By Hama Tuma


Jean Paul Sartre once said that words are loaded pistols. The same can be said of alphabets, at least where it concerns Ethiopians. Back in the late sixties and seventies, there was tendency within leftist groups and parties of the world to split, with the splitters still keeping the mother name but adding alphabets to it. CP (R), CP (ML), CP (D) and a whole parade of qualified names. The R stood for Revolutionary or Renovated, ML defined true blood Marxist- Leninist, the D stood for democratic, and so on and so forth. There were many times good reasons for the splits but the alphabet soup, as it became known, was like a poor man’s soup, short on the meat and just plain water.


In Ethiopia, since the nineties, the D tag has spelt disaster and betrayal, often given to pro-regime or satellite groups that existed in name only. Given the fact that the ruling front was not itself democratic its offshoots or stooges could not deserve the democratic tag. The same can apply to other groups who took up the D to be attached to names that really neither belonged to them nor defined them. That being the case D defined other things like:

·        D for disaster;

·        D for division like the ethnic politics of the regime, article 39 approving secession, being a faction to weaken the patriotic forces;

·        D as in deadly, massacring innocent people, committing genocide;

·        D as in deterioration, a catastrophic setback, a fall unto the pit of ethnicism;

·         D as in dilapidated, worn out, old, hopeless;

·        D as in destruction of a country or an organization,;

·        D as in degrading of a country’s culture and history, the valiant struggle of an organization;

·        D for dismantling of a country or a party;

·        D for dissolve, break up and liquidate;

·        D for deracinate;

·        D for demolish.


D has not stood for democratic, alas.  D has often stood in for dog as this is the only friend you can buy for money but then the D tag on groups signifies disloyalty and not the loyalty of even a dog.


And when an R has followed the D it has not been a relief at least in the Ethiopian context.  I venture to quote Alexander Pope:

        “The bookful blockhead ignorantly read

             With loads of learned lumber in his head.”

The Drs have become in many instances Disasters Refined, pedants and snobs, elitist to boot. The African intellectual or/and politician , the one castigated by Fanon for his/her black skin and white mask, disappoints as it acts as if bravery or courage are out of fashion. I agree intellectuals are “of their time”; they should be situated within the specific, country and culture, and era too. The demands on an intellectual in Africa and the one in America may not be the same. It is possible to be generous and to define the intellectuals or, as in the Ethiopian case, those who devotedly attach the Dr and PhD tag to their names, as a minority “pursuing knowledge and research”, surfing in the realm of pure art, aloof in its own ivory tower, untainted by the mundane that is the reality. There is also what Edward Said called “political trimming, a technique of not taking clear positions but surviving handsomely nonetheless”. Most intellectuals of this inclination have proved a curse for Africa, survival becoming their main preoccupation even in/and especially in/exile.


Given our own historical context and problems,  it is imperative for us to refer to the public or the real intellectuals, those who are friends of critical discourse, who are committed to justice, who take the side of the weak and the dispossessed, the disadvantaged.  This goes beyond sheer exaltation of the national, the identity. Those who not only champion their own culture and national heritage but go above it to “universalize the crisis” as was said, to not fall into national jingoism or narrow ethnic exclusiveness, to seek the alternatives shrouded by the priority of the so called main battle. The task of the intellectual is therefore not to organize what Julien Benda (who wrote “The Treason of the Intellectuals” in 1928) referred to as “collective passions” such as sectarianism and national belligerence. There is often a reference made to the Meji Restoration of 1868 in Japan which brought the monarchy back, abolished feudalism and charted a way towards building a new Japan but the facts show that the process led to extreme and even fascistic nationalism. Shido minzeku, the notion that Japan was a leading/special race (an ideology that justified the massacre of the Chinese and the crimes against Koreans and other peoples) was upheld by intellectuals that championed their national Japanese identity and interest as it were. During World War II, American intellectuals reciprocated with a similar debasing attitude towards the Japanese. In other words, intellectuals who are said to be in tune with their nation and time can also veer off and create havoc. Tagore of India and Jose Marti of Cuba are admired because they were nationalists whose position did not hinder them from being critical. They fought the main battle but did not lose sight of the alternatives. Fanon’s critical appraisal of the FLN of Algeria and the struggle against French colonialism is to be seen within this context. That is to say the struggle against the existing malaise (colonialism then or dictatorial regimes now) should always be accompanied with a critical appraisal of the struggle for change and a clear understanding of the substitute for which sacrifices are being paid. This is crucial because the oppressed can become oppressors before the euphoria of victory has even calmed down. The victorious FLN imposed a dictatorship on the Algerian people. The Boers who fought against British imperialism brought apartheid on the South African people. The February Revolution of 1974 in Ethiopia overthrew the feudal autocracy but the military took power to establish one of the bloodiest dictatorships in History. Those who preach liberation will not necessarily be liberators and, alas, every would-be dictator vows in the name of democracy.


