The African Union (AU) recently unveiled a statue bearing the likeness of Haile Selassie I at its headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, during its 32nd Assembly of the Heads of State and Government Summit.
The grandiose ceremony culminated a yearslong endeavor to memorialize Ethiopia’s last monarch for his role in forming the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the precursor to the AU.
In the Western Hemisphere, particularly in parts of the United States, diasporic Ethiopians, Pan-Africanists and adherents of the Rastafari livity celebrated the erection of the statue, describing it a sign that people of African descent globally have come to recognize, now more than ever, Selassie’s significance as a Pan-African leader.
“The Rastafari community has been championing His Majesty in the darkest days,” said Kwasi Osei Bonsu, a prominent member of the D.C. region’s Rastafari community.
Decades after Selassie’s 1975 death, many Rastas continued to herald the man they consider the physical manifestation of Jesus Christ, even as detractors portrayed him as a dictator out of touch with his people’s suffering.
Bonsu, who’s hosted weekly Rastafari study groups in years past, said he learned about the efforts to install Selassie’s statue from members of Selassie Stand Up!, a U.S.-based Pan-African organization that has lobbied for erection of the statue at AU headquarters since 2013. Nebyat Aklilu Demessie, founder and president of Selassie Stand Up! has a deep affinity for the project, as his father served as one of Selassie’s ministers.
Last October, members of Selassie Stand Up! met with African Ambassador to the United States Dr. Arikana Chihombori Quao, who confirmed that construction of the Selassie statue, to join that of Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah, had started.
A post shared on the official Stand Up Selassie! Facebook page last November revealed that Quao had given its members verbal permission to erect statues of Selassie and Nkrumah, another well-regarded founding OAU member, on the grounds of the AU Washington Mission in Northwest.
“The statue now offers some clarity around what [Selassie] did,” Bonsu continued. “It’s important to know that His Majesty was in the trenches with Africa. The University of Haile Selassie provided scholarships for students from all over Africa to study. There was also a lot of effort and outreach to Black people in the west.”
Selassie, born Tafari Makonnen Woldemikael, ruled Ethiopia between 1930 and 1974. The Rastafari movement, which started in Jamaica during the 1930s, grew out of a belief that Selassie’s 1930 coronation fulfilled Biblical prophecy, as expressed by Marcus Mosiah Garvey who recited Psalms 68:31 a decade earlier in his prediction of the rise of a Black king.
In 1963, Selassie joined Nkrumah, Sekou Toure of Guinea and nearly 30 other African leaders in the formation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). This collective of independent African nations, many of which had defeated their European colonizers years prior, united against white minority rule and in the interest of boosting collective sovereignty.
The decision to place OAU headquarters in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa spoke to Ethiopia’s status as a country that’s never been colonized.
Long before the formation of OAU, Selassie too had to stave off European invaders during the Second Italo-Ethiopian war between 1935 and 1937. Ethiopia’s position as an independent nation earned it a seat in the League of Nations, and later the United Nations, where Selassie pleaded his case, often without success, for human rights.
Records suggest that Selassie also conferred with Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association in the early part of the 20th century. The emperor had also been on record advocating for the movement of diasporic Africans to the motherland. He actualized that vision in 1946 through the designation of Shashamane, Ethiopia as a home for repatriates, including Rastas and members of the Ethiopian World Federation.
“When Haile Selassie’s regime was at its height, it garnered respect across the world. I think people are getting back in touch with that,” said Kamau Grimes, a local researcher with intermediate fluency in Amharic, an Ethiopian Semitic language.
Grimes, who has traveled to Ethiopia four times since 2013, recently defended his thesis about Ethiopian and African-American relations before faculty in the Department of African Studies & Research at Howard University in Northwest. For him, the Selassie statue represents a gradual realization of the Pan-African vision that birthed the OAU.
“If you read the 2063 agenda of the African Union, a lot of what they’re talking about is based on Pan-Africanism and integration of the states,” Grimes said. “They’re continuing that legacy. In terms of Ethiopia, a lot of generations have passed to the point where people look at Selassie in a positive light because they saw how detrimental the regime following him was to Ethiopia.”
Decades after Selassie’s death, members of the Derg, the military junta that deposed him and ran Ethiopia from 1974 to 1987, had been implicated in his murder. By the time the Derg had been dissolved, its members pushed Ethiopia into economic decline, increased reliance on foreign aid, and allowed rampant governmental corruption.
In the 1990s, shortly after another transition in power, Selassie’s bones had been found on palace grounds. In 2000, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church gave him an imperial-style funeral, though the post-communist government refused to designate it as so.
Perhaps that’s why some Pan-Africanists, including Yaw Davis, questioned the degree to which the Ethiopian government endorsed the erection of the Selassie statue at AU headquarters.
Davis said he’s waiting with bated breath to see whether officials will eventually replace other Selassie statues that the Derg removed.
“It’s interesting to have a Selassie statue erected, [especially] with the history of his statues being taken down and placed in storage,” said Davis, founder of the Pan-African Technical Association, a nonprofit based in Los Angeles that coordinates STEM projects across the African diaspora.
“The next thing is if the Ethiopian government will do something to recognize Selassie or install the statues,” he said. “I’m not saying they’re not interested, but the government has a lot of priorities.”