Some reflections on Idang Alibi ‘s Eurocentric conception of Africa (Ethiopia)

Idang Alibi’s “Ethiopia, an Embarrassment to Africa” has caused much ink to flow and continues to set the tongues wagging. The writer tries to pass for a concerned African and even for a friend of Ethiopia when he says, “why do I appear so hard on Ethiopia? Do I bear that ancient land a patriotic grudge? Yes. As an African, I feel embarrassed each time the likes of Ethiopia portray us as non-thinkers ” (emphasis mine). Despite that, many readers are not ready to buy the author’s professed good faith and patriotism. The present writer, for one, believes that it is the clumsy wording of the title, which makes Idang Alibi’s article a cause célèbre in the eyes of most Ethiopian readers. For the last three decades, Ethiopian and foreign intellectuals have clearly and repeatedly indicated that the root cause of Ethiopia’s recurrent famine is the rampant maladministration, which has been a big obstacle for the development of the country’s productive forces. Besides, just a few weeks before the publication of Alibi’s article, the BBC rightly imputed the current unprecedented humanitarian crisis to bad government. Unlike Idang Alibi, no foreign expert has ever made a hasty generalisation between a nation of sixty five million people and its irresponsible and uncaring rulers. Why does Alibi try to make believe his readers that Ethiopians “…are not thinking hard enough about how to solve their problems….”? Does the writer really know the situation of Ethiopians to blame them for their “inability to think hard”? Given that the writer talks about biblical Ethiopia, one would say he is well familiar with the country. Nonetheless, we have serious reasons to doubt this. Alibi does not even know the difference between orthodox Ethiopians and the Copts of Egypt.

As a journalist specialising in public affairs, Idang Alibi should have made a little research on the way Ethiopians are ruled. He could have found out very easily that Ethiopians have been prevented from working for the last thirty years in the name of fighting feudalism and capitalism. The writer could have realised that the two Ethiopian Marxist-Leninist regimes’ primary concern has been to eliminate and prevent the birth of a national class of entrepreneurs. Ethiopia is the only country in Africa where the very weak Ethiopian middle class is pejoratively dubbed reactionary, antidemocratic or hireling of imperialism. Therefore, if Ethiopia suffers from recurrent famine, it is not because Ethiopians are not thinking hard or are unwilling to work. The fact is that Ethiopians have not been allowed to think and to take prophylactic measures. So I call upon the writer to undeceive himself of his “Ethiopia-an embarrassment to Africa” theory by making the distinction between the absence of the freedom to think and visceral inability to think or unwillingness to think.

What is more, the two articles of Idang Alibi (Ethiopia- an embarrassment to Africa and Ethiopia and the black man’s character) remind me the Eurocentric conception of Africa. It is essential to bear in mind that Idang Alibi’s “Ethiopia, an embarrassment to Africa ” is the African version of the Eurocentric conception of “Africa – an embarrassment to humanity”. Idang Alibi’s characterisation of the black man is also reminiscent of the 16th century European missionaries’ characterisation of the black man and the Hegelian conception of Africa as the permanent child of humanity. As everybody knows, this led to consider the scramble for Africa as a providential mission of the white man to bring a light of civilisation into the “dark” continent. The end of colonialism was thought to be followed by democracy, human rights and economic well being. What happened was the opposite. Africa has continued to progress backwards. Despite its heavy-handed rule, the post-colonial African state is so weak that it has not even been able to supply its people with basic necessities such as potable water, health facilities, education, impartial and effective justice et cetera. In sum, the economic well-being of the people has never been its priority. This led many people to remember the days of colonialism with nostalgia. The colonial state was in fact very oppressive and racist but it built schools, universities, roads, railways, hospitals and an effective administration. The postcolonial state has inherited all the vices of the colonial state without inheriting the good side of its predecessor. It could not even maintain in good condition the infrastructures that the coloniser built to exploit Africa. It would not therefore be exaggerated to say that African dictators are not different from former colonialists if not worse.

The exacerbation of the living conditions of Africans because of the absence of competent and responsible leadership led some Eurocentric theoreticians to retroactively glorify the days of colonialism by arguing that African countries should have waited more under western colonial rule. Their principal thesis is that Africans have not reached a stage where they could reflect and solve their problems by themselves. The responsibility had therefore to fall on the West to “ease” the very unbearable life of the Africans. This led to the proliferation of NGOs and other international organisations whose stated aim is to help Africans help themselves. In reality, this is one way of ensuring the permanence of African dependency on West. Because as long as African rulers are primarily accountable to their western patrons and not to the people whom they rule and since some circles in the West have a vested interest in the continuity of this sad state of affairs, it is normal that Africa continue to be plagued by famine and violation of human rights. While this is the fact, it is not unusual to hear ordinary Africans bizarrely ridiculing mother Africa by imitating the apologists of colonialism. Idang Alibi says bashing Africa by Europeans could be interpreted as racism. But, the same Idang Alibi thinks he has the right to deride Africa by mimicking Eurocentric writers.

