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April 21, 2021
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A century-old relationship

Emperor Menelik (L) and Ambassador Robert P. Skinner (R)

Now, it has reached a new high with the visit of US President Barack Obama to Ethiopia. The Reporter has rolled up some historical facts with regard to Ethio-US relations.

Ethiopia’s diplomatic relationship with the United States is of comparatively recent history.  Because of distance and the American isolationist posture from 1776–1941, there was no official contact between the two countries for a long period of time.

The US concentrated on internal economic development, territorial expansionism to the west, and industrialization. However, individual US citizens came to Ethiopia for a variety of reasons. In the late 19th century, Henry M. Stanley, a special correspondent for the New York Herald, accompanied the British expedition under Sir Robert Napier (1868) and witnessed the fall of Makdala and the death of Emperor Tewodros.

Some African-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans who profess Ethiopianism have historically looked up to Ethiopia for inspiration.  Its long history and culture and the divination in  the  Old  Testament  that  “Ethiopia  shall  soon  stretch  forth  her  hands  unto  God” (Psalm  68,  verse  31)  has  made  Ethiopia  attractive  especially  to Diaspora  Africans.

Ethiopia is known and romanticized by some Americans. After the Battle of Adwa, in 1896, for example, a young Haitian, Benito Sylvian, arrived at Emperor Menelik’s court in 1897 and became the Emperor’s aide-de-camp. Similarly, Joseph Vitalien (MD), from the French colony of Guadeloupe, visited Ethiopia and remained here to serve as Emperor Menelik’s personal physician. He helped found two early hospitals in Ethiopia: the Ras Mekonnen Hospital in Harar (1903) and the Menelik II Hospital in Addis Ababa (1909).

William H. Ellis, an African-American cotton grower in Texas, later a Wall Street stockbroker, and an admirer of Emperor Menelik, visited Ethiopia in 1899. Ellis received permission to grow cotton in Southern Ethiopia and establish a textile factory.

In the diplomatic arena, Ellis convinced Menelik to enter into a Treaty of Amity and Commerce with the United States. That served as an impetus for forging an official relationship between the two countries. The American Consul at Marseilles, France, Robert Peet Skinner, in January 1900, during the administration of President William McKinley, suggested that the State Department dispatch a commercial mission to Ethiopia, similar to the trade mission scheduled to visit China.

In 1903, after nine days of meetings in Ethiopia between Emperor Menelik II and Robert P. Skinner, an emissary of President Theodore Roosevelt, formal relations between the two countries commenced which included a grant of “Most Favored Nation” status.

Consul Skinner and his American party arrived in Addis Ababa on December 18, 1903. A 5,000-man guard of honor greeted Skinner, who later described the scene as “bewilderingly beautiful.” Captain George C. Thorpe and 19 Marines pitched their tents at Emperor Menelik’s palace courtyard, which they named “Camp Roosevelt,” and raised the US flag of forty-five stars and thirteen stripes. Thus was formed the first American diplomatic mission to Ethiopia, and its guard. Skinner, however, was housed at the palace of Ras Woldegiorgis, the Emperor’s cousin.

The Americans had arrived with a treaty proposal already prepared in Amharic, and the negotiations took nine days; a day short of what Skinner had expected. The treaty was written in Amharic and French, and the final English version was translated from the French version. The Amharic version of the treaty had been drafted by Professor Enno Littman of Princeton University, an archeologist and professor of Semitic languages.

The US was a latecomer to Ethiopia, as several European powers had their emissaries already posted in Addis Ababa. Emperor Menelik II, despite the antagonism of the European powers, was open to the US and saw it as a counter-force to the Europeans, especially to Britain, France, and Italy, as he was suspicious of their ulterior motives and their colonial history in Africa. Russia also led a campaign against US influence in Ethiopia out of a concern that the US might get a toe-hold in the Red Sea region.

Western technology and medicine, which he wanted to introduce in- to his country, fascinated Menelik, as an enlightened leader, despite the resistance he faced from the nobility and the church. Menelik hoped that the US would assist Ethiopia in its efforts to modernize the country. The diplomatic relationship between Ethiopia and the US was thus on course to be established.

The relationship between Ethiopia and the US, during the reign of Emperor Menelik II, may be summarized as follows: in 1903, a treaty of amity and commerce was signed between Ethiopia and the US, in 1906, American Consul General served in Addis Ababa, from 1906–1909, a Vice Consul was in charge of the US mission to Ethiopia, in 1909, the Mission was run by a resident minister and a consul general; from 1910–1913, a vice consul general ran the office; and in 1913 the US mission was temporarily closed and the British Legation in Addis Ababa looked after American interests.

