Yonas Biru, PhD*
In a Bloomberg Opinion Piece titled “Ethiopia Already Is the ‘China of Africa,’” Professor Tyler Cowen, the author of over 20 critically acclaimed economic books, argued Ethiopia is destined to take off if proper policies are put in place.
He took note that “China and Ethiopia feel secure about their pasts and have a definite vision for their futures.” Comparing Ethiopia with Iran and China, he went on to state: “Like many Iranians, Ethiopians think of themselves as a civilization and not just a country. And, as in China, they hold an ideological belief that their country is destined to be great again.”
The problem is that Ethiopia’s ethos of being destined for greatness and the trajectory of its economic destiny are diverging not converging. This is because the spirit of the nation’s greatness is emasculated by the drag of its culture. Its conservative politicians and intellectuals see it fit to inoculate its traditions from cultural renewal that economic progress requires. For them cultural preservation takes precedence over economic progression. These are culturally mummified intellectuals sleepwalking in the 21st century.
There are no two ways about it. Economic progress goes hand in hand with cultural transformation. When modern banks and insurances flourish in Ethiopia, እቁብ and እድር will gradually give way to new traditions. As access to modern medicine increases, the nation’s dependence on traditional therapies and spiritual healing such as ጸበል will decline.
In the meantime, with growing globalization, Ethiopia’s culture will seep into other cultures. What is often called Western culture is nothing but a fusion of trifecta of cultures from “Zen Buddhism to Ethiopian cuisine,” as Francis Fukuyama rightly noted. Kitfo is increasingly encroaching on the sensibilities of Western taste buds as teff is fast becoming the superfood choice of fitness enthusiasts around the world. Yirgacheffe coffee has become the brand that most Western coffee connoisseurs swear by. This is cultural globalization at work.
Culture becomes a problem only when those who are obsessed by who they have been stand in the way of who they can become. This is not to say they need to give up who they have been for who they can become. For Ethiopia, what is important is using its past glory as an inspiration and
adopting to the social and cultural norms of the 21st century. There is no economic progress without it.
Where Potential Meets Practice & Dreams Create Realities, and Where They Do Not
Ethiopia, Iran, China, and Japan are birthplaces of old civilizations. Traditionally, they saw themselves not as nation-states, or even as empires, but as civilizations and cultures. Historically, they treated the international community with suspicion mixed with a toxic cocktail of unregulated arrogance and ignorance. Two of the most significant negative consequences of such a belief system and culture is becoming isolated and reclusive, and poor international relations.
To their benefit, Japan and China ultimately found it possible to reform their mindset to learn from, and catch up with, the West. Before their transformative reforms, both Japan and China achieved significant progress but could not push their nations over the post-agrarian and pre-industrial hump. Forced by circumstances, they realized it was in their best interest to adopt Western technological innovations, advanced mode of production, and institutional culture.
The Japanese government characterized its transformative reform as the harmonization of “Japanese spirit and Western techniques.” The Chinese baptized their adopted capitalist system as “Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics.” Semantics aside, capitalism with Chinese characteristics is capitalism at its core, with a colorful dragon used as a decorative façade. As Karl Marx has rightly noted, a society’s culture is embedded in its economic mode of production.
In contrast, Ethiopia’s, and Iran’s tendencies to see foreigners either as political adversaries or vampires of culture have prohibited them from capitalizing on global opportunities. According to the World Bank, in 1960, Iran’s GDP per capita was more than twice of that of China. In 2020, it was a quarter of it. Compared to Japan, Iran’s GDP per capita in 1960 was 60 percent less. In 2020, it was 93 percent less. The World Bank does not have data for Ethiopia prior to 1982. In 2020, the GDP per capita figures for Ethiopia and Iran, respectively, were $936 and $2,757. The corresponding figures for China and Japan, respectively, were $10,409 and $39,918.
The Japanese Experience
During the Tokugawa Shogunate era (1603 to 1867), Japan was ruled under a traditional feudal system. The term shogunate (derived from Shogun) means a hereditary military dictatorship regime.
Traditionally, the shogun answered to the emperor, but the Tokugawa Shogunate reduced the emperor to a symbolic figure, with all levers of government authority usurped from it.
