African military history is more than just the study of “tribal warfare,” imperial conquest, military coups, and child soldiers. Moving beyond conventional questions of strategy, tactics, battles, and technology, historians of precolonial Africa are interested in the role of armies in state formation, the military activities of stateless societies, and armed encounters between Africans and foreign visitors and invaders. Scholars working in the 19th and 20th centuries are similarly focused on the role and influence of African soldiers, military women, and veterans in society. In this sense, African military history is part of a larger effort to recover the lived experiences of ordinary people who were largely missing from colonial archives and documentary records. Similarly, Africanist historians focusing on the national era are engaging older journalistic and social science explanations for military coups, failed states, and wardlordism. The resulting body of literature productively offers new ways to study military institutions and collective violence in Africa.
Emperor Haile Selassie I is a household name in Africa and across the globe. His name evokes a variety of feelings in people. To the radical elite of the 1970s he was seen as despot; for the older generation of the same period, he was a redeemer who restored the nation’s independence. For people of African descent Haile Selassie echoes an iconic significance of pride and black identity. The Emperor was a complex personality, preventing anyone from viewing him from a singular optic. No single conceptual category can encapsulate Haile Selassie; not facile Western constructs such as absolutist, reformer, or modernizer or autocrat. All constructs touch aspects of his many-ness, and none wholly reflect the complexity and multiplicity of his character and actions. His life and political career were shaped by various domestic and external circumstances. Changing local and global dynamics molded his thoughts, actions, persona, and policies. The Emperor presided for the most part of his reign over a nation whose state structure was, by and large, weak: hence the sense of incumbency he felt to guide the process of the nation’s progress under the care of a father figure. Managing the unity of a multiethnic and multireligious nation with a complex history was a political experiment entailing huge responsibilities and challenges. His story is not easy to tell since it is shrouded in paradoxes and ironies. In understanding the Emperor and his leadership style, it is vital to put him in the context of the many-layered history of the nation and the changing political dynamics of Africa. Haile Selassie led a nation rapidly encountering social and political changes in the 20th century while at the same time championing pan-Africanism. Thus, there is a great need to present a full picture and a nuanced contribution to understanding this influential Emperor.