Intellectual history

The Ambivalence of Ethiopian Modernity: A Self-colonial Leitmotif of History

By Sisay Megersa Dirirsa

By Sisay Megersa Dirirsa

The modern Ethiopian empire state was constituted during the heydays of the Scramble of Africa. And at this time, Emperor Menilek, under the influence of some of his European advisers at his court, introduced western/’modern’ education in Ethiopia. This led to the formation of a new class of ‘modern’ Ethiopian intelligentsia, of whom Nägadəras Gäbərä-Hiwetə Baykädañə and Nägadərasə Afäwärəqə Gäbərä-Iyäsusə were the prototype cases. Since its historic moment of origin during the early twentieth century to this date, the Ethiopian educated elites have been the main champion of societal transformation in Ethiopia, swearing its perennial animosity towards what it has labeled ‘traditional Ethiopia’ and recurrently imagining the possibility of making Ethiopia modern. The dialectical interplay between the constitutions of the modern Ethiopian empire state during the Scramble of Africa and the birth of a new class of ‘modern’ Ethiopian intellectuals laid the foundation of Ethiopian modernity.

Although there is an ongoing debate concerning the true nature of Ethiopian modernity among scholars, there is a broad consensus in the historiography of ‘modern’ Ethiopian intellectuals. In