By Marie Y. Lemelle (Wave Newspapers/NNPA Member)
When the word spread among the hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians scattered across the United States that Dr. Abiy Ahmed, the newly-elected Prime Minister of Ethiopia, would visit Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Calif., and Minneapolis, Minn., the expatriates prepared to travel to those cities by plane, bus, train or car.
Just as the election of President Barack Obama lit a spark in the imaginations of the hundreds of thousands of Americans that traveled to Washington to take part in his 2009 inauguration, the rise of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed not only excited the Black community and Africans living in the U.S., it also inspired them to see and hear the charismatic leader in person.
Much like President Obama, who was 47 when he won the presidential election, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed also rose to power at a young age (41 years old), with the swag and attire of a rock star. Ethiopia happens to be the oldest independent country in Africa. But young or old, Abiy’s message of hope has connected to a nation of many people, who lost hope and never considered returning to their homeland.
As the proverb goes, “If the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain.” That’s why Abiy traveled to America to speak directly to Ethiopians living in the U.S., to let them know that change is coming and that they were not forgotten.
Ayuko Babu, the executive director of the Pan African Film Festival (PAFF) said that members of the Ethiopian Business Association asked him for permission to distribute thousands of tickets on the parking lot connected to the Pan African Film Festival office to ensure everyone could attend the free event with the prime minister at the Galen Center on the University of Southern California campus. Babu added that, with the support of Los Angeles Council President Herb Wesson, he was able to provide operational unity for the historic visit.
At 6 a.m. on Sunday morning, July 29, thousands of Ethiopians from the western region of the U.S.—from Seattle, Wash., to Denver, Colo., and beyond—lined up to get their tickets to come together and see and hear the words of the forward-thinking, young leader who represents change for Ethiopia.
The throngs that assembled at the Galen Center, celebrated the unity, peace and a new beginning for Ethiopia; many wore the country’s colors, enthusiastically waved flags, danced with joy, and sang songs while awaiting the appearance of their leader.
Babu attended the event and remarked on the energy in the USC Galen Center.
“The prime minister’s trip to the U.S. is symbolic, because people now know that their leadership is in tune to the issues that caused many Ethiopians to leave their homes,” Babu said.
From the moment the prime minister stepped into the arena, a thunderous sound of approval rose to the ceiling. Ahmed’s speech was preceded with prayers from religious leaders and other dignitaries. The crowd began to chant, “Ahmed! Ahmed!” The crowd was ready for his words of hope.
“Tear down the wall, build bridges,” Abiy said. “Ethiopians need to tear down the walls of ethnic division, sectarianism, distrust, ill-will, lack of civility and respect, selfishness and conflict that has separated them for decades and build bridges across ethnic, religious, linguistic and regional lines to construct the New Ethiopia, the future Ethiopia.”
Abiy continued: “The key to Ethiopia’s future success is not the politics of recrimination of the past, but dialogue, collaboration and unity in a common purpose.”
Abiy repeated the rallying cry “Medemer!” in his native Amharic language and the crowd cheered.
“Lasting solutions to Ethiopia’s problems can be obtained only if Ethiopians take the paths of love, reconciliation, and peace,” Abiy continued. “We have tried war and conflict, which has bankrupted the country and left the country in poverty.”
Abiy added that Ethiopians can learn from the American experience.
“Americans, in less than 250 years, have been able to be in the forefront of nations, because they uphold the rule of law and know how to work together for a common goal,” Abiy said. “Ethiopians in America need to bring the values of hard work, cooperation and teamwork [back] to Ethiopia and share.”
The crowd listened quietly as Abiy said that Ethiopia has always been a beacon of freedom and pride for Africa historically and when nearly all of Africa suffered under colonialism.
“Ethiopia should spread the flame of Pan-Africanism which she has done since the establishment of the Organization of African Union in 1963,” Abiy said.
Abiy said he foresees a time when all Africans can travel freely without visas.
“Diaspora Ethiopians in America can play a critical role in the economic life of their country by increasing remittances and contributing to a special diaspora trust fund which will be independently managed to meet specific community needs,” Abiy said. “Ethiopia needs the skills and resources of its diaspora citizens more than their money. Diaspora Ethiopians can play a central role in capacity building in all areas.”
Abiy repeated his invitation to Ethiopians living abroad to come home, to spend time teaching, training and inspiring young people in Ethiopia.
“Change can only come, if we are only able to change ourselves. We must examine our consciences and deal with each other in good faith and good will,” Abiy explained. “It will take time to drop old habits, but we must start now. Each diaspora Ethiopian must decide to make [his or her] own contribution.”
Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) expressed support for the Ethiopian prime minister, issuing a congressional proclamation recognizing his historic visit.
“I am honored to take official note of the visit of Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed to the United States in order to engage Ethiopian Americans in the new direction he plans for his country,” said Bass who represents a district that is home to thousands of Ethiopian Americans and includes the Little Ethiopia neighborhood in Los Angeles and USC’s Galen Center.
Bass said that from the time of his acceptance speech, Abiy has made his desire for political reform clear; expressed the need for unity among all Ethiopians; advocated for a resolution of the long-standing border conflict with Eritrea; and encouraged engagement with opposition groups both inside and outside of Ethiopia.
Bass continued, “These priorities resonate strongly with the Ethiopian diaspora in the United States, as well as his work to act on those priorities. He has announced political reforms, released thousands of political prisoners, negotiated guarantees for the release of Ethiopian prisoners in Saudi Arabia, and earlier this month he became the first Ethiopian leader to meet with an Eritrean counterpart in more than 20 years.”
Los Angeles has the second-largest concentration of Ethiopians outside of Addis Ababa, behind only Washington D.C.
“Those constituents have told me that they hope the Prime Minister’s presence, and his message, will inspire renewed interest in learning about, visiting, and investing in their country of origin,” said Bass, a who is the ranking member of the Africa Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “I have worked to promote economic ties between the U.S. and the many nations on the continent, including Ethiopia.”
July 29 was declared “Ethiopia Day” in Los Angeles.