Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie addresses the League of Nations in 1936 (Photo by Popperfoto via Getty)
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Emperor Haile Selassie gets the Ozymandias treatment

The Ethiopian emperor has fallen in leafy Wimbledon, but there’s more to his demise than meets the eye

In 1936, Emperor Haile Selassie gave a rousing speech to the League of Nations reminding it of its moral duty to defend Ethiopia which was being invaded and ransacked by Italy.

Despite the League entirely ignoring him—thereby dooming its proclaimed doctrine of collective security, which in turn hastened World War II—Selassie’s impressive performance recounting “the tortures inflicted upon the Ethiopian people,” while imploring the League to save Ethiopia from the “bonds of vassalship,” cemented his iconic international reputation. Time magazine named him “Man of the Year.”

All the while, and for the span of his reign from 1930 to 1974, the vast majority of Ethiopians lived in feudal conditions, knowing only vassalship. An authoritarian ruler, Selassie’s full title was “By the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Elect of God.” 

Among his retinue of lackies there was a man whose sole job was to wipe away the urine of the imperial dog Lulu after it relieved itself on the shoes of visiting dignitaries, according to Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat (a hotly contested point and accused of being invented by Kapuscinski; it sounds entirely plausible to me having seen how much Ethiopians, especially those with wealth and power, go in for being kowtowed to and waited on). 

Civil rights and political rights were little known during Selassie’s reign—cementing an oppressive trend that continues to this day in Ethiopia—while he failed to adequately respond to famines in 1958 and 1973, dooming tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of Ethiopians to their deaths. 

For all his faults, Selassie opened up Ethiopia to the world and pushed to develop it

Yet for all his faults—based on what I know and saw in Ethiopia, and on my gut instinct, I’ve never been a fan—Selassie opened up Ethiopia to the world and pushed to develop it. He introduced the country’s first written constitution in 1931, which while heavily in favour of the nobility, envisaged a transition to democracy. In Ethiopia today, he remains an inspiring figure for many, his image appearing all over the place. Among the Rastafari movement, Selassie is revered by many as the returned messiah and God incarnate.

Last week a group of Ethiopian diaspora in London got to give their judgement on the so-called Negusa Nagast, King of Kings, whose dynastic lineage reportedly stretched back to Emperor Menelik I, the offspring of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. In a Wimbledon park on June 30, a bust of Selassie was destroyed by a group of around 100 people, leaving a shattered plinth surrounded by rubble. 

After Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Selassie went into exile in England and lived in Bath until 1940; prior to his move to Bath, he spent some time in Wimbledon staying with the family of Hilda Seligman, who sculpted the bust. 

This instance of the current on-trend topic of iconoclasm almost certainly had nothing to do with the Black Lives Matter movement, though its recent toppling of statues may have empowered those who took action in Wimbledon. Selassie’s demise had more to do with Oromo Lives Matter, with the crowd around the bust bearing fliers and slogans about the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group.

The day before the bust was toppled, Ethiopia was rocked by the shooting of Hachalu Hundessa, a hugely popular and influential Oromo singer. Many of his songs addressed the marginalization of the Oromo and associated historical grievances. Hachalu has been described as providing the soundtrack to the anti-government protests that propelled Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed—the country’s first Oromo leader—into power at the start of 2018. 

Many of the historical grievances held by the Oromo are directed at the Amhara, Ethiopia’s second largest ethnic group, who have held the sway of power in Ethiopia since 1855, when Emperor Tewodrose united a feuding Ethiopia and promoted Amhara culture. Selassie was Amhara himself, and the Oromo blame him for suppressing the likes of their language and religion during his reign. 

“It sounds like it was a distinctly Oromo event, very much a response to what is going on in Ethiopia right now,” says Michela Wrong, journalist and author of I Didn’t Do It for You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation, a fantastically readable book on Eritrea’s fight for independence from Ethiopia, during which you can almost feel the sweat-drenched research that must have gone into it under the blazing East African sun. “It was a quiet and very determined political gesture aimed at an Ethiopian audience by Oromos living in London.”

It is estimated that more than 160 people have been killed in violence following the singer’s mysterious shooting in Addi Ababa that remains unsolved. A statue of Ras Makonnen Wolde Mikael, Selassie’s father, was torn down in the city of Harar in eastern Ethiopia following the singer’s death. 

In one of his last interviews, the singer called for the removal from Addis’s Piazza neighbourhood the statue of Emperor Menelik II, who, while revered as the creator of modern-day Ethiopia and famed for defeating the Italians at the Battle of Adwa in 1896, thereby ensuring Ethiopia was the only African country not colonised, is also viewed by the Oromo as embodying the Amhara system of marginalisation. During recent protests in Addis, a crowd advanced on the Piazza statue in an apparent attempt to fulfil the singer’s wishes but were prevented by security forces. City police officers have been stationed there since, offering a striking parallel with what had to happen to the statue of the UK’s wartime leader Winston Churchill in Parliament Square. 

