survival and modernization

I am a simple dude; I like simple explanations:

Why weren’t we colonized? Cuz we the shit

Why is our country underdeveloped? Shit happens

What do Etyopians have to do for modernization to take place? Fuck if I know

What do other people think of our situation? They say we think we are but we ain’t shit.

Enter Survival and Modernization. Ethiopia’s Enigmatic Present: A Philosophical Discourse. Messay Kebede:


I read it at the peril of having my brain wrinkled. The writer (a very erudite fellow, it is intimidating for me to be counted among the new crop of faculty at the institution he used to serve) makes some very interesting points.

Contrary to popular belief, there hadn’t been a feudal system in Ethiopia. Land was not inherited. It was instead parceled out by kings according to the military prowess of individuals. Warlike landowners in turn surrounded themselves with people of similar disposition, the latter working on their shares of the bigger land and paying taxes to the king via the big shots. Now, everybody could dream of being a big shot, regardless of which part of the country they hailed from. The most important question was –can they kick ass? One could almost call it the “Etyopian dream.”  Any person could rise from humble beginnings to lord it over people and property. The caveat was that whenever called upon by the king for the latest conquest, ጨርቄን ማቄን ሳይሉ መዝመት ነበረባቸው:: Not they minded: everyone was being virtually presented with another opportunity to grow in worldly stature. Not only worldly stature, but since the king could not be the king without endorsement from the church, war was also kind of a way of  serving divine calling. Self-worth was proved in the battlefield and the field was level, so to speak. It was not about what kind of blood one had but rather, how best one made use of the adrenaline that was coursing through their blood —fight or run. Sure, kings had to be of “Solomonic” blood. But still there were certain ways of getting around that, meaning the crown used to be there for the taking. One just had to prove their worthiness by being the best warrior, in mind and action.

An important development took place right around the time the “Scramble for Africa” was coming to head. The Etyopian kingdom embarked on an expansion to the south. The north and south had been in contention and it was only a matter of time before one tried to conquer the other. Previously the north by itself had been capable of defeating smaller parties of Italians, Egyptians and Mahdi invaders. And there were also the cases of the demises of Tewodros and Yohannes which were for the large part the results of some major Etyopian-on-Etyopian machination. But Adwa needed a much bigger army and much more weaponry. The conquest of the south provided the now bigger kingdom with the warriors and the firearms needed to repel the advance of colonizers viz Adwa (nice to see that MS Word 2013 knows Adwa, and Adowa 🙂 you better recognize! ) The surplus from the newly annexed southern territories was used to buy from western powers. Menilik did not proceed to liberate Eretria because he knew his limits; further aggravation of the colonizers would have put his greater empire at risk. Who knows? ፈረንጆቹ  may have ganged up on him like “አሁንስ አበዛሄው!!”

And so Menelik was resigned to defending what he has with the firearms that he bought from the enemy. It seems he got complacent though. The Japanese, who were in a situation similar to Ethiopia at the time began embracing the technology that was flourishing without having to forego their traditional values. The normal trajectory of the prerequisites for the survival of a nation is caveman clubs à better weapons à technological advancement in the civil areas of life stimulated by the search for  better weapons. We Etyopians did not try to make guns ourselves which could possibly have led to us manufacturing other stuff. We were just happy to buy and use them, sing about them -ገበየሁ ቢሞት ተተካ ባልቻ…እኔ ነኝ ያለ…ወዘተ

One cannot say that there have not been some efforts though:



Moreover, the Japanese turned their emperor into a mythical figure and established a parliamentary system. Most of the power lay in the hands of the latter. The former just gave blessings.

The opposite was happening in Etyopia. Adwa changed Menelik. The book quotes another writer:

Menelik’s tendency towards autocracy became more pronounced after 1896. Whereas previously he had rarely made decision without the advice of the major መኳንንት, after the Battle of Adwa he acted independently. He alone was the Ethiopian state.

