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The Real Universities Outside the Ivory Tower: PM Abiy’s Commencement Speech at Addis Ababa University

20 mins read

By Alemayehu G. Mariam

Commencement speeches given by political leaders often tend to be partisan, contentious and controversial. The politician will often seek to use the opportunity to defend or promote policy, respond to critics or announce an initiative.

Abiy 1After President Barack Obama and I parted ways back in July 2015, there were few things we agreed on.

But I certainly agree with his advice in his 2016 Howard commencement speech: “Listen, engage. If the other side has a point, learn from them. If they’re wrong, rebut them, teach them, beat them on the battlefield of ideas.”

Battle of ideas! Clash of ideas!

If these metaphors sound combative, we can call it competition in the marketplace of ideas.

That was the central message of my weekly commentary this past Monday. Let us discuss, debate and dialogue over ideas to make Ethiopia better, stronger and prosperous.

In other words, let’s share ideas that will make Ethiopia the jewel in the African crown.

After PM Abiy Ahmed delivered his speech at Addis Ababa University on July 13, I was hoping those who mindlessly and hysterically criticize him would take the opportunity to challenge him.

They could have on his proposal for a global mobilization of Diaspora Ethiopian investment. They could have challenged him on his 4 billion tree planting campaign or the civic virtues he commended to the freshly minted graduates.

While I do not expect reasoned analysis or critique from the cacophonous braying social media ignorati and lunatic fringe, I did expect a response from the Ethiopian literati and intellectual community, at least from those who could manage to register a pulse and brainwaves.  

That was not to be. I suspect they have more important things to do such as beating the dead horse of identity and ethnic politics.

While PM Abiy’s critics are ready to jump on a word or phrase spoken or allegedly spoken by him, they are manifestly unwilling, unable or incapable of responding to him on substantive ideas.

I don’t know if the problem is a deficit of intellectual candlepower. I have yet to see anyone willing to engage PM Abiy in a battle of ideas.

What a pity and shame to see “intellectuals” engaged in mudslinging and name calling but are afraid of jousting in a battlefield of ideas.

“Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”

I hope Ethiopian intellectuals worth their salt will muster the courage, saddle up and engage PM Abiy in the battlefield of ideas.


Moaning, groaning, whining, griping, yapping and barking about victimology has no place in the battle of ideas.

I regard the silence of the intellectuals to join the battle of ideas the equivalent of raising a white flag.

Great commencement speech by PM Abiy*

Having spent my entire professional life in the university classroom and a good part of it in the courtroom, I have heard great commencement and closing argument speeches. I have also heard bland and forgettable ones. I have watched countless commencement speeches on YouTube.

PM Abiy delivered a great commencement speech at Addis Ababa University (AAU) on July 13.

But what makes a commencement speech great?

I believe many ingredients go into the making of great commencement speech.

The message must be inspiring, uplifting, motivating, hopeful, insightful, attention-grabbing, intimate and personal, colorful with visual imagery, honor the graduates and families, defend core principles and draw approving applause.

I believe  PM Abiy’s speech
 contains all of these elements.

PM Abiy was quick to point out to the 9,700 AAU graduates their university work was not finished but just beginning

He told them there were other far more challenging universities awaiting them outside the AAU ivory tower.

In the “Marriage University”, they must work hard to pass the challenges of holy matrimony.

In the “Work University”, their success depends on their ability to pass the tests of working with people of diverse demographic backgrounds and experiences.

In the ultimate “University of Life” (which I have known as the school of hard knocks), they will have to master new skills and abilities to face ever changing challenges.

PM Abiy argued the whole idea of a university signifies a process of making something whole.

Drawing on the  Latin roots of the word, he said there are many things that make a person whole.

Mere book learning does not make a person whole.

The person who has achieved “wholeness” is a critical thinker, a person who keeps an open mind and is willing to reexamine his/her assumptions and change. Such a person is balanced and fair in views and perspectives.

PM Abiy drew an insightful distinction in the concept of graduation in the Western and Ethiopian contexts.