During the time I lived in Ethiopia from 2013 to 2017 and subsequent journalistic visits, I covered numerous breakouts of ethnic-related violence. In addition to violent deaths, hundreds of thousands were often forced from their homes. I also learned how the vitriol extended far beyond Ethiopia’s borders to include the Ethiopian diaspora, whose ready embrace of traditional and social media to influence events back home proves a double-edged sword: capable of filling a sore need for more information but also of pushing the country toward even greater calamity.

Successive waves of emigration during decades of tumult in Ethiopia have formed a worldwide Ethiopian diaspora of around two million people. The largest communities are in the US, with estimates varying from 250,000 people to about one million. The 2011 UK Census shows that there were 15,494 people who were born in Ethiopia and are now living in the UK, with 10,517 living in London. Other estimates of the number of Ethiopians living in the UK exceed 58,000.

Watching painful events unfold in your homeland from afar is heart-breaking, but in venting their frustrations the Oromo protestors have not only destroyed a quirky facet of Wimbledon’s architectural fabric but also a monument—and work of art—testifying to the bond between the UK and Ethiopia that stretches back through the centuries and, yes, contains both good and ill, and hence should be remembered, for the sakes of both countries. 

I remember in Addis Ababa reading the following words etched in a gravestone illuminated by the crisp November sunlight: “So dearly loved so sadly missed by Stella, Anthony and mum.” Captain A.W. Briscoe was 30 years old when killed in East Africa in April 1941. The inscription on Briscoe’s headstone also notes his nickname, “Dooley”, and his Military Cross.

Not far from his grave lies C.L. MacDonald, killed while fighting with the Sudan Defence Force as a bimbashi, the colloquial term used for the rank of major. Then there is South African Staff Sergeant Levy, “lovingly remembered by mum, dad, Harry, Lily, Henry, Helen and relatives.”

Hidden away in the Ethiopian capital, the typically well-kept commonwealth war cemetery provides a hint of Herculean endeavours when allied troops fought to free Ethiopia from Italian fascist rule during World War II.

The East Africa campaign—also known as the Abyssinian campaign—is barely remembered or mentioned even though it included the longest opposed advance in military history: 1,700 miles from Kenya, through Italian Somaliland into the heart of Italian occupied Ethiopia.

The campaign began in 1940 with exiled Emperor Haile Selassie being flown from Britain to Sudan, after which he issued a proclamation:

“From today, Great Britain grants us the aid of her incomparable military might, to win back our entire independence.”

I can’t deny that line causes a slight quickening in my heart. I joined the British Army hoping I might participate in similarly noble efforts. Unfortunately it didn’t turn out that way across the Red Sea from East Africa in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The emperor then crossed the Sudanese frontier in January 1941 at the head of an army consisting of 2,000 Ethiopians, along with 15,000 camels laden with arms and ammunition. He was accompanied by General Orde Wingate, a British officer who named the army Gideon Force, which also included a young Wilfred Thesiger, future famous explorer and author.

The emperor’s army linked up with an Ethio-British force called the Patriots of Gojjam already active as a resistance force in the country. Together they formed the centre of a three-pronged advance, with a British-Indian army in the north forcing its way from northern Sudan into the Italian colony of Eritrea, and with a British and South African army sweeping in from the south across those 1,700 miles.  

Attacked from all sides, and demoralised by the resistance movement within, the Italian African empire rapidly collapsed. Addis Ababa fell to allied forces from the south on the 6th of April 1941.

Haile Selassie inspecting his troops in 1941 (Bettmann via Getty)

Despite their fiercely independent streak which many unwelcomed foreigners have fallen foul of over the centuries, Ethiopians are neither immune to foreign influence nor unwilling to recognise the efforts of outsiders. In the commonwealth cemetery beyond the headstones is a stone monument inscribed in Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia, accompanied by an English translation: 

“Here are remembered among their fallen comrades of the British Commonwealth and Empire the valiant sons of Ethiopia who served and died with them in the same cause.”

If you go and have a coffee in the Piazza district at the famous Tomoca coffee house—started after the war by an Italian family; the emperor instructed there were to be no reprisals against Italians and they could stay in the country if they wished—it sits just off the junction of Churchill Avenue and General Wingate Street.

Britain’s behaviour in Ethiopia following Selassie’s restoration proved less stellar, mirroring the approach of British officials who oversaw the initial post-war administration of Eritrea.

“Sadly they did go in for the same kind of looting in Ethiopia as they got up to in Eritrea,” Wrong says. “British officials thought the Italians had ludicrously over-invested in Ethiopia, the end of WWII meant there was a lot of nice kit lying around in Addis and elsewhere, Italy was the vanquished enemy, so the Brits just carted all that stuff off to their own colonies. Yes, they put Haile Selassie back in control…but they also had very little respect for him, he was just a figurehead.”

