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Saluting The Wonderful Ethiopian Intellectuals

Ghelawdewos Araia

June 27, 2011

Given the current intellectual crisis among the Ethiopian Diaspora I have become increasingly nostalgic to the rich scholarly legacy of my former professors at Addis Ababa University (AAU) and the brilliant University Students Union of Addis Ababa (USUAA) militants who were prolific writers and gifted public speakers. Some of my mentors are still around but a significant number of them have vanished in due course of the Ethiopian Revolution. One of the objectives of this essay is to acknowledge the scholarly and intellectual contributions of these wonderful Ethiopians, without whom, I sincerely believe, I could not have made the achievements of education that I have attained and the professorial career that I have today. And it is for this apparent reason that I have quoted Isaac Newton in my debut book, Ethiopia: The Political Economy of Transition, and attributed his celebrated maxim (‘If I have been able to see farther than others it was because I stood on the shoulders of giants’) to my exemplar par excellence Ethiopian intellectuals.

The second objective of this essay is to critically examine the current degeneration of the present Ethiopian intellectuals in the Diaspora to gossip and innuendo and to suggest a way out (solution/redemption) in an effort to revive the glorious past (that I will discuss presently) of Ethiopian scholarship and pave a way and constructive road to the next generation. But first we must have the courage to admit that [we the] Diaspora Ethiopians have performed poorly, if not dangerously, when it comes to creating and fostering education-cum-discussion forums that are designed to uplift the Ethiopian cultural milieu. It is with the latter conceptual framework in mind that I wrote Designing Continuum to Enrich Ethiopian Educational Discourse and Debate Culture in 2004.

Contrary to my hopes and aspirations, however, it looks that “our discipline runs the risk of degenerating into a debunking enterprise” as Hanna Arendt once aptly put it. Although Hanna’s alarming observation was stated in relatively different context and in which the predominance of ideology effectively eradicates evidence, empirical research, and scholarly contributions, it is indeed very much relevant to the crisis that has bedeviled the Ethiopian Diaspora.

Because the Ethiopian Diaspora is engaged in flagrantly counter-productive and counter-empirical world outlook, the plethora of comments that accompany a certain author’s article is mostly destructive and tainted with scatology. Surprisingly, the degenerating phenomenon is not unique to Diaspora Ethiopians; I have observed it in the Kenyan and Somali websites as well, and it is by and large prevalent across the board in the African continent.

Could the problem of degeneration have emanated from the colonial experience of the past? In other words, despite the fact that we Africans celebrated the 50th anniversary of most African countries’ independence, our mind is not liberated yet. Ngugi Wa Thiongo told us in his famous book Decolinizing the Mind, and recently The International Conference of African Writers seems to have vindicated Wa Thiongo. In relation to the May 2-4 Conference held in Addis Ababa, the African Writers official website had posted the following statement:

“Several decades after the political independence of Africa was secured, the colonization of the mind has lingered. The struggle to liberate the mind has been going on since late 1950s. And the role of the African Writers in this regard has been unrivaled by any other means of struggle.

However, the struggle has gradually lost momentum in the last few years. Aware of this fact, Ethiopian Writers Association, Addis Ababa University, and Pan-African Writers Association are now prepared to bring together the African literary intelligentsia to take stock of the previous journey and discuss ways forward.”

Although the African writers are mainly interested in reviving and augmenting literary culture, their mission statement, if translated into action, could have a far-reaching impact on the mind landscape of Africans and the overall positive transformation of African societies. And unless Ethiopians go against reason and history and remain distracted from the more pressing problems that Ethiopia encounters, the Ethiopian potential is still tremendous.

Let me digress for a while unto the realm of those wonderful Ethiopians who have propagated myriad of ideas at AAU (then Haile Selassie I University – HSIU -) and entertain readers so that s/he could have a good flavor of the rich scholarship that once flourished in the University campuses. I have already written about the political discourses of the time in my book and elsewhere and I will not repeat myself here. I rather write here some important anecdotes that I have not mentioned in the past.

When I joined the University in the early 1970s, like most of my colleagues, I was a teenager and not mature enough to understand the complexity of politics, but out of interest and personal proclivities I decided to major in political science and minor in sociology, the twin social sciences that for ever shaped my mind. However, this subject matters did not per se influenced my psychological make-up; it is the distinguished professors and the militant students that in fact instilled unto my mind the all-round facets of knowledge.

