Book Review: A Glimpse of Greatness – Emperor Haile Selassie I: The Person. – by Deneke Haile-Mariam

April 5th, 2010 Print Print Email Email

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.

  1. tebih
    | #1

    Emperor hailesilasie was an evil man, he brought all the mizery to Eritreans and Ethiopians alike. if he never annexed Eritrea all the mess wouldnt have happen, Ethiopia should be happy that Eritrea is gone, Ethiopians should focus of being good neighbours with Eeritrea instade of having day dream to get Assab, if you need port why dont you go to some other ports why Assab, please kiss it goodbye to Assab.emperor sloughtered a lot of Eritreans in particularly the poor moslems and he was trying to uproot all moslems from the face of Eritrea.

  2. Anonymous
    | #2


  3. kitcho
    | #3

    Well, if he indeed was evil as tebih stated, then the one he got in Eritrea or the one we have in Ethiopia must have been angles. I am sure, for those of us who witnessed the real evil that has befallen on Ethiopia under Megistu and his hunch men or the Melese with his family and tribes, who are obsessed with enriching themselves and giving away lands at the asking or the malaria infested Issayas, who is obsessed with power should be seen as the poster children of Africa to be emulated by the leaders of Africa.

  4. Anonymous
    | #4

    Hey Tebih #1,
    You must be one of those people who have grown up being fed with secessionist,Arab and communist propaganda that was hell bent on character assassinating the late Emperor.
    Although the Sovereign’s rule was far from democratic,the history of his reign was not all that dark.
    He was not an evil man by any stretch of imagination.In fact,his early rule showed many progressive traits and as a result many historians conclude that he was,at the initial stages,an enlightened monarch.

    His subsequent rule however grew autocratic and this was first challenged in the 1960s by an aborted military coup and later overthrown by the 1974 bloody revolution.
    Despite being an intelligent man,a prudent personality and an astute politician,Emperor Haileselassie did commit three grave mistakes that resulted in his downfall.
    One was the clumsy way he handled the 1960s military coup and the important lessons that he failed to learn from it.
    The other was his dissolution of the Ethio-Eritrean federation.
    And the third was his failure to institute a constitutional monarchy and allow Ethiopia to be ruled by a fully functioning parliament while he willingly abdicated the throne in favour of a successor or he opted to remain a nominal head.
    On the other hand,he was,on the international arena,a very venerable statesmen of Africa’ who played key roles in the decolonization of the continent,the establishment of the OAU and the formation of the independent Non aligned movement.
    People who knew him(not people who heard about him and have written much rubbish) tell about his complex personality.He was a man of faith,yet not sufficiently secure and magnanimous;humble yet haughty;liberal and
    independent yet intolerant of independent and fearless individuals who question his authority;inquisitive and thrilled by anything modern yet dogmatic and conservative in views,blessed with an amazing memory yet amnesiac to the lessons of wise counselors and history; dignified yet easily swayed by flatterers,frugal in life style and exempt from corruption yet surrounded by corrupt people with ill gotten gains and oblivious to the plight of the poor and the dispossessed…the emperor was these things and more.
    While he was a practicing Orthodox christian,he promulgated that religion was private matter and the nation was a common entity.
    Although he was not as much sensitive to the ethnic issue,he was however acutely aware of maintaining a good environment for fostering a good relationship among followers of the two major religions i.e Islam and Christianity.In that regard he had a number of muslim officials who loyally served him in senior positions and his general attitude towards his muslim subjects was a fair one characterized by royal approval, gratitude,understanding and respect.He was anything but a bigot.
    Given his character,it is outrageous that Tebih tells a lie(in a typically EPLF propaganda fashion and like those gullible Ethiopian students of the 60s who regurgitated many of the lies against the Emperor) against him saying that he ‘sloughtered a lot of Eritreans in particularly the poor moslems and he was trying to uproot all moslems from the face of Eritrea.’.
    He simply didn’t.In fact he had great qualms about not shedding blood in Eritrea because he was extremely careful of not tarnishing his internationally esteemed name and in addition he was fully aware of the tinderbox that Eritrea potentially was surrounded by muslim Arab neighbors.
    The Emperor has gone,so has Eritrea.Yet the legacy of the late Emperor is here in many ways and Eritrea,although an independent country,is still intertwined with Ethiopia in many regional and global issues that affect the future destinies of the two peoples in equal measure.This is not about Assab.Neither is this about a vexing and elapsed past.This is about the future;the future of our children and our grand children who deserve to live in peace,freedom and prosperity.

    The distinguished Eritrean scholar,Prof.TesfaTsion Medhanie and the renowned historian Prof Daniel Kindie from the Ethiopian side have recently drawn our attention towards the path of mutual understanding, empathy,respect and reconciliation in order to make sense of our common future.

    It always helps to be truthful,broad and visionary.

  5. Lij-egir
    | #5

    Was realy the last emperor a `great` leader?. Didnt he used mischief, treachery and murder to come to the throne? After he came to power he has long years of relatively peacefu time to his advantage. Why didnt he use that long era to implement the rule of law and real democratic culture which might have helped to preserve the monarchy?. Wasnt it his unwillingess and probabaly unparralled thrist to power that prevented him to pass his throne to his own sons…until it was too late?. I think he has failed his country and his family miserably…probabaly hood winked by the blood of the real King Lij Eyasu in his hand . May god bless his soul! Amen!

  6. tewdros menlik
    | #6

    he deserves to be rehabilitated. he was 70 % good, 30 % not good, which means Ethiopia can only recover when the last emperor is rehabilitated.

    A Haile Selassie African Scholarship

    A Haile Selassie Chair on African Unity

    These should be established soon. And Rehabilitation will follow these key actions!

  7. Belai Habte-Jesus,MD, MPH
    | #7

    It is indeed interesting that the time has come to re-evaluate the Genius of Teferi Makonnen. empswror Haile Sellassie I of Ethiopia, considered the father of Africa and the foundation of the Non aligned movement of His time.

    HIM should evaluated foe his intelligence, accomplishment by comparing Him with events that unfolded in His time, and with His equals in the region and around the world.

    we should compare where Ethiopia was under his leadership in the world stage and where she is now with the current set of leadership before His time and after His time. Let us see the living thriving institutions today in. Ethiopia such as the Ethiopian Airlines and the Haile Selassie I university and also see the quality of the ministers and captains of industry before, during and after His time.

    the facts speak for themselves. show me one institution that competes today with Ethiopian Airlines, leave alone inAfrica in the world which is profitable by high margin when the British, Japanese and US airlines are struggling.

    results my boys, facts and evidence should lead our judgement. there is hardly any African for that matter worked statesman who can stand to His Genius , this Priest_king of Biblical proportions who was massacred like Christ Jessu some 2000 years by people whom He literally created the soldiers and students if the time,

    none have emulated HIM and their records for the last 40 years show what the difference there is between almost lightyears of civilization and consciousness

    truly the time has come to Honor this genius patriot of Ethiopia and put Him at the right place in the hearts and minds od future generation of People of African descent all over the world,

    With regards and looking forward to learn from alternative perspectives; I remain

    Your sincerely;

    Belai Mariam Jesus , MD,MPH,
    Bitowded of Ethiopian Solomonic Crown Without Borders;;

  8. Belai Habte-Jesus,MD, MPH
    | #8

    Thank you for allowing me to discuss events with farces and evidence!

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