Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia begins his 40th anniversary year this week with a good-will visit to Italy, the first since Mussolini invaded his country in 1935.
Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia begins his 40th anniversary year this week with a good-will visit to Italy, the first since Mussolini invaded his country in 1935. One of the world's longest-reigning monarchs, he has played a key role in great political movements of two generations: the struggle against the dictators in the 1930's and the development of independent Africa in the 1960's.
Despite the archaic ring of his many titles - king of Kings, Elect of God, Conquering Lion of Judah - Haile Selassie has devoted much attention and a large part of his personnel fortune to bringing his medieval country into the 20th century.
He was born Dejazmatch Tafari on July 23rd 1892, the son of an Ethiopian provincial governor with an indirect relationship to the Royal house. In 1916, a new Empress came to the throne and Dejazmatch Tafari was made Regent and heir to the throne. On November 2 1930 after the death of the Empress, he was crowned Emperor and adopted the name of Haile Selassie - the Might of the Trinity.
It is Ethiopia's strong links with the christian Church and "emotional affinity" with Israel - according to legend Selassie is the descendant of King Solomon, - that is the cause of the strained relations of Ethiopia with the Arab States today.
In 1931 he gave Ethiopia a written constitution for the first time in 3,000 years, and the first Ethiopian government met in 1932. But his programme of democratisation and modernisation met with a grave set back after only five years of his rule.
In 1935, Ethiopia was invaded by the Italian fascist armies of Mussolini. The Emperor's name suddenly became familiar to the outside world as he stood up to the rising tide of fascist aggression. Though against all expectations the ill-equipped ethiopian army held out for seven months, the Italians entered Addis Ababa in May, 1936. Selassie fled with his family to Palestine and from there made his way to England where he settled at Bath.
When in June 1936 the League of Nations decided to raise the economic sanctions it had vainly adopted against Italy, the Emperor pleaded his country's cause before the League in Geneva. He prophesied that if the League failed to enforce its Covenant it would be "digging its own grave."
Aided by British, Indian and South African forces in the second World War, Haile Selassie routed the Italians and led his subjects in a triumphal return to Addis Ababa in May 1941. He was recognised as Emperor and brought Ethiopia, with an autonomous Eritrea, into the United Nations in 1950.
The war was followed by a long period of reconstruction and the democratic rights of the people were increased. The Emperor retained, however, the supreme direction of foreign and internal affairs.
The one serious domestic challenge to his authority came in an abortive military coup in 1960, while he was out of the country on a state visit to Brazil. Six thousand men of his Imperial bodyguard rebelled under the leadership of their commander, Brigadier Mengistu Neway. But the bulk of the armed forces remained loyal to the emperor and the attempt was put down. On his return the Emperor publicly pardoned his eldest son, the Crown prince, who had been the unwilling tool of the rebels.
In the 1960's the Emperor, ruler of Africa's oldest independent state, has been in the forefront of the movement for African unity. The first conference of african heads of state was held under his presidency in Addis Ababa in May, 1963, and the charter of the Organisation of African Unity was signed there.
Addis Ababa is now the headquarters of the Organisation of African Unity and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, and houses other international agencies such as the World Bank, the World Health Organisation and the International Labour Office.
Haile Selassie's desire to establish ethiopia throughout the world as the leading voice of the African continent has sent him on numerous state visits in the last few years. Another reason for his visits to capitalist and communist countries alike has been to obtain financial, military and technical assistance for his country.
In 1963 the Emperor acted as mediator in the border dispute between Algeria and Morocco, and in a number of conflicts in the African continent his has been a conciliatory voice raised to support African unity. He has tried to end the enmity of the Moslem arab states for Christian Ethiopia by goodwill state visits and called constantly for an end to the Nigerian civil war.
Ethiopia's major unsettled problem is the civil strife in the province of Eritrea. The Eritreans want complete autonomy, but the conflict is mainly a religious one-of Moslem insurgents against the Coptic Christian hierarchy led by Emperor Haile Selassie.