The Life and Legacy of Haile Selassie, The Last Emperor of Ethiopia


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Haile Selassie, also known as Ras Tafari Makonnen, was the last emperor of Ethiopia and a towering figure in 20th-century African history.

Born in 1892, he rose to power as regent of Ethiopia in 1916 and was crowned emperor in 1930. Selassie ruled Ethiopia for more than four decades, transforming the country from a feudal society into a modern state. His legacy as a leader and statesman is still felt in Ethiopia and beyond.

Emperor Haile Selassie’s legacy continues to be a topic of debate, even years after his death. Some see him as a symbol of resistance against colonialism, a god-like figure and an inspiration for music legends like Bob Marley.

Others view him as a tyrant who suppressed political opposition and failed to address social and economic inequalities in Ethiopia.

In this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at the life and legacy of Haile Selassie, examining his rise to power and how his impact is still felt today.

Early Life and Rise to Power

Haile Selassie was born in the Ethiopian region of Harar to parents who were both from the ruling dynasty of Ethiopia.

He was named Tafari Makonnen, but was later given the title of Ras, which means “head” or “prince”. Selassie grew up in a world of privilege, with access to education and a comfortable lifestyle.

He was the great-grandson of Sahle Selassie of Shewa and the son of Ras Makonnen, who was a chief adviser to Emperor Menilek II.

Educated at home by French missionaries, Haile Selassie showed exceptional intellectual abilities at an early age and caught the attention of the emperor, who promoted him accordingly.

Haile Selassie’s career in politics began as governor of Sidamo and later of Harer province. He implemented progressive policies that aimed to weaken the feudal power of local nobility by strengthening the authority of the central government.

His efforts led to the development of a salaried civil service, which helped to break the hold of feudal lords over their subjects. As a result, he became a symbol of hope for politically progressive Ethiopians.

In 1911, Haile Selassie married Wayzaro Menen, a great-granddaughter of Emperor Menilek II. When Menilek II died in 1913, his grandson Lij Yasu became the emperor.

However, Yasu’s association with Islam and erratic behavior made him unpopular with Ethiopia’s majority Christian population.

Haile Selassie emerged as the leader of the Christian resistance and deposed Yasu in 1916.Menilek II’s daughter, Zauditu, became empress in 1917, and Haile Selassie was named regent and heir apparent to the throne.

He served in this role for several years, during which time he implemented a series of reforms that aimed to modernize Ethiopia. He established a national bank, introduced a modern tax system, and improved the country’s infrastructure.

Although Zauditu was conservative in her views, Haile Selassie was a progressive leader who became a beacon of hope for the younger generation.

In 1923, Ethiopia became a member of the League of Nations under his leadership. The following year, he made history by becoming the first Ethiopian ruler to visit Jerusalem, Rome, Paris, and London.

Haile Selassie’s influence continued to grow, and in 1928 he assumed the title of negus, or king. When Zauditu died in 1930, he was crowned emperor and took the name Haile Selassie, which means “Might of the Trinity.”

This was a significant moment in the country’s history, as it marked the end of the regency period and the beginning of a new era of leadership.

In 1931, he introduced a new constitution that limited the powers of parliament. From the late 1920s on, Haile Selassie effectively governed Ethiopia and implemented reforms that helped his people and strengthened the central government.

Overall, Haile Selassie was a visionary leader who transformed Ethiopia from a feudal society into a modern nation. His legacy remains a source of inspiration for many Ethiopians and Africans today.

Selassie’s Reign as Emperor

Selassie’s reign as emperor was marked by significant social, economic, and political changes in Ethiopia. He implemented a series of reforms aimed at modernizing the country and improving the lives of its citizens.

In 1916, Haile Selassie became regent and heir apparent to the throne after deposing Emperor Lij Yasu, who was unpopular with the majority Christian population.

In 1923, Ethiopia was admitted to the League of Nations, and Haile Selassie became the first Ethiopian ruler to travel abroad.

When Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Haile Selassie led the resistance but was forced into exile in 1936.

In 1941, with British assistance, Ethiopian forces recaptured Addis Ababa and Haile Selassie was reinstated as emperor. He implemented social, economic, and educational reforms to modernize Ethiopian government and society.

