U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia
Addresses Jimma University Students
Jimma University, Jimma
November 1, 2018
(As prepared for delivery)
It’s great to see you all here; thanks very much for coming.
My Embassy colleagues and I have a schedule full of great events during our trip to Jimma, including a visit to our American Corner, the launch of an important new project to help conserve the Abba Jaffar Palace, the inauguration of a two-year English language program for local youth, and visits to the Jimma Agriculture Research Center and a nearby coffee washing station.
But I confess that out of all these things, I think my time with you might be the most enjoyable, and the most important.
That’s because everything the United States does in Ethiopia is intended to help make the future of Ethiopia, and the future for each Ethiopian, as bright as possible.
And in speaking with you, I feel as though I’m speaking with the future of Ethiopia.
I think we’ll have a chance to do some questions and answers in a few minutes.
But first, I’d like to share some of my thoughts on the role I hope to see Ethiopia’s young people play, particularly at this extraordinary moment of hope and opportunity in Ethiopia, in helping to build the brightest possible future for your amazing country.
Because in the end, no matter what the United States does or doesn’t do in this country, the future of Ethiopia will ultimately be decided by Ethiopians themselves.
And the role you play in building this future comes down to one simple question: What kind of country do you want Ethiopia to be?
It’s an important question, because under the vision set by Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed for Ethiopia’s future, I believe Ethiopians will have greater opportunities to answer that question, and to act on their answers, than ever before in Ethiopia’s history.
I believe, in short, that Ethiopia is on a firm path toward true democracy.
But there are risks along the way.
Let’s be up front about the fact that, even in the face of the tremendous hope and optimism we’ve seen over the last six months, there has also been tragedy.
There has been destruction and violence, and there have been deaths.
This has to stop.
These incidents do not advance the reform effort, and they don’t move Ethiopia closer to democracy.
They’re not an unavoidable consequence of Ethiopia’s democratic transition, and they’re certainly not a productive one.
If we want to see Ethiopia succeed on its path to democracy, we need to have a frank conversation about what democracy means and how we get there.
In a democracy, the question I asked you a moment ago – What kind of country do you want Ethiopia to be? – is the question that every citizen has not only the right, but the obligation, to ask herself or himself.
Because in a democracy, it’s the people themselves who shape their country’s future.
In fact, Ethiopia’s young people have already done an enormous amount to shape their country’s future.
Recent political transformations in this country simply wouldn’t have happened if young Ethiopians hadn’t pressed for meaningful change, and hadn’t made it clear that there was really no other viable choice.
Many young Ethiopians incurred real risks in doing so, and some paid very high prices.
But standing up to say that the old ways were no longer working, as important as that was, was only the beginning.
As hard as it was for Ethiopia and young Ethiopians to reach the point where we are now, the harder part is yet to come.
It’s easier to take something apart than it is to build something up.
It’s easier to criticize the way things are than it is to lay out a clear vision for the way things should be.
And that brings me, once again, to the question I asked you.
Now that the opportunity for change is here, what kind of country do you want Ethiopia to be?
What do you stand for?
Will Ethiopia be a country where diversity and individuality are celebrated, while ensuring everyone has equal access to opportunity regardless of gender, religion, or ethnicity?
Will it be a country where everyone not only enjoys fundamental rights and freedoms, but also embraces the responsibilities – to themselves, to each other, and to their country – that come with those rights?
Will Ethiopia be a country that values reason, solidarity, and the common good above emotions, divisiveness, and extremism?
Will it be a country where people understand that they can succeed together, without requiring that someone else lose?
In case it isn’t obvious, I’m hoping you’ll answer all of these questions with a “yes.”
That’s because this is the version of Ethiopia that the United States is here to support, and we support this vision because we believe that this is the vision for Ethiopia that will ensure the success of this country and its people.
As I said at the beginning of my remarks, when I speak with you I feel as though I’m speaking with the future of Ethiopia.
And it’s in university settings, such as this, where I feel most optimistic about Ethiopia’s future.
Part of that is because of the incredible intellectual capacity, determination, and idealism I find so prevalent among Ethiopia’s university students.
But it’s also because Ethiopia’s universities, themselves, are very special places – places that already embody much of I hope to see in Ethiopia’s future.
