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Ethiopia and Pan-Africanism: Dynamics and Implications

UC Washington Berkeley Center, 1608 Rhode Island Avenue NW, Washington DC 20036

Good evening ladies and gentlemen. It is a privilege to be here this evening with you students and guests, in The UC Washington Berkeley Center, and I want to thank Dr. Demessie in particular for her kind invitation and efforts on both your and my behalf in organizing this event. It is indeed heartwarming to see so many friendly and intelligent individuals with an apparent interest and curiosity concerning Ethiopia, Africa and the serious subject of geopolitics.

My preference in speaking on African matters to such obviously motivated and well informed scholars, is to lightly (and briefly) present a few relevant thoughts and concepts to stimulate and encourage your questions in the Q&A period following my talk — which is my favorite part of the evening as it allows me to interact more directly and personally with you.

In brief, I will present some very general thoughts and history of Ethiopia, Ethiopia’s Solomonic Dynasty, Pan-Africanism, its evolution, its impact to date and future possibilities. But first, as promised to Dr. Demessie, a fellow Ethiopian, I will begin with a general overview of the nation of Ethiopia, its unique history and some of the consequences of that unique history.


With a current population of around 85 millions, Ethiopia is the 14th largest country (population-wise) in the world and second largest on the African continent.

The headwaters of the Blue Nile begin in Ethiopia’s Lake Tana, and Our country provides fully 85% of the Nile river’s total water supply.

Within the global scientific communities, many consider Ethiopia to be the oldest human inhabited area on the planet. Genetic analyses, migration studies and recent artifactual discoveries lend increasing weight to this thesis. For example, Lucy, the world’s second oldest, 3.2 millions year old, best-preserved and complete Australopithecine fossil was discovered in and named for the Awash Valley of Ethiopia’s Afar region. Indeed, Lucy’s species name Australopithecus afarensis means southern ape of Afar.

As a continuously existing nation-state, Ethiopia traces an unbroken history back more than 3,000 years to the biblical Age of Kings. Indeed, the Solomonic Dynasty, my family, is so named because it traces its lineage back more than 900 years before Christ to the union of King Solomon of Israel – one of Judaism’s three venerable Messiahs – and Queen Makeda of Sabae, known to the western world and various others as The Queen of Sheba. With a history stretching back nearly three-millennia, Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Africa and the world’s longest lived continuous autonomous nation.

With the exception of a short-lived five-year occupation by the Italian fascists during World War II (1936-1941), Ethiopia stands alone among all the nations of Africa in successfully defending against all attempts at external domination or rule.

In recognition of Ethiopia’s historically unique defense against colonization, subjugation and oppression, the three traditional symbolic colors of the Ethiopian monarchy reflected in our nation’s flag – green (top) yellow (middle) red (bottom) – have become powerful iconic symbols for African liberation and independence. In fact, Ethiopia’s colors – in recognition of its ancient and venerable history – have been so often adopted in the flags and symbology of emergent and newly independent African States, and among adherents of the Rastafari faith, they are now generically and universally referred to as the ‘Pan-African’ colors. These iconic symbols of contemporary Pan-African solidarity, freedom and self-rule constitute an enduring tribute to the unique history and influence of Ethiopia on the African continent and the world.

While the European aristocracy most commonly rely on the 185 years old Burke’s peerage publication to establish their ancestral provenance, Ethiopians can refer to the Old Testament for the peerage of Ethiopia’s Solomonic line. There are, for example, a number of references in the Old Testament to Ethiopia, including the story of King Solomon and Queen Makeda (more commonly know as the Queen of Sheba) in the First Book of Kings. (1 Kings 10:1-13 [Revised Standard Version] (see also 2 Chronicles 9:1-12)

A full accounting of the union of Queen Makeda and Solomon, and the life of their son, Menelik, is given in the Kebra Negast, the most revered account of Ethiopia’s Solomonic dynasty, which in written form dates back to at least the 14th century. In fact, Ethiopian tradition traces the origins of the dynasty to a king called Ori, who lived about 4470 BC. While the reality of such a vastly remote provenance must be considered in semi-mythic terms, it remains certain that Ethiopia, also known as the Kingdom of Kush, was already ancient by the time of David and Solomon’s rule in Jerusalem.

