The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat – Ryszard Kapuscinski

HaileOn August 27, 1975, news reports began to emerge that Tafari Makonnen, known to the world as Haile Selassie I (1892-1975), had died at the Jubliee Palace in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  The man who ruled Ethiopia for forty-four years and who had served as the icon of the Rastafarian movement was eighty-three years old. Selaisse had lived his final years in exile after being deposed in a coup that took place in September, 1974.   The world-renown leader was a larger than life figure although he only stood 5’2″.  He was recognized on the world stage and helped Ethiopia modernize itself as the wave of independence swept over the African continent in the 1960s.  However, his reign was not free of controversy and Selassie was viewed by some as a greedy tyrant who used his position of power to enrich himself and those closest to him.   Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007) was a Polish journalist who traveled to Ethiopia and interviewed former members of Selassie’s administration. This book is a collection of what they remember from their time in office with regards to the emperor’s daily routine, his achievements and also his downfall.

The book is quite short but it does pack a powerful punch.  Observations by those who were closest to him paint an interesting picture of the diminutive giant.  But his size provided no indication of his shrewdness and ability to orchestrate an entire government.  Selassie controlled the entire country and this quote by a former subordinate drives home the point:

“not only did the Emperor decide on all promotions, but he also communicated each one personally. He alone. He filled the posts at the summit of the hierarchy, and also its lower and middle levels. He appointed the postmasters, headmasters of schools, police constables, all the most ordinary office employees, estate managers, brewery directors, managers of hospitals and hotels—and, let me say it again, he chose them personally.”

Quite frankly, at this time in history, Haile Selassie was Ethiopia.  And like the man behind the curtain the Wizard of Oz, there is much to his personal side that reveals how unconventional and unpredictable he truly was.  I caution readers that the book is not an autobiography.  The author does provide background information when needed but overall, the story focuses on the interviews he conducted with Selassie’s former confederates.

By far, nearly all who are interviewed hold Selassie in high regard and none really have a harsh word to say about him.  I found myself wondering if Selassie was a messiah that truly did perform wonders without fail or if it was a case of blind allegiance. They are quick to point the positive changes in Ethiopian society but the narrative changes with the premier of Jonathan Dimbleby’s Ethiopia: The Unknown Famine on British television. I decided to take a look at it myself and was aghast at what I saw.  The footage is raw and shocking, and I warn potential viewers that it will also be upsetting.  What is seen in the video stands in stark contrast to the image of Selassie that we have come to know over time. But voices within Ethiopia at the time were also sounding the alarm about the famine and they came from an ironic source.

One speakers whose name remains unknown like the others, discusses his son who has studied abroad like many other Ethiopian students who traveled abroad as representatives of their country.  These same students who had been sent to foreign countries to become better educated would later play a decisive role in the future of Ethiopia and in Selassie’s reign as ruler.  His son has returned to Ethiopia and what he sees, has led him down the path of no return. He tells his father:

“Father,” says Hailu, “this is the beginning of the end for all of you. We cannot live like this any longer. This death up north and the lies of the court have covered us with shame. The country is drowning in corruption, people are dying of hunger, ignorance, and barbarity everywhere. We feel ashamed of this country. And yet we have no other country, we have to dig it out of the mud ourselves. Your Palace has compromised us before the world, and such a Palace can no longer exist. We know that there is unrest in the army and unrest in the city, and now we cannot back down.”

Selassie did not yet know it, but this was the beginning of the end. He had survived one coup previously, but this non-violent coup would seal his fate.  Its development and execution are discussed by speaker, one of whom in particular is quite frank about how the contrasting images of two separate Ethiopias was allowed ot exist for so long.  No stone is left unturned and in the end, Selassie’s image and legacy would receive staggering blows as the world learn of Ethiopia’s horrible secrets.  However, in spite of what was seen and revealed, Selassie has retained his place in world history as the champion of Ethiopia who stood up to Italy and inspired hope within the people.  However, his administration also neglected basic facets of a health and progressive society, leading to widespread poverty, famine and senseless deaths.   In the end, they would contribute to the downfall of an autocrat.


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