We were talking about some of history’s strong men, institutions, systems and necessary safeguards against the tendencies for authoritarianism. We had considered Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, Xerxes of Persia, Alexander the Great of Greece, the seven Caesars of Rome and others. Some of my colleagues insisted that institutions and systems were the ultimate safeguards against the overbearing tendencies of authoritarian leaders but others reminded them that mankind’s major epochs have been determined by individuals, not systems and institutions. They argued that great empires, kingdoms and governments have risen or fallen due to the actions of individuals, not systems or institutions.
When it looked like we were in a cul-de-sac, like some kind of stalemate, my neighbour told us to remember His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie 11 of Ethiopia. Here is how he put it: “Forget Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa, do you know that in the early 1960s, Emperor Selassie was the most powerful leader in Africa? Here is how Prime Minister Balewa began his speech in honour of visiting African heads of state at the Federal Palace Hotel, Lagos, on January 26, 1962, ‘Your Imperial Majesty, Your Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen…’
Who do you think he was addressing as Your Imperial Majesty? Emperor Selassie of course. He was the strongman of Africa. Those who thought they could plunder his goods or storehouse without first binding him learnt a very painful lesson. They staged a coup against him back home in Ethiopia while the man was in Lagos for matters that had to do with the formation of the Organisation of African Unity, OAU. As soon as he heard of the coup, he called his pilot to get his aircraft ready. He cut short his stay in Lagos and flew back to Addis Ababa. It was from the airport in Addis Ababa that he pronounced condemnation on the coupists and sentenced all of them to death, including one of his sons who had been part of the mutineers. The young man was saved by the whiskers because many persons pleaded on his behalf and eventually prevailed on the strongman to rescind the death sentence.