The Kebra Negast (literally, “The Glory of the Kings”) also relates the story of how the Ark of the Covenant came to be in Ethiopia, where many believe that it still resides in the church of St. Mary of Zion in Axum. The symbolism of the Ark is particularly potent in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Every church in Ethiopia must contain a replica of the Ark of the Covenant before it can be consecrated. One of the most important festivals on the calendar of the Ethiopian Church is that of Timkat, during which the Ark (or a replica) is wrapped in a shroud and carried in a great procession.

King Solomon’s mines, Ethiopia’s legendary gold mines of “Ophir” were thought to be the source of the vast quantities of gold used by King Solomon to build his great temple. The quest for King Solomon’s mines has been the inspiration for many romantic novels set in Africa. The existence and location of the lost mines have been widely disputed, but tradition and legend suggest they were located in Nejo, Ethiopia – just south of the course of the Blue Nile.

Ethiopia was already an ancient and politically sophisticated kingdom during the biblical times portrayed in the New Testament. In fact, the Ethiopian “eunuch” (believed by some to be a corruption of a proper name) in the 8th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, is the first Ethiopian to be baptized (by the apostle Phillip). We learn that he is the keeper of “all of the treasure” of the Queen of Ethiopia, who is identified as Candace (or, more correctly, kandake, which is actually a regal title and not her name). Thus, the “eunuch” is properly identified as the Queen’s bajirond, or treasurer, a position of supreme confidence in the royal household. It is likely that the Queen was told of this strange religious encounter upon her Bajirond’s return, and thus the news of the Gospel reached Ethiopia at least a century before the official adoption of Christianity as the religion of the Ethiopian Crown in the 4th century.

Speeding forward to the 19th century, Menelik II, in effect, brought Ethiopia forward some 600 years in its mode of government, from a highly feudalized system of territorial rulers and tribal alliances to a formally centralized monarchy, closely resembling those of 18th-century Europe. Menelik was also the architect of the victory at Adwa (March 1, 1896) against the Italians, then the colonial rulers of Eritrea and Italian Somaliland and would-be colonial masters of Ethiopia. His kinsman and eventual successor, HIM Haile Selassie I, would later endure and save Ethiopia from Italian occupation under Mussolini, and bring the nation forward into the 20th century.


My grandfather, the Emperor Haile Selassie I, King of Kings and Conquering Lion of Judah, was born July 23, 1892, and given the name Tafari and the courtesy title of Lij which was reserved for sons of nobility. Tafari was the son of Ras (Prince) Makonnen, the governor of Harar and an Amhara noble, and Yashimabet, who was of Oromo ancestry. Lij Tafari Makonnen was given a thorough education in Shoan Amharic traditions, but, unusual for that period, he was also educated in western thought, history, and languages with a particular emphasis on the French language. He succeeded to a number of titles and positions of authority, including that of Dejazmatch, roughly the western equivalent of Count (1904), Governor of Selale (1905), Governor of Sidamo province(1908), and in 1916, as a result of the apparent conversion to Islam of Emperor Menelik’s designated heir, Lij lyasu, he was acclaimed Supreme Regent and Heir Apparent under Empress Zauditu, and became de facto ruler of Ethiopia, although he would not be crowned as King of Kings until 1930, even though he was earlier crowned Negus (King) of Shoa by Empress Zauditu on September 7, 1928. Upon his accession to the Solomonic Throne, the Emperor adopted the throne name Haile Selassie which in our ancient Ethio-Coptic derived liturgical language of Ge’ez means “Power of the Trinity”.

It was during this period of his regency and his first years as Emperor, that Haile Selassie began the dual processes of modernizing Ethiopia and opening it to the outside world. The obstacles to this were substantial, and included a strong isolationist sentiment among many of the Amhara nobility, who stressed the importance of cultural purity above all else. However, the young Emperor realized that if Ethiopia were to emerge as a full member of the global community and modern world, it must establish contacts and dialogue with other nations. For this reason, he pressed for the membership of Ethiopia in the League of Nations, which was granted in September 1923.