A signature policy of Tokugawa was preserving the Japanese culture and creating an internally self-sufficient economy. To preserve Neo-Confucianism as Japan’s cultural identity and official guiding philosophy of its government, Tokugawa institutionalized an isolationist policy, cutting off the Japanese society from Western influence. As part of this edict, the government banned Christianity. Furthermore, it forbade trade with Western nations and prohibited private travels to Europe, America and/or Australia.
Though the Tokugawa era led to 250 years of continued peace and notable economic progress, Japan fell behind in technological development, putting its budding industrial sector and military establishment at a significant disadvantage. In the mid 19th century, external threats from the US and Europe and internal conflicts between political power centers weakened the Tokugawa government. In 1868, a coup d’état abruptly brought the regime to an end. The leaders of the coup were mostly young samurai from within the feudal class.
The coup makers dismantled the feudal system, abolished all feudal class privileges, and throned Emperor Meiji as the head of imperial Japan. But required him to govern the nation under the advisement of elder statesmen (genro) who held the actual power to run the state.
The Meiji government ushered in a drastic departure from the Tokugawa era in fundamental ways.
Japan adopted a parliamentary system under a constitution that emulated the then Western powers.
It warmly embraced Western culture and influence both symbolically and substantively.
Symbolically, high-level Japanese officials were required to abandon silk kimono and began to wear Western-style suits and dresses. Men had to cut off their topknots to sport European hairstyle. The Emperor led by example, wearing a French-style military uniform and European haircut when he presented the Meiji Constitution (Japan’s first Constitution) to the Japanese people.
In a 1999 article, Professor Shunsuke Sumikawa notes “After one or two decades ofintensive westernization, a revival of conservative and nationalistic feelings took place: principles of Confucianism and Shinto including the worship of the emperor were increasingly emphasized and indoctrinated at the educational institutions.”
On the substantive side, the Meiji creed of “Civilization and Enlightenment” characterized Japan’s aspirations to be a part of the Western civilization and European enlightenment. Large Japanese delegations were sent to the US and Europe for as long as 18-month to observe and study the public and private institutions and the cultural tenets of Western nations. Upon his return from such a trip, Japan’s modern enlightenment thinker Yukichi Fukuzawa advocated “the Japanese nation should break with its Asian neighbors and join the ranks of European countries.” The phrase Japan “left Asia and entered Europe” became part of the restoration’s lexicon.
In summary, the Meiji restoration period “created a British-style navy, French-style bureaucracy and established a Prussian-style constitution.” During this period, Japan witnessed a time not only of scientific, political, and economic innovation, but also of cultural rejuvenation.
Japan motivated many countries to use its restoration blueprint as an inspiration, if not as a template to draw insights and lessons. As Professor Abu Girma rightly noted, “ሳይሰምር ቀረ እንጂ ጃፓናይዘር የሚባል ንቅናቄ ኢትዮጵያ የጃፓንን ፈር ለመከተል ትችል ዘንድ ደፋ ቀና ተብሎ ነበር።” This was a movement that peaked in late 1920s and early 1930s.
Deng Xiaoping, who is widely praised as the architect of modern China, is another leader who “marveled at the sophistication and modernity Japan had achieved” in a short order. Within months after he came to power, he undertook two educational pilgrimages to Japan, first in October 1978 and again in February 1979 to see the miracle of capitalism in action.
The Case of China
Mao Zedong was China’s supreme communist leader until his death in 1976. His two defining policies were “The Great Leap Forward” (1958-1962) and “Cultural Revolution” (1966-1976). The Great Leap Forward aimed at making China self-sufficient in its endeavor to transform itself from a predominantly agrarian economy to an industrial powerhouse. The policy involved collectivizing the agricultural sector and extracting rent from it to finance the industrial sector.
The policy met a remarkable success in its initial phase but in the end run out of steam and ended up with a disaster of epic proportions. The peasantry was subjected to starvation. As noted in South China Morning Post, “at least 45 million people died unnecessary deaths.”
Before China fully recovered, Mao launched a two-pronged Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). On the first front, those who were seen traditionalist and followers of an organized religion were subjected
to the same level of purging and prosecution. At its core, the Cultural Revolution was anti-Confucianism, targeting China’s 2,500 years old religious guiding principle. Mao considered Confucianism the root cause of China’s backwardness.
