On this day in 1974, Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethopia, was overthrown and removed from power by a military coup, thus ending the 3,000-year-old monarchy claiming descent from Menelik I, the supposed son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. Selassie, who had been the 225th emperor in the line, had come to power through a series of coups himself.
Selassie was born Lij (a word indicating a child of noble birth) Tafari Makonnen in 1892 in Ejersa Goro east of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. His family was of the dominant Amhara tribe and his father, a governor, was a cousin of the heir-less Emperor Menelik II.
Tafari came to power through an intriguing set of circumstances that included the ex-communication of Menelik II’s chosen heir and grandson Lij Yasu who had converted to Islam. In the chaos and coup that followed, Tafari managed to position himself Regent to Menelik II’s daughter, Zewditu, who became Empress.
As Ethiopia’s lead administrator and Crown Prince, Ras Tafari, as he was now known, followed Menelik II’s cautious modernization of the country. In 1923, he managed to secure admission into the League of Nations, a move he sought in order to halt colonial ambitions on his country. However, friction ran high in the power arrangement with the Empress. Feeling confident, members of her court attempted a coup to oust Tafari from his role, but this backfired due to Tafari’s influence over the police force and popular support amongst the people. The failed coup resulted in a grand title upgrade for Tafari: King of Ethiopia.
Two years later, the Empress died suddenly and Tafari was subsequently crowned Emperor and “King of Kings of Ethiopia” on 2 November 1930, in a coronation ceremony of particularly ostentatious splendor.
His rule saw the introduction of two constitutions, the first in 1935 which was Ethiopia’s first written, and the second in 1955. He survived the Italian invasion under Mussolini when he was forced to live in exile. It was during this time that he was most revered on the world stage. After a stirring speech at the League of Nations in 1936 he was named “Man of the Year” by TIME magazine.
Selassie’s fall from power would be just as dramatic as his rise. In the early 1970s, a decade after a thwarted attempted coup in 1960, a famine struck in Wollo in the northeast, wiping out enormous numbers of lives. Oil prices began to quickly rise and Selassie’s clumsily bureaucratic court was evidently out of touch with the people’s needs at the time. Military units began to mutiny and popular support for the Emperor crumbled.
A result of all this was the growing power of a group of soldiers, known as the Derg, who were formed to investigate the mutinies and make arrests where necessary–even of officers and government officials. The Derg were highly determined and managed to pull apart the imperial court leading to their arrest and imprisonment of the Emperor on 12 September 1974. Two months later many of Selassie’s imperial officials, two former prime ministers and his grandson were executed.
Haile Selassie, who is regarded by Rastafarians as God, reportedly died of respiratory failure on 27 August 1975. However it is widely believed by those loyal to him that the turbulent life of the former Emperor ended in assassination.
Credit: LOC http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/mpc2005001859/PP/
Caption: Haile Selassie I, last Emperor of Ethiopia.