A seven-year debate surrounding the legacy of Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie, has been put to rest; a commemorative statue has been erected outside the headquarters of the African Union (AU).
Selassie has been the subject of contention since fellow Pan-Africanist, Kwame Nkrumah, had a monument dedicated to him in February 2012. He ruled from 1930 to 1974.
Now Selassie’s “contribution to Africa’s liberation and unity” is being recognised, according to AU deputy chairperson Kwesi Quartey:
“This is Africa’s diplomatic capital and a symbol of Pan-Africanism. We extend our appreciation to the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia as well as the good people of Ethiopia for their commitment to the AU.”
WHY THE CONTROVERSY?
Haile Selassie was a historic icon in the history of African anti-colonialism. As a beacon of independence, Ethiopia was instrumental in founding the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) under his leadership.
The OAU came into being at a summit convened by Selassie in May 1963. It reconciled views about how the future Africa should be governed, whether as a “United States of Africa” or through independent nations.
Selassie’s diplomacy was crucial in ensuring the agreement of the 32 attending delegations. “May this convention of union last 1,000 years,” he is quoted to have said.
And yet, within his own country, Selassie ruled by force and autocracy. A report by the Human Rights Watch charged him with “official indifference” to a series of famines. One of these killed up to 200,000 people.
WHO WAS IN FAVOUR?
The campaign to give Selassie the same historic status as Nkrumah began almost as soon as the statue of the first president of Ghana was unveiled. This was in February 2012.
Popular among Ethiopians, it claimed that Selassie had “the legal, moral, historical and diplomatic legitimacy to have his statue erected next to Kwame Nkrumah.”
Ghanaian President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo Addo was among the high-profile figures to put his weight behind the movement. Ethiopian Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs, Nebiat Getachew, recently claimed that a statue would “reflect and showcase the history of African liberation, integration, and Emperor Haile Selassie’s indisputable role in the evolution of Africa’s development agenda.”
WHO WAS AGAINST THE IDEA?
The pro-Selassie petition was met immediately with a counterappeal by the Ethiopian Pan-African Society. Its chairperson, Asrat Deferes, wrote: “Emperor Haile Selassie was no pan-Africanist. In fact there is overwhelming evidence of his autocracy and rejection of the Black cause. It will be an injustice to African history to erect his statue at the new AU headquarters in Addis Ababa.”
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister at the time agreed, adding that Selassie was a “feudal dictator.”
Ultimately, the argument was won by those in favour of Selassie. His granddaughter, Princess Mariam Sena Asfaw Wossen, has praised the “historic decision.” She called it, “an illustration of unity of purpose by African leaders.”