Ethiopian Dream Marcus Garvey, Ethiopia and the Founding of the OAU

Leading up to the founding of the Organization of African Unity in 1963 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia emerged as an unlikely progenitor of the unprecedented moment. Ethiopia’s rise to the forefront of pan-Africanism was sustained by the influence of Black consciousness in the African diaspora, culminating with the far-reaching activism of Jamaica’s Marcus Garvey.

Editor’s note: This essay is available in our print issue, Pan-African Dreams. Buy the issue here.

One might call Ethiopia’s rise as a key driver of the pan-Africanist movement ironic since Ethiopia had never been formally colonized in the same manner or chronology as the rest of Africa. But Ethiopia had been a symbol of Black liberation and pan-African unity to the African diaspora long before pan-Africanism reached the continent. In addition to Ethiopia’s political status of never having been formally colonized or integrated into the Atlantic Slave Trade, Ethiopia took on spiritual dimensions in the African diaspora—from the life of the Ethiopian Bilāl ibn Rābāh, the close companion of Prophet Muhammad during the seventh century, to the Biblical verse: ‘Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.’ (Psalm 68: 31). Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian nations in the world. As free and enslaved Africans in the diaspora were exposed to Christianity, they began to interpret the foregoing verse as a prophecy that foretold Africa’s rise, leading to a religious, literary and artistic tradition known as ‘Ethiopianism’—a proto-pan-African tradition that simmered through the 19th century.  

But it wasn’t until the aftermath of the Battle of Adwa in 1896 (in which Ethiopia successfully defended itself against Italian invasion) that Ethiopia began opening channels of comradery with the Atlantic diaspora. By then, the African diaspora had experienced several decades of freedom from enslavement. The potential for prosperity after abolition in the Black Atlantic demonstrated by Reconstruction in the United States, for example, was in contrast with the status of the African continent, which had just undergone critical colonial division at the Berlin Conference of 1884-5. In his 2012 essay, ‘From Adwa to OAU: Ethiopia and the Politics of Pan-Africanism’, historian, Fikru Gebrekidan, discusses how despite Ethiopia’s ‘sense of isolation’ resulting from their unique position of sovereignty during the colonial period in Africa, the Ethiopian empire was able to forge nascent connections with the Atlantic African diaspora. Gebrekidan writes of diasporan visits Ethiopia at the turn of the century, looking to catalyse political and economic ties; such visitors, Gebrekidan notes, included ‘Benito Sylvian of Haiti, William Henry Ellis and Daniel Alexander of the United States, and Joseph Vitalien of Guadeloupe.’ 


Perhaps no other diasporan has been better able to embody the symbolic and political currency of Ethiopia and Ethiopianism than Marcus Garvey. Garvey was born on 17 August 1887 in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica. After a brief tour of Central America and studying in London, Garvey travelled to the United States in 1916 and established his influential Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) with its base in Harlem, New York. In many ways, UNIA rivalled W.E.B. Du Bois’ National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and his Pan-African congresses. Whilst the NAACP typically drew from elite and Western-educated circles and took a middle-ground position, the UNIA appealed to a wider Black audience which embraced ideas radical for its time: Black supremacy and racial separatism. Garvey envisioned a unified, decolonized Africa to which the diaspora could repatriate and set up satellite communities across the world; he believed each Black person should consider their actions relative to the building of an economically, politically and culturally strong Africa that could compete on the global stage, fulfilling the prophecy foretold in Psalms.  

To Garvey, Ethiopia was Africa—as Garvey often conflated the two—and Ethiopia was divinely protected through its status as one of the oldest Christian nations in the world. On 31 August 1920, on the heels of Du Bois’ 1919 Pan-African Congress in Paris, Garvey presented the pan-African flag of red, black and green, as well as his ‘Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World,’ a proto-pan-African constitution, in which the final resolution declares that ‘the anthem, “Ethiopia, Thou Land of our Fathers”… shall be the anthem of the Negro race.’ Ethiopia as the centre of Garvey’s pan-African vision remained critical years later. In a 1923 issue of the UNIA’s flagship publication, The Negro World, Garvey wrote that ‘We see a new Ethiopia, a new Africa, stretching her hands of influence throughout the world, teaching man the way of life and peace, the way to God,’ another nod to his philosophical roots in Ethiopianism.  