On the second front, the revolution was aimed at freeing China from “capitalist-roaders” and rooting out the “West’s bourgeois culture” from the Chinese society. Those who were suspected of harboring pro West sentiments were purged and sent to labor camps. The policy went as far as sanctioning listening to Beethoven and reading William Shakespeare as a political crime. Once again, China went through a tumultuous and catastrophic period. As many as three million people perished because of the Cultural Revolution.
In total, an estimated 48 million people died under the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution experiments, accounting for over 5 percent of China’s population at the time.
Mao’s death on September 9, 1976, opened an opportunity to end his era with mixed results. On the one hand, it demolished China’s backward traditions and laid a foundation for industrialization. On the other hand, it left a decimated agricultural sector and proved Mao’s self-sufficiency was insufficient to build an industrialized nation.
His successor, Deng Xiaoping acknowledged that at the root of China’s failure “was not merely a loss of faith in communism but a loss of faith in Chinese culture and tradition as well.”
Under Deng’s leadership, China ushered in a two-pronged economic development strategy: “Reform and Opening-up.” Both components were bold in their call for a paradigm shift. The reform component required bidding farewell to the Mao-era mindset of internal self-reliance and the communal system. The opening-up component promoted joining the global economic system.
Deng was aware that the global economic order was the exclusive domain of capitalism. His visits to Japan, Singapore and other capitalist nations including the US helped him to see the economic miracle of capitalism. Deng made a strategic choice, stating: “As we look back, we find that all of those countries that were with the United States have been rich, whereas all of those against the United States have remained poor. We shall be with the United States.”
Since 1978, China has been sending tens of thousands of students and communist party cadres to Singapore and other capitalist countries. Like Japan, the primary objectives were to expose them to
the success of capitalist nations, acquire knowledge in business and technology, and break free from old mindsets that hinder industrialization.
Deng fully embraced the capitalist system with all its vices, including income inequality. In the post reform era, China’s income inequality rapidly worsened, as measured by the Gini Coefficient Index. The index ranges from 0 (perfect equality) to 1 (maximal inequality). The rule of thumb is that a Gini index of 0.5 or higher signifies sever inequality.
At some point, Chin’s index was as high as 0.55. Recent World Bank data shows it dropped to 0.39, in 2017. It was still worse than the corresponding indexes for European countries: Italy (0.36), United Kingdom (0.35), France (0.32), Germany (0.31), Denmark (0.29), Netherlands (0.28), and Norway (0.27). The US was the only developed country with slightly higher Gini index (0.41) than China.
In a 1992 article titled “Domestic Factors of Chinese Foreign Policy: From Vertical to Horizontal Authoritarianism,” Quansheng Zhao took note of an important development in China’s foreign policy formation process. In a significant departure from Mao’s one-man authoritative rule, Deng relied on deliberative processes. China’s “epistemic community” – a network of local and diaspora professionals helped shape the government’s policy debate.
Table 1: China’s GDP Per Capita in 2015 Constant US Dollars (1960-2020)
GDP Per Capita in 2015 Constant US Dollars
The graph shows three tipping points. First was in 1980. This was a watershed point that began four years after Mao’s death that marked the end of his ideology of self-sufficiency-driven industrialization and the adoption of West-inspired and flavored development model.
The second tipping point was 1990. This was when China’s trade and investment reforms started to pay off in terms of attracting FDI. Incentives embedded in trade and market-access reforms led to rapid productivity gains and set off an explosive economic transformation.
The third tipping point in 2004 came after the official announcement of China’s “go global” strategy in 2000 and subsequent measures to support it. The initiative provided a “prelude to all-around integration into the global economy.” This allowed China to keep pace with fast evolving global economic order and align with technological trends and innovations in institutional and multinational corporate cultures. Over a span of 40 years, China’s GDP grew at an average of nearly 10 percent a year, lifting more than 800 million Chinese out of poverty.
Currently, China is an upper-middle-income country in terms of GDP per capita. It aims to become “a medium-level developed country by 2035”. The current premier of China, Xi Jinping, aims to to make China “a global superpower by 2050”.
