In the minds of most Australians, Ethiopia is the land of famine, drought, and war. For Greek Australians, the country evokes more complex connotations, given historical ties between Ethiopia and Greece that stem from ancient times and the presence of a consequential Greek community within that country. When 57-year-old Prince Ermias Sahle Selassie, president of the Crown Council of Ethiopia enters the room, he smiles disarmingly and grasps my hand. He is in Melbourne, having come from Canberra, where he met with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, attended a special parliamentary reception hosted by Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne, laid a wreath at the Australian War Memorial in the company of Dr Brendan Nelson and a host of other senior political figures. All I can think of is that the hand that I am grasping once grasped the hand of his grandfather, the Emperor Haile Selassie, known as the Lion of Judah, one of the most significant African leaders in history. He sits down and we begin to chat.
Welcome to Australia. What is the purpose of your visit?
It is great to be here. I am here commemorating the 50th anniversary of my grandfather Emperor Haile Selassie’s official visit to Australia. I am also exploring closer investment ties with Australian mining companies who operate in Africa. Furthermore, I am delighted to be connecting with the remarkable Ethiopian Australian community here.
In the minds of many, Ethiopia and Australia are poles apart . . .
And yet we are connected in so many ways. I was astounded arriving here to notice that the light is extremely similar to that in Ethiopia. Of course, eucalyptus trees are native to Australia, and Addis Ababa is ringed with them. The broad flat plains also remind me of Ethiopia. Then there are the ‘Waler’ horses that were used to provide mounts for the ceremonial guard during imperial times – these also came from Australia. Our soldiers fought alongside each other during the Korean War. My understanding is that cricket, which is a popular sport among some Ethiopians, was introduced by Australians. And of course, I am very proud of and grateful for Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia, an obstetric fistula hospital founded and run by Australians. Finally, Australia is the land of the fair go. For much of its modern history Ethiopia led the struggle for a fair go for African people, through my grandfather’s campaign for African decolonialisation.
Ethiopia is as polyethnic and as religiously diverse as Australia. How would you compare its experience in managing social cohesion, as compared with Australia?
You have to understand that each society developed under different conditions, though there are some superficial similarities. For much of its history, Ethiopia developed in isolation and Australia too has been seen historically to be an isolated country. As a result, each country is able to form unique societies that reflect the aspirations of its people. The process of Ethiopia forming as a conglomeration of peoples of diverse languages and faiths that espouse an Ethiopian identity has evolved over millennia. Australia’s multicultural society is a more recent phenomenon. That it is one which works can be evidenced by the way in which the Ethiopian community has been welcomed here and the extent to which it has been interwoven into Australian society so successfully, something for which I am extremely grateful.
How do you view the Ethiopian community in Australia?
I am in awe of the way that the Ethiopian community here is maintaining its sense of family, faith, culture and language and passing it on to the next generation.
I’m interested in your choice of order of those words…
One completes and fulfils the other. A family is network of people who share a common vision and care about each other. That vision is underlined by a belief system, whatever that may be. What emerges from the process of caring for each other in furthering that vision is culture and language is what articulates it. As such, the family is the microcosm of the entire nation. And the faith is so important.
You are referring here to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Why is it so important?
It provides continuity. The Church has been present in Ethiopia since at least 330AD. It provides a common narrative of identity for all its adherents. Of course, people-to-people relations are so important. Since the 1974 Revolution, a concerted effort was made to efface certain aspects of Ethiopia’s history and identity. Some of these, including our faith, were lovingly maintained and protected by the people, something I was moved to see here in Australia. Wherever I went, I was treated with great friendliness and enthusiasm. I was moved to be approached by one elderly gentleman, who served as interpreter to my grandfather, Emperor Haile Selassie, on his state visit to Australia. He was Pastor Sir Douglas Nicholls’ son in law, an important and inspirational man and a role model for the Aboriginal community, which was proof to me as to how intrinsic the Ethiopian community is to multicultural Australia. One thing I stressed to the young Ethiopian Australians I met was this: “Never forget the sacrifices your parents have made to get you here. And never forget that you are Australians. Next time I see you, I want you to be able to tell me: I am a doctor, I am a scientist, I am a builder. Make something special of yourselves.” In this process, I think the Greek community of Australia is a sound role model.
