Ras Tafari Makonnen: His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie


Tafari Makonnen, born July 23 1892, near Harer (Ethiopia), who was to be popularly known as Emperor Haile Selassie. He is an iconic figure in the Rastafari movement, even considered by the faithfuls of the movement as the “Messiah” popularly referred in the bible; he’s also considered as one of the most influential if not the most influential leader in Ethiopia’s history.

Tafari was born to Ras Makonnen Wolde Mikael (father), who played a key role in the first Italo-Ethiopian war – battle of Adwa precisely, serving as General, and Woizero Yeshimibet Abba Jifar (mother). Ras Mikael was both paternally and maternally Amhara, and was the grandson of King Sahle Selassie who once ruled Shewa. Woizero Yeshimibet was the daughter of a ruling chief of Were Ilu in Wollo province. Haile Selassie was educated at home by French missionaries and it is said that he showed signs of possessing a great intellect which very much impressed the then Emperor.

In 1906, at just 14 years old, Tafari became the titular governor of Selale and subsequently in 1907, he was appointed governor over a part of the province of Sidamo. Following the death of his brother, Yelma – who was the governor of Harer – and the incompetent administration of Balcha Safo, the successor of Yelma, Haile Selassie became governor of Harer in 1910 or 1911.

Throughout his governorship, he favoured progressive policies. Did you know Tafari was initially not the designated successor to the Ethiopian throne? Ras Tafari had a claim to the Ethiopian throne through his paternal grandmother, Woizero Tenagnework Sahle Selassie an aunt of Emperor Menelik II. But Initially, Lij Iyasu, who was the grandson of Menelik II, was the designated successor to the Ethiopian throne, but Iyasu had a tainted reputation; particularly for treating the nobles of his grandfather’s court with disrespect and having an inclination to Islam; these – particularly his inclination to Islam – which was considered an act of treason by the Ethiopian Orthodox Churchwere enough to spark a successful uprising against him in 27th September, 1916, after which, Zewditu, daughter of Menelik was named empress (crowned on 11th February, 1917) with Tafari being conferred the title of Ras and subsequently named crown prince and heir apparent to the throne.

His Imperial Majesty, Negusa Nagast, Defender of the Faith, Haile Selassie

But then it was arranged that Empress Zewditu would govern while Ras Tafari administered making him the de facto ruler of Ethiopia. Ras Tafari, toured some parts of Europe hoping to gain access to the sea. He also enacted policies that would prevent Economic imperialism from taking root in Ethiopia and saw adopting European progress as necessary.

His administration was also a very progressive one though the empress was conservative. Many of Menelik‘s appointees were not in favour of Ras Tafari’s, and so there were a series of oppositions against his administration particularly by Balcha Safo in 1928, who was consequently displaced by Ras Tafari as Shum of Sidamo. Safo’s uprising was most likely based on the fact that Ras Tafari questioned him that the revenue he gave to the central government  was not a reflection of the total revenue he received from coffee in Sidamo province.

After an unsuccessful coup d’etat by  some members of his palace, the Empress Zewditu reluctantly crowned Ras Tafari as Negus (king) on 7th October, 1928  as he had popular support  and support from the police. Ras Tafari, as Negus, exuded too much power, a level of power which was seen by the conservatives as rubbing shoulders with that of the empress and thereby was considered treacherous.

This led to the uprising of Ras Gugsa Welle, husband of the empress. The uprising was unsuccessful and tragically led to the death of Gugsa Welle on 31st March, 1930. Shortly after the death of her husband, the empress also met her demise ( 2nd April, 1930). Ras Tafari then rose to emperor and then crowned on 2nd November, 1930, taking the name of Haile Selassie (Might of the Trinity).

As an Emperor, Haile Selassie, introduced a written constitution in 1931, a first for Ethiopia, which favoured a bicameral legislature. Ethiopia was invaded by the Italians in 1935 which prompted Haile Selassie to retaliate the Italians but had to succumb to the military might of Italians. The emperor was after was forced into exile in May 1936. The emperor pleaded from the league of nations through his very iconic speech in Geneva on June 30, 1936. Later, Haile Selassie received assistance from the British who helped him form an army with some Ethiopian exiles. An amalgamation of the said Ethiopian forces and British soldiers invaded and took back Ethiopia from the Italians to the Emperor in January 1941.

After his reinstatement, the Emperor was viewed as ruling in conformity with his personal whims and as a result faced some resistance particularly in 1960 by a part of his army who took control over Addis Ababa but were ousted. In 1963, Haile Selassie helped in creating the Organisation of African Unity.  Around 1974, Ethiopia’s economy went downhill; characterized by famine and unemployment which was seen by some members of his army as the end products of his rule. This subsequently led to his deposition and an establishment of a provisional military government. The emperor was placed under house arrest where he met his demise on 27th August, 1975.

Some ascribed the cause of his death to natural causes but some sources also hold that he was strangled to death upon orders from the military government.



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