To graduate in the Western tradition means to be elevated or rise up (from the Latin gradus “step up” ) while the Amharic equivalent “memereq” means to be blessed.

Knowledge is power and if that proposition is true, what is the motivating force to gain knowledge?

PM Abiy drew on the works of Nietzsche, Bentham and Darwin, among others, to explain the fundamental drive for learning and knowledge.

Bentham believed the will to pleasure was the driving force (“hedonic” or felicific calculus) and man rationally calculates to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.

Charles Darwin argued the will to survive was central as the fittest survives by learning to adapt.

Nietzsche believed the will to power is the existential force in human action, the will to be better, stronger and dominant.  (“I will do, become…” as a principle of self-affirmation.)

But the more persuasive view, he suggested, is the conception that humans learn to live a life of meaning.

That meaning comes from forgiveness, love, service, compassion and goodness.

PM Abiy spoke about his signature 4 billion tree planting campaign.

With poetic eloquence he affirmed, “If we are Ethiopians when we are alive and become Ethiopia (soil) when we die, we should at least be buried under a shade tree.”

He talked about refurbishing hundreds of schools and hospitals and providing millions of notebooks, writing pens and hundreds of thousands of uniforms to school children.

He was reassuring. “If all of you 9,700 graduates decide with me and believe in your heart [a better  future], I can tell you with certainty Ethiopia will be one (united) and we will bask in the light. There will be no going back (to darkness). But each one of us must decide for ourselves.”

His message on Ethiopian unity was unconditional. “Many have tried to break up Ethiopia. Ethiopia has been robbed and ripped off. Ethiopia has suffered sorrow. Many have lost their lives. But there is one thing that will not happen. No one will succeed in breaking up Ethiopia.”

PM Abiy reminded the graduates, “Seventy years ago our people farmed with plough pulled by oxen. Seventy years later today people are farming the same way. What is the difference for the generation? What is the value of holding degrees in such a situation?”

PM Abiy advised the graduates to practice certain universal virtues in building the new Ethiopia. These include respect for others, excellence in work and learning, politeness, love, service, hospitality, determination, unity and lifetime education.

PM Abiy delivered an inspiring speech. For me, his message resonated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. observation: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’“

What will the 2019 graduates of AAU do for the people of Ethiopia?

Perhaps the most appropriate question for me to ask is, “What has (is) my generation, particularly in the diaspora, done for Ethiopia?

Let each Diaspora Ethiopian of my generation answer that question in the privacy of his/her conscience.

But I would commend to them Horace Mann’s admonition: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” 

I say, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for Ethiopia!”

Diaspora Challenge: Do you have the will to invest in your country?

In his speech, PM Abiy made a direct challenge to Diaspora Ethiopians to “invest in their country”.

“If each diaspora Ethiopian invested USD$5,000 every year, $2,500 every six months, $700 every three months, we can establish a common investment fund (not gift) and generate billions to help build Ethiopia. In a few years, we can join the ranks of African countries that have achieved economic prosperity. Instead of keeping our money in Dubai, London and China where they bring it back to invest in Ethiopia (at high cost), we can use our money and do it ourselves.”

This is the second time PM Abiy has called for help from Diaspora Ethiopians.

His first call was for a dollar a day, last year to the month, taken from our daily coffee budget.

The question for me is, “Do Diaspora Ethiopians have the will to invest in the future of Ethiopia?

In the New Ethiopia?!

I know PM Abiy has boundless faith in the Ethiopian Diaspora. He always talks about them as Ethiopia secret weapon. He is always talking about the Ethiopian diaspora doing so many great things.

I can’t say I have PM Abiy’s faith and confidence in the Ethiopian Diaspora. Just speaking my truth to the Diaspora.

I have evidence.

PM Abiy believes the estimated 1-3 million Diaspora Ethiopians can spare one dollar a day from their daily coffee budget and help their people.

I know for a fact only 20, 990 Diaspora Ethiopians globally have stepped up to deliver a dollar a day. A million thanks to each and every one of the 20,990 donors!

