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Time to search enlightenment from inside?

By Tsegai Berhane (PhD), Mekelle University School of Law
Tigrai Online, Feb. 20, 2018


Like everyone concerned about his country, I was busy browsing the internet looking for information about the current affairs of my country and have come across a very interesting article by Dag Herbjørnsrud which reads “The African Enlightenment—the highest ideals of Locke, Hume and Kant were first proposed more than a century earlier by an Ethiopian in a cave” (Yacob and Amo_ Africa’s precursors to Locke, Hume and Kant _ Aeon Essays.html)   

I stand to be corrected if I am not doing justice in summarizing the article but the article is mainly about the 17th-century Ethiopian philosopher Zera Yacob (1599-1692), also spelled Zära Yaqob. The theme of the article is: 

The highest ideals of the later European Enlightenment had been conceived and summarized by one man, working in an Ethiopian cave from 1630 to 1632. Yacob’s reason-based philosophy is presented in his main work, Hatäta (meaning ‘the enquiry’).The book was written down in 1667 on the insistence of his student, Walda Heywat, who himself wrote a more practically oriented Hatäta (Ibid).


Of course, the article emphasized that Ethiopia was no stranger to philosophy before Yacob.  Rather it argued that “Around 1510, the Book of the Wise Philosophers was translated and adapted in Ethiopia by the Egyptian Abba Mikael” (Ibid). Which is “a collection of sayings from the early Greek Pre-Socratics, Plato, and Aristotle via the neo-Platonic dialogues, and is also influenced by Arabic philosophy and the Ethiopian discussions” (Ibid).

The article farther argues that:

In his Hatäta, Yacob criticizes his contemporaries for not thinking independently, but rather accepting the claims of astrologers and soothsayers just because their predecessors did so. As a contrast, he recommends an enquiry based on scientific rationality and reason – as every human is born with intelligence and is of equal worth (Ibid).


What impressed me more about the article is its assertion that Yacob wrote “all men are equal decades before Locke, the father of liberalism put pen to paper” (Ibid). This is indeed very important assertion by Yacob.  

Considering the critical situation my country is in, the article ignited fundamental questions to my mind. Why are we (Ethiopians) then aggressively regressing back to the Dark Age? Why are we pretending to be blind to see the light ignited from the cave a century ahead of the Europeans? Are we destined to live in the Dark Age?


Of course, I do not have ready-made answers for the above questions I raised but I think as Ethiopians we need to ask and discuss these questions before it is too late. I firmly believe we are at the right time to pose and answer these questions. I always believe enlightened people have the capacity to change difficulties into opportunities.

However, I strongly believe whatever change or enlightenment we aspire, it should always come from within. It should come from the context and core values of our country. It should not be imposed from the outside where a hidden agenda (be it political, economic or social) is being brewed.

In this regard, as far as I am concerned, I would like to challenge the current Press Release given by the US Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where in my opinion is susceptible to criticism. Let me elaborate my critics based on the very wording of the Press Release.

First, the Press Release begins by saying “We strongly disagree with the Ethiopian government’s decision to impose a state of emergency that includes restrictions on fundamental rights such as assembly and expression.” To me, the Press Release did not give any reason why it should not be imposed. I was rather expecting the Press Release to dwell on relevant international standards and empirical facts on the ground why the state of emergency should not be imposed. However, if my memory serves me right, the US Embassy in Addis were busy with informing its citizens (in Addis and the would be tourists from the US) to restrict their movement due to the magnitude and gravity of the situation. To me, this implies that the US Government is concerned only about the well-being of its citizens. But in my opinion every life counts equal. Hence, it looks suspicious that the state of emergency might seriously affect the interest of the US Government which I am not aware of.

Second, the contradiction in the press release is that it declares “We recognize and share concerns expressed by the government about incidents of violence and loss of life, but firmly believe that the answer is greater freedom, not less.” Here, what I do not understand is, if the US Government is quite sympathetic with the Ethiopian Government on the violence and loss of life how could it prescribe greater from of freedom as a solution. This to me is either a contradiction in terms or it has to be interrogated for its logical authenticity. I would like to elaborate my argument more by using the analogy of Gun Control Protest in the US. As far as I am aware of, due to the lax gun control legislation in the US, many Americans (Blacks & Whites equally) are protesting for strict gun control legislation. To be exact, to strict background check. I think this is a direct limitation to the freedom of owning guns, if one can assume that owning guns are symbols of freedom which I do not. Hence, in the US, one could argue that the new gun control legislation (background check) is on its way in the US. Having this fact in mind, I am tempted to categorize the call for greater freedom in Ethiopia in the Press Release as a double standard or hypocrisy at its best. To me prescribing more freedom without limitation is like declaring insanity to be the rule of the game.


Third, though I agree with the Press Release assertion that “The challenges facing Ethiopia, whether to democratic reform, economic growth, or lasting stability, are best addressed through inclusive discourse and political processes, rather than through the imposition of restrictions.” I would argue that for an inclusive discourse and political process peace and stability is imperative. In a situation where everyone thinks it can break the rule of law to achieve its goal, it will not have any incentive to engage in a civilized discourse or political process. Since it deeply believes might is right. So, to my understanding the state of emergency could serve as a restraint to whoever is involved in the current political process to relegate the use of power. Of course, the most important point one has to underline is that as the Press Release clearly indicated a simple restriction is not enough and it cannot be fruitful. Rather, the Government in power should come up with a Road Map as to what is going to happen in the meantime. I believe this Road Map could serve as a litmus paper to test the honesty and determination of the incumbent government for a real change. I think as far as I am concerned, the Road Map should clearly spell out in a very transparent way the means to protect lives and property all over the country; create more inclusive political space for meaningful dialogue and political participation and release more prisoners in order to promote sustainable democracy in the country.

Of course, at this juncture it should be clear that when I critic the Press Release I am not imply by any means there is no problem in Ethiopia rather it is an open secret that Ethiopia is experiencing a very serious problem. I believe that is what necessitated the state of emergency. However, I am arguing; whatever change we expect it should come from within. Hence, my assertion of enlightenment from inside?

God Bless Ethiopia!!!



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