I have read a lot of articles on Haile Silassie in response to the statue unveiling. If the article is written by one of his fans, Haile silassie is portrayed as a celebrated elect of God who did no wrong. If the article is written by one of his haters, he is portrayed as vain, coward dictator who ruined all he touched. But the only question that matters in any basic critique of a head of state of country is, did the said head of state leave the country in a better state he/she found it? The rest is trivial.
Did Haile silassie leave Ethiopia in 1974 in a better, more secure state than he found it when he came to power, as a crown prince in 1916? The answer is yes and here is why.
The above question can only be answered after we have a fair picture of the state of the country when Haile Silassie came to power. In 1916, when Haile Silassie inherited power, Ethiopia resembled a more of a medieval empire, whom just 20 years ago re-conquered southern, western and eastern provinces lost since the medieval Ahmed Gragn wars. The whole country was economically undeveloped with zero industrial output and almost all human labor in subsistence agriculture, in other words everyone who wasn't in the clergy or in the army was a peasant. Foreign relation wise, Ethiopia's situation was even more precarious, surrounded 360 degrees and chocked by all of the major European colonial powers, Britain to the west and the south, France to the east and Italy to the north.
So in short Haile Silassie inherited the country at the unenviable time of when Ethiopia resembled a medieval empire, half of it just recently re-incorporated, whose 90+ ethnic lords rebel once every week when they felt like it, whose provinces are populated by unproductive peasants, and a conservative lazy clergy who have designated most of the days of the month as holidays so they don't have to work, and to top it all off, Italy to the north is threatening to invade and conquer Ethiopia to avenge their humiliation of losing the first Italo-Ethiopian war.
So having pictured the state of Ethiopia in 1916 and glossed at the internal and external threats it faced, the destiny of Ethiopia during Haile Silassie's reign was either disintegration via internal rebellions or loss of independence via European conquest. Instead neither of the two scenarios came about, instead, by the time Haile Silassie left power in 1974, he had managed to navigate through the landmines, steering the empire state that was destined for disintegration, instead establishing it among community of nations in the world and a headquarter of Africa. Instead of succumbing to European colonialism like our neighbors, under Haile Silassie's stewardship Ethiopia was a beacon of black freedom whose flag was adopted and modified by African states upon independence. And Haile Silassie himself ended up personally inspiring a religion, Rastafariansim being the only major worldwide religion that is founded by blacks, and inspired by a black figurehead.
Some of his major achievements and decisions
1. Introducing and expanding mass education - His biggest achievement by a mile. The irony is in casual conversations among Ethiopians, Haile Silassie is talked about as a feudal monarch who prevented education from reaching peasants and only favorably educated his children and close family. This was a propaganda peace fanned by the derg regime to legitimize themselves and de-legitimize Haile Silassie's regime whom they had just toppled. This type of propaganda would fail to take root in an educated western society but in a place like Ethiopia, where 80% of the country are illiterate peasants, the derg regime had a field day in painting Haile Silassie as an elitist monarch who restricted education to the aristocracy and their children. The facts on the ground though were all major cities in every province from Asmara in the north to Awassa in the south had built education infrastructure that funneled the most talented students up the ranks to the major universities and the cream of the crop being given the chance for further education in the west regardless of their ethnic background or lineage. The proof is in the pudding, today there are many Ethiopian academics in their 50s and 60s who are good enough to teach at acclaimed western institutions,(go to ratemyprofessors.com and type in a common Ethiopian name like Haile or Abebe and see how many professors pop up) all of these academics started their career in the education infrastructure Haile Silassie built up.
2. Choosing exile instead of protectorate status - Haile Silassie gets the most flak for fleeing the country when Italy invaded in 1934. As far as I am concerned it was the greatest decision of his reign. Consider the alternatives: if he had chosen to stay and fight, Ethiopia would lose militarily and Haile silassie would either be forced to submit or be killed. If he had chosen to submit, he would've been the first Ethiopian monarch in history who would've submitted to an invading enemy. Remember, Ethiopia in the past had lost militarily to invaders (i.e. the ahmed gragn wars), but the monarchs even when clearly overpowered never submitted to Ahmed gragn they kept evading, hence keeping the institution of the monarchy as our own legitimate head of state whether in hiding as was the case during the gragn wars or in exile as was in Haile Silassie's hence safeguarding and preserving our independence. Alternatively, If Haile Silassie was killed in action, the Italians would've appointed their supporter, Atse Yohannes's grandson Haile Silassie Gugsa as puppet emperor and that would've ended our continuous existence as an independent sovereign entity. With a puppet emperor the resistance fight that was raging would've ended but with an emperor-in-exile, resistance went on to restore king and country. Therefore, Haile Silassie exiling himself was the least worst decision, hence the right one.
