By Marie Y. Lemelle
LOS ANGELES — He was greeted like a rock star.
The roar of the audience filled the packed Galen Center at USC July 29 as Abiy Ahmed, the newly elected prime minister of Ethiopia, appeared on stage, one of three stops on his visit to the United States.
Thousands of Ethiopians from the Western Region of the United States — from Seattle to Denver and beyond — began lining up outside the Galen Center at 6 a.m., eight hours before Ahmed was scheduled to appear.
“Members of the Ethiopian Business Association asked me 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 at USC Galen Center,” said Ayuko Babu, executive director of the Pan African Film Festival, who helped promote Ahmed’s appearance. “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. We cannot deny our connection to the African Diaspora.”
Ahmed became the first African head of state to address exiled Ethiopians on the grounds of their adopted country.
Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Africa. But young or old, Ahmed, 41, relates to a nation of many people who lost hope and never considered returning to their homeland.
In addition to Los Angeles, Ahmed visited Washington, D.C. and Minneapolis, Minnesota, which has the largest population of Ethiopians outside of the country itself.
From the moment the prime minister stepped into the Galen Center, 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,” Ahmed 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.
“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,” Ahmed said in his native Amharic language.
“Lasting solution to Ethiopia’s problems can be obtained only if Ethiopians take the paths of love, reconciliation, and peace,” he added. “We have tried war and conflict which has bankrupted the country and left the country in poverty.”
Ahmed said 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. Ethiopians in America need to bring the values of hard work, cooperation and team work to Ethiopia and share.”
The crowd listened quietly as Ahmed said, “Ethiopia has always been a beacon of freedom and pride for Africa historically, 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.”
Ahmed 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,” Ahmed 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.
“I invite you to come home and 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 goodwill,” he said. “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.”
Ahmed ended the conversation with his people by saying “Some cannot be doers and others watchers and some givers and others takers. Our destiny is one. We rise or fall together.”
Among those hearing Ahmed speak were the Rev. Kelvin Sauls, until recently the pastor at Holman United Methodist Church in South Los Angeles, who just returned from a 14-day trip to Africa with a youth group that included stops in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia.
“The prime minister is described as a combination of Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama by the young and old that I conversed with,” Sauls said. “It is clear that Ethiopians are ready to face the rising sun of a new catalytic dispensation.
“The purpose of [our] experience was to advance global intersections in empowering young people to understand and achieve equity and justice,” Sauls added. “The highlight of our experience was encountering the spirit embraced and extended by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed: unity for a common destiny through dignity and mutuality.”
U.S. Rep. Karen Bass welcomed Ahmed to her district with a congressional proclamation.
“I am honored to take official note of the visit of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to the United States to order to engage Ethiopian Americans in the new direction he plans for his country,” Bass said.
“Dr. Ahmed’s priorities of political reform, unity among the peoples of Ethiopia, resolution of the long-standing border conflict with Eritrea, and engagement with political opposition groups resonate strongly with the Ethiopian diaspora in the United States, as has his work to act on those priorities.
“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,” she added.