Obama In Ethiopia: A Presidential Visit In Context – OpEd


By Seifudein Adem*

In his recent book ‘The Lion of Judah in the New World’, American political scientist Theodore M. Vestal, has argued: “The images of Africa and of Africans that the American people developed during Haileselassie’s prominence will no doubt be referred to by historians, psychologists, and sociologist – as well as the media – as having played a part in the election of Barack Obama as president in 2008.” Even if Vestal may be exaggerating to some extent, his observation is nevertheless intriguing without a doubt.

In any event, Barack Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Ethiopia when he arrived in Addis Ababa this week, after his pilgrimage to his father’s homeland, Kenya. Regardless of whether or not Emperor Haileselassie’s charm offensive had influenced the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the US, it is important to note that Obama’s visit to Ethiopia would take place in the shadow of a long tradition of diplomatic interactions between the two countries.

It is significant that Ethiopia was perhaps the only country outside the United States to issue a stamp in commemoration of the anniversary of the death of an American president, as it did under Haileselassie in 1947, two years after Franklin Delano Roosevelt died. During the Eisenhower administration, Ethiopia was also the only African nation and non-NATO country to send its troops to fight alongside Americans in the Korean War (1950-53).

But Haileselassie’s aspiration to project Ethiopia’s soft power was not limited to North America. For instance, he was the only Head of State to address the League of Nations and the first to visit postwar Japan. He was also the first foreign leader to visit Germany after World War II, arriving there with loads of blankets that were made in Ethiopia, “for the immediate distribution for the war-ravaged Germans”. Perhaps, Vestal’s more concrete contribution, therefore, lay in the wealth of factual information he packed in his book about the superstardom of the Ethiopian monarch, internationally, and in North America, in particular.

The evidence shows that many Americans were indeed fascinated by Emperor Haileselassie. The New York Times wrote in 1954 that the Emperor was “a man of courage, intelligence and great humanity,” and carried the full text of his speech to the joint session of the US Congress, on the occasion of his first state visit to the country.

Previously, within a span of less than ten years, Haileselassie was named, twice, Time’s man of the year. American presidents who had known Haileselassie, too, and many of them had indeed known him or about him, were unreserved in their praise for the African monarch.

In 1954, Dwight Eisenhower described the Emperor as “a defender of freedom and a supporter of progress.” It was a measure of Haileselassie’s weight in the eyes of America’s leaders that he was the only African leader to be invited to attend the funeral of President John F. Kennedy. In 1963, President Lyndon Johnson told the Emperor that he looked to him for advice and counsel. President Nixon honored the Emperor by inviting him to the US as the first foreign leader to visit the White House after he was elected president.

With regard to the attitudes of America’s presidents toward Haileselassie and his attitudes toward them, I think we can safely draw the following sets of generalizations. Franklin Roosevelt barely knew Emperor Haileselassie, even though the two had met aboard USS Quincy off the coast of Egypt in February 1945 when Roosevelt was returning from his meeting at Yalta with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill. Dwight Eisenhower respected Haileselassie and was appreciative of his decision to send Ethiopian troops to fight alongside Americans in Korea.

Harry Truman mostly ignored Haileselassie perhaps because the relationship between the two countries was stable at the time. Furthermore, Truman’s major concern, as the first Cold War president of the US, was the emerging challenge from the Soviet Union.

John F. Kennedy was intrigued by Haileselassie so much so that he once said: “There is no comparable figure in the world today who held high responsibilities in the 1930s, who occupied and held the attention and the imagination of really almost all free countries in the mid-1930s, and still could, in the summer of 1963, in his own capital dominate the affairs of his continent.” It is also a matter of historical record that President Kennedy accepted in principle the Emperor’s invitation to visit Ethiopia.

We would therefore never know if President Kennedy, rather than President Obama, would have become the first sitting president of the United States to visit Ethiopia had he not been assassinated.

In any case, could we attribute Kennedy’s special fascination with Emperor Haileselassie, at least in part, to the monarch’s political longevity?

This is a defensible proposition for, after all, Kennedy was not even born when Haileselassie emerged as a ruler in the Ethiopian political scene in 1916.

