Haile Selassie: Why the African Union put up a statue

A statue of Ethiopia’s last emperor has been unveiled outside the African Union’s headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

The likeness of Haile Selassie is being given pride of place outside the $200m (£154m) building in recognition for his role in establishing its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (OAU).

But that might not be the first thing that springs to mind on hearing the name Haile Selassie. The name is perhaps more easily connected with Jamaican singer Bob Marley and Rastafarians.

So who exactly is Haile Selassie, and how did he come to be worshipped as a god by people living thousands of miles away?

First things first: why is he getting a statue?

Haile Selassie was more than 30 years into his reign when he helped establish the OAU. Its first meeting, in May 1963, was held in Addis Ababa.

Ethiopia – which has never been colonised although it was subjected to a five-year military occupation by Mussolini’s Italy – had served as a symbol of African independence throughout the colonial period.

Now other countries were finally gaining independence, and this was a chance to bring nations together to fight against colonisation and white minority rule while also co-ordinating efforts to raise living standards and defend their sovereignty.

“May this convention of union last 1,000 years,”

Haile Selassie, who spent a year preparing the city for the meeting, told the gathered delegates.

His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia
Haile Selassie was Ethiopia’s last emperor

As it happened, the OAU ceased to exist in its original form in 2002, replaced by the African Union (AU).

But his role in establishing the union has not been forgotten, and the statue is a way for the AU to recognise Haile Selassie’s contribution.

So, how exactly did he come to be seen as a god?

It all comes down to his coronation in 1930, and a “prophecy” made by a Jamaican black rights campaigner, Marcus Garvey, a decade earlier.

Garvey had told his followers in 1920 they should “look to Africa, when a black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is at hand”.

Rastafarian Reggae fans take parts in the Bob Marley "One Love" Festival and Rasta Fair to commemorate and celebrate the life of Bob Marley at the North Beach Amphitheatre in Durban, South Africa on February 3, 2019
Rastafarians believe Haile Selassie was the messiah. Image copyright: AFP

So, when a black man called Ras Tafari was crowned in Ethiopia, many saw that as a sign the prophecy had come true.

In East Africa, Ras Tafari (“chief” Tafari) became Haile Selassie (“power of the trinity”). Almost 8,000 miles away in the West Indies, Haile Selassie became God (or Jah) incarnate – the redeeming messiah – and Ethiopia, the promised land.

In short, the Rastafari movement was born.

Did Haile Selassie believe it himself? Well, he certainly didn’t try to dispel the belief when he visited Jamaica in 1966. The emperor was greeted by thousands, desperate to get a glimpse of their god. Among the devotees was the wife of a young Reggae musician, Bob Marley, who was away in the US.

Rita Marley would later describe how she saw nail marks on Haile Selassie’s palm as he waved at her. It was a moment of religious awakening, and when her husband returned, they embraced the belief.

Three years earlier, Rastafarians had begun to move to Ethiopia and a piece of land Haile Selassie had put aside for black people from the West in 1948. After the visit, the numbers grew larger. Today, the community numbers about 300 people.

But followers were presented with a conundrum after Haile Selassie died in 1975, a year after he was deposed in a Marxist revolution. After all, gods cannot die.

This was resolved after it was argued Haile Selassie’s body was just his earthly body.

Also, it should be noted, Garvey was never a believer. In fact, he was a critic of Haile Selassie.

What was he really like?

Opinion is still split over whether Haile Selassie was good for Ethiopia or not.

A Human Rights Watch report accuses him of acting with “official indifference” to famines in various regions of the country and attempting to conceal the famine of 1972-72, in which an estimated 200,000 people died.

He is also known to have violently cracked down on people who opposed him during his reign.

The Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie (C) and Ghana"s founder and first President Kwame Nkrumah (L) during the formation of the Organization of African Unity in Addis Ababa. Ghana
Haile Selassie’s statue joins that of Ghana’s President Kwame Nkrumah, another AU founder. 
Image copyright: AFP

Marcus Garvey was unimpressed after he fled Ethiopia in 1936 following the invasion of Benito Mussolini’s troops a year earlier, describing Haile Selassie as a “coward” and calling him out for “the terrors of slavery”. The practice was not outlawed in Ethiopia until 1942.

Academic Yohannes Woldemariam has gone as far as to argue that Haile Selassie should be remembered as a dictator. Indeed, he created a constitution which placed all power in his hands and those of his descendents.

Many Eritreans also loathe him, pointing out their country was annexed by Ethiopia under Haile Seleassie’s rule in 1962, giving impetus to an independence struggle which finally ended in 1993.

But Haile Seleassie’s supporters argue he was a great leader and moderniser, who was one of the first African leaders to become a figure on the global stage.

His appeal to the League of Nations after his country was invaded is still remembered today – not least because it forms the basis of Bob Marley’s 1976 song, War.

And – as the AU’s statue to him reminds people – he was a great advocate for pan-African cooperation, leaving a lasting legacy that continues to have an effect on millions of people across the continent today.

First Published 10.02.19: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-47172020

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