February 9, 2009

By Melaku Yismaw

I have no doubt that the usual quarters will raise their hue and cry against me for daring to comment on PROFESSOR Messaye’s articles or books. However, as a former red hot Maoist the elderly professor will surely understand my daring to rise against all icons of all colors and hues. With this in tow I will like to reply to the professor’s main contention in his latest book titled Radicalism and Cultural Dislocation in Ethiopia, 1960-1974.

Let me present the book in the professor’s own words:

“Published by the University of Rochester Press, the book starts from the premise of a deceived expectation, from the distressing realization of a promise that seems to have vanished altogether.

The book focuses on the prime agent of the revolutionary upheaval that derailed the course of Ethiopia’s modernization, namely, the Ethiopian student movement. Most remarkable about the movement was that a great number of Ethiopian students and intellectuals had espoused the most dogmatic version of Marxism-Leninist ideology, with the consequence that they had become a highly polarizing force. And as John Henrik Clarke puts it, “When a people are not too sure about who they are loyal to and what their commitments are, they represent a danger within the cultural mainstream of their society.”

The book discusses the reasons why a majority of Ethiopian students and intellectuals adopted the ideology of Marxism-Leninism during the 60s and early 70s with a fanatic fervor. This radicalization of the educated elite is crucial to the understanding of Ethiopia’s uninterrupted political crises and economic setbacks since the Revolution of 1974. Students and intellectuals were the leading force in the uprising against the regime of Emperor Haile Selassie. The radicalization of the military junta, known as the Derg––which seized power and ruled the country for 17 years––was also the handiwork of students and intellectuals. Likewise, the ethnonationalist movements that brought down the Derg in 1992 are products of the Ethiopian student movement.

While acknowledging the frustrating impact of Haile Selassie’s economic and political failures, the book argues that the radical orientation of students and intellectuals has its roots in the encounter of an uprooting education entirely copied from the West with a cultural legacy prone to messianic escapades. Even as the imported education was undermining the legacy, the Marxist-Leninist ideology emerged both as the most consistent form of Westernization and the most alluring substitute for the messianic longing.

The book is original because it develops a multifarious approach to study the progressive radicalization of Ethiopian students. Notably, arguing that the socioeconomic shortcomings of the imperial regime are not enough to explain the radicalization, it highlights the role of cultural factors. Among the cultural factors, besides emphasizing the alienating impact of Western education that the imperial regime encouraged to the detriment of the traditional culture and the radicalizing elements specific to the traditional culture, the book adds the influence of “the culture of revolution” characteristic of the 60s and early 70s as a result of the global hegemony of Marxism-Leninism.

Another theoretical and methodological originality of the book is that the analysis of the uprooting impact of Western education perfectly articulates with the other radicalizing elements. The book shows that the contrast between Western and traditional societies, as conveyed by the Eurocentric reading of history and the subsequent method of taking the West as a normative reference, activates a revolutionary predisposition. It then elucidates how native and international factors join and strengthen the rupture opened by the educational system.

The major significance of the book is but obvious. In involving cultural factors, the book provides a detailed and concrete assessment of the impact of Western education on traditional cultures. As such, the study has a direct relevance to other African countries in that it puts the finger on the main obstacle holding back their modernization and economic development. Given that Ethiopia has not been colonized, the pernicious radicalization of its educated elite demonstrates that the effect of cultural colonization is more lasting and damaging than direct political colonization. It follows that the issue of African modernization is as much, if not more, about recapturing cultural autonomy as it is about applying the right socioeconomic changes”.

If Professor MK praises his own book as original and more he should be excused as intellectual conceit has been one of his main failings throughout his long life. The theme of mental colonization and what he calls the pernicious effects of western education has been repeatedly presented by the professor (check his article “African Development and the Primacy of Mental Decolonization”). Professor Messaye has time and again blamed Ethiopia’s continuing woes on the Ethiopian Student Movement and the radical intelligentsia whom he blames of being leftist, under the influence of a “polarizing ideology”, of believing in class struggle, of raising the national question, of Eurocentrism, etc.. In my continuous and faithful reading of professor Messaye I have never read a serious line of mea culpa, no self criticism of value, no admission that he had presented his own aberration as the norm and attacked others for what they were not at all. And this inevitably brings us to ask on who was really this professor. Did he even take part in the ESM? To point out the hypocrisy of his exercise this examination is called for.

Before leaving for higher education to France, professor Messaye kebede was not part of the Ethiopian student movement. In Grenoble, France, he emerged as a fanatic Maoist but he was not still an active member of the Ethiopian Student Union in Europe (ESUE) at the time dominated by Haile Fida and his comrades who were later to form the Meisone group that allied itself with the Mengistu regime. In Grenoble, Messaye was a Maoist firebrand who brandished the Red Book of Mao, one of the fanatics of the time who believed that if you are lost in the Gobi desert and just open the Red Book of Quotations and read a page or two you will miraculously find your way back to downtown Beijing or Peking as it was called at the time. The student movement had its Maoist content for sure but the Messaye type Red Book hugging true believers were not that many. The ESM cannot be identified with them exclusively just as alleging, as he does, that the ESM gave birth to narrow nationalists (ethnonationalists in MK’s term) like the TPLF and the OLF is also a fallacy. Messaye went from Grenoble to Addis Ababa not through Bale, as the cheater Senaye Likke (another Maoist of the time who returned through Bole to be a Derg thug) used to say, but through Bole airport. Eccentric and Maoist, Messaye did not see eye to eye with the Haile Fida group but curiously enough was comfortable enough to work with the Mengistu regime on his own. As the lecturer in the philosophy department of the Addis Ababa university, ( I think he became the head of the department if memory serves me right) he became a member of the ruling junta’s Workers party of Ethiopia (ISEPA)—is there not a photo of Messaye in the blue Isepa uniform?. He lectured on Marxist philosophy, was a dogmatic supporter of the ideology and the Mengistu regime, arrogantly told his students that the grade A was reserved for Karl Marx, B for himself and every mark below that for students. Messaye was harsh against other lecturers in the department who did not share his zeal and love for the regime. When the Derg’s Constitution was being discussed Mesay was one of the main discussion supervisors. He supervised and led the rubber-stamp discussion conducted in the Addis Ababa University, ILS. In other words, the trajectory of Messaye was consistently different from, if not against, the Ethiopian student movement.