Ethiopia’s interest in friendship with the US continued under Menelik’s successors. A commercial treaty was signed on June 27, 1914, in Addis Ababa, between “His Royal Highness, Prince Lij Iyasu, Successor of Menelik II, King of Kings of Ethiopia and the United States of America” to regulate and develop commercial relations between the two countries.

The Ethiopian and US treaty, signed by Skinner in 1903, was renewed in 1914 as required under the treaty of 1903. The US Mission to Ethiopia was closed during Woodrow Wilson’s first term in office, coincident with the death of Emperor Menelik II in 1913. The architect of modern Ethiopia, Emperor Menelik had been instrumental in establishing the relationship between Ethiopia and the US as he undertook the modernization of his country and the protection of its sovereignty. The treaty was successfully renewed by John P. Ward.

The American media viewed the growing Ethiopian-American relations as part of the “manifest destiny,” the success of America’s “open door policy for trade”; and as one of the logical outcomes of becoming a world power which “must have a world field for its activities.”

The defeat of the Italians also convinced the rest of Europe to acknowledge Ethiopia’s independence and send emissaries to seek favors from Emperor Menelik II (1889-1913).Thus, it was logical for the US, too, to send delegates to the court of Menelik as a gesture of “good-will,” and in the service of its own self-recognition as an emergent global power.

Aside from ambitions of an emerging world power, American interest in sending a mission to Ethiopia was also driven by the desire to have unfettered access to international commerce. The Ethiopian and American relationship was further strengthened when Ethiopia offered an American company the chance to construct a barrage over Lake Tana. The choice of an American company was motivated because of three major reasons.

One was Ethiopia’s suspicion of European, especially British ulterior motives over the Nile River and adjoining Ethiopian territories. The second was that working with America would bring the latter to Ethiopia’s side in the event of confrontation between Ethiopia and the European powers. The third was Ethiopian leaders’ belief that America posed no threat to Ethiopia—a sentiment which was also well understood by Americans.

Another outcome of Ethiopian-American diplomatic relations was the sending of Ethiopian emissaries and students to the US. Prior to 1903, though Ethiopian emperors or empresses were known to send delegates and students to the various parts of the world, none had been sent to America.

Because of Menelik’s ill-health and the political uncertainty that ensued in the country, sending Ethiopians to America had to wait until his daughter’s (Zawditu) ascension to the throne.

Thus, it was during Empress Zawditu’s (1916-1929) time that Ethiopian students went for the first time to study in the United States. They were Melaku Bayan, Worqu Gobana and Bashahwerad Habtawold. Their sponsor was a Presbyterian missionary, Charles Lambie (MD), who had come to Ethiopia in 1918 upon the request of the Ethiopian government to help curb the influenza epidemic that was ravaging the country.

The Ethiopians were initially sent to the Muskingum College in Ohio, where they stayed from 1922-1929. The arrival of Ethiopian students in 1922 must have been a very unique event at Muskingum. They were introduced to President Warren G. Harding. Because of their uniqueness, the local population referred to them as “the Muskingum boys” or the “princes.” Moreover, because of their strange Ethiopian names, the community also dubbed them with much more convenient ones: “Mathew, Mark and Luke.”

Empress Zawditu also sent Ethiopian emissaries for the first time to the US in June 1919. The envoys included Dajazimach Nadew, Kanitiba Gebru, and Bilata Hiruy. The purpose of the envoys was to congratulate the Allies on their victory in the First World War. Another group of messengers were also sent to the US in 1927. The leader of the mission was the British educated Hakim Worqinah Eshate, alias Dr. Martin. This time, the group was entrusted with the task of negotiating a deal with one of the American engineering companies, J.G. White Engineering, for the construction of a dam on Lake Tana. The delegation, in addition to talking to officials of the company, met with President Calvin Coolidge.

Following this, there were two more Ethiopian delegations to the US prior to the Second World War. These were in 1930 and in 1933. They were led by Kentiba Gebru and the Emperor’s son-in law, Ras Desta Damtaw, respectively. The purpose of the missions was seeking a loan and an American financial advisor, Colson; and to pay a special visit in return for the visit of Murray Jacoby, who was America’s official representative at Haile Sellassie’s coronation in 1930.

It was also during this time that the US Immigration and Naturalization Bureau allotted a quota of 100 for Abyssinians to immigrate to the US. One wonders what prompted the immigration office to provide a quota for Ethiopians at a time when America was following an “isolationist” foreign policy, and closing its doors to immigrants save those from North and Western Europe. It is also unclear whether any Ethiopians used the quota. Immigration and Naturalization figures do not mention Ethiopian immigrants until the 1980s.

After Emperor Menelik, the architect of the Ethio–US relationship was Emperor Haile Selassie who ruled Ethiopia for almost half a century. He was a strong pro-American leader who, like Menelik, sought a durable friendship without a hidden agenda, and an ally who could be counted on.

