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Does Ethiopia Possess Intellectuals and Scholars Willing to Tackle its Legendary Institutional and Structural Traps?

Aklog Birara

Aklog Birara (Dr) 

Part I of III Parts 

I urge the reader to first agree on definitions. Webster translates intellectual to mean “the ability to think in a logical way;” the ability to apply “serious study and thought” to a subject matter; and a person who is “smart and enjoys serious study and thought” in what she or he does. If we look to the East, Confucius was an intellectual, a leading thinker and philosopher who influenced and still influences Chinese and other societies. His priority, I believe, was China’s place in the world. 

In the West, thinkers, and philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke served as leading intellectuals shaping governments and institutions. America’s founding fathers— George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, James Monroe and Benjamin Franklin and others who later served as President as well as others as influencers who shaped, structured, and directed the democratic government of the United States and left an endurable legacy that eventually impacted the world community, especially the West, drew ideas and philosophies from Hobbes, Locke, and other intellectual giants of the period. 

Confucius for whom I have a special admiration in his capacity as influencer, emphasized the primacy of community welfare over individual riches and fame. The Chinese system that is reputed to have lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty tends to be community oriented in large part due to Confucius. Chinese states and regional governments compete with one another in the production and marketing of goods and in the provision of adequate services to citizens. In all cases, they keep in mind the greater objective of what is good for China and its people.  

In contrast, Hobbes and Locke had the most influence on Western governments and institutions. They were unabashed advocates and influencers on such matters as individual rights, greed and selfishness as a human motivator. The free market system, they thought, would do miracles. It is not my intention here to debate the efficacy of the free market and its role in the production and marketing of goods and services. I know for sure that it has revolutionized the production of goods and services, advanced science, technology, communications, transport etc. At the same time, it has induced and perpetuated income inequality. 

I remember early in life that Greek political philosophers such as Aristotle and Pluto– a wealthy man–emphasized that human beings were essentially social creatures who cared for their community and society. In this sense, although they did not know one another, Confucius, Aristotle, and Pluto shared one global principle before globalization, namely, humans are part of a community rather than solo players. There are some concepts that bind the entire world community; and others that pit one against the other. In Ethiopia’s case, the ethnicity and language-based constitution and Apartheid like regional administrative structure exist and persist through a divide and conquer system that pits one ethnic group against another. 

The fight to dismantle tribalism and the paradigm of thinking that governs and stimulates it (ethnicity-based mindset such as “It is my turn,” organization, structures, institutions etc.)  is where intellectuals and scholars can first make a dent in transforming Ethiopia’s polarized society. 

When I refer to Ethiopian intellectuals and scholars, I fully understand and appreciate that I may offend folks who do not share Ethiopiawinet (ኢትዮጵያዊነት) as a common denominator. If we (they do), I propose that, as a start they would establish a modicum of civility, peace, reconciliation and common purpose among ourselves first. I embrace the dictum “change starts with me.” 

What do I mean by a common purpose? For Ethiopia to meet the basic needs of its 120 million citizens, it must establish a durable foundation for sustainable stability, peace, human worth, dignity and security, craft a national road map for inclusive and sustainable development, enforce the rule of law, and hold terrorists accountable in a court of law. It cannot do any of these without addressing the root causes that led to the Tigray war or to recurring ethnicity-based atrocities and destructions all over Ethiopia. 

Two Schools of Thought

In considering and translating the above lofty ideas into policies and programs, I propose that there are two schools of thought on which Ethiopian intellectuals and scholars can challenge one another and influence Ethiopia’s unchartered direction: a) commitment to unfettered individual rights, selfishness, and greed (the neoliberal and free market model that the Government of the United States champions) and b) dedication to all human worth (inclusivity), community welfare (shared development) and the evolution of post ethnic identity based on individual human and civil rights of all persons as Ethiopians. This reorientation in our paradigm of thinking will propel a healthy and empowering post conflict Ethiopian society that performs collectively and serves the common good.  This is the social democratic model that I believe we should entertain and debate.

