Honourable President of Addis Ababa University, Prof Andreas Eshete, Leaders, staff, students and workers of AAU,
Fellow honorary graduates,
Ladies and gentlemen:
I would like sincerely to thank President Andreas Eshete and the University as a whole for granting me the honour and privilege today to join this eminent African centre of learning, Addis Ababa University, as an honorary alumnus. In many ways this new status, which accords me a particular connection to Ethiopia, represents a homecoming.
I believe that it would be correct to say that the modern African liberation movement first emerged in South Africa towards the end of the 19th century. From its earliest years that movement was driven by the two objectives of the liberation of all Africans and the advancement of Africa on the basis of a Pan- African agenda and perspective.
The antecedent founders of this movement were the very first modern African intellectuals in our country, who emerged from church schools and served as the first African leaders in the Christian church.
It was significant that when they asserted African ownership of the Church, breaking free from the European missionaries to establish independent African churches, these early modern African intellectuals derived inspiration from the passage in Psalm 68 in the Holy Bible – “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.”
As part of the colonised, they drew inspiration from the fact that even as Africa was falling victim to the European scramble for Africa, Ethiopia remained an independent country. In this context they were convinced that when Ethiopia stretched out her hands unto God, as foretold in the Bible, she imbued the Christian church with an African ethic and ethos.
Thus would the authentic African church serve as a repository of the aspirations of all Africans for freedom and respect for their cultures, their identity and their dignity.
It was therefore not by accident that the independent African churches I have mentioned called themselves the Ethiopian Church.
The African National Congress of South Africa, the oldest modern national liberation movement on our continent, was born out of our country’s Ethiopian Churches. Indeed the African nationalism which drove our national liberation movement was described as Ethiopianism. In 1906, a predecessor of the African National Congress, the South African Native Congress, said:
“Congress believes that Ethiopianism is a symptom of progress, brought about by the contact of the natives of Africa with European civilisation, making itself felt in all departments of the social, religious and economic structure.”
The same year, a colonial Governor in South Africa said of Rev John Dube, who became the first President of the ANC, that he was “a pronounced Ethiopian who ought to be watched.”
You will therefore understand what I meant when I said that my presence here today represents a homecoming. It is a homecoming because of what Ethiopia did a hundred years ago and more, to inspire the birth of our liberation movement, its proud existence on our Continent as an independent state providing powerful assurance of the certainty of our victory over imperialism and colonialism.
Thus did Ethiopia, by occupying its unique place in African geo-politics, serve as a central organising idea for all Africans, summoning them by its example to strive for their liberation and act in unity because of their recognition of the fact that they shared a common destiny.
You will be familiar with what the famous 1896 victory at Adwa meant for Africa and the world. Shortly after this victory a French historian told his fellow Europeans:
“The defeat of the Italians by the King Menelik…is the waking up of Africa to meet what has been hitherto the disdainful seizure by Europeans of these countries which we call barbarous. It must not be forgotten that in many of these countries now reverted to barbarism, there formerly existed an extremely advanced civilisation and that Ethiopia in particular enjoyed throughout Africa great renown for its refinement and wealth… His victory is that of all Africa…In these countries…it is already known, or will be so tomorrow, that Africa has conquered Europe…Nothing could be more heedless than to rejoice at the defeat of the Italians. That defeat is also ours…(the defeat) of colonising Europe, that of the Europe of tomorrow.”
Many years afterwards, the victory at Adwa continued to inspire pride among all Africans and confidence that Africa had something unique and valuable to contribute to human civilisation.
In this regard, 10 years after Adwa a founder of the ANC, Pixley Seme wrote: “The regeneration of Africa means that a new and unique civilisation is soon to be added to the world…The most essential departure of this new civilisation is that it shall be thoroughly spiritual and humanistic -indeed a regeneration moral and eternal!”
55 years later, the first African Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Chief Albert Luthuli, said: “Still licking the scars of past wrongs perpetrated on her, could (Africa) not be magnanimous and practise no revenge? Her hand of friendship
scornfully rejected, her pleas for justice and fair-play spurned, should she not nonetheless seek to turn enmity into amity? Though robbed of her lands, her independence and opportunities…should she not see her destiny as being that of making a distinctive contribution to human progress and human relationships with a peculiar new African flavour enriched by the diversity of the cultures she enjoys, thus building on the summits of present human achievement an edifice that would be one of the finest tributes to the genius of man?… Africa’s qualification for this noble task is incontestable, for her own fight has never been and is not now a fight for conquest of land, for accumulation of wealth or domination of peoples, but for the recognition and preservation of the rights of man and the establishment of a truly free world for a free people.”
Gathered here at this Convocation we should perhaps dare to ask ourselves whether Africa in the 21st century has such a central organising idea as Ethiopia provided a century ago, summoning us to act in unity to address our contemporary challenges and thus to add to the world the new civilisation of which Seme spoke a decade after the victory at Adwa!
We should ask ourselves the question – can Africa achieve her renaissance if she is not inspired by a common African patriotism that would enable us to outgrow our petty nationalisms, to defeat those who prey on the African masses for their personal benefit, to eradicate the poverty that dehumanises millions, to achieve the dignity that is our due as equal members of the human family, to realise Albert Luthuli’s vision when he spoke of Africa “making a distinctive contribution to human progress and human relationships with a peculiar new African flavour enriched by the diversity of cultures she enjoys”!
The esteemed President of this university, Prof Andreas Eshete has written that, “Our hopes for democratic advance and material betterment cannot be realised in the absence of an educated citizenry engaged to address urgent social problems in ways that promote the public good.”
Surely one of the tasks of the educated citizenry gathered here today must be to encompass within that public good the historic task to achieve the renaissance of Africa! Thus should Africa’s intelligentsia use its collective talent to help Africa to rediscover the central organising idea that would inspire her to act in unity for her renewal.
And thus would our contemporary intelligentsia draw inspiration from the African intellectuals of the 19th century to give birth to a new Ethiopianism that would enable Africa to claim the 21st century.
I am honoured to extend my humble thanks to this eminent African university, surely the biggest on our Continent, for granting me the high privilege of joining its ranks as a Doctor of Laws (honoris causa), and congratulate the University on its 60th Anniversary, having been established in 1950 as the University College of Addis Ababa.
I trust that as an honorary alumnus of Addis Ababa University I will have the opportunity to engage the enormous intellectual wealth that distinguishes this University to contribute, together with you, what I can to promote the public good.