Uneasy head that would wear Ethiopia's crown

The would-be emperor relates his hopes exclusively to James Cusick
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The Independent Online
In Addis Ababa at the end of this week the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abuna Paulof I, will officiate at a funeral service few Ethiopians believed would ever take place on their soil. The service in Trinity Cathedral, next to the parliament building, will bury an exiled uncrowned emperor and quietly celebrate the new claimant to the ancient Solomonic throne, His Royal Highness, Zera-Yakob.

He could not give an interview during mourning, but through a royal spokesman, Lij Mulugeta Aserate, Zera-Yakob responded to The Independent's questions on the destiny of the Ethiopian monarchy-in-exile.

The body of Amha Selassie, the son of the Lion of Judah, His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, will remind the long-suffering people of Addis Ababa of their lost monarchy, and, no doubt, of the brutal Mengistu dictatorship which succeeded it.

For the fledgling coalition government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia - only implemented in 1995 after the four years of uneasy transition which followed the collapse of the communist Mengistu regime - it will be a public test of sympathy for the monarchy among the population of 55 million. The funeral on Ethiopian soil will also allow the exiled Imperial court to gather together and plan the future constitutional monarchy they believe can be achieved in the lifetime of the new Emperor.

It is the dream of Zera- Yakob, the 227th King of Kings, that he will regain his throne. In line with official royal tradition, Zera-Yakob is still recognising the official 40-day mourning period for his father who died in Washington last week. A continuing argument with the United States immigration authorities over a past visit where he stayed beyond his visa allocation, meant he could not be at his father's deathbed.

From his homes in London and Manchester, Zera-Yakob has been in contact with the 25 to 30 members of his extended family living mainly in Washington. His organisational role is crucial for someone who sees himself as "an active member of a royal family carrying on the symbolism which unifies all nations in Ethiopia". The new Emperor was last in Ethiopia in 1973. A year after he left, strikes and army mutinies ended Haile Selassie's years of autocratic rule. The empire, ruled since 1930 by the Lion of Judah, Ras Tafari, had crumbled. In exile the new Emperor appears keen to place the monarchy in its historical perspective. "Haile Selassie was a perfect man for that time," he says. He accepts charges that his grandfather was an "autocrat", but sees himself as a "visionary who accepts the reality of today" and sees any future Ethiopian monarch as without real political power.

The constitutional monarchies of both the United Kingdom and Japan are cited as examples where "monarchy and democracy can thrive". Unification of Ethiopia - a country with 286 distinct languages and 76 nationalities - is the prime aim of Zera-Yakob. Under the new republican constitution, backed by the US, Ethiopia is to be split into seven federal states. This, according to the emperor, "will create multiple states of Banana Republics."

He claims this division of Ethiopia, which also has United Nations support, "is a an experiment that has no place in African politics [and will] eventually lead to ... bloodshed."

With Ethiopia's multiple racial groups, different religious groups from Orthodox Christians through to Muslims, a small number of Jews and other sub-groups, the exiled royal court believe another "Rwanda" is possible unless there is some unifying force. That force, they believe, is the exiled monarchy and they hope that if enough international pressure is put on the Ethiopian government a referendum can be achieved.

Zera-Yakob, now 43, educated at Eton, Oxford and Sandhurst, lives among a Rastafarian community in Manchester where he is studying the origins of the religion that regarded his grandfather as a living god. He views his future role "as a bridge-builder, a father figure". To help bring about a modern constitutional monarchy, the exiled dedicated monarchists formed an international organisation known as the "Conquering Lions." They hope to return the question of the new Emperor back on to the Ethiopian political agenda.

The Emperor believes the referendum which brought about independence was falsely conducted. "They were asked only a choice between independence or servitude. They need to be told that a new monarchy has to be seen as a peaceful, loving mother ... the Ethiopian monarchy will never die. The people should be allowed to decide."