Garvey’s legacy would be solidified for decades to come with a mysterious, unidentified quote, in which he is rumoured to have declared, ‘Look to Africa where a Black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is near.’ Some might argue that if Garvey indeed said this, he might have been indicating his aspirations as the ‘Provisional President of Africa,’ a title he designated for himself and approved by his followers during the same 1920 UNIA convention. However, on 2 November 1930, Ras Tafari Makonnen was crowned Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, leading to the belief in Garvey as a prophet who prophesied the event. It equally led to Selassie’s divine status particularly among Rastafarians, an Afro-Judeo-Christian religious sect developed in Jamaica, whose title pays homage to the emperor’s former name and title.  

Despite the cultural and religious symbolism that initially delineated Ethiopia’s role in Pan-Africanism, Garvey and the UNIA were instrumental in moving pan-Africanism from a theoretical exercise in the diaspora to practical implementation in Africa. Though mostly unsuccessful, Garvey promoted economy and industry across the Black world, most famously through his Black Starliner, a fleet of cargo ships that were also rumoured to be the vessels which would facilitate the repatriation of diasporans to Africa. But just as Ethiopia’s rise to the forefront of pan-Africanism was arguably unlikely as a never-colonized African nation, historian, John Henrik Clarke, described the irony of Garvey’s pan-African pre-eminence despite never being ‘allowed to set foot on African soil,’ and ‘[speaking] no African language.’ This was as opposed to W.E.B. Du Bois who died in Ghana after establishing long-term, critical links with influential African leaders from Kwame Nkrumah to Jomo Kenyatta. However, Clarke continues, it was Garvey’s ability ‘to convey to African people everywhere (and to the rest of the world) his passionate belief that Africa was home of a civilization which had once been great and would be great again.’ Garvey’s appeal to wider Black audiences meant that his Ethiopia-centric message also permeated further and deeper. Gebrekidan writes that in the early 1930s, out of ‘150 or so US Citizens in Ethiopia…two-thirds were Black immigrants.’ By the time of Italy’s Benito Mussolini’s invasion in 1935, seeking vengeance for Italy’s defeat at Adwa, the UNIA created the condition for large swaths of diasporans to sign up to defend Ethiopia’s sovereignty.  


But it wasn’t just diasporans bringing Garveyist philosophies to Ethiopia; Ethiopians themselves were directly adopting the pan-African philosophies of their Western counterparts. Melaku E. Bayen was one such Ethiopian. Born in 1900, Bayen grew up in Harrar under the patronage of a distant cousin, Ras Tafari Makonnen. In 1921, Bayen began his studies at Muskingum College in Ohio, United States, later attending medical school at Howard University, a premiere historically Black university also in the US.  

Undoubtedly absorbing the revolutionary ideologies of Garvey and his contemporaries in the US while at Howard, Bayen had been responsible for recruiting and sending to several African American volunteers to Ethiopia. Among these volunteers was Hubert Julian, the ‘Black Eagle of Harlem’, who was instrumental in training Ethiopians in modern airfare. Later Bayen also recruited John Robinson, the ‘Brown Condor’, who had fought in the war against Italy. Bayen returned to Ethiopia just months before the Italian invasion to intern at the American mission hospital in Addis Ababa. When Italy invaded Ethiopia in October 1935, Bayen and his medical team went to the front lines, assisting fallen soldiers who were overwhelmingly unprepared for their first modern war. The Ethiopians restored to guerrilla warfare, and as Gebrekidan writes, ‘perhaps the first sign of conscious self-racialization,’ began calling themselves ‘Black Lions.’ 