In the 1930s, Ethio-American relations entered a turning point, at least at an official level: Ethiopia was, once again, threatened with Italian colonial aggression while America’s official interest and involvement in the world beyond its shores dwindled. The existence of an independent black African nation kept the hope for freedom and equality of African-Americans alive. Thus, with the news of the Italian fascist aggression against Ethiopia in 1935, African American interest in Ethiopia became intense.

Accordingly, either to mobilize their support or the support of Americans at large, Emperor Haile Selassie sent Melaku Bayan, a former student in America with a deep sense of Pan-Africanism, to New York, as a representative of his country. There, Melaku established an organization, the Ethiopian World Federation, and a newspaper, The Voice of Ethiopia. While Melaku and his African American wife, Dorothy H. Bayan, served as First Vice-President and Executive Secretary of the organization respectively.

The first Ethiopian leader, who visited the US, was Haile Selassie in 1954 at the invitation of Second World War hero-turned-president Dwight D. Eisenhower.. While visiting the United States, the emperor was cheered by more than a million New Yorkers in a ticker tape parade down lower Broadway and was given honorary degrees by Howard University, Columbia University, McGill University, Laval University, and the University of Michigan (he also visited Harvard and Princeton). In addition to being welcomed by governors, mayors, and public officials, the Emperor had toured, among other places, a Michigan automobile factory, the Chicago stockyards, a US steel plant, the grand Coulee Dam, a California oil refinery, harbor installations in Long Beach, and the 20th Century Fox movie studios in Hollywood. He attended a baseball game at Yankee Stadium, where he donned a fielder’s glove as Casey Stengel presented him with a souvenir baseball. The Emperor’s only contact with rural American was in southern Minnesota, the home of Ambassador Joseph Simonson, who arranged a visit to a farm by the royal party, who were served home-made cookies and lemonade. Major newspapers in the cities Haile-Selassie visited lauded the Emperor in editorials and described him in such glowing terms as “a man of courage, intelligence, and great humanity.” On his tour of the West Coast, the Emperor had been in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles and had spent the night in Yosemite National Park.

According to Theodore M. Vestal, a Professor of Political Science, the Emperor’s visit was the first part of a two-month-long, 7,000-mile tour of the United States and Canada.

“Haile-Selassie was one of the best-known international celebrities at the time, remembered for his eloquent appeal for collective security to the League of Nations in 1936 when Mussolini’s fascists invaded his nation and for his sending Ethiopian troops to join United Nations forces in the Korean War in 1950-1953. The year 1954 in many ways was the high water mark of Haile-Selassie’s success and prestige (although in the 1960s he would be admired as an elder statesman and chief founder of the Organization of African Unity),” Vestal wrote.

At that time the Emperor had to toil for years before finally negotiating agreements with the United States on military assistance and defense installations that were to make Ethiopia the prime recipient of US military and economic assistance in Africa.

“As rapidly as America had become involved in the business of world hegemony, so had Ethiopia become part of the world economy. The process of linkage had actually commenced in the twenties and thirties, when the general incorporation of Africa into the world economy was happening swiftly because of the postwar consolidation of colonialism. Neither historic Abyssinia nor its empire were immune from this global process: during those two decades Haile-Selassie was busily modernizing and centralizing government and reforming and re-equipping his military,” Harold G. Marcus, in his book, The Politics of Empire Ethiopia, Great Britain and the United States – 1941-1974, wrote.

According to historical records, Haile-Selassie was first invited to the US by President Franklin D. Roosevelt when the two met near Cairo after the Yalta Conference in 1945; however, the trip did not materialize because of the Second World War and the post-war developments.

Like Emperor Menelik, “The Emperor apparently had a standing enchantment with the United States, and he was determined to visit North America. He also harbored the belief that diplomacy was primarily to be conducted between heads of state,” Vestal wrote.

Eventually, on January 12, 1954, the Emperor was invited by Eisenhower [the decorated WWII general who was admired by Haile-Selassie for his role as commander of allied forces], for an official state visit.

Prior to that, Workeneh Eshete, [Dr. Martin Workineh] who led the Ethiopian diplomatic mission to the US in 1927, among other thing delivered an invitation to skilled African Americans form Haile-Selassie [Ras Tafari Mekonnen then] to settle in Ethiopia. A number of African-Americans did travel to Ethiopia, where they played a number of roles in the modernization of the country before the Italian conquest in 1935. And one of the notable African-Americans was Colonel John C. Robinson, a.k.a. Father of the famous Tuskegee Airmen.

In his autobiography, Emperor Haile-Selassie notes that the United States was one of only five countries which refused to recognize the Italian conquest of his country.

