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The Last Emperor – The Fall of Haile Selassie

None could be more considered more central to the modern history of Africa’s longest independent nation, Ethiopia, than Emperor Haile Selassie.  Regent from 1916-1930, he became emperor of Ethiopia on November 2, 1930 and ruled for nearly 45 years. While Ethiopia was able to avoid colonization and remained a political leader and symbol of African independence throughout his reign, the feudal system of governance prevented the country from keeping pace with economic and technological developments happening elsewhere and the lack of progress eventually led to his ouster. More than most other authoritarian rulers, Emperor Selassie embodied one-man rule, ultimately to the detriment of his own health and the growth of his nation.

In the end, his efforts to modernize the country’s education system also contributed to his downfall, as foreign-educated students returned to Ethiopia seeking reform. Calls for change by students, the military and other members of the ruling family, combined with the emperor’s decreasing mental awareness, led to his abdication in 1974. Haile Selassie can be considered the world’s last emperor who held true political power.

Edward Holmes served as political officer in Addis Ababa from 1960-1963, during which time he worked with the emperor to modernize the Ethiopian education system. Sheldon Vance served as Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) in Addis Ababa from 1962-1966. While serving as DCM, he came to know Halie Selassie personally while working with the emperor to transform the nation into a constitutional monarchy.

John Buche served as a political officer in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa from 1963-1966 and describes the feudal system of rule under Emperor Selassie. Parker Wyman worked as DCM in Ethiopia during the last few years of Selassie’s reign and gives insight into his final days as Emperor. Richard Jackson became familiar with the workings of the Selassie government while working in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Horn of Africa Desk at the State Department from 1968-1970.

Buche, Holmes, and Jackson were all interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy; Buche beginning in August 1999, Holmes in March 1993, and Jackson in August 1998.  Vance was interviewed by Arthur Tienken beginning in January 1989. Wyman began his interviews with Thomas Dunnigan in August 1997.

Here is more about the U.S. closing of the Kagnew base in Eritrea. Follow the links to read more about Africa or the hijacking of Ethiopia Flight 961.


“He was an emperor; not a king, but an emperor”

John Buche, Political Officer, Addis Ababa, 1963-1966

BUCHE: Haile Selassie began accumulating power already as a teenager. In 1913, he was made Regent and recognized as the heir apparent. He was crowned Emperor in 1930. He showed his political genius in the way he advanced toward his goal of becoming Emperor. He had some advantages because of his father, but he had to outwit or defeat several formidable rivals before he could gain the crown.

Edward Holmes, Political Officer, Addis Ababa, 1960-1963

HOLMES: There was an interlude…when he was thrown out by the Italians, Mussolini. He took exile in England, and then he was reinstated after the war, and then kept on. He was a mixture, as are so many people, perhaps. He was an authoritarian, in the old-fashioned sense; but he felt that the people were his children, in a sense. He personally held court; he personally handed out pieces of gold to people who needed help, in his audiences.

We went to dinner at his palace, with flaming torches and solid-gold plate, with liveried people, one butler behind each chair, with the best French wines and so forth. That’s one side of him, sort of the old-fashioned imperial ruler. He was an emperor, not a king, but an emperor. He felt this and he acted it.

Sheldon Vance, Deputy Chief of Mission, Addis Ababa, 1962-1966

VANCE: I was chargé d’affaires between ambassadors at the beginning, so at the beginning I got to know the emperor on a personal basis. Because I speak French and he spoke French and Amharic, period, full stop with him–he spoke almost no English–I was able to communicate and talk to him directly without an interpreter, which most Americans are not able to do if they didn’t know French.

He had decided, after he was returned to his country by the British after the war, that he would have to make strenuous efforts to modernize his country, and he ruled, among other things, that education for the future would be in English, not in Amharic, so that his educated people could communicate with the rest of the world more easily.

He said also that public education would be modernized. Before the Italian occupation, education had been entirely in the hands of the Coptic Church, and it was said that there were many Coptic Church teachers who believed still that the earth was flat and other wonderful bits of intellectualism of that nature.

