Ethiopia was a culturally and resourcefully rich land recognized by the European colonial powers as sovereign from as early as 1900. Selassie's predecessor expanded his empire successfully in the 1880's and formed treaties with the Italians, who recognized the imperial potential of northern Africa. Relations became strained, however, in the 1890's when Britain and Italy agreed that Ethiopia should fall under Italian influence. Despite occasional conflicts, Ethiopia under Menelik remained sovereign, and thus we see a stage set for the leadership of Selassie: a free Ethiopia with Italian, British, and French colonies nearby, and an Italian will to expand its territorial claims when its power and opportunity arise. (Marcus, 52)
Well before Selassie's crowning as negus (king), he began work modernizing Ethiopia to rival that which he saw in Europe during his time abroad. He took steps to improve legislation, bureaucracy, government schooling, and health and social services in preparation for his new reign. More importantly in a diplomatic focus, Selassie acted to promote Ethiopian power and sovereignty and secure allies abroad. In 1919 Ethiopia applied for membership into the League of Nations but was banned because its practice of slavery was still strong. By 1923, working with the Empress Zauditu, the slave trade was abolished and Ethiopia was unanimously accepted into the League. He further acted to seek approval of other nations by emancipating existing slaves and their children and created government bureaus to do so. Also prior to his taking of power, Selassie promoted a twenty year treaty of friendship with Italy in 1928 and established legislation in 1930 to ban illegal sales of arms in Ethiopia, and to establish the government's right to procure arms for protection and internal unrest. (Marcus, 60-73)
In 1931, upon assuming power, Selassie established the first Ethiopian constitution, which aimed to re-focus governmental power from many rases to his blood line solely. This move was effective in aiding Ethiopia's modernization through bureaucracy and solidarity, and forced the many regional rases to either oppose him treasonably or join him with their support. (Marcus, 98-100) By 1934, after several suppressed revolts, all the major rases were either supporters or outside the empires influence in the outer regions of Ethiopia. Much of Selassie's loyalty was fostered by the building of schools, universities, and newspapers, as well as increased availability of electricity, telephone, and public health services. The Bank of Ethiopia was also founded in 1931 and introduced Ethiopian currency.
Though the changes in Ethiopia sponsored by Selassie and his new progressive government seemed very promising, there lingered a new threat to the growing country when Benito Mussolini came to power in Italy in 1922. The north African colony of Eritrea, held by the Italians, was harmonious in its African/Italian co-existence from the 1890's until 1922, when Mussolini's administration began to emphasize the superiority of Italian inhabitants, and even enforced the segregation of the population. As late as 1928, motions of peace were made by Italy, but it seemed as though Mussolini wanted Eritrea only as a strategic base for future conquest in Africa. (Marcus, 108) In December 1934, there was an incident seemingly provoked by Italian forces which involved an Ethiopian escort to the Welwel wells used by desert nomads. The League of Nations exonerated both parties in the battle in September 1935, and it seemed to Mussolini that he would not be condemned for his future hostilities. (Marcus, 148-49) Italy invaded Ethiopia one month later without declaring war; the League of Nations condemned Italy as the aggressor, but no actions were taken. The fighting persisted for seven months, and Ethiopia was pushed back quite forcefully. Selassie found his forces unmatched militarily and was shocked at the use of chemical weapons by Italy, and the lack of action taken by the League of Nations. He was forced to exile on May 2 of 1936, a move which raised harsh criticism from many who were used to a warrior emperor of Ethiopia. On June 30, Haile Selassie went to Geneva to seek help from the League of Nations. He made a powerful speech in which he addressed the lack of enforcement of the Italian arms embargo, and quite effectively illustrated the consequences of the League's stifled actions: either there would exist collective security or international lawlessness. (Selassie, Internet) His speech was taken quite emotionally by audiences around the world, especially in America, where he achieved much sympathy. Selassie succeeded in raising the support of the United States and Russia, at least verbally, but Britain and France still recognized the Italian possession of Ethiopia by Italy.
While Selassie was in exile, the Italian forces established new government and attempted to crush the continuing revolts by massacres and segregation. In Britain for most of his exile, he attempted to raise public support for the plight of his country, but gained little attention until Italy entered the war on the side of Germany in June 1940. After the entrance, Britain and Selassie worked together to rally the remaining revolutionary forces in Ethiopia. He proceeded to Khartoum in 1940 to be in closer contact with his troops and British coordinators. With an army of British, South African, African, and Ethiopian soldiers, Haile Selassie re-entered Addis Ababa on May 5, 1941, but fighting continued on Ethiopian soil until January 1942. During the years of war, Selassie controlled internal affairs, but with required British approval. Upon his return he, without consulting Britain, appointed a seven member cabinet and a governor of Addis Ababa. The British aided Ethiopia in training a new army with advisers, which helped him substitute experienced administrators in place of traditional nobility, but he rejected British help whenever the reforms threatened his own personal control over his country. His stubbornness and foresight to retaining power showed Selassie to be a determined dictator, but certainly not without Ethiopia's benefit in mind. The modernization's made by Britain concerning currency, industrialization, and bureaucracy made Selassie see the major importance in modernizing in order to survive. He attempted to secure Eritrea as Ethiopian, but the decades of Italian influence imparted an independent sense on the part of the Eritreans, and the British denied his wishes.
