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African Public Intellectuals

Ethiopia: Speaking Truth to the Truth-Seekers

Alemayehu G. Mariam

This is my third commentary on the theme, “Where do we go from here?”, following the rigged elections in Ethiopia last month.[1] In this piece, I urge Ethiopian intellectuals to exchange their armchairs for the public benches and leave their comfort zones of passivity and silence to become advocates of peaceful change and democracy in their homeland.

Where Have the Ethiopian Intellectuals Gone?

The Greek philosopher Diogenes used to walk the streets of ancient Athens carrying a lamp in broad daylight. When amused bystanders asked him about his apparently strange behavior, he would tell them that he was looking for an honest man. Like Diogenes, one may be tempted to walk the hallowed grounds of Western academia, search the cloistered spaces of the arts and scientific professions worldwide and even traverse the untamed frontiers of cyberspace with torchlight in hand looking for Ethiopian intellectuals.

Intellectuals — a term I use rather loosely and inclusively here to describe the disparate group of Ethiopian academics, writers, artists, lawyers, journalists, physicians, philosophers, social and political thinkers and others — often become facilitators of change by analyzing and proposing solution to complex problems and issues facing their societies. Their stock-in-trade are questions, endless questions about what is possible and how the impossible could be made possible. There are engaged and disengaged intellectuals. Those engaged are always asking questions about their societies, pointing out failures and improving on successes, suggesting solutions, examining institutions, enlightening the public, criticizing outdated and ineffective ideas and proposing new ones while articulating a vision of the future with clarity of thought. They are always on the cutting edge of social change.

The purpose of this commentary is not to moralize about the “failure of Ethiopian intellectuals”, or to criticize them for things they have done, not done, undone or should have done. The purpose is to begin public discussion that will make it possible to find ways of making them a powerful force of peaceful change in Ethiopia. I make no attempt here to conceal my agenda with the Ethiopian intellectual community; in fact, I proudly proclaim it. I believe Ethiopian intellectuals have a moral obligation not to turn a blind eye to the government wrongs in their homeland, and an affirmative duty to act in the defense of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. I see many of them religiously practicing self-censorship and self-marginalization. I would like to see them enter the public arena and take on the issues. I see an artificial deficit in the supply of transformational and visionary Ethiopian thinkers, with revolutionary ideas to re-invent Ethiopian society. Such thinkers are out there but have chosen to remain disengaged. I would like to see them engaged more. At this critical time in Ethiopia’s history, I believe Ethiopian intellectuals must take a leading and active role in the public debate to shape the future of their homeland. I am unapologetic in demanding their intense involvement in teaching, inspiring and preparing Ethiopia’s youth within and outside the country to build a fair and just society and forge a united Ethiopian nation. I always pray that Ethiopian intellectuals will never become “whores” to dictators as the distinguished Ghanaian economist George Ayittey has warned of African intellectuals in general.

As a member of the Ethiopian “intelligentsia” and now its humble critic, I do not want to sound “holier-than-thou”. I will admit that I am just as guilty as any other for the sins of commission or omission I ascribe to others. Truth be told, I was just as invisible and silent on the issues in Ethiopia as those with whom I plead here until dictator Meles Zenawi slaughtered 196 unarmed demonstrators, and shot and wounded nearly 800 more in the streets after the 2005 election in Ethiopia. That act of total depravity, cold-blooded barbarity and savagery, vicious inhumanity and pure evil was a pivotal point in my own transformation from a complacent armchair academic to an impassioned grassroots human rights advocate, as the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 in which apartheid policemen opened fire on a crowd of unarmed black protesters killing 69 was a transformational event in the lives of so many South Africans

Role of Intellectuals in Africa

An old Jewish saying teaches that “A nation’s treasure is its scholars (intellectuals).” Unfortunately, in Africa that “treasure” has taken a decidedly loathsome character. Well over a decade ago, George Ayittey, the distinguished Ghanaian economist, and arguably one of the “Top 100 Public Intellectuals” worldwide who “are shaping the tenor of our time”, likened African intellectuals to “hordes of prostitutes.”[2]

Time and time again, despite repeated warnings, highly “educated” African intellectuals throw caution and common sense to the winds and fiercely jostle one another for the chance to hop into bed with military brutes. The allure of a luxury car, a diplomatic or ministerial post and a government mansion often proves too irresistible…

So hordes of politicians, lecturers, professionals, lawyers, and doctors sell themselves off into prostitution and voluntary bondage to serve the dictates of military vagabonds with half their intelligence. And time and time again, after being raped, abused, and defiled, they are tossed out like rubbish — or worse. Yet more intellectual prostitutes stampede to take their places….