Ethiopian universities are places where we can truly see the wealth and strength of Ethiopia’s diversity.
They’re melting pots of religions, ethnicities, and points of view.
And you are all caretakers of this very special place.
I hope you appreciate both the responsibility, and the tremendous opportunity, that you hold by being in this special place at this special time.
Each of you should absolutely be proud of your heritage and celebrate your individuality.
But I hope you will also not miss the chance to come together with those who are different from you and find common ground.
And I hope you appreciate that this, more than anything, is the spirit that will ensure Ethiopia’s success.
Success that’s only measured by someone else’s loss is not success at all, whereas a politically inclusive, united, prosperous, and stable Ethiopia is in the interests of every single Ethiopian.
And it’s also in the interests of the United States, because we need our friends and partners to be as strong and successful as possible.
For Ethiopia to succeed, it needs to give everyone the chance to contribute and to take part in the country’s progress.
The freedoms that Ethiopians, and young Ethiopians in particular, demanded in recent years, must come with the responsibility to exercise them constructively.
I hope you not only share a vision of an inclusive, prosperous, and stable Ethiopia, but that you’re ready to do the work it’s going to take to make this vision a reality.
This work is particularly urgent as Ethiopia prepares for elections in the coming years.
His Excellency Prime Minister Abiy has made the success of these upcoming elections one of his top priorities.
The United States thinks he’s right, and we’ll do everything we can to help.
Credible elections are what give governments their mandate to lead countries forward.
They’re the single most important mechanism for allowing every citizen to choose the future they want to experience.
The United States is committed to working with Ethiopia and its friends to strengthen the institutions that make elections fair and competitive, but the credibility of those elections, and those institutions, requires effort from the Ethiopian people.
You can help make the elections credible by focusing on issues over identity.
In any democracy, the ideal we need to work toward is for elections to be about selecting leaders who will lead for everyone’s benefit, and not just for one group over others.
In this regard, the trend that we see in some parts of Ethiopia toward identity politics is worrisome.
For example, when the Prime Minister announced his new cabinet, there were many more comments on our embassy’s social media platforms about the new ministers’ ethnicity and gender than there were about the ministers’ professional experience and capability to lead.
I really hope that will change.
When Ethiopians vote in their elections, I hope they’ll think first and foremost about which candidates can best help the whole country succeed, and far less about whether a candidate shares their identity, gender, or ethnicity.
To help bring that kind of change, you can get involved.
Ask questions that help you and others make informed decisions.
What’s a candidate’s position on education, job creation, political reform, or health care?
Will their approach help bring the country together or divide it further?
How will a candidate move Ethiopia closer to that inclusive, prosperous, and stable future we all want to see?
Building, and participating in, a true democracy is an area where the United States is well positioned, perhaps uniquely so, to share our relevant experiences with Ethiopia.
Throughout U.S. history, Americans have disagreed with each other about policy, and we certainly continue to do so now.
From the very beginning, our founding fathers disagreed about how to balance the power of the federal government with the rights of individual states to govern themselves.
And for four years, about 150 years ago, this debate led to a catastrophic civil war in the United States that killed more than 700,000 people.
To this day, those four years remain the bloodiest in our nation’s history, and we’re still dealing with some of the legacies of that conflict, over a century and a half later.
Aside from that painful exception, however, we’ve mostly learned to deal with our differences peacefully.
Different policies and political priorities prevail at different times.
Those who aren’t on the winning side of an issue accept their defeat, and they prepare for the next opportunity to advance their priorities through the electoral process.
It’s through that process that we’ve evolved and become a better country over time, though we still have work to do.
The American civil rights movement is a prime example.
100 years after our Civil War, which you might know was largely fought over the issue of slavery, African Americans continued to struggle for equal rights under the law.
And the most successful leaders of that movement, like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., did so through peaceful dissent that forced our country to have a difficult conversation about who we wanted to be.
We, too, had to ask ourselves: What kind of a country do we want to be?
Dr. King helped us answer that question.
He’s remembered and honored in our country because he didn’t just focus on the injustices that he and so many others were experiencing; he also laid out a compelling vision for what our country should be instead.
He spoke about the need for the United States to live up to its founding promise that all people are created equal.
