Lessons from the Emperor’s Failed Strategies

July 18, 2010

The Emperor: downfall of an autocrat
© 1983 Ryszard Kapusinski
Vintage International, a division of Random House New York
Translated from Polish by William Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkwska-Brand

Rating 4 Star Excellent – History as literature

Kapusinski’s portrayal of Haile Selassie’s Palace and his downfall is based on the accounts of those who had ‘frequented the court’. Shortly after the Dergue Regime replaced the Empire, the author interviewed the emperor’s servants and courtiers. This was during the ‘madness of the fetasha”, the search; at that time every person, bus, home or neighbourhood was subject to search for counter revolutionary evidence. Teferra Gebrewold a former palace press handler and the author went at night and in great fear to the Addis Ababa hideouts of former palace staffers.

This book is recommended to all readers of history because of the universality of the story and its superb presentation. It is a must read for all expatriates coming to work in Ethiopia as insight into the palace is an example of how Ethiopians function within highly dysfunctional Ethiopian institutions. The dignitaries, bureaucrats and personal people, the factions who populated the palace when it was most powerful and their reformulation as the jailers, talkers and floaters when it was collapsing are instructive characterizations. I regret that I did not re-read this book, which I first read a decade ago, before my recent two year appointment in the Department of Surgery at the Black Lion Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia as I had forgotten some of its most important lessons.

The first of three sections entitled: “The Throne” describes the daily routine and administration of Ethiopia from the Palace by Haile Sellassie. Through the voices of the servants: one who removed the urine from the shoes of visitors who had to tolerate the behaviour of the emperors dog; the keeper of the pillows, who made sure that the his highnesses legs never dangled from the massive thrones; the third and most important doorman; the treasurer’s purse bearer; the cloak room attendant at the supreme court; the officer for the minister of ceremonies, and courtiers who are only identified by initials, the details of the palace and the administration of the Empire are understood. A direct account could not give the authenticity of these personal testimonies. Their rationalizations of the emperor’s motivations and behaviours is spoken in such reverential tone that sometimes it appears to be sarcasm, but it is not. The jostling for influence in the palace by the dignitaries, the bureaucrats and the ‘personal people’ (those that Haile Sellasie had raised from obscurity to the palace) demonstrates the power invested in one person. The personal people, who owed their existence in the palace to the emperor, were those he felt would be loyal.

The emperor started the day with an early morning walk through the grounds of the anniversary palace, his residence. He was accompanied sequentially by the head informers from the palace, the ministries and the police who updated him on the intrigues of the previous night. HS never made notes or comments and left the informers in suspense about what the others might have said. He then proceeded up the hill, for the business of the day in one of his 27 cars to Melanik’s palace. Outside the gates a few of the many written petitions from the impoverished citizenry would be gathered by the security staff and inside the gates a different crowd, the aristocrats, would vie for even the slightest attention from the emperor.

Each of the next four hours had a designated purpose. The hour of assignments held in the audience hall, included the promotion and demotions of the most minor to the most senior official; the hour of the cash box when hopeful ones swarmed like ants looking for payment in the golden room: the hour of the ministers when the affairs of the empire were managed; ministers dare not miss this hour, this would draw suspicion; it was also a time for them to report on the disorder in other ministries. For the emperor loyalty was the most important criteria. He preferred incompetent and corrupt ministers, so that ‘our people would have no doubt who was the sun and who the shadow); the last hour that for the Supreme Court occurred, in a building beside the palace. Standing on a platform the emperor would hear cases and pronounce sentence, there was no appeal. He then returned to the Anniversary palace for lunch with his extended family. When the emperor left for the day or travelled his empire Melanik’s palace was deserted except of courtiers and dignitaries not unlike the Black Lion hospital which is deserted by the surgeons and physicians at lunch time and on weekends.

The second section entitled: “It’s coming, Its coming” starts with the attempted coup by the Neway brothers in 1960 and subsequent 13 years in which the Emperor tried to recover from that devastating event. His strategy included development without reform and to placate the army, which had saved his royal skin with promotion and bribes.

The coup was led by Germame Neway an aristocrat who upon his return from being educated abroad was appointed Governor of Sidamo. Like the rest of southern Ethiopia, Sidamo was conquered by Emperor Melanik II who installed northern landlords on the southerner’s property. As governor, Germame used tribute to build schools for the southerners rather than enriching himself and he turned uncultivated land over to landless peasants. (Taking bribes was acceptable, giving land to the peasants was communism). Germame’s biggest error as governor was not to give all the credit for his work to the emperor (this is the section of the book I should have re-read before joining the Black Lion Department of Surgery). Germame was called to the hour of appointments and transferred to Jijiga where he was governor of the Ogaden desert but he was luckier than talented Prince Imru who had been exiled for 20 years for similar offences.

