Home > Uncategorized > Prof. Messay Kebede on his new book

Prof. Messay Kebede on his new book

I announce the publication of my new book titled Radicalism and Cultural Dislocation in Ethiopia 1960-1974.Published by the University of Rochester Press, the book starts from the premise of a deceived expectation, from the distressing reliazation of a promise that seems to have vanished altogether.

Indeed, who can deny that a lot was going for Ethiopia? The country had an ancient and sophisticated civilization led by a landed ruling class that had greatly expanded its resources and foiled colonial incursions while showing a rising appetite for wealth. Yet what many observers had saluted as the Japan of Africa quickly went off the track of sustained modernization; worse yet, the country plunged in the turmoil of a radical revolution in the mid 70s that brought about economic regression and political instability. The setback resulted in massive periodical famines, civil wars, and ethnic conflicts whose apex was the secession of Eritrea.

The book focuses on the prime agent of the revolutionary upheaval that derailed the course of Ethiopia’s modernization, namely, the Ethiopian student movement. Most remarkable about the movement was that a great number of Ethiopian students and intellectuals had espoused the most dogmatic version of Marxism-Leninist ideology, with the consequence that they had become a highly polarizing force. And as John Henrik Clarke puts it, “When a people are not too sure about who they are loyal to and what their commitments are, they represent a danger within the cultural mainstream of their society.”

The book discusses the reasons why a majority of Ethiopian students and intellectuals adopted the ideology of Marxism-Leninism during the 60s and early 70s with a fanatic fervor. This radicalization of the educated elite is crucial to the understanding of Ethiopia’s uninterrupted political crises and economic setbacks since the Revolution of 1974. Students and intellectuals were the leading force in the uprising against the regime of Emperor Haile Selassie. The radicalization of the military junta, known as the Derg––which seized power and ruled the country for 17 years––was also the handiwork of students and intellectuals. Likewise, the ethnonationalist movements that brought down the Derg in 1992 are products of the Ethiopian student movement.

While acknowledging the frustrating impact of Haile Selassie’s economic and political failures, the book argues that the radical orientation of students and intellectuals has its roots in the encounter of an uprooting education entirely copied from the West with a cultural legacy prone to messianic escapades. Even as the imported education was undermining the legacy, the Marxist-Leninist ideology emerged both as the most consistent form of Westernization and the most alluring substitute for the messianic longing.

The book is original because it develops a multifarious approach to study the progressive radicalization of Ethiopian students. Notably, arguing that the socioeconomic shortcomings of the imperial regime are not enough to explain the radicalization, it highlights the role of cultural factors. Among the cultural factors, besides emphasizing the alienating impact of Western education that the imperial regime encouraged to the detriment of the traditional culture and the radicalizing elements specific to the traditional culture, the book adds the influence of “the culture of revolution” characteristic of the 60s and early 70s as a result of the global hegemony of Marxism-Leninism.

Another theoretical and methodological originality of the book is that the analysis of the uprooting impact of Western education perfectly articulates with the other radicalizing elements. The book shows that the contrast between Western and traditional societies, as conveyed by the Eurocentric reading of history and the subsequent method of taking the West as a normative reference, activates a revolutionary predisposition. It then elucidates how native and international factors join and strengthen the rupture opened by the educational system.

The major significance of the book is but obvious. In involving cultural factors, the book provides a detailed and concrete assessment of the impact of Western education on traditional cultures. As such, the study has a direct relevance to other African countries in that it puts the finger on the main obstacle holding back their modernization and economic development. Given that Ethiopia has not been colonized, the pernicious radicalization of its educated elite demonstrates that the effect of cultural colonization is more lasting and damaging than direct political colonization. It follows that the issue of African modernization is as much, if not more, about recapturing cultural autonomy as it is about applying the right socioeconomic changes.

(Prof. Messay Kebede, messay.kebede@notes.udayton.edu)

  1. yetemare
    April 20, 2010 at 1:47 pm

    I tried to get a copy to read this book, it is no where where I live, but from what has been displayed here, I feel as though someone out there started to see the reality, and balance the gains and losses from the people’s viewpoint. I do think that modern education simply served to sanctify the governing power of the state. I can not forget what an old ethiopian sage once told me at lalibela, he said something like: My son, for us, there is no difference between this government and that government; before (emperor time) they ruled us saying they were annointed by God, now they rule us saying they were trained by the school; before they took from us and gave us nothing in return, now our elites do the same, before they used to lookdown on us, now too this happens. Most elites can not understand this, because their existence as leaders is tied with this alien, dependent identity; how can they deny who they are? they call the traditional farmers ignorant (balager), but they never question by what knowledge and wisdom they eat ‘enjera’ everyday. If i get the chance to read this book, i will say more, for now, i want to appreciate what seems to be a reflexive self-critic on a much needed topic.
    God speed!!

