Roots | Haile Selassie I

Irie Magazine #02-03 | Roots | Haile Selassie I

Haile Selassie I

King of Kings of Ethiopia, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah

Haile Selassie was an emperor of Ethiopia whose influence as an African leader far surpassed the boundaries of his country. Although his popularity declined near the end of his sixty-year reign, Selassie remains a key figure in turning Ethiopia into a modern civilization.


Haile Selassie was born Tafari Makonnen on July 23, 1892, the son of Ras Makonnen, a cousin and close friend of Emperor Menilek II. Baptized Lij Tafari, he is believed to be a direct descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, two ancient rulers from the tenth century B.C.E. Raised as a Christian, Tafari was educated by private European tutors.

Haile Selassie spent his youth at the imperial court (court of the emperor) of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Surrounded by constant political plots, he learned much about the wielding of power. Menilek no doubt recognized Tafari’s capacity for hard work, his excellent memory, and his mastery of detail. The emperor rewarded the youth’s intellectual and personal capabilities by appointing him, at the age of fourteen, the governor of Gara Muleta in the province of Harar. When he was twenty, the emperor appointed him dejazmatch (commander) of the extensive province of Sidamo.

Regent and Emperor

Upon the death of Menilek in 1913, his grandson, Lij Yasu, succeeded to (gained) the throne. Yasu’s apparent conversion to the religion of Islam alienated the national Christian church and gave its favor to the opposition movement led by Ras Tafari (as Haile Selassie was now named). The movement joined noblemen and high church officials in stripping Yasu of the throne in 1916. Zawditu, the daughter of Menilek, then became empress, with Ras Tafari appointed regent (acting ruler while the empress was away) and heir to the throne.

Throughout the regency the empress, conservative in nature and more concerned with religion than politics, served as opposition to Ras Tafari’s rising interest in turning the country into a more modern nation. The result was an uneasy decade-long agreement between conservative and reforming forces (forces looking to make social improvements).

In 1926 Tafari took control of the army, an action that made him strong enough to assume the title of negus (king). Assuming this title was made possible, in part, by his success in international affairs, namely the admission of Ethiopia in 1923 to the League of Nations, a multinational organization aimed at world peace following World War I (1914–1918; a war fought mostly in Europe involving most countries on that continent and the United States). When Zawditu died in April 1930, Tafari demanded the title negasa negast (king of kings) and took complete control of the government with the throne name of Haile Selassie I (“Power of the Trinity”).