THE LION OF JUDAH HATH PREVAILED
King of Kings
Ras Tafari Makonnen succeeded to the throne on 3rd April 1930, and was crowned King of Kings in great state on 2nd November of the same year. ‘The Lion of Judah hath prevailed. Haile Selassie I, Elect of God, King of the Kings of Ethiopia.’ So ran his title.
He took the throne name of Haile Selassie I. This was his baptismal name, which every child receives from the priest at baptism, and which they may or may not use for general purposes.
The position he had already created for himself and his country was evidenced by the fact that many foreign countries sent important representatives to attend the ceremonies. The Duke of Gloucester represented the King of England, the Prince of Savoy the King of Italy, while the French Government sent Marshal Franchet d’Esperey.
Much had been done to prepare the capital city—still in its infancy, in comparison with others—for the visitors. For the first time the two main thoroughfares were faced with tarmac and the old city gates removed. The cathedral of St George was redecorated and a large annexe set up in the garden surrounding it. The police force was put into uniform and in an incredibly short period of training showed themselves well able to maintain order and deal with the enormous increase in street traffic. For in the ten years between 1920, when there could be seen only one car, the property of the Empress, and 1930, when there were hundreds of cars on the roads, the whole aspect of the city streets had changed.
The Emperor and Empress had spent the night in prayer, having gone down to the cathedral the previous evening. Early the following morning the guests assembled and were accommodated in the large tent, where also sat the great Rases who as the Emperor’s crown was placed upon his head were to don their coronets. It was a dramatic moment when the Abuna Cyril or Querillos placed the triple crown of Ethiopia upon Haile Selassie’s head—a moment also of triumph and fulfilment.
Through the decorated streets and cheering crowds there drove the visionary who had dreamed his dreams indeed, but had used their inspiration to equip himself intellectually and practically for the great task to which he was called, and for which he stood ready.
The midnight cogitations and the experience gained through the regency bore fruit with startling rapidity. The speed and co-ordination of the various steps now taken were evidence that they had been deeply pondered over, and carefully planned in advance.
The first step was the granting of a written constitution, which ‘marked the transformation of Ethiopia to a limited monarchy,’ even though the limitations of the Emperor’s powers were slight. In a speech with which he introduced this great—and entirely voluntary—innovation the Emperor spoke of the moment having come ‘to establish a Constitution whereby the whole people may be made to share our labours in accomplishing the heavy task of Government at which former Emperors laboured alone.’1
Into this granting of the Constitution was dovetailed the appointments and allocations of duties to ministers, the opening of a Parliament, and the choosing of foreign advisers.
Decisions taken in the Parliament and approved by the Emperor will be executed for the whole of Ethiopia and by the ministers, who will be responsible in the matter and will see that the requirements of government and people are duly fulfilled.
The next step was to reorganize the country’s finances, and customs services were overhauled and improved. The Emperor was speaking while on a visit to the custom house in Addis Ababa:
Then there followed the beginnings of the creation of modern security forces—army and police; accompanied by the organization of ‘model’ provinces which were to serve as experimental and demonstration centres for the reorganization of the whole of the country’s internal administration. His own experience joined to his father’s teaching was ready to bear good fruit. A programme for the improvement of roads and communications was put in hand, and of course education and health services took a new surge forward.
In the matter of slavery, reforms proceeded, as had been hoped. A letter from the Ethiopian representative to the League of Nations in September 1930 declared that ‘suppression of the traffic in slaves is proceeding with thoroughness. The Emperor since his accession has notified his firm resolve to pursue this work rigorously.’ The same month a list of 991 liberations for the year 1929-30 was submitted to the commission and 399 condemnations in the Slavery Court.
This ‘firm resolve’ was borne out by the Emperor’s invitation to the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society to send representatives to discuss the situation and advise him on it. In 1932 a commission was sent out under the chairmanship of Lord Noel Buxton. Discussions took place freely, and if the commission left with a feeling of disappointment that actual accomplishment was slight, the result of their visit was primarily the promise given by the Emperor that he would abolish slavery from his dominions within twenty years.
