Published — Friday 30 November 2012
Last update 30 November 2012 1:26 am
In 1963 leaders of the independent African states met in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, and resolved to form the Organization of African Unity that developed later on into the African Union. It was the first time that the former colonies which broke away from European clutches asserted their freedom, something that the rest of the world welcomed hoping that Africa will be a great bloc of nations just like some Asian countries had formed.
I was then editing my father’s Arabic and English newspapers in the British colony of Aden and its surrounding protectorates as they used to be called in the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula. Ethiopia was close by, especially its lovely city called Asmara. Only the Red Sea separated us and Aden was a transit port for the whole region.
As the time was approaching for the historic African summit in 1963, which was to be attended by then Arab leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt, I decided to fly to Addis Ababa in the hope of covering the conference as also to meet Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and get a scoop. I flew by Aden Airways in about three hours, landed in Addis and stayed at the Gunnet Hotel in that beautiful city.
To my surprise Emperor Selassie, the most impressive leader in Africa and descendant of many kings and emperors agreed to see me on the recommendation of his consul general in Aden at that time. The emperor, born in 1892, was heir to a dynasty that traced its origins back to the 13th century and from there by tradition according to his biography, which covered 90,000 words, back to Queen Makeda and Queen Bilqis (Sheba) of Yemen.
The responsibility on me was enormous because of the man's gigantic stature despite his diminutive personality and the poor country he was ruling. But he was famous by all means since he ruled a vast domain and had, with British Army support ejected the Italian invaders from his country and regained his independence in 1941, achieving a supreme act of courage and tenacity against Italy then considered a world power. The world was astonished as colonies like India under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi were still struggling to throw off the yoke of colonialism.
Besides Ethiopia proper, the Italians had captured and occupied a vast territory called Eritrea with its access to the Red Sea facing the British colony of Aden. So the emperor liberated it and called it his own for many years until a coup toppled him leading to a protracted war between the two ending with the independence of Eritrea, now a member of the United Nations.
Before entering the royal court I was advised not to raise the question of Eritrea during the interview since the emperor resented the issue as he considered Eritrea an integral part of his empire. That's all.
I had to agree or lose the chance to meet an emperor at my tender age. That is why the meeting went on smoothly and he was very kind and friendly as he smiled and tenderly asked me about my family since my wife accompanied me at the time. The one thing that I regretted was that I hoped the courtiers would be taking pictures of the meeting but they did not and I had been cautioned against carrying my own camera. So there are no pictures of the historic meeting I had with the only emperor in Africa at the time.
A new self-styled emperor appeared in Central Africa many years later when Bokasa declared himself emperor because he was fascinated by Napoleon and wanted to become like him.
Addis Ababa was at the time of my visit one of the most attractive cities in Africa good enough to host the African summit, conference. It had a five-star Hilton and good city roads leading to the fabulous countryside which reminded me to some extent of the English countryside despite its abject poverty. The city was peaceful and cheap to live in. Of course behind the main roads it was another story. The Italians hoping to stay there for many years or decades had paved many roads, built schools, clinics, hotels and clubs inside and outside the capital. When the communists took over and deposed the emperor they wrought havoc, killed thousands and devastated the country. He himself was imprisoned and buried under a latrine. Most probably he was killed while in custody.
Farouk Luqman is an eminent journalist based in Jeddah.