In the meantime, having defeated structural poverty and built a strong economy, China has started to crack down on Western cultural influence to revive its traditional culture. Its critics are calling it “a Great Leap Backward” and “Cultural Revolution 2.0.”
What Went Wrong with Iran?
Iran is the fifth resource rich country in the world, following Russia, the US, Saudi, and Canada. China is sixth. It is blessed not only with oil and gas, but also gold, silver, copper, crude iron phosphate, and uranium that is widely used to fuel nuclear power plants for nuclear fission. Its most valuable natural resource, however, is its intellectual knowledge base.
Despite its enormous natural resources and intellectual pedigree, Iran’s GDP per capita is only 24 percent of that of Malaysia, 29 percent of Turkey, 63 percent of Jordan, 64 percent of Indonesia, 70 percent of Tunisia, and 71 percent of Egypt. The question is why? Many people think it is because of Western economic sanction related to its nuclear program. Though the US led sanctions, particularly those after 2010, are contributing factors, Iran’s economic woes precede and supersede these sanctions.
Iran is a country of contradictions. Despite international economic sanctions, its technological progress is remarkable. In terms of producing peer reviewed scientific publications it is the fastest in the world, from 2008 to 2018. In terms of volume of production, it is amongst the top 15 nations. The top 5, in the order of their ranking, are China, the US, India, Germany, and Japan.
Iran’s impressive growth in science is attributable partly to its collaboration with China. But the most important factor is its Constitution that gives priority to science and modern weaponry to protect the Islamic Revolution from the West. Chapter 1, Article 1 of the Constitution dictates “The form of government of Iran is that of an Islamic Republic.” Article 2 affirms an obligation to “ensure the uninterrupted process of the revolution of Islam,” and Iran’s “national independence” by securing resources to advance science.
Iran’s problem is with its economy. One of my constitutional economics professors used to say, “Show me your constitution and I will tell you about your prospect for development.” In as much as Iran’s Constitution is the source of the nation’s development in science, it is the culprit for its economic despairs.
The preamble of the Constitution targets the US (whom it calls leader of the “White Revolution” and “world imperialism”) as the enemy of the Islamic Revolution. It rejects the West’s economic principles, stating it promotes “centralization and the accumulation of wealth and the search for profit” as a “materialistic school of thought” that leads to “destruction, corruption and decay.”
Article 43 of the Constitution lays out the nation’s economic principles in “the provision of basic necessities for all citizens: housing, food, clothing, hygiene, medical treatment, education, and the necessary facilities for the establishment of a family.” To achieve these goals, Article 44 stipulates Iran’s economic policy is a command economy. This involved nationalizing private corporations.
In 1978, China rejected Marxist economic principles and embraced the capitalist ideology. Iran, on the other hand, moved in the opposite direction. Its objective to create an independent and self-sufficient economy coupled with its anti-capitalist policy made it difficult to integrate itself with the global economic order.
Let us take a bird’s eye view of Iran’s economic history. Between 1960 and 1976, Iran witnessed considerable economic progress under Emperor Mohammad Reza Shah. According to the World Bank, in 1960, Iran’s GDP percapita was $2,293. By 1976, it was $7,647. The economy started to drop dramatically in 1976 as the Revolution led by an exiled Islamic clergy, Ayatollah Khomeini,
started to get traction. In January 1979, Khomeini took the reign of power. In 2020, its GDP per capita was down to $5,333, about 30 percent below the 1976 level. All GDP per capita figures are adjusted for inflation.
What caused its economic decline? Up on taking power, the Islamic government declared the new regime will be governed by Sharia. Any opposition to it would mean a “a revolt against God, and revolt against God is Blasphemy”. Traditionally, punishment for blasphemy is death. This triggered capital flight estimated to reach $40 billion and led to a mass exodus of intellectuals, entrepreneurs, technocrats, experienced diplomats and thought leaders. Khomeini’s reaction was: “They are pro-Western civilization, let them go. We do not want their services and contributions.”
