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Editor’s Memo

Lion of Judah

AS has been demonstrated painfully often, brute force alone, while it can preserve power and influence, is often impotent when faced with the ingenuity and real commitment of oppress

ed people. Mirroring in many ways the disasters of Vietnam, Romania and Ethiopia, despotism eventually fell through popular resistance.

Insecurity is the fuel that drives rulers to come up with dense political decisions which negate the plight of the suffering multitudes.

This irrationality was the hallmark of the rule of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, who Rastafarians believed was a messiah of whom the Psalmist says a “prince shall come out of Egypt, and Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hand unto God”. Under his adopted titles “Lion of Judah”, “King of Kings” or “Lord of Lords the Saviour”, he is still venerated by many Nazarenes who regarded him as the emancipator and an epitome of black power. But Selassie’s followers should also see in their emancipator the image of a power-drunk leader who made monumental errors of governance and became the embodiment of autocracy which runs in the veins of many African rulers today.

That notwithstanding, he had many positive accomplishments in the horn of Africa where he managed to lobby for and built a modern Africa state with the support of European powers. Founding fathers of African nationalism had no hesitation to lay the foundations of the OAU in Ethiopia.

But the deity did err. During his rule, Selassie advocated land redistribution. Arable land was scarce and what better way to empower his people than give them the means of production. He handed out over five million hectares of land to his people but only 21% of it got to poor peasants who had no land. The rest was distributed amongst nobles, the church, government officials, and army and police officers. Overall, he retained absolute control of land.

For a country prone to droughts, the weather had a lot to do with the fate of a population that was largely agrarian. The effects of a drought that occurred in 1972 were devastating. But this could have been alleviated if government had acted promptly.

It is estimated that over 250 000 people died from the famine, and over 1,6 million were affected by it. When famine strikes a population, it is almost always accompanied by disease and epidemics. Ethiopia fell victim to diseases that commonly plague a malnourished people.

Selassie’s neglect of the famine did not go unnoticed. How could the King of Kings spend millions of dollars entertaining representatives of other countries, and neglect this widespread famine?

Selassie was swept away by public discontent and in 1974 the Dergue led by Mengistu Haile Mariam took over the reigns. The King of Kings left only 2% of Ethiopia accessible by paved road. The rest of the country remained a series of dirt paths and mud villages.

Mengistu on the other hand pursued the Communist ideology of collectivisation and villagisation. Years of unsustainable farming practices were allowed to continue until in 1984-5, with the added effects of war and drought, half-a-million lives were lost in famine.

Mengistu kicked the people while they were on the ground by obstructing international relief efforts. It took a heart-rending Bob Geldof live concert, Live Aid at Wembley Stadium in London, to raise the profile of the famine and marshal international support.

Mengistu’s retrogressive attitude lives on among many African leaders. There are African leaders today who would rather see their people going without food than lose face.

Only last month Niger’s President Mamdou Tandja was thumbing his nose at aid agencies wanting to feed his people despite evidence of widespread hunger caused by the destruction of crops by locusts.

“The people of Niger look well-fed, as you can see,” he told BBC. Even during a famine, there are well-fed ones. Tandja claimed that reports of a food crisis were “false propaganda” that had been used by the UN, aid agencies and opposition parties for political gain.

“It is only by deception that such agencies receive funding,” he said.

Do I sense the same uncanny behaviour among our leaders here?

They have blocked the UN from launching an appeal to help people affected by Operation Murambatsvina. The government does not agree with the UN on the wording of the food appeal document, hence the stupid standoff.

Zimbabwe’s UN Ambassador Boniface Chidyausiku, according to AP reports, said the government believes the humanitarian crisis the UN is trying to address in Zimbabwe “is non-existent”.He said the countries the UN would seek money from “are the countries that are very vocal in trying to bring a regime change to Zimbabwe”, he said. There you have it. Selassie, despite aberrations in his rule, still has followers.

Chidyausiku should at least be enlightened by Selassie’s wise words: “We must become members of a new race overcoming petty prejudice, owing our ultimate allegiance not to nations, but to our fellow men within the human community.”

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