Haile Selassie 'a despot and tyrant'

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - The government broke its silence on Tuesday over the controversial reign of Ethiopia's last emperor, denouncing Haile Selassie as a despot and a tyrant who oppressed and exploited the masses.

In a statement in the state-owned Addis Zemen newspaper less than a week before the late emperor's remains were to receive a private religious burial in Addis Ababa, the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said he had presided over a feudal oligarchy that reduced farmers to "tenants and serfs on their own lands."

Haile Selassie, who ruled for 45 years and was Ethiopia's last imperial leader, died in 1975 at the age of 83 while held in solitary confinement in his Grand Palace for about a year by Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Although state media said at the time that he had died of complications from a prostate operation, the emperor's personal physician and servants indicated he could have been the victim of foul play.

Mengistu, who ousted Haile Selassie in 1974, was himself overthrown in May 1991 by a rebel coalition led by Meles.

Since Meles came to power at the head of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, the government has never publicly passed judgment on the emperor's reign.

To his supporters, Haile Selassie's rule was a time of peace and stability, a period when modern education was introduced and Ethiopia, the oldest independent state in Africa, became the headquarters of the Organization of African Unity.

But his detractors say he failed to introduce much needed reforms, and this failure to dismantle the feudal system led to his downfall.

In Tuesday's statement, the government said the feudal class led a life of luxury at the expense of the "toiling masses," and the emperor amassed a huge personal fortune which was deposited in foreign banks.

The statement said the government was taking all the necessary steps to retrieve these assets. Ethiopia remains one of the world's poorest nations, and its 61 million people have an average annual per capita income of less than $200.

The emperor's remains will be reburied Sunday during a memorial service conducted by the Haile Selassie I Foundation and members of his family, including his only surviving child, Princess Tenagne, who has been living in the United States.

The emperor's remains have been kept in a secret vault at Bahta Ethiopian Orthodox church in the capital since they were exhumed in 1991 from a small grave in a garden adjacent to Mengistu's office.

The service at Trinity Cathedral will mark the 70th anniversary of the coronation of the man who had previously gone by the name Ras Tafari Makonnen.

Crowned Haile Selassie I in 1930, he was hailed as the "king of kings, conquering lion of the tribe of Judah and defender of the Orthodox faith." - Sapa-AP

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