3. Toppling Lij Iyassu and aligning with the west - The shewa aristocracy toppled Lij iyassu who was foolishly trying to "liberate" Eritrea and was toying with the idea of aligning with the Ottoman, central powers during world war I. If he had decided to disturb the cold peace between Italy and Ethiopia by trying to "liberate" Eritrea, it would be a surefire way of entering a lose-lose scenario. He would've failed to "liberate" Eritrea since the Eritrean aristocracy and populace were content with Italian rule and preferred it to Ethiopia rule anyway.They is no guarantee they would have supported Lij iyasu over Italian rule. Having failed to liberate Eritrea, the Italians would have had their pretext to invade Ethiopia and avenge the Adwa humiliation.
After Lij Iyasu was toppled, Haile silassie steered Ethiopia towards the Allied nations, throughout the first and second world war then the Americans in the post war period, which turned out to be the right decision.
Some of his major mistakes
1. Admitting Eritrea into Ethiopia as a federated state - Note, I didn't say abolishing the Ethiopia-Eritrea federation was the mistake, but rather the admission of Eritrea as a federated entity was the mistake. Like I wrote before, during Haile silassie's reign, Ethiopia was in the process of transitioning from an empire state made up of 90+ ethnic stans into a modern nation state. Ethiopia, admitting an Eritrea who has already developed its own distinct identity as colonial state and who was seen by Egypt, Sudan et al. as a legitimate part of the arab world ended up overloading and threatening to capsize the Ethiopian ship, ultimately undermining the transition Ethiopia was undertaking in the long term. Haile silassie rarely made a decision based on emotions, throughout his career he proved to be shrewed strategist. The fact he became emperor when he was no where near the line of succession in itself proves his political prowess. But on this Eritrean case, he made a serious of decisions based on emotion rather than reason. The pleas of the Eritrean highland Christians to be united with Ethiopia and Haile silassie's image of Ethiopia as a christian island led him to launch a diplomatic offensive at the UN pushing for Eritrean unity with Ethiopia, which he ended up winning but later became costly. It goes without saying Ethiopia's legitimate interest in acquiring a sea outlet should have been pursued via a different route than absorbing Eritrea whole.
Eritreans and Ethiopians unanimously blame Haile silassie for starting the Eritrean war of independence by abolishing the federation of Eritrea with Ethiopia. This is intellectually lazy. The Eritrean independence movement was already underway before the federation was abolished in 1962. Before 1962, the movement already had a radio broadcast, small scale operations were conducted in lowland Eritrea and Egypt/syria had already formed departments within their intelligence agencies dedicated for the Eritrean cause way before 1962. Rather than Haile silassie alone, the closure of the Eritrean Parliament and the dissolution of the federation was actually lobbied and voted for by highland Eritreans. Hence with the benefit of hindsight, the Eritrean independence movement did not start in 1962 upon the dissolution of the federation but rather in the 1950s when Egypt and Sudan were pissed off at the UN's decision to federate Eritrea with Ethiopia. Hence Haile silassie's mistake is admitting Eritrea as a federated state by acting on emotion rather than what he is usually blamed for - dissolving the federation, which was the right thing to do as a treatment to the initial mistake.
2. Not acting early enough against the communist student movement - American diplomatic records show, Haile silassie pleaded with the Americans for help in dealing with the communist student movement. The Nixon administration ignored his pleads. By the time Haile Silassie decided to act, it was too late. He had overseen two generations of students being mass educated. And nearly all of them upon coming of age, ended up baptizing themselves as communists - an ideology that aims to unchain the proletariat in a country where a proletariat didn't even exist. Nonetheless the same communist student movement succeeded in toppling Haile silassie and its off shots governed the country for the next 40 years under the derg and woyanne regimes, putting to a halt the ongoing transition Ethiopia was making from an empire state to a nation state, ushering a 40 year era of civil wars, terror campaigns, the country losing its moral compass, being the number one producers of refugees and the creation of an Ethiopian diaspora scattered from Canada to Australia. Had Haile silassie not banked on American support and had he acted early enough in a similar manner to how countries like Chille resisted their attempted communist takeovers, had he fought to the bitter end with his loyalists who outnumbered the "educated" communist elites anyway, we might have been spared from the derg/woyanne 40 year era of banditry.
In conclusion, Haile silassie remains a successful head of state who advanced Ethiopia's interests both domestic and foreign far more than any other in history.
Ethiopian News, Current Affairs and Opinion Forum
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Last edited by Dejach Aklilu on 10 Feb 2019, 17:27, edited 2 times in total.
Dejach Aklilu, thank you for this great article. I enjoyed reading it.
It gives a little bit info for younger generation about His Majesty and the Eritrean case!!
It gives a little bit info for younger generation about His Majesty and the Eritrean case!!