Icons Of Africa

Haile Selassie the Rastafarian 

Haile Selassie the Rastafarian 

By Josiah Odanga

There is this current generation who have adopted the dreadlock culture, clad in clothes and scarves bearing green, red, yellow and black colours – Ethiopian flag. Most of them lovers of reggae – a music genre of Jamaican origin. Yes, the Ras of the ganja culture, we call them.  Ever bothered to know the origin of this culture?

Now, ‘prophet’ Marcus Garvey, Jamaican political and social change activist once foretold of a king being crowned in Africa to redeem them (Jamaicans) from persecution.

Funnily enough, the Rastafarians of Jamaica saw Haile Selassie’s 1930 coronation as Emperor a fulfillment of the prophecy thus embracing Ras Teferi Makonen as their Messiah, King and redeemer; also God.

Haile Selassie had acquired the name Ras Teferi Makonen, while serving as the governor of Harar.

And so the Ethiopian Ras (head) became the Jah (God) as in reggae lyrics.

The Jamaican Rastafarians’ faith was further affirmed considering the biblical book of Revelation that talked of the “king of kings.” Although the Jamaicans respected and believed in him, strangely, the ‘prophet’ Marcus never recognised Haile Selassie as the messiah and was the latter’s critic till his time of death. Haile Selassie himself knew he was never a messiah.

To the Jamaicans Ras was their messiah, and so many longed for Africa’s Ethiopia. However, in 1966, Ras visited Jamaica. He was overwhelmingly welcomed and many openly smoked ganja as a show of respect to the messiah.

Haile Selassie was born on Jul 23, 1892 in Ejersa Goro village in Harar, Ethiopia, named LijTafariMakonnenWoldemikael. Lij means a child of nobility. Tafari means the respected one. Makonnen and Woldemikael being the names of his father and grandfather respectively. His father, who served as Governor of Harar, was known as Ras Makonnen Woldemikael Gudessa.  Haile’s mother, Lady Woizero – wasdaughter to an Oromo ruler. His parents were believed to have had a background relationship with the King Solomon of Israel.

He was enthroned as the Emperor (King of Kings) in 1930 following the death of Empress Zewditu and was commonly referred to by a huge title: By the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, His Imperial Majesty (HIM) Haile Selassie, Kings of Kings of Ethiopia; the Elect of God. The title is a representation of Ethiopian dynastic traditions which required every monarch to trace their linage to Menelik I, who according to them, was from the King Solomon.

War with Italians

Soon after Haile Selassie became emperor, Benito Mussolini was determined to revenge the military defeats Italy had suffered in the First Italo-Abyssian War, which Haile’s father took part in as a General. It was also to revive the failed attempts by Italy to colonise Ethiopia. Mussolini succeeded in December 1934 when the Italians invaded Ethiopia at Walwal. Ras had to act swiftly and smartly. He joined his northern armies to set up headquarters at Desse inWollo Province.

He insisted on the responsibility of the Ethiopians to resist the enemy, also reminding them of God’s wrath and curse by their descendants if they would refuse to wrestle it with the intruder.  He gave precise orders to the army to ensure they fought without many of their own being killed.

Italians had advanced air force and used chemical weapons. Following the irresistible attacks by Italians, Haile Selassie went under a rock in Lalibela where he prayed and fasted. Agreeably, the government was to be moved to Gore town since Addis Ababa had already been invaded. Haile, together with his family, soon afterwards departed for Djibouti on May 2, 1936 and proceeded to Jerusalem – symbolic of the Biblical Solomonic dynasty.

At the League of Nations

He approached the League of Nations (LN) over the fate of Ethiopia, in Geneva. Before the League of Nations, he was introduced as His Imperial Majesty (HIM), which caused discomfort among the journalists who heckled him and blew whistles (whistles distributed by Mussolini’s son-in-law). When the jeering stopped, HIM delivered a powerful speech reiterating his confidence in the League of Nations. He wondered why Italians had to hold Ethiopia hostage. His action and speech were considered great by many. He was considered an icon for anti-fascists around the world with the Times magazine referring to him as the Man of the Year.

Disappointingly, League of Nations agreed to only partial sanctions on Italy, which were very ineffective. Only New Zealand, China, Spain Republic, USA, Mexico and the Soviet Union failed to recognise Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia as at 1937.


