Interview with Dr. Ayele Bekerie

Professor Ayele Bekerie in New York, November 2018. (Tadias photo)

Tadias Magazine
By Tadias Staff

Updated: March 2nd, 2019

The Concept Behind the Adwa Pan-African University: Interview with Dr. Ayele Bekerie

New York (TADIAS) — Establishing the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia was a monumental moment in history. It was a nod of acknowledgement for Ethiopia’s maintenance of its independence from colonization as well as its deep support for the decolonization of the African continent. A new university is now being established as Adwa Pan-African University (APAU), and it is envisioned as a timely gift from Ethiopia to Africans worldwide.

The university, which is set to be built on a beautiful 150 acres in the foothills of Adwa, will have a panoramic view of the town’s legendary mountains — where the scene of Ethiopia’s resounding victory against the invading Italian forces occurred on March 1st, 1896. APAU will serve as one of the leading centers of academic research and study exploring contemporary and historical Pan-African issues.

In an interview with Tadias, Professor Ayele Bekerie, who is managing the project, said that the new institution is also a tribute to Ethiopian history and the triumph at Adwa that marked “the beginning of the end of colonization around the continent and beyond.”

“Why are we establishing a university as opposed to a museum? asked Dr. Ayele. “Because university is a place where knowledge is produced; it’s a place where you have a sense of permanency.” He added: “It’s a cultural institution in which we are able to study all issues pertaining to the African people. You research it, write about it, analyze it, critique it, evaluate it and in the process you generate knowledge. And once you have knowledge and data then you can utilize that information to engage and converse with the world on your own terms and with your own original ideas.”

The land for the university was donated “with the generosity of the people of Adwa as well as the regional and federal governments,” Dr. Ayele said. “The Ethiopian government has given us initial seed money of 200 million birr to build the school.” Dr. Ayele pointed out that it’s equally important to mention that the idea to build APAU came from citizens, not the government. “We are also looking at several other sources of local, regional and international funding including partnerships with UNESCO and the African Union.”

Dr. Ayele, who is an Ethiopian-American scholar is an Associate Professor and Coordinator of the PhD Program in Heritage Studies as well as Coordinator of International Affairs department at Mekelle University’s Institute of Paleo-Environment and Heritage Conservation. He is also a contributing author in the acclaimed book, One House: The Battle of Adwa 1896 -100 Years, and the author of the award-winning book Ethiopic, An African Writing System: Its History and Principles. Dr. Ayele was back in the U.S. this past fall promoting the concept for Adwa Pan African University among his academic colleagues in the United States and within the Ethiopian community in the New York/Tri-state area. His stops included Cornel University where he was previously an Assistant Professor at the Africana Studies and Research Center before returning to Ethiopia; as well as Columbia University, The Schomburg Center in Harlem, and Howard University in Washington, D.C.

“Part of my trip here was to recruit scholars that can help us build this momentous institution,” Dr. Ayele told Tadias. “In fact a very prominent Pan-African scholar at Cornell University, who was my former advisor, is willing to come and work with us is in building the curriculum and so it’s those kind of scholars not only from the U.S. but also Africa who are eager to participate and we are happy to attract.”

Dr. Ayele noted that in April 2018 a major international conference was held in Adwa, to discuss the launching of the new university, where invitees included scholars from the United States, Europe and Asia.

“At that conference we identified the key tasks that needed to be carried out in order to bring the establishment of the university into reality,” Dr. Ayele said. “We constituted four committees: on curriculum, architecture, fundraising, as well as documentation and archive.”

Dr. Ayele says this effort also includes identifying existing African cultural centers across the globe. “For instance you have the Mandela Center in South Africa,” notes Dr. Ayele. “You have the Senghor Cultural center in Senegal, you have the Nkrumah and Du Bois cultural centers in Ghana, and they have this fascinating museum that houses Adwa collections at St. Petersburg in Russia, because Russia was an ally of Ethiopia during the battle,” Dr. Ayele continued. “The Russians worked as Red Cross volunteers and were strong supporters of the Ethiopian cause, which the world does not know, and because of that they have an excellent collection from the battle. So this university is going to link itself to all of these various institutions.”

In terms of its curriculum, Dr. Ayele shared that they’ll start with a graduate program and the major fields will focus on humanities, social sciences, information sciences and technology. Dr. Ayele said some scholars who came for the international conference last April also suggested that they include military science primarily “to demonstrate that the battle of Adwa was not a fluke – there was specific military tactics and strategies that were utilized in order to decisively defeat the Italians,” Dr. Ayele emphasized. “So we have to build on that tradition and study the military science of African people.”