Vile opportunism, unflappable sycophancy, and trenchant collaboration on the part of Africa’s intellectuals allowed tyranny to become entrenched in Africa. Doe, Mengistu, Mobutu, and other military dictators legitimized and perpetuated their rule by buying off and co-opting Africa’s academics for a pittance. And when they fall out of favor, they are beaten up, tossed aside or worse. And yet more offer themselves up.

The Crises of Ethiopian Intellectuals

Perhaps Prof. Ayittey takes poetic license in his analogies to provoke serious debate over the role of intellectuals in Africa. I much prefer to think of Ethiopian intellectuals as their country’s “eyes” in the sense of the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The office of the scholar (intellectual) is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amid appearances. He plies the slow, unhonored, and unpaid task of observation. He is the world’s eye.” Though I will not challenge the fact that some Ethiopian intellectuals have “sold themselves off into prostitution and voluntary bondage”, I do not believe that the vast majority of them are the wretched members of the world’s oldest profession ready to “hop” in bed with the dictators lording over Ethiopia. I do believe, however, that many of us in the Ethiopian intellectual community could be fairly accused of turning a blind eye to the injustices in our homeland, not having a vision for our people and walking with blinders on so as to avoid making eye contact with the unpleasant facts of the current dictatorship in Ethiopia.

Many of us in the Ethiopian intellectual community have lost our “eye” sights because we are in crises. Some of us are mired in a moral crisis of knowing what is right but being afraid to do the right thing, and ultimately doing nothing. When Zenawi massacred hundreds of unarmed protesters and jailed tens of thousands more, few of us stood up to publicly protest. When elections are stolen in broad daylight and the country sold in bits and pieces and given away, far too many of us stood by in silent indifference. It seems many of us have developed titanium-clad consciences to keep out the reality of corruption and brutality of the dictatorship in Ethiopia.

Some of us suffer a crisis of critical thinking. We are quick to make conclusions based on hunches and speculations than rigorous analysis based on facts. We are given more to polemics and labeling than evidence-based analysis. We rarely examine and re-examine our assumptions and beliefs but cling to them as eternal truths and propagate them as such. It is embarrassing to admit that the rigorous intellectual challenge to Zenawi’s neatly packaged lies has come not from Ethiopian intellectuals but from the empirical research and analysis of foreign social scientists, researchers, journalists and human rights organizations. By failing to take a rigorous approach to the study and analysis of the myriad issues in Ethiopia, we have made it possible for Ethiopia’s dictators to write a gospel of lies and erect monuments to celebrate the living lies of non-existent accomplishments.

In one form or another, many of us in the Ethiopian intellectual community suffer a crisis of self-confidence and a deficit of intellectual courage. We criticize and castigate the dictatorship in private but are afraid to repeat our strongly-held views in public. Even in the Diaspora, some of us feel compelled to use pen names to express our opinions in the blogosphere. We would like others to admire us and accept and act on our ideas while we hide our real identities behind aliases and fictitious names. Many of us are afraid to make our views known because we fear the ridicule and ostracism of our associates and peers. We are afraid to take ownership and responsibility for our ideas for fear of being proven wrong and mask our intellectual cowardice with meaningless dogmas and abstractions. Lacking self-confidence, many of us have resolved to live out our lives quietly and anonymously on remote islands of self-censorship and self-marginalization.

Most of us also suffer from a crisis of foresight. We can argue the past and criticize the present, but we do very little forward-thinking. As Ethiopia’s “eyes”, we are ironically afflicted by myopia (nearsightedness). We can see things in the present with reasonable clarity, but we lack the vision to see things in the distance. We can see the potential problems of ethnicity in Ethiopia, but we are blinded to its solutions in the future. We see the country being dismembered in pieces but lack the vision to make it whole in the future. We can see ethnic animosity simmering under the surface, but we have been unable to help create a new national consciousness to overcome it. We can articulate a present plan for accession to political power but we lack the foresight and contingency planning necessary to ensure democratic governance.