It is not my intention to prescribe to the reader a specific model to follow. There are many development models to choose from. The purpose is not to choose the American or Chinese model. They both have merit. Rather, it is to challenge the reader to at least engage in one or both schools of thought for the benefit of Ethiopian society that is highly conflict-ridden and ethnically polarized. 

Do not tell me that Ethiopia is not polarized, because it is. If we do not center our arguments on the bigger picture of serving the welfare of all the Ethiopian people, nothing we debate or do is going to make a difference. I stress the imperative of a post-Apartheid Ethiopia in which individual rights and responsibilities are supreme. One of the major subjects that I hope the Commission on National Dialogue will address is this overarching matter of ethnic polarization and how it is rooted. 

In the United States and China, the current Superpowers that influence other countries one way or another, the debate of tribal identity and affinity is no longer a constraint. Tribalism and tribal identity are major barriers to inclusive and sustainable development in Ethiopia. Just think of the economic destruction and loss of innocent lives due to the Tigray war. 

Many African states recognized the debilitating effects of tribal politics, tribal party formation and tribal governance and banned such formations. There is no contest that Ethiopia is mired by these outdated concepts. 

I contend that the role of Ethiopian intellectuals and scholars is not to perpetuate and deepen conflict or ethnic division through categorial denials or condemnations; but to “think logically, “bridge gaps and arrive at a common platform that engenders inclusivity and hope. I underscore this theme because currently Ethiopian youth is at each other’s throat in a spiral of conflict and war that has no end. This animosity emanates from a Constitutional system that pits one ethnic elite against another. The worst manifestation of this is the Tigray war that degraded our common humanity and citizenship as Ethiopians. If Tigrayan and non-Tigrayan intellectuals and scholars cannot talk to one another as Ethiopians and as human beings, how do they (we) expect ethnic political elites and parties to bridge the gap? 

The role of Ethiopian intellectuals and scholars discussed in greater detail below and in subsequent commentaries is to underpin specific national issues by applying rigorous evidence-based research and to propose a set of options for the future. I have in mind ethnic-federalism and its capacity and relevance to support a unified Ethiopia.  If we agree that the current system is conflict-prone that almost fractured Ethiopia into pieces, the question Ethiopian intellectuals and scholars ought to address immediately if not sooners is “What should replace it and why? Would Ethiopians be better off or not”  

Other thematic questions are: “What are the long-term implications of the Tigray Conflict? How does Ethiopia reconstruct, rebuild, and create resiliency? How does it restore faith and confidence in the governance that led to the war?  Who is accountable and responsible for the for unimaginable atrocities and incalculable destruction?  Is the right policy to forgive and move on? If yes, is Ethiopia likely to face another Tigray-like war? Who pays the price for the current human atrocities and destruction? Who is harmed most? Is the current educational system and curriculum serving Ethiopia’s national and common needs? Can Ethiopians enjoy peace wherever they live under the current system?”

This leads me to the definition and role of the scholar. This definition allows the reader to consider the linkages between the role of intellectuals and scholars. 

What is the definition of a scholar?

A scholar is defined as “a person who has studied a subject for a long time and knows a lot about it: an intelligent and well-educated person who knows a particular subject very well”, for example, a person who is renowned in African American history or Ethiopia’s evolution as an independent state or the Bible or the Koran, someone who has mastered the history of the controversial Wolkait, Tegede, Telemt and Raya etc. It also refers to someone who was granted a distinguished scholarship at Oxford or Cambridge, etc. as a “Rhodes Scholar” and as such is entitled to the title of Scholar.  

I suggest that not everyone can be an intellectual or a scholar. The claim must converge with the definition. In today’s Ethiopia, the proclivity or tendency for anyone or group to claim instantly that they are intellectuals and scholars is pervasive. In the process, the honorable tradition and distinction between serving as an expert—medical doctor, hydraulic engineer, IT Specialist, and the like on the one hand; and serving as an intellectual or scholar on the other are literally lost. They are often mixed up. Equally, their synergy is diluted.  I am not suggesting that an expert cannot be an intellectual or scholar. I am suggesting that there are areas of collaboration as well as boundaries based on training and experience. 

