Dear Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed,
I write to you as a Jamaican American living in upstate New York. I am a Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at Binghamton University, State University of New York, where I have worked for over 16 years. I pray you will humbly accept my letter and consider the thoughts of peace therein.
During my sixteen-year tenure at Binghamton University and the other universities where I taught before, I have had the privilege of teaching about Ethiopia’s rich history. I cannot say enough how honored I have been to share details of this history – some of which are not largely known amongst the American student body, including children of the African Diaspora, yet I can say that every rich detail was so warmly received. In fact, it has not been uncommon for students, beyond the classroom, to have undertaken their own personal research projects to delve deeper into the history of Ethiopia.
Why you may wonder has Ethiopia such meaning to people of other nations and in particular the African Diaspora? Well, as a student of history yourself, I invite you to recall that Ethiopia has long been a beacon of light for the entire African continent and the African Diaspora. Where I am from – Jamaica – is a great example of Ethiopia’s influence. The musical superstar and activist Bob Marley reminded the world through his iconic reggae songs of Ethiopia’s greatness, a sample of which I share here:
- the site of Lucy, “ the most complete skeleton of an early human ancestor ever discovered,” sometimes called the “grandmother of humanity,” housed in the National Museum of Ethiopia;
- the reputed home of the Biblical Ark of the Covenant in St. Mary Church of Zion in Axum in Northern Ethiopia; the search for the ark famously popularized in the Indiana Jones film franchise;
- the 11 World Heritage sites – the incredible 12th-century rock churches of Lalibela representing the early heritage of Christianity in Africa which dates back to the first century;
- the great victory at the Battle of Adwa when Emperor Menelik II and his army prevailed over invading Italian forces in March 1896;
- Ethiopia has thus never been officially colonized and has maintained its independence;
- its reputation for the largely peaceful coexistence between adherents of two world religions which are often in conflict (Christianity and Islam);
- Emperor Haile Selassie’s influential reign (1930-74), including his groundbreaking speech to the League of Nations in 1936 after fascist Mussolini had invaded Ethiopia; his words famously foreshadowed the atrocities of WW2: “It is us today. It will be you tomorrow.”
- its welcoming of the Diaspora, in particular, the Jamaican Rastafarian community to Shashamane in the Oromia region of Ethiopia;
- the site of the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa;
- its tremendous economic growth averaging 9.4% a year from 2010/11 to 2019/20, according to the World Bank;
- its influence on global culture, from its coffee and cuisine to its Olympic runners.
Ethiopia, for these reasons and many others, has meant and means so much to those of us in the Diaspora. It is no wonder that W.E. B. Dubois and Marcus Garvey among others looked to Ethiopia for inspiration. Prime Minister Abiy, please know that this place is not just precious to you but to so many who have never set foot there.
I, for one, am fortunate to have traveled to Ethiopia many times. I have been all over Addis Ababa – enjoyed its restaurants and its coffee shops, its many beautifully planned roundabouts and neighborhoods. I have toured the rock churches in Lalibela and marveled at their stature and the inherent holiness of these sites. I have volunteered with local NGOs and have lost myself in Addis’ colorful and extensive markets. Most of all, I have enjoyed the warmth of the people. I have looked in their eyes and seen old souls — people whose regal stature befits their regal heritage.
Now, in case you think I am romanticizing a complex place, I am not. Like all great men, women or nations, Ethiopia has flaws. We know a thing or two about that here in America. I have spent the greater part of my life writing about the history of slavery in America and the Atlantic world. Elsewhere, I have argued the high ideals of Thomas Jefferson’s groundbreaking Declaration of Independence were no less groundbreaking because he, in fact, “owned” 600 slaves throughout his lifetime. The Declaration of “All men are equal” was and is the blueprint for modern societies and human rights movements today. We can do two things at once - acknowledge his greatness in crafting those words and acknowledge the deeply flawed human being that he was that he could not in fact live up to them. But for the former achievement, he still deserves accolades, and statues of his likeness, in my view, unlike the Confederate statues in the South, should not be removed from public spaces.
So it is in this vein that I am well aware of the troubles in Ethiopia’s history as well as its greatness. In the end, I have concluded that the latter outweighs the former, which is why I ask you to do all you can to END this war. I call on both sides as well as foreign powers to wage peace. But, I call on you because you are the democratically elected leader of the country. I apportion no blame here. Like President Abraham Lincoln in the 19th century, you may see yourself as simply attempting to preserve the union of the nation. You may very well be within your rights to be angry and want to “destroy” the enemy, as you say…but I ask you to consider that to destroy another Ethiopian is to destroy your heritage; to destroy another Ethiopian is to destroy you, yourself. Furthermore, a piece of all of us in the Diaspora will be destroyed too because of all that Ethiopia has meant to us.
When all else seemed so despairing, Ethiopia was our beacon. It was our one inspiration – even the 1998 war with Eritrea or intermittent famines could not dim Ethiopia’s light. Political struggles and/or corruption could not change our minds because, as I said when weighed in the balance, your greatness outweighs your troubles.
Prime Minister, I am no one of great import. I am not a world leader, nor do I work for the United Nations. Years ago, in 2004, I was invited by the African Union to a special conference of Africanist scholar-activists, but today, I have no ongoing contact with the African Union. I am originally from Jamaica and am an American citizen, but I am not an ambassador for either country. I am a just teacher and a writer of Black history and a child of the Diaspora who knows what it means to lose hope. I am a child of the Diaspora who looks back at the bleak history of slavery and colonialism of the last 500 years that the late great Chinua Achebe called “an accident” or what others might call a car crash and tries to pull out the moments of resilience and hope.
Ethiopia has been a large part of that hope. Bob Marley, influenced by Emperor Selassie’s famous speech to the UN, sang, “everywhere is war” because of the injustices of our world. He said, prophetically, “We don’t need more trouble. What we need is love.”
It is in that spirit that I ask you, Prime Minister, to work with all who would work with you in and outside of Ethiopia to do all you can to wage peace. For those reading this letter, you too can play a part. Reach out to Prime Minister Abiy @PMEthiopia and ask him to wage peace, not just for Ethiopia but for all of us in the Diaspora and beyond who need that hope now as ever before.
Anne C. Bailey is a professor of history and director of the Harriet Tubman Center for the Study of Freedom and Equity at Binghamton University, State University of New York. She is the author of The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History. (Cambridge University Press, 2017); The Scars We Carry Inside: Transgenerational Trauma and Resilience (forthcoming, UNC Press).