Does African Diplomacy Remember Heroes?

Ketema Yifru and Emperor Haile Selassie (Photo: )
Ketema Yifru and Emperor Haile Selassie (Photo: )

By Makonnen Ketema 

In the past couple of months, we have been hearing about the 50th Anniversary of the Organization of African Unity (OAU).  A committee has been formed to celebrate the anniversary of the inception of Africa’s continental organization, now known as the African Union (AU).

As I am not privy to the details, I can only assume that credit will be given to those who made significant contributions to the creation of the OAU; who supported African freedom movement fighters; and contributed to the peaceful settlement of conflicts in Africa.  The former leader of Ethiopia, Emperor Haile Selassie, and his Foreign Minister, the late Ketema Yifru, come to mind. Surely, Africa will not forget their contribution.

Indeed,Ethiopia’s role in the formation of the OAU was significant, to say the least. It was during the early 1960s when Africa was divided into two camps: The Casablanca group and the Monrovia group.  The Casablanca group, led by the charismatic leader, President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, and the Monrovia group, led by veteran politicians, such as President William Tubman of Liberia and President Namdie Azikiwe of Nigeria, had become sworn enemies. Both believed in the concept of African unity, but, yet, had chosen different paths to fulfill the dream.

Truth be told, some leaders were not on speaking terms.  The division had reached a point of no return. It had become personal, with one group accusing the other of subversion and assassination attempts.

In one instance, members of the Monrovia group accused a prominent member of the Casablanca group of having a hand in the assassination of Togo’s President Sylvanus Olympio. As one group was plotting to derail the other, the dream of African unity was, slowly but surely, disappearing into the night, taking with it the hopes and dreams of the African people.

To make matters worse, all the African leaders had joined the bandwagon. All, but one, had taken sides.

It was during this critical period in the continent’s history that Ethiopia decided to intervene. The-then Foreign Minister, Ketema Yifru, advised the Emperor that Ethiopia should intervene and work to bring the two groups together, thus ending the ever so growing rift.

Ketema believed that Pan-Africanism was not about the formation of the Casablanca block nor the Monrovia block. Rather, he believed the true ideals of Pan-Africanism would be better served with the formation of one group, the African group. Emperor Haile Selassie eloquently echoed Ethiopia’s position in a speech he delivered in 1962 to the Monrovia group in Lagos,Nigeria;

“Certain developments have occurred in Africa since the irresistible tide of independence swept over this continent which upon superficial examination, have been the cause of concern for the future. We are told that Africa has been split into competing groups, thus inhibiting co-operation among the African States and severely retarding African progress. One hears of the Casablanca Group and the Monrovia Group, of the Conakry and Dakar Declarations, and we are warned that the views and policies of these so-called groups are so antithetical as to make it impossible for them to work together as partners in an enterprise to which all are mutually devoted.

“But do such hard and fast groupings really exist? And if certain nations sharing similar views have taken measures to co-ordinate their policies, does this mean that, between these nations and others, there is no possibility of free and mutually beneficial co-operation? Is Africa really fragmented, and has independence been achieved on this great continent only to see the African nations themselves transform differences into divisions? Are such divisions as they already exist, imposed upon us by history and circumstance, to be widened and deepened by our own efforts? Let us say, first of all, that Ethiopia considers herself a member of one group only the African group.

For the sake of African unity, the Ethiopians would try the unthinkable: assemble the two groups under one roof.  It would be a difficult venture, but the Ethiopians were convinced that it could be done.

As the Emperor was late in joining the Lagos Summit, due to his wife’s illness, Ketema Yifru represented him during his absence. Ketema took matters into his own hands and convinced all the members to have their next meeting in Addis Abeba.

Ketema Yifru and and the late President Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya (Photo: )
Ketema Yifru and and the late President Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya (Photo: )

This would be another Monrovia meeting or so the members thought.  But Ketema was thinking differently.  He was planning on including the Casablanca group in the proposed Addis Abeba meeting.

To show Ethiopia’s goodwill, he sent a telegram to the Emperor asking him to make a brief appearance in the Lagos meeting to thank the leaders for accepting the invitation to attend the meeting in Addis Ababa. This is when the Emperor made his “we belong to one group, the Africa group’s speech.

Ketema would then propose that the Emperor invite President Ahmed Sekou Toure of Guinea to Ethiopia, who was one of the leading members of the Casablanca group.  The Emperor graciously accepted Ketema’s advice.

Upon his arrival, the Ethiopians would convince President Sekou Toure that the division was endangering the continent. He agreed and both leaders released a communique pleading for the end of the hostilities and declared the Addis Abeba meeting will be an all-out African summit.

Ketema Yifru was tasked with convincing all leaders from both groups to take part in the summit.  He travelled to all of the independent African countries to convince the leaders to participate in the forthcoming Addis Ababa summit. The task at hand was difficult, but in the end, he was able to convince all thirty two Heads of State. No one had imagined that it would be possible, but members of the Casablanca and Monrovia Groups would converge on Addis Abeba in May 1963, merging to form the Organization of African Unity.