As Emperor, Haile Selassie sought to establish a network of civil servants to implement his course of modernization. Due to the poor state of education in the country and a resultant scarcity of Ethiopians with university degrees or high school diplomas, the Emperor brought in a number of foreign experts as advisors and administrators. These were most often selected from countries, which were unlikely to have colonial ambitions in the region, including Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States. Perhaps the most important figure among these foreign advisors was the American Everett Colson, a financial expert in the employ of the U.S. Treasury Department, who answered the Emperor’s request for a financial expert. It was under his guidance that the Bank of Ethiopia was founded in 1931. John Melly, a British medical missionary, made the first rudimentary attempt at establishing a public health system upon his arrival in 1934.

The first four years of Haile Selassie’s reign saw many groundbreaking achievements, including the establishment of the state bank and the improvement of public health and education. Had the progress been allowed to continue uninterrupted, Ethiopia would today be one of the most developed and progressive countries in Africa. Unfortunately, the Fascist dictator Mussolini had already fixed upon Ethiopia as the vehicle by which he to further Italy’s colonial ambitions; and the League of Nations would prove both apathetic and impotent in the face of Italian aggression.

Italy, seeking to avenge the humiliating defeat at the hands of Menelik II at Adwa in 1896, invaded Ethiopia in September 1935, but the “conquest” was more difficult to achieve than anticipated. Meanwhile, delegates at the League of Nations in Geneva debated and argued, with no firm resolutions or action. While they argued, the Ethiopian armies, under the command of Emperor Haile Selassie and the great princes, fought bravely, in spite of overwhelming technological disadvantage. It was not until May 1936 that Addis Ababa was finally taken by the Italians. Although he resisted, the Emperor’s advisors convinced HIM and his family to leave the country. Eventually, the Imperial family reached London on June 3, 1936 with the much appreciated but arguably reluctant aid of the British Royal Navy. The British, still then dedicated to a policy of conciliation with Germany and the Fascists, quietly granted residency to the Imperial Family in Bath, England, hoping to finally bury the “Ethiopian Question.”

Despite their technology-based military superiority, the Italians never fully controlled all of Ethiopia’s territory. In fact, apart from garrisons in major cities and towns, resistance in much of the countryside continued throughout the period of occupation. Guerilla forces remained firmly in place, particularly in the western Oromo lands, and these forces eventually proved crucial to the return of the Emperor, via Khartoum, in 1941.

Following the Italian aggression of 1935-36, the continuing Fascist holocaust in Ethiopia was soon eclipsed by the expansion of German and Italian militarism and territorial annexations in Europe. In the subsequent Rhineland Crisis of 1936, and the subsequent strengthening of Italo-German relations, Ethiopia’s tragic and unwarranted plight became an issue of minor importance on the world stage. However, on June 30, 1936, much to the chagrin of the British, French, and Italians, who had hoped to see the Ethiopian issue recede into obscurity, Emperor Haile Selassie I addressed the League of Nations in Geneva. His quiet and heartfelt admonition, and prophetic warning, was a turning point in world history. In a tangible way, it marked the beginning of the end of European colonialism, illustrated the futility of appeasement, and began the process of drawing America out of the isolationism, which had been the foundation of American foreign policy since the end of World War I.

The specific issue upon which the Emperor commented was that of the impending removal of oil sanctions against Italy. Of course, the issues were far broader, and held implications for all of the European countries then controlling African colonies. As the Emperor, who appeared small and frail, dressed in a white tunic and black cape, prepared to speak, there was a sudden outburst from the galleries. Members of the Italian press began screaming “Murderer!” at the Emperor, along with “Long live the Duce!” The Emperor stood silently for ten minutes while the riotous demonstration continued. Finally, his frayed temper producing words of great significance, the chairman, Romanian delegate Nicolae Titulescu, shouted, “Throw out the savages.”

By contrast, the Emperor began to speak quietly and with great dignity,

 “I, Haile Selassie I, emperor of Ethiopia, am here to claim that justice which is due my people.”