As I look back on my four years in Ethiopia, that man dragged his country kicking and screaming out of the cave age. What happened? He regarded the United States as his greatest friend, and we supplied his prime minister with a legal advisor. The second one was there when we were there, Donald Parradis.

We helped them draft a modern constitution which envisaged a Parliament with two houses, which would have a general election, have public participation in the elections. The emperor would appoint a prime minister, there would be a Cabinet, and it all looked like Thomas Jefferson had been at work.

However, looking back on it, the emperor, I should add (although very friendly to me personally and to close foreign friends, people he regarded as close friends) he really was God in the eyes of his people. I’ve been standing with him and have seen reasonably senior Ethiopians come up and prostrate themselves flat on the floor in front of him.

We did not realize how really, totally, a thousand percent feudal the old man was. He simply was not about to delegate anything to anybody. We used to joke that he decided whether to put a 25-cent stamp on any letter that left the government, or a 50-cent stamp.

His unfortunate son kept on being absolutely nothing but Crown Prince on and on and on, until he finally had a nervous breakdown and became a vegetable. He went to Switzerland. I’m told that finally what happened was the emperor became senile and lost control of what was happening. I can’t understand it.

What happened was, he lived too long. If he had tried to use the educated, trained youth and the structure in the government [things would have been alright.] We talked him into land control and land reform, brought in airplanes to map the country so that people would know who owned what, rather than just the dukes and their equivalents owning everything in sight from the mountaintop. It all fell apart.

“He was the only person who had the full view”

BUCHE: Without sounding too naive or too prone to oversimplify, the Emperor was the source of almost all power. His ability to move ministers and governors around, which he did periodically so that they could not build up a power base or could not get any expertise, was one way he exercised power. He moved governors and judges around, moved generals out to be governors, governors in to be ministers, shuffled the military and police constantly.

He had three or four intelligence systems running concurrently, spying on each other and spying on everyone else. In his prime he was able to keep the many balls in the air. He was pretty busy keeping things in motion, but that was a source of power.

There was an inherent instability to the system, since he was the only person who had the full view. While he would occasionally tolerate and even praise independent initiatives by subordinates, such actions were usually viewed negatively and punished in some way.

Officials in Addis Ababa or in the provinces learned that it was safer to consult with the Emperor before undertaking an action that was not routine. We heard of many sudden assignments to the provinces or from one province to another, where the rumors had it that the cause was displeasure on the part of the Emperor at an action by the official.

I can imagine a typical scenario where someone from the Imperial Palace telephones the official along the following lines: “His Imperial Majesty has graciously decided that you would be better suited to become the district governor of XYZ (about 500 miles away from where he was currently working). As of today your appointment as district governor in ABC is terminated. You will report for duty in seven days. His Imperial Majesty regrets that in this time of national austerity, there will be no funds available to cover your moving expenses.”

The Emperor grabbed power as a young man and held on against many rival contenders for decades. He was shrewd, cunning, farsighted, and decisive in his prime. In 1963 when I arrived in Ethiopia, I believe the Emperor was about at the zenith of his mental abilities. What he accomplished on the international scene over the next several years was most impressive. The fact that he held the country together in the 1960s as well as he did, given the many internal and external challenges, demonstrates his extraordinary talents.

As I recall, he still was still pretty sharp mentally. He was juggling new considerations, however. One was the rise of the independent African states and the OAU. He decided that Ethiopia was not going to be swept up in the flood of popular democracy, anticolonialism, and “African” socialism. He saw the dangers to his power from the ideologies of Sekou Toure, Nasser, Jomo Kenyatta, et al.

Haile Selassie had impeccable credentials as an anti-colonialist, but he also had excellent relations with the colonial powers. He had invited many young nationalist leaders to Addis Ababa when they were sorely in need of a little bit of money and some stroking, and he treated them magnificently.