Where China and Japan westernized their knowledge bases, Iran de-Westernized its intellectual class. To achieve this goal, the government closed Iran’s universities for a year and half to reform the curriculum. When the universities were reopened, they purged hundreds of professors and thousands of students who were deemed to have Western inclinations.
Iranians who could have contributed to the progress of their birthland migrated to Western countries, leaving the nation to Islamic clergies and pious imams. Some of the Iranian immigrants who fled to the US include, the founders of eBay, Tinder and Dropbox, CEOs of Uber and TurboTax and QuickBooks parent Intuit, and Twitter’s chief operating officer, among others.
The detrimental impact of the de-Westernization of Iran’s knowledge base was exacerbated by other factors. Chief among them is the political governance system. One of the most critical lessons the world has learned since the enlightenment age (17th and 18th centuries) is that political systems governed by articles of religious faith perform worse than those who rely on rational dialogue and consensus-building under a secular government.
It must be noted that most countries have official or preferred religions. Even nations such as the US are not immune from political interference by religious forces. What separates nations such as Iran and Afghanistan is that the tenets of their religion shape the entirety of their political, economic, social and legal systems.
In conclusion, Iran’s foundational problem resides in its political, economic, and technological policies that are at cross purposes. The Islamic government wanted to have a 21st century technology and military power, financed by a 20th Century economic policy (command economy) and politically governed by theocracy. The nation has been trying to reform its economy to adopt
a liberal market-oriented model, since 2004, to no avail. Evidently, it is difficult to reform the economic system when the reform conflicts with the nation’s faith-based political order.
How Come Japanizers Failed in Ethiopia?
In the 1930s, a small group of Ethiopian intellectuals led by Blatten Geta Heruy Welde Sellase (1878 -1939) and Fitawrari Tekle Hawariat Tekle Mariyam (1889-1977) made a Clarian call for social and cultural transformations. The group known as the “Japanizers” proposed adopting Japan’s Meiji restoration experience, noting a parallel between Japan under Tokogawa and Ethiopia under Zemene Mesafint.
The question some Ethiopians raise is whether the Japanizer movement was realistic. In pre-Meiji Japan, the state of the economy, the political system, and the breadth of the intellectual knowledge base were significantly more advanced than it was the case in Ethiopia. In Japan, the agricultural sector was flirting with mechanization and commercialization. Urbanization was in ascendence, providing commercial centers and modernization nuclei. Ethiopia was a backward agrarian country with no trace of modern life. In terms of political order, though both Japan and Ethiopia were under feudal systems, Japan was far higher on the totem pole.
In a 1997 article, Professor Messay Kebede captures the difference in modernization calculus between Ethiopia and Japan quiet well. He argues, and I conquer, the Japanizer movement was more to use the Meiji restoration experiment as an inspiration for modernization rather than as a template to replicate.
The two most important questions in need of explanation are: (1) why did the Japanizer movement falter, and (2) why modernization has not been pursued in Ethiopia in an organized fashion. since the Japanizers movement nearly a century ago.
Sadly, the Japanizer movement faltered because of local and international factors. On the internationally front, Europeans (particularly Italy and Germany) objected Ethiopia’s and Japan’s growing relationship, fearing it will undermine Europe’s colonialist interests. Though some Ethiopian scholars see the Japanizer movement as a vanity project, Europeans were concerned that it could materialize, and the Asia-Africa partnership could undermine the colonialism calculus.
On the home front, Conservative-minded members of the Ethiopian aristocracy pushed back out of concern it would lead to undermining Ethiopia’s authentic culture and disturb the social order.
Professor Abu Girma notes the emperor was positively predisposed to the idea. Colonel Workneh Gebeyehu (Director of Security in the Ministry of the Interior) served as a liaison with Japanese high-level delegation of experts who helped prepare a proposal for the emperor’s consideration.
The proposal went as far as winning the node and support of the emperor. Unfortunately, the process was disrupted because of the 1960 coup attempt that was perpetrated by General Mengistu Neway (Commander of the Imperial Guard), Girmamie Neway (a graduate of Columbia University), and Colonel Gebeyehu (the Meiji liaison), among others. The perpetrators were part of the modern elites that the emperor educated and relied on to help him modernize the nation. After surviving a close call to losing his throne to them, the emperor’s focus turned to preserving his throne rather than implementing a transformative reform that could disturb the aristocratic apple cart.
