The Emperor – Review


Ryszard Kapuściński 

Penguin Modern Classics (2006, originally published 1978), 192 pages


The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat  looks back at Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie’s downfall through the eyes of his courtiers.  Selassie had gained popularity when he challenged Italian attempts to colonise Ethiopia.  He did instigate some reforms but as the years passed his primary concern was to keep himself and the semi-feudal system he presided over intact.  Neal Ascherson, in his introduction, makes the point that tyrants, “…tried to use “Development” as a substitute for political and social reform” (p. viii).  When tyrannical or colonial regimes begin to see their power slipping they will try and introduce the minimum level of change that can still insure that the overarching system doesn’t change (“killing Home Rule with kindness” in Ireland in the late 1800s was an example of this policy).  Ascherson also notes that The Emperor can be read as a parable of Kapuściński’s communist Poland.  The Polish dictatorship, despite claiming to represent the people, was a foreign system which had become disconnected from the people (whether it was actually ever connected to the people is debatable) and, like Haile Selassie’s regime, was doomed to collapse.

Haile Selassie was updated on his subjects’ movements through his system of informants.  When Kapuściński interviews Selassie’s courtiers in secret after their master’s downfall the new system is equally paranoid.  Haile Selassie met his ministers everyday.  If a minister achieved something Selassie took the glory, if a minister messed up then the minister took the blame.  In the palace there were three groups; the aristocrats, the bureaucrats,  and the people personally selected by the emperor.  The aristocrats were ultra-conservative, the bureaucrats were the most liberal (many had a higher education), and the personally selected people were fiercely loyal to Selassie.  The emperor micromanaged all of his appointments to give the illusion of total control, “Listen here Mr. Journalist, not only did the Emperor decide on all promotions, but he also communicated each one personally.  He alone” (p. 31).  Likewise Selassie approved all financial expenditure, even a repair to one of his 27 cars.  The Ethiopian state was so foccussed on its emperor that it failed to function properly when its figurehead was absent.  When Selassie was on one of his many trips out of the country his palace virtually stopped functioning.

Haile Selassie’s concern for his own people was also an illusion, “…His Majesty paid the salaries of foreign engineers but showed no inclination to pay our own masons after the construction of the Imperial Palace called Genete Leul” (p. 39).  The Emperor does not look at Haile Selassie’s reign as a whole.  It focusses on the period leading up to his fall. Kapuściński’s book does however mention some of Selassie’s reforms; he forbade extreme punishments such as the cutting off of hands and legs, he introduced a court system, he abolished slavery, he  set up a postal system, and he sent some people abroad to study.  It was this final reform that proved dangerous to Selassie’s rule.  Young people who were educated abroad quickly saw the lack of freedom and economic development in their home country.  Education was a double edged sword.  Ethiopia needed educated people to run the state but too many educated people could result in the overthrow of the state.  Germame Neway came from an aristocratic family and was sent to be educated in the United States.  When he returned Neway was made the governor of a region in southern Ethiopia.  Much to the horror of local nobles he began to build schools and allegedly gave land to landless labourers.


Haile Selassie’s deposition. He is humiliated by being forced into a Volkswagen Beetle, a less luxurious car than one of his 27 limousines. Credit: Wikipedia

As Selassie realised that his position was being undermined he began to turn his attention to his greatest threat – the army, “These generals, with His Gracious Majesty’s help, arranged such a good life for themselves that our Empire, which contained thirty million farmers and only a hundred thousand soldiers and police, agriculture received one percent of the national budget and the army and police forty percent” (p. 93).  The Emperor was dependent on the top strata of society for survival.  But increasing levels of education meant this elite section was expanding beyond the state’s control.  Graduates were placed in the state bureaucracy but these their increased numbers were placing a strain on the budget.  In order to pay for the increased cost of bureaucrats it was decided to raise taxes on the peasants.  It is here that the feudal nature of Selassie’s regime is most apparent.  The peasants rebelled against paying taxes merely funded their oppression.  Anger with the regime began to overcome internalised subservience and fear of the security forces.

As with British rule in Ireland it was a famine that was the final nail in Selassie’s rule.  Jonathan Dimbleby’s documentary Ethiopia: The Unknown Famine (unfortunately I haven’t been able to find this documentary online) exposed the heartlessness of the Ethiopian state.  The juxtaposition of images of starving people with pictures of Haile Selassie feeding meat to his dogs and feasting on champagne and caviar.  The film wasn’t shown in Ethiopia but it’s contents began to filter back to the country.  The Emperor doesn’t look at the ethnic divides that contributed to the Ethiopian state’s lack of concern about the death of up to 300,000 of its people (presumably because the courtiers that Kapuściński interviews are Amharic like their emperor) but famine was used as a method of control by Selassie and the subsequent Dergue regime.  Shamefully one courtier (A.A.) defends the lack of response to the famine on moral grounds, “…it is not bad for national order and a sense of national humility that the subjects be rendered skinnier, thinned down a bit” (p. 112).

Haile Selassie’s regime was eventually overthrown by the brutal communist Dergue.  Life under the Dergue was, for many, worse than living under Haile Selassie.  But Haile Selassie’s failure to create a just society paved the way for further death and destruction. Many of  Haile Selassie’s courtiers talk with a sense of nostalgia for the Emperor’s rule but, as Kapuściński points out, “One could talk about it with sadness and indulgence, were it not for the fact that H.S. – he and his people – took millions from the state treasury amid cemeteries full of people who had died of hunger, cemeteries visible from the windows of the royal Palace” (p. 160).

Related Links

Article on the 1973-74 famine


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