In Defense of Prof. Mesfin W. Mariam
By Tebeje Molla (PhD)
March 26, 2018

Prof. Mesfin Woldemariam (Screenshot: Ethiomedia)

We live in a time of extraordinary change. In liberal democracies and illiberal authoritarians alike, tribal politics has become a prevalent feature. In Ethiopia, political aspirations of ethno-nationalists and civic nationalists seem to be set in a parallel universe. As time goes by the intersection point of these two lines of political positions becomes a distant mirage. The situation has been further complicated with the emergence of a new wave of Amhara nationalism.

I am not here to deny the existence of Amhara as an ethnic group or to judge the importance of Amhara nationalism. In fact, my reaction is that of repentance. In the last 25 years, the Amhara people have been a victim of hate and violence from those who are in power (namely TPLF) and those who seek power (namely OLF and its new breeds). Hence organising the Amhara people around a common cause/or identity to defend itself is a commendable mission.

However, what is worrisome is that at the moment ethno-nationalists have increasingly become political zealots who would attack anyone who appears to stand on their way. Even worse, their preys are advocates of civic nationalism who wish to see the triumph of citizenship politics over ethnic/tribal politics. The latest victim of this army of vendetta is the country’s lone public scholar, professor Mesfin W/Mariam – a fearless human rights champion who has fought against three generations of tyrants and has been speaking the truth to power.

A couple of days ago, this giant scholar restated his opposition to the emerging trend of ethnicization of the Amhara people. The response of the distractors was predictable and yet shocking. They immediately rushed into dehumanising him and trashing his dignity. They threw all the insults at him. The savagery of the group is meant to frighten him off – and to deter anyone from raising legitimate questions on the future of the Amhara people and the country in general.  For them, Ethiopian nationalism is inherently antithetical to Amhara nationalism. As such, prominent figures in the first camp (including Mefin W/Mariam) are enemies of the movement. This is a dangerous representation that needs to be challenged.  Here I outline five reasons to specifically defend professor Mefin W/Mariam:

  1. We should all defend intellectual freedom. I strongly believe in the value of freedom of thought and expression. Like anybody else, Mesfin W/Mariam has the right to express his views, and he should not be attacked for doing so. Most importantly, we all benefit from a free exchange of ideas and views. For a genuine intellectual, active presence in the public sphere is not a matter of pomposity. It is rather a commitment to a higher purpose of serving society. Organic intellectuals, to use Gramsci’s term, reject careful silence, and are disposed to dissent against the status quo. They unsettle our cherished beliefs and assumptions. In doing so they seek to change our minds and break down categories that are so limiting to human thought and action.

Another reason as to why we need to have public intellectuals in our political lives is that we cannot trust politicians. As Havel succinctly puts it:

By its very essence, politics induces those who work in it to focus their attention on short-term issues that have a direct bearing on the next elections instead of on what will happen a hundred years from now. It compels them to pursue group interests rather than the interests of the human community as a whole, to say things that please everyone […], to treat even truth itself with caution.

In their public performance, public intellectuals always stand between loneliness and alignment – that is what we learn from the lives of James Baldwin, Randolph Bourne, Edward Said, Noam Chomsky and so on. Nonetheless, to expand our intellectual resources, we should defend free thinkers from unjustifiable attacks of zealots and ፊደላውያን  (to use prof. Mesfin’s word).

  1. Public intellectuals are ‘the conscience of society’. I believe that much of the animosity towards Professor Mesfin and other critical scholars stems from a lack of basic understanding about the role of the intellectual in society. Intellectual activities of the scholar are primarily governed by the search for truth – not for power or other rewards. In Representations of the Intellectual, Palestinian-American thinker Edward Said explains what it means to be an intellectual:

The intellectual is neither a pacifier nor a consensus-builder, but someone whose whole being is staked on a critical sense, a sense of being unwilling to accept easy formulas, or ready-made cliches, or the smooth, ever-so-accommodating confirmations of what the powerful or conventional have to s ay, and what they do. Not just passively unwillingly, but actively willing to say so in public.

