I shook the hand of a king or a god.
August 1974, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Our bus filled with college students rattled down a long, straight road of spotty asphalt. Scores walked narrow shoulders as we jostled toward the Imperial Summer Palace. Ethiopians are a warm, generous people with an ancient culture. But they are poor, desperately poor. Lacking facilities, pedestrian roadside urination was the rule. I pointed out a line crew tending utilities. Our guide corrected me, “Thieves pilfering telephone wire for the copper.” Despite their difficulties, smiles adorn Ethiopian faces like bees on flowers.
Palatial gates opened. Ratty militiamen lounged on two parked jeeps. The guide warned: “Those guns have real bullets; these communist rebels lack humor.” Ornate doors swung to reveal Emperor Haile Selassie. The short, frail man in excellent uniform patiently gripped our hands one by one. Scruffy guards with submachine guns surveyed us from either side. Ostensibly protecting Selassie, their weaponry insured rather his compliance and incarceration. The Emperor’s captors and their bloody Mengistu successors, with Soviet backing, inflicted communist Red Terror upon Ethiopia, murdering thousands. In 2006, Mengistu was convicted in absentia of genocide.
Haile Selassie rose to power without violence in 1930. Upon Selassie’s coronation, Jamaican Pan-African enthusiasts declared Selassie the living God incarnate and promised Messiah for Africans. A community of 200 Rastafarian families (“Ras” means prince; “Tafari” was Selassie’s birth name) persists at Shashamene in southern Ethiopia.
Emperor Selassie was much loved, but an ineffective administrator. The 1972 Wollo Famine killed more than 40,000 people. Selassie’s popularity plummeted. Edmund Burke (British, 18th century A.D.) said well: “Nothing turns out to be so oppressive and unjust as a feeble government” (Reflections on the Revolution in France).
Military elements seized power. Selassie endured house arrest (at which time I shook his hand), then died or was murdered in 1975. He was buried under a concrete slab on the palace grounds. After Mengistus and their Soviet bankroll collapsed (1991), Selassie’s body was exhumed, given Imperial honors, and entombed on holy Ethiopian Orthodox ground. Rastafarians attended, but denied the body laid to rest was that of their Messiah, who they believe lives on in hiding.
I have pondered Haile Selassie. In most accounts, the Emperor was a good man overwhelmed by his country’s many challenges. Robert Louis Stevenson (Scottish, 19th century A.D.) said: “Our business in this world is not to succeed, but to continue to fail, in good spirits” (Reflections and Remarks on Human Life, §4). I met Selassie as his life’s work collapsed. He bore defeat with equanimity.