“He had decided he was the only logical choice for the role of the Continent’s “father figure”

He was able to use the African independence movement to his and Ethiopia’s advantage. We were amazed at how cleverly he handled this whole thing. He brought the African leaders together and persuaded them to sign the charter of the Organization of African Unity. He had set up the diplomatic work several years in advance and brought in a Chilean expert to write the charter (based to a large extent on the OAS).

The Emperor was able to bring regional enemies and rivals together from the rest of Africa – the Moroccans, Tunisians, and the Algerians, Nasser and Sekou Toure. It worked, and they sat down and signed the Charter of the OAU in 1963. The Charter was not something that they saw for the first time in Addis; it was circulated much earlier.

It was very cleverly written, so there was a very strong emphasis on “pre-colonial borders.” There were some countries that did not want that concept included, in particular, Somalia. The Emperor cleverly isolated the Somalis before the conference, and they had to go along. Most African countries wanted pre-colonial borders. There was no alternative to the concept, but war.

The Emperor had the foresight to use the burgeoning African independence movements for the benefit of Ethiopia. He had decided that if there was going to be a large number of newly independent African states, he was the only logical choice for the role of the Continent’s “father figure.”  So he laid the groundwork for an organization (to be sited in Addis Ababa) to serve the new Africa. His vision created the Organization of African Unity….

For years he had supported independence movements, not with large sums of money or arms shipments, but by personal contacts with the various leaders. Many, while still engaged in the struggle for independence, had been invited by the Emperor to visit him in Addis Ababa. The Emperor feted them lavishly and bestowed generous gifts on them.

They would leave Ethiopia, pleased with the Emperor’s recognition and generosity. The Emperor sent the draft OAU charter to the leaders of independent African states and invited them to meet in Addis Ababa in May 1963 to sign the document. They came, and after several days of oratory and festivities, signed the Charter.

“Haile Selassie made a strategic miscalculation”

BUCHE: The Emperor had survived the 1960 coup, and there was a slightly faster pace of reform. The coup was still on peoples’ minds, although it took place in December 1960, and the last executions were completed by mid-1961. It was a bloody coup, and there were deaths on both sides, not only from the fighting, but also the killing of hostages by the Revolutionaries and then the executions by the Government.

The coup punctured the mystique surrounding the Emperor, damaged the relations between Haile Selassie and his son, the Crown Prince, revealed the bitter rivalries in the military and security forces, demonstrated the extent of hatred toward the reactionary nobles around the Emperor, and inspired other opponents of the regime to continue their fight. A pesky insurgency was festering in Eritrea. The common wisdom in Addis Ababa was that the insurgency was not going to amount to very much, because how were the Eritrean guerillas going to stand up to the Imperial Army? The rebellion did not have to happen. Haile Selassie made a strategic miscalculation.

Haile Selassie wanted complete amalgamation, but he saw that proposal was not going to fly. He was absolutely opposed to independence, so he accepted federation. In 1951, the Federation came into being. From the beginning, the Emperor and the Ethiopians, with the support of some influential Eritreans, set about to destroy the Federation.

The means were classic: threats, intimidation, bribery, flattery, loans, gifts, assassinations, marriages, awards, etc. By 1961, Haile Selassie had the Eritrean Parliament under his control. He gave the signal and the Eritrean Parliament voted to abolish the Federation and join “Motherland Ethiopia”. The rebellion began a few months later.

HOLMES: On the other hand, he established the Haile Selassie I University. He financed that totally. Of course, there was no distinction, really, between private purse and government purse there; everything was his and everything was government, it was all intermixed. But he established this over the opposition of many of the nobility; the nobility didn’t want this. Like any emperor, even he had political currents within the courtiers around the court. He established this and brought in a lot of young American professors.

