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The Rise of Ethiopian Nihilism and the Plight of Addis Ababa University

By Mesay Kebede

 A significant debate is going on in Ethiopia about the problems and the future of Addis Ababa University. An echo of this debate is found in the weekly Addis Tribune: in successive articles, several readers have expressed their serious concern about the future of Addis Ababa University, and by extension, of higher education in Ethiopia. So far-reaching are these concerns that they vary from the perception of a crisis which has reached “an unmanageable proportion” to the diagnosis of a “final fate” or the choice “to close the university.” As to the reasons for the deteriorating condition, the lack of financial incentive and the suppression of democratic governance are cited as leading causes. The patent symptoms of the crisis being the exodus of professors and the general apathy of the academic staff, the diagnosis seems accurate enough. Moreover, it designates the Ethiopian government as the main culprit, obvious as it is that neither the improvement of the financial condition nor the establishment of democratic atmosphere is beyond the reach of the present government. The general suspicion is that the appalling condition of the university may be the result of a deliberate policy of strangulation.

            My purpose is not to add my voice to the general outcry against governmental indifference or malevolence. Instead, I prefer to share my reflections on the deeper cause of the mistreatment of the university by successive regimes as well as by its own products, namely, the Ethiopian educated elite.

 Modernity Versus Tradition

To tell the truth, although the majority of the students and academic staff have so far firmly defended a nationalist commitment, the university as an institution has never succeeded in defining and assuming a national role. Its failure reflected the inability of Ethiopian ruling elites and educated circles to make sense of modern education. In many ways, modern education in Ethiopia has been and still is the learning of self-hatred and destruction. We Ethiopians made the fundamental mistake of overlooking the long-term effects of an education based on the unilinear and Eurocentric conception of social change on our own self-perception, as a society and a nation.

If anything, such a conception taught us to systematically measure our history and cultures against the values and achievements of the West. The result was the learning of self-depreciation, soon followed by the revolutionary rage against a legacy held responsible for our “backwardness.” In thus demolishing our very fabric by looking up to the West, we lost the historical initiative in favor of the Western engine by which we were literally towed. To be educated meant for us learning how backward our society and tradition are and how mercilessly we must tear them down to enter the mainstream of modern nations. It meant imitating the Western model so that modernization amounted less to mobilizing our own creativity than to copying an external model. From producers that we were supposed to become we stooped to the level of mere consumers of modernity. This explains why the adoption of the appearances of modernity and the impatience to change define us better than the eagerness to understand how machines work and how peoples get organized to use machines.

            Modernity versus tradition: such is the key concept of our modern education. Our total and uncritical surrender to this dichotomy is easily explained by our history, in particular by the fact that we escaped colonization. Because other African countries had gone through the ordeal of alienation and domination by a sustained and direct colonial rule, their scholars, at least a few of them, understood the need to recapture their freedom by recentering their identity and history. For them, the extraction from the unilinear conception of history--by which the West assumed the vanguard position while the rest of humanity turned into a passive follower--appeared as the sine qua non of restoring the initiative to African peoples. Such thinkers as Cheikh Anta Diop and Leopold S. Senghor, to name but the most famous, advocated a return to the source. To make sense of Africa, they argued, no other way exists than to construct an autonomous theory of African history and personality. To accomplish anything, one must begin by regaining the feeling of worth. 

            The case of Ethiopian intellectuals predating the Italian invasion put aside, no contemporary Ethiopian scholar has expressed a concern similar to Negritude or Afrocentrism. On the contrary, the conflict between tradition and modernity became the main leitmotiv of Ethiopian intellectual life, further engraving self-hatred and infantile destruction. The apex of nihilism was reached when within a few years the great majority of Ethiopian students and educated elite turned into fanatic Marxist-Leninist or Maoist followers. Since I was myself a typical representative of the general drift, the forces which backed my mutation into a revolutionary zealot are still vivid in my mind. We became Marxist because the dichotomy between tradition and modernity that we had uncritically absorbed led us to believe that unless the foundations of our society were turned upside down, no remedy was to be found to the plight and misery of Ethiopian peoples. It was a consistent, logical dictate of self-hatred: even before we made any serious attempt to reform things, we had to be persuaded that the country was so hopeless that nothing less than a deeply uprooting shakeup was necessary. Put otherwise, we espoused Marxism, not because we believed that it was appropriate, still less because having tried reformist methods, we were convincingly rebuffed. No, we became Marxist because the theory gave to our hatred its ultimate expression through the permission to devastate Ethiopia. For those who doubt the presence of a destructive urge, I ask them to explain why the revolution was no sooner launched than it plunged into a senseless blood bath in which victims and killers became indistinguishable.

