Bereket Habte Selassie begins his short history of Emperor Haile Selassie with a caveat: he served in the late Emperor’s cabinet for over twenty years, both as Attorney General and in other ministerial offices. Given the author’s connection to Haile Selassie, it is not surprising that his biography of the independent Ethiopian ruler has tendencies towards hagiography. The numerous studies written on Haile Selassie so far have largely been divided into two camps: positive praise of the Emperor as visionary monarch, and detracting criticism of an autocratic ruler. While his personal approval of the Emperor is evident, Bereket largely manages to evade this polarized historiography, attempting to, in his words, provide a ‘well-rounded’ history of Haile Selassie, describing both his triumphs and failures in ruling independent Ethiopia in the pivotal moment of Africa’s decolonization.
The volume is part of a new series of ‘Short Histories of Africa’ by the Ohio University Press. This is a promising series to help introduce the varied history of the African continent to a wider audience. Because of the brevity required in this series, Bereket cautions that he had to omit a great deal of history from his telling of Haile Selassie’s history. It is unfortunate, however, that he mostly omits the meaty history of the Emperor’s rule in the 1950s and 60s, concentrating largely on his long rise and fall from power. The first half of the book concentrates on the early years of Haile Selassie’s life, as Ras Tafari Makonnen, and the fraught power struggles which characterized his ascension to the throne. While this is in an interesting history, given the length of the book, it could have easily been summarized to make room for more discussion of the Emperor’s actual decades of rule.
Bereket focuses on Ras Tafari’s power struggles at such great length largely because he believes they help explain why Haile Selassie as Emperor became fixated on defending his autocratic right to reform the empire. Bereket describes how Haile Selassie failed to live up to early promises to adequately reform the nation’s most destructive practices, including land tenure. He argues that because Ras Tafari had to struggle against so many conservative forces in pushing a reformist agenda through in his ascension to the throne, once Emperor, Haile Selassie felt convinced the modernization of Ethiopia was his own personal responsibility. This short history of Haile Selassie therefore falls in line with the general historic consensus, led by Bahru Zewde, that while Haile Selassie was a necessary force for reform in Ethiopia in the 1930s and 40s, his usefulness wore thin by the second half of the twentieth century. In continually seeking power and refusing to instill a proper democracy, the Emperor largely failed his populace, leading to his inevitable overthrow in 1974. Bereket describes this history carefully, at once admonishing the late Emperor for autocratic measures like annexing Eritrea with no respect of international law, while also praising Haile Selassie’s overall vision to modernize Ethiopia as an “enlightened monarch.”
Bereket doesn’t question the concept of “modernization” itself within Ethiopia, largely agreeing with the superficial dictum which pits Haile Selassie’s “progressive” retinue against a “traditional” and even “backward” past. This lack of reflection is unfortunate, as there is much debate on the merits of modernity as a measure of “progress” in Africa at large. At the same time, anyone searching for a quick introduction to Ethiopia’s fascinating history could happily turn to Emperor Haile Selassie as a starting point. There is enough meat here to examine the history of the one “true independent African country,” written from the perspective of one of its elite history-makers.
Book details: Bereket Habte Selassie (2015) Emperor Haile Selassie. Ohio University Press. http://www.amazon.com/Emperor-Haile-Selassie-Histories-Africa/dp/0821421271
This review was kindly furnished by Ohio University Press.