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The Unmaking of Ethiopia’s Thinking Class and the Dumbing Down of a Nation

Yonas Biru, PhD

This is the second part of a two series expose I prepared to share my experience with Prime Minister Abiy’s Economic Advisory Council, which I served as an interim chair for a short twilight. The first part was titled “An Intellectual Culture Unfit for Progress: Why I Resigned from the PM Economic Advisory Council.”

My wife’s reaction was “why are you fighting with everybody. Maybe it is time for an introspective diagnosis.” My wife is an accountant turned a software developer. Both professions require rigid conformity with order. So, her discomfort in my quarrel with the status quo is understandable. Regardless, when she speaks, I comply. This is an introspective diagnosis of the intellectual class of which I am a part.

The worst thing that has happened to Ethiopia is that the political epistemology of its intellectuals has become indistinguishable from that of their political activist brethren, who themselves are no better than their true believer Qerros and Fannos. Alas, the epistemological difference between Ethiopia’s esteemed intellectuals and their Qerro and Fanno foot soldiers is only imaginary, obscured by the presence of activists between them.

The production of a nation’s educated force has no value unless it proves itself not only as the engine of prosperity, but also as a catalyst for peace and security. By assumption, intellectuals are supposed to be positive public goods with enormous externalities. Historically, Ethiopian intellectuals have proven to be architects of war and, consequently, perpetrators of our nation’s poverty. It is past time that our government and society at large study to understand why Ethiopian intellectuals produce heat but no light.

In the 1960s and 1970s we started as anti-feudalist opinion leaders and warriors. In the 1990s, having demolished the feudalist system, we random walked and landed on tribalism that required us to resurrect our tribal feudals from whence we have buried them. As Frederick Nietzsche said, where there is a tomb there is resurrection. We resurrected our long buried feudals in the Nietzschean sense of the term, rinsed them up a bit and changed our battleground from a blanket anti-feudalism ideology to a theology of “my tribal feudal is better than your tribal feudal” theater of the poignant fool.

Tigrayan intellectuals started putting Yohannes on the pedestal, christening and rebranding him as an intellectual and military blend of Alexander Hamilton of America and Peter the Great of the Russian Empire. Some even threw Mother Teresa of India in the mix to soften his image as a humanitarian worthy of posthumous Nobel Peace Prize. For a hipster intellectual Tegaru, wearing a t-shirt with an overblown image of Yohannes has become a badge of honor, a suit of armor and a fashion vogue all at once.

Amhara intellectuals who in the 70s disavowed and condemned Menilik as a criminal dictator are now the primary subscribers of the canonization of the former king to sainthood: እምየ ሚኒሊክ as in እምየ ማሪያም. True to their character, the former atheists are now stepping on each other’s toes to carry the umbrellas of third-tier deacons with the reverence of a new convert in the Orthodox hymnography. The same characters who were part of the euphoric Abiy-mania are now the authors of the “Genocidal-Abiy” slogan. They swing hard past the pendulum endpoints. To top it off, their political positions seem to be adopted stochastically.

If current Amhara and Tegaru tribal elites could be approximated by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short essay “The Idiot”, Oromo tribalists could be seen as the 21st century extrapolation of Nikolai Gogol’s masterpiece, “The Nose”. The Nose is a story of Assessor Kovalyov whose nose left his face and developed a life and character of its own and started to pretend he is a full-fledged human.

Kovalyov who loved to flirt and tended to be ostentatious with his handsome image and social status found it hard to live without his nose. He struggled with shame. Making the bad situation worse, the Nose surpassed Kovalyov by attaining a higher position in the Russian social ranking.

The story is Nose’s right for self-determination up to secession from Kovalyov or remain a prominent and most visible part of his face. In a sort of a subversive way, it is akin to the ቤርቤረሰቦች thingy. It is partly the story of the Oromo liberation theology and partly its psychological anatomy.

The Oromo elite’s glorification of Tsegaye Gebremedihn and Haile Fidda on the one hand and idolization of Jawar Mohamed and Bekele Gerba on the other show not political confusion but a tribal theology born out of a psychological crisis.

It seems that hardly anyone ever stops to ask why has Ethiopia failed to produce a functional intellectual class? Why are the true intellectuals crowded out by their feigned and morally dwarfed counterparts?

We need to understand where Mengistu’s butchers came from. We know the revolution allowed them to carry out their psychopathic fantasy of smelling the blood and gore of their victims and hearing the cracking of bones and the excruciating cries of their torture victims. In the same vein, we need to understand how Getachew Assefa rose in the ranks of TPLF to be the head of its torture enterprise. I do not pretend to be a psychoanalyst. But I can say with relative certainty that Getachew’s personality traits suggest a quintessential psychopath.

Derg’s and TPLF’s psychopaths and their partnering intellectual clowns were not some mythical beasts who fell out of the dark sky. Like in any other country, they exist in our midst. The question is what are the institutional, cultural, and epistemological dispositions that rein in their likes in other countries. We need to figure out the environment that brings them to the fore and rises them to the top in our country.

