Ethiopia's King of Kings finds no resting place

Richard Dowden
Wednesday 22 July 1992 00:02

THEY should have buried the Emperor tomorrow, the 100th anniversary of his birth. Now he will have to wait until November before he is finally laid to rest.

Last February they dug up the bones of Haile Selassie, Elect of God, Lion of Judah and the 225th in the line of King of the Kings of Ethiopia. The remains were under the private lavatory of the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, who overthrew the Emperor.

It was a demeaning end for a monarchy of 3,000 years, which traced its origins to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, a sad end for a monarch who had ruled a feudal empire for 40 years. He was overthrown in 1974 and kept in detention. In August the following year the government announced that he had died from 'circulatory failure'. Surviving members of his entourage and members of his family believe he was suffocated or poisoned.

Immediately Haile Selassie's body was dug up, his son announced that he would return home and a monarchist movement was launched. The son, Atse Amha Selassie I, has lived in exile since 1974, but was proclaimed Emperor in 1988 even though he is 76 years old and crippled by a stroke. The royal family announced that the funeral would take place on 23 July, but relations between the family and government soured and the request for a state funeral was turned down. At one stage the government appeared to agree to an official funeral - to which governments would have been invited to send representatives - but then backed off.

The prospect of a media circus perturbed the government, which is negotiating difficult political times at present. There was also concern about the thousands of Rastafarians who planned to descend on Ethiopia to celebrate the Emperor's birthday - the Rastafarians do not accept that their living God can die so they are ignoring the funeral. There is a community of Rastafarians, mostly from Jamaica, south of Addis Ababa on land given them by the Emperor in the 1950s.

The founders of Rastafarianism in the 1940s adopted Ras Tafari, as Haile Selassie was called before he was proclaimed Emperor, because he was the only black man ruling a black kingdom in Africa. Ethiopian culture, rooted in Coptic Christianity, is far removed from Rastafarianism, and Haile Selassie did not recognise their exorbitant claims on his person, although he tolerated their presence in Ethiopia.

The government said that anyone was welcome to attend ceremonies commemorating Haile Selassie, but there would be no state participation. The royal family postponed the burial until November. The reburial of several other members of the royal household who were murdered at the same time as Haile Selassie is still going ahead, but the government has banned a demonstration by the monarchist movement planned for today.

The overthrow of Mengistu last year and the takeover by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front brought a promise of democracy and self-determination for all the former empire's nations. But it appears to be resulting in the fragmentation of the country, with the Oromo Liberation Front, the movement which represents the country's largest ethnic group, withdrawing from the government.

The new Emperor has expressed a desire to return as a constitutional monarch, and he could provide the focus for Ethiopian unity, a powerful sentiment and possibly stronger in some quarters than the EPRDF's policy of democratisation.

(Photograph omitted)

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