Then came the 1974 revolution. In 1978, China was in the process of abandoning the communist economic system and adopting a capitalist one. In contrast, Ethiopia was embracing the faltering communist economic system with a fervent zeal of a new evangelical convert.
In 1991, a new movement pushed the nation backward into tribal deity that weakened the unity of the country. Communist intellectuals were replaced by tribal pre-intellectuals with a 17th century peasant frame of mind that cannot see beyond its village.
Despite the failure to implement the Japanizer reform, the emperor has done a great deal in modernizing Ethiopia. Nearly half a century after his dethronement and subsequent murder, most of the nation’s flagship institutions are those built by the emperor with help from Western nations. To name a few: The Ethiopian Airlines (consistently rated the best in Africa); the only two universities rated among Best Global Universities in Africa by the US News and World Report – Addis Ababa University (rated Number 11) and Gonder University (rated number 20); the two largest hospitals in the nation – Tikur Anbessa and St. Paulos Hospital; Telecommunication Corporation; the Ethiopian Roads Authority; The Military and the Airforce; and Ethiopian Electric Light and Power Authority.
One can only imagine where Ethiopia would be today on the World Bank’s economic ranking and the UN’s Human Development Index had the Japanizer movement succeeded. Sadly, the movement has neither fanned the flames of interest nor inspired urgency for a Meiji type modernization. This can be attributed to two groups of intellectual colonies Ethiopia is cursed with.
The first group consists of those who lost their intellectual virginity to communism and traded their soul and conscience for Mao’s Red Book. Their Godfathers – Russian and Chinese communist
ideologues – have long closed the chapter, turned the light off, and gone into oblivion. But Ethiopian communists still carry “anti-West” and “anti-capitalist” banners. The silver lining in the dark cloud that this clan casts over Ethiopia is that it is a dying clan. Many of its members are in their 60s or 70s. Some are even in their 80s with a cane in one hand and “anti-capitalist” banner in the other.
The second group consists of hermitized intellectuals who see themselves as the nation’s culture police. They epitomize members of the Afghanistan Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. They see the West as a cultural vampire. This is the most potent group. It spans over all demographic groups, including the very young.
Two questions impose themselves on us. Is Tyler Cowen’s observations noted in the opening of this article valid? If the answer is yes, why did Ethiopia fail where Japan and China succeeded in freeing themselves from a social and cultural chokehold on their development endeavors?
The answer to the first question is: “Yes.” The problem is that, like in Iran, culture in Ethiopia is rooted in religion and is less amenable to the light of reason. As a popular adage goes, man is a hopeless enigma to himself, until he sees himself in the light of revelation as a fallen creature. This is a fitting description of the enigma that Ethiopia is living under.
The nation that bills itself as “thirteen months of sunshine” and boasts about being the only African nation that has never been colonized lives in darkness under the weight of its traditions and culture. Along with Kenya and Somalia, it represents two percent of the World population but accounts for 70 percent of the World’s extreme food insecurity. By any matrix Ethiopia is far behind Sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries, including GDP per capita, (60 percent less than the average for SSA); per capita electric power consumption (85 percent less than the average for SSA); and access to clean water (63 percent less than the average for SSA). The data are from the World Bank.
