Ethiopia:Haile Selassie: The Prewar Period, 1930-36

Posted: February 18, 2008 in History
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Haile Selassie: The Prewar Period, 1930-36

Although Empress Zawditu died in April 1930, it was not until November that Negus Tafari was crowned Haile Selassie I, “Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, and King of Kings of Ethiopia.” As emperor, Haile Selassie continued to push reforms aimed at modernizing the country and breaking the nobility’s authority. Henceforth, the great rases were forced either to obey the emperor or to engage in treasonable opposition to him.

In July 1931, the emperor granted a constitution that asserted his own status, reserved imperial succession to the line of Haile Selassie, and declared that “the person of the Emperor is sacred, his dignity inviolable, and his power indisputable.” All power over central and local government, the legislature, the judiciary, and the military remained with the emperor. The constitution was essentially an effort to provide a legal basis for replacing the traditional provincial rulers with appointees loyal to the emperor.

The new strength of the imperial government was demonstrated in 1932 when a revolt led by Ras Hailu Balaw of Gojam in support of Lij Iyasu was quickly suppressed and a new nontraditional governor put in Hailu’s place. By 1934 reliable provincial rulers had been established throughout the traditional Amhara territories of Shewa, Gojam, and Begemdir, as well as in Kefa and Sidamo–well outside the core Amhara area. The only traditional leader capable of overtly challenging central rule at this point was the ras of Tigray. Other peoples, although in no position to confront the emperor, remained almost entirely outside the control of the imperial government.

Although Haile Selassie placed administrators of his own choosing wherever he could and thus sought to limit the power of the rases and other nobles with regional power bases, he did not directly attack the systems of land tenure that were linked to the traditional political order. Abolition of the pattern of gult rights in the Amhara-Tigray highlands and the system of land allocation in the south would have amounted to a social and economic revolution that Haile Selassie was not prepared to undertake.

The emperor took nonmilitary measures to promote loyalty to the throne and to the state. He established new elementary and secondary schools in Addis Ababa, and some 150 university-age students studied abroad. The government enacted a penal code in 1930, imported printing presses to provide nationally oriented newspapers, increased the availability of electricity and telephone services, and promoted public health. The Bank of Ethiopia, founded in 1931, commenced issuing Ethiopian currency.

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