Lyndon Johnson who had known Ethiopia’s Emperor since his years in the US Congress cared less about him, preoccupied, perhaps, as he was with Vietnam and domestic political issues. It appears that Richard Nixon was another US leader with a very favorable attitude toward Haileselassie; and this had perhaps to do at least in part with the royal reception he was accorded when he visited Ethiopia first as the Vice President of the US and, later, as a private citizen.

At a state dinner in honor of Emperor Haileselassie in 1969, Nixon reportedly said: “I had the great privilege, which some in this room had enjoyed, of visiting his country in 1957. My wife and I were received as royal guests at that time and treated royally. I returned again to his country in 1967, holding no office, having no portfolio whatsoever. I was received again as a royal guest and treated royally. This is a man with an understanding heart.”

As far as Emperor Haileselassie’s own attitudes toward America’s presidents were concerned, it appears he was deferential toward Eisenhower, indifferent toward Truman (whom he met possibly only once at the funeral ceremony for John F. Kennedy in November 1963), affectionate toward Kennedy, puzzled by Johnson and disillusioned with Nixon. The attitudes of US administrations towards Ethiopia under Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush seemed either less eventful or alternated between what a distinguished Kenyan political scientist had called the diplomacy of hostility, charity, benign neglect and co-optation, reflecting the periodic convergence and divergence between what were regarded as the vital interests of the two countries.

We do not know if Obama’s visit to Ethiopia (and Kenya) in 2015 would have wider consequences for the relationship between Africa and the US in general. But we can be sure about the enormity of the symbolic significance of the first visit to Ethiopia by the first African American president of the US.

If so, could Ethiopia inspire a sentiment in Obama which is akin to what Nelson Mandela felt after he was released from jail? Mandela wrote: “Ethiopia always has a special place in my imagination and the prospect of visiting Ethiopia attracted me more strongly than a trip to France, England, and America combined. I felt I would be visiting my own genesis.”

Such an emotional attachment in the case of Barack Obama would probably have to be the exclusive preserve of Kenya which is Obama’s own genesis – almost literally. But that does not diminish the fact that Ethiopia is also a stimulator of pan-African imagination and a beacon of hope for Global Africa.

After all, as Ali Mazrui, a contemporary and compatriot of President Barack Obama’s father once put it: “[f]or a long time Ethiopia was in reality the one Black country which could demonstrate to Europeans that it had a recorded history of many centuries, that it had a heritage of written as well as oral poetry, that it had centuries of demonstrated feats of science and engineering in its monuments.” Barack Obama, Sr. and Ali Mazrui shared friends, they did not meet each other.

* Seifudein Adem, Ph.D. is Associate Research Professor of Political Science & Associate Director, Institute of Global Cultural Studies, Binghamton University, New York.

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One thought on “Obama In Ethiopia: A Presidential Visit In Context – OpEd

  • July 31, 2015 at 1:36 pm

    Dear Seifudein, I am an Ethiopian who has served his country for over 30 years, both in the Foreign Office and the Foreign Service.
    I have followed with the greatest of interest President Obama’s visit to Ethiopia, from the day that his planned visit was made public until he departed from Ethiopia having completed an extraordinary personal and political exercise.
    I have literally read over a hundred articles that were rubbish copies of other rubbish articles published earlier. I was also flabbergasted by the hue and cry of the so called humanitarian organizations, which do little other than talk. The decision of President Obama to visit Ethiopia was not decided lightly, but after carefully weighing the national interests of the United States and the people of United States against the possible negative consequences that may ensue in visiting a so called “non-democratic” country, as if Western democracies are saintly and all others are devils. By the same logic may be the US should also refrain from normalizing relations with Cuba, cut all contacts with China etc. etc.. Westerners tend to moralize when it suits them and ignore all political ethics when it is to their interest to do so. Ethiopia and Ethiopians have thousands of years of history to fall back on whenever necessary.
    I want to thank you for your most sensible and analytical article. The relations between the United States and Ethiopia go a long way back; however they were always defined mostly by the interests of the United States and not the national interests of Ethiopia. For example, the relation between the two was at its peak when the United States needed the use of Kagnew Station in Asmara, a vital communication station and when the US needed allies in the Korean War. Today, America’s war on terrorism has also found an ally in Ethiopia. A strong motivation for any US President to visit Ethiopia. Somehow, I am glad that it is Barak Obama that was the first President to do so.


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