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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 May, 2005, 10:35 GMT 11:35 UK
The last of the Ethiopian emperors
By Daniel Dickinson
BBC News, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Thirty years ago, Haile Selassie, Ethiopia's last emperor died after a rule of 45 years. Daniel Dickinson travels to Addis Ababa to visit the emperor's former palace and meets one of his servants.

A former personal assistant to the late Emperor Haile Selassie, Mamo Haile. Credit: Daniel Dickinson
Mamo Haile began working for the emperor when he was 17
Seventy-eight-year-old Mamo Haile is a man with stories to tell about British royalty, international diplomacy, famine, film stars and a coup d'etat.

He used to be one of Emperor Haile Selassie's personal servants, a man who was once too scared even to look the emperor in the eye, but who was later trusted with serving Queen Elizabeth II orange juice.

You will find him shuffling around the first floor of Ethiopia's Ethnographic Museum, Emperor Salassie's one-time palace.

He keeps dust from settling on his former employer's regal but not so king-size double bed.

'Trusted servant'

He shows tourists into the once off-limits dressing room and royal marbled bathroom, complete with light blue Italian porcelain bath and his-and-hers washbasin.

The fading black and white photographs now lining the halls of the museum reveal a ruler who saw himself at the centre of international politics
These days, the grey-haired Mr Mamo cuts a solitary and serious figure in his threadbare jumper and white porter's coat, but it was not always like that.

His life as one of Haile Selassie's most trusted servants began when he was 17 after the emperor was helped back into Ethiopia by British forces, who had driven away the Italian colonisers.

"I was a poor soldier from the countryside and following the emperor's triumphant return to Addis, he picked me out of a parade to serve him," Mr Mamo told me.

"The emperor told me I was handsome and would work in his palace, but I was very scared of working for him and couldn't even look at him."

Foreign dignitaries

Mr Mamo soon graduated from messenger boy to bed maker, and finally became the man responsible for serving drinks to foreign dignitaries, a position he held for many of the 30 years he spent working at the palace.

And there were plenty of foreign dignitaries.

The fading black and white photographs now lining the halls of the museum reveal a ruler who saw himself at the centre of international politics.

They show him as a man who, during the Cold War, was willing to court both East and West.

Haile Selassie with Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia, with Nikita Khrushchev of the then Soviet Union, with Richard Nixon, the former US president.

There are also pictures of a young Queen Elizabeth II on a visit to Addis Ababa as well as one of the American film star Robert Wagner, of whom the emperor was apparently a big fan.

"My job was to keep these foreign guests happy by serving them whatever drink they wanted," Mr Mamo said.

"I remember Queen Elizabeth, who came with her husband. She wanted orange juice. Marshal Tito wanted hard liquor, whisky I think."

Mr Mamo cannot remember what Nikita Khrushchev ordered, but does say he was a friendly man.


The late Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie
It is difficult to imagine Mr Mamo voicing any criticism of Haile Selassie, perhaps that is not surprising given his length of service
Mr Mamo talks proudly about just how popular Haile Selassie was, not just with the visitors from overseas, but also his own people, many of whom lived in extreme poverty.

That popularity did not last.

In 1973, an estimated 200,000 Ethiopians died in Wollo province as a result of a famine, a famine which was famously brought to the world's attention by the BBC's Jonathan Dimbleby.

According to his faithful servant, Haile Selassie at first knew nothing of the famine.

"The emperor was shocked and deeply saddened. I went with him to Wollo. He had no idea his people were suffering like this," he said.

It is difficult to imagine Mr Mamo voicing any criticism of Haile Selassie, perhaps that is not surprising given his length of service.

It is also difficult to imagine just how he felt when a group of army officers with a Marxist agenda, calling themselves the Derg, overthrew Haile Selassie in a military coup. It was 1974.

"The emperor took it calmly and as his servant I did the same. It was my duty," Mr Mamo said.

"He wanted to avoid bloodshed, so he gave up power for the good of his people and without fighting."


The last emperor of Ethiopia died a few months later from natural causes, according to the Derg who had had him under house arrest ever since he was overthrown.

No-one it seems, including Mr Mamo, knows the real story.

The emperor's loyal servant now wanders the rooms of the palace-cum-museum, surrounded by mementoes of a royal past.

He has worked here for the last 14 years on a meagre salary, remembering better days.

He insists on showing me the life-size tapestry of Haile Selassie as well as his military uniform and collection of medals.

He points proudly to the bed, saying he saved it from being destroyed by the Derg.

As I left the palace, I asked Mr Mamo how Ethiopia would be now if the emperor was back on his throne.

It was the only time he broke into a smile during our meeting.

"I would be more than happy to see him back in his palace," was what he told me.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 12 May, 2005 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Ethiopia
05 May 05 |  Country profiles



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