Idang Alibi’s articles remind me also the late Leopold-Sedar Senghor who is quoted to have once said ” Reason was Hellenic while emotion was proper to Negroes “. As a good student of Cartesianism, the famous African writer, statesman and scholar thought that the African man was, before the arrival of colonialists in Africa, emotive; his decision, world view and philosophy were based on irrationality such us sorcery and making appeal to his ancestors so that he could have full health, good harvest, profitable business et cetera. By saying so, Senghor wanted to pay tribute to colonialism, which he argued was, ” un mal nécessaire”, meaning ugly but necessary. Indeed, the African man believes that his dead ancestors continue to care about the well-being of their living descendants. As a result, the African man tries his best not to offend them. If harvests fail or if he goes bankrupt in his business activities, he rationalises that may be his ancestors are not happy with the way he conducts himself. Idang Alibi seems to believe that all this results from the inability to think. In reality, this is what Western anthropologists and ethnologists consider as irrational behaviour not because such a behaviour is irrational per se but because it cannot fit into the Newtonian paradigm of science according to which man, armed with Reason (science), can harness Mother nature. The Holy Bible also comes to the help of the detractors of the African man as being irrational because the Genesis says that Nimrod, the Ethiopian king who enslaved the Jewish people in Egypt was idolatrous and originator of witchcraft. Senghor hoped that thanks to the introduction of western rationality (modernity) in Africa, the African man would at last be Hellenised (would believe in reason (himself)). However, contrary to what expected Senghor and despite the half-hearted attempt by the African political elite to westernise Africa, Africans (who are mostly peasants) have chosen to cling to their tradition for good or for bad. Some western theoreticians believe that it is this irrationality which makes the imported nation-state unworkable in Africa where, they argue, the idea of common good, individual initiative “in the manner of Europeans” or love for work “in the manner of Asians” are “unknown” to the African man whose political horizon, they believe, is limited to his village or tribe. In other words, the continued resistance of the African man to be westernised is considered as a proof of his “inability to think”. The racist theory of “inability to think” has also been forwarded to explain why Blacks excel in physical activities such as boxing or athleticism while, they say, such is not the case in matters requiring mental activity. Idang Alibi, after the fashion of the Eurocentric theoretician, writes, ” in the course of this fulfilling career, I have learnt something very profound about the character of the black man….. the black man has a typical response to criticism; he never bothers to consider the merit or lack of it of any critical comment about him, his institution, his ethnic group or his country, his philosophy or world view”.

Idang Alibi is telling us that the African man is not like the white man because, according to him, the white man is open to criticism. In other words, the black man is being criticised for not being like the white man. The problem with our writer is that he seems to lose sight of the fact that we Africans are not fundamentally different from other races. We have the ability to think and to solve our problems provided that we are not deprived of our God-given right to think. Africans have been faced during thousands of years with myriad of problems but they solved them with out appealing to foreign assistance. The best service that we can render to mother Africa is not therefore to make ourselves the object of ridicule but to formulate pertinent questions, which can help us to clearly identify those responsible for the problems plaguing our respective societies. It is essential not forget the fact that we Africans believe in criticism and our culture is based on criticism. Tradition requires that criticism be made in a polite way often in the form of a suggestion. One is very careful about the choice of one’s words. The individual making the criticism does not try to be a super star on the pain of being ostracised. Likewise, harmony being the governing principle of traditional African philosophy of life, its application is not limited to living members of the society. It applies also to the dead. This is not an African exception. This conception has its equivalent in Mohammedan and Judaeo-Christian societies. For example, in some parts of Ethiopia where Judaeo-Christian mentality is deeply ingrained, drought, dictatorship and famine were considered to be divine visitations. They were considered as the punishment meted out by the Almighty to his chosen people for the wrong they did. One had to bear all suffering and misfortune without complaining following the example of Job. Clergymen had taught that he who suffered in this world would be rewarded in the Hereafter. As elsewhere in Africa, such fatalistic conceptions don’t have any more currency in the eyes of the educated elite in Ethiopia.

Ethiopians’ reaction to the recurrent famine is that of “ye ‘abai lej wuha temaw”, which can be rendered roughly as “it is strange that Ethiopia, the source of the blue Nile upon which depend the lives of millions of Sudanese and Egyptians should suffer from famine as a result of the drought”. The natural wealth of Ethiopia is not limited to Nile. Ethiopia is the water tower of East Africa. But we know also saying Ethiopia is endowed with natural resources does not mean anything because the resources are not important by themselves until such time that we have the technological know-how to exploit them. There is no doubt that Ethiopia has highly educated and competent individuals in sufficient number to take our country out of its present economic and political quagmire. The biggest problem of Ethiopia is that she has been unable to use her human resources to eradicate famine and poverty. Our rulers are allergic to listen to the professional advice of Ethiopian experts. Rulers consider suffer from a schizophrenia of omniscience and omnicompetence. They argue that their economic policies are best tailored for Ethiopia’s economic development even when the whole world knows that these misguided and unpatriotic policies have exposed fifteen million Ethiopians to famine and death.