In a rather subversive way Ethiopia’s spiritual and cultural riches are hampering the nation’s development. The best description of this phenomenon is summarized in Professor Brooh Alemneh’s presentation in a conference last year. His Amharic presentation was titled “የባህል ሥሮቻችን
―ብህትውናና ተአምራዊነት ለማህበረሰባዊ ዕድገት ያላቸው ተግዳሮት” His summary read:
እጓለ ገብረዮሐንስ «የከፍተኛ ትምህርት ዘይቤ» በሚለው ሥራው ውስጥ «የምዕራባውያን ሥልጣኔ ሰውን ማዕከል ያደረገ ሲሆን፣ ያሬዳዊው ሥልጣኔ ግን እግዚአብሔርን ማዕከል ያደረገ ነው» ይላል። መንፈሳዊ ህይወትን ማዕከል ያደረገው ይህ ሥልጣኔ ከእሱ በተቃራኒው ያለውን ዓለምና መገለጫዎቹን (ምድራዊ ህይወትን፣ ተፈጥሮን፣ ቁስ አካልን፣ ስጋዊ አካልንና ስ ሜቶቹን፣ አመክንዮን፣ ውበትን፣ ገንዘብን፣ ሙዚቃን…) በሃጢያትነት የፈረጀና ከእነሱም የሚሸሽ ማህበረሰብን ፈጥሯል።
ይሄም ክስተት «ማህበረሰባዊ ብህትውና» ይባላል። ብህትውናችን «የሁለትዮሽ ዲበአካላዊ ቅራኔ» ላይ የተመሰረተ በመሆ
ኑያሬዳዊው ሥልጣኔ «የሚንቀውን» ተፈጥሮ ለመረዳትና ለማጥናት ፍላጎት እንዳይኖረውና ተፈጥሯዊና ማህበራዊ ክስተቶ ችን በተመለከተ በ«ተአምራት» እንዲሸፍነው አድርጎታል።
ይሄ «የተአምራዊነት» እሳቤ ነጋድራስ ገብረ ህይወት እንዳለው ፖለቲካዊ እሳቤያችንን ሳይቀር አንቆ ይዞታል። በተቃራኒው፣ በምዕራቡ ዓለም ዘመናዊ ማህበረሰብ የመጣው ይሄንን ሜታፊዚካዊ የሁለትዮሽ ቅራኔን በመፍታት (ከብህትውናና ከተአም ራዊነት እሳቤዎች በመላቀቅ) ነው። እንደዚህ ዓይነት «ሜታፊዚካዊ የእርቅ ሐሳቦች» በእኛም ሀገር ከፈላስፋው ዘርዓያዕቆብ ጀምሮ በተለያዩ የኢትዮጵያ የፍልስፍና መምህራን ዘንድ ተሰንዝሯል። ከአፄ ቴዎድሮስ ጀምሮ ያሉት ዘመናዊ ማህበረሰብን የ መፍጠር ተደጋጋሚ ሙከራዎች ባህሉን እንዳለ በመተው ኢኮኖሚውና ፖለቲካው ላይ ያተኮሩ ሲሆን፣ እነዚህም ሙከራዎ
ችያልተሳኩበት ዋነኛው ምክንያት ከኢኮኖሚውና ከፖለቲካው ባሻገር ባህላችን ውስጥ የተንሰራፋውን ይሄንን ሜታፊዚካዊ የሁለትዮሽ ቅራኔ (የብህትውናና የተአምራዊነት እሳቤዎች) መፍታት ስላልቻሉ ነው
Tackling this problem has proven difficult because the nation’s predominant mindset is weaved from spiritual articles of faith traceable to the Bible and the Quran. Ethiopians also take the plethora of Greek mythology that narrates about a “unique” and “supernatural” Ethiopia as a documented fact. More like Khomeini’s principle that opposing his government is a revolt against God, any mention of the cultural chokehold that has impoverished Ethiopia is seen as a revolt against the foundation of its culture: its religion.
On the international front, Ethiopians see foreigners as existential threats. Self-anointed intellectual guardians for the Propagation of Cultural Virtue and the Prevention of Foreign Vice regard the US and its European allies as avengers of Italian army’s defeat by a black nation. They also see foreigners as envious of Ethiopia’s proximity to God as the keeper of the Ark of the Covenant and the host of the First Islamic Hijra.
This sentiment has taken a fanatical dimension after the onset of tribal politics. Western myopic intervention in the war between the Ethiopian army and Tigrayan rebels has driven the entire nation into a paranoid hysteria.
The weekly commentaries of Professor Al Mariam (one of the leading Ethiopian contemporary political scientists) echo Ayatollah Khomeini’s diatribe against the West. In one of his commentaries, the professor wrote: “What is happening in the relationship between Ethiopia and the U.S. is a ‘clash of civilizations’. It is a clash between a civilization founded on white European supremacy and an African civilization deeply rooted in black independency.” In another commentary he accused a US Senator of “a hidden aim” to “Dismantle Ethiopia by orchestrating ethnic and religious warfare, making Ethiopia the Libya/Syria of Northeast Africa.” Yet in another commentary he wrote about
another US Senator who is “doggedly committed to destroying Ethiopia because he wants to avenge the humiliating and devastating double loss of a white army in Africa in recorded history.”
