The Social Reformers of Early Twentieth Century Ethiopia
(reproduced from FSS Medrek with Permission)

Bahru Zewde, Professor Department of History Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Few events in the recent history of the world have had as momentous a significance as the encounter of the West with Africa and Asia. Begun around 1500, the process has gone through various stages and could be said to have reached its climax in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The direct impact of the advent of the West on the social and economic lives of the African and Asian peoples has been a matter of considerable interest and wide investigation. No less remarkable has been the way the “East” strove to respond intellectually to the challenge of the West. Although the West set the tone and parameters of the dialogue, this response has generally been characterized more by creative adaptation than by blind imitation. Ethiopia’s modern encounter with the West, more specifically Europe, could be said to have started around 1500. After a short but eventful relationship with the Iberian powers, when an unsuccessful attempt by the Jesuits to covert the country to Catholicism led to a bloody civil war, there ensued a period of mutual isolation until Europe came in full force to the African continent at the dawn of the 19th century.

While Ethiopia managed to escape the colonial rule that attended almost inexorably the European presence, it was far from immune from the influence radiating from Europe. The independence guaranteed by the Ethiopian victory at the Battle of Adwa in 1896 brought in its wake the onerous responsibility of adjusting to European norms and standards of administration and behavior. The Ethiopian intellectual experience is a vivid illustration of an African reaction to the hegemony of the West. It drew deeply, initially at least, from traditional intellectual moorings yet was in many instances able to express itself in the language of the West. The fundamental tension between dependency and development, which has punctuated the intellectual and political history of the so-called Third World in the modern era, was evident in the Ethiopian experience as well. The burden of defining intellectually Ethiopia’s relationship with the West fell on the country’s first modern elite. This process of definition began in the early twentieth century with the critical analysis of Ethiopian society and the recommendation of moderate reforms. It culminated in the radical rejection of tradition and the revolutionary transformation of Ethiopian society after 1974.

Indeed, measured by the experience the country has been forced to go through since the late 1960s, it is difficult to imagine many other societies where the educated elite has exercised such a preponderant influence on social and political change. Christian Ethiopia had developed a system of education which had a record of more than a millennium when the challenge of the West began to be felt. That system began with the mastery of the syllabic alphabet. It then passed on to the recital of the Acts of the Apostles, the independence in 1941. Indeed, after that year, the spirit of critical distance yet meaningful engagement of the early intellectuals was replaced by a culture of loyal civil service. Things began to change only after 1960. And when they did, the agenda of cautious reform had been irrevocably replaced by the strident call for revolution.