The Drifting Mind

The Drifting Mind

By Messay Kebede

Addis Tribune, December 13, 2002

What follows is a reflection on Idang Alibi’s editorial about the Ethiopian famine posted on the Web by AllAfrica.com. By all means, the editorial, titled “Ethiopia, an Embarrassment to Africa,” is a first-rate article by the strength of its analyses of the real causes of the famine. In a nutshell, Alibi is asking us not to blame the weather or any other culprit for the prevailing famine for the simple reason that no Ethiopian leader can seriously claim to be a stranger to the cyclical nature of famines in Ethiopia. So predictable a disaster could have been easily averted by a simple measure of food storage. Unfortunately, rather than adopting “a wise measure against a potential affliction that has a cycle,” Ethiopian leaders have preferred to beg for food after the disaster occurred, thereby openly displaying their inexcusable imprudence, not to say criminal indifference.


Let it be said at once that the editorial is not particularly unfriendly to Ethiopia: leadership incompetence is widespread in Africa. Still, Alibi finds the Ethiopian case particularly embarrassing because of the unique place that Ethiopia occupies in Africa. If there is one country in black Africa that cannot blame colonialism for its recurring problems that country is definitively Ethiopia. What is more, for many Africans, Ethiopia’s glorious history and captivating legends promised the rise of a black rival to Western countries. In effect, the founders of African unity elected Addis Ababa as the capital of Africa. It is because Ethiopia has been a source of pride and inspiration for black peoples that its present inability to feed itself is so disconcerting and embarrassing.


Let us for a moment ponder over the irony of the situation. In consistently denouncing leadership incompetence as the real cause of the Ethiopian plight, Alibi exposes the reversal movement that condemns Ethiopian leaders to repeat past mistakes. The Derg, we remember, blamed famine on Haile-Selassie’s rotten regime and promised its complete eradication through a socialist policy. No sooner had the Derg made those promises than it was caught celebrating lavishly its anniversary when millions of people were dying of hunger. For the TPLF, the root cause of famine was the hegemony of one ethnic group: ethnicization, so it claimed, will eliminate the problem once and for all. Predictably, it was caught repeating the same neglect: while famine was looming, the political leadership was busy filtering dissidents and promoting the political agenda of  “revolutionary democracy” with its futile ritual of assessment (gimgema) sessions in the service of a no less futile ideology.


What strikes me most in the promises and failures of successive governments is the irrelevance of their analyses of the causes of famine. So long as the main cause is supposed to be political, the replacement of the existing regime appears as the most adequate solution. Precisely, this battle for the control of power prevents reflection on one crucial issue: though the Ethiopian peoples traditionally experienced droughts and famines, they were able to withstand them without the assistance of Western nations.


This is exactly the point Alibi is making when noting that “Ethiopia is a country with a rich history.” He recommends: “In times of trouble its leaders ought to go into the archives to find out how people of earlier times did it in order to secure prosperity.” This disparity between the past and the present in our ability to deal with famine is the real problem. Modern technology and modern education should have upgraded the potential. The truth is that it made Ethiopia more powerless than the past.


This is where I ask for an extension of Alibi’s analysis. The incompetence of the leadership is only a consequence of a greater drift, namely, the inability to think. Alibi mentions it when he says: “The trouble with us is that we have refused to think. We have refused to be forward-looking.” I invite a reformulation: the refusal to think is rather an inability to think. An example: not long ago I used this forum to air my view concerning the port of Assab. I asked Ethiopians to let Assab go for the sake of achieving peace. I got many angry responses, which in light of the current famine only confirm to what extent the thinking runs away from the real problems of Ethiopia. When we see that Ethiopia has stooped to the level of complete inability to feed itself, those of us who think that Assab is the fundamental issue on which everything hinges only repeat the mistakes of the past and of the regime they want to overthrow by making a superficial analysis of a deeper problem.


How does one account for the loss of the capacity of Ethiopians to feed themselves? One way of approaching the problem is to count demographical growth - a direct outcome of the progress of basic health care - as one element, given that the growth of population was not followed by a corresponding rise in our ability to produce food. Moreover, the concentration on cash crop products has diverted the peasant from the original goal of producing food for self-preservation without guaranteeing enough income for the purchase of food in the free market. Add to this the fact that the development of urban life, a direct consequence of modernization, is effected at the expense of rural development. To satisfy the Westernized consumption level of the educated elite, governments spend a lot of resources in importing expensive goods.


This is to say that modernization has been nothing but a curse for the mass of Ethiopian peoples, who were even stripped of the traditional techniques they possessed to resist famine and drought. We have de-traditionalized Ethiopians without however giving them new and upgraded powers to deal with adversities. This failure of modernization is the real issue; it conditions the resurgence of “irresponsible and visionless leadership.”


We Ethiopians are capable of understanding the problems of advanced societies, but we have no clue about the real problems of Ethiopia, which, I repeat, have to do with drought and famine, that is, with issues of basic survival. Because such problems are no longer those of the West, it is but natural that a mind trained and shaped to mimic the West is little afflicted by them, let alone being able to cope with them. Our analyses of Ethiopian society and peoples are wrong-headed for the same reason. Instead of assisting the people with the development of grass-roots democracy and productive capacities—the only way to deal effectively with famine and drought—we fight over the scraps of an impoverished nation by promoting divisive ideologies. Be it the de-contextualized endorsement of market economy or the confrontational ethos of class analysis or ethnicization, the purpose of this type of ideology is to mobilize people around elite interests.


These ideologies do not tell us how to get out of peripheral existence, but how to organized it according to the interest of the few. We are unable to unite but ready to divide the country along ethnic or religious lines because we fight over scraps. Were we committed to producing abundant wealth, we would have immediately perceived the need for unity, and hence the proper political arrangement. We are unthinking because we have a dependent mind, a mind which has no goal of its own except to feed on carrion. Our ideologies are all ways and means to organize scarcity; none targets the overcoming of scarcity.


To sum up, the lesson of the recurring famines of Ethiopia is not the change of regime, which is useless without the drastic and uncompromising awareness that modern education has made us into the vultures of our own society. Only then can we recover our capacity to think, that is, the aptitude to consider our society as the center of our references and to integrate our life into its real life. Our ability to think depends on the extent to which we center Ethiopia. Otherwise what we are doing is not thinking but echoing, imitating for the purpose of fighting over the control of people reduced to the point of forsaking the elementary power of reproducing their own basic means of subsistence. In a different historical context, this policy of incapacitating people so as to control their life was termed colonialism. It is no less colonial when the rule of native elites reproduces similar syndromes.