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A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste! (Part I) – Al Mariam

By Alemayehu G. Mariam

Author’s Note:

In 1972, the United Negro College Fund launched a very successful advertising slogan, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” It was part of a fundraising campaign aimed at enrolling young beautiful black minds from low income families into historically black colleges.

In 2022, Black students made up 12% of the student population at 4-year US public higher educational institutions. In 2022, the percentage of people in US prisons or jails who are Black is over 38 percent.

What a terrible waste of beautiful black minds!

This commentary is intended to be a clarion call to Ethiopian intellectuals to stop wasting their minds; and with the fierce of urgency of now to pull back from the abyss of reactionary toxic ethnic/tribal politics and become revolutionary forces —  intellectual vanguards — of national reconciliation, development and prosperity.

This commentary is quintessentially about one thing: “Ethiopian minds are the only sources and crucibles of solutions to Ethiopian problems.”

Whatever problems Ethiopia has is not going to be solved by the West or the East. It will not be solved superpowers or regional powers. It will not be solved by multilateral banks and institutions.

Ethiopia’s problems will be solved only by beautiful Ethiopian minds innovating, creating, inventing, imagining, envisioning, researching,  civilly discussing, dialoguing, arguing and debating.

But beautiful Ethiopian minds are wasting and atrophying before our eyes.

Those with the knowledge and knowhow, especially in the diaspora, would rather talk about problems than offer concrete and constructive solutions. Most of us suffer arrested intellectual development and have become pitiful noisemakers.

Much of the diaspora Ethiopian intellectual horsepower and candlepower remains idle, and without an organized body to transfer it to Ethiopia and transform Ethiopian society, economy and politics.

There is a myth about human beings using only 10 percent of their brainpower. I wonder, having observed politics in Ethiopia for the past one-half century, what fraction of the 10 percent we are using.

Most Ethiopian intellectuals want to change Ethiopia but seem incapable of changing themselves. They remain trapped in the quicksand of ethnic politics and spinning their wheels in a quagmire of intellectual mendacity and dishonesty, while Ethiopia drowns in a sea of poverty.

The mind changes the world, indeed the universe. Albert Einstein changed the world when he thought out an equation, E = mc² , that opened the gates of discovery to the universe. Energy and mass are different forms of the same thing. This three-letter equation forever changed human understanding of space, time, gravity, and the universe.

The gates of the universe opened when humans opened their minds to the gates of the universe.

The gates to Ethiopia’s prosperity will open when Ethiopians open their eyes and minds and behold the extraordinary wealth they have in their land, history, culture, traditions and the galvanizing potential of the current generation of youth to propel Ethiopia to the heights of prosperity.

From time immemorial, there has been only one Ethiopia.

There is only one Ethiopia today.

There will be only one Ethiopia until Kingdom Come.

Ethiopia today stands at the fork in the road.

One road is called “Prosperity.” The other “Poverty.”

Prosperity Road is the one much less traveled by the Ethiopian people.

Poverty Road is a dirt road full of potholes and crisscrosses Ethiopia.

It passes  through every village, town, hamlet, city, municipality and community.

Everywhere Poverty Road traverses in Ethiopia, its destination is one and the same.

Poverty Road’s destination is always a dead-end.

It is the noble and sacred duty of Ethiopia’s intellectuals to pave over Poverty Road and use our minds to turn Ethiopia it into multilane highways and freeways of prosperity and progress.

In all the years I have toiled to leave my fingerprint on a rising and soaring Ethiopia, I have been obsessed and haunted by one existential question:

If I don’t do it, who will?

For much of the time, working on the “IT” has been a labor of love.

But God knows that “IT” has also been a crown of thorns on my head and caused me endless heartbreak and much bellyache.

For me, working on the “IT” has been, among other things, manning the modern trenches in cyberspace, (certainly not to be compared in the least to my great forefathers who manned the trenches in the battlefield), defending Ethiopia’s honor, dignity, unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty against enemies foreign and domestic.

The “IT” today is different. The “IT” consists of homegrown terrorists working with their powerful foreign allies – governments, media press-titutes, think tank gunners in the pay of intelligence services, hired hand academics, washed up has-been diplomats and outlaw-makers who want to legislate over Ethiopia. Fighting them 24/7/365 has been a test of fortitude, perseverance and courage.

Ethiopian minds, hearts and guts kept Ethiopia free and independent for thousands of years.

