Q.5. How will history judge H/Selassie? Was he a progressive and visionary monarch who did the best he could until his nobility and bureaucrats and eventually old age got into his way or was he a shrewd power-hungry king who thrived in the fear and mistrust he created among his subjects and the status- quo? What are his most important legacies to contemporary Ethiopia and Ethiopians?


My apology for not responding to the question promptly, and I believe you may understand that. The question is very challenging and it requires a serious study of Ethiopia history that stretches from 1916, when Dejazmach Tafari (the future Haile Selassie) was elected as heir to the throne, up to the last days of 1974. As I have not specialised on this period, I am not the right person to sit in the judgement of Haile Selassie. Relatively speaking, we have an abundant literature on Haile Selassie than on any other kings; and I have made below some list for your reading and balanced judgement.

As one who studies Ethiopian history how do I see the life and times of Haile Selassie? From a theoretical point of view I see Haile Selassie as an Enlightend Absolute Monarch. There are two key terms in this concept: Enlightend Monarch and Absolute Monarch, whose application and use affects our judgement. An Enlightend Monarch is a monarch whose policy is influenced and dictated by "modern ideas" that had sharply distinguished from what had gone before: improvements of educational opportunities, social conditions and economic life. The concept Absolute Monarch does not refer to the meaning a personal rule, far from the idea of a dictator. It is an institutional royal government which seeks to be systematic and rational through the application of best recent knowledge to the task of ruling, in an another word, an organisational technique called bureaucracy. We have to see the thought and activities of Haile Selassie at these two levels, and analyse their impact on the Ethiopian society.

If we look the empirical evidences for the period 1917-1935, Haile Selassie had made a reform as regards administration, economy and social conditions. Improvements in the functions and responsibilities of the ministries that were created by Menelik in 1907; codification of the countries civil and criminal laws aimed to avoid arbitrary judgement and punishment by governors; printing press which facilitated and encouraged publications; financially, giving regulation to a credit system that abolished higher rent; establishment of a shareholder bank (Bank of Ethiopia) Haile Selassie as one of the share holders; expansion of infrastructure such as road, an import of air plane and cars for transport; socially, establishment of hospital, schools and construction of electricity; on religion, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church for the first time elected her own patriarch (Abun), breaking thousand years of tradition of appointment by Coptic church of Egypt, thus asserting the sovereignty of the church; and, secularization policy through the formation of an independent central administration of the Ethiopian Church (the Office of Bet Khnet at Addis Ababa), thus separating the church from the state, and consequently his policy that religion is "the private affair of human beings"; abolishing of corvee labour (free exploitation of peasant labour for cultivation of governors lands, fencing his house, grinding his corn, etc.); etc... These are some of his domestic policies and reforms in the period between 1917-1934; I have left out his international policy and achievements of this period. You can find both his internal and external policy and achievements listed in Haile Selassie (1965), Heywetena Ye Etyopiya Ermga. Addis Ababa Vol. I.chapt. 12 and passim.

The reforms undertaken between 1941-74 are innumerable. Administrations and legal and fiscal systems were modified (see, Worku Tafara, 1977. Judicial Administration in Ethiopia: A Reform Oriented Analysis. Thesis on Law, Northewestern University, School of Law, Chicago; Tzadu, Paulos, Organization of the Central Administration in Ethiopia. Historical Profile; Markaksi, John and Asmelsh Beyene, Representative institutions in Ethiopia. This last article deals on the constitutions of 1931 and 1955); commercial and economic development was encouraged, see Keller, E.J. 1988. Revolutionary Ethiopia. From Empire to People's Republic. Indiana. Chap. IV.; efforts were made to improve agriculture by way of fiscal means, see Taye Gulilat, 1968. "The Tax in Lieu of Tithe and the New Agricultural Income Tax: A Preliminary Evaluation", Dialogue II, 1 (December); establishment of Haile Selassie I University and many secondary and primary education, etc. Externally, his achievements in the post war period had earned him international recognition: support for colonial subjugated people, founding of OAU, Non-Aliened Movement, to mention but few. I wish I have time to list all of his domestic and international policy for the benefit of the readers.

It can be said that Haile Selassie had demilitarized the traditional Ethiopian society and created a civil society. His initial reforms had the intent to erode the power of the military nobility (Mekwanent and Mesafint), and to bring an end to "Fyudal Agezaz" (feudal rule), to borrow his words (Haile Selassie 1965. p. 54). In his struggle he was supported by educated Ethiopians (known as "Japanizers"), such as Nagadras Gebre Hiwot Baykedagn. The spirit of his reform had continued in the post war period; but the question is who benefited from these reforms? Some claim that the reforms favoured only the ruling elite, for instance, there was no equal access to modern education. Even though there is some truth in this claim, there are a number of factors we have to consider for a balanced judgement. First one has to look the social origin of Haile Selassie and the social base of his rule (royal aristocrats and the middle class). Secondly we have to examine more carefully, (in figures) his fiscal and economic policies in terms of their effects on the living standards and opportunities of the Ethiopian citizens, their effects on the income of the peasants, their impact on trade and investment. This helps us to distinguish between professed objectives and real intentions of his act. For instance the concentration of education in Addis Ababa was not the result of Haile Selassie intention to limit educational access to the rural population, rather it is a result of the desire to make Addis Ababa a modern imperial seat, which in the process led to the concentration of public offices and services. Thirdly, we have to distinguish effects that had come as a result of a policy (or limit of the reform) and structural problems rooted in the past.

I have in mind the Rist land holding system (ownership of land by decent and birth right) of northern and central Ethiopia, which was a hindrance to labour mobility, and which for centuries resisted any accumulation of wealth in rural Ethiopia. Haile Selassie is not responsible for the consequence of the Rist land tenure system. As I understand, it is not because Haile Selassie reforms were limited and biased, but they were not enough for a vast country which had remained predominantly agrarian for centuries. This is not to deny the fact that Haile Selassie was an absolute monarch: royal monopoly of power and rule through a bureaucracy.

In his speech on the promulgation of 1955 Constitution, he said "all regions of the Empire are now closely knit together under a single unified direction capable of guiding them all along parallel lines of progress and integrating all into a common national endeavour". Haile Selassie has brought about standardization and uniformity in the society. His reforms and the amount of success achieved, ever since he was a regent (1916), were remarkable in the context of his time, and the sense of social responsibility which lay behind many of the reforms was a novel one if one compares it with his past.

I think I have to stop here, for further reference, in addition to those mentioned above, see:

Perham, Margaret, 1948. The Government of Ethiopia. London.

Hess, Robert, 1970. Ethiopia: The Modernization of Autocracy. Ithaca.

Schwab, Peter. 1972. Ethiopia and Haile Selassie. New York.

Spencer, J.H. 1984. Ethiopia at Bay: A Personal Account of Haile Selassie Years.

Recently Harold Marcus is working on two volumes on Haile Selassie, which I guess are expected to appear soon. Do not forget to send me questions to prepare for the next time.

With Regards,

Tsegaye T.