Incidentally, Ketema Yifru had proposed the creation of a regional Organization of African States in the 1961 United Nations General Assembly. He had said, “we call upon our sister states in Africa to join in the creation, under Article 52 of the United Nations Charter, of a regional Organization of African States, the basic and fundamental task of which will be to furnish the mechanism whereby problems which arise on the continent and which are of primary interest to the region could, in the first instance, be dealt by Africans, in an African forum, free from outside influence and pressure.

Nelson Mandela Ethiopian Passport
Mr Mandela’s fake Ethiopian passport, issued in 1962, in the name of David Motsamayi. (Photo:

Some have suggested that the Casablanca and the Monrovia group resolved their differences by themselves and jetted to Addis Abeba to create the OAU. However, nothing can be further from the truth. The fact remains that it was Emperor Haile Selassie and Foreign Minister Ketema Yifru’s Herculean diplomatic efforts that made this possible.

Former Ambassador Ayalew Mandefro in an article headlined, “Farewell! Ketema Yifru‚¬”It was the cumulative experiences he gained from such meetings that helped Ketema most in playing a leading role in the African political landscape of the sixties during which Ethiopia was crowned to seat  the headquarters of the Organization of African Unity. It was an enviable prize with which Ketema was closely identified after competing with oil rich Nigeria, mineral wealthy Zaire and French backed Senegal.

Recently, I read a dissertation, written by Belete Belachew, detailing Ethiopia’s involvement in the creation of the OAU.  I was deeply touched to read an excerpt of a telegram written to Ketema Yifru by the staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) in 1964 regarding the declarations of the Cairo Summit. The Heads of State had accepted the Dakar Foreign Minister’s Conference recommendations that Addis Abeba become the headquarters of the OAU. The excerpt reads, “We, the entire staff of the MoFA, would like to express our heartfelt happiness on the successful completion of the mission, for the attainment of which you [Ketema] had sustained a sleepless and very taxing ordeal.

In the 1960s,Ethiopia would also become the leading supporter of African freedom movement fighters.  The Ethiopians provided funds to freedom fighters and they also awarded scholarships and military training to their brothers who were trying to rid themselves of colonial rule.

A good example of this was Nelson Mandela. Mandela had his military training i Ethiopia and was also travelling with an Ethiopian passport.  The contribution of the Ethiopians was well noted by Mandela in his book entitled, “Long Walk to Freedom. Mandela had also kept mementos from his days in Ethiopia. To quote former Ambassador Ayalew Mandefro “some thirty years ago, when the white South African police apprehended Nelson Mandela, two articles were confiscated from his pocket: one was the memento from Emperor Haile Selassie and the other was a small photo of Ketema Yifru which Mandela kept from his days in Ethiopia.

Ambassador Ayalew reflecting on Ketema’s contribution to the liberation of colonial Africa wrote, “It was he, more than any other Ethiopian Foreign Minister in memory, who diligently supported African freedom movement fighters during their trying periods of political struggles en-route to independence. Taking arduous trips throughout Africa, it was Ketema’s unending diplomatic initiatives in Africa, not to mention his other efforts outside Africa that helped Ethiopia achieve a most successful foreign policy during the eventful period of the sixties.

The Ethiopians would also push for the final end of colonialism in the highest international forum. Ketema voiced his government’s stand in his speech at the 1961 United Nations General Assembly, “We feel certain that this struggle in which so many of us have participated will come to a triumphant conclusion. In order to ensure that the final stages of this development are not delayed or hindered, we urge, in the words of the Declaration adopted by the Conference of Non-Aligned States at Belgrade, and I quote, « The immediate, unconditional, total and final abolition of colonialism» We can settle for no less and will be satisfied with nothing else.

During the 1960s and early 1970s,Ethiopia played a leading role in solving conflicts around the continent of Africa. The Ethiopian government under the leadership of Emperor Haile Selassie, assisted by his Foreign Minister Ketema Yifru, played a leading role in resolving the 1963 Algeria-Morocco Conflict; Nigerian civil war; Congolese conflict in Katanga; and the Sudanese civil war.

Emperor Haile Selassie, the African Diplomat
Emperor Haile Selassie, the African Diplomat

Their effort in helping their continent was duly noted by their fellow Africans.  The Emperor became known as the“Father of Africa” and Ketema’s name became a household name in Africa.  Ambassador Ayalew, for instance, wrote, “In fact, for a long time, Ketema Yifru was a household name that appeared daily with high regard and affection in the news media throughout Africa.

A former Liberian Information Minister once wrote me, “As a young Liberian living in Monrovia and obsessed with one day becoming a radio newscaster, Ketema Yifru was one of the names I used to like to pronounce.

Gwendolyn Carter in her book titled, “National Unity and Regionalism in Eight African States, which was published in 1966, reflecting on the Ethiopian contribution to the creation of the OAU wrote, “what Nasser or Nkrumah or the Casablanca or Monrovia or Brazzaville grouping could not do, Haile Selassie accomplished with little difficulty.

Indeed, the Emperor and his Foreign Minister played a leading role in ridding their continent of colonial rule and they were actively involved in finding peaceful solutions to several conflicts in Africa. The continent was grateful for their efforts in the 1960s.

The question now remains: Will the new generation of Africans remember them on the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the OAU?

Makonnen Ketema is the son of Ketema Yifru. He can be reached at: 
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