The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat
by Ryszard Kapuściński (Vintage International 1978). Translated from Polish by William R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand.The Emperor
is about the final years of Haile Selassie’s rule of Ethiopia and, as obscure as that may sound, it’s a book that ranks with The Prince
in its shocking descriptions of how power is hoarded and abused.
Written by the late Polish reporter Ryszard Kapuściński, The Emperor
is an oral history, composed principally of interviews with former Palace staff. They painted a portrait of a paranoid, selfish ruler who used the wealth of Ethiopia to buy loyalty from squabbling factions. The fact that the country – which His Most Puissant Majesty insisted on calling an empire – was impoverished and starving was important only to the extent that international outcry or internal dissent might threaten his rule.
By the 1960s, the elderly Selassie, who ascended to the throne in 1916, lived in a strange but regimented dream world that revolved around his patronage and duplicity.
“The Emperor began his day by listening to informers’ reports. The night breeds dangerous conspiracies, and Haile Selassie knew that what happens at night is more important than what happens during the day,” said one source, noting that His Supreme Majesty demanded to hear all intelligence reports orally. “The custom of relating things by word of mouth had this advantage: if need be, the Emperor could say that a given dignitary had told him something quite different from what had really been said, and the latter could not defend himself, having no written proof.”
The King of Kings would then be driven in one of his 27 cars to the Old Palace in Addis Ababa, where his security men would accept a few of the dozens of petitions that were being thrust at the Emperor by people milling near the gate. At nine a.m., His Sublime Majesty commenced the Hour of Assignments, during which courtiers were promoted or relegated according to royal favor. At ten a.m. began the Hour of the Cashbox, during which he doled out money from two lambskin bags, one containing bills and the other small coins. Next was the Hour of the Ministers, at which government officials were summoned by the Emperor to give reports – which determined whether the officials would be happy or crestfallen at the next Hour of Assignments. At one p.m., he lunched.The Emperor
reads like a how-to manual of despotism. The vassals closest to Selassie were called the “personal people”; plucked from obscurity, they owed their positions entirely to the Lion of Judah, and, to protect their new-found comforts, they fought vicious turf battles which checked the power of the aristocracy. Selassie preferred ministers who were incompetent and corrupt, since these qualities also fostered loyalty; one minister lost favor when he used bribe money to build schools.
Like most tyrants, His Benevolent Highness preferred an uneducated, compliant populace. No need to agitate the broth with ideas, one former official explained:
And I’ll go so far, my friend, as to say that we had a loyal press – yes, loyal in an exemplary way. To tell the truth, there wasn’t much of it, because for over thirty million subjects twenty-five thousand copies were printed daily, but His Highness worked on the assumption that even the most loyal press should not be given in abundance, because that might create a habit of reading, and from there it is only a single step to the habit of thinking, and it is well known what inconveniences, vexations, troubles and worries thinking causes.
The reader is left to make up his or her own mind as to whether the various sources quoted by Kapuściński were being sincere or sarcastic. It’s sometimes a difficult call, as when one person explained why, in the early 1970s, Selassie did little to stop the famine that was killing tens of thousands of people in the northern provinces:
A man starved all his life will never rebel. Up north there was no rebellion. No one raised his voice or his hand there. But just let the subject start to eat his fill and then try to take the bowl away, and immediately he rises in rebellion. The usefulness of going hungry is that a hungry man thinks only of bread. He’s all wrapped up in the thought of food. He loses the remains of his vitality in that thought, and he no longer has either the desire or the will to seek pleasure through the temptation of obedience. Just think: Who destroyed the Empire? Who reduced it to ruin? Neither those who had too much, nor those who had nothing, but those who had a bit. Yes, one should always beware of those who have a bit, because they are the worst, they are the greediest, it is they who push upward.
And it was the hunger of moderately fed men that ultimately cost the Emperor his Empire. Over the course of 1974, a rebellion within the lower ranks of the armed services progressed, but with a stealthy gait. Army officers would announce the creation of a new ministry then another and another until most of the machinery of government lay under their control – less a coup than the formation of a counter-government that absorbed the previous regime. Arrests and executions followed.
On September 12, 1974, the army cabal – called the Derg – deposed the Elect of God, imprisoning him within one of his palaces. Selassie died the following year, senile at the end in his belief that he was still the Emperor and that his intrigues and manipulations, powerfully detailed in this book, retained their force and relevance.
It’s troubling to think that an ambitious dictator could read The Emperor
and find a working blueprint for domination and control.
Labels: Africa, Book Review, Non-Fiction