We must ask what gave political clowns such as Jawar, Eskinder, Shaleka Dawit and Getachew Reda institutional and cultural advantage to dominate our current political landscape? We must also find answers to the following questions: Why are the true intellectuals silent? Why have they failed to answer to the call of duty for country instead of succumbing to their reflex to avoid encounter with their morally challenged and ethically devoid counterparts?

The invasion of our political and social landscapes by intellectual screwballs and the deafening silence true intellectual have two serious consequences: a blind faith in a self-destructive ideology, and the dumbing down of a nation.

The blind faith of Ethiopian intellectuals in a self-destructive ideology

In a nation where intellectual discourse has been shunned and people with different views are separated by Trumpian wall of concrete and steel, the blind faith of intellectuals replaces reasoned political positions. Like a peasant from a distant century, Ethiopian modern-day intellectuals wear standardized jackets of thoughts, professing a fervor of blind faith to a cause – no matter what the cause may be. Yesteryear’s socialists have become today’s tribalists with the same level of fervor and reverence. Some among them are transitioning to blind Ethiopianism with no less zeal and veneration.

The irony is that they are proud of themselves, for they believe their monolithic thinking in their blind loyalty to their cause is an exemplary unity. Talking to one of them is like talking to all of them. In union and in perfect harmony they march to the drum beat of political conformity, charging forward like a mad bull. Only a cliff could bring them to a halt and only in shattered pieces. Meet TPLF and its zombified tribal scholars again, for the first time.

The Dumbing Down of a Nation

The dumbing down of our nation is perhaps one of the most damaging consequences of the failure of the intellectual class to live up to the nation’s expectations for higher ideals and commitment to the common good.

Recent developments in Vision Ethiopia and the Ethiopian Independent Economic Advisory Council provide textbook examples. I am more familiar with the latter. I, therefore, ask your indulgence to indulge in a grieving process with me. Let us at least start together.

The seed for the establishment of the Economic Advisory Council was planted in September 2018, when Professor Lemma W. Senbet and I submitted a proposal to the Prime Minister. After a long discussion, the Prime Minister’s Office announced the creation of an Independent of Advisory Council, consisting of 16 experts – 10 from local and 6 from the diaspora.

The first thing that interested some of the newly minted local members of the esteemed Council was who would be the chair and vice chair. Taking the 10 to 6 advantage of the local vs. the diaspora members, they brought the usual political game of creating a faction to ensure the Chair will be a local expert.

It just happened that the most decorated and internationally renowned economist in the Council, Professor Lemma, is a diaspora. He has received numerous recognitions and honors for his impact on the profession, including twice elected as director of the American Finance Association and a member of Brookings AGI Distinguished Advisory Group and a member of the Advisory Panel of G20 Compact with Africa. For five years he was the CEO of the African Economic Research Consortium overseeing the continent’s research endeavor. He has served as senior advisor to the World Bank, IMF, the UN, and the government of Canada, among others.

Ranked Third among World-Wide Contributing Authors to the Journal of Finance (1976-1985) by JF December 1986 Survey
Cited among the most prolific authors for a half century of contributions to the leading finance journals, 1959-2008 [ranked #24 among 8975 contributing authors to the top journals], Journal of Financial literature survey, March 2009
Cited among the most prolific authors for a half century of contributions to the leading finance journals, 1953– 2002 [ranked #26 among 5811 contributing authors to the top journals].
Ethiopia needed him to be the Chair of the Council more than he needed to be a Chair of the Council. The local faction’s strategy to undermine him and stop him from becoming the chair of the Ethiopian Economic Council started with rejecting the Concept Note that he and I prepared. It warrants noting that the PM established the Council based on the original concept note. Some members believed adopting it as the Council’s official Concept Note will give us a leg up for the leadership position.

From the get-go, I had made it clear that I would not seek or accept a leadership position. I do not lack ambition and never doubt my abilities. But I also know that not all economists are created equal. I believed and still do believe that there are more qualified economists in the Council than me. It would be preposterous of me to want to lead them.

I believed and made the case that the Chair should be an economist with global repute. Apart from providing intellectual leadership, he can be instrumental for fundraising. If the Council is to be a truly independent entity from the government, it needs to be financial independent. This requires mobilizing sufficient funds from international sources in the order of four to five million dollars annually.

Anyone who knows international fundraising knows that its success depends on two important factors, assuming it is a quality proposal. First is to increase its chance that fund providers will open the envelop or email. Fund provides get 100s of requests. A person with international name recognition in the funding space has a better chance getting his request opened and considered. Second is winning the confidence of fund provides in the leadership of the proposal. Projects led by globally respected applicants stand a reasonably good chance of getting funding. I could not fathom the decision behind choosing anyone other person than Professor Lemma if the objective was to build a successful Council at its formative stage.

