Monday, May 01, 2006

The Darker side of His Imperial Majesty

Impressions on Kapuscinski’s The Emperor, Downfall of an Autocrat Vintage International, page 163,1989 By Arefaynie Fantahun There was this French documentary film that I saw at the Alliance few years back on King Haile sellassie that portrayed him as rather exotic, gallant monarch, distinguished by indefatigable energy, a sharp mind, and profound sensitivity, a man who made a stand against Mussolini, recovered his Empire and his throne, and had ambitions of developing his country and playing an important role in the world. However, Ryszard Kaputhinskis’s ’ The Emperor, Down Fall of an Autocrat’(164 p ages), was a far cry from what was described in the film. The book told in a series of clandestine/anonymous interviews portray the monarch as a ruler committed to defending his power at any cost, a man who was above all a great demagogue and a theatrical paternalist who used words and gestures to mask the corruption and servility of a ruling elite that he created and coddled. The polish journalist’s renditions of what the Emperor’s servant’s and closest associates told him seems an unforgiving criticism of a power hungry king who thrived in the fear and mistrust he created among his subjects and the status- quo. The Emperor is defined by the closed nature of the circle within which he operates, with all decision making from the top and being the highest person in the state, who was above the law, and not subject to any of its norms and regulations. And he is described as an enigmatic and impenetrable man who ruled for a half a century by manipulating others and using unclear and ambiguous words when he did not want to take a definite stand on a matter that required his opinion. The Majesty we see here is a complex and ambivalent personality with a taste for décor and les courisian A man with artificial decorum and austere style of life, the thin and feeble monarch who gets up every morning with his most important task of ‘laying out strategies and tactics, to solve the puzzles of personality, to plan his next move on the chessboard of power.’ It was a world of fantasy where the Palace’s intelligence service and the private informers network competing to get the Emperor’s ear. Honest information almost never traveling upwards to reach him. The abuse of power turns amusing and appalling as the narration gets along with the description of a consuming passion for intrigue, conspiracy, and suspicions of everyone, coteries, subterfuges, and maneuverings. The Emperor wanted ‘basic order with a margin of disorder on which his monarchial gentleness could exert itself’ in his palace. According to Kapusciniski, the single principle by which His Majesty guided himself when raising people or casting them down was the principle of loyalty. It was with pain in my heart that I read how one of the most perverse, corrupt, repulsive personality, Walde Giorgis,The Minister of Pen, enjoyed enormous power just because of his loyalty. And how Prince Emru, who was perhaps the most outstanding individual among the elite, a man deserving of the highest honors and positions paid the price for violating this principle when he gave some of his lands to the peasants with out informing the Emperor. ‘His benevolent Highness, who had been preparing a supremely honorable office for the Prince, had to exile him from the country for twenty years’. Something more serious happened to TekleHawaryat, an outstanding patriot and a leader of the partisans in the war against Mussolini, who was ill disposed toward the emperor when he refused to accept graciously tendered gifts, refused special privileges, ‘His Charitable Majesty had him imprisoned for many years, and then cut his head of.’ Is this an accurate representation of the emperor or a deliberate diminutisations of one of Ethiopia’s hero? What do other historians say about Haile Silassie? Harold G. Marcus in his book Haile Sellassie I, The Formative Years, 1892-1936 made the introductory remark that HaileSellasie was a political icon to some, a monster to others and to all a legend. Marcus contends that Haile Sellasie always worked behind the scenes, manipulating actors and events to his advantages .His political goals were obvious, even if his tactics were concealed. According to Marcus, he was always involved, though always proclaiming his innocence, his inaction, and his isolation from events. He never admitted his nature as a politician but posed as a tool of fate, ready to do God’s will or the will of the people. Kapusciniski at one place says both these images were correct. Haile Sellasie had a complex personality; to some he was full of charm while among others he provoked hatred. Some adored him, while others cursed him. He ruled a country that knew only The cruelest methods of fighting power (or of keeping it) in which free elections were replaced by poison, discussions by shooting and the gallows. He fell into demagoguery, into ceremony, into speeches about development –all so very empty in this country of oppressive misery and ignorance. He was a most amiable personage, a shrewd politician, a tragic father, a pathological miser. He condemned innocence to death and pardoned guilt. Whims of power, labyrinths of Palace politics, ambiguity, darkness that no one could penetrate. Is this a view point shared by other historians? A certain reviewer said that the Emperor might more appropriately be read as a thinly-veiled message to Kaputhiniski’s fellow Poles about the transitory nature and inherent weaknesses of tyrannical regimes. Note that the title and subtitle of the book--The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat--suggest the universality of the events related, rather than referring specifically to Ethiopia's experience. If that is the case, how did Kaputhiniski choose Haile Sellasie to make an instance of an absolute monarchist? There was a point when Kaputhiniski made a sweeping statement on the national character of Ethiopia, saying the Ethiopians are deeply distrustful and found it hard to believe the sincerity of his intentions when he was trying to interview people on the Haile Sellasies. Well, he was not the first one, in fact his statement one of the commonest theme in the western Ethiopinist discourse that identified Ethiopians as closed, hostile and distrustful and xenophobic. Teshale Tibebu in his book ‘ The making of Modern Ethiopia ‘ (1896-1974) argued that attempting to understand a people by referring to its so-called national character leads to a blind alley. He asks how can one study about Italians the Mafia as the national character of Italians? Is committing crime second nature to Italians? Teshale further argued that in this Orientalist Semitics construction of Ethiopian identity, it was the West that was the defining subject, and Ethiopian the defined object. He also quoted Edward Said who wrote:” The West is the actor, the Orient a passive reactor, the judge and jury, of every facet of Oriental behavior”(Orientalism. New York. 1979) Whether or not the facts in the book are accurate or not, the Emperor provides a griping digest on one of the most controversial figure in this country. king ...

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