US citizens contribution in Ethiopia

US  citizens  have  served  Ethiopia  well  and  some  remained  by  her  side  during darker days, such as during the invasion by fascist Italy. Others contributed to Ethiopia’s development after the Italian force was expelled.  Their support for Ethiopia continued after they returned to the United States.

Ernest Work, from Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio, served as educational advisor to Emperor Haile Selassie in the 1930s. A professor of history, Ernest Work authored a book just before the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Writing about the Italo–Ethiopian war, he stated that “the intense rivalries among the European powers [are] exhibited in their insatiate grabbing of the black man’s country.”

Work warned, “If Italy is permitted to succeed in her present designs the black man’s culture will be lost under a veneer of European imposition.”

Another American, Everett A. Colson, who had experience in advising the governments of Haiti and Turkey, was also appointed as financial advisor to Ethiopia and served from 1931 to 1935. Colson’s role in organizing the Ethiopian national bank and in planning currency reform earned him respect from Ethiopians but the British, French, and Italian legations in Addis Ababa attempted to interfere with his operations.

Colson also served as a consultant to the Emperor on foreign affairs during the Emperor’s exile in London during the occupation by fascist Italy. At Colson’s funeral, Emperor Haile Selassie eulogized him, saying that “though Mr. Colson’s grave is in the United States, his loyal services remain engraved in the heart of his Imperial Majesty and the people of Ethiopia”

Another, US citizen known for his service in Ethiopia was John Hathaway Spencer. Within months of establishing Ethio–US diplomatic relations, John H. Spencer was appointed as foreign policy advisor to the Emperor in 1936. Ethiopia appointed American bankers and advisors to make Ethiopia attractive to US investors, to seek political and military alignment with the US, and to assure independence from the European, especially British, tutelage. Spencer witnessed the fall of Addis Ababa in 1936. Spencer served as advisor to the Emperor during his exile in England and prepared the English version of the Emperor’s speech at the League of Nations on June 30, 1936. After fascist Italy was ejected, he returned to Ethiopia and served as principal advisor to the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1943–1974). At the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie’s government, he left Ethiopia.

Another legendary American known in the relation of these two countries is  Colonel John C. Robinson, recruited by Emperor Haile Selassie to lead his Imperial Air Force in 1934 against an imminent fascist attack by Benito Mussolini, Col. Robinson, nick-named the “Brown Condor” stood up when the entire world failed to take action. He valiantly flew dangerous missions to transport men, supplies and the Emperor himself in the face of fierce resistance from Italian fighter pilots.

Invited back to Ethiopia after Italy was ousted, Robinson brought pilots and technicians from the US to help reorganize aviation in Ethiopia and train the pilots that would serve in the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force and future commercial airlines.

He also later established the successful American Institute school for elementary and secondary students in Addis Ababa. Not only was John Robinson an Ethiopian war hero but he is also considered as the “Father of the Ethiopian airlines “. A reading garden is dedicated inside the US Embassy in Addis Ababa in honor of Robinson.

The relations between the two countries took a wrong turn after the Military Derg overthrew Haile Selaissie and seized power. The bilateral relationship began to cool due to the Derg’s linking with international communism. The ideological difference led to the prohibition all US economic assistance to Ethiopia with the exception of humanitarian disaster and emergency relief. And in July 1980 the US Ambassador to Ethiopia was recalled at the request of the Ethiopian government, and the US Embassy in Ethiopia and the Ethiopian Embassy in the United States were headed by Charges d’Affaires.
After a couple of decades, with the downfall of Mengistu Hailemariam, US-Ethiopian relations improved as legislative restrictions on non-humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia were lifted. Diplomatic relations were upgraded to the ambassadorial level in 1992.

After the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) took power the relationship between the superpower and Ethiopia restored. For instance, according to the Department of State, total US government assistance, including food aid, between 1991 and 2003 was USD 2.3 billion.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and a few other African leaders of the early 1990s were considered to be the new breed of African leaders–a buzzword widely used in the mid – late 1990s to express optimism in a new generation of African leadership.

It was when US president Bill Clinton made his African journey in March 1998 that he helped popularize this notion when he said he placed hope in a new generation of African leaders devoted to democracy and economic reforms. Although Clinton did not identify the African leaders by name, it is generally assumed that he was referring to, among others, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, and Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea. The “new breed” warred against each other and optimism from the side of the West was lost. Furthermore, critics blamed many of these leaders for failing to deliver democracy, peace, and development, and they had an inclination to cling to power–an attribute that was common across post-colonial African leadership.

Still, western countries including the US constantly continued blaming the EPRDF for human rights violations. Now the relationship seems to reach a new level. For the first time in history a sitting US president is going to visit Ethiopia.

Ed.’s Note: This article is a compilation of various works by Getachew Metaferia, Harold G Marcus, Robert D. Schulzinger, Solomon Addis Getahun, and Theodore M. Vestal.

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