There was, to many observers, a clear contrast between the Italian aggressor and the Ethiopian victim, between good and evil. In this pivotal speech, the Emperor recalled the feckless guarantees of the League to defend its members against the aggression of another nation. He recounted the Italian hostilities and the barbaric and inhumane treatment of the Ethiopian people at the hands of the Italian military regime. He then continued:

I assert that the problem submitted to the Assembly today is a much wider one than the removal of sanctions. It is not merely a settlement of Italian aggression…It is the very existence of the League of Nations. It is the confidence that each State is to place in international treaties; it is the value of promises made to small States that their integrity and independence be respected and ensured. It is the principle of the equality of states on the one hand, or, on the other, the inevitability that they will be forced to accept the bonds of vassalship. In a word, it is international morality that is at stake. Apart from the Kingdom of the Lord there is not on this earth any nation, which is superior to any other… It is us today. It will be you tomorrow.”

As soon as the British authorities would permit, HIM Haile Selassie returned to Ethiopia. Unfortunately, this initiative was delayed until Winston Churchill replaced Chamberlain as Prime Minister in May of 1940. Shortly thereafter, the Emperor, then residing in the city of Bath, was informed that he was to leave Britain at once for Khartoum to take command of Ethiopian forces assembling there. He arrived in Egypt on June 12, 1940. Imperial headquarters were established in Sudan, where a series of frustrations and delays were resolved by the arrival of Major Orde Wingate, who, personally committed to the restoration of the Emperor, demanded and received substantial resources from the British government.

The process of Ethiopia’s liberation began in November 1940, with Imperial Ethiopian forces capturing the Sudanese border town of Gallabat. On January 20, 1941, the Emperor re-entered his country, in the company of Maj. Wingate, who commanded a mixed force of Ethiopians and Sudanese, and accompanied by a supply train of camels. At a dry riverbed marking the Sudan-Ethiopia border, HIM Haile Selassie himself symbolically raised the Ethiopian imperial flag.

To the east of the point of entry, the territory was held by Ethiopian Patriots, and the way was clear to make the arduous climb into the highlands of Gojam, where the party reached Debra Marcos, the provincial capital, on April 6, 1941. Here, the Emperor accepted the surrender of the Italian-appointed governor, Ras Hailu. On that same day, Addis Ababa was liberated by African troops advancing from Kenya who had encountered no Italian resistance. One month later, the Emperor himself rode into Addis Ababa.

As a final footnote to this necessarily brief and whirlwind overview of Ethiopian history, Time Magazine on February 4, 2011, recognized the Emperor Haile-Selassie I as one of the Top 25 political icons of all time, and I will share with you Time’s brief accompanying comment:

King of Kings, Conquering Lion of Judah, Elect of God. All were used to describe Haile Selassie, who ruled as Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974 and is venerated still as the Divine incarnate by adherents of the Rastafari faith. That he was ultimately deposed by a military discontented with his regime should not eclipse his contribution to African solidarity. Selassie gave Ethiopia its first constitution and convened the earliest meeting of the Organization of African Unity.

But he is perhaps most widely remembered for the speech he gave before the League of Nations in 1933 as the legions of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini stormed his ill-equipped nation. The League did little to prevent Ethiopia’s defeat, but Selassie’s appeal, uttered movingly in his native Amharic, would serve as a pillar in the struggles against colonialism and Fascism. With a firm internationalist bent, the last Ethiopian monarch eventually saw his country become a charter member of the United Nations. A TIME “Man of the Year” who claimed descendance from the biblical King Solomon, he ushered the continent he had unified into a distinctly African modernity.

From this Ethio-Centric historic perspective, perhaps you might now begin to see how the weave of this vast political fabric might unfold, as we move on to the subject of contemporary Pan-Africanism and the Pan-African movement.

Pan-Africanism is a political response, a reaction that has evolved into a comprehensive and iconic catch-all coalition for a multitude of Africa and African-related political agendas and movements. Proponents of Pan-Africanism have in general historically shared the common primary goals of political and cultural solidarity, fair and even-handed treatment for Africans globally and the elimination of colonialism and white supremacy from the African continent. Yet on the specific issues of leadership, political orientation, and national as opposed to regional interests, and the precise scope and meaning of Pan-Africanism, there remains much robust and hotly-contested debate – academic and otherwise.

