U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia
Addresses at Jigjija University
November 27, 2018
(As prepared for delivery)
His Excellency Mustafa Mohamed Omer, Somali Regional State President
Mr. Elias Oumar, Acting President and Academic Vice President, Jigjiga University
Students and friends,
Good morning, and thank you for joining me this morning.
It’s good to be back in Jigjiga, and to have a bit of time to speak with you here at this wonderful university.
I’m happy to speak with you because, in my view, this is a historic moment for Ethiopia, and because I firmly believe that no one in Ethiopia has a bigger part to play than you in determining how this history will be written.
In fact, I’d like to talk with you a bit about history, because history isn’t just about the past, it’s also about the future.
The past is undoubtedly important, because we need to know about our past to understand our present.
But even more important, our histories also tell us a lot about where we might want to go in the future.
More specifically, understanding our histories helps us ensure that those histories aren’t holding us back from achieving the best possible future for ourselves.
It’s easy, but dangerous, to focus on events of the past, and to believe that those past events define and decide both our present realities and our future possibilities.
And when we allow that to happen, we place unnecessary limitations on what we can achieve for ourselves and our nations.
Today, Ethiopia has the benefit of a leader, in His Excellency Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed, whose vision for this country’s future is wide open.
The Prime Minister has laid out a series of dramatic reform proposals that frankly seemed impossible to me, and perhaps to you, less than a year ago.
In my case, I didn’t think such quick and comprehensive proposals would be possible because I was allowing my own understanding of Ethiopia’s future possibilities to be constrained by my assessment of Ethiopia’s past.
I felt I had seen decades of past leadership in Ethiopia that seemed more concerned with its own hold on power than with providing opportunities for the people of Ethiopia to fully enjoy their rights and to fully achieve their potential.
That was, of course, until then-Prime Minister Hailemariam’s decision, in a move I found both courageous and powerful, to step down to pave the way for meaningful reform.
But in many ways, it was you, the young people of Ethiopia, who helped Ethiopia break from its history, and it was you who show us all that Ethiopia could head in a new direction.
And now, Ethiopia needs you even more, to play your role in ensuring that the reform process succeeds in shaping a future where all Ethiopians are included; where all Ethiopians are free to engage constructively in genuine democratic processes; where both the diversity of Ethiopia and its unity are celebrated; where Ethiopians work together toward common goals; and where everyone has the fullest opportunity to chart their own path to success and prosperity.
But let’s be frank: this process is not without challenges.
If history teaches us anything, it’s that there are no guarantees.
And this place, Jigjiga University, is situated in one of the areas of Ethiopia that has seen some of the biggest challenges so far.
I’m talking, in short, about ethnic conflict, and the very real harm such conflict can cause.
It was about a year ago that I saw firsthand the results of such conflict when I visited camps for displaced Oromo and Somali citizens in and around Dire Dawa – just a couple of hours from here, and when I traveled beyond Warder in the Somali region and saw how ethnic conflict can worsen the already precarious food security of too many Ethiopians.
That was before Prime Minister Abiy took office, but we continued to see outbreaks of violence in numerous parts of the country, which together have caused the displacement of over 2.5 million people.
I’m proud that the United States has stepped up to help those in need, including providing an additional 170 million U.S. dollars a few months ago in urgent assistance, including to displaced persons.
But as important as it is to respond to the harm that ethnic conflict causes, it’s even more important, in the long run, to understand the causes of such conflict: not only to create conditions for people to return home in a safe, voluntary, and dignified manner, but also to prevent future conflicts, violence, displacements, destruction, and deaths from happening at all.
I travel around Ethiopia quite a lot, and one of the common themes I hear from Ethiopians across the country is that Ethiopia’s history is to blame for its current challenges.
Of course, there are differing views from different parts of Ethiopia as to which parts of Ethiopia’s history are to blame, but I think the greater point many Ethiopians are making is that historical dynamics, and historical grievances, are making the current ethnic tensions inevitable and unavoidable.
That brings me back to where we started: What is the role of our history in shaping our future?
To me, the value of history is that it helps us understand how we can move forward, including, when necessary, how to break from the patterns of the past when our interests lie in doing so.
Ethiopia has an incredible history.
Many millions of years ago, humanity’s earliest ancestors walked the Afar region.
Just last week, I had the honor of participating in a re-consecration ceremony for one of the churches at Lalibela, where we completed a U.S.-sponsored conservation program to preserve the legacy of one of the oldest Christian heritages in the world.