Ras proceeded to England where he bought Fairfield House, extending his exile years to 1941. While in England, he became occupied writing a 90,000-word autobiography. As a man of God and a staunch Christian of the Orthodox Church he continuously hoped and prayed for the day Italians would finally leave Ethiopia, also continually pushing for League of Nations’ intervention. It is only US through African-American organisations which considered working with the emperor. Otherwise it was never effective working through League of Nations till Italy went into World War II in 1940 on the German side.

While still in exile Haile Selassie faced challenges, among them being his two sons-in-law being executed by Italians. His daughter, wife and children were also kidnapped by Italians.

Reclaiming Ethiopia

British forces (Ethiopian-backed African and South African colonial troops) helped Haile Selassie reclaim Ethiopia and on January 18,1941, the emperor managed to cross the border into Ethiopia, raising the Lion of Judah once again. Haile Selassie addressed Ethiopians telling them never to think of revenge but to rejoice the victory in their hearts.

In August, 1942, the emperor abolished the legal basis of slavery and imposed severe penalties such as death for slave trading.

After World War II, Ethiopia became a charter member of the United Nations and the Ogaden region that Somalia had been claiming was granted to Ethiopia.

Show of love and care

In 1947 Britain was affected by flooding and Ras sent about one thousand pounds to the Britons as a show of sympathy and cooperation. This was despite the fact that Ethiopia was just from war.

Upon return from exile, HIM left his Fairfield House to be used as a residential place for the old people.

He also contributed Ethiopian troops to the United Nations’ Operation in Congo during the 1960 Congo crisis to help restore order.

Coup attempt

While Ras was on an official visit to Brazil on December 13, 1960, Imperial Guard forces staged an unsuccessful coup. Ideologically because the plot was not popular with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, army, air force and police. Only students and the learned class supported the coup. This became the first time in Ethiopian history that the people questioned the king’s activities.


In 1963, Haile Selassie presided over the formation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) – now African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He was then elected first OAU chairman. While serving OAU as chairman he helped in bringing to an end the border conflict between Morocco and Algeria. He also became the first proponent of the United States of Africa in 1964; later championed for by the late Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi – a push thought to be reason behind his (Gaddafi’s) killing in 2011 by National Transition Council forces in conjunction with allied forces led by the USA.

Haile Selassie was also party to the Non-AlignedMovement. He attended the 1961 founding Conference of the Heads of States of the Non-Aligned Countries in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

In 1967 he visited Montreal, Canada where he opened the Ethiopian Pavilion at the Expo 67 World’s Fair. While outside his country, Ras enjoyed respect and precedence over other leaders because of his long service as head of state. An example being the state funeral of former American President, John Kennedy.

Ethiopia vs. Eritrea

Ras continually remained a staunch friend of the Westerners as he worked towards a policy to decolonise Africa from European rule. He engaged UN in ensuring Eritrea acquired a constitution that would guide the country upon detachment from Ethiopia. Otherwise, it should be noted that he was not free to let Eritrea go – evident on Ras’ 1962 declaration of Eritrea being a province of Ethiopia. War thus broke out and many people died. Eritrea was to gain independence from Ethiopia in 1993.


Human rights

Human rights under the reign of Haile in Ethiopia were horrible. Political prisoners were tortured and subjected to filthy prison conditions. There were mass killing of civilians by Ethiopian army while fighting the Eritrean separatists in 1960s and early 70s.

Beginning of opposition

Haile introduced the ‘progressive tax’ that involved registration of land in 1966. Several landowners started to defy his orders, undermining the tax collection. Marxism took root with Ethiopia experiencing regular unrests by the educated class. His new tax ‘design’ faced resistance among the Imperial Court and Parliament and the Orthodox Church. This frustrated the operations of the government.

Wollo famine

In 1973, a regrettable famine swept an approximate of 20,000 Ethiopians in Wollo province. This was a big blow to Ras’ leadership.

Rebel Marxists of the army conducted a successful coup de ’tat sending Haile Selassie’s government to the abyss.


Official information about Haile Selassie’s death was released in 1975, a year after he had been arrested. Rastafarians described his disappearance as “lies of Babylon.” They argued that Ras ‘disappearance’ was aimed at undermining the Rastafarian Movement which was rapidly taking root.

Meanwhile, they continued to believe that they were united in spirit with Ras, thus the “I and I” concept among Rastas.

Twenty five years later the bones of the Ethiopia’s last Emperor were found in a pit latrine and were laid to rest at Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

Though dead, Haile Selassie’s spirit lives on as seen in reggae musicians such as Bob Marley.

This story appeared on print [Issue 033, p.19]


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Written by The Kenyan Weekly

The Kenyan Weekly newspaper is a fresh general-news publication published on newsprint once a week.

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