1935-1980s: The reign of Haile Selassie in Ethiopia

Haile Selassie with one of his lions

A critical look at the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, regarded by many as progressive, and by some as God incarnate!

Submitted by Steven. on September 15, 2006

Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia (full title "His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings and Elect of God") has almost universally been remembered as a kindly benefactor, yet the evidence suggesting otherwise is overwhelming.

It is argued that he implemented many reforms in his country and Rastafarians believe him to be God incarnate - as prophesied by Marcus Garvey - but how justified are these suggestions?

If we take as starting point Fascist Italy's invasion of Ethiopia we find Selassie fleeing to Britain in a brave attempt to rally support for his country. Garvey pointed out that he "ran away from his country to England, leaving his people to be massacred by the Italians" (Marcus Garvey, The Failure of Haile Selassie as Emperor, Black Man - London, March/April 1937). He remained in Bath for the duration of the war, but on returning to take his place on the throne he became paranoid about the partisans who had stayed and fought the Italians, fearing their bravery and preferring obsequiousness. Thus, they were gradually removed from positions of authority and replaced with those who had collaborated with the Italians as he knew they could be easily kept in line and would be open to the methods Selassie used to control his dignitaries. Selassie's methods of asserting and achieving and maintaining power involved breeding an atmosphere of distrust and corruption, where government officials would inform on each other in a constant vying for power, each wanting to be noticed and promoted by the Emperor, as the financial rewards could be great.

Ethiopia had much in common with any other capitalist society. For instance, starving peasants felt themselves privileged to even see a rich person in the flesh (shades of the homeless in Britain grieving over a recently deceased Princess). To achieve this state of affairs, Selassie would throw crumbs to the poor and bribe the rich. An example of this was his practice of throwing coppers to the poor to celebrate his birthday each year.

That is why 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 Haile 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. 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[?] (Garvey, 1937)

Always Selassie had to exercise absolute control, punishing those who undermined his authority, two examples being Prince Imru and Tekele Wolda Hawariat. Prince Imru gave some of his lands to the peasantry without the Emperors permission and as a result he was exiled form Ethiopia for twenty years for "disloyalty". Tekele Hawariat, a celebrated war hero, refused bribes and special privileges and so was imprisoned and finally executed by decapitation. If Selassie couldn't have someone in the palm of his hand then he would get rid of them.

The image Selassie liked to project to the West was always one of being somehow progressive. To this end many youngsters were sent abroad to be educated, though when they returned Selassie's megalomania and greed meant that this education could never be employed to initiate any reforms in the country. Yet, as we have said, Selassie is remembered by many as a great reformer. Rather than being interested in reform, Selassie was interested in 'development'. This allowed him to appeal for funds to help this process. To this end hospitals, bridges, factories etc. were built, all bearing the name of the emperor. But as the money poured into Ethiopia much of it was misappropriated by Selassie and hundreds of millions of dollars found their way into his personal bank accounts. The West, however, continued to back Selassie, who they regarded as a bulwark against 'communism' in Africa.

In the sixties, when Selassie had begun to lose his grip following an attempted coup d'etat, he found it necessary to pay Army officers and his Police obscene amounts of money to maintain loyalty and order. Thus, in a country of 30 million farmers and 100,000 police and military personnel, 1% of the state budget was allocated to the farmers and 40% to the army and the police.

Sumptuous Banquets
Selassie bred corruption in Ethiopia; he maintained a backward and inhuman system in which millions of his subject lived in degrading poverty, oppressive misery and ignorance. Nowhere in the world was the gulf between rich and poor greater. In 1973 Jonathan Dimbleby visited northern Ethiopia and made the film which was to signal the end for Selassie. The film for the first time showed that people were starving to death in their multitudes, despite the money for 'development' which was being pumped into the country. At the Palace the splendour and riches seemed to know no bounds. The juxtapositioning of the two contrasting images in the film was striking; the pigs with their sumptuous banquets were growing fatter on the backs of walking skeletons. Of course this hunger suited Selassie as people could hardly rebel when they were starving to death. There was in fact, however, plenty of grain in Ethiopia. But landowners took the harvest from the peasants, grain prices doubled and the farmers who grew the grain could not afford to buy it.

As the dying continued, western journalists were no longer allowed into Northern Ethiopia. Selassie preferred to show off his great 'developments' to the world press. The suffering could not be hidden indefinitely so, as the situation became a bigger and bigger embarrassment to the Emperor, the Police began to kill off the starving en masse.

It is ironic that Selassie liked to project an image of himself to the world of a kind, tolerant and benevolent soul, yet those in his country who detracted from this image were usually executed. Supporters of Selassie could argue that it was his underlings and not he that were responsible for the atrocities and corruption, the Emperor being kept in total ignorance of the situation. A look at the facts shows this to be impossible. Selassie knew what he was doing when he stuffed the money stolen from his subjects under his mattress and encouraged others in his employ to do likewise. Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski wrote of Selassie: "the Emperor himself amassed his great riches. The older he grew, the greater became his greed, his pitiable cupidity...he and his people took millions from the state treasurer and left cemeteries full of people who had died of hunger, cemeteries visible from the windows of the royal palace" (The Emperor (1984) Picador p.160).

