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A Brief Biography of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Amha Selassie I

27 July 1916 - 17 January 1997

Biography of Amha Selassie
Amha Selassie in 1932

Taken from the book Ethiopia Reaches Her Hand Unto God: Imperial Ethiopia’s Unique Symbols, Structures, and Role in the Modern World, by Gregory Copley.

Crown Prince Asfa Wossen — who became Emperor Amha Selassie I in 1988 — was born in Harar, Ethiopia, on Hamle 20, 1908, by the Ethiopian calendar: July 27, 1916, by the Western calendar. When he reached school age he was first taught by a tutor in the Palace and later enrolled in Teferi Makonnen School. He then continued his higher education at Liverpool University, in the United Kingdom, where he received his degree in Political Science and Public Administration.1This brief biographical section on Emperor Amha Selassie I was compiled from a variety of sources including His Imperial Majesty’s official biographical note, released at the Washington DC National Press Club, February 1992, as well as from his entries in Who’s Who and other publications, and based on the numerous personal discussions which the author held with His Imperial Majesty over several years. Other documentary sources were also consulted.

From his first marriage to Princess Wolete Israel, the couple gave birth to Princess Ejigayehu. Crown Prince Asfa Wossen was then wed to Princess Medferiash Work Abebe, and established a family of four children, including HIH Prince Zere Yacob Amha Selassie, who was later himself named Crown Prince.

During the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie I in 1930, Prince Asfa Wossen was confirmed as Crown Prince and heir to the throne.

Besides fulfilling his various duties as Crown Prince, Emperor Amha Selassie served his country as governor of the provinces of Begémdir, Tigré and Wollo at different times. In these provinces, he carried out numerous development projects, including the construction of roads, hospitals, and numerous schools and orphanages. He also served on the Crown Council — often acting as President in the Emperor’s absence — and as Chairman of the Ethiopian Red Cross.

In the war against Italian occupation (1935-1941), the young Crown Prince acted as the right hand of the Emperor in every international diplomatic campaign to get material and moral support for the resistance. At the age of 20, he was leading his own troops in battle. During some of this period, when the Italians occupied the country, Crown Prince Asfa Wossen and his father organized the resistance from Jerusalem, and then from a home in Bath, England. It was while he was in exile that the Crown Prince attended Liverpool University. When the time came for re-entry to Ethiopia, Crown Prince Asfa Wossen came via South Africa, while his father came through the Sudan. The object was to ensure that, under any circumstances, the Crown would survive the death of one or other of the two. And in the final battles to route the Italian occupation forces in Ethiopia, it was Crown Prince Asfa Wossen who led the military campaign against the Italian garrisons entrenched in and around Gondar city, thereby flushing out the last remnants of Italian resistance

Crown Prince Asfa Wossen suffered a sudden stroke in 1972, and was taken to Switzerland in 1973 for medical care. And it was during this period of convalescence that political turmoil broke out in Ethiopia and a coup led by a junior Army officer, Mengistu Haile Mariam, dragged the country into an era of dictatorship and oppression, civil war and economic decline. Crown Prince Asfa Wossen moved to London to begin his exile, and while still trying to recover from the effects of the stroke, he closely monitored events in Ethiopia, maintaining contact with resistance movements inside and just outside the country.

The Crown Prince formed a Government-in-Exile in London, and it was this Government along with the Crown Council which, on April 6, 1988, proclaimed him Negusa Negest ze Ethiopia (King of Kings of Ethiopia). He took the Throne name Amha Selassie I.

Emperor Amha Selassie I became the 226th ruler of Ethiopia since his forebear, Menelik I, son of Solomon and Queen Makeda, took the throne some 3,000 years earlier. During the ceremony proclaiming him Emperor, his wife, Princess Medferiash Work Abebe, was named Empress, and his son, Prince Zere Yacob, was named Crown Prince.

Just over a year later, on October 23, 1989, Emperor Amha Selassie moved to the United States, which was home to many thousands of Ethiopian exiles. From there, he began working with the Ethiopian exile community to further coordinate efforts to restore a constitutional Monarchy and bring peace to Ethiopia. It was during this period that a pro-Constitutional Monarchy movement called Mo’a Anbessa (literally, “The Conquering Lion”) was formed. In an historic gathering on June 29, 1991, Mo’a Anbessa announced its mission and proclaimed the Emperor as its Honorary Chairman.