  2. Abraham Tigistu
    September 15, 2012 at 11:47 am

    Dear Professor,
    I read the translated version of your article published on a local magazine. The title `professor` entails a great deal of knowledge, as I understand. I believe knowledge only gives meaning when it goes along with the truth. I learnt from the magazine that you are a professor of philosophy – a professor in search of the truth, as you people call yourselves. An authority as you are in philosophy, how can you oversee the truth. You leave abroad and I am unsure to what extent you know about the real Ethiopia as opposed to the Ethiopia you wish to imagine. You accuse the Honorable late Prime Minister of putting in place a governance based on segregation by ethnicity. Who can ever have the ability to understand the real facts of Ethiopia, in the past and at the present, than a professor in philosophy, unless that stream of study has no value than complicating things. Ethiopia is the country of diverse nations, nationalities and peoples. Can you ever deny that? After all a nation is not entirely about the landmass. If any one thinks so, he would be insulting the value of the people. In Ethiopia people were prejudiced just because they dressed differently as in their culture, just because they spoke a different language. They were even given names which do not represent them. Why do you think the Sidama People were called Sidamo? They are unaware of anything as Sidamo. Why do you think the then autocrat emperor changed names of towns and villages while the local people know those places by different names? Do you think this is nothing more than a mistake in pronouncing a noun? Do you think giving different names to towns and villages had nothing to do with prejudice. No matter how high your academic status may be, you are wrong in your answers to these questions given your statements in that article. Let me tell you this, Ethiopia is what it is because of its nations, nationalities and peoples. When Ethiopia fails to recognize these `children` of hers, it would be as good as demolishing the pillars on which the country entirely depends. The Ethiopia we had before under the slogan of “one nation, one religion, one people` has no place now. Ethiopia now is the home of equality of nations, nationalities and peoples. The former Ethiopia will never come back again, be sure of that. It does not take the same language to be spoken or to follow the same religion to live together as a country. Respecting one another is the most important issue here. In Ethiopia there were armed movements before EPRDF came to power. Those movements were based on ethnic nationalism. Why should people choose the most difficult pattern of life – the pattern of walking under the shadows of death – while there was no issue relating to rights of nations, nationalities and peoples? I mean why did they organize themselves as advocates of ethnic rights while there was no discontent in that front? This is a clear indicator of one fact: nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia were under suppression during the previous regimes, which, of course, have been effectively buried never to return again. No smoke would there be where there is no fire, would there? Professor, we do not need to be one and the same to live under Ethiopia. Ethiopia should respect our differences and the Ethiopian citizenship would not be forced on any one and if any of us wish to be Ethiopian that should be because we choose to be. We have that system now. The nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia have chosen to be Ethiopians by their own will. That is how it is going to continue to be.

    About the opposition camp, I would like to repeat what the late PM said: `they are armature politicians.` Look at Lidetu – he was insisting towards the calling of boycott just after the election. When he was not elected as the leader of CUD or as secretary, which he so dearly awaited, he began to play the opposite. Good for him that he did so but this shows how unreliable he is. Most opposition camp members are like that. They do not have the commitment but are opportunists. We recall what prices the EPRP members paid during the brutal regime for what they believed in. Their political beliefs and strategy of struggle may not be the best there were. But at least they died for what they believed in as opposed to the opposition camp we have now. No., we do not need them. Whatever coalition or platform they organize, those are just intended to challenge EPRDF; otherwise, their differences in terms of political programs are irreconcilable. We choose EPRDF and we choose it because it is the right party for our nation. Lastly, please revise your stand, professor.

  3. Simeon
    September 16, 2012 at 1:38 am

    “Let me tell you this, Ethiopia is what it is because of its nations, nationalities and peoples. ”
    really? we ve never heard this before. this is a new discovery. You are an orginal thinker that says things were never understood before.

    • Abraham Tigistu
      September 8, 2013 at 9:37 am

      Well, Simeon, maybe so. Original or not, that is still the truth. Wouldn’t you say?

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