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Meles Zenawi and the unfinished project of Ethiopian modernity

By Teodros Kiros PhD, Sept 06, 2012

The recent death of Meles Zenawi, the architect of Ethiopian modernity has sent-tremors of moral shock to the Ethiopian state and other African states, engaged-in the murky business of capitalist modernity.

I too am deeply saddened by the sudden death of a brilliant, stubborn and-intolerant lodestar who died too early, when some of us were expecting him to-mature in the womb of time and embrace the principles of Maat: Justice,-tolerance, patience and wisdom.

Professor Andreas Eshete in ETV described him as “extremely knowledgeable and a very quick study”, to which Susan Rice added the accolades “ World-class mind, and not just brilliant, but strategic and wise”. (ETV, September 2, 2012)

However the time clock of temporality conflicted with transcendental time, and as always, transcendental time defeated temporality, and our young leader died on us and left us with the unfinished project of Ethiopian modernity.

The idea of modernity which began in Europe in the seventeenth century was anchored on the capitalist form of distributing resources with an ego centered moral frame, which caters to the whims, interests and passions of the rich and powerful.

In contrast, the inadequately organized socialist economy seeks to develop an alternative form of modernity, which is slowly but steadily penetrating global consciousness.

Capitalist modernity keeps on growing, leaving a vast moral wasteland, a wasteland that socialist modernity seeks to combat but with deep grounding in the people’s public reason and heart. Socialist ideas, however, have yet to develop grounding institutions.

The strategic Meles attempted to modernize Ethiopia through a market economy, jettisoning the socialist alternative, which characterized, the earlier project of revolutionary Ethiopian modernity, which Meles, following the visions of Chinese thinkers dubbed, the Developmental State.

From the very beginning, Meles’ Developmental state seeks to give Ethiopian modernity an original economic form which decouples the idea of development, the motor of modernity, from any moral limitations and worse, it seeks to develop bureaucrats whose task is to implement a singular leader’s vision of building an economic infrastructure that will develop the agricultural center in the villages and also build roads, highways, universities and business centers guided by the imperatives of the global market economy, seeking to develop modernity, using China as a model. The decoupling of morality and economy, characteristic of capitalist modernity, is in direct contrast to the blending of morality and economy, which typifies the socialist vision of modernity.

Meles Zenawi, betraying his commitment to “revolutionary democracy,’ makes the strategic decision of securing food for the poors of Ethiopia by any means necessary. This decision is realized at the expense of aborting the democratic necessity of allowing citizens to participate in choosing ways of life and ethics of existence. The unflinching vision of developing Ethiopia came with shocking results, such as the death of hundreds of university students after the 2005 elections, and the imprisonments of dissidents.

A recent video in Aiga Forum, presents the young Meles Zenawi, movingly grounded in the rural cultures of the Ethiopian countryside. There in the vast fields of the principled Ethiopian peasants, impressive democratic dialogues take place.  The leader is seen teaching and learning, lecturing and being lectured at, instructing and being instructed, relentlessly attacking bureaucratic ineptness, praising the natural intelligence of Ethiopian peasants. These moments were the sites of direct democracy, my life long dream for Ethiopia, to which I devoted my two most recent books, Philosophical Essays, and Ethiopian Discourse. (Red Sea Press, 2012) Again, I am profoundly dismayed that he did not read these two books, in which I fully share his earlier vision of developing Ethiopia by directly empowering Ethiopian farmers, the back bone of the unfinished project of Ethiopian modernity.

Perhaps he did read them in their original forms when I first published them in the Ethiopian reporter, as a weekly columnist for five years and that I was not fortunate enough to engage him in a critical dialogue in the spirit of Ethiopian modernity, a unique blend of culture and enlightenment, tradition and elements of capitalist modernity.

In these early democratic moments, the Prime Minister, is wise, patient, tolerant and brilliant. I only wish that he had carried this humility and organic intelligence to the parliament, where we witness a combative, intolerant and arrogant leader, belittling some of his critical colleagues, and ignoring scholarly critics with his substantial intelligence.

While all these moves are underway the fundamental question of democracy, the venue of freedom is totally neglected, which in turn brought in the menacing venom of tyranny and the silencing of critical thought.

The recent Meles Zenawi seems to have forgotten his commitment to” revolutionary democracy,” as a forum for dialogue, free of domination and became a heartless technocrat

Whereas capitalist modernity takes great pride in safe guarding enlightenment for the ruling class as the right to use one’s reason to think, to act and to choose, the modernity of the Ethiopian state systematically crushes dissent, ignores the advise of scholars, and undermines the public reason of Ethiopian citizens.