He gave the American people a vision of a future that would be better for everyone, and not just for his or any other group.
I’m sharing Dr. King’s example with you because it’s a story of lessons learned, and of making progress, but it’s not about a mission accomplished.
55 years after Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream Speech”, the United States has come a very long way, but we still have challenges to overcome.
You’ve probably heard about some of the challenges we face today in the United States.
We still have some people who would emphasize their own sense of identity, narrow self-interest, and even hatred, over our nation’s collective interests and our people’s unity, and sometimes they do so with violence.
But when these incidents happen, the majority of Americans – the strong but often silent majority that favor reason over emotion, unity over divisiveness, and the common good above extremism – always come together to reject the worst impulses among us, and to reassert that what unites us is far greater than what would tear us apart.
As a result, the United States has always progressed, and I believe we will continue to do so.
The United States of today, fifty years after the civil rights struggle, is a better place than it was when African Americans were subjected to institutional racism.
And the United States during the civil rights struggle was a much better place than it was a hundred years earlier, during our civil war, when Americans fought for the right to enslave others.
And I firmly believe that the United States fifty years from now will be a still-better place than it is today.
We’ve succeeded in making such progress, over and over again, because the United States is a nation of ideas rather than identity.
Americans are less concerned about identity because, in our history, an American can be from anywhere, and can look like anyone.
And there will always be Americans who will speak out and offer new visions of how our country can live up to our founding ideals.
In any democracy, change only comes when people care enough to speak up.
I think the vast majority of Americans want a country where everyone is treated equally and has equal opportunities to succeed.
I think the vast majority of Ethiopians want the same things.
In both our countries, most people reject violence and hate speech, and embrace diversity.
But it doesn’t matter what most people think if too few among them speak up.
Too often it’s only the angriest or most extreme voices who feel compelled to speak out.
And that can give the false impression that theirs are the only views there are.
Where does that leave the rest of us?
What good are the voices of unity, love, and tolerance, if they leave unanswered the calls of divisiveness, hatred, and violence?
In a democracy, whether it’s the United States or Ethiopia, we all need to make our voices heard.
Those of us who believe in resolving our differences peacefully, and treating our fellow citizens with respect, have an obligation to speak more clearly and persuasively than the rest.
And this obligation will never end.
Just as the work of democracy never ends.
In the United States, we’ve been working on our own democracy for over 240 years, and God willing, we’ll still be working on our democracy 240 years from now.
As Ethiopia and young Ethiopians embark on your own democratic experiment, we can share what we’ve learned, we can invest in your capacity, and we can support your institutions to do their jobs.
But we can’t choose your future.
The process of choosing the kind of country you want, and the effort to build it, has to come from you and your fellow Ethiopians.
The process of building something new is hard.
But I believe Ethiopia, and young Ethiopians in particular, can do it.
I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.
Some of your friends and neighbors, by the way, are already making a difference.
During a recent U.S.-sponsored competition called “SolveIt!”, a team from right here at Jimma University developed a prototype oxygen delivery system to save the lives of premature newborns.
And this past summer, local volunteers gave their time to offer free classes at our American Corner to share their knowledge and experience with hundreds of participants.
One of our 2016 Mandela Washington Fellows, Dr. Gersam Mulugeta, is a surgeon here at Jimma University.
Over the years he has organized doctors to provide free medical services to over 30,000 patients in rural communities all over Ethiopia.
Just this year, Dr. Gersam and his team travelled to Gambella and treated 3,000 people who couldn’t afford care.
This is what true leadership looks like, and leadership is within all of our grasps.
Organize a neighborhood clean-up, volunteer to read to children at a local school, serve as a leader in a university group or club.
Or simply reach out to someone who’s different from you and listen to what they believe and practice.
You might be surprised to learn that you have more in common than you think.
And if not, at least you’ll have a better understanding of their views.
Democracy doesn’t require us to agree, but it does require that we agree that it’s ok to disagree.
So as you embark on your new school year, I’m going to ask my question one last time, and I’m going to challenge you to think hard about your answer.
What kind of country you want to build, and how can you help lead the way?
Get involved and be a part of building Ethiopia’s future.
Know that you can make a difference, and know that we’ll be here to support you every step of the way.