A “fact sheet” released by Mo’a Anbessa in February 1992 said that the organization “transcends all parties, and its membership straddles across the boundaries of all political organizations”. The organization pledged “its full support to all democratic forces both within and outside Ethiopia who are dedicated to the cause of building a pluralistic society and market-driven economy”. The statement added: “The weight and moral authority of the monarchy can usefully co-exist and complement a democratically-elected government, for example in Great Britain or Japan.”2The Crown Council in 1998, however, agreed to sever all formal bonds between the Crown and Mo’a Anbessa, to enable the organization to establish itself as a totally independent political party.

The Emperor, meanwhile, established the Haile Selassie I Peace Foundation, to provide a range of humanitarian, educational medical aid services to Ethiopians inside and outside the country.

Emperor Amha Selassie was, like his father, widely decorated by foreign governments and leaders both during his period as Crown Prince, and later in Exile.

During a 1992 press conference at the National Press Club, in Washington DC, His Imperial Majesty spoke of his plans to return soon to his native country where he planned to enter peaceful negotiation with the administration which had seized power from the outgoing Dergue in 1991. Ill health, however, dogged the Emperor, whose mobility was severely hampered by the paralyzing effects of his 1972 stroke.

Emperor Amha Selassie died in the Washington DC area of the United States — at the Fair Oaks Hospital, in Fairfax, Virginia — on January 17, 1997, at the age of 80. A large turnout attended the Memorial Service for the Emperor in Washington DC. His body was flown to Addis Ababa for a private funeral and, despite the lack of official publicity surrounding the event, the Emperor’s return to his native land resulted in a massive show of public sympathy. He was buried next to his two brothers at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa on Sunday, February 2, 1997.

But several years before his death, working with his advisors — and particularly the Afe-Negus,3The post and title of Afe-Negus is granted by the Emperor for life. “Afe-Negus” literally means “Mouth of the King”, and Teshome Haile Mariam was named to this post by Emperor Haile Selassie I. Afe-Negus Teshome served Emperor Amha Selassie as he had done for Emperor Haile Selassie, and also served as President of the Crown Council under Emperor Amha Selassie. Afe-Negus Teshome’s father had also served in the same capacity to Emperor Menelik II. Teshome Haile Mariam, the former Chief Justice of Ethiopia and former Ethiopian Imperial Ambassador to the United States — the Emperor reconvened and reconstituted the Ethiopian Crown Council. In doing this, he named his nephew, Prince Ermias Sahle-Selassie Haile Selassie, to the post of President of the Council, and his grandson, Prince Bekere Fikre-Selassie as Viceroy or Enderassé.

The institutions built by Emperor Amha Selassie survive his passing: the reconstituted Crown Council; the Haile Selassie I Peace Foundation; and Mo’a Anbessa remain particularly active.

He was survived by his wife, Empress Medferiash Work Abebe; his son, Crown Prince Zere Yacob Amha Selassie4A story in the UK magazine Marie Claire, number 119, of July 1998, carried the following story on Crown Prince Zere Yacob: “As heir to the world’s most ancient monarchy, Zera-Yacob [their transliteration] enjoys the title of ‘The Conquering Lion of Judah’, but the man who is regarded as a living god by Rastafarians has endured a tragic life. He was appointed Crown Prince by his grandfather, Emperor Haile Selassie in the last days of his reign. But following the 1974 Communist coup, the members of the imperial family were imprisoned, murdered or forced into exile. Zera-Yacob is now living in straightened circumstances in Manchester, where Rastafarians and his Ethiopian supporters regularly pay him tribute. His health is now frail, he is known for his sudden mood swings, and has done little to keep the imperial flame alive, to the dismay of branches of his family.” Author’s note: In fact, neither the Crown Prince, nor the Emperor, employed the title “Conquering Lion of [the Tribe of] Judah”. That title was used above the Imperial title to signify that the Crown was under Christ. As well, although Rastafarians worship Emperor Haile Selassie, the offspring of the Emperor are not, in fact, “regarded as gods” by the Rastafarian movement, although Rastafarians have been particularly supportive of Prince Zere Yacob and the Imperial Family in exile. and Prince Zere Yacob’s sisters (Mariam Sena, Sehin, Sefrash); his grandchildren from his first wife, Princess Wolete-Israel Seyoum, by his eldest daughter Princess Ejig-Ayehu Amha Selassie (Samson, Rahel, Mehret, Bekere, Aster and Yishaq); and his surviving sister, Princess Tenagne Work Haile Selassie.