By MARC LACEY
Published: April 11, 2005
New York Times
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia - Mekbeb Abebe Welde is the spitting image of Ethiopia's fallen emperor, Haile Selassie. Mr. Abebe has the same pointy chin, down-turned nose and slight build. When he picks up a cup of macchiato and puts it to his lips, as he did in a local cafe the other day, he does so ever so gracefully, more like a prince than a cabdriver.
But Mr. Abebe, 33, is a cabdriver. He lives a humble life in Ethiopia's crowded capital, scrounging to survive as so many others here do.
Still, Mr. Abebe's friends call him "Prince" and bow down when they see him, deference that stems from more than his resemblance to the emperor. Some here think Mr. Abebe really is a son born out of wedlock to the ruler, who claimed blood ties to the biblical King Solomon.
The monarchy was wiped out in this country in 1975, after the emperor died at age 83, but everyone knows the emperor's official kin. Mr. Abebe, on the other hand, exists in a netherworld, gossiped about, pointed at and subjected at times to angry diatribes about the emperor's misrule but not accepted by the emperor's acknowledged flesh and blood.
Mr. Abebe has petitioned the royal family to recognize him, to no avail. No one seems interested in his offer to undergo a DNA test.
Even if he were welcomed into the family, he would not necessarily win great treasure. The emperor's relatives live well, but most of their vast holdings were long ago seized by the state. He might enjoy prestige among devotees of the emperor, but he would have to suffer scorn from the emperor's many detractors. Mr. Abebe says it is acceptance by blood relations that motivates him, not treasure or acclaim.
Still, it would not be so bad to be able to travel the world, as the emperor's acknowledged relatives do. Mr. Abebe could perhaps go off to some "big name" university to get an education. He might get a big gated home to replace his modest dwelling. As the emperor's son, he could walk into the Sheraton Addis, where the cost of a glass of orange juice exceeds many Ethiopians' daily wage, and afford to quench his thirst.
It is family lore more than anything else that Mr. Abebe offers as evidence of his blood ties. His mother, Almaz Tadesse Goshu, was one of the emperor's many servants. They supposedly had a liaison late in the emperor's tenure, long after his wife had died.
Mr. Abebe says his mother's husband divorced her when he learned the child she was carrying was the emperor's. She died when Mekbeb was 7; he was taken in by a general who had been close to the emperor.
During his one face-to-face encounter with one of the emperor's granddaughters, Mr. Abebe said he disclosed his mother's affair with Selassie. "She said a lot of people show up and say they are sons," he recalled. "She said there was nothing she could do to help me."
One of the few aides to Selassie still around, an elderly butler who works in a palace-turned-museum at Addis Ababa University, seemed stunned when he met Mr. Abebe. With an emotional look, he bowed and shook Mr. Abebe's hand.
But he said only, "The past is the past." Mr. Abebe seemed to take the encounter as an encouraging sign.
The question of blood ties aside, Mr. Abebe has read a great deal about the emperor, who ruled from 1930 until the military ousted him in 1974, and was killed the following year in the basement of one of his palaces and buried like the commonest of men.
Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam took over as head of the new Communist government. He ordered the executions of dozens of members of the royal family and of ministers and generals who served the emperor.
Under Mr. Mengistu's rule, students were taught to despise Selassie. He was a feudal lord, a selfish fool, a tyrant responsible for Ethiopia's woes, they were told.
But Mr. Mengistu's government, too, eventually collapsed. Rebels chased him from the country in 1991 and set up the government that exists today, led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Mr. Zenawi's government is not fond of Selassie either, once labeling him "a tyrant and oppressor of the masses."
It is understandable that Ethiopians are somewhat divided on his legacy. Some dismiss him as a deluded leader who spent national wealth on shrines to himself. Others praise him for the hospitals he built, the palace that he turned into the country's main university and his work at bringing the Organization of African Unity, now the African Union, to Addis Ababa.
"His image has slowly been recovering," said Elizabeth W. Giorgis, acting director of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. "He's not known as just a tyrant anymore. Most of the criticism of him is true, but he had another side to him."
It took until 2000 for the emperor's remains to be transferred from a temporary crypt to Holy Trinity Cathedral, placed beside his wife's in a grand ceremony attended by thousands of wailing Ethiopians. Mr. Abebe was in the crowd that day.
Mr. Abebe said he was also on hand in 2003 when thousands gathered at the same church to lay to rest "Princess" Tenagne Worq, who was described as the last surviving child of the emperor. Mr. Abebe said he knew better.
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