If one goes further back, Britain’s involvement in Ethiopia gets even more contentious—while correspondingly colourful—along with further looting. 

Back in 1862, Emperor Tewodros II was a fan of the British and he reached out to them hoping they would help develop his country. But a perceived snub by Queen Victoria in not responding to his diplomatic initiatives for increased ties between the two countries led to Tewodrose imprisoning a small group of British diplomats in early 1864.

Diplomatic efforts to release the prisoners dragged on until 1867 when the British government finally lost its patience, tasking General Robert Napier to lead a rescue mission with a force of 32,000.

“There has never been in modern times a colonial campaign quite like the British expedition to Ethiopia in 1868,” Alan Moorehead wrote in The Blue Nile. “It proceeds from first to last with the decorum and heavy inevitability of a Victorian state banquet, complete with ponderous speeches at the end. And yet it was a fearsome undertaking; for hundreds of years the country had never been invaded, and the savage nature of the terrain alone was enough to promote failure.”

The incredible campaign and absurd logistic effort to sustain it provided the backdrop to George MacDonald Fraser’s “Flashman on the March,” in which old Flashy encounters “nightmare castles, brigand lairs, battles, massacres, rebellions, orgies, and the loveliest and most lethal women in Africa, testing to the limit the great bounder’s talents for knavery, amorous, intrigue, and survival.” A woke read it ain’t—as with any Flashman tale—but for uplifting entertainment it’s hard to deny there’s something to the formula. 

On Easter Monday, April 13, with the British victorious in the valleys surrounding Tewodros’s mountaintop redoubt Maqdala and about to launch a final assault, Tewodros bit down on a pistol—a previous present from Queen Victoria—and pulled the trigger (in Ethiopian bars you will often see a picture of Emperor Tewodros II—one of my best Ethiopian friends would usually toast Tewodros’s final stand while getting a bit misty eyed—alongside images of Selassie and Ethiopia’s other leaders, including the brutal military dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam who deposed Selassie and is rumoured to have smothered him to death with a pillow before having him buried beneath a palace outhouse). 

Nearly 150 years later, over strong Ethiopian coffee and English biscuits in his Addis Ababa home, Richard Pankhurst, who dedicated his life to documenting Ethiopian history, and was as much an Ethiophile as his famous suffragette mother Sylvia Pankhurst, told me the story of the ancient manuscripts looted at the end of the Battle of Maqdala. 

A two-day auction of the spoils of war among the victorious troops resulted in more than a thousand predominantly religious manuscripts making their way to Britain—15 elephants and hundreds of mules carried them along with other cultural treasures to the coast—with 350 manuscripts ending up in the British Library. Pankhurst campaigned for the return of the manuscripts to Ethiopia but hadn’t succeeded before his death in 2017. Now other voices are continuing the cause, with added vigour thanks to recent events.  

Ethiopian manuscripts in the British museum and a bust of Emperor Haile Selassie incongruous in a leafy park beside Wimbledon Common: are they—or, in the case of the now destroyed bust, was it—wrongly placed?  

There’s clearly a debate still to be had about the manuscripts. Regarding the bust, as much as I’m not a fan of the aloof emperor, I can’t help thinking back to that League of Nations speech in which he spoke truth to Western hypocrisy and many of the worst abuses of real white privilege and power. At the same time, the situation in Ethiopia and around the Oromo is highly complex, and I remain an outsider scrabbling to understand matters, not helped by how Ethiopia’s labyrinthine ways mean you are always looking through a glass darkly. On the gravestone of my journalistic career in Ethiopia—I don’t envisage it generating a statue in the Piazza—which really began in 2000 when I first went there, would be etched: Left the country far more confused than when he arrived

When approaching thorny issues swirling around statues and historical legacies, common sense and a cool head can only help

At the same time, though, I remain fairly confident that Ethiopians in Addis Ababa have more pressing matters on their minds than protesting over changing the names of Churchill Avenue and General Wingate Street (almost no one uses street names anyhow: taxi journeys typically involve a long conversation based on complex triangulation comprising various landmarks and well known buildings). 

When approaching thorny issues swirling around statues and historical legacies, in order to avoid the “mixture of humbug and Utopianism” that George Orwell warned against in his essay The Lion and the Unicorn, while striving to bring “patriotism and intelligence into partnership” as he advocated, common sense and a cool head can only help. 

“My views, sir?” Flashman says at the end of the book to a prompt from Napier asking for his “philosophic reflections on the campaign” and his views on “what should or should not be done” now that it is all over.“Can’t think I have many…oh, I don’t know, though. Wouldn’t mind suggesting to Her Majesty’s ministers that next time they get a letter from a touchy barbarian despot, it might save ‘em a deal of trouble and expense if they sent him a civil reply by return of post…”

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