You would, of course, be aware that in our community there are many Greeks who were born or lived in Ethiopia, or who are married to Ethiopians. How do you view the relations between Ethiopia and Greece?
Where do I begin? We are kindred spirits. We go so far back in history. I don’t need to tell you how prominently Ethiopia is featured in Greek mythology, or the works of the ancient Greek historians. Nor that the first Ethiopian coins were minted with Greek inscriptions, with Greek being an important language of the Ethiopian court for a long time. It was a Greek, Saint Frumentius, who became the first bishop of Ethiopia and our common faith has been the cornerstone of our relationship. During Byzantine times, both our empires were in constant alliance and they were considered the north and south poles of civilisation itself. Between them, they forged policies of collective security as sophisticated as those we see in place in the modern world. Both of them were isolated and had to fight for survival. As you stated, in modern times, Ethiopia has played host to a Greek migrant community, with silversmiths from northern Greece settling in the country as early as the 1750s.
I should mention that my grandfather loved Greece. He first visited it as regent in 1924, where he met the president of the republic Admiral Paul Kountouriotis, and Archbishop Chrsyostom of Athens. He also saw an ancient Greek tragedy at the Herodeion and this had a profound impression on him. As emperor, he returned to Greece in 1954, where he funded the reconstruction of a hospital in Liksouri, Kefallonia, which had been damaged by the 1953 earthquake. There was [a] personal connection here, as my grandfather’s personal physician, Jacob Zervos, was from there. You may also be interested to know that my grandfather was given an honorary doctorate by the University of Thessaloniki in 1965.
On a personal note, I would say this: I fell in love with Greece the moment I stepped foot there. The light, the land, the friendliness of the people . . . I felt the bond between our two nations very deeply. How can I not love that country? Apart from the age-old ties we have, how could I not be eternally grateful to Greece for taking in so many Ethiopians, including members of my own family, after the Derg came to power in 1974? Greece for me will always be light and freedom. Visiting this country, and having met so many lovely Greek Australians here only further cements that love. Of course my dream is to visit Mount Athos, one which I hope I realise in the near future.
I suppose one of the things we have in common is that we are both members of a diaspora. What effect have the political developments in Ethiopia since the 1974 Revolution, causing you to leave your country, had in shaping your ethnic and cultural identity?
I learned that the world is a much larger place than I first thought. That there are a multiplicity of perspectives through which things can be viewed, and that respecting and celebrating difference, while at the same time focusing on those things that we have in common. In many ways, when you are away from your country, you are compelled to look at it from the outside in a way you wouldn’t do had you remained. The sense of family and history also becomes extremely important, especially when you live away from home and are subject to innumerable other influences. Of course, since obtaining my Ethiopian passport ten years ago, I have been back many times.
Continuity and history are manifestly important to you. The Ethiopian imperial dynasty has one of the longest lineages in the world. Yet this is a world that is constantly changing. Can the monarch still be relevant to Ethiopia?
I believe that the longevity of the dynasty means that as an institution it is a part of the nation’s psyche. My family traces its history to the union of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The monarchy can provide unity, stability, tolerance, and a rallying point for Ethiopians of diverse languages and faiths. Ultimately though, that decision belongs to the people. They will decide what is good for them. The important thing is for Ethiopia to remain alive.
Do you fear that Ethiopia’s existence is threatened in any way?
No. Ethiopia has been through a lot over the course of the past few centuries and we have managed to survive. We are a resilient people. We need to safeguard that survival and create an Ethiopia that is peaceful, prosperous and able to afford opportunities for a good life to all its citizens. In order to do that, we need to foster the socio-economic development of the country, and heal the traumas caused by the Revolution and the Civil War.
Almost half of the population of Ethiopia is Muslim. ISIS is raging in Libya, there is a porous border with Somalia where a number of Islamic militant groups operate, Boko Haram in West Africa and of course, ISIS terrorism in Egypt. Is religious fundamentalism one of the factors that you believe threatens the existence of Ethiopia?
No. Both Christianity and Islam are indigenous religions of Ethiopia. As a result, they have developed side by side and have had centuries to work out an equilibrium, so you don’t see religious clashes or terrorism in Ethiopia to anywhere near the extent of other countries in the broader region.
Yet, five years ago, Syria was being held up as a similar example of religious tolerance . . .
