The Emperor of E14

Can the heir of Haile Selassie bury his father and take the throne? John Carlin in Washington on an imperial tragedy

Anyone who imagines that the Windsors are having a "horribilis" time should pause and consider the fate of the Selassies.

The Imperial House of Ethiopia, which traces its lineage back to Solomon and Sheba, perpetuated a court of Biblical splendour until the fall in 1974 of the Lion of Judah, His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I. Emperor Selassie, King of Kings, ran Ethiopia for 44 years as a virtual theocracy. To this day - no matter that he is dead and was a devout Christian all his life - he is viewed by millions of Rastafarians as "the Living God". His own people treated him as such too, not so much bowing as prostrating themselves in his presence.

The Chosen One inhabited an oasis of opulence in a vast desert of despair, his pet panther consuming more in a week than the average Ethiopian family in a year. He owned 15 palaces and a fleet of 27 cars: Rolls-Royces, Lincoln Continentals and Mercedes Benzes. In 1963, in Addis Ababa, he hosted a gathering of African leaders, the high point of which was a banquet for 3,000 where, in a setting of pharaonic magnificence, diners consumed quail, caviar and champagne and were entertained by stars flown out from America. His Most Virtuous Majesty seized the occasion to deliver himself of some thoughts on the nature of monarchies and republics, which he described as "two substantially similar methods of governing".

"Democracy, Republic: What do these words signify?" the Emperor asked. "What have they changed in the world? Have men become better, more loyal, kinder? Are the people happier? All goes on as before, as always. Illusions, illusions."

Today the heirs of His Virtuous Highness might have a grim laugh at those poetic words. For they have been made all too humiliatingly aware of the difference between democracies and monarchies, their imperial illusions having been shattered on the egalitarian rocks of the United States of America.

Emperor Amha Selassie, son of Haile, died of pneumonia nine days ago at a hospital in Virginia. He was 80. His only son, now Emperor Zera- Yacob Selassie, heard the news in England, where he lives. Immediately he applied to the US Embassy in London for a visa to preside over the burial. The embassy said no. In despair, for filial duty and the royal succession demand that he be present at the graveside, he applied a second time last Wednesday, only to be told never to try and enter the United States again.

The widow, Empress Mederash-Worq, is under sedation at her humble suburban home, a short drive outside Washington. Not only has she lost a husband from whom she never spent a day apart during 52 years of marriage, she is now enduring the pain and indignity of not knowing when or where she is going to bury him. As if that were not torment enough, the hospital where he died informed her midway through last week that they no longer had any room for him in their morgue, whereupon she had to have the body removed to the local funeral parlour.

The US Embassy in London, and the State Department and Immigration and Naturalisation Service in Washington, have been fully informed of the Selassies' plight. But, as a State Department official said, "The law is the law, regardless of who they are." Dennis Wolf, a spokesman at the London embassy, said Emperor Selassie had failed to convince the INS authorities that he could be relied upon not to remain in the US illegally. "It is necessary for visa applicants to demonstrate that they have have a residence outside the US," Mr Wolf said.

The fact that for 18 of the 22 years since Ethiopia became a republic Emperor (formerly Crown Prince) Zera-Yacob has lived in England - having been educated at Eton, Oxford and Sandhurst - did not prove compelling enough to overcome American suspicions. Mr Wolf explained that the term "residence" in this context meant "having a life - a job, investments, family". Thus has it come to pass that the grandson of the most absolutely powerful monarch the 20th century has seen is deemed by the US government not to have a life.

What, then, does he have? Emperor Zera-Yacob, who is 43, declined through intermediaries to be interviewed, but the Independent on Sunday has established that he is often to be found in very modest circumstances on the Isle of Dogs in east London. A family member and a source close to the family reached in Washington painted a picture of an intelligent, gentle, dreamy creature who struggles to cope with the practical demands of everyday life. Since completing his studies he has not worked in Britain, but in the late 1970s he was employed for two years by the World Bank in Washington. One concession to former standards is that his 15-year-old daughter attends a boarding school in England, paid for by family money.

In 1992 Zera-Yacob's father left London - the obvious place to spend his exile, since he and his children had all been educated in England - for a medical check-up in the US. There he suffered a stroke from which he never recovered, obliging him to remain in the US for the rest of his days. His heir, who had a multiple entry visa to the US in those days, came over for two years: officially he should have stayed only six months. He did not work while in the US, busying himself mainly with tending to the needs of his elderly parents, but this transgression is one reason why today he is not being granted a visa renewal.

An irony of all this is that his two sisters are now American citizens, which means that should Emperor Zera-Yacob apply for permanent residence he would probably obtain it.There is an even greater irony.

"Before the revolution," says one of the imperial family, "we were great friends with America. We allowed them to have bases on our territory - they were practically running our affairs! When Mengistu [Haile Mariam] and the Marxists took over they kicked out every American in sight. One reason they gave for the revolution was that we were giving away our country to foreign powers. Now we are getting the stick from the other end."

In 1967, Haile Selassie visited President Lyndon Johnson in the White House and praised "the longstanding friendship" between Ethiopia and the US. Eight years later he died in detention in Addis Ababa: "circulatory failure", the Marxists claimed; suffocated or poisoned, said his family. After Mengistu himself was overthrown, the Lion of Judah's bones were exhumed from under the dictator's private lavatory and given proper burial.

A further measure of how far the House of Selassie has fallen was provided by the failure of Hillary Clinton to respond to a letter she received two years ago from Empress Mederash-Worq, pleading for her son to be allowed into the country - Prince Zera-Yacob made four unsuccessful applications to see his ailing father before he died. There are those in the family who say the old emperor, pining for his son to the last, died of sorrow. They fear that the Empress will now suffer a similar fate.

Compounding her nightmare, she learned last week that if she leaves the US, where she owns property and now considers home, she may not be able to get back in. But leave she must, as the family have resigned themselves to the bitter truth that the young emperor will not be allowed into the US: the funeral, therefore, must take place abroad. One option is Britain, but the family is exploring the possibility that the new Ethiopian government might show more compassion than the world's most powerful democracy, and allow him to be buried alongside his illustrious ancestors.

Either way, the last act of the royal soap opera - or rather, the imperial tragedy - appears a long way from being written. The moral of the story, however, is clear. The sins of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I have been visited, with interest, on the sons.

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