Germame planned a coup which was supported by his brother General Mengistu Neway, the head of the Imperial Guard; General Isigou Dibou, the head of Imperial Police; and one of the emperor’s personal people Colonel Workenu Gibaye, the chief of Palace Security. Haile Sellassie questioned Workenu who he completely trusted about the rumours of a coup. Workenu’s denials were belived in part because the emperor suspected that the dignitaries, lead by Endelkachew, were disloyal, but because Workenu was one of his personal people. On Haile Sellassie’s official trip to Brazil in December 1960, the mistakenly suspected coup leader was included as a participant while the real plotters remained behind.

The Neway brother’s coup, which occurred during the Brazil trip, was centered on the palace. The emperor’s weakling heir apparent Asfa Wossen, who the emperor suspected was not his son, read a proclamation announcing a new government on the radio but few Ethiopians had radios in those days so this proclamation was ineffective. Coup mismanagement included: failure to cut , communications links quickly, arrest some key people and most importantly the failure to include the army. After bloodshed on both sides of the conflict, the army reinstated the emperor who slipped back into Ethiopia through Asmara. Germame killed himself while his brothr Mengistu Neway was tried, did not ‘squeal’ on his accomplices and was executed.

The palace response to the coup was silence from the emperor and fear from the courtiers who were also conveyed angry at the ingratitude of the coup leaders. For the rest of his reign the emperor was insecure and travelled internationally frequently where he was more popular than at home and where he felt safe. The hour of assignments was dominated by demotions. New personal people were recruited. In the afternoon an hour for development and another for police and army became necessary. Development became a new priority but reform was not part of this agenda. Bridges, schools and hospitals were built throughout Ethiopia and invariably named after the emperor. The hour for the police and army was to pay for loyalty. The army which had reinstated the emperor required continuously compensation. By reinstating the emperor it had gained power that it would never relinquish. But the expense of bribing the army into loyalty, results in oppresive taxation of the peasants who occasionally rebelled.

The final section is entitled “The Collapse”. It starts the documentary “Ethiopia: the unknown famine” which was shown in Britain and caused sudden global interest in Ethiopia. The government allowed reporters into the country but did not let them visit the famine; food aid was allowed but then taxed it so heavily the donors refused to continue. Demonstrations were banned but a fashion show on campus sponsored by the American Peace Corp turned into a student demonstration which never ended until the palace fell. The money and honours that had been given to bribe the army had been kept by the generals; the soldiers who were underpaid and badly fed mutinied and arrested the officers at various detachments throughout the country. Taxi drivers and teachers went on strike. The courtiers of the palace had survived so many crises they did not recognize the end was imminent. The palace was divided, the jailers wanted a military response the talkers wanted to negotiate and the floaters did not want to think but float like corks on the waves of circumstance (a metaphor for the division in current Ethiopian institutions).

One of the most interesting interviews concerning the end of the regime is the generational debate from one of the courtiers whose idealistic son Hailu was participating in the student rebellion. The dignitaries from around the empire came to palace for refuge slowly arrested by the Dergue. Haile Sellaissie who was used to crowds and adulation was eventually all alone in the massive palace except for a single elderly valet. The coup by the dirge was slow but progressive, the leadership secretive and mysterious. Veneration of the emperor restrains the dirge which from directly harming him. They hesitate to act independently but take their early actions in the name of the emperor. They wanted to find the money they expect is hidden in foreign bank accounts. Eventually they publicly discredit the emperor. His denial of any money was belied but the fact that but the carpet in his office was under laid with thick stacks of US 100 dollar notes and that he had money hidden in the many ancient bibles in his office. The emperor’s removal from office is officially based not just on the financial issues but lamely because of his advanced age. Haile Selllaise leaves the palace in a Volkswagen beetle and was kept in detention until the announcement of his death due to ‘circulatory failure’. It is likely that he was smothered by his eventual successor Major Mengistu Haile Marilum, the son of one of the palace servants.
The dergue regime that succeeded the Empire was a great disappointment to the ideals of those like the student Hailu who brought them to power. The response of Emperor Haile Selassie the failed coup attempt of 1960 was development without reform. Although he managed to hang on for 14 more years in the end the strategy did not work. The regime that replaced the dergue seems to have strategies similar to the ill fated emperor.



  1. This book is pure fiction, as malicious and inaccurate as this anti-royalist could make it. The failed strategy was in Kapusinsky trying to pass this off as real.

    In later life the author abandoned any effort to claim accuracy, saying instead this book is a parable about present day European politics. Many of his other writings are suspect and spoken of as such, but this one takes the cake. Please read more of the authors biographies and reviews in light of what is known now.

    • Hi Jah-jim,
      I found your responce interesting. Certainly the book is not pure fiction as much of the history is known. I personally am not anti royalizt but am prodemocracy. I presume from your email address that you are Rastaferian. I have posted your response debate is healthy.
      Dr. Gemini

  2. Here are some articles on the liberties he took with facts:




    My problem with it is that many people only come to know the Emperor from this one book of that name. There are 100’s of resources on His Imperial Majesty, 99% of which shed more light and fact on him than this book does.

    btw, I’m not a Dr., but I am a Gemini with sun, moon and three planets in Gemini.

    Jah bless!

  3. Here’s another of the many articles: http://www.thesmartset.com/article/article080607015.aspx

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