Luckily for me and for other students, at the time I joined the university the program of Ethiopianization of the academia had been unleashed in earnest; and on top of the world famous professors from Europe and North America, the best minds of Ethiopian professors were inducted in this one and only one higher institution of learning. One of these minds was Negusse Ayele, head of the political science department. I did not take any course with Professor Negusse, but I have heard him give a talk and read some of his discourse, and his command of the English language is captivating. The last time I saw Dr. Negusse was at the Horn of Africa Conference in New York when he refused to sit with the rest of the panel on the stage. Although I did not agree with his actions, and I for one am in favor of dialogue with anyone including our foes, my admiration of his talents is not going to change.

There were other dynamic intellectual scholars who taught me political science and some of them were Nega Ayele and Teferawork Beshah. Both of them were killed; Nega was assassinated by the Derg tugs, and Teferawork died in a car accident. Both of them were intellectuals of high caliber, but Nega was a gifted writer. His thesis on ‘regionalism vs. centralism’ was very much admired and widely acclaimed by the university community, not to mention his book (co-authored with John Markakis), Class and Revolution in Ethiopia. Nega Ayele was not only inspirational to his students, but he was also actively committed to the cause of their movement. During the campaign of candidates for the Congress of USUAA, Nega met me on the hallway of the 3rd floor of the New Arts Building and in a congratulatory tone he said, “I am glad to see your name on the USUAA ballot.” Incidentally, Ogbazghi Yoahnnes, Amare Tegbaru, and myself were candidates representing the Department of political science. Amare Tegbaru defeated us and not only has he become a candidate from political science but he also served as secretary for USUAA. 

During the 1972 or 1973 academic year, one eloquent gifted speaker that joined the university was Andreas Eshete. He was a member of the faculty in the philosophy department were old guards like Dr. Sumner were residents, but he taught political science courses, one of which was ‘Hegel Through Marx’ that I have attended and enjoyed immensely. The class was overcrowded and Professor Andreas was the best in terms of methodological and analytical approaches to the course and in terms of his presentation of political philosophy. He also was eager to engage students in sound debate during break and students loved him despite his constant smoking of Lucky Strike cigarette on their face. Some of the students, however, challenged his stance on socialism as a whole and his “strange” characterization of the latter as “there is not such thing as scientific socialism.”

Other wonderful Ethiopian intellectual scholars in campus were Eshetu Chole, Gebru Tareke, and Abraham Demoz in the departments of economics, history, and Ethiopian languages studies respectively. I did not take any course with either Professor Gebru or Professor Abraham, but I have greatly enjoyed the company of Dr. Eshetu Chole, both in his mentorship and in his close association with the student body. Professor Abraham was a highly respected scholar and along with Professor Mesfin Woldemariam, he made a field trip to Wello to study the famine and the condition of the people. The joint report was presented to the university community and the public at large, and I suspect it may have further exacerbated the already agitated students, and it also may have contributed, however small, to the downfall of the Emperor.

Nega, Eshetu, and Gebru were very much liked by the students for their academic prowess and for their progressive outlooks. Eshetu, like Nega, has produced scholarly works including his book (co-authored with Assefa Bequele) entitled A Profile of the Ethiopian Economy. Sadly, both of them have died and Gebru who is still alive has produced many scholarly essays and books including his most recent book on the Ethiopian revolution.

In the history department, there were many giant scholars that I did not get a chance to meet them in person. Some of these were Sergewi Habteselassie, Taddesse Tamrat, Richard Pankhurst, and Bahru Zewde. Gebru Tareke, already mentioned, was also in the same department. All these scholars have made great contributions to Ethiopian historiography. Professor Taddesse is known for his oft-quoted book Church and State in Ethiopia: 1270-1527. Professor Pankhurst’s contributions are unparalleled in the history of Ethiopian intellectual discourse, and especially in the social history of Ethiopia. My friends and I have honored Professor Pankhurst by writing ‘Tribute to Richard Pankhurst’ and he deserves it. Professor Bahru Zewede is a unique treasure in Ethiopian scholarship, and I recommend students and researchers alike to read not only his magnum opus A History of Modern Ethiopia: 1855-1974 (1991) but also Society, State, and History: Selected Essays (2008), in which Donald Crummey and Shiferaw Bekele (Foreword and Introduction respectively) rendered justice to the works of the esteemed scholar. 

The brilliant students of Addis Ababa University were the products of the above- mentioned intellectual scholars. However, the off-class students study circles, the many student publications produced by respective department associations, Struggle, USUAA’s official organ, and student activism as a whole also contributed in large measure to the broad scope of knowledge that the students were able to attain.

