Funeral brings the royals back to Ethiopia

David Orr in Addis Ababa meets former courtiers preparing to lay the body of an imperial exile to rest
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The Independent Online
For the past few days, the old servants and royal kinfolk have been busy slaughtering oxen and baking huge piles of injera, the pancakes which are the staple of Ethiopian cuisine. Accompanied by rich sauces and generous jugs of teff (mead), the copious fare has been consumed by friends and relatives of the deceased. Now is the time for chanting and prayer, for processions and incense, tallow candles and the rich brocade of monks' vestments.

This morning's gathering of royalty at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa is expected to be the biggest in Ethiopia since the reign of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I. Among those who have arrived in recent days are numerous members of the royal dynasty who have been living in exile in Britain and the United States since the emperor's downfall in 1974. They have come to pay their last respects to his eldest son and pretender to the throne, Amha Selassie, who died in the US last month.

Many of those at today's service, old men with walking sticks and failing eyesight, will be of the same generation as Amha Selassie, whose demise at the age of 80 has evoked memories of a more glorious, if less egalitarian, past. Since the brutal Marxist Dergue regime which deposed the monarchy was itself overthrown in 1991, Ethiopia has been a democratic republic. Its people, still among the poorest in the world, have been encouraged to put the past behind them and look towards a bright, modern future.

"The government has been very accommodating in allowing us to hold the funeral of the late crown prince here in Ethiopia," said Dejazmatch Zaude Gabre-Selassie, his stepson and organiser of this weekend's events. "This is a private funeral, and we don't want it to be politicised."

A former foreign minister under the last emperor, he was careful to use language which will not antagonise the current regime. Pipe in hand, he steered his portly frame through the throng of well-wishers at a suburban house where the deceased's body was to be laid out.

"The crown prince was a very kind man who was devoted to the service of his country," said Mr Gabre-Selassie, avoiding the imperial title which Amha Selassie assumed in exile. "Even though he was living abroad, he was preoccupied with the situation here."

Amha Selassie escaped the 1974 coup, having left for medical treatment in London the previous year after suffering a stroke. He never returned to Ethiopia while he was alive. Haile Selassie died in suspicious circumstances in 1975 and was buried below the floor of a lavatory in the imperial palace. His remains have been exhumed and placed in a royal mausoleum in Addis Ababa with other former rulers. A total of 46 former members of the military junta are being tried in Addis Ababa on charges of genocide and other crimes, including the murder of the emperor.

Amha Selassie's only son, Prince Zera-Yacob, is among the mourners. Himself an exile in Britain, the heir-apparent has been keeping a low profile in recent days. "According to the old law, Prince Yacob must now accede to the throne," said 84-year old Fitawrari Gabre-Hiwot, a former aide to Haile Selassie. "Despite all the political vicissitudes, I would like to see the Ethiopian dynasty continue in the way the British monarchy continues."

As many as 10,000 to 15,000 mourners are expected at today's service. There has been no official announcement, however, on state television or radio. The government views the funeral simply as that of an individual, and no officials are expected to attend.

It could be that with the burial of the only son of the Conquering Lion of Judah, the Elect of God, Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, will be laid to rest the last real vestige of a dynasty which traces its lineage back to Biblical times.