The historic elements driving the initial rapid global development of contemporary Pan-Africanism were the ‘great nations’ historic exploitation of Africans in the slave trade, rampant colonization of the African continent in the late 19th century, and a consequent global political awakening and activism among expatriate Africans (for the most part slaves or descendants of slaves), led primarily by black American intellectuals and activists.

The First Pan-African Congress, convened in London in 1900. It was followed by others in Paris (1919), London and Brussels (1921), London and Lisbon (1923), and New York City (1927). These congresses were organized chiefly by W. E. B. Du Bois, a noted black American editor, historian, sociologist, political activist, intellectual, academic and author, and attended mostly by the North American and West Indian black intelligentsia. These congresses did not initially propose immediate African independence; instead, they favored a gradual political evolution to self-government and interracialism.

By 1944, various African organizations in London had joined to form the Pan-African Federation, which for the first time demanded African autonomy and independence. The Federation convened (1945) in Manchester the Sixth Pan-African Congress, which included such future political figures as Jomo Kenyatta from Kenya, Kwame Nkrumah from the Gold Coast, S. L. Akintola from Nigeria, Wallace Johnson from Sierra Leone, and Ralph Armattoe from Togo. While at the Manchester congress, Nkrumah founded the West African National Secretariat to promote a so-called United States of Africa.

Pan-Africanism as an intergovernmental movement was launched in 1958 with the First Conference of Independent African States in Accra, Ghana. Ghana and Liberia were the only sub-Saharan countries represented; the remainders were Arab and Muslim.

Thereafter, as independence was achieved by more African states, other interpretations of Pan-Africanism emerged, including: the Union of African States (1960), the African States of the Casablanca Charter (1961), the African and Malagasy Union (1961), the Organization of Inter-African and Malagasy States (1962), and the African-Malagasy-Mauritius Common Organization (1964).

At the present time, every African nation, all 57, are members of the United Nations, a stunning tribute to the engagement and political activism spawned on the African continent as a consequence of the Pan-African movement.

In what has come to be recognized as perhaps the most significant seminal expression of Pan-Africanism solidarity, my grandfather, Emperor Hail-Selassie, mediated the establishment of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963 in Addis Ababa, the Imperial city of Ethiopia. The original founding group consisted of 37 independent African nations who agreed to promote unity and development; defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of members; eradicate all forms of colonialism; promote international cooperation; and coordinate members’ economic, diplomatic, educational, health, welfare, scientific, and defense policies. The OAU mediated several seemingly intractable border and internal disputes and was instrumental in bringing about majority rule and the end of apartheid in South Africa; which following Emperor Haile-Selassie’s death on August 27, 1975, eventually became in 1994, the 53d nation to be admitted to the organization.

Subsequent efforts to promote even greater African economic, social, and political integration led to the establishment in 2001 of the African Union (AU), a successor organization to the OAU modeled on the European Union. Following a transitional period, the AU finally fully superseded the OAU in 2002.

As an aside, I can tell you that at the invitation of Emperor Haile-Selassie, Nelson Mandela, then a fugitive from South Africa’s white government that was seeking to prosecute him for his political activities, was provided extensive military and political training by the Ethiopian army. In 1962, upon the successful completion of Mr. Mandela’s professional preparations, the colonel in charge of his political and military training, at my grandfather’s instruction, presented him with the first weapon of the war against South African apartheid to symbolise his coming struggle – a semi-automatic Makarov pistol.

In any discussion of Pan-Africanism, it would be unthinkable to neglect the charismatic prophet and Jamaican-born black leader Marcus Garvey, who in the 1920s urged all blacks to see themselves in a common struggle, and promoted the concept of one African people. Garvey wanted blacks to view everything through a shared vision and to worship God “through the spectacles of Ethiopia.”