By virtue of his/her training, commitment and responsibility, the intellectual is in a better position to critique societal ills, and reimagine the transfiguration of political systems and cultural practices. The role of the public thinker is to ‘observe and interpret’ society. In his introduction to Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, former Czech president and playwright Václav Havel sees real intellectuals as the ‘conscience of society’ who would hold up “a much-needed mirror to politics and power”.

  1. The underlying intention is ignored. Starting from my college years, I have had the opportunity to read most of Mesfin W/Mariam’s political writings. In most cases, the loci of his critical gaze have been people in power, regardless of their ethnic affiliation. Nowhere did he deny the existence of the Amhara people, as his faultfinders would like to argue. For him, Amhara (free people) is beyond ethnic categorization. It is a manifest of Ethiopiawinet – a harmonious blend of cultures, a spirit of freedom and pride that define the nationhood of Ethiopia. That was what he meant and that is what he stands for!

Relatedly, his reluctance to define the Amhara people as an ethnic group emanates from his unyielding commitment to civic nationalism. For a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society such as Ethiopia, civic nationalism is a viable political arrangement because it accommodates all those who pledge to a defined political creed – regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender or language. This principle does not undermine the existence of ethnic identities though. The formation of the British nation-state does not reduce the Scots or the Irish into non-existence. As renowned Canadian scholar of nationalism Michael Ignatieff states:

[Civic] nationalism is called civic because it envisages the nation as a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens, united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values. This nationalism is necessarily democratic, since it vests sovereignty in all of the people.

  1. Let reason be our guide. Professor Mesfin has forwarded his thesis, calling into question the existence of an Amhara ethnic identity. However fragile and controversial his claim might be, it is out there in the public. The new breed of ethno-nationalists fails to develop a sensible antithesis. They are rather busy in a street fight with a person of reason. As a result, we are stuck in a road full of a wreckage of dehumanizing insults and emotional pledge. The new ethno-nationalists do not hesitate to denounce anyone who deviates from what they maintain to be true. For many in the ethnocentric political camp (including those in power), the feeble intellectual endowment means that they depend on emotions and fear to mobilize their supporters. Nothing else explains this coordinated attack directed at at a person who just expressed his views.

More often than not our political debates are void of substance, and quickly devolve into violence. The proponents of ethnic politics seem to be in a state of deep disillusionment regarding the truth-value of their arguments. It is evident that they suffer from a loss appetite for facts and rationality. It is hardly possible to engage with them in a productive debate on matters of collective interest. My own intermittent attempt to discuss with people in the ethnocentric camp proved to be futile. There is a rush to name calling and labelling. They hate to be confused with the facts – to use a well-known The New Yorker cartoon caption, their motto is: “I say it’s spinach and the hell with it”.

  1. There is a lack of conceptual clarity. Our political discourse is full of ambiguities. For example, the difference between clan (ጎሳ), ethnicity (ዘዉግ), nation (ብሔር), tribe (ነገድ) and race (ዘር) is not intuitively obvious. To illustrate, the Constitution grants each ‘nation, nationality, and people’ in Ethiopia a right for self-determination, including the right to secede. However, until this day, it remains unintelligible as to who qualifies to be a nation, nationality, or people in Ethiopian political system. This dubiety has significant implications for political mobilization and consensus building. The confusion about what Mesfin W/Mariam has and has not said is in part attributable to this lack of conceptual clarification. It has opened a way for many in the social media to misrepresent his arguments. This is despite his unequivocal statement: “አማራ የለም አላልሁም የትም ቦታ አላልሁም፤ ያልሁት አማራ የሚባል ጎሣ የለም ነው”. In short, it takes knowledge and clarity of thought to productively criticize others’ views and positions.

In closing, it is counterproductive to mercilessly attack those who dare to challenge our taken-for-granted assumption and to question our world of appearances. It only extends our misery in the hands of opportunists and tyrants. When Mesfin W/Mariam gazes on our collective lives, he does it with intent and intensity. His intellectual engagement is essentially anti-authoritarian, both in political and cultural senses. Who would benefit from silencing such a thinker?  We cannot achieve freedom for others while we live within a lie.

The writer, Dr Tebeje Molla, can be reached at - An African-American news and views website.
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