On this day that we celebrate the life and legacy of Emperor Haile Selassie, it is worth revisiting the vision of a United Africa that Selassie articulated. Though the last king of Ethiopia had many achievements to his name—including stitching my homeland back together again after Italy committed a chemical holocaust against my grandparent’s generation and fostering a vibrant relationship with the United States that paved the way for countless hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians to immigrate to America—it is his pursuit of Pan-Africanism that points to the North Star of restoration for Ethiopia and Africa as a whole.
When people hear the term “Pan-Africanism”, most automatically assume it to mean African nations overcoming their differences and working together for the betterment of all her children. But Pan-Africanism is a lot bigger than geopolitical relationships, nation-to-nation exchanges or trade agreements. At the most fundamental level, “Pan-Africanism” is about reducing humanity’s tribal instincts and learning to value cooperation. In an age where technology has made the world a lot smaller and made the value of reciprocity gain a lot bigger meaning, it is an imperative to value collaboration instead of competing with one another.
While most of the world is moving towards this spirit of togetherness and building bridges between disparate communities, Africa is the one continent that has yet to fully grasp and adopt the importance of collaboration. Though there are pockets within Africa where teamwork is valued, in far too many corners, “go at it alone” and protecting turfs is sought more than forming relationships and building coalitions for the betterment of many.
Hallie Selassie realized that the challenge of the 20th century for Ethiopia was interconnecting emerging generations into the global marketplace. This is why Selassie placed so much emphasis on the need for Ethiopians to gain an education; he knew that a workforce that is not adequately trained and a population that doesn’t have a foundation in arts, sciences and math would fall behind the curve and soon enough be indentured by the world. Selassie’s hope was to undergo a transformation of Ethiopia and Africa writ large by linking highly motivated and astute workers, entrepreneurs and change agents across the spectrum in order to realize comparative advantages and to eventually unshackle Africa from the chains of debt and dependency.
“History teaches us that unity is strength, and cautions us to submerge and overcome our differences in the quest for common goals, to strive, with all our combined strength, for the path to true African brotherhood and unity.” ~ Haile Selassie I
Though he died before he could fully realize his dream of a truly united and interconnected Africa, he made a down payment on his quest when the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was launched and established in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia in 1963. The OAU was a watershed event for Africa; after being colonized a century earlier and brutalized for decades, African countries that were looking for any measure of hope found it in Haile Selassie’s vision.
Nearly forty-five years after Haile Selassie was deposed, the country that gave birth to the OAU is now in the process of aborting the future. The virus of tribalism, competing instead of collaborating and seeking narrow self-interests over communal wellness is leading Ethiopia towards the cliff of disintegration. Separatism has gripped the nation as one ethnic group after another seeks to form their own region; instead of unity, Ethiopia is sprinting towards Yugoslavia.
It is worth remembering that it was our unity and our love of Ethiopia that kept us free from colonization. It is worth reflecting on the wisdom of Haile Selassie who counseled cooperation not only for Ethiopians but for all Africans. It behooves us to pursue solidarity instead of thinking that prosperity will come through factionalism and tribal politics. This doesn’t mean that we should seek conformity; we must recognize our differences and celebrate what makes us unique but there is a big difference between loving one’s heritage and elevating your tribe by stepping on someone else.
This Sunday, I was at church for my son’s Christening; after the service ended, a parishioner got up to make an announcement and noted that a young lady that had just arrived from Ethiopia needed a place to stay for the next couple of months until her family arrives. Before the announcement was finished, a hand was raised and someone volunteered to let the young lady live rent free without even asking her name.
Watching the exchange take place made me tear up. This is the Ethiopia I remember and the Ethiopia I know we will lead us towards a new day of peace and prosperity for all. No one asked the young lady what tribe she was from. No one asked her about her politics and whether she supports one faction or the other. Where help was sought, help was given and all of it was grounded in love. This is the essence of Pan-africanism that Haile Selassie sacrificed on behalf of.