When Selassie returned to power, he realized the necessity of a dependable tax base and issued a flat tax based on the richness of the land. Unfortunately, the nobles of several provinces battled the tax and the path was lain for opposition to the newly re-established government. Selassie backed down from his new tax brackets and issued a flat tithe to all noble landowners who resisted, but this merely passed the tax on to the tenants of the regions, who carried the entire burden of taxation. Another huge reform made by Selassie was the 1948 change in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. He removed the responsibility of appointment of the Church's patriarch from Alexandria to himself, a move which revolutionized the sixteen century old tradition.
After World War II, Selassie saw himself as a humble, but emerging, world leader. (Prouty, 93) Ethiopia was a founding member of the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity. Haile Selassie, after his aid from Britain wound down in 1953, sought and developed an aid-based relationship with the United States, and later sought and received aid from such diversified nations as Italy, China, West Germany, Taiwan, Yugoslavia, Sweden, and the Soviet Union.
Within his country, Selassie favored political realism, and attempted to make peace with the many Ethiopian factions- ethnic, religious, and economic- through appeasement and compromise. Despite his growing international stature, however, his internal influence lacked major support which would, in the future, lead to problems in his stability as a ruler. The emperor attempted to further strengthen the national government by placing newly educated ministers with more specific powers, establishing a central judiciary and self-appointing its judges. He also proclaimed a new national constitution in 1955. The constitution was enforced by a new, younger, foreign-educated staff, who sympathized with Selassie's reforms and were intellectually supportive of his claims. It was also heavily influenced by Selassie's concern for international image, as many African countries were thriving under colonial support and Ethiopia was still laying its claim to Eritrea. (Prouty, 93) The new constitution emphasized Selassie's religious right to power, and while it promised several inherently American rights (freedom of speech, assembly, and due process), the Ethiopian population lacked the literacy and independence from local nobility to really appreciate its declarations.
Selassie's major changes in form of the Ethiopian government promised huge reforms, and when these were realized to be slowly obtained, a coup d'état occurred in Addis Ababa in December 1960, while Selassie was abroad on one of his frequent diplomatic missions. (Prouty, 40) While initially successful, the coup led by the Imperial Bodyguard, police chief, and intellectual radicals lacked the public support necessary, and fell upon the return of the emperor and his assertion of the loyalty of the army and air force, as well as the church. The coup's failure did, however lead to the polarization of the traditional and progressive factions, and the public awareness of the need to improve the economic, social, and political position of the population.
After the coup, Selassie tried to calm his opponents mostly through land grants to officials, but with little social or political reform. In 1966, a plan to reform the tax system with intent to destroy the landowners grasp on the economy was drafted, but opposed vigorously by the parliament, who were all landowners. The years prior to 1974 were filled with rising inflation, corruption, and famine, as well as growing discontent by many of the organized urban groups and unions. Selassie had organized his military so that each branch opposed each other in class, benefits, or treatment in order to keep one from becoming so powerful as to threaten his power. It was perceived that the droughts and famines within the army and the public were intentional, and that civil freedoms were increasingly disappearing. Mutiny in the army branch of the military began on January 12, 1974, and was followed by several provincial takeovers in February. In early June, a group of about 120 military officers formed a group known as the Derg (committee) who represented the military and worked behind closed doors to gain power militarily. Although they claimed allegiance to the emperor, they began arresting aristocracy and parliament members who were associated with the old order. This group effectively removed Selassie's means of governing, as they had complete military control. In July 1974, the Derg demanded a new constitution; when it was found to be unsatisfactory to their "Ethiopia First" ideology, they proceeded to undermine the emperor's authority, and enjoyed much public support. (Tareke, 204-13) The emperor's estate and palace were nationalized and in August, Selassie was directly accused of covering up famine of the early 1970's which killed hundreds of thousands of people. On September 12th, he was formally deposed and arrested and power was given to the Derg, formally renamed the Provisional Military Administrative Council. In August 1975, His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie died under questionable circumstances under house arrest, and was secretly buried. (Prouty, 93) His early legacy of Ethiopian pride and sovereignty, had transformed itself to a major struggle of the old versus the new orders. The old order was effectively destroyed by 1977, and the Derg began its new agenda of socialism in the Ethiopian government.
1. Marcus, Harold G. Haile Selassie I: The Formative Years, 1892-1936. Los Angeles: UC Press, 1987.
2. Prouty, Chris, and Eugene Rosenfield. Historical Dictionary of Ethiopia. London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1982.
3. Tareke, Gebru. Ethiopia: Power and Protest. Cambridge UP.
4. Haile Selassie's Appeal to the League of Nations. Internet address: http://www.boomshaka.com/league.html. 29 April 1996.