The Unfinished Project of Ethiopian modernity By Teodros Kiros

May 31st, 2015 Print Print Email Email

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

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

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

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
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
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
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
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.

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

Comments are closed.