Haile Selassie continued to exercise personal authority in the Ethiopian government, granting himself as much power in the 1955 constitution as the previous one.

In 1960, opposition to his rule emerged when a dissident wing of the army took control of Addis Ababa, but loyalist forces eventually dislodged them.

Haile Selassie played an important role in the establishment of the Organization of African Unity in 1963.

However, his rule ended in 1974 when the Derg, a provisional military government that espoused Marxist ideologies, deposed him.

Haile Selassie was kept under house arrest in his own palace, where he died under suspicious circumstances. He was regarded as a messiah by the Rastafarian movement.

One of Selassie’s most significant achievements was the establishment of a written constitution in 1931.

This document guaranteed civil liberties and created a system of checks and balances between the emperor and other branches of government.

It also established the basis for a legal system that was more modern and equitable than what existed in Ethiopia previously.

Selassie was also a strong advocate for education and worked to expand access to schools and universities throughout the country. Under his leadership, Ethiopia saw significant improvements in literacy rates and educational attainment.

In addition to his domestic policies, Selassie was also a prominent figure on the world stage. He was an advocate for African unity and worked to promote the interests of his country and continent on the global stage.

He was a founding member of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which aimed to promote cooperation and solidarity among African nations.

Challenges and Controversies

There is no doubt that Emperor Haile Selassie has been idolized as a symbol of resistance against colonialism and oppression.

However, there is another side to his legacy that cannot be ignored. Despite his achievements, he cannot be absolved of the crimes and atrocities committed during his rule.

For instance, he spent an exorbitant amount of money to celebrate his 80th birthday during a famine in Wollo, which speaks to his lack of empathy and concern for his people.

Also read: 4 Important Religious Festivals in Ethiopia

One of the most significant challenges he faced was the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Italy, under the leadership of Benito Mussolini, launched a brutal campaign to conquer Ethiopia and establish it as a colony.

Selassie worked tirelessly to rally support for his country’s resistance to the Italian invasion. He traveled to Europe and the United States, making speeches and meeting with world leaders in an effort to garner support for Ethiopia.

Despite his efforts, however, Ethiopia was ultimately defeated by Italy and occupied for several years.

Selassie’s response to the Italian invasion has been criticized by some historians, who argue that he was slow to mobilize his forces and failed to take decisive action to protect his country.

Others have praised his leadership in the face of such a difficult situation, noting that he was able to maintain Ethiopia’s independence despite overwhelming odds.

Another controversy that surrounded Selassie’s reign was his treatment of political dissidents and ethnic minorities. Critics have accused him of being authoritarian and suppressing political opposition.

Moreover, his actions during the Woyane Rebellion and his decision to invite the British Royal Air Force to bomb Tigray are still remembered in the region with resentment.

In light of these facts, it is imperative to acknowledge that Selassie was not a perfect leader. While he may have been successful in certain aspects, his authoritarian tendencies cannot be ignored.

It is important to critically examine his legacy and remember him not just as a symbol of resistance but also as a flawed human being who made mistakes and committed grave injustices.


Haile Selassie’s legacy is a complex one, with both positive and negative aspects. While he is remembered as a symbol of resistance against colonialism and a champion of African unity.

He is also criticized for his authoritarian rule, his failure to address social and economic inequalities, and his inability to prevent famine and political unrest. Nonetheless, his influence on Ethiopia and the wider world cannot be denied.

Today, Haile Selassie is remembered as a symbol of hope and inspiration, particularly by Rastafarians who view him as a messiah.

His life and legacy have also inspired countless musicians, artists, and writers, who have used his story to address themes of resistance, liberation, and social justice.

Despite his flaws, Haile Selassie was a visionary leader who recognized the importance of education, modernization, and international cooperation.

He played a key role in establishing the Organization of African Unity, and his efforts to promote peace and stability in the region were instrumental in preventing conflict in Ethiopia and beyond.

Ultimately, the life and legacy of Haile Selassie demonstrate the complexities of leadership and the challenges of navigating a rapidly changing world.

His story reminds us of the power of visionary leadership, the importance of social justice, and the need for continued efforts to promote peace, unity, and prosperity in Africa and beyond.



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