Ethiopian minds, hearts and guts will keep Ethiopia free, independent and prosperous until Kingdom Come.

The old saying is true. There is no fool like an old fool. An old fool fears nothing and therefore asks impossible to answer questions.

It is equally true that “some men and women see things as they are and ask why.”

An old fool dreams of things that never were and asks, “Why not?”

One old fool sees the minds of generations of Ethiopians wasted, and perplexed in the extreme and tortured in the soul, cries out, “It is a terrible think to waste a mind!”

That same old fool — undaunted, steadfast, undiscouraged and resolute — now declares a battle cry: “S.O.E.Y. (Save Our Ethiopian Youth.)”

I see millions of Ethiopian youth yearning, craving and hungering —  to learn, to imagine, to discover, to innovate, to create, to invent — and ask myself and Ethiopia’s diaspora intellectuals, “Why not help them?”

Why not?

Is it not terrible to waste one Ethiopian mind, millions of young Ethiopian minds?

Aren’t prosperity and progress built on a foundation of knowledge cemented with imagination, discovery, innovation, creativity and invention?


Let me begin with a public confession

For more than a decade, I have been haranguing Ethiopian intellectuals for what I perceived to be their lack of concern, engagement, outrage and blasé attitude over Ethiopia’s plight.

Haranguing may be an understatement. I have been indicting them for the crime of indifference.

Of course, my perception of lack of concern is likely influenced by my own single-minded, relentless, obsessive, uncompromising, and some may say fanatical preoccupation, with the defense of Ethiopia’s honor, dignity, unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty.

For the record, I plead “no contest” to the charges.

In my June 22, 2010 commentary, I exhorted:

Ethiopian intellectuals to exchange their armchairs for the public benches and leave their comfort zones of passivity and silence to become advocates of peaceful change and democracy in their homeland.

At the time, I was on a Diogenian search for Ethiopian intellectuals.

Legend has it the Greek philosopher Diogenes, the putative founder of the school of Cynicism, walked the streets of ancient Athens sticking a lamp in the faces of his fellow Athenians in broad daylight.

Asked why he was engaged in such strange behavior, Diogenes explained he was looking for an honest man.

Like Diogenes, I “walked” the hallowed grounds and ivory towers of Western academia, searched the cloistered spaces of the arts and scientific professions and even traversed the lawless frontiers of cyberspace with torchlight in hand looking for honest Ethiopian intellectuals ready, willing and able to engage in a struggle to keep Ethiopia free, independent, united and prosperous and ready to take down our historic deadly enemies: POVERTY, DISUNITY, INEQUALITY, MORBID POLITICS OF ETHNICTY, STUPIDITY AND ANIMOSITY.

The aim of my June 2010 commentary was to name and shame Ethiopian intellectuals for their pusillanimity, opportunism, duplicity, machinations and chicanery.

In retrospect, it was also a moralizing sermon about the “failure of Ethiopian intellectuals” and to criticize them for things they have done, not done, undone or should have done in self-righteous indignation.

At the time, I wanted to spark public discussion, dialogue and debate that could transform, indeed galvanize, Ethiopian intellectuals into becoming a vanguard of constructive ideas for an Ethiopian renaissance, an Ethiopian Enlightenment.

Indeed, an Ethiopian Enlightenment in which we can apply our minds and reason to overcome ignorance, ethnic and tribal hate and prejudice, poverty and disease and build a Great Ethiopia.

I argued Ethiopian intellectuals have a moral obligation not to turn a blind eye to the government wrongs in their homeland, and have an affirmative duty to act in the defense of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

I urged them to enter the public arena and take on the issues (become public intellectuals). I hectored and sermonized:

I see an artificial deficit in the supply of transformational and visionary Ethiopian thinkers, with revolutionary ideas to re-invent Ethiopian society. Such thinkers are out there but have chosen to remain disengaged. I would like to see them engaged more. At this critical time in Ethiopia’s history, I believe Ethiopian intellectuals must take a leading and active role in the public debate to shape the future of their homeland. I am unapologetic in demanding their intense involvement in teaching, inspiring and preparing Ethiopia’s youth within and outside the country to build a fair and just society and forge a united Ethiopian nation.

I was disappointed to find out trapped in fear religiously practicing self-censorship and self-marginalization.

It all fell on deaf ears!

But I did not stop the sermons.