The difference is this; you need to give each sector of society, each faith, a stake in the country, a feeling that they are part of the country and the country is part of them. Where you persecute, fence in, or restrict minorities, you create a weak society and a vulnerable one. These vulnerabilities can be exploited and cause societies to implode. This is what I believe, happened in Syria. I do not believe it will happen in Ethiopia because I say, there, members of all faiths partake in all aspects of governance and have done so since imperial times. This is something my grandfather the emperor felt very strongly about. We need to work in maintaining and broadening this approach as there is increased tribalism in Ethiopia.
With that in mind, how do you evaluate the political and social developments of Ethiopia since the Mengistu era?
Ethiopia has changed markedly. When I left, it was a country with a population of that of Australia and now it has a population of 100 million. Ethiopia is rapidly developing and it is my opinion that there is great potential of sustainable growth as a dynamic part of a broader Indian Ocean economic market. We are still not self-sufficient in food production, and 85 per cent of the population is still involved in subsistence farming, but that situation is improving. Job creation is of vital importance. African nations need to create opportunities for their people, and not see them all leave to seek those opportunities elsewhere. Finally, we need government that is open and stable in order to secure appropriate long-term investment. There needs to be a move away from strong political personalities, towards strong institutions that will provide Ethiopia with the good governance it needs in order to attract investment.
In that context, how do you view the significant Chinese investment in Ethiopia and the African region in general?
I am eternally grateful for the investment of the Chinese in our infrastructure. They invested at a time when no-one else was willing to do so. However, a prudent development plan must be one of balanced diversification, where no one investor dominates. During my grandfather’s time, we had investment from both the West and the Eastern bloc and that was in my opinion, appropriate. Ideal investment will create jobs for the people and create technology and skills exchange. I am convinced that diversity of investment and investors will best facilitate this. I also believe that a greater cooperation between African states will cement stability and economic development.
What does it mean to you to be a Prince of the Ethiopian House?
To try to be exemplary, a role model. To facilitate the creation of a strong identity and instil a sense of pride in people of African descent. Ultimately, to provide them with a sense of destiny, and equality, based on a native tradition. In this I am privileged because I have so many examples of members of my family I can draw from, over a protracted period of time.
What is your most enduring memory of your grandfather the Emperor Haile Selassie?
On a personal level it is this: His kindness and love of animals. He was extremely tender towards small children and kind to animals. He derived immense pleasure from his pets, and had an affinity [for] nature that I feel can only come from a true understanding of Africa.
How do you view his legacy? What examples can you personally draw from such a legacy?
It was one of courage, definitely. My grandfather was betrayed many times during his life, yet he was tenacious and never gave up. He had an extraordinary capacity for forgiveness that I still draw upon. He constantly stood up for the underprivileged and the vulnerable. It is no small thing for the leader of an African nation to denounce the League of Nations as ineffectual, when Italy invaded Ethiopia, nor for him after the war, to challenge the world powers of the day to afford dignity to African peoples by granting their colonies independence. Collegiality and collectivism, certainly. My grandfather was a driving force behind the creation of the Organization for African Unity, whose foundation conference took place in Addis Ababa. He also believed in theological unity and sponsored the Addis Ababa conference where talks were held exploring the unity of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches. His championship of the United Nations was based on his firm belief that all nations had to band together to guarantee collective security. At his initiative, Ethiopia participated in collective security operations, including in Korea and Congo, creating a precedent as being a trustworthy African mediator that modern Ethiopia can build upon. He was not afraid to speak out for the sufferings, calling for the Vietnam War to end on several occasions. At the same time he was an outspoken proponent of African Americans’ Civil Rights legislation in the 1950s and 1960s. As such he gave hope to millions. Finally, generosity. My grandfather was constantly involved in charitable works In 1959, my grandfather left [the home he bought and lived in while in exile] during the Second World War – Fairfield House, Bath – to the City of Bath for the use of the aged. My grandfather’s legacy is thus a multifaceted but ultimately, an inspiring one, based on selflessness. He was often compelled to make difficult decisions, which he believed were for the benefit of his country, at great personal cost.
I wish you all the best for the rest of your stay in Australia.
I am so inspired to have been given the opportunity to visit this remarkable country and to have met so many outstanding and welcoming Australians, including members of the Greek Australian community. You are the yardstick by which the success of Australia’s multicultural society is to be measured and an exemplar of the successful integration of minority groups within the broader melting pot. I wish you every success.