How did Haile Salassie I die?

Haile Selassie I, born Tafari Makonnen Woldemikael, was the last Emperor of Ethiopia, reigning from 1930 until his deposition in 1974. His death on August 27, 1975, remains a subject of controversy and speculation, but official records state that he died of “respiratory failure” following complications from a prostate operation. However, numerous theories and allegations suggest that he might have been assassinated.

Haile Selassie I, originally born Tafari Makonnen, was the Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974. He is a central figure in modern Ethiopian history and a significant figure in the Rastafari movement. Image: Haile Selassie I during his coronation in November 1930. 

Haile Selassie was a central figure in Ethiopian history, known for his modernization efforts and his role as a symbol of African independence. He became an iconic figure in the Rastafarian movement, which revered him as a messianic figure.

His reign saw significant developments but also tumultuous periods, including the Italian invasion in 1935, during which Ethiopia was temporarily occupied until 1941, and various internal rebellions and conflicts.

Menen Asfaw – Wife of Haile Selassie

In 1974, Haile Selassie’s government was faced with a severe economic crisis exacerbated by famine, high unemployment, and widespread dissatisfaction among various sectors of society, including the military and students. These conditions led to a series of protests and unrest known as the Ethiopian Revolution. In September 1974, the Derg, a committee of low-ranking military officers and enlisted men, deposed Haile Selassie. The emperor was placed under house arrest in his own palace, where he spent his last months.

The circumstances of Haile Selassie’s death have been widely debated. Officially, it was reported that he died of natural causes. The Ethiopian government, controlled by the Derg at the time, stated that the cause of death was respiratory failure. However, rumors and suspicions of foul play persisted. Various reports and witnesses have suggested that the emperor might have been suffocated with a wet pillow or otherwise actively killed on orders from the ruling military junta.

The aftermath of his death did not put these rumors to rest. His body was not given a state funeral and was initially buried in an unmarked grave beneath the palace toilet. This act was widely seen as an attempt by the Derg to erase his legacy and discourage any loyalty or reverence that remained among the populace toward the imperial regime.

It wasn’t until after the fall of the Derg regime in 1991 that Haile Selassie’s remains were exhumed and reburied in 2000 at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa, where many members of the Ethiopian imperial family are interred. This event was accompanied by a funeral that was both a religious ceremony and a major public event, attended by thousands of people, reflecting the complex and enduring legacy of Haile Selassie’s rule.

The true cause of Haile Selassie’s death might never be fully known. The lack of a transparent and credible investigation at the time, coupled with the political turmoil and the nature of the military government, has left many questions unanswered. Over the years, the debate over his death has become part of the larger discourse on his reign, symbolizing the tragic end of the monarchy in Ethiopia and the tumultuous period that followed.

On August 27, 1975, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia was killed, a fact concealed for two decades. Initially reported by state media as having died from “respiratory failure” due to complications from a prostate operation, these claims were contested by Dr. Asrat Woldeyes who maintained that the operation occurred months prior and that the Emperor was in good health afterward.

Controversy surrounding the funeral of Haile Selassie

On November 5, 2000, a funeral was held for Haile Selassie at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa. Although significant figures, including Rita Marley, attended, the Ethiopian government declined to honor the event as an official imperial funeral, possibly to discourage political sentiment towards the monarchy.

Additionally, many within the Rastafari community, who revered Haile Selassie as a divine figure, boycotted the funeral, disputing the identification of the remains and maintaining skepticism about the circumstances and reality of his death. The Rastafari continue to debate whether Haile Selassie truly died in 1975, reflecting the enduring mystery and significance of his legacy.

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Frequently asked questions about Emperor Haile Selassie I

What was Haile Selassie’s role before becoming emperor?

Before becoming emperor, Haile Selassie served as the Regent Plenipotentiary of Ethiopia (Enderase) for Empress Zewditu from 1916 until he became Emperor in 1930.