Similar sentiments are routinely echoed by ሙአዘ ጥበባን Daniel Kibret, senior advisor to Prime Minister Abiy. The ሙአዝ believes Ethiopia used rocks thrown at her by its foreign enemies to build the Axum Obelisk. The Professor and the ሙአዝ are not fringe elements in the Ethiopian political space. Their views are embedded and baked into the fabric of the mainstream intellectual psyche.
Sadly, the Prime Minister is trading on this paranoic mood of distrust and suspicion of international forces. In a recent speech, he claimed, currently, there is no draught in Ethiopia. He added, the story in the international media that Ethiopia needs food aid is a sinister ploy to negate Ethiopia’s announcement to export wheat. Their story about draught in Ethiopia reflects their desire to see draught in Ethiopia, the PM declared. This is mind boggling because the PM more than anyone knows if the West and its international institutions such as the World Bank and IMF stope their financial aid, Ethiopia will not last six months before its economy collapses.
What is missing from the political and economic debate are Ethiopian intellectuals with national and international repute in geopolitics and economics. As a nation with coveted geostrategic real estate, Ethiopia has enormous opportunity to position its strategic development at the nexus of the evolving global geopolitics. This requires developing a vigorous geopolitical strategy and employing a robust public diplomacy supported by international public relations and lobbying powerhouses. Conflict in international relations is unavoidable as long as national big and small, and rich and poor advance their own interests. inevitable. The challenge is to navigate through conflicts with diplomatic skills not to turn them into a zero-sum “clash of civilization”.
Sadly, the people the PM relies on as his senior advisors spend their precious time connecting a selfie that American and EU delegates take with TPLF leaders, a flock of birds flying over the skies of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, the growing intermarriage between Ethiopian girls with Western men, the number of transgender people walking down Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris, and the increase in the number of rock producing quarries in Italy to synthesize the international community’s grand conspiracy against Ethiopia and its presumably holy culture. One may loath their analytical pedigree. But one cannot take away their entertainment values.
Nearly a century after the Japanizers movement peaked in the late 1920s and early 1930s, a rational modernization debate is yet to be reignited in Ethiopia. Until Ethiopia musters the courage to relieve itself of its cultural constraints, reorient its suspicious and adversarial outlook towards
foreigners, and make itself an integral part of the international economic order, it will forever remain poor.
As Tyler rightly noted, Ethiopia’s pride in its history and its sense of greatness can serve it well in its endeavor for development. The challenge is converting its proud legacy and is unbounded ambition into kinetic economic energy to reclaim its greatness. This requires abandoning old traditions and adopting to the social and cultural norms of the 21st century. No nation can move forward with a reverse gear.
The Prime Minister will serve himself better studying Japan’s and China’s experiences. There are two important lessons he can draw from the Meiji Restoration and the Deng reform eras. First, he cannot reform the nation with the help of adherents of the traditional status quo. The traditional status quo is what needs to be reformed. Second, the West is not a blood sucking cultural vampire.
True, the US has been a destructive force, as Iraq, Libya and Syria would attest. It has also been a source of wisdom, enlightenment, inspiration, and industrialization, as South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong confirm. What Ethiopia can get out of the US depends on how it leverages its geostrategic position. Neither the #NoMore craze, nor Professor Al Mariam’s and ሙአዘ ጥበባን Daniel’s Ayatollah-ization of Ethiopia’s international public diplomacy serves Ethiopia.
Let me close reiterating Deng’s wisdom that helped China to become the second largest economy in the world: “As we look back, we find that all of those countries that were with the United States have been rich, whereas all of those against the United States have remained poor. We shall be with the United States.” It was after China became the second largest economy it started challenging the US. It used what people call jujitsu public diplomacy.
*I would like to thank Professor Messay Kebede (US), Professor Abu Girma (Japan), and Architect Brook Tefera (Ethiopia) for valuable comments. All responsibilities for the tone and tenor of the article rests on my shoulders.