This tendency of autocracy took full effect during the very long reign of Hailesellassie. መኳንንት were appointed based not on merit but ለጃንሆይ ታማኝነት:: An expected outcome of this was that he surrounded himself with his chums from Shoa marginalizing the rest of Ethiopia. He set out to make land inheritable and the throne the exclusive right of his descendants. Even the fervor for modern education that he is often credited with could be taken as his way of establishing a civil service that would hold together the highly centralized system that he was forming mostly for his own benefit. Soldiering was no longer the hottest profession in town. The big shots and their ranks were disillusioned. The country was a sitting duck when the Italians came for a second time around; and this time they had planes.

Mengistu’s regime was in essence a continuation of the centralization efforts of Hailesellasie.

It wiped out radicals who were committed to reforming the state through greater decentralization and regional autonomy…the popular echo of socialism was used to underpin the state by an ideology supposed to cut across ethnic and regional cleavages by appealing to a popular unity based on class solidarity…. Mengistu collapsed because he had destroyed what rendered to his own rise possible: the Ethiopian social mobility. Though the humble origin of Mengistu was known to all, he rose to the pinnacle of power and gained acceptance according to the traditional canon decreeing the successful winner of the power struggle a legitimate ruler. Had he not dressed up as a socialist ideologue for opportunistic reasons, nothing could have prevented the Church from calling him the elect of God in the traditional sense. Yet, once in power, Mengistu turned against the system: he could no longer tolerate able and ambitious people around him. Surrounded by yes-men, he pursued, banished, imprisoned or killed all those people who refused to abide by his criteria of selection.

Etyopians used to believe that they could be pauper at one time or king at another as dictated by their ዕድል:: And war used to be the time-proven means for testing  one’s ዕድል:: Hailesellasie said everybody has got a fixed spot on the hierarchy and Mengistu said everybody was equal.

Etyopians believe that they are chosen people and that should not be taken away from them. But they should put this belief to the test in terms of modernization. Chosen people have to as a matter of course be modernized since survival is unthinkable without modernization; and chosen people have to be survivors that reinvent themselves based on their tradition. The major attributes of the past Etyopian nationhood were allegiance to the imperial throne, Christianity and social mobility. But this attributes need some tweaking in order to be pertinent for the present day Etyopia. Suggested ways include:

  • The way regional, ethnic and religious issues have evolved in Ethiopia entails that neither might nor suffrage can restore the legitimacy of a national power. Only the voluntary surrender of power by those who control Ethiopia and the subsequent popular attachment can give them legitimacy and duration.

    This would be the mythical event, just like the Solomonic one, that would  herald the founding of a new Etyopia.

  • The sense of divine election should be spread to the Muslim community as well. The integration would not merely mean tolerance and equality before the law but striving to prove their election through the accumulation of wealth which in turn leads to the modernization of the country they share. This means the proof of election is going to be secular.
  • Land would be granted to a person or persons on the condition that they increase the productivity of the land and accumulate more wealth; that would be the national duty that makes them deserving owners of land. In order not to breach the contract, land owners would “adopt rational methods through saving, innovation and the use of modern means.”

One final excerpt and የቀረውን ከመጽሃፉ 🙂

So long as the predominance of the natural group over the individual is binding, giving support to the view which considers members of a group as kinspersons rather than partners, the path of modernization is yet out of sight. The nation is not an extension of lineage because it is ruled by different norms. While kinship obligations and affective ties govern lineage, partnership and impersonal norms rule over nations.

[organs may make up a human but the definition of a human is more than a simple sum of organs]



1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. getere
    Jan 17, 2015 @ 02:07:19

    Man, I hope the book goes into more detail 😀 We have election in Ethiopia where everyone is given the right to vote (including Muslims of course). We had a peaceful transfer of power when the prime minister died recently. What does voluntary surrender of power mean when there is a democratic framework? Why are the elections fake and what does it take to improve them?

    Land is given to investors. Flower business is a good example. Priority is also given to those wanting to build schools and medical services. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are other incensitives to encourage growth. On the other hand, land is taken away from those who sit on it. Some of the half built houses (only with their መሠረት) or ቆርቆሮ ቤት in the middle of a big piece of land abandoned for years are a workaround to this risk. And then there are city plans every land owner has to conform to. So you can’t build ቆርቆሮ ቤት infront of a busy junction. Does the author discuss any of this current situation?


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