In May 1936, as the Italians continuously gained the upper hand, Bayen joined Emperor Selassie I in his government-in-exile in London. But by September of the same year, Bayen and his family had entered and settled in Harlem, New York, where they began dedicating themselves to the liberation of Ethiopia. Harlem, writes Clarke, was the ‘base of operation’ on which Garvey built the UNIA, ‘the largest mass movement of Black people that [the US] has ever seen.’ Subsequently, Bayen’s forthcoming activism for the liberation of Ethiopia was imbibed with the Garveyist philosophies that were planted firmly in the Harlem community. 

In 1937, Bayen and his wife, Dorothy, helped to found the Ethiopian World Federation Incorporated (EWF) which directed African American aid and allyship to the fight in Ethiopia while also striving ‘toward racial self-uplift.’ At the inaugural address on 25 August 1937 in Harlem, Bayen demonstrated his Garveyism when he declared, ‘I do not want it thought that Ethiopia will not accept aid from all races and all peoples, but I do believe that the major part should be done by us, and we must not depend on any other group.’ Gebrekidan writes that ‘Melaku hoped the EWF would be to his generation what Marcus Garvey’s [UNIA] had been to his forebearers decades earlier.’ Thus, Melaku integrated his experience in Harlem to influence the new direction Ethiopia would take in the quest for liberation. 

The newfound racial consciousness in Ethiopia via Bayen and EWF was thus concurrent with the Italian invasion. Professor of International Relations, Robbie Shilliam, writes that ‘Emperor Haile Selassie I entreated members of the League of Nations to respond to Italian aggression with concrete measure.’ Instead, Emperor Selassie I faced ‘suspicion’ from European statesmen in the League, ‘that Ethiopia was not sufficiently civilized and hence not quite competent in its de jure sovereign status,’ and as such it was recommended that ‘Ethiopia should reorganize aspects of its government.’ As a result, Benito Mussolini was allowed to ‘define the invasion as a colonial war – denoting an absence of sovereignty on Ethiopia’s part.’ Though Great Britain eventually came to Ethiopia’s aid when Mussolini threatened to encroach on other African territories, the subsequent British occupation of Ethiopia for almost a decade after the defeat of Mussolini in 1941 made pan-African unity even more imperative. Ethiopia now had a critical window to the last few centuries of European imperialism in Africa and the Americas. 

Emperor Selassie I, Bayen and other leaders in the Ethiopian government now understood they could not depend on Ethiopia’s unique, historical position in Christianity to defend them from European imperialism. In the same inaugural address of the EWF in Harlem, Bayen declared that, ‘we are here to make a new Ethiopia in the Western world and to join hands with ancient Ethiopia.’ He was arguably mirroring the Garveyist philosophies that he had witnessed in 1930s Harlem. Garvey often spoke of a glorious history of Ethiopia—Africa—which could only be restored through the conscious efforts of the entire Black race.  

As a result, Ethiopia’s restoration to sovereignty could not restore the neutral position of its past. The relationship Ethiopia had built with the diaspora in the first half of the 20th century had equipped Ethiopian consciousness with the nucleus of pan-African unity and Black consciousness, primarily through Garvey’s philosophies and activism. While, internally, Ethiopian consciousness now bore the influence of Black liberation and Civil Rights in the US, externally, the shifting political geography around Ethiopia had considerable implications for the future of Ethiopia. In addition to being exposed to European imperialism in a way Ethiopia had never been before, pan-Arabism in the 1950s which was spearheaded out of a newly independent Egypt to its west, had produced secessionist currents among Ethiopia’s Muslim populace, primarily in Eritrea. The pan-Arab nationalist revolutions in the areas surrounding Ethiopia had also isolated Ethiopia from geo-political talks among nations along the Nile River. An Ethiopia once isolated in the colonial era, was now again becoming isolated in an era of liberation.  

