Ethiopia: Symbol of Black Dignity and Independence

8:15 PM – 9:15 PM (UAE Time)
Keynote 1

Bahru Zewde - Emeritus Professor of History, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia

On 1 March 1896, Ethiopian forces led by Emperor Menelik achieved a historic victory over Italian colonial incursion at the Battle of Adwa. That victory put an end to Italian colonial aspirations over Ethiopia and ensured the continued existence of Ethiopia as an independent sovereign state. Moreover, it was one of the factors that inspired the Pan-Africanist movement, which held its first congress in 1900. When Fascist Italy once again invaded Ethiopia in 1935 intending to erase the shameful memory of Adwa, that act galvanized the black world around Ethiopia as few other events have done before or since. The wave of solidarity for Ethiopia that the Fascist invasion provoked has been likened to the anti-apartheid movement of the second half of the twentieth century. Not only were there various fund-raising events, but thousands of volunteers expressed their readiness to fight on the side of Ethiopia.

After Ethiopia’s liberation from Fascist Italian occupation in 1941, Emperor Haile Selassie began to play a prominent role in African affairs by initiating a policy of awarding scholarships to students from other African countries and acting as a mediator between the two camps who had contrasting visions of continental unity. This mediatory role resulted in the holding of a summit in Addis Ababa in May 1963, which culminated in the birth of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), upgraded into the African Union (AU) in 2002.

While Ethiopia was celebrated and venerated abroad, some critical local Ethiopian voices began to rise as early as the first decade of the twentieth century. Reformist intellectuals started to voice concern that Ethiopia’s independence would be short-lived if it were not accompanied by modernity. They recommended a host of reforms ranging from the institutionalization of governance to the expansion of education and the assurance of social justice. The gentle prodding of these pioneers of change was amplified by the Ethiopian student movement in the 1960s and 1970s, which argued stridently for revolution rather than reform. The outcome was the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974, which opened a new chapter in Ethiopian history and its relations with Africa.

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