We have a serious crisis of communication. Many of us talk past each other and lack intellectual honesty and candor in our communications. We pretend to agree and give lip service to each other only to turn around and engage in vile backbiting. We speak to each other and the general public in ambiguities and “tongues”. Often we do not say what we mean or mean what we say. We keep each other guessing. We do not listen to each other well, and make precious little effort to genuinely seek common ground with those who do not agree with us. We have a nasty habit of marginalizing those who disagree with us and tell it like it is. We hate to admit error and apologize. Instead we compound mistakes by committing more errors. We tend to be overly critical of each other over non-essentials. As a result, we have failed to nurture coherent and dynamic intellectual discourse about Ethiopia’s present and future.

We have a crisis of intellectual leadership. There are few identifiable Ethiopian intellectual leaders today. In many societies, a diverse and competing intellectual community functions as the tip of the spear of social change. In the past two decades, we have seen the powerful role played by intellectual leaders in emancipating Eastern Europe from the clutches of communist tyranny and in leading a peaceful process of change. No society can ever aspire to advance without a core intellectual guiding force. The founders of the American Republic were not merely political leaders but also intellectuals of the highest caliber for any age. They harnessed their collective intellectual energies to forge a nation for themselves and their posterity. Their conception of government and constitution has become a template for every country that aspires for the blessings of liberty and democracy. Despite some major shortcomings, the Americans got it right because their founders were visionary intellectuals.

Ethiopian Intellectuals Through Zenawi’s Eyes

Zenawi regards himself to be an intellectual par excellence based on the available fragmentary corpus of his written work, numerous public statements and anecdotal narratives of those who have interacted with him. In August 2009, the Economist magazine described him as silver-tongued conversationalist with a “sharp mind, elephantine memory and ability to speak for two hours without notes. With his polished English, full of arcane turns of phrase from his days at a private English school in Addis Ababa, the capital, he captivates foreign donors.” Jeffrey Sachs, the celebrated shaman of Western aid to Africa and Columbia University professor, often patronizes Zenawi for his “intellect” and “vision”. (In January 2008, Sachs expressed euphoric fascination over “Ethiopia’s 11 or 12 percent economic development year after year [which makes] people say oh…what’s going on there?” under Zenawi’s leadership. Zenawi is said to be an assiduous autodidact. He reputedly harbors much distaste and contempt for the Ethiopian intellectual community in much the same way he does for his political opposition. His attitude is that he can outwit, outthink, outsmart, outplay, outfox and outmaneuver boatloads of Ph.Ds., M.Ds., J.Ds. Ed.Ds or whatever alphabet soup of degrees exist out there any day of the week. He seems to think that like the opposition leaders, Ethiopian intellectuals are dysfunctional, shiftless and inconsequential, and will never be able to pose a real challenge to his power.

Regardless of the merits of Zenawi’s purported views, the fact of the matter is that few Ethiopian intellectuals have bothered to scrutinize his ideas or record in a systematic and rigorous manner. When he made manifestly false and outrageous claims of “economic growth” and “development”, few Ethiopian economists challenged him on the facts. It took foreign scholars, researchers and journalists to undertake an investigation to expose Zenawi’s fraudulent claims of success in health, education and social welfare programs. Few Ethiopian historians, political scientists, sociologists and others have come forward to challenge his bizarre theory of “ethnic federalism”. Nor have there been any rigorous analyses of the slogan of “revolutionary democracy” palmed off as a coherent political theory. Few Ethiopian lawyers have examined his constitution and demonstrated his flagrant violation of it. Given these facts, all that can be said in defense of Ethiopian intellectuals is: “If the shoe fits, wear it!”