What does the name “Lij Tafari Makonnen” signify?

“Lij” translates as “child” and indicates noble blood, “Tafari” means “one who is respected or feared,” and “Makonnen” is his father’s name. This naming convention reflects Ethiopian cultural practices where personal names are followed by paternal and then grandpaternal names.

What title was Haile Selassie given at the age of 13, and what does it mean?

At the age of 13, Tafari was appointed as the Dejazmatch of Gara Mulatta. The title “Dejazmatch” translates to “keeper of the door” and is a noble title equivalent to a count.

When was Tafari Makonnen proclaimed Crown Prince and what titles were conferred upon him at that time?

On 27 September 1916, Tafari Makonnen was proclaimed Crown Prince, heir apparent to the throne, and appointed Regent Plenipotentiary. He was crowned Le’ul-Ras on 11 February 1917, a title meaning “Your Highness” and equivalent to a royal duke.

Who were Haile Selassie’s spouses?

Haile Selassie was married to Menen Asfaw, who became Empress of Ethiopia upon his ascension to the throne. They were married in 1911. Prior to his marriage to Menen Asfaw, Haile Selassie (then known as Tafari Makonnen) was briefly married to Woizero Altayech, with whom he had a daughter. Menen Asfaw herself had been married twice before marrying Haile Selassie.

On August 3, 1911, 19-year-old Tafari Makonnen married 22-year-old Menen Asfaw, niece of the heir to the Ethiopian throne. Both had previous marriages; Tafari had one child. Their union, lasting 50 years, was possibly a strategic alliance among nobility, but was also described as mutually consensual. Haile Selassie praised Menen as a woman of profound goodwill. Image: A 1955 picture of Haile Selassie and his spouse in 1955. 

How did Haile Selassie contribute to Ethiopia’s modernization?

Haile Selassie attempted to modernize Ethiopia through various reforms, including introducing the country’s first written constitution in 1931 and abolishing slavery.

What was Haile Selassie’s involvement in the Italo-Ethiopian War?

Haile Selassie led the failed efforts to defend Ethiopia during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War and spent much of the Italian occupation exiled in the United Kingdom, before returning in 1941 after the East African campaign.

What significant political change did Haile Selassie make regarding Eritrea?

In the early 1960s, Haile Selassie dissolved the Federation of Ethiopia and Eritrea, which had been established by the United Nations, and annexed Eritrea into Ethiopia as one of its provinces.

How did Haile Selassie influence international organizations?

Haile Selassie’s internationalist views were instrumental in Ethiopia becoming a charter member of the United Nations. He also helped form the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1963 and served as its first chairman.

What led to the end of Haile Selassie’s reign?

Haile Selassie was overthrown in a military coup in 1974 by a Marxist-Leninist junta known as the Derg.

Officially, Haile Selassie died of respiratory failure in 1975, but it was revealed in 1994 that he was assassinated by military officers from the Derg. Image: Haile Selassie I with Queen Elizabeth II.

Why is Haile Selassie revered by the Rastafari movement?

Haile Selassie is considered by some members of the Rastafari movement as the returned messiah of the Bible, God incarnate, although he himself was a devout Christian and adhered to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

What criticisms have been leveled against Haile Selassie’s rule?

Critics have pointed out Haile Selassie’s suppression of rebellions by the landed aristocracy, his administration’s failure to modernize Ethiopia rapidly enough, and various human rights abuses during his reign.

How has Haile Selassie’s legacy been treated posthumously?

Following the death of singer Hachalu Hundessa in 2020, statues and busts of Haile Selassie and his father were destroyed or removed by Oromo protesters in London and Harar, reflecting ongoing controversies and complex feelings about his legacy.

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Within the Rastafari movement, Haile Selassie is referred to by many names, including Janhoy, Talaqu Meri, Abba Tekel, as well as Jah, Jah Jah, Jah Rastafari, and HIM, an abbreviation for “His Imperial Majesty.”

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