I kept on urging them to speak and write and taunted them not to become  “summer soldiers, sunshine patriots” and fair-weathered fans of freedom, democracy and human rights.”

I challenged them to come up with a better plan of government if they do not like the current one.

No one ever responded to my call to action.

Undaunted, I kept marching on and on taking comfort in Thoreau’s counsel:

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

I kept on marching inspired by Carl Sandburg’s verse:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Indeed, Ethiopia is lovely and dark, a land of mystery, a dreamland.

And I have made her many promises to keep.

That is why I have miles and miles and miles to go before I sleep!

Ethiopia at the crossroad: Road to salvation or perdition

In 2023, Ethiopians find themselves at the crossroad.

We can march forward confident in the future to a promised land of prosperity, dignity, fraternity, equality and common humanity.

Or we can walk back and freefall into a bottomless vortex of poverty, the shameful politics of ethnicity and live in a society gripped by inhumanity, cruelty, enmity and irrationality.

We can make a right turn and uphold human rights and undo human wrongs. We can be on the right side of history and do right by the people of Ethiopia.

Or we can turn left and be left behind. We can sit on the dock of the bay watching the ship of change sail into a brave new future. We can stand on the platform and watch the train of prosperity leave the station carrying those who have confidence in themselves, their country and the future.

We have a choice to make!

Do we want the Old Ethiopia mired in poverty, the destructive politics of ethnicity and “kililized” territoriality?

Or do we want a New Ethiopia of prosperity, unity, community, accountability, civility and rationality?

We can choose the path of democracy and representative government or go back to the days of fake elektions and demokracy.

We can continue with “kililistans” (apartheid-style bantustans) or build a true federalism of divided and shared powers between the national and subnational governments.

We can choose between the rule of law and the rule of men of terror and the rule of foreign invisible hands.

For the past five years, Ethiopia has shown a magnificent trajectory out an ethnic dictatorship into multiparty democracy, rule of law and expansion of civil liberties.

No one except those whose souls are fatally infected by the corona virus of self-hate and hate of others, the Forces of Darkness foreign and domestic and the dregs of history can deny Ethiopia’s irreversible march to democracy and freedom.

No doubt, the road Ethiopia has taken over the past five years has been bumpy and jarring, but the road map remains clear: Ethiopia is rising and shining above the petty politics of ethnicity, sectarianism and communalism.

The inert, comatose and useless practitioners of ethnic and sectarian politics should learn one lesson: “Ethiopia built and preserved with the blood, sweat and tears of unlettered and illiterate patriots will not be destroyed by educated ignoramuses.”

At this particular moment in Ethiopian history, Ethiopian intellectuals face an existential crisis.

It is time to fish or cut bait. It is time to choose.

The time for fence sitting, flip flopping, vacillating, equivocating and waffling is over.

“I see nothing, hear nothing, know nothing, say nothing” is not an option.

“Let me see. I need to think about it. Maybe…” is not on the table.

Turning a deaf ear, blind eyes and muted lips are unavailable luxuries.

Hiding in the herd of the silent majority is not possible. Being lost in groupthink is futile.

To paraphrase the great Bard of Avon, there is only one question:

To be, or not to be in Ethiopia’s vanguard,
Whether ’tis ignobler in the mind to stand and watch the people suffer
The slings and arrows of the West’s and their terrorists’ outrageous misfortunes,
Or to take arms against a sea of poverty
And by opposing with prosperity end it.

The time now is to put our shoulders to the wheel and noses to the grindstone and join in the heavy lifting crew on the Ethiopian construction site.

But who will lead the way?

The crisis and paralysis of Ethiopian intellectuals: A mind is a terrible thing to waste!

Who are Ethiopia’s intellectuals?

First, the term “intellectual” is ambiguous and open to debate.

When I talk about Ethiopian “intellectuals”, I am using the term rather loosely to include a diverse group of academics, writers, artists, lawyers, journalists, physicians, philosophers, social and political thinkers and others.

In my conception, an intellectual broadly defined is someone who is 1) is capable of facilitating social, political and economic change by analyzing and proposing solution to complex problems and issues facing their societies, and 2) in the business of  asking questions, endless questions, about what is possible and how the impossible could be made possible.

There are engaged and disengaged intellectuals.

Those engaged are always asking questions about their societies, pointing out failures and improving on successes, suggesting solutions, examining institutions, enlightening and teaching the public, criticizing outdated and ineffective ideas and proposing new ones while articulating a vision of the future with clarity of thought. They are always on the cutting edge of social change.