Inevitably, what came from this was that the young students became radicalized. That is, they wanted change. They were embarrassed by this rigid, 10th-century, 12th-century type of government, as they traveled for their higher degrees and so forth. And I will say, there were some very brilliant young scholars developed in this university, many of whom went to the States or England or France for further degrees. They were embarrassed to realize that they were out of step with the rest of Africa. They became very much pan-Africanists, in a sense, in that they wanted Ethiopia to advance; they wanted a democratic government.

BUCHE: The Emperor made it clear to the students that he was choosing them to play an important role in Ethiopian Government and society. The Emperor spent considerable time on education and took a personal interest in it. The 1960 coup had wide support among the college students, not only the undergrads in Addis Ababa, but many of the graduates who had benefitted from going abroad and studying under Haile Selassie’s patronage.

Many of the latter came back with ideas and hopes that clashed with what they were experiencing: poverty, injustice, favoritism, in brief, a traditional, semi-feudal aristocracy. They had been introduced to democracy, either experiencing it abroad or reading about it in classrooms in Ethiopia.

There was a Parliament of two chambers that was created by the Constitution, which was given to the people by Haile Selassie. So Parliament was created, and the first parliamentary elections for the Lower House were held. The Senate was appointed by the Emperor. Political parties were not allowed, and candidates had to stand as individuals. It was pretty much a Parliament of landed interests, as one would expect.

There were a few exceptions, namely schoolteachers, small businessmen, and minor officials who somehow got elected. They were not opponents of the regime, but on the other hand, they were not subservient to the landowning class or the Orthodox Church. While the Parliament was under the control of the Emperor regarding what legislation it could enact, there were opportunities for the members to criticize (obliquely and gently) actions of the Government, as long as there was no direct mention of the Emperor, the Ministers, or influential persons.

“The forces he unleashed were ones ultimately…he couldn’t control”

BUCHE: Both his physical and mental powers began to weaken and the system became unglued. You could see in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, that things were coming undone. He could no longer juggle hundreds of important issues, keep up a heavy schedule of foreign and domestic travel, decide on the numerous personnel appointments, and continue to dispense instructions, rewards, and punishments through face-to-face meetings with his officials.

He was aging and showed signs of mental and physical weariness. Concomitantly, the Ethiopian internal situation was developing in ways detrimental to the continuation of the Emperor’s traditional way of ruling. Ideologies advocating basic changes in Ethiopia’s political, social, and economic relationships were gaining adherents. The critics and enemies of Haile Selassie and imperial rule were becoming bolder in their opposition as they saw the increasing support for change among the educated elite in the military and in the civilian bureaucracy.

HOLMES: …[T]he embassy tried hard, frankly, to get Haile Selassie to abdicate, to step down in favor of his son, the crown prince, who had been educated in England, who was a centrist moderate, let’s say, who admired the British monarchy, who took as his model the British monarchy, so that he would have been not exactly a figurehead, but he would have been a constitutional monarch, with a prime minister and elections, real elections, to choose a government under his general suzerainty.

I think we could have prevented the revolution which came, but we were unsuccessful. The emperor, at times, would seem to almost agree with us: Yes, I’ve been on the throne fifty years. I can spend my declining years in England or Geneva or wherever, it doesn’t matter where, or even in Ethiopia, and gracefully step aside.

And his son, I think, could have held the situation, with the change. The emperor didn’t change; just what we predicted. It happened just exactly… the young students, the young military officers, the majors downward. Above major, you got into the royalty, into the courtier system, the colonels and so forth. But below that, you had these young officers, many of whom were trained in the United States, or at least had post-graduate training in military at our various institutions, West Point or wherever, and came back.

“We began to see the collapse of the entire previously-existing power structure”

Parker Wyman, Deputy Chief of Mission, Addis Ababa, 1972-1974

WYMAN: I saw him probably twice at the palace, to discuss things with him. I had not seen him–well, that close up, you might say–before, and I was really shocked by his mental feebleness, when I did see him. I had the definite impression, frankly, that he was senile. He did not react with the degree of alertness that I would have expected, really, from any head of state.