Whether American or Chinese, an astronaut has skills that an intellectual or scholar in a specific field does not possess. A heart surgeon has skills that I cannot claim. By the same token, the surgeon does not have knowledge on the political economy of development that I may have. Each has its own merit and social benefit. However, not all experiences and skills are fungible. The role of specialization is important to communities and societies. But they do miracles only if we recognize them on their own merit and not mix them up. In the United States there is saying “A jack of all trades and master of none.” The bulk of Ethiopia’s youthful population is mixes up roles and responsibilities in large part because political elites, intellectuals, and scholars failed to provide a template and to serve as models of behavior in their intellectual discourse. 

The political and social philosophers and thinkers Confucius or Hobbes or Locke or Aristotle or Pluto or the leader and father of the Jewish people at a critical time in their history, Moses, or the Anti-Apartheid political leader Mandela or the anti-racist human rights leader Dr. King or the Ethiopian historian Tekletsadiq Mekuria or the Laureate Tsegaye G/Medhin etc. are renowned for their specific areas and immense contributions. They are sources of wisdom for you and me because of their thinking and philosophy (what they stood for). None of them claimed what they were not. We admire their enduring legacies because there is social value. 

The concepts of intellectuals and scholars are highly prized assets in China and the United States etc. because they require enormous amount of investment—energy, time, finance etc. When we try to act mimicking them instantly and wrongly, we diminish the value added that the community and society might gain from intellectuals and scholars. If each professional or other person becomes a guru in everything, then there is really no need for serious and logical thinking or scholarly output. Intellectuals and scholars make contributions to the extent that there are listeners, students, youth, and a larger community of people out there willing to learn, assimilate new ideas and perspectives and change. 

The core problem in Ethiopia that I would flag to the reader is this. Ethiopia continues in a spiral of uncertainty because intellectuals and scholars spend more time fighting with one another; critiquing one another and second guessing one another; rather than pulling their intellectual assets together to advance the common good as Ethiopians and as human beings. The common good I have in mind is three-fold: a) save Ethiopia from total collapse (sovereignty and territorial integrity); b) mobilize all Ethiopians and defend the national security interests of the country (relations with other counties); and c) restore and rejuvenate mutual confidence and trust among citizens as Ethiopians.

Ethiopia demonstrated that its diverse population, especially its youth bulge, have the passion and determination to defend Ethiopia from internal and external aggressors. This same zeal and passion can be deployed to tackle the hurdle of thinking within and the more important future task of eradicating structural poverty. In turn, this aspirational goal requires an honest, empowering leadership and an enabling environment. This is where intellectuals and scholars can make a huge contribution by being forthcoming and bald. 

If these three aspirational goals do not persuade us to operate together as an Ethiopian community for institutional and structural change, I do not what else would? 

The mindset that proves immovable 

The problem out there in the open in Ethiopia is that everyone has become an instant “intellectual, scholar” and in many cases even an expert on advocacy for this tribe or that tribe or for this party or the other. Take Ethiopian Zoom and other forums with more than 5 Ethiopians present. I often wonder if anyone is really listening to anything any other person says. “Who the hell is he or she?” is a common thread I hear. I had heard the same type of combative rhetoric under the Socialist regime. 

How come we have not changed in a world that is changing every day? Another recurring problem I observe is that intellectual and scholarly discourse is reactive and not proactive. We react to someone almost all the time. Most of what we say is frivolous. 

Further, we are also reactive rather than proactive because our discourse is often driven by someone’s agenda. 

It often seems that at every event and or forum, the attendant wishes to combat viewpoints rather than listen attentively and then offer a constructive alternative. The expert who might be good or great in her or his field, for example, as a surgeon or hydraulic engineer or IT Specialist might be attending a forum on ethnic-federalism, or on the root causes of the Tigray war initiated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front at which an intellectual or a scholar who has studied the subject matter is addressing. Instead of listening to understand and learn, the expert feels entitled that she or he has a lot to say about the subject matter. 