In all this the inspiration and personal driving force came from the Emperor. In the absence of trained personnel and an educated civil service, and the tradition and training of those around him being what they were, most of the petty details of administration had to be supervised by him too. The burden was immense—and how short a time was to be allotted to him! A bare four years—for by 1934 Haile Selassie had no illusions as to what the Italians were preparing—and by that year his mind must be diverted to devising a plan to meet the coming storm.
The granting of the Constitution on 16th July 1931 was Haile Selassie’s own idea, and was done of his own volition. This alone would mark him as no ordinary man, for never in history has a sovereign done such a thing on his own initiative, but Haile Selassie, pondering on the past, had come to the conclusion that ‘so long as the feudal system continued no real stability or social progress could be looked for.’ He was certain that the only way to undermine and neutralize the power of the feudal chiefs was to get the common man on his side, to give him his rights in law, and to govern through parliamentary and democratic institutions. It may be thought that to discover this required no great feat of the brain—but credit is due to the one and only man in the country at that time who was able to take the mental leap over ten centuries.
There was a tendency at the time for observers to doubt whether the Emperor was doing more than indulging in a gesture to impress the world; but he himself lost no opportunity in public or private to make his motives clear. A journalist who wrote an article in 1938 gave his view that Haile Selassie had inaugurated parliamentary institutions more with the idea of giving his people some elementary education in modern forms of government, than with any idea that they should become a reality for many years to come. He showed his article to the Emperor before submitting it for publication and was told, in round terms, that he was wrong; that, on the contrary, the new form of government was designed for the express and practical purpose of breaking down the old feudal system, and that in this task it was already succeeding.
Of the new Constitution here are the salient features. It laid down and defined the powers and prerogatives of the Emperor, and the duties and rights of the individual. It formulated the creation of parliamentary institutions, the duties of ministers, the administration of justice, and the introduction of a budget system. In the third and fourth articles it stated categorically that the Imperial title was vested in the line of Haile Selassie I, descendant of King Sahle Selassie, ‘whose line descends without interruption from the dynasty of Menelek I, son of King Solomon of Jerusalem and of the Queen of Ethiopia known as the Queen of Sheba ’; and that the Throne and Crown shall be transmitted to the Emperor’s descendants, pursuant to the law of the Imperial House. In accordance with this law and ancient custom the Emperor lost no time in issuing a proclamation designating his eldest son Asfa Wassen heir to the throne.
In selecting his foreign advisers the Emperor was careful not to confine his choice to one nationality. Auberson the legal adviser, was a Swiss; de Virgin, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was a Swede; de Halpert, at the Ministry of the Interior, at first appointed to advise on slavery matters, was an Englishman. Colson, an American, originally appointed adviser on financial affairs, in the end became more and more the Emperor’s chief adviser. There were two military missions, one Belgian and one Swedish; and the police were trained by a Frenchman. There were many who prophesied that this mixture would lead to jealousy and lack of co-operation, but in fact these men worked loyally together as a team, and in the troublous times soon to come served the Emperor and the interests of his country with single-minded devotion.
Their work was twofold: to promulgate a policy and to train a staff; while acting as consultants to the Emperor they had as an important part of their duties the task of tactfully instructing and guiding the ministers to whose departments they were attached. It was a work of immense importance and great difficulty, yet the very magnitude of the task, and still more the personality and power to inspire that lay with the man they served, were sufficient incentive to ensure their giving of their best.
The new Constitution—it was the occasion for a banquet and great rejoicing—was signed at the palace on 2nd November 1931, exactly a year after the Emperor’s coronation. The dignitaries moved slowly down the hill from the palace to the ‘Houses of Parliament’—the new buildings were not yet ready. The great Rases were there, and with all due ceremony took their seats in the Upper House. One or two cameras clicked, democracy was the new order. The system could not of course spring into existence fully fledged; that would have been to create confusion and to court failure, if not disaster. But dawn was breaking over the hills, though in the distance the rumble of thunder could be heard.
‘Man may begin an enterprise’—so spoke the Emperor to us, as we stood in the hall of the Menelek Palace—‘but it is Almighty God alone who has power to consummate it. We put our trust in God that He will vouchsafe to us that this Constitution which we have established be brought to fulfilment.’3
He had need of that trust in the dark days to come.
1 Speeches of H.I.M. Haile Selassie I, Part III, 16 July 1931.
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September 3, 2019