On one of those occasions, I told him that the United States was planning to leave Kagnew Station eventually and was cutting down the number of its military personnel there substantially in the near future, which was an important development from Ethiopia’s standpoint. It was clear, from his reaction, that he didn’t like the idea, but he virtually had nothing to say on the subject. I found that astonishing.

Certainly this was a very important factor that enabled this incipient revolution to get out of control. If he had been in full possession of his faculties, or if he, at that time, had had somebody as Prime Minister to whom he gave full support, and had acted very vigorously, the outcome might have been different, I think. But that wasn’t the case. So his condition had a lot to do with the development of the revolution….

All military units sent representatives to Addis to present their combined grievances to the central government. The ones sent were either junior officers or non-commissioned officers, and tended to be the most radical and vociferous in their units. Those representatives then formed a committee in Addis which was called the “Derg,” a word which simply means “committee.” One of those men was Major Mengistu, who would gradually come to dominate the entire group by methods which included murdering his rivals.

Meanwhile the incidents, strikes, and mutinies continued to grow in scope. The Prime Minister was replaced, the government’s authority looked increasingly weak, and the influence of the Derg was obviously growing. The military rebels appeared to be the most dangerous threat from the beginning and our reports to the Department sometimes referred to the ongoing developments as a “creeping coup.”

The reason we used that expression was that there had been many military coups d’état in various African states, but they had all been very rapid. Soldiers would come in the middle of the night and shoot the president and take over the palace, or something like that, and then announce a new government the next morning. This wasn’t like that.

Gradually we began to see the collapse of the entire previously-existing power structure. It became obvious that the new civilian government was being manipulated by the Derg, and we heard more and more of Mengistu’s influence in the Derg. Its members had gone way beyond the role of presenting grievances and were calling the shots themselves even though Haile Selassie was still emperor and there was still a civilian government. By this time many of the most influential people in the country had been arrested and thrown into the same prison in Addis.

Well, once this Derg that I referred to came together in Addis, they began to exert influence more and more on the situation. As a matter of fact, all other authorities seemed to have lost their authority, to put it most simply. You had what was increasingly seen to be a power vacuum, and it looked as though the only people who could get some things done–you became increasingly aware–was this Derg.

Their influence was growing and expanding into this power vacuum, where nobody else was really able to control matters. That situation went on, basically–I don’t think there’s too much point in going into the details–went on, basically, until the Emperor was–in August of that year, roughly six months after the revolution started–was really thrown out of his palace and taken off to house arrest.

I have always remembered the last meeting I had with the emperor, not long before he was arrested. I had to tell him about the impending closure of the Kagnew base in Asmara. He knew that Kagnew had been one of the principal reasons for American interest in Ethiopia, so he was sorry to hear that news.

Also, this was after the revolution was well under way and his own position had obviously become precarious. I remember him shaking his head and saying sadly, just before I left, “Times are changing very rapidly these days.” Ostensibly, he said this in relation to Kagnew, but I felt sure from the tone of his voice and the look on his face that he was also thinking of the traditional Ethiopian political and economic structure which was collapsing around him.

Richard Jackson, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, 1968-1970

JACKSON: I don’t think there was a lot of thinking outside the box. I think there was a perception that, like so many rulers with absolute power, he had outlived his time and the reformist initiatives that he set in motion in the 1920s–widespread education and the transformation of Ethiopia from a medieval society to one edging into the 20th Century– were his undoing. The forces he unleashed were ones ultimately, in his old age, he couldn’t control. It was a sad, [King] Lear-like lesson with resonance today for a good many regimes around the world, I’m sorry to say.

VANCE: I think it all fell apart because he lived too long, and people got fed up with the crap. It was just very sad to look back at that period. We were able to drive everywhere in Ethiopia. They had an agricultural advisory structure that was supported by an agricultural college and high school that we’d founded that had county agents helping the farmers throughout Ethiopia. This was the country that was the breadbasket of the Middle East, and now everybody’s starving to death. It’s just an extremely sad view.