Book Review: A Glimpse of Greatness – Emperor Haile Selassie I: The Person. – by Deneke Haile-Mariam
Author: Abebe Ambatchew, Trafford Publishing, Victoria, BC, Canada, 2009.
New and interesting books, including “Abate Yachin Saat”, “Ethiopia – Yebahr Terefua and Bahr Hailua”, “Ye-Eritrea Mezez”, “Netsanet, Fiteh and Democracy -YeGinbot 7 Alama,” and “Yederasiw Mastawesha” have recently hit the Ethiopian book market. While some of these books chronicle the political and social upheavals associated with the Dergue and Woyane regimes, the newest book – “A Glimpse of Greatness – Emperor Haile Selassie I: The Person”, which is the focus of this commentary, deals with the author’s recollections of his personal and professional interactions with the Emperor during his early school years and when he was the director of the Haile Selassie I Prize Trust.
With only 134 pages, this is a small book that doesn’t go into the details of the life and times of the Emperor, but its author presents a “glimpse” of the Emperor that many Ethiopians may not be aware of: the Emperor’s personality, character and overriding concerns as the author observed them from his vantage point. In the process, he attempts to portray a different side of the Emperor whose ideology-inspired critics have, for the last four decades, caricatured as a cruel dictator and tyrant. In direct contrast to the critics, the author presents a patient, spiritual, and dedicated leader and father-figure obsessed, among other things, with the education of the youth, the modernization of the country and national unity. The Emperor, perceived by his critics as wooden and heartless, comes off in the book as humane, humorous, empathic and inspiring. What can one make of the Emperor stopping his limousine on a country road and buying an over-burdened and limping donkey from a dumb-founded peasant farmer, and taking the donkey home to nurse it back to health? Or on one of his many boarding school visits at dinner-time playfully asking an incredulous student the various benefits of lentil soup that he was eating? The author points out that, unlike now when billions of dollars in loans and foreign aid are easily available, the country then had very limited resources to expand education to as many children as possible, but even then the Emperor through his foundation provided scholarships to deserving students, among whom was none other than the current god-father of ethnic identity, Meles Zenawi.
No one would accuse Abebe Ambachew for being unsympathetic to the Emperor. To his credit, however, he holds the Emperor responsible for clinging to power and his back- tracking on progressive decisions of national import that he initially advanced or favored. The author makes the case that as the Emperor grew older and physically weak his progressive initiatives were often reversed later by his powerful but reactionary advisors who prided themselves as guardians of national interests. According to the author, the Emperor’s progressive instinct and frame of reference – on education, economic progress and national unity – were evident at the time of his detention by the Dergue when he reportedly said, “…If you have the good interest of the country, one cannot give greater priority to self-interest over the benefit of the country….If you say it is now your turn, so be it. But safeguard Ethiopia.”
To be fair, one needs to judge the Emperor’s reign in the context of his time when representative governments were limited only to a few countries mainly in the West. In much of Africa, Asia and Latin America, countries were either coming out of colonialism or were under the sway of Marxism, dictatorship or outright feudalism. Even during our era of the 21st century, nearly 40 years after the Emperor was ousted from power, Ethiopia is still under a dictatorship purported to be a representative democracy. The last or current Ethiopian leaders who blamed the Emperor for famine, slow economic progress or national disunity have not fared any better.
I have no doubt that the Emperor was a dictator, but it is also true that he was constrained from taking egregious or reckless actions by his religious faith, public opinion, tradition and his public image, none of which Mengistu Haile Mariam or Meles Zenawi have much cared for. One can hardly imagine the Emperor ordering the massacre of thousands of young students, setting up ethnic “Bantustans,” making the country land-locked. Given the meager resources available to him at the time, the Emperor’s leadership and track record on education, economic progress and national unity were far better than the last and current autocratic governments. To be sure, if there are two major failures Haile Selassie deserves to be blamed for they are his clinging to power for too long and his failure to bring about land reform for which he, his family, his close associates, and ultimately the entire country have paid dearly.
Professor Harold Marcus described him as an “unusually gifted political genius” and Nelson Mandela called him as the “African giant,” and yet his critics have tried to portray him as a corrupt tyrannical leader. Which ever version one may believe, reading about Haile Selassie, the last of the long line of Ethiopian kings, can be fascinating not only because he was an important international, regional and national statesman, but also despite his failures, he was the leader who brought Ethiopia into the modern era. I believe “A Glimpse of Greatness …” should be read by all who wish to understand the history of modern Ethiopia and the man who shaped it.