Among Ethiopians, it is not uncommon for a two-minute question or comment to lead into a lecture.  The entitlement to speak and to opine mentality is pervasive within Ethiopian society as well as in the Diaspora.  

Further, in an era of one-stop thinking and instant gratification that comes from social media that prompts us to express instant criticism and commenting, we lose the value added of slow and methodical reflection expected from intellectuals and scholars. I challenge the reader to pose and reflect how often she or he reflects rather than opts to speak? 

This leads me to my controversial proposal that we all need to go back to school and learn about the protocol on effective communication and public discourse. 

One of the worst deficits Ethiopian intellectuals and scholars display is in the realm of active listening.  If you refuse to listen in school, you fail. By the same token, listening with the intent of understanding serves the common good or the community and society. Communities and societies appreciate intellectuals and scholars in large part, because they apply rigor and logic to their ideas, writings, lectures, and public discourses. But if intellectuals and scholars do not model behavior by respecting and listening to one another; the ripple effect is that the audience does not listen either. Youth would rather watch a soccer game than listen to a lecture on how to raise chicken?  In the light of this deficit, the return from Ethiopian intellectual and scholarly investment is nil. 

This leads me to one critical question: “Are current Ethiopian intellectuals and scholars fulfilling their roles and responsibilities? Is Ethiopia better off because of their social capital assets, their thoughts and visions and their paradigm of thinking? “This is a topic I plan to cover in Part II. 

References and citations


Who is an Intellectual and what should the Role of Intellectuals be in Society? Christiane Landsiedel 2004, GRIN Verlag

Mukoma Wa Ngugi: What Decolonizing the Mind Means Today

“The Work of Linguistic Decolonization Cannot Be Done by Writers Alone,” Mukoma Wa Ngugi, March 23, 2018


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  1. Subject: “Does Ethiopia Possess Intellectuals and Scholars Willing to Tackle its Legendary Institutional and Structural Traps?”
    by Dr. Aklog Birara, January 21, 2022

    Humble Comment, 21 Jan 2022
    Dear Dr. Aklog Bigarra
    I like reading your Articles even though – let me be frank — it is beyond me.
    This Article, interesting as it is, rquires different mentality — way above my brain
    Thus in my very limited knowledge I really believe that the so-called “modern” education that we had — and receive a paper on it — is nothing more than hypnotism applied upon Black Africans to hate ourselves and struggle to emulate the WHITE MASTER’s knowledge. Consequently, the OBVIOUS that I do not wish to repeat goes on and on and on ……with the result that WE HAVE IT IN FRONT of US. At least, let us be honest, to ourselves.

    Dear Dr. Aklog Birara  
    Your noble aim is obvious and truly exemplary effort to help ETHIOPIA against horrendous background applied to our AFRICAN SOCIETIES in general. Black Africa has been deliberately destroyed by the cruelest society around the Globe i.e. the Colonial Mentality that hypnotized the entire African schooling system, which caused to hate thyself and tried to emulate — obviously without success — the Whit Mans’ Civilization. A perfect classical TRAGEDY. The Black Race immersing thyself into Purgatory and still continuing its voyage to HELL ………

  2. This is a great article written by you, Dr. Aklog Birara. I’m also a big fan of Confucius. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go. There is a lot of work we need to do to compare with Chinese Intellectuals. The best solution is to ridicule our people in order to push their boundaries and transform their minds.

    We must attack our nation’s intelligence on a personal level. For example, this article is too long and most people from our country would not read it. Make it known through our media that we are extremely poor and extremely uneducated. Their embarrassment will serve as motivation to become better. In the meantime, translate Confucius and Buddha doctrines into Amharic, Oromiffa, Gurage, Afar, and Sidama.

  3. Ethiopia today has pseudo intellectual with Doctor degrees with weird unheard of education. Those people have no shame and sense of hurting the country. That’s why the country is in a vicious cycle of theft and corruption that left people poor and destitute.

    It’s up to people to demand every person in the government to show and provide with documents of REAL EDUCATION from REAL UNIVERSITIES.


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