Garvey’s Rastafari religious precepts evolved from a particular experience — slavery and its aftermath in Jamaica — and a precise view of how that suffering might be overcome. In Garvey’s view, worldly hardship was endured through a hope and promise – adapted from the biblical vision of Zion – that someday blacks might return to a land from which they were exiled: Ethiopia.

in looking back, we also cannot neglect the African Americans whose heroic struggle for equality essentially reinstated and preserved the human dignity of all people of African heritage. Again, the contributions of Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, Rosa Park, and unsung countless members of the Ethiopian and African Diasporas – whose enormous sacrifice of personal time, effort and treasure – have and continue to benefit us all. Indeed, Ethiopia’s own Dr. Melaku Beyan, whose organized resistance to fascist aggression, received substantial support from countless African Americans and the African Diaspora at large.

Later, what the Emperor’s land grant patronage earlier accomplished for Rastafarians, other extraordinary Jamaicans – Bob Marley most prominently – continued in the arena of international mass media and culture – with his inspired and empowering music which palatably disseminated important Rastafari messages of Pan-Africanism to the planet’s youth,

Of course, any discussion of Pan-Africanism must ultimately acknowledge and focus on the heroic struggle for independence that was waged and won by gallant African leaders on the African continent. Thus, we salute the memory of Emperor Menelik II, Emperor Haile-Selassie I, Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyata – as well as the enormous contributions of Julius Neyrere, and Nelson Mandela, whose foresight and immense personal sacrifice enabled all African countries to enjoy the fading years of the 20th century as free nations.


Despite Africa’s encouraging gains in the last half of the 20th century, the continent, Sub-Saharan Africa in particular, enters the 21st century with many of the world’s poorest countries. Average income per capita is lower than at the end of the 1960s, and in general, incomes, assets, and access to essential services are unequally distributed. Worse yet, the region contains an increasing share of the world’s absolute poor, who have little power to influence the allocation of either political or economic resources.

With the continent’s rapidly growing population, 5 percent annual real economic growth at minimum is required simply to keep the number of poor from rising; and halving severe poverty by 2015 will require real annual growth of more than 7 percent, along with a more equitable distribution of income. Clearly, major changes are needed if Africans, and their children, are to participate in the promise of the 21st century.

Nevertheless, the new century does offer a window of opportunity to reverse the marginalization of Africa’s people and the discouraging record of many African governments in the development agenda. Political participation has increased sharply in the past decade, paving the way for more accountable government, and there is greater consensus on the need to move away from the failed models of the past. Globalization and new technology, especially information technology, have enormous potential for Africa, historically a sparsely populated, isolated region. Though these factors also pose risks, including that of being left further behind, these are far outweighed by the potential benefits.

Making these benefits materialize will require a “business plan” conceived and owned by Africans, and supported by donors through coordinated, long¬ term partnerships. African countries differ widely, so there is no universal formula for success. But many countries face similar issues, and can draw on positive African examples of how to address them.

For example, countries that have made the greatest gains in political participation are also those with better economic management. This conforms to a historic global pattern that suggests multiethnic states can grow as fast as homogeneous ones if they sustain participatory political systems. Many African countries still need to develop political models that facilitate consensus building and include marginalized groups.

Here again we see that a comprehensive Pan-African regional approach is fundamental, not only to encourage intra¬-African trade flows but perhaps more important, to provide a wider platform to encourage investment. And African countries must work together to participate in the global negotiations that shape the world trading system.

Reducing aid dependence and strengthening partnerships is vital. Africa is the world’s most aid¬-dependent and indebted region in the world. With few exceptions, aid has largely been confined to national boundaries rather than used to stimulate regional and international public goods.

Africa enters the new century in the midst of intense debate on aid, including what could be a watershed change in its relationship with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, as well as important changes in development cooperation with the European Union and an enhanced program of debt relief. New aid relationships are being implemented in a number of countries – relationships that emphasize a holistic, country¬-driven approach supported by donors on the basis of long ¬term partnerships, and with greater beneficiary participation and empowerment over the use of resources.

While the bulk of this change is moving in the right direction, more effort is required. Moreover, it remains to be seen how well partnerships can resolve the tensions between the objectives of recipients and individual donors, and how far the behavior of donors will change to facilitate African ownership of its own development agenda. It also remains to be seen how far partnerships can extend beyond assistance, to include enhanced opening of world markets to African products and services.