            Given that the university and its direct and indirect products were the active instrument as well as the ideological spearhead of the revolution, it is fair to say that its present plight is the result of the destructive forces that it has itself nurtured and launched. Faithful to its ideology, the Derg was the first to marginalize the university, all the more willingly as the very composition of its leadership had a persistent grudge against the arrogance of the educated elite. Once the umbilical cord uniting the bulk of the army to the traditional elite was cut by the insidious work of young educated officers, power went to those who most ardently hated the social hierarchy. The more destructive these people became, the higher their assurance of being born Marxist in default of being intellectuals soared. Can we fail to understand that what propelled them toward the pinnacle of Ethiopian power and gave them justification was the self-hatred that gripped the country?

The story continues: others became guerrillas, following their grasp that an even greater destruction can be obtained if the class conflict is supplanted by ethnic animosity. What makes us listen to the sirens of ethnicity is still the same paradigm of modernity culminating in the description of a deficient society in need of a thorough upheaval. Unsurprisingly, the first victim of the ethnic ethos were Eritreans whose greater exposure to Western influence through a direct colonial rule easily talked them into the idea that they were more “civilized” than the Ethiopian ruling elite. Make no mistake: the ethnic ethos, which undermines Ethiopian unity, is simply a deepening of the revolutionary drift of the 60s and 70s.

Far be it from me to suggest that imperial Ethiopia was perfectly fine. Formidable obstacles, mostly due to the demission and inappropriateness of the imperial system, were standing in the way to change. But the course that the revolution took was neither called for nor inevitable. In no way, however, does this deviation invalidate the leadership role claimed by the educated elite and the university. The one thing that the Ethiopian peoples expected more than anything else was the leadership of those of their sons who were fortunate enough to glean modern education. But let us hasten to add that, in their eyes, young Ethiopians were sent to Western countries and to the Europeanized sectors of Addis Ababa as spies with the mission to steal and bring home the secret of Western power. Little did they expect that their own spies would turn into mercenaries intent on ravaging their life.

Allow me to recount a memorable circumstance of my own introduction to modern education. It refers to the first day when schools open after the long break of the rainy season. We were then a bunch of kids from a remote neighborhood walking through the streets of Addis Ababa early in the morning to get to our school: the Lycee Guebre Mariam. While boys and girls were thus filling the streets, women and all kinds of other peoples could be seen getting out of their home to greet us with loud and cheerful ililitas. Because I was very young, I was hardly in a position to understand the deep meaning of this spontaneous display of popular support except to say that people were happy to see us go to school as obedient children. It is later on that I was able to decipher the meaning of the ililita: it clearly defined modern education as an assignment, a mission given to the few to return with the secret of machines. It did not imply the demolition of the order, beliefs, and customs of the society. It was rather a mission to salvage by empowering the Ethiopian legacy with the knowledge of machines.

Had AAU and higher education in general stuck to the task of appropriating the secret of machines, they would have set the course of a proper national role. True, the introduction of machines into the fabric of society was bound to entail far-going social and cultural changes. Even so, these changes did not need to depart from the direction of enhancing Ethiopia’s commitments and originality. The transition from consumer to producer of technology depends on the association of individual rewards with the promotion of social and national goals. When studies suggest that better payments coupled with democratic governance can significantly reduce the present exodus of professors from the universities, the proposal admits that the number one priority is the recognition of the university, that is, the definition of its national role in conjunction with the appropriate institutional framework. Unless the function is first defined, neither the issue of institutional arrangement nor the satisfaction of material rewards can be properly addressed. You can never retain people, still less expect them to become active and creators, without making room for their input. There is always a higher bidder, especially when poverty does not allow you compete, not to mention the fact that you will consider those who stay in the country either as worthless scholars who are unable to sell themselves elsewhere or as candidates waiting for an offer to come. In both cases, you poison your relationships with the university. But provide them with a national role, and you make these scholars think, not only in terms of better life and income, but also in terms of their contribution. In thus appealing to their sense of being somebody, you get a better chance to retain them even if you pay them less.


Taking Ethiopia as Subject

The great question, then, is this: Have we today a better idea about the role of the university than before? My own answer tilts toward skepticism. So long as higher education in Ethiopia remains externally oriented, it will never be able to define its proper national function. It will persist in the so far followed path of producing alienated and revengeful elites who would have for the university nothing but grudge and suspicion in default of knowing what to do with it. This brings us back to our point of departure, to the imperative need to rescue modern education from its alienating impact, to forcefully domesticate its spirit by grounding it on Ethiopian history and culture. Only thus will it cease to be the learning of hatred and destruction in favor of taking root, whose outcome should be the release of creativity. 

Let me recount another episode of my life, this time while I was professor of philosophy at Addis Ababa University. As after years of confusion and wanderings I became progressively convinced of the need to give education a national direction, it dawned on me that the best way of initiating the process is by teaching university courses in Amharic or any other Ethiopian language for that matter. Seeing the already advanced stage of the translation of Marxist concepts and ideas into Amharic, I thought that an experiment in Amharic to one selected class of the freshman philosophy course for one semester would be in order. I prepared handouts and after a long administrative battle, I began the experiment under the supervision of a departmental committee elected for the purpose. I still vividly remember the general outcry and hostility that my experiment generated. With the exceptions of few people, the prevailing attitude was to reject the experiment.