Dr. Ayele added that “it is not too difficult to start with a graduate program. In general it requires that you identify Pan-African scholars in the world and ask them to supervise the research work of students who are going to enroll in our program. So we intend to start with Masters and PhD level curriculum, and after that depending on the strength that we have, we’ll start an undergraduate program.”

“The vision is that students will be recruited from all corners of Africa as well as the Diaspora and acceptance will be merit-based,” Dr. Ayele shares. “The center of excellence is Pan-Africanism, meaning defining, analyzing, interpreting and advancing Pan-African issues. So it’s not going to be an ordinary university. It’s going to be a stand-alone institution that will be studying, promoting, protecting and explaining the interest of the African people as well as finding a way for Africans to live in peace with themselves and in peace with the rest of the world. That’s our vision. So when we open this institution we are not going to limit our activities only to Ethiopia, Africa or a particular ethnic group or tribe; we’re going to link ourselves as a member of the globe so it will enable us to think and look at and search for the bigger picture,” Dr. Ayele argued. “That’s very important especially in the context of what’s going on now.” He said: “Because it’s when you start to project yourself beyond your immediate identity that you start to kind of recognize the enormity of your own history and making it richer.”

Ayele reminds us that the first important congress of Pan-Africanism was held in London in 1900, four years after Ethiopia’s victory at the battle of Adwa. “What’s interesting is that immediately after the victory at the Battle of Adwa a Pan-Africanist by the name of Dr. Benito Sylvain — a Haitian who used to live in Paris — traveled to Ethiopia to congratulate Menelik, and had extended an invitation to the Emperor to attend the London conference.” Although Menelik did not travel to England personally he appointed Dr. Sylvain to represent Ethiopia at the gathering. “What’s important here is that 4 years after the victory at the Battle of Adwa you have Ethiopia being engaged in Pan-African issues,” Ayele said. “Of course in those times the most pressing issue was colonialism, and therefore this movement established first to articulate the interests of African people, and then to fight against colonialism. So that particular conference is directly linked to Adwa and there is a historical Pan-African connection there.”

The building of the university is also in line with agenda 2063, which is a resolution passed by the African Union “projecting what kind of people we are going to become, and the kind of unity that we’re going to establish by the 100th anniversary of the AU,” Dr. Ayele explained. “That was resolved during the 50th anniversary of the African Union some few years back. So now we are at a moment where Africans are thinking, critiquing and evaluating what they regard is their place in the world.”

As the concept paper for the university shared with Tadias highlights:

The Battle of Adwa is well documented and its literature can be found in almost all the major libraries of the world. Institutions of higher learning, and in some cases, high schools have incorporated the Battle and its outcome in their curricula. And yet at the very site of the battlefield, in Adwa, there are no battlefield markers, museums, or monuments. Historically, while Adwa signifies resistance and freedom to the people of Africa, Adwa remains unmarked and undeveloped. The historic victory appears to have more significance outside than inside the country. It is therefore critical to capture the dynamics and meanings of the victory at Adwa for posterity and for the generations to come. Hence, there was a widespread call and a succeeding unanimous approval, locally and internationally, for the establishment of Adwa Pan-African University (APAU).

Adwa is the spark for the global Pan-African Movement. Adwa imparts can do-ness and affirms the possible. It is undoubtedly a source of inspiration for anti-colonial struggles. This key symbol of resistance and freedom deserves a permanent institution to document and narrate the Battle. It is therefore necessary to establish an institution that is capable of perpetuating the victory and its Pan-African implications for generations. It is in this context that the need for the establishment of APAU was announced and measures for its implementation were adopted. APAU, which is the first of its kind, strives to immortalize the victory at the 1896 Battle of Adwa. The lessons from the preparation to the Battle, the coming together of virtually all Ethiopians in defense of their country and ultimately their victory remain historic and educational. The lessons are the basis for the establishment of a Pan-African institution of higher learning. Successfully repulsing the colonial aggressor imparts lessons valuable to all freedom lovers in the world.

Ethiopia: The Victory of Adwa, An Exemplary Triumph to the Rest of Africa
Adwa: Genesis of Unscrambled Africa
119 Years Anniversary of Ethiopia’s Victory at the Battle of Adwa on March 1st, 1896
Reflection on 118th Anniversary of Ethiopia’s Victory at Adwa
The Significance of the 1896 Battle of Adwa
Call for the Registry of Adwa as UNESCO World Heritage Site

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