Then there are pseudointellectual empty barrels and windbags who carp and criticize those who do the heavy lifting to build their societies. They spend most of their time pontificating about what “coulda, woulda, shoulda” have been done with 20/20 hindsight.

There is nothing wrong in being an armchair intellectual dishing out criticism, but criticism from the benighted ensconced in their armchairs– though as a rule should be ignored – can be annoying.

An old Jewish saying teaches that “A nation’s treasure is its scholars (intellectuals).”

If that saying is true, I am afraid Ethiopia’s treasury of scholars is completely drained and it is time to declare intellectual bankruptcy.

The American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson observed:

The office of the scholar (intellectual) is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amid appearances. He plies the slow, unhonored, and unpaid task of observation. He is the world’s eye.

In “Man Thinking,” Emerson wrote about the scholar with the heroic mind:

There goes in the world a notion, that the scholar should be a recluse, a valetudinarian, — as unfit for any handiwork or public labor, as a penknife for an axe…  As far as this is true of the studious classes… action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it, he is not yet man. Without it, thought can never ripen into truth. Whilst the world hangs before the eye as a cloud of beauty, we cannot even see its beauty. Inaction is cowardice, but there can be no scholar without the heroic mind. The preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious, is action. Only so much do I know, as I have lived. Instantly we know whose words are loaded with life, and whose not.

Many of us in the Ethiopian intellectual community have lost our “eye” sights from willful ignorance and today we are in crises.

Moral crisis: Some of us are mired in a moral crisis of knowing what is right but being afraid to do the right thing, and ultimately doing nothing.

Crisis of critical thinking: Some of us suffer a crisis of critical thinking. We are quick to make conclusions based on hunches and speculations than rigorous analysis based on facts. We are given more to polemics and labeling than evidence-based analysis. We rarely examine and re-examine our assumptions and beliefs but cling to them as eternal truths and propagate them as such.

Crisis of self-confidence and a deficit of intellectual courage: In one form or another, many of us in the Ethiopian intellectual community suffer a crisis of self-confidence and a deficit of intellectual courage. We criticize and castigate those we disagree with in private but are afraid to repeat our strongly-held views in public. Some of us feel compelled to use pen names to express our opinions in the blogosphere. We would like others to admire us and accept and act on our ideas while we hide our real identities behind aliases and fictitious names. Many of us believe listing an alphabet soup of Ph.Ds., M.Ds., J.Ds. Ed.Ds automatically make us intellectuals.

Many of us are afraid to make our views known because we fear the ridicule and ostracism of our associates and peers. We are afraid to take ownership and responsibility for our ideas for fear of being proven wrong and mask our intellectual cowardice with meaningless dogmas and abstractions. Lacking self-confidence, many of us are content to live our lives quietly and anonymously on remote islands of self-censorship and self-marginalization

Crisis of foresight: Most of us also suffer from a crisis of foresight. We can argue the past and criticize the present, but we do very little forward-thinking. As Ethiopia’s “eyes”, we are ironically afflicted by myopia (nearsightedness). We can see things in the present opaquely, but we lack the vision to see things in the distance.

Crisis of communication: We have a serious crisis of communication. Many of us talk past each other and lack intellectual honesty and candor in our communications. We pretend to agree and give lip service to each other only to turn around and engage in vile backbiting. We speak to each other and the general public in ambiguities and “tongues”. Often, we do not say what we mean or mean what we say. We keep each other guessing. We do not listen to each other well and make precious little effort to genuinely seek common ground with those who do not agree with us. We have a nasty habit of marginalizing those who disagree with us and tell it like it is. We hate to admit mistakes and apologize. Instead we compound mistakes by committing more errors. We tend to be overly critical of each other over non-essentials. As a result, we have failed to nurture coherent and dynamic intellectual discourse about Ethiopia’s present and future.

Crisis of intellectual leadership: We have a crisis of intellectual leadership. There are few identifiable Ethiopian intellectual leaders today. In many societies, a diverse and competing intellectual community functions as the tip of the spear of social change. In the past three decades, we have seen the powerful role played by intellectual leaders in emancipating Eastern Europe from the clutches of communist tyranny and in leading a peaceful process of change. No society can ever aspire to advance without a core intellectual guiding force.