I also believed one of the leaders needed to be a macro economist. In my opinion, the macro economist fit for the job is Professor Alemayehu Geda. Apart from being one of Africa’s most experienced and highly sought-after macroeconomic modeler, he has published six books and 60 articles. This is an impressive achievement by any standard. Though he was given full research professorship both at the University of London and the Economic Policy Research Centre at Makerere University (ranked internationally far higher than AA university), AA university made him languish as an Associate professor for 15 years.

This was due partly to his integrity and research capability that led him to reject TPLF’s 10 to 11% GDP growth rates. Thirteen years ago, he stopped applying for promotion and continued to teach as an Associate Professor as those who were below him with less academic accomplishments got full professorship.

Three years ago, his colleagues compiled his articles, books and accolades from professors and students alike and applied for promotion on his behalf. This year he was promoted to full professorship. Sadly, we have an institutional culture that pushes the able and the competent behind and rewards the less deserving and bring them to the fore.

Korea spurred its accelerated development in the 1950s and 1960s by identifying the best economists in the nation and charging them to lead the nation’s economic vision and strategy. In Ethiopia, members of the Economic Advisory Council (no less) spent four months conspiring to get the most qualified members of the council out of leadership contention. None of the leadership team is a macro economist. Ebonics (English as spoken by African Americans) has a fitting expression: “The Further we Wanted to Go, the Behinder They Pushed US.”

To call what transpired anything other than “a dumbing down of a nation” would be a disservice to the poor people of Ethiopia. I resigned from the Council after it became clear to me that some members of the local group were forming political majority to claim the chairmanship for one of the local members.

Professors Lemma and Alemayehu Geda removed themselves from the running for leadership position because it was clear from the frequency of nomination and the aggressive campaign who the chair was going to be. Both professors decided not to resign. Evidently, they have a higher threshold for intellectual crap than I do.

They may also believe trying to change the Council’s culture is part of our nation’s institutional building challenge. In my view if Council members need tutorial on intellectual culture and shepherding to act like an intellectual, they have no business to be a member of such a highly esteemed council. I have zero tolerance for this kind of crap.

There is nothing more than the political fight over the Concept Note that shows the dumbing down of a nation. Let me show by way of an example. The original Concept Note read in part:

The Council aims to provide the Prime Minister and his administration valuable advice and support to navigate through the tension between formidable challenges and great opportunities and chart a path to Ethiopia’s economic and social transformation….

…. While tackling its pressing challenges, Ethiopia must find ways to formulate a vision fueled by a higher dream of creating an innovation testbed to modernize its economic and social institutions. This requires harnessing its latent potential and using it to achieve its visions and higher dreams. Expanding the knowledge base is at the kernel of the solution to which this proposal addresses itself.

…The Council aims to support Ethiopia’s existing knowledge base and help bridge the gap between knowledge and policy by creating a platform that networks and engages Ethiopian scholars and development practitioners both inside and outside of Ethiopia. In this regard, the Council serves both as a catalyst and vehicle to build a global Ethiopian think-tank, consisting of eminent experts in Ethiopia and abroad.

…. Its overarching objective is to support the government’s objectives in formulating a vision and long- term economic strategic direction; articulate an integrated set of clear principles and priorities that give structure to the long-term vision; develop a clear short- to medium- term road map for accelerating economic growth and employment generation; and identify priority areas, design appropriate policies, and lay out implementation plans.

For instance, India’s vision is “to be the skill capital of the world.” China’s is building the “Silk Road Economic Belt” and “21st Century Maritime Silk Road.” Ethiopia’s future depends on its dreams and aspirations.

Members of the local faction vehemently opposed the Council’s objective to formulate an economic “vision” and “dream.” At one point one of them asked: “Who are we to develop a vision? Frankly, that is being presumptuous. Our title is advisory – and our purpose is to advise the government on issues they need or request advice on.” He was also not comfortable with our insistence that the Council need to be accountable to the PM not to a line minister. He ended up being the chair the Council.

The original Concept Note that Professor Lemma and I drafted used the word “Vision” in 12 places and economic “dream” four times. The draft was 14 pages long. The final draft is 35 pages long. The word “vision” is mentioned ZERO times with respect to developing an economic vision for Ethiopia.

Only one of the four references to economic “dream” remained in the 35-page final concept note. Another member of the local faction held an “irreconcilable” position on the need to surgically removing Professor K’s and my contribution in the Concept Note. The one reference to economic dream in the final draft was spared after I informed the government a political faction was destroying the Council. His “irreconcilable” position softened, and he agreed to let the one reference to economic dream slide. He ended up being the Secretary of the Council.

I left the Council not only because of the politicization of the leadership selection process, but also the watering down of the original vision of the Council.

Ethiopia must find a way to emancipate her intellectuals from themselves. Only then can we achieve our potential as a nation. The onus is on the government. Part of its educational budget needs to be earmarked to ensure the nation’s intellectuals function as intellectuals. Otherwise, there is no need to produce them. The peace, security, liberty, and prosperity of the people demands it. If this proves impossible or exceedingly difficult, the nation will be better off importing intellectuals as it imports cars, rice, and fuel.


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