Haile Selassie ("hy-la, seh-lah-see"--Amharic for "power of the Trinity") was the Emperor of Ethiopia 1930-74, a direct descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, a scholar and devout Christian, a gifted general and a gifted politician; he became the "Rastafarian" godhead against his will, and remains as such, in closed circles, today.
Born Tafari Makonnen in Ethiopia 1892, the coptic Christian son of a reknowned general, he married Wayzaro Menen, daughter of Emperor Menelik II, at the age of 19. This marriage strengthened even further what had already been a decidedly amicable rapport with the Emperor, who had made Makonnen a provincial governor at the age of 14; Makonnen had already distinguished himself as both a devout Christian and an outstanding scholar, two characteristics which distinguished him from the previous heir apparent, Menelik's grandson Lij Yasu, a Muslim convert in a historically Christian nation, and a man with a reputation for erratic politics. Makonnen, now recognized as Prince of the Royal Family, or Ras, would spend the next decade travelling, establishing a relationship with the western world for the first time in Ethiopia's history.
His wife, meanwhile, became Empress, her name changing with her accession of the throne to Zauditu. Empress Zauditu's reign was highlighted by the abolishment of slavery and Ethiopia's eventual admission to the League of Nations, the latter at the coaxing of Makonnen, who suspected British and Italian colonial designs(in 1922, Benito Mussolini had come to power). Empress Zauditu died "mysterious(ly)" in 1930, and Makonnen acceded to the thrown, his name becoming Haile Selassie, "power of the Trinity".
In the next few years, Ethiopia lurched forward, as Selassie put to work so much of what he had learned in his European travels. Selassie made possible huge advancements in the system of education, the freedom and availability of newspapers, the availability of electricity, telephone, and public health services, he advanced hospitals and communications, made modernizing advancements in administration, and pushed for important advances in banking, including the founding of the Bank of Ethiopia 1931 and the introduction of Ethiopian currency. All of these changes contributed to the economic advancement of the country; by 1932, for instance, Ethiopia had come to export triple the amount of coffee it had shipped in 1928(though the depression equated this boom to only one-third more in money terms).
In 1935 Italy invaded Ethiopia. The war was unwinnable from the outset: Selassie's recounting of the massive air strikes and myriad poison gases his troops were made to endure painted a horrifying picture. From the outset, Selassie had made a sort of strategy of binding himself to the League of Nations. He challenged the members of the League Covenant to react, he challenged every nation's word of honor, to come to his assistance. His time was spent racing between the front lines, where he worked to strengthen the pitiful resolve of his men, and the League floor, where he desperately, though eloquently, pleaded for help.
And this is where the League of Nations died. It had been founded as the ultimate organization of collective security: one ostensibly capable of subverting national autonomy to the will of the greater, collective morality of the world. The members of the League Covenant were bound only to peace and right; but, here, it became so blatantly obvious that Ethiopia had the moral right, that Ethiopia was the perfect example of why the League had been founded in the first place, that the undoing of Ethiopia served to prove the impracticability of the League. Selassie had understood that the only way his country could avoid a terrible and widespread slaughter was by the intervention of the League members. He called upon them early and often, tying himself and his cause to the principles of the League; the ruin of his country would also become the ruin of the League, exposing the world as naked and vulnerable, without any balance of power or any inkling of collective security. Selassie fled under British protection after 2 years of unsustainable war. It is a testament to his popularity and the justness of his cause that he was Time Magazine's Man of the Year 1936.
Over the course of WWII, Ethiopia became one of countless North-African battlegrounds. In 1941 Selassie was returned to power, to a new Ethiopia. Understanding that his nation would never be militarily powerful enough to ensure its own destiny, he was actually one of the founding members of the United Nations.
In the ensuing years, Selassie established a systemic reliance on the aid of world powers (the list of donors is stunningly varied: West Germany, America, the USSR, Great Britain, China, Taiwan, Sweden, and Yugoslavia). Ethiopia's age-old problems of drought and famine, however, coupled with the cessation of a large part of its aid, gave rise to inflation and corruption, making the nation ripe for insurrection. The 1975 coup had been at least the third such attempt at deposing Selassie, who was accused of "covering up" the nation's widespread famine, and the thousands of deaths it had caused. The visionary junta that replaced him was known as the Derg(or Dergue); they were confident that a socialist system would solve the problem of hunger in Ethiopia.
Selassie was placed under house arrest by the new government. A guard responsible for maintaining this house arrest remembers the day ranking officers relieved him of his duty, seizing Selassie: "His majesty came from his bed and when he saw what was happening tears came to his eyes and he cried out: 'Is it not true, Ethiopia, that I have strived for you?' He fell on his knees and prayed. Later I realised that these were his last words to me."
The rastafarian religion, begun in Jamaica as ex-slaves strove to differentiate their version of Christianity from that of the inherently unjust white man, claims Haile Selassie as God. Selassie, while he lived, seemed to look upon the movement as variously contemptible, confusing, and flattering. Rastafarians claim not to have been turned off by the refusal of Selassie to grant them admission to his palace in Ethiopia, as they believe that the true God must necessarily not be conscious of his own divinity. Though Rastafarianism is rooted in its embrace of tolerance, equality, and justice for all peoples, as well as its conviction that Selassie continues to live and will one day spur a black exodus to Africa, it is perhaps better known for its relationship to "ganja" and dreadlocks.
Further reading, Selassie address of UN, 1936: http://www.boomshaka.com/HIM/war.html