Among the high caliber early student leaders that I have never met but knew about them a lot and who were admired by students and faculty alike were Gebru Gebrewold, Berhanemeskel Reda, Michale Abebe, Yohannes Sebhatu, Taye Gurumu, Seyoum Woldeyohannes, Haile Gebreyohannes, Ghidei Gebrewahid, and Yohannes Berhane. But from the student leaders who belonged to the above group and whom I considered as my mentors and with whom I had the opportunity to associate and exchange ideas and experiences were Zeru Kihishen, Berhane Iyasu, Goitom Berhe, Tselote Hizkias, Dawit Seyoum, Girmachew Lemma, and Tsegaye Gebremedhin (Debtera). 

When the Ethiopian revolution broke out in 1974, I was a senior 3rd year political science major and because the university was closed by order of the new military government (Derg), none of my entry level students were conferred degrees that year. Some have gone to the field to join the Eritrean fronts; others have founded the Tigray national organization and subsequently the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front; some have gone to find the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), but a significant majority has joined the EPRP and MEISONE.

The bulk of the student intellectuals were literary devoured by the Red Terror campaign of the Derg and a good number were consumed in the internecine fratricidal wars and in the war of attrition conducted by the nationality fronts against the Derg. As stated above, the perished as well as the surviving intellectuals were mainly the products of one and only one Addis Ababa University, but they were also influenced by the early harbingers of Ethiopian literature, especially fiction writers during the pre-revolution period. Some of these writers were Haddis Alemayehu, Abbe Gubeña, Asaminew Gebrewold, and Kebede Michael; and Mammo Wudineh, Beálu Girma, and Sebhat Gebreegziabiher later supplemented their works. Some of these creative writers like Kebebde Michael can be classified under fiction and non-fiction (educational) in literary criticism.

Aleka Taye and Bilaten Geta Herouy Wolde Selassie are the forerunners in Ethiopian historiography and Abba Teweldemedhin Yosief, Tekelsadiq Mekuria, and Belai Ghiday Amha carried on their legacy. Tewelde Tuku also carried on the legacy of these Ethiopian historians but he belongs to the intellectual scholars in historiography mentioned above. In one form or another, the present generation of Ethiopians must follow the example of these intellectuals and continue their legacy with conscious determination. I for one had the pleasure to translate Blaten Geta Herouy’s book, published in 1918, from Amharic into English. The title of the book is Advice to The Son & In Memory to the Father, a mere 27 pages long small book but filled with grand ethical and cultural guidance from an Ethiopian sage.  

The current Diaspora Ethiopian intellectuals are unable to carry on the ethos and traditions of the Ethiopian intellectual heritage of Addis Ababa University professors and the myriad scholarly works of ESUNA, ESUE, and USUAA. Except for very few intellectuals in the Diaspora, who are indeed engaged in a constructive and educational exchange of ideas, the majority has sunk into a culture of protracted squabble. But, I am not entirely hopeless. On the contrary, I am still hopeful not because the Ethiopian potential is tremendous but also because there are still some Ethiopian intellectuals in the Diaspora who gave me solace and whom I think are comrades-in-arms in the revitalization of Ethiopian scholarship. These Ethiopian intellectuals are seriously engaged in the recovery of the Ethiopian intellectual heritage and they are found at the opposite end of the continuum with the innuendo “intellectuals” with false diplomas.

The false diploma holders hypocrites masquerade among the unsuspecting Ethiopians who would not detect their sedate plagiarism and pilfering habit. In this regard, I like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to Abebe Gelaw for producing a very meticulous and crafty exposure committed by Tesfaye Habisso. Ethiomedia further reinforced Abebe’s initiative and we have seen how the accused used a Ghanaian piece verbatim. Tesfaye, of course, does not belong to the Diaspora but his types are abounding in North America, Europe, and elsewhere. When the time arrives, we may expose the thieves in literature in broad daylight.

The well-meaning Ethiopians whom I have labeled comrades-in-arms are entirely different from the above losers. They are men and women of integrity and they simply want to tell the truth. One of these is Professor Teodros Kiros, author of many books, including his most recent two books Ethiopian Discourse and Philosophical Essays to which I had the honor writing blurbs. I have also reviewed his books in the past and he reciprocated by reviewing two of my books. Other two unassuming writers, and to whom I have great respect, are Daniel Gizaw and Ayalew Yimam. I have had the pleasure writing blurbs to Ato Daniel’s books The Prince of Africa and Fikre Kudus (Amharic). Daniel is a prolific and gifted writer. Equally prolific is Ato Ayalew, with whom I had acquaintances since the days of Addis Ababa University. He was committed in organizing Ethiopians for Peace and Democracy in North America and in finding Ethiopian Focus, a news and views magazine that had enjoyed only few volumes. I am gratified to witness the publishing of Ayalew’s book entitled Yankee Go Home: The Life of An Ethiopian Revolutionary & The Fall of Assimba, EPRP’s Red Base. I have made my two-penny contributions in terms of editing and writing a foreword to Ayalew’s book.