I do not want to go into the detail of that story. Suffice it to say that the general hostility was for me further evidence of the alienation of the educated elite. While I understood that many members of the academic staff resented the experiment because of their hostility to Marxist-Leninist philosophy, in particular because it meant an endorsement of the ideology of the Derg, I could also see that there was more than mere refusal of a philosophical position. There was a deep resistance to the very idea of a university course being given in Amharic. Yet it was generally admitted that most students, especially those who came from rural areas, had insufficient knowledge of English. What is more, the use of Amharic language is not a side issue in the modernization process. The original national script of Amharic represents a smashing refutation of the stigma that colonialism attached to the absence of script in Black Africa. I cannot think of a higher and more compelling determination to modernize Ethiopia than to begin with a rupture, the very one resulting from the proud use of a written native language as a medium of university education and research.

Nothing could better show the lack of national orientation of the whole system of higher education than the choice of the English language when so much was at stake. It made knowledge into a fortress guarded by the English language to which only few had access. For this elitist stand, knowledge was no longer what was stolen from the West and then spread among the people in the language they know. Worse, its aim was not so much the empowerment of the local community as its satellization. In thus betraying its assigned role of messenger of Ethiopian peoples, modern education had become the advanced citadel of the corrosive effect of Westernization.

Allow me to illustrate my position by a concrete example. It can be argued that it is in the best interest of Ethiopia to drop celebrating the New Year in September by simply adopting the Western calendar. The eccentricity of the calendar isolates Ethiopians from the developed world, just as it unduly complicates their communication and exchanges with the rest of the world. Yet the whole question is to know whether it makes sense for Ethiopians to celebrate the New Year in January. I note that, in addition to corresponding to a tangible weather change, the Ethiopian New Year occurs in a context of transformations signifying transition, rebirth, and joy. The rainy season when life becomes muddy, gray, and unsuitable is over; here comes the time of harvest, of the shining sun and rebirth of flowers, the time of new hope and joy. The only impact that the adoption of the Western calendar will have is a further loss of Ethiopian identity, a further surrender of its will to posit and live in a world liable to consecrate its autonomy.

The example carries a powerful meaning. It shows that introducing Amharic in higher education is not a misguided attempt to express a foreign and superior knowledge in an inappropriate local idiom. It is an attempt to recenter knowledge, to nationalize it, to make it serve a local community by inversing its tendency to turn local life into a periphery of another center. In a word, it is to take possession of knowledge. Language is to knowledge what the soil is to the cultivator: the recipient and nurture of the seed. And as long as governments and educated circles resent the full integration of higher education into the Ethiopian reality, the choice of a native language as a medium of learning and developing knowledge will remain a taboo.

What is one to conclude from this? That it is of no avail to press for a policy change while we still run away from the fundamental question. We must first face and solve this great question: Why is the system of higher education persistently producing people who play havoc with the country? Answering to this question means critically examining the form as well as the content of what now passes for higher education. It will easily be found that the question is equal to finally critically evaluating the impact of Western education on the Ethiopian youth.

Let there be no misunderstanding. I am not at all suggesting that we should turn our back on what is Western. Such an attitude would be foolish and self-defeating. Much of Western education is based on solid scientific discoveries and rational thinking, which are universal, and hence usable. Nor am I calling for the adoption of a confrontational attitude toward Western countries. Anything other than the sober spirit of normal business relationships would only reveal our immaturity. Still, we must not forget that the rational content of Western education is inserted into a conception of history and a vision of the world describing the West as a center surrounded by peripheral peoples and cultures. Unless we extract the rational content from this Eurocentric vision, what we borrow from the West will only deepen our marginality. As stated earlier, learning will amount to self-effacement, itself leading to sadomasochistic yearnings.

Imperative, therefore, is the involvement of all those Ethiopian scholars who have at heart the bright future of Ethiopia in a serious reflection taking Ethiopia as subject rather than as destined to be modeled on an external icon. Without this primary work of defining Ethiopia by investing her with an autonomous personality and course of existence, the complaint about the mistreatment of the university remains inconsistent and vain. After years of reflection and research, I recently published a book, Survival and Modernization, Ethiopia’s Enigmatic Present: A Philosophical Discourse, in which I attempt to recenter Ethiopia by inserting its history and experience of modernization into an autonomous historical mission derived from its myths and existential unfolding. I observe that other Ethiopian scholars are also engaged in the same work of reconnecting Ethiopia with her own self. One can only hope for the sustained expansion of this promising self-critical and self-repossession trend whose result must be the incorporation of what we borrow into an enhancing image of our own self. This is to say that our complaint concerning the university makes sense only if we know that what we are losing had indeed the projected virtues. If higher education in Ethiopia remains the learning of self-contempt, then there is nothing to complain about. Not only are we not losing anything, but we should also add that private universities with a full-fledged foreign curriculum would better achieve the goal of self-denial.


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