Third time's the charm? Intellectuals and Ethiopia's Plight
By Teshome Bedada
December 18, 2017
In his famous play called hahu weyim pepu, Laureate Tsegaye Gebremedhin metaphorically captured Ethiopia as a mother that consecutively miscarried pregnancies of democracy. In a period shy of half-century, we’ve witnessed two such ‘miscarriages’. Yet again, Ethiopia is in a third ‘labor’; the TPLF regime has being facing mounting pressures over the last two years, and change is in the air. Third time’s a charm, or is it? What will transpire depends on a number of factors, not least of which is whether the Ethiopian intelligentsia plays an active, concerted role in not only seeing off the tyrant ruling clique but also ensuring a successful transition to a democratic system. Ethiopia is in a desperate need of ‘midwives’ to successfully ‘deliver’ democracy, and no one group is better positioned than the intelligentsia to discharge such a responsibility. Ethiopian intellectuals have a great responsibility, perhaps now more so than ever. Articles by, for example, Prof. Alemayehu G Mariam and Prof. Messay Kebede have called for fellow intellectuals to shoulder their fair share of responsibilities. Prof. Birhanu Nega publicly lamented the limited role of Ethiopian intellectuals on the critical issues of Ethiopia and made a plea for a more active engagement. Whereas it is important to plead with the intellectuals and remind them of their moral responsibility, a more fruitful approach can be devised by understanding the underlying reasons for their limited active role.
Theories in behavioural science suggest that individuals fail to act either because they do not want to (an incentive problem) or they do not know how to (a bounded-rationality problem). These two factors can help explain the limited, if any, involvement of most Ethiopian intellectuals. The first problem is that of incentives. Clearly, individuals respond to incentives. What kind of incentives are appropriate here? Well, these incentives can take a form of positive or negative reinforcements. Whereas positive reinforcements constitute both financial and non-financial returns, the non-financial returns are more relevant here as we are considering intellectuals’ moral responsibility for which financial incentives are hardly required. So, what non-financial incentives can attract more intellectuals to come to the fore? One such incentive may take a form of identifying role models and celebrating those intellectuals who have contributed immensely to Ethiopia. By honoring such intellectuals of the past and the present, we can inspire a generation of intellectuals who would want to emulate their achievements. Here it’s important to face head-on a major problem we Ethiopians have related to honoring our heroes and heroines; instead of emphasizing the excellent achievements of many, we spend too much time and energy in finding faults and criticizing. Most of us harbor a scarcity mentality and a zero-sum game thinking in that someone else's gain, we think, is our loss. The Amharic adage, weta weta yalech mashila andim le wefe andim le wenchif, captures this sentiment. According to Platteau, such social norms discourage individual effort. Therefore, if we really want to encourage intellectuals to take active roles, then we have to do away with such norms and start honoring those who have given a lot to Ethiopia.
There is no shortage of such intellectuals in Ethiopia. For example, Tsehafi Taezaz Aklilu Habte-Wold (1912 – 1974) is one of such intellectuals who have made considerable contributions to Ethiopia. His role in improving the diplomatic relationship of Ethiopia with the USA was impressive. His contribution to the formation of the Organization of African Union (OAU) and advancing Ethiopia’s stature in the process was remarkable. He was also a major player in the establishment of the Ethiopian Airlines, which has been a pride of Ethiopia for years. His diplomacy skills and unrelenting effort had also been instrumental in bringing Eritrea into federation with Ethiopia. These are but some of his hefty achievements. Another intellectual with an impressive record is Kibour Yilma Deressa (1907 – 1979), who assumed several government positions including a stint as a Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A son of Blatta Deressa Amante (an influential thinker himself) and a contemporary of Aklilu, Yilma had substantially contributed to the development of such financial institutions as the Ministry of Finance and the National Bank. As well, he was the driving force behind the introduction of the Ethiopian currency, birr. He had also played a considerable role in the formation of OAU. These Ethiopians made huge contributions to their country during their time. The current ruling party has been instigating conflicts among the many ethnic groups who lived harmoniously for centuries in its attempt to weaken the unity of the country. Prof Berhanu Nega and Dr. Merera Gudina have worked tirelessly to expose TPLF’S conspiracy in promoting hate, human rights violation and corruption. Their persistent, courageous fight for freedom which lasted decades is exemplary to the current generation. These are but examples and one can identify a host of other intellectuals with substantial contributions to Ethiopia. I do not think that we’ve accorded these intellectuals the due respect and honor they deserve. By failing to do so, we would not only take their achievements for granted but also deprive future generations of intellectual’s role models to look up to. As well, we need to move away from considering intellectuals in aggregate and consider (and honor) the remarkable achievements of many.
Another challenge limiting the involvement of intellectuals in national matters is lack of awareness and/or requisite skill sets to scale up activities. A discussion I had with a friend on the issue surfaced one of the assumptions underlying political involvement of intellectuals. There is a tendency to relegate politics to an issue of concern only to those in political science and related areas. ‘I am an engineer and thus have nothing to do with politics’, argued my friend. Well, I think my friend is by no means alone in this. Many from both social science and natural science disciplines hold such a believe. The argument is reasonable in that it advances the notion that individual’s involvement should be merit based; that is, an intellectual in political science has a more relevant training in the area of politics and thus need to be politically more active. In fact, this is the kind of merit-based system we miss in the TPLF regime and this is what we aspire to have. However, the argument is based on a narrow, misguided understanding of politics. Politics is not something we consignee to a select group of individuals. Rather, it is about power (possession, division, and distribution) which can be used to get things done, formulate and implement policies, and efficiently allocate the limited resource available to the country under consideration. Such power can take a form of legitimate power, expert power, and charismatic power. Intellectuals do have the expert power. They can use such power to undermine the (il)legitimate power of a tyrant. Intellectuals can ask the right questions, critically examine the (false) claims of such tyrants as TPLF and debunk their propaganda. Intellectuals can play a major diplomatic role by exposing the lies of the TPLF regime and showing the practical merits for foreign governments of doing away with the regime. Intellectuals can also play roles in weakening the fundamental economic, military, information, and political pillars of TPLF. For example, an engineer specializing in communication technologies is in a better position to understand, neutralize, and counter TPLF’s mischiefs and attacks related to network and communication. Whatever action that can tip the power balance in favour of Ethiopians is considered a political action. Just because one does not belong to the fields from which politicians has traditionally emerged, it doesn’t mean that s/he has no role to play in influencing the balance of power. Intellectuals need to realize that the expert power they have at their disposal can make a difference.
In sum, realizing a free and democratic Ethiopia requires more than merely chiding intellectuals. In fact, we need to look into the root causes of the status quo (i.e., the very limited involvement of intellectuals in the political affairs of Ethiopia). By identifying two potential sources of this problem and forwarding potential recommendations, this article moves a step toward resolving the issue. If Ethiopia is to avoid a third ‘miscarriage’, then its intellectuals need to do more.
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