The Challenge: Becoming Public Intellectuals

The challenge to Ethiopian intellectuals is to find ways of transforming themselves into “public intellectuals.” In other words, regardless of our formal training in a particular discipline, we should strive to engage the broader Ethiopian society beyond our narrow professional concerns through our writings and advocacy efforts. We should strive for something far larger than our disciplines, and by speaking truth to power metamorphosise into “public intellectuals.” Here are a few ideas for this enterprise:

Get involved. I hear all sorts of excuses from Ethiopian intellectuals for not getting involved. The most common one is: “I am a ‘scholar’, a ‘scientist’, etc., and do not want to get involved in politics.” Albert Einstein was not only one of the most influential and best known scientists and intellectuals of all time, he was also a relentless and passionate advocate for pacifism and the plight of German-Jewish refugees. Others plead futility. “Nothing I do could ever make a difference because Ethiopia’s problems are too many and too complex.” The answer is found in an Ethiopian proverb: “Enough strands of the spiders’ web could tie up a lion.” Let each one do his/her part, and cumulatively the difference made will be enormous.

Articulate a Vision. Ethiopian intellectuals need to articulate a vision for their people. It is ironic to be the “eyes” of a nation and be visionless at the same time. What are our dreams, hopes and aspirations for Ethiopia? What are the values we should be collectively striving for? Why are we not able to come up with an intellectual framework that can provide a bulwark against tyranny, and restore good governance to a nation of powerless masses and broken institutions? As the old saying goes, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.”

Create and Maintain a Think Tank. Think tanks are “policy actors in democratic societies assuring a pluralistic, open and accountable process of policy analysis, research, decision-making and evaluation.” There are thousands of them worldwide. It is necessary to establish such organizations for Ethiopia to conduct research and engage in advocacy and public education. On various occasions, I have publicly called for the establishment of an informal policy “think tank” to research and critically evaluate current and emergent issues in Ethiopia. Would it not be wonderful if there could be union of concerned Ethiopian scholars, scientists, intellectuals and professionals who could come together as the tip of the spear in seeking to institutionalize democracy, human rights and rule of law in Ethiopia?

Create a Legal Defense Fund. Frequently, I am asked why Ethiopian lawyers do not get together and from a legal action group to study and litigate human rights issues. Wherever I give a speech, I am always asked the question about why “you Ethiopian lawyers are not doing something about human rights, political prisoners, violations of international law….in Ethiopia? There are many examples in the U.S. of global campaigns for human rights undertaken by groups of dedicated lawyers supported by dozens of cooperating attorneys across the country. Ethiopian lawyers need to step up to the plate.

Establish Expert Panels. We have few experts available to serve as resources on issues affecting Ethiopia. Many Ethiopian experts are unwilling to come forward and give interviews to the media or to offer testimony in official proceedings. We need a roster of experts to represent Ethiopia on the world stage.

Teach the People. Zenawi often claims that Ethiopian intellectuals, particularly in the West, do not really understand the situation in the country and are merely speculating about conditions. He says our notions of democracy based on Western models are fanciful, desultory and inappropriate for Ethiopia and an “ethnic basis of Ethiopia’s democracy [is necessary] to fight against poverty and the need for an equitable distribution of the nation s wealth: peasants must be enabled to make their own decisions in terms of their own culture. Power must be devolved to them in ways that they understand, and they understand ethnicity….” It our role as intellectuals to discredit such manifestly nonsensical political theory by teaching the people the true meaning of democracy based on popular consent. We must teach the Ethiopian people that it is a travesty and a mockery of democracy for one man and one party to remain in power for 25 years and call that a democracy. We must find ways to empower the people by teaching them.

Act in Solidarity With the Oppressed

As intellectuals, we are often disconnected from the reality of ordinary life just like the dictators who live in a bubble. But we will remain on the right track if we follow Gandhi’s teaching: “Recall the face of the poorest and the most helpless man you have seen and ask yourself whether the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he be able to gain anything by it? Will it restore to him a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj (independence) or self-rule for the hungry and spiritually starved millions of your countrymen? Then you will find your doubts and yourself melting away.” Let us always ask ourselves if what we do and whether our actions will help restore to the poorest and most helpless Ethiopians a control over their own life and destiny.

As I point an index finger at others, I am painfully aware that three fingers are pointing at me. So be it. I believe I know “where all the Ethiopian intellectuals have gone.” Most of them are standing silently with eyes wide shut in every corner of the globe. But wherever they may be, I hasten to warn them that they will eventually have to face the “Ayittey Dilemma” alone: Choose to stand up for Ethiopia, or lie down with the dictators who rape, abuse and defile her.


Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on,, and other sites.