The founders of the American Republic were not merely political leaders but also intellectuals of the highest caliber for any age. They harnessed their collective intellectual energies to forge a nation for themselves and their posterity. Their conception of government and constitution has become a template for every country that aspires for the blessings of liberty and democracy. Despite some major shortcomings, the Americans got it right because their founders were visionary intellectuals.

The Challenge for Ethiopian Intellectuals: From paralysis to symbiosis

The challenge to Ethiopian intellectuals is to find ways of transforming themselves into “public intellectuals.”

The phrase “public intellectual” has diverse meanings.

For my purposes, the “public intellectual” is one who applies general ideas to matters of general public concern.

My point is that regardless of our formal training in a particular discipline, Ethiopian intellectuals should strive to engage the broader Ethiopian society beyond our narrow professional concerns through our writings and advocacy efforts. We should strive for something far larger than our disciplines and metamorphosize into becoming the tip of the spear for Ethiopia’s economic prosperity and progress.

Here are a few ideas to transform Ethiopian intellectuals into a formidable force of prosperity and progress.

Get involved. I hear all sorts of excuses from Ethiopian intellectuals for not getting involved. The most common one is: “I am a ‘scholar’, a ‘scientist’, etc., and do not want to get involved in politics.”

Albert Einstein was not only one of the most influential and best known scientists and intellectuals of all time, he was also a relentless and passionate advocate for pacifism and the plight of German-Jewish refugees.

Others plead futility. “Nothing I do could ever make a difference because Ethiopia’s problems are too many and too complex.” The answer is found in an Ethiopian proverb: “Enough strands of the spiders’ web could tie up a lion.” Let each one do his/her part, and cumulatively the difference made will be enormous.

Articulate a Vision. Ethiopian intellectuals individually or collectively should articulate a vision for their country and people. It is ironic to be the “eyes” of a nation and be visionless at the same time.

What are our dreams, hopes and aspirations for Ethiopia? What are the values we should be collectively striving for? Why are we not able to come up with an intellectual framework to propagate actionable ideas for good governance, institutionalization of democracy and protection of civil liberties? The old saying is true, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.” “Without a vision, the people perish,” teaches Scripture.

Create and Maintain Think Tanks. Think tanks are said to be “policy actors in democratic societies assuring a pluralistic, open and accountable process of policy analysis, research, decision-making and evaluation.” (I believe many of them, at least in the US, are civilian arms of the intelligence services shaping public opinion garbed in intellectual respectability.) There are hundreds of them worldwide. It is necessary to establish open, transparent and accountable think tanks for Ethiopia to engage in public education, conduct research and mobilize policy advocacy.

On various occasions, I have publicly called for the establishment of an informal policy “think tank” to research and critically evaluate current and emergent issues in Ethiopia. Would it not be wonderful if there could be union of concerned Ethiopian scholars, scientists, intellectuals and professionals who could come together as the tip of the spear in seeking to institutionalize democracy, human rights and rule of law in Ethiopia?

Establish Expert Panels. We have few experts available to serve as resources on domestic and foreign policy issues affecting Ethiopia. For instance, many Ethiopian experts in the US are unwilling to come forward and give interviews to the media or to offer testimony in official proceedings. We need a roster of experts to represent Ethiopia on the world stage and to help address issues at home.

Teach the youth. Throughout the Ethiopian diaspora, there are many individuals and groups that can organize and provide educational enhancements to students in Ethiopia. There are grade and high school teachers, college professors in all fields, experts in all fields of technology and practitioners in medicine, law, business and engineering, among others. With free internet video technology, much can be done to qualitatively enhance education in Ethiopia in a relatively short time. Malcom X said, ‘Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” Those of us in the diaspora have received our “passports”, it is time for us to give “passports” to the millions of Ethiopia’s youth waiting with open minds.

Teach the People and act in solidarity with them. The “educated” Ethiopian elites debate the future of Ethiopia and the peace and progress of its people. What kind of democracy is needed for Ethiopia? How do we fight against poverty and the need for an equitable distribution of the nation’s wealth? How do we move from bogus ethnic federalism to real political federalism based strictly on a division of power between national and subnational government? How do we fight back against Western interference in Ethiopian affairs? How do we empower ordinary citizens to think and act independently?

Ethiopian intellectuals: From paralysis to symbiosis to praxis…

To be continued in Part II.  “S.O.E.Y. (Save Our Ethiopian Youth.)”

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