Two weeks before that, I took part in the launch of another U.S.-funded cultural conservation program at the Aba Jiffar palace in Jimma – a place of great cultural and historical significance that commemorates an Islamic kingdom that once took part in trade networks spanning the Indian ocean.
And earlier this year, I visited the Al-Negashi (Al neh-JAH-shee) mosque in Tigray, where some of Ethiopia’s earliest Muslim residents found refuge from persecution in their homelands.
All over this incredible country, there are examples of how Ethiopia’s past has been influenced by its diversity, and how its future has benefitted from this very same diversity.
The resulting tapestry of cultures, traditions, and – yes – tolerance, is something that I feel should inspire all Ethiopians, and of which I hope all Ethiopians are proud.
I know that not all of Ethiopia’s history is positive.
No country’s is.
But when we look at the examples we admire most, Ethiopia has been at its best when it has demonstrated tolerance, unity, and the courage to pursue new and bold visions for its future – together .
The same is true for the United States.
Unlike Ethiopia, with its millennia of history, the United States is still relatively young.
Just over 240 years ago, my country’s founders embarked on a bold experiment – to create a country founded on ideals rather than identity.
This emphasis on our founding ideals – that our government’s power derives from the people; that our people have not only broad freedoms, but the responsibility to act constructively within those freedoms; and that all of our people must have equal rights and opportunities – took a long time to fully take root.
It also took a long time for us to fully embrace our understanding of what the American identity means: that an American can look like anyone, can believe in anything, and can come from anywhere.
It took, for example, over 80 years after our founding before the scourge of slavery was ended in our country.
It took almost 150 years for all Americans to have the right to vote in our democracy, and even longer for that right to be fully available in practice.
And we still contend today with those in our society who promote intolerance, hate speech, and bigotry in defiance of our overarching aspirations for equality and inclusiveness.
But we’ve also made tremendous progress.
And a big reason for our progress is that we’ve always had influential Americans who were able to learn from our past to identify ways in which we could be better people and a better country, and who had the courage to stand up for their beliefs and insist that the United States be the best version of itself.
That’s how our country was founded, how slavery was ended, how women gained the right to vote, and how we continue to overcome the challenges we face today.
Ethiopia today needs nothing less from its people, and nothing less from you.
The vision that Prime Minister Abiy has laid out – in the government’s own words, “A New Horizon of Hope” – is a vision that I find inspiring, and that I hope you find inspiring too.
But that inspired vision –for a future that overcomes the challenges of Ethiopia’s past while building on the strength of that past– is not something that the Prime Minister can achieve on his own.
This is where you come in.
Ethiopia needs people who will look to their history both for examples to follow and for pitfalls to avoid, and it needs people who will use those lessons to take their country forward in a thoughtful and inclusive way.
No one can undo the past, but we all have enormous power to ensure that past wrongs don’t happen again.
Acting constructively within Ethiopia’s new-found democratic space, and accepting the compromises and give-and-take inherent in all democracies, is part of the answer.
Circumventing those processes to agitate for narrow personal or ethnic self-interest, particularly when doing so risks harm to others, is not.
Advocating for your interests and your community’s interests can certainly be part of the answer.
But believing that others must lose, in order for you to win, is not.
Seeking accountability for injustices, through transparent and lawful procedures, can also be part of the answer, but violent or lawless retribution cannot.
It’s only right for you and for all Ethiopians to celebrate your individual heritage, your cultural traditions, your languages, and your religion.
Ethiopia’s incredible diversity, which can be found right here at this university, is an essential part of this country’s history, and it’s a big part of what will make this country great going forward.
So celebrate your individuality as well as your diversity, but remember that you don’t need to compromise either to work together toward common goals.
Indeed, leveraging your country’s diversity is the surest path to success.
The United States is greatly inspired by Ethiopia’s new vision of unity and reform, and we sincerely believe this path will provide the best opportunity for this country and its people to achieve political inclusiveness, durable peace and stability, and true economic opportunity for all.
The United States is working to invest in Ethiopia’s capacity to move forward toward these goals.
We’re ready to share our experience and technical expertise, to work with Ethiopia to strengthen its institutions, and – most importantly – to invest in building the capacity of the Ethiopian people, so that they have the skills and confidence to lead the way to a better future.
But the hard work of building that future will have to be done, first and foremost, by Ethiopians themselves.
And by that, I mean that every single Ethiopian.
And that, of course, means every one of you.
Ethiopia will not move forward as successfully as possible unless every one of its citizens has the opportunity, the motivation, and the support to play their role as fully as possible.