That does not say much about the Ethiopia Diaspora in general.

But there is a big difference between me and PM Abiy.

It is partly generational and partly a question of perspective.

He is a man of vision. He can see great potential in Diaspora Ethiopians.

He is not as jaded and cynical as I am.

I come from a generation whose members have eyes but can’t see, ears but can’t hear and mouths but can’t speak.

In other words, I am a member of a generation of Ethiopians that has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity to help Ethiopia.

Whether the question is the will to power, the will to survive, the will to meaning or the will to invest in Ethiopia, the common denominator is the will.

“Will” as in free will.

“Will” as in “If there is a will, there is a way.”

I appreciate PM Abiy’s abiding faith in the will to power investment of Diaspora Ethiopians. I do not doubt Diaspora Ethiopians can drive economic growth and development in Ethiopia.

PM Abiy did not issue his investment challenge out of idealism.

In his speech, he spoke about the hardship of diasporic life and the disparity in the lifestyles of Diaspora Ethiopians.

He knows, to paraphrase Dr. King, there are many Ethiopians who live on “a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity” in the Diaspora.

But the task and moral obligation of mobilizing diaspora investment properly belongs to those Diaspora Ethiopians who cruise on their yachts on the vast ocean of material prosperity.

I remember when the TPLF came to the U.S. to conduct its illegal “Renaissance Dam” bond scam.

Diaspora Ethiopians were told to invest by buying “bonds”. It was all an elaborate TPLF con game which  resulted in a levy of a $6.5 million fine on Ethiopia by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

For many it could be , “Caveat emptor.” (Buyer beware.) “Once burned, twice shy.”

But, where there is a will, there is a way!

Where there is the will to invest, there are many ways to invest.

PM Abiy is presenting Diaspora Ethiopians a great idea and opportunity.

He is telling Diaspora Ethiopians invest a few thousand dollars in your country and reap huge return. Make boatloads of money while creating jobs and opportunities for your people. It is in your own rational self-interest.

What PM Abiy is talking about is a practical and doable idea. Others have done it.

There is a substantial body of evidence which supports PM Abiy’s proposals and ideas.

There is clear evidence showing a link between migration and development.

Diaspora Ethiopians have substantial financial assets and wealth that can be mobilized to help their motherland.

They have savings, retirement accounts, equity and borrowing capacity which could be mobilized for such investment, well beyond the $5 thousand a year PM Abiy is asking.

Indeed, there are programs that support diaspora investors who are U.S. citizens to invest in Ethiopia.

The Calvert Foundation in Maryland has a program designed to help Indian Americans invest in private businesses and social enterprises in India. It works in a partnership between the Calvert Foundation, USAID, and several private financial institutions in India.

Why not have a similar fund for Ethiopians in the U.S.?

Diaspora Ethiopians have a single question to answer: Do they have the will to invest?

Nigerians had the will to invest and have done it.

In  2019, “Nigeria expects $3 billion in investment funding from citizens living mainly in the U.S. to support the agriculture, power, mining and transportation sectors.”

In 2015, “Nigeria’s diaspora population sent home $21 billion in remittances.”

If Diaspora Nigerians can raise $3B to invest their country, why can’t Diaspora Ethiopians raise at least $1B?

What is it that Diaspora Nigerians got that we ain’t got?

The will to invest?

To invest in Ethiopia or not to invest in Ethiopia. That is the question.

So, Shakespeare’s Hamlet laments:

The undiscovere’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

It puzzles the will. Is Ethiopia the undiscovered country to which no Diaspora Ethiopian is willing to return to invest?

My challenge to Diaspora Ethiopians with the means and will to invest:

Talk is cheap. Can you put your money where your mouth is and invest in Ethiopia?

For all the chattering and jabbering Ethiopian intellectuals:

Do you have a better idea to promote Diaspora Ethiopian investments in Ethiopia?


“Listen, engage. If the other side has a point, learn from them. If they’re wrong, rebut them, teach them, beat them on the battlefield of ideas.”