Equipped with pan-African ideologies gained in the war against the Italians, it was now time to turn deeper towards the practical implementation of pan-Africanism; it was time to escape the repeated threat of isolation in a world that was increasingly entering into bloc politics. According to Gebrekidan Ethiopia’s ‘outreach effort began with capitalizing on the long history of ‘pro-Ethiopia sentiments’ prevalent in the diaspora. In Jamaica, Garvey’s birthplace, Garvey was seen as a prophet, and Emperor Selassie I, a divinely ordained pan-African messiah among Rastafarians. When ‘in 1952, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church established its branch in the Western Hemisphere on the island of Trinidad,’ writes Gebrekidan, ‘those who responded favourably…were Rastafarian peasant farmers,’ leading to the church’s proliferation throughout the Atlantic world. 

By the late 1950s, Ethiopia had begun to reach out to its continental neighbours, with ‘rumours of Ethiopian support for Mau Mau fugitives from Kenya.’ In 1957, upon the independence of Ghana led by Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Ethiopia also participated in both the Conference of Independent African States and the All-African Peoples’ Conference held in Accra. These conferences were arguably the nuclei of the Organization of African Unity, which would be established in 1963. In 1960, Ethiopia hosted the Second Conference of Independent African States, solidifying its key role as a guardian of a pan-African vision.  

Though Ethiopia’s unique position in the colonial world left the nation relatively isolated, this history also created the conditions for its critical role as an intermediary and negotiator among splitting factions in the pan-African movement. When Nigeria hosted the third ‘All-African Peoples’ Conference in 1962, Pan-Africanism had split between the Casablanca and Monrovia camp. While the former ‘called for immediate unification’ among African states, the latter ‘favoured loose political cooperation.’ Gebrekidan writes that to this, Emperor Selassie I espoused ‘a neutral stance,’ explaining ‘that his country belonged to neither camp. Ethiopia belonged to one group only, “the African group.”’ 

Subsequently, the meeting was re-hosted the following year in Addis Ababa, in which Emperor Selassie I presented his proposal for the Organization of African Unity, which ‘specifically called for the creation of a supranational political body that would pave the way toward complete unity in a step-by-step process.’ Not without meeting accusations of being ‘too intrusive or too weak,’ the Ethiopian document was signed by the 32 heads of state present on 25 May, and hence was born the Organization of African Unity.  

Emperor Selassie I would be forever immortalized as a vanguard of pan-Africanism. Today, Garvey’s prophet status and Emperor Selassie I’s status of divinity is in large part preserved through Rastafarian culture which gave pan-Africanism another cultural dimension beginning as early as the 1950s. Bayen was also memorialized in Rastafarian culture through an elementary school that bears his name in the Rastafarian village of Shashemene, Ethiopia. Songs like ‘Marcus Garvey,’ and ‘Hail H.I.M’ (His Imperial Majesty, part of Emperor Selassie I’s full honorific) by Burning Spear, a reggae artist who takes his name from Jomo Kenyatta, demonstrate the long-lasting effect of Garvey’s pan-African vision. Other reggae artists like King Kong have repatriated to Ethiopia, leading to his 2013 album, Ethiopian Dream, which contains lyrics like ‘Haile Selassie where we site up first / inna Ethiopia I and I seat up.’ Bob Marley, perhaps the foremost progenitor of Rastafarian culture, developed his 1976 song ‘War’, which reproduced the speech of Emperor Selassie I at the 1963 UN General Assembly in New York City.  

But this is quite a turn of events for Ethiopia, which arguably took for granted its historical diplomatic position with Europe underpinned by Christianity. Nevertheless, as the currents of history turned against European imperialism beginning with the Battle of Adwa, and the inevitably of liberation and independence loomed large, it was Garvey’s leadership that demonstrated the practicality of pan-African unity. Bayen absorbed Garvey’s philosophies so prevalent in New York and gave Ethiopia a new political future with pan-African dimensions. Emperor Selassie I, cognizant of Ethiopia’s unique position, transformed the Ethiopia’s failing neutrality into an intermediary role among factioning African states. None, however, would be possible without millions of free and enslaved Africans in the early Atlantic world, who kept the tradition of Ethiopianism alive for centuries as another tool against oppression, directly and indirectly creating conditions for the birth of the OAU

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