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1930-1974 Haile Selassie Ras Tafari

Empress Zawditu died in April 1930, and in November 1930 Negus Tafari was crowned Haile Selassie I, "Elect of God, and King of Kings of Ethiopia." The phrase 'Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah' has never been the title of Ethiopian monarchs. Rather, the words 'The Lion of the Tribe of Judah hath prevailed' (see Genesis 49:9) should be seen as the Imperial motto, in the same way that 'Honi Soit Qui Mal y Pense' is the motto of the British ruling house. As emperor, Haile Selassie continued to push reforms aimed at modernizing the country and breaking the nobility's authority. Henceforth, the great rases were forced either to obey the emperor or to engage in treasonable opposition to him.

In July 1931, the emperor granted a constitution that asserted his own status, reserved imperial succession to the line of Haile Selassie, and declared that "the person of the Emperor is sacred, his dignity inviolable, and his power indisputable." All power over central and local government, the legislature, the judiciary, and the military remained with the emperor. The constitution was essentially an effort to provide a legal basis for replacing the traditional provincial rulers with appointees loyal to the emperor.

The new strength of the imperial government was demonstrated in 1932 when a revolt led by Ras Hailu Balaw of Gojam in support of Lij Iyasu was quickly suppressed and a new nontraditional governor put in Hailu's place. By 1934 reliable provincial rulers had been established throughout the traditional Amhara territories of Shewa, Gojam, and Begemdir, as well as in Kefa and Sidamo--well outside the core Amhara area. The only traditional leader capable of overtly challenging central rule at this point was the ras of Tigray. Other peoples, although in no position to confront the emperor, remained almost entirely outside the control of the imperial government.

Although Haile Selassie placed administrators of his own choosing wherever he could and thus sought to limit the power of the rases and other nobles with regional power bases, he did not directly attack the systems of land tenure that were linked to the traditional political order. Abolition of the pattern of gult rights in the Amhara-Tigray highlands and the system of land allocation in the south would have amounted to a social and economic revolution that Haile Selassie was not prepared to undertake.

The emperor took nonmilitary measures to promote loyalty to the throne and to the state. He established new elementary and secondary schools in Addis Ababa, and some 150 university-age students studied abroad. The government enacted a penal code in 1930, imported printing presses to provide nationally oriented newspapers, increased the availability of electricity and telephone services, and promoted public health. The Bank of Ethiopia, founded in 1931, commenced issuing Ethiopian currency.

The last fourteen years of Haile Selassie's reign witnessed growing opposition to his regime. After the suppression of the 1960 coup attempt, the emperor sought to reclaim the loyalty of coup sympathizers by stepping up reform. Much of this effort took the form of land grants to military and police officers, however, and no coherent pattern of economic and social development appeared.

In 1966 a plan emerged to confront the traditional forces through the implementation of a modern tax system. Implicit in the proposal, which required registration of all land, was the aim of destroying the power of the landed nobility. But when progressive tax proposals were submitted to parliament in the late 1960s, they were vigorously opposed by the members, all of whom were property owners. Parliament passed a tax on agricultural produce in November 1967, but in a form vastly altered from the government proposal. Even this, however, was fiercely resisted by the landed class in Gojam, and the entire province revolted. In 1969, after two years of military action, the central government withdrew its troops, discontinued enforcement of the tax, and canceled all arrears of taxation going back to 1940.

The emperor's defeat in Gojam encouraged defiance by other provincial landowners, although not on the same scale. But legislation calling for property registration and for modification of landlord-tenant relationships was more boldly resisted in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. Debate on these proposals continued until the mid-1970s.

At the same time the emperor was facing opposition to change, other forces were exerting direct or indirect pressure in favor of reform. Beginning in 1965, student demonstrations focused on the need to implement land reform and to address corruption and rising prices. Peasant disturbances, although on a small scale, were especially numerous in the southern provinces, where the imperial government had traditionally rewarded its supporters with land grants. Although it allowed labor unions to organize in 1962, the government restricted union activities. Soon, even the Confederation of Ethiopian Labor Unions (CELU) was criticized as being too subservient to the government. Faced with such a multiplicity of problems, the aging emperor increasingly left domestic issues in the care of his prime minister, Aklilu Habte Wold (appointed in 1961), and turned his attention to foreign affairs.

By 1972 Haile Selassie's hands contolled the command of his army and navy and air force, the control of the civil government and aristocracy, the leadership of the Coptic Church and the Amhara tribe, the respect of his Arab neighbors, great influence in the OAU, and the power to deal with the major powers. There was no recognized heir who was qualified to succeed the 80 year old autocrat but there were a multitude of forces, weak and strong, loyal and self-seeking, conservative and revolutionary, ready to rush into the vacuum that would develop.

The Emperor's 80th birthday and continuing uncertainty regarding a successor regime (further heightened by the the Crown Prince's illness) focused attention on the possibilities of internal chaos and risks to the future position of the ruling elite. Reasons for the establishment's concern and consequent appeals for U.S. support included: serious institutional deficiencies end the prevailing moods of frustration and of absence of effective leadership within the government machine; discontent among ethnic groups and many of the educated aims because of the corrupt and repressive system; failure of the "Amharazation program" to cement a unified Ethiopia under Shoan Amhara domination; results of their unwillingness to institute land and other reforms which would have broadened the regime's appeal and reduced domestic tension in the long-run; failure to work with and "win over" elements of the population, most notably in Eritrea and the Ogaden, who were striving for local autonamy; and inefficiency in the military organisation.

The Derg worked to undermine the authority and legitimacy of the emperor, a policy that enjoyed much public support. The Derg arrested the commander of the Imperial Bodyguard, disbanded the emperor's governing councils, closed the private imperial exchequer, and nationalized the imperial residence and the emperor's other landed and business holdings. By late August 1974, the emperor had been directly accused of covering up the Welo and Tigray famine of the early 1970s that allegedly had killed 100,000 to 200,000 people.

After street demonstrations took place urging the emperor's arrest, the Derg formally deposed Haile Selassie on September 12 and imprisoned him. The emperor was too old to resist, and it is doubtful whether he really understood what was happening around him. The Derg summarily executed 59 members of the royal family and ministers and generals of the emperor's government; Emperor Haile Selassie I was strangled in the basement of his palace on August 22, 1975.

Despite being in exile in London, Crown Prince Asfa Wossen was persuaded, in 1988, to declare himself Emperor, taking the throne name Amha Selassie I. But this act, which showed that the Monarchy was still alive and evolving, did not have enough power behind it - because of the new Emperor's poor health - to have sufficient political impact inside Ethiopia to bring about change on the ground. Had he done so earlier - under the tumultuous circumstances of 1975, after his father was killed - this may have been a rallying point for the international community. As it transpired, his gesture was too late to be given the credibility and power it sought.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:39:07 ZULU