Everything that has happened in the past, both the successes and the challenges, has brought not only Ethiopia, but you specifically, to this incredible moment of hope and opportunity.
And this moment offers you, above all, the chance to write the next chapter.
Will it be a chapter where Ethiopians of all backgrounds work together to achieve something greater?
Will it tell the story of a country that refuses to be held back by past struggles or grievances?
Will it recognize that what unifies Ethiopia is stronger than what would divide it, and will it build upon the premise that all Ethiopians will succeed best when they succeed together?
Will young Ethiopians, decades from now, look back on you with gratitude and respect, as the founding mothers and fathers of a new era of lasting democracy, prosperity, and stability for themselves and their own children?
Only time will tell, but you have the pen, and it’s time for you to start writing your own story, and your country’s history to come.
As you contemplate the blank sheet of paper before you, I have a few small suggestions to share.
First, get to know each other and break down barriers.
Do it here, and do it now, starting today.
Universities are rare places where young people come from every part of the country, representing Ethiopia’s rich diversity in ethnicities, cultures, languages, and religions.
As a result, the students in Ethiopia’s university have a unique opportunity, and a solemn responsibility, to model the future Ethiopia they wish to see.
Make the effort to get to know your fellow citizens from other parts of the country.
Understand what holds you together, but also what makes you different.
Being in a democracy doesn’t mean agreeing with everyone about everything; in fact, it means accepting that we won’t agree on everything.
But it also means taking the time to understand each other’s perspectives and priorities, and working hard to find common ground.
This is important not just as a theoretical exercise.
Just last week, we mourned the tragic deaths of three students after violence broke out at Assosa University.
And my understanding is that the fight centered on ethnic issues.
That’s three lives lost, three young people just like you, who had hopes and dreams, and who could have been part of making this country better.
I offer my condolences to their families, whose loss is incalculable.
But it’s also a loss for all of us, and a reminder that violence offers no solutions, ever.
My second piece of advice is this: give some thought to your personal responsibilities in this new era of opportunity.
Prime Minister Abiy’s administration is making tremendous progress in safeguarding the freedoms that Ethiopians like you have demanded for so long.
But only you can decide how you will use your freedoms.
Freedom from repression, and freedom of expression, do not equal freedom to do whatever one likes without consequences.
I hope you will not only exercise your own freedoms constructively, but that you will also respect the freedom of others to do the same, and I hope you will be prepared to accept responsibility for your conduct and your decisions.
All of us share these responsibilities – not only to ourselves and our countries –to each other as human beings.
Indeed, these obligations form the social contract that exists between each one of us in a democracy, and our democracies can only be as strong as our commitment to respecting these norms, and each other.
My third bit of advice, is to participate.
If everyone sits back and waits for something to happen, or for others to act first, nothing will happen, or at least nothing good.
It was the actions of Ethiopian citizens like yourselves that created this moment, and it will be your actions that determine where this moment takes you and your country in the future.
If you want this opportunity to be all that it can, you to have to make it happen.
So I urge you to get involved.
You can start by working to make something better here at your university itself, or in Jigjiga, or beyond.
It doesn’t have to be particularly difficult, time-consuming, or expensive.
It could be organizing a blood drive, or a trash cleanup, or volunteering to read to children at a local school.
We have a saying in English that many hands make light work.
If millions of Ethiopians commit to doing their part, anything is possible.
And finally, educate yourself.
And I don’t mean simply taking the fullest advantage of your formal university educations.
As we look ahead to the 2020 elections and to Ethiopia’s future of participatory democracy, the choices voters make will need to be informed ones.
Take the time to understand the issues, and to understand the platforms that particular candidates offer.
What will a candidate do to create jobs?
What steps will he or she take to ensure political inclusivity?
How will these candidates address issues like access to health care and education?
In a democracy, the citizens themselves decide what issues matter to them, and the citizens themselves have the power to hold those who seek to lead their country accountable for explaining how they will address those issues.
And this is how Ethiopia’s future will be written.
For good and for bad, Ethiopia’s history has already happened.
Ethiopia’s future has not, and it’s up to you to create that future.
For our part, the United States remains your committed partner.
Please continue to engage with us to help us understand how we can best support your capacity to achieve your goals, and how we can support your vision for your own future and well as your country’s future.
We will do everything we can to help, because our own interests lie entirely with having a partner in Ethiopia, and in Ethiopians, who are as strong, happy, and successful as possible.
So remember, the future is in your hands.
I urge you to make it a good one.