During the prevalence of the one party system in Africa any talk of justice or any critic of the regimes was considered as treason. The “national cause and national interest” drum was beaten to silence any critical voice. Parties were not the results of existing class and interest differences but taken as creators of these conflicts. This was how the one party system was justified, through an illusory common interest and identity, with the ruling party embodying the whole nation and the dictator being its symbol. Anyone one who opposed the American war in Indochina was considered a traitor for quite a while. In such a situation and in critical times, the intellectual is called upon to rally to the flag, to be silent on the crimes being committed in the name of the nation. Leave the sixties aside and observe the present reality in which under the cover of national interest or so called national liberation, crimes are being perpetrated. The Rwandan intellectuals who broadcast Radio Mille Collines and championed genocide, the Algerian and Somali intellectuals who expounded extremism and the warlord carnage, the Ethiopian intellectuals who shamed their age old country with ethnic chauvinism, were not patriotic and loyal at all. They sought refuge in their own ethnic or national cocoon to justify their inability to be intellectuals worthy of the name.


The intellectuals need, in the words of Edward said, to “speak the truth to power”. This is no easy task, it requires not only transcending the narrow confines of stunted nationalism but also demands courage as the power holders are not keen to hear or heed any criticism. The intellectual must not only question authority but strive to undermine it wherever it is illegitimate. Reciprocating the evils of the system in reverse (fighting ethnic chauvinism by preaching ethnic genocide for example) is not an option. As Edward Said so aptly put it, ‘to regress into hand wringing impotence or into muscular reassertions of traditional values, as characterized by the global neo-conservative movement, will not do. I think it is true to say that the critique of objectivity and authority did perform a positive service by underlining how, in the secular world, human beings construct their truths, and that, for example, the so-called objective truth of the white man’s superiority built and maintained by the classical European colonial empires also rested on a violent subjugation of African and Asian peoples, who, it is equally true, fought that particular imposed “truth” in order to provide an independent order of their own. And so now everyone comes forward with new and often violently opposed views of the world: one hears endless talk about Judeo-Christian values, Afro centric values, Muslim truths, Eastern truths, Western truths, each providing a complete program for excluding others….   One of the shabbiest of all intellectual gambits is to pontificate about abuses in someone else’s society and excuse exactly the same practices in one’s own”. (Underlining mine –HT).


Aime Cesaire wrote of the need for the “invention of new souls”. Beyond the victory over a regime or system, there must be a vision of a new construction, a new society to be born from the sacrifice, new souls to be invented so to speak. It is in this realm that real intellectuals have their role. Not to reboot the same system anew but to forge an alternative. Not to regress back to traditional times (Africa had no golden age before colonialism for example and Ethiopia’s imperial past was an unmitigated disaster), nor to seek some “centrism” or ethnic ghetto that excludes others but to soar high and beyond and above mediocrity and more of the same to seek a new and brighter vision, to build the country on a democratic basis that unites the people on the basis of equality. In this the role of the intellectual is to “actively represent the truth”, to stand with the people, to look ahead and never to regress back into the pit of a nostalgia of disaster. It is said the “true intellectual is always a secular being”, that is to say very much different from the Christian or Islamic fundamentalists that are trying to drag us back to the dark ages of ignorance and intolerance. Morality is defined in the concrete, here and now, in whom it serves and benefits. And the real intellectual should thus find his/her place in the public role, in the upholding of truth, in refusing to be directed and ordered about by the authority in place. Blind obedience to power, to greed, to selfishness, to an arrogant superpower, to harmful and narrow ethnic or sectarian interests will in the end turn the intellectual into a historical coolie of shame and cowardice.


PhD can define knowledge and a continuing search for it or, alas quite often than not in the Ethiopian and African context, it could mean a pile of horse dung. We can struggle to invent new souls or to reboot the rotten ones. The choice is limited and gratuitously labelling oneself democratic or an intellectual is just an exercise in futility.

Published in: on November 19, 2008 at 9:01 pm  Comments (14)