When the facts of history are written Haile Selassie of Abyssinia will go down as a great coward who ran away from his country to save his skin and left the millions of his countrymen to struggle through a terrible war that he brought upon them because of his political ignorance and his racial disloyalty. (Garvey, 1937)

Haile Selassie was not God or a great reformer; but a callous, greedy, thieving autocrat, who should be remembered for the murdering leech that he was.

edited from an article by the Anarchist Federation



15 years 4 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by michael1022 on February 26, 2009

Honestly my brother (whoever made this site), If you ask I and I, your another brother who has completely lost faith. The Western, Babylon Society has taken over your faith in the Almighty. His Majesty lived truthfully as a devine, JAH Spiritual Person. King of Kings and Lord of Lords, (Revelation 19-21). And yes, Marcus Garvey did Prophesise that when a Black King shall rise, we will know that he is our God, due to the truth that he will live by the Spirit of JAH! and he did so. Garvey although lost his faith as well as many other people, along with whoever made this site. I mean no Critisism to anybody, but i do wish that you would seek truth and Rightousness with the Protection and Guidence in the name of the Most High. JAH Bless!


15 years 4 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by pingtiao on February 26, 2009

Good argument, but to be honest I'm still a little unconvinced


14 years 10 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by leenie on September 12, 2009

to Michael1022: I am a proud woman from the continent of Africa and this is what I must say to the youth and older ones that weren't there to expierience the cruelty of mankind at times. I wear my locks and believe in Christ as my personal Savior and only to Him shall my knee bow, wheather He may be Black, White, Jew etc. I really started getting into our Histories (of the Black) when i made up my mind to grow my crown (locs) 19 years ago, because I needed to find myself as The Creator created me...I have a strong mind and once I believe in something, it is hard for others to prove me otherwise...I have lived in so many different countries in my short life but I have always been interested in others countries and their faithfulness and loyalty to their countries. I met so many Ethopians AND Eritreans from Germany to the USA and those who know their Histories will tell u that Rastafari Haile Selassie I was or is not how the Jamaicans and some part of Africa have portraited him to be...In other terms, If Jah created Rastafari Haile Selassie I, to be what He had planned him to be then Haile Selassie I got something mixed up because the fact remains that he was the Idi Amin to the people of Uganda, the Adolf Hitler to Germany and the Saddam Hussein to Iraq...and it is what it is, I wish for many Rastafarians to search through History and understand not to worship someone who portraits himself as the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and in the dark reveal himself as Lucifer himself...do some research, not only in books but find some people from the country of Ethiopia and see if they might tell u otherwise...I am a firm believer of the Almighty Himself and will not bow to anyone who brings up genocide onto his own people and get credit for doing so! Don't just believe what and how people portrait others but do so and find out the hidden truth for urself and OVERstand what is left for u to believe by those who were never present in the first place...Nyhira (Blessings)!


14 years 9 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by mohammed on October 7, 2009

I am a proud Ethiopian.

but I have to admit that this is the best article that I have ever read about Hilessilse. The so king was one of the crulest leader that this world has ever seen.... he starved to death a millions people who did nothing bad against him but trusted him not only as a good leader but also as a saver. But he betrayed and massacared them in a mass garve.

In short, there are still hidden and unwritten crimes done by Hilessilasse aginst his own people. I would like to urge the author of this article to write more and pass the true nature of this barberic king called Hilessilsse.

Thank you and I would like to appreciate the Author on behalf of the poor peasants who were masacared and sufferd from the regiem of hilesilase.


11 years 6 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Aradaw on January 12, 2013

Interesting article. I am sure many in the Rastafarian movement will find it untruthful or more so shocking. But to every story, there is the untold side. For me my tribe, I can vouch from land the Killing of my grandfather to the confiscation if an, displacement of peoples...Haile Sellassie has an untold story yhat many dontn know!



9 years 7 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Elijah on December 11, 2014

I would suggest a song from Bob Marley:


And another from Peter Tosh:


Interesting to listen.


9 years 1 month ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by jahbread on June 4, 2015

When I was at college, I asked a deadlocked fellow student (Big Up Donovan! if by some miracle you stumble upon this article) whether he believed in the divinity of Haile Selassie I. He replied:

Who say so?

James MacBryde

8 years 5 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by James MacBryde on February 4, 2016

In all fairness and by no means as a criticism, Marcus Garvey was a great egotist and his criticisms of Haile Selassie (`It is a pity that a man of the limited intellectual calibre and weak political character like Haile Selassie became Emperor of Abyssinia at so crucial a time in the political history of the world.`) must be seen in the light of professional jealousy. In the end both were scorned, despised and made to disappear by the world of affairs.

In his early life, Ras Tafari Makonnen acted first in the role of a Prince vying for power; then as a feudal monarch intent on seeing his 'country progress' to be a capitalist power [source: The Lion of Judah Hath Prevailed, Christine Sandford, 1955]. His public connection with the European Communist movement was through his friendship with Sylvia Pankhurst – Suffragete/workers champion/Communist/friend and resident of Ethiopia.

James MacBryde

8 years 5 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by James MacBryde on February 4, 2016

Just out of interest when was this article first published by Anarchist Federation?

Religion will never be wished away or argued against but as far as personal belief it acts as no bar to working class struggle against its foe. As far as being the opium of the people, this phrase has been taken out of context:

"Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people"


8 years 1 month ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Schmoopie on June 10, 2016

For a less jaundiced account of the autocratic role Haile Selassie played in Ethiopia's transition from feudalism to capitalism I refer readers to Haile-Selassie's Government by Christopher Clapham.