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Reviewing the Reviewer of “Ethiopian Modernization: Opportunities and Derailments”

Ethiopia - Modernization - Messay
Messay Kebede

Messay Kebede

Dear Mersie Ejigu

I applaud you for reading and critically commenting on my book on Ethiopian modernization (see  https://borkena.com/2024/02/02/a-book-critique-ethiopian-modernization-opportunities-and-derailments-by-messay-kebede/ ). With this review, you have distinguished yourself from all those many Ethiopian intellectuals who are reluctant to engage in scholarly exchanges with other Ethiopians.  That said, since I have detected several points that show noticeable misreadings of the real messages of the book, I hereby provide clarifications to rectify them.    

  1. Most of your criticisms seem to stem from the fact that my analysis is not in line with the established premises and discourses characteristic of imperial Ethiopia.  This impression prevents me from considering your criticisms as scholarly evaluations; they are rather admonishments for not falling in line with some given paradigm. For instance, you remind me that “Ethiopia existed over three thousand years prior to Atse Tewodros with well documented contributions to world civilization, arts and literature, astronomy, mathematics, architecture, and engineering” and that “Ethiopians were the first to invent the science of stars and gave names to the planets, not at random and without meaning, but descriptive of the qualities which they conceived them to possess, and it was from them that this art passed the Egyptians.” I reply that your assertions warm up the heart of any committed Ethiopia, but they also give the distinct perception of wandering into the realm of the mythical, which in my view is unworthy of a scholarly review. 

In general, I must confess that reading your critique gave me the impression that for you everything was fine and dandy during the reign of Atses, but that everything went astray afterward. Yet what came afterward was just a consequence and not a cause. The radicalism of the student movement, the rise of the Derg, the revolution, the coming to power of the TPLF and other ethnonationalists are all consequences of the derailment that generated a centralized and homogenizing imperial autocracy. This approach is one of the core ideas of the book:  Ethiopian predicaments are explained neither by prior ethnic hostilities, nor by student radicalization, nor by the inadequacy of bequeathed traditions. All these alleged causes are just occurrences and, as such, belong to interlocking chains of consequences whose impellent was and still is the subordination of modernity to the project of political absolutism, which is also the method to subdue the economic life of the country to the interests of ethnic, religious, or exclusionary groups of nationals. 

  1. You write that I seem “to work on an incomplete modernization literature (see, Bauman’s modernity and ambivalence; Inglehart & Welzel’s modernization) marked by opinionated side remarks- thus failing to address the whole gamut of issues surrounding political economy, state formation, and functioning.” The criticism would have been correct if I intended to provide an exhaustive account of modernization theories. For obvious reasons, one being that a full account would require a separate book, such was not the goal of the book. For obvious reasons too, my approach was selective because of the need to confine my analysis to those theories that are relevant to understanding Ethiopian predicaments. The authors that I selected have clearly tied modernization with defensive needs, the most pertinent example being the case of Japan’s modernization and its impact on Ethiopian leaders and early intellectuals. My argument is precisely based on the fact that the very idea of modernizing Ethiopia primarily originated from Ethiopian leaders’ and early intellectuals’ legitimate fear of colonial encirclement and invasion. Before becoming a pursuit of social betterment, modernization was a defensive design, and this was in harmony with the well-known Ethiopian ethos for survival.  Hence my interest in Rostow’s theory: while I share your view that the theory is “linear and too mechanistic,” his notion of “reactive nationalism” perfectly fits the state of mind of leaders and intellectuals of pre-Italian occupation of Ethiopia. 
  1. Sadly, I note that you have missed a core element of my argumentation. Your misreading originates from what you consider an offense against a cherished belief, namely, my view on Menilik’s southern expansion. Even though I endeavored to show both its good and bad sides, you take only the bad side and criticize me for saying that “Menelik’s conquest was followed by “Amhara domination.” Going further you add: “Stretching credulity, you offer the specious suggestion that this derailed Ethiopia’s modernization drive without reason or evidence.” Now, if your statement means that there was nothing that even remotely resembled “Amhara domination”, then I have nothing to say, except to remind you that “Amhara domination” applies exclusively to ruling elites and never to the tolerant and welcoming Amhara people, who alas was also used and abused both by its own leaders and ethnonationalists of all political stripes. With your trend of thought, you might as well deny the occurrence of a radical revolution that was motivated by the existence of flagrant social and ethnic inequalities. Need I remind you of the impact that the main slogan of the student movement, “Land to the Tiller,” had on the unwinding of the revolutionary process? To acknowledge this fact gives you the logical link between the expansion and the derailment of modernization. Indeed, is it not obvious that the need to use a repressive political structure to preserve the landholding system accounts for the imperial derailment towards autocracy, which in turn led to the revolutionary and ethnonationalist derailments? In a system designed to subjugate selected peoples, there is no democracy for anybody: freedom is indivisible. 
  1. I also see some conspicuous distortions. Because I raise an issue, it does not mean that I support it. Instead, it often means that I am trying to initiate a debate, as it is proper for scholarly work. Thus, you seem to think that I endorse the position that the Ethiopian Church was ignorant, even though on the same page I expressly attribute the position to “some views.”  I also cite and follow to some extent the position of David Levine, who has a different stand. Another example of distortion is your reaction to my statement that ” ethnicization parades itself as the appropriate solution”. You write: “No, Sir. I would argue that you don’t solve societal problems by going backward and embracing endemic polarization. ” Yet, the usage of the verb “to parade” does not warrant your riposte since the verb signifies that ethnicity pretends to be what in reality it is not. Moreover, who is really going backward: the one who acknowledges the changes that occurred and tries to deal with them in the context of a united Ethiopia or the one who ignores the given reality and wants to revive a bygone view of Ethiopia?

In closing, more could be said, but what has been said so far is enough to give a fair idea of the flaws of the critique. However, I want to be absolutely clear that your critical intent in no way motivated my rebuttal: a scholarly work is meant for critical scrutiny, provided that the review reflects the words and ideas of the author. What concerned me in your “review” is not that you do not approve of my analyses, but that your disapproval stems from a paradigm that is alien to the book. As a result, it does not come up with counter arguments exposing my shortcomings, blind spots, and contradictions, but rather reprimands me for failing to abide by some outdated premises. 

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