Great men rarely come smaller than Haile Selassie. In photographs, the golden crowns, pith helmets and grey felt homburgs he often donned can’t conceal the fact that he is the shortest man in the room. It didn’t matter: for the 44 years of his reign — with a five-year interruption engineered by Benito Mussolini’s invading troops — he was effectively lord of all he surveyed.
Ethiopia’s current government, established by a former Marxist rebel group, has always harboured mixed feelings towards Tafari Makonnen, as he was baptised. But for his countrymen he looms like a colossus, remembered for dragging his vast empire from feudalism into the modern age, and as a symbol of anti-colonialism who shamed the League of Nations for failing to stand up to fascism and went on to found the Organisation of African Unity.
Enigmatic, arrogant and aloof, he pulled off the paradoxical feat of being both a radical reformer and a hidebound dictator who insisted on the literalism of the title ‘Elect of God’ and came to be worshipped as a deity himself by the Rastafarian movement.
A full-scale biography has been missing up till now, perhaps because the emperor recorded a detailed, if partial, memoir with the British historian Edward Ullendorff. This latest account, translated from German, is particularly welcome because Asfa-Wossen Asserate, a prince by birth, is Haile Selassie’s great nephew. His nobleman father went from rallying support for the emperor during a first failed coup in 1960 to begging his ageing leader to abdicate, and was finally one of 60 officials executed during a second, successful coup which ushered in a military dictatorship. So in theory this is that precious thing: an African history written by an insider.
Initially, however, the author fails to deliver on that promise of privileged access. While highly critical of accounts penned by the likes of the Polish reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski and Evelyn Waugh, Asfa-Wossen fails to provide a written Ethiopian perspective to correct these outsiders’ viewpoints. That material, he says, simply doesn’t exist, the archives of the imperial palace having been ‘dispersed to the four winds’ by succeeding regimes. Thankfully, Asfa-Wossen’s own memories — he was a teenager when two charismatic army officers first tried to topple Haile Selassie — kick in halfway through the book, along with accounts of conversations with exiled former aides and ministers.
The result — once you discount a couple of passages in which the author tells us far more about what various dignitaries wore and said during key ceremonies than any reader wants to know — is a tautly written, remarkably even-handed account of successful autocracy.
I particularly relished the portrait of daily life in Menelik Palace, which seems to have shared a great deal with Louis XIV’s Versailles. For anyone nursing hopes of advancement, putting in an appearance was vital, and the phrase ‘letting your face be slapped’ was coined to describe the art of ‘doing anything, however drastic, to ensure that the emperor noticed you’. Parliamentary democracy didn’t really stand a chance in an environment where ministers would bow to the telephone when taking a call from the Lion of Judah, King of Kings. ‘To the bitter end, Haile Selassie never had the slightest intention of rowing back from absolutist rule,’ comments the author.
Overall, Haile Selassie’s reign was an object lesson in political survival. Like Kenya’s President Daniel arap Moi, he managed to outmanoeuvre a cabal of kingmakers who originally chose him for his perceived weakness. Like Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, he proved a master of divide-and-rule, not only keeping his nobles busy competing against one another but successfully playing Washington and Moscow off against one another during the Cold War years.
It was an adroitness the emperor appeared to lose in his eighties, sitting inert in his palace as tens of thousands of peasants died of famine, students rioted in the streets and his army, itching for change, turned against him. Without blinking an eye, he allowed his loyal prime minister and closest aides to be arrested one by one until his own turn inevitably came. Puzzlingly, Asfa-Wossen makes no mention of the probable reason for his paralysis: the dementia commented on by a former American aide, John Spencer.
Perhaps he thought it disrespectful to dwell on an elderly relative’s mental decline. But it leaves a question unanswered at the end of this pacy, compelling account: how did one of Africa’s most wily politicians allow himself to be so easily outflanked in the end?