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Beyond Ideology: The Betrayed Task of Ethiopian Intellectuals

By Messay Kebede

Prof. Mesay Kebede

This article is not a rejoinder to Prof. Alemayehu G Mariam’s recently posted article titled “Ethiopia: The Irresponsibility of the Privileged.” Alemayehu’s article is well-thought-out and accurate in its analysis of the shortcomings of Ethiopian intellectuals. The apparent indifference of many Ethiopian intellectuals to the plight of the Ethiopian people and to the lack of democratic governance or their veiled support to a tyrannical government, mostly because of ethnic affiliations, is indeed appalling. Rather than a retort, this article is a complementary contribution with an eye to discerning the root of the derailment of Ethiopian intellectuals.

Besides indifferent or sold intellectuals, Ethiopia has produced a virulent type of radical intellectuals who are directly or indirectly responsible for the prevalence of tyranny in Ethiopia since the fall of the monarchical system. I am not saying that tyranny started with the collapse of the imperial rule, but that the imperial autocracy was replaced by a more vicious and destructive type of tyranny, characteristically defined by the commitment to a clean slate or tabula rasa ideology. The typical ethos of the ideology is to indiscriminately denigrate whatever has been bequeathed by the past so that the country must be rebuilt anew. Whether we take Leninist type of socialisms or the various versions of ethnonationalism, they share the belief that the first condition of real change is the merciless destruction of inherited features.


Those who are familiar with my book, Radicalism and Cultural Dislocation in Ethiopia, know that I trace this clean slate ideology to the colonialist overtones of modern education in Ethiopia. What else is the indiscriminate assault on tradition but the product of the internalization of the colonial discourse by uprooted native intellectuals? Colonial discourse and policy called for the eradication of native traditions, judged primitive, and pushed for the subservient copying of the Western model of modernity. A cursory examination is enough to see how closely the modern system of education in Ethiopia was and still is framed to inculcate uprootedness and colonial mimicry. As a result, a significant number of Ethiopian intellectuals (this writer included) became in the 60s and 70s, not the defenders, but the gravediggers of Ethiopia’s history and legacy by creating radical movements championing the clean slate ideology, be it through Leninist versions of socialism or outright ethnonationalism. Unfortunately, their undoings still define today’s Ethiopia and constitute a major obstacle for democratic government and modernization.

This is not to say that social radicalism should be banned in favor of one category of intellectual. As in any other social question, prudence should avoid one-sidedness and promote diversity. It is much healthier for Ethiopia to produce various types of intellectuals, ranging from conservatives and reformists to radicals. The democratic process itself, to the extent that it is genuine, requires and produces various types of intellectuals. Even so, the type practicing indifference or insincerity should be denounced. For, the role of intellectuals is to tell and argue in favor of what they believe to be true, that is, what they have established as “true” through an intellectual procedure of research and validation. What is sane for democracy and progress is not the triumph of one view, but the open and dynamic debate between competing perspectives.

In my view, the type of intellectuals that is most needed in today’s Ethiopia is the type that transcends classes and ethnic groups and defines a national mission for the country that is both comprehensive and galvanizing. Traditionally (what follows is taken from my published paper titled “Return to the Source: Asres Yenesew and the West”), Orthodox Church intellectuals, often known as debteras, played this role. Indeed, according to Asres Yenesew––a leading scholar of the Ethiopian Church during the imperial rule––traditional intellectuals were the scouts or the outposts of Ethiopian society; as such, their role was to scrutinize the surrounding world so as to safeguard its national mission and identity. What defines them is thus their national function, which compels them to rise above factions and special interests. While kings rule, warriors fight, peasants produce, priests pray, intellectuals reflect on what is good and bad. They represent the small but advanced garrison protecting the society from malefic and dissolving internal and external forces.

After highlighting the traditional role of intellectuals, Asres deals with what he considers as the greatest betrayal in Ethiopia’s long history, to wit, the transformation of the Westernized Ethiopian intellectual into an ally of the colonization of Ethiopia. In a highly provocative statement, he declares: “although Italy’s army was driven out, its politics was not.” In other words, the military defeat of the colonizer has not ended the colonial project; it has simply compelled Westerners to use subtler means. Chief among such means is modern schooling. That is why they were so eager to open schools and send teachers in Ethiopia. What better means was there for realizing their colonial project than the propagation of their books and the creation of a Westernized Ethiopian elite?

For Asres, Ethiopia faces the gravest danger of its long history since modern native intellectuals, whose task is to provide protection, now side with the enemy by becoming the instrument of colonization, When the patrols of the society turn into deserters, its defensive capacity is utterly shattered. This ominous transformation fully materialized when the guardians of tradition turned into its critics under the instigation of Western teachers and books. Asres unravels the insidious method used to effect the transformation. To change intellectuals into turncoats, Western education had first to denationalize their mind by encouraging “individualism and social ambition.” In thus isolating them from the rest of the community and inducing frustration over their place in the social hierarchy, Western teachers changed them into rebels and revolutionaries.

In light of the deep predicament in which Ethiopia is immersed, mere political activism and elections are not enough to salvage the country. Hence my belief that the kind of intellectual change that Ethiopia needs is the kind that assumes the role of the traditional intellectual but by modernizing it. Freed from the clean slate ideology which, to paraphrase Asres, is just the continuation by natives of the colonial ideology, the modernization of the traditional intellectual redefines the national mission of Ethiopia in accordance with the requirements of modernity and the religious and ethnic characteristics of today’s Ethiopia.

Rather than partisanship, reborn intellectuals draw a comprehensive vision that is renovating and galvanizing because, going beyond group and individual interests, the vision provides a supreme national goal, thereby mobilizing the sense of duty and the power of emotion. Such a vision preserves and changes at the same time; it alone is capable of inspiring social and political reforms that are born of the Ethiopian soil and that elevate Ethiopians from copyists to designers and agents of their own modernity. In short, what is needed is a modernized and integrative new Kibre Negest, the very one that creates a nation, that is, an object of love, and not merely of interest. Let us rethnink Ernest Renan’s famous definition: “A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which in truth are but one, constitute this soul or spiritual principle. One lies in the past, one in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form. . . .The nation, like the individual, is the culmination of a long past of endeavors, sacrifice, and devotion. . . . To have common glories in the past and to have a common will in the present; to have performed great deeds together, to wish to perform still more–these are the essential conditions for being a people. . . One loves in proportion to the sacrifices to which one has consented, and in proportion to the ills that one has suffered. One loves the house that one has built and that one has handed down. . . . Man is a slave neither of his race nor his language, nor of his religion, nor of the course of rivers nor of the direction taken by mountain chains. A large aggregate of men, healthy in mind and warm of heart, creates the kind of moral conscience which we call a nation.”

Nation is love, history, forgiveness; it transcends race and language and is commitment to unity in greatness. Is not the above definition absolutely contrary to the path taken by Ethiopian intellectuals since the 60s? Instead of love, history, forgiveness, and unity, we have division, tabula rasa ideology, resentment; instead of transcending race and language and working for greatness, we are mutilated by ethnnationalism and sectarian meanness.


—–Dr. Messay Kebede is an Ethiopian Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dayton. He taught philosophy at Addis Ababa University from 1976 to 1993. He also served as chair of the department of philosophy from 1980 to 1991. He earned his Ph.D. from University of Grenoble, France


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