Contrary to what might expect Idang Alibi, Ethiopian rulers don’t think that begging for international charity is a shame. They continue to say that Mother Nature is to be blamed for the looming disaster. They don’t have an answer to the question why countries with no rainfall at all don’t suffer from recurrent famine. On the contrary, they expect the Ethiopian people and the international society to praise them for making a timely appeal for food aid. They are not even embarrassed to accuse the international society of being dilatory in its response to the appeal for immediate food aid. This led former Tony Blair’s foreign minister to retort that the world did not have the obligation to feed Ethiopia. Therefore, far from being unable to think, Ethiopians are victims of misguided and malicious policies. If Idang Alibi had thought twice about the title of his article, he could have realised that Ethiopia pays a heavy price for the repeated failure of its self-satisfied, all-knowing and uncaring rulers. Unlike Idang Alibi, I don’t believe that the (Ethiopian) black man loathes criticism. It is the way the criticism is addressed and the words used to pass on one’s messages, which matters the most. In Ethiopia where self dignity and respect for others is the number one principle of life that we learn from our early childhood, criticism, if it is to be of any utility, should be made in keeping with the requirements of chewanet , meaning refinement or civility. In this regard, although Alibi’s intention could be a good one, his tactless use of the word “embarrassment” has overshadowed the message he wanted to pass on. Because of this, many readers are rightly led to believe that his primary aim is to portray Ethiopia through an adverse light rather than to stress the fact that Ethiopia suffers from the absence of a political will to eradicate famine and poverty. That is why some were obliged to adopt a defensive or even an offensive reaction which in turn led Idang Alibi to philosophise on “Ethiopia and the black man’s character”. Had he given to his article the title of, “Ethiopian leadership- an embarrassment to Ethiopia and to the rest of Africa”, he would have done a great service to Africa in general and to the Ethiopian people in particular. Regrettably, by trying to blindly ridicule Ethiopia as “embarrassment” to Africa, the writer may have succeeded in misleading our Nigerian and other African brothers who may not have a good knowledge of the political situation obtaining in our country.

That being said, I don’t think that the writer is unaware that Ethiopians are embarrassed that their beloved country should be making international news headlines because of famine. We are embarrassed not because we think we are an embarrassment to Africa or to anyone else but precisely because we think our great and proud nation is a victim of man-made problems. Some readers of Idang Alibi might say he did nothing wrong other than telling the obvious. The writer himself might think that by being uncharitable towards Ethiopians, his articles might lead them to think hard. But for me, nothing is more stupid than to think there is no Ethiopian Idang Alibi in Ethiopia.

Be that as it may, every Ethiopian should bear in mind that long before Idang Alibi, the recurrent famine led many individuals and scholars to cynically argue that if Ethiopia had never been colonised, it was because Ethiopia is not so endowed with natural resources as to whet European colonial appetite. Likewise, Italian fascist ideologues and their foreign friends tried to explain Ethiopia’s military victory over Italy in 1941 by arguing that on top of the very hostile nature of Ethiopians, there were no economic reasons for Italians to continue the war. Again, as recent as 1998 European donors suspended their development aid when Ethiopia was obliged to defend herself against Eritrean undeclared and devastating aggression saying that a poor country like Ethiopia could not afford to spend money on the defence of its people and sovereignty.

In view of the never ending suffering of our people and the humiliation of our proud nation, the question that we must ask now is: why have we Ethiopians, known for our age-old military invincibility against foreign aggression, been unable to oblige our rulers to act in such a way as to make our selves immune to famine and poverty? The answer to this question is an open secret. Our political and intellectual elite is so divided and mutually hostile that it has become a great obstacle to the aspiration of our people to lead a decent life. We know full well where the solution to our predicament lies: “When spiders are united, they can bind a lion”. If we are united, we can oblige our rulers to rule us in a responsible and caring way. May be Idang Alibi is right when he says Ethiopians are thinking because if Ethiopia’s intellectual and governing elite were able to think it could not have passed forty years in constant bickering. If it were thinking, it could have been united at least to share power rather than to lose it to secessionist forces and to be at their mercy . It seems therefore that we modern Ethiopians are cursed. Doesn’t my resignation sound a non-thinking? I leave the answer to the judgement of dear readers.

[Opinions in this article are solely that of the writer.]

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