Revolutionary democracy is replaced by authoritarian developmentalism. The right to speak gives way to the obligation to listen, to obey, provided that you are fed, sheltered and clothed, if and when the material fundaments of modernity are available to the Ethiopian poors.

The Developmental state is inherently repressive. The developmental projects can be carried only by silencing dissent, imprisoning the voices of critical reason and ridiculing alternative ideas to the leader’s blue print.

The net product of this political style is nurturing docile but materially manipulated bureaucrats and highly cynical, subjugated and discouraged citizens, who are shackled by the Developmental state.

The fundamentals of the developmental state that Meles has left are impressive sources of waking the sleeping Ethiopian giant of eighty million people waiting to be engaged economically and be disburdened from poverty. The repressive political structure however is at loggerheads with the idea of modernity, the pillars of which are enlightenment, democratic freedom and tolerance.

In 1982 the continent of Africa was engulfed by the menace of food crisis and then I proposed remedies in a series of conferences sponsored by the African Studies association. These conference papers were collected in book form, Moral Philosophy and Development: The Human condition in Africa. (Ohio University Press, 1992)

In that book, I proposed that food security for the continent be developed by African States, which make conscious decisions and adopt two principles of Justice: (1) The first principle is the recognition of food, Health, Shelter and clothing as inalienable human rights. African resources must be used in such a way that they can, with proper scientific aids, be channeled to eventually (a) eliminate urgent human conditions of poverty and hunger, and (b) address other attendant consequences of mental and physical health, hopelessness and under motivation.

(2) The second principle is a demand for the absolutely necessary duty humans may have in the recognition of the importance of freedom for those who think and feel that they are unfree. When the basic human needs are met, only then may the Africans be able to think about nonmaterial human needs, such as art and religion. (Moral Philosophy and Development: The Human Condition in Africa, p, 176)

I can only hope that Meles Zenawi, a voracious reader, has read this work of my youth, and perhaps adopted it to his recent call for Ethiopian food security.

Instead of assuming that he was familiar with the work, I publicly suggest that the present Deputy Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, consult this work as he continues implementing Meles Zenawi’s vision of securing food for the Ethiopian poor, a lifetime work.

I would like to elaborate and revise my present views of using the two principles of Justice by the Developmental state. With the first formulation, I treat the two principles of justice separately and give priority of importance to the first principle and sacrifice freedom by relegating it to the second position, whereas now, I propose that the Ethiopian Developmental state must enshrine the two principles of justice as constitutional amendments simultaneously.

The repressive political structure that does not allow the flourishing of the thinking individual must be checkmated by the second principle of justice that guarantees freedom for every citizen. That food security and freedom must be procured for the poors of Ethiopia. The first principle and the second principle must be realized at the same time. Both are necessary and sufficient conditions for the vision of a just and efficient modern Ethiopian state.

The existential imperative of food security ought to be mediated by the democratic right of freedom for every Ethiopian. Meles Zenawi was very much mistaken when he thought that freedom and food security couldn’t be realized simultaneously. I think they can.

Development, one of the engines of Ethiopian modernity, requires a democratic structure. The right of speech, principled assembly, spiritual conscience, which includes religious sensibilities, fuels the democratic structure and most potently expresses freedom.

The first principle of justice justifies the idea of development and gives it a material anchor. This material anchor however, must be buttressed by the full satisfaction of the second principle of justice that secures the basic freedoms of speech, assembly and worship. Indeed Ethiopian modernity ought give pride of place to the fundamental freedoms, as political rights, the inherent features of democracy.

It is these inherent freedoms, which must be restored, if the idea of development, the unfinished project of the developmental state is to bear fruit.

If these radical changes are not enacted soon, then my call for a peaceful uprising of the poors of Ethiopia, a central feature of Ethiopian modernity, must be reignited under the banner of Ethiopianity.

If these radical changes are not enacted soon, then my call for a peaceful uprising of the poors of Ethiopia, a central feature of Ethiopian modernity, must be reignited under the banner of Ethiopianity.

A future article will analyze Meles Zenawi’s vision of Ethiopianity guided b y the Developmental state.

I would like to thank Dr. Victor Wallis and Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia for their penetrating readings of earlier drafts of this paper.

Teodros Kiros
Professor of Philosophy and English (Liberal Arts)
Berklee College of Music

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