Among Ethiopian journalists who could potentially contribute to Ethiopian renaissance in culture in general and literature in particular are Abiye Teklemariam and his colleagues in Addis Neger. They have done their best in promoting Ethiopian journalism, but because of fear of political persecution they were forced to leave Ethiopia and join the Diaspora.

Among the Ethiopian students of yesteryear who struggled for a better Ethiopia in Europe and who continue to yearn for the welfare of the Ethiopian people is Mammo Muchie. Professor Mammo is a doctor of philosophy, a professor, and director of the Research Center on Development and Innovation in Aalborg, Denmark. He and his colleagues have issued ‘call on papers’ for a knowledge exchange conference that will be held in London on September 2011. We ought to support their endeavor, and I personally want to encourage young Ethiopian scholars to submit papers and/or participate in the conference.

Among the civic organizations and advocacy group activists, perhaps the one who stands out is Ato Kidane Alemayehu. Ato Kidane is an Ethiopian to the core who also equally yearns the best of Ethiopia. He and his colleagues of the Ethiopian National Congress are doing their best to forge a united front, but it is going to be a daunting task given the chaotic and ill-organized Ethiopian Diaspora communities; plethora of communities afflicted by the ethnic virus, and adding insult to injury these communities harbor the hypocrite intellectuals who are masters of camouflage. I have had the pleasure to exchange ideas and experiences with Ato Kidane and when I met him in person in a mini conference, I gave him my book, Cultures That We Must Preserve and Reject and I was caught off guard by his prompt feedback, a sort of review to my work. None of the other conferees who got my book for free came up with a feedback; some of them, I gather prefer to lavish in Greek mythology rather than read an African ontology or a book written in their own language or they have no ability whatsoever to critique a book.

I salute all these brave and brilliant Ethiopian intellectuals, but I must confess that their efforts could not bear fruit unless their respective associations (civic, political, cultural and educational) are supported by the majority of Ethiopians and also unless they manage to create a solid and viable overarching pan-Ethiopian associations. These wonderful Ethiopians also must come to terms with the hard fact surrounding realizable agendas: Individually or in groups, they cannot meet their objectives unless they operate like fingers in one hand. They must also understand and seriously underscore that politics, civic duties, educational programs, and businesses are gregarious enterprises.

Those wonderful Ethiopians who are fortunate enough to produce literary works cannot afford to work in isolation (not withstanding individual propensities and peculiarities) and they must understand that cooperatively they can indeed usher a vibrant literary renaissance for Ethiopia that, in turn, could augment a cultural regeneration for the broad Ethiopian society. Ultimately, their literary works could have a positive impact on the national life of Ethiopia. In his book The Negro in Literature and Art, Benjamin Brawley argued, “literature is supposed to be a reflection of national life,” and his argument is relevant to Ethiopia and other societies.

The wonderful Ethiopian intellectuals that I like to salute are creative and honest people and they love to make networks in the areas of knowledge and foster a big database or Information Technology (IT) that could better serve their country and its citizens. However, the exchange and transmission of knowledge could not be simply based on a conventional mode of thinking; the knowledge has to be guided by professional intellectuals (scientists, educators, philosophers etc) who are endowed with well-synchronized knowledge that, in turn, is compatible and relevant to other segments of knowledge. So, knowledge itself is complex and intricate and that is why we need honest scholars as opposed to the marauding pretenders whose ideas are for the most part ambiguously suspended and tainted with string of curses.        

Finally, while I salute those wonderful Ethiopian intellectuals, I like to urge my fellow Ethiopians to retool their resilience and by design (not by default) become part of the energy that could transform the Ethiopian society for the better. As educators, we should aim high and we should not settle for mediocre schools that provide standard courses only; we must aim at creating walking encyclopedias, the future leaders of Ethiopia.

Note: The people that I salute in this essay are a tip of the iceberg. There are many other names not mentioned and I have yet to honor them. Please bear with me till I compile the names of other wonderful Ethiopians and I like to encourage Ethiopians to contact me and provide me with names that need to be recognized.

All Rights Reserved. Copyright IDEA, Inc. 2011. Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia can be contacted for constructive and educational feedback via dr.garaia@africanidea.org