Writing a mildly critical but eulogizing article on Seye Abrha (“I admire his sincerity’”, “he is a man destined for the position of leadership”and other such nonsense about the crude Seye—read instead the book of Tesfaye Gebre Ab “Yegazetegnaw Masawesha” for a clear picture of Seye) Messaye attacked the ESM and the progressives for struggling against national oppression and inequalities. He affirmed that “national question was not at all about oppressed people but as about elites assembled around ethnic criteria fighting to create reserved and docile constituencies”. Messaye now lives in exile in the USA where he is a professor of philosophy in an American university and has since the demise of his regime in 1991 turned against his own ideology, his regime and the progressive forces who struggled for change in Ethiopia. In all this there is no trace of a mea culpa, no humility and self criticism. Messaye was not part of the Ethiopian student movement and the conscious struggle for democracy and social change. He was an eccentric fanatic, a Maoist radical ( it was the 60s as he should say), a dogmatic with his red Book of Quotations from Chairman Mao vowing to bring the “Green Revolution to Ethiopia”(mind you not the Red Revolution). A confused mélange – the red Book of China and the Green Revolution of India. This may explain why Messaye presently calls for non cooperation and radical peaceful struggle (as opposed to or different from the struggle through the ballot box.

The fashionable intellectual—and defeatist—resort to barking against western education is actually a dead end. One wonders why some of these so called afro centrist or ethio centrist fellows resort to such lame excuses. Let us admit it: the ideology of change cannot be found in the Kibre Negest or Gedle Tekle Haimanot. For all the praise of the Gada system or the unsubstantiated golden era of Africa, our traditional societies are better left alone as past. Western education per se is not evil, after all professor Messaye is the professor of this same education and not of kine and tsome digua. His pride is not a degree from Washera, is it? We should be real, no? Honest? The Ethiopian youth that rose against injustice and oppression did not worship western education—on the contrary, it rejected brainwashing and stood up against imperialism. Then dogmatic and rather infantile take of the left ideology by Messaye and others like him is their own failing and not to be attributed to the glorious movement as a whole. The national question raised by the ESM to put an end to the inequality and denial of rights—it was about oppressed people and democracy. For those Messaye called ethno nationalists it was indeed about ethnic exclusiveness and the creation of their own “docile constituencies”. But for man who strongly backed a repressive and totalitarian regime, Messaye is openly dishonest when he rises up to attack a movement that did not at any time tolerate oppression, exclusion, narrow nationalism, worshipping foreign idols and diktat. Messaye should have first and foremost castigated and attacked Messaye. He was culturally dislocated and was not among those who raised the banner of the Ethiopian people, joined the peasantry (does Messaye know any aside from the realm of theory?) and shed its blood for the people and the nation.

Revolution is good, kosher, halal, fews, effective medicine. Those who uphold reaction by growling against the “west” and its so called “pernicious” influence are at best hypocrites. After all, professor Messaye is himself a typical product of western education. Civilization is universal and the heritage of all people. Trying to hide behind one‘s own culture and to justify backwardness and horrible practices as mental decolonization will not fly. The student and youths who raised the banner of Revolution had pride in their heritage but were conscious enough to say no to the culture of backwardness. Ethiopianism or our own identity is not to be found in the evil practice of ethnic oppression, the humiliation of women, racism, and elitism for that matter. That the Ethiopian youths of the 60s opted for the ideology of the Left is explained not only by the predominance of the ideology at that time on a world level but also by their desire to bring about radical change (where was the Ethiopian liberal bourgeoisie then? Where was the Ethiopian blueprint for change to be found?). Messaye and all the others who now preach the free market economy (and does Messaye know that free market is the culprit of the current global economic crisis?) and other such paths of change are not actually original if they dare to think about it. Messaye also blames the ills of the society on what he calls the polarizing ideology and thus erroneously puts the cart before the horse as the society is polarized by the existence of class division and oppression, a situation to which the ideology tried to respond. To be fair, the Ethiopian revolutionaries were genuine leftisits and, the Messayes aside, they did not bow to Beijing or Moscow. Which means that Messaye should be really barking foul against himself. The Derg was the handiwork of intellectuals— but only of intellectuals like Messaye and not others. Messaye generalizes and in this way he hides, he amalgamates the victims with the butcher and condemns all conveniently. Intellectuals fought against the Derg and died in their thousands. Intelelctuals made the Derg…those like Messaye that is. So why is Messaye condemning all in toto? Dishonest, to say the least. The Messaye who brandished the red Book of Mao to make the Green Revolution is as confused as ever. His book which he himself unashamedly praises so much (not a very Ethiopian characteristic this self praise and “gura”) is in actual fact a commentary on his own hypocrisy inability to learn from his own disastrous mistakes. Sad, very sad indeed. An exercise in futility, as it were. The tragedy of some of our professors and doctors these days.