum in 1937 and stood in Rome for 68 years. The Ethiopians and friends of Ethiopia had been campaigning vigorously for its return to Aksum, Ethiopia. Italy had finally agreed to return the 24-metre granite obelisk to Aksum in April 2005 and was reassembled in 2008 on its original place.

However, the Second World War broke out in Europe in 1939. On June 10, 1940, Italy declared war on Britain and France. The British army advanced into the Italian occupied countries in East Africa (i.e. Ethiopia and Somalia). In January 1941, the British army and the Ethiopian warriors defeated the Italian army. During the occupation, which lasted 5 years, the Italians humiliated and killed many innocent civilians.

After the British army and the Ethiopian warriors drove the Italians out of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie returned from his exile to reclaim his throne with the help of the British. In 1943, when the Tigrayans heard about the return of Haile Selassie they rebelled against him forming a resistance group under the name "Weyane" (popular uprising). The Tigrayans were determined to unseat Haile Selassie as they held the view that he did not deserve to reclaim the throne for his desertion of his country and people while Ethiopia faced unforeseen occupation, killing and humiliation of its people by the Italian army.

Haile Selassie requested help from Britain to help to put down the Tigrayan rebellion. The British Royal Air Force flew from Yemen and bombed the "Weyane" while they were meeting in Mekele, Capital City of Tigray. The British appeared to have forgotten that the Tigrayans were their allies against Tewodros in 1869 and the Mahdist of Sudan in 1889. The market in Mekele is now remembered as grave of the "First Weyane".

In order to diffuse the mistrust and rebellion by the Tigrayans, Haile Selassie arranged for his granddaughter to marry Ras Mengesha Seyoum of Tigray and then made him Prince of Tigray. It was a good move politically. Soon after Haile Selassie went to Aksum to be officially consecrated as Emperor of Ethiopia. Traditionally, when leaders are crowned they must be consecrated in the Church of Saint Mary of Zion, Aksum, in order to claim their direct descendant from the King Solomon and Queen of Sheba otherwise their throne becomes invalid.

The great achievement of Haile Selassie was that he lobbied the US and Europeans for the reunification of Eritrea with Ethiopia, which had remained under the British rule after the Italian defeat in 1941. With the blessing of the United Nations Eritrea was re-united with Ethiopia in 1952. Undoubtedly, Haile Selassie was skilled in diplomacy and was know for his restless efforts of campaigns against colonisation in Africa. He became a voice for the whole African county independence, but he did little to develop his country's infrastructure and improve the life of ordinary Ethiopians.

The lack of infrastructure, the increase of poverty in the country, the lack of democracy, the famine in Wollo and Tigray regions in 1973, the Eritreans demand for independence, the cries for land reform by peasants and the fuel crisis led to unrest in the country. Teachers, students, peasants and workers went on strikes and held demonstrations. After seven months of unrest, Haile Selassie was overthrown and imprisoned by the military on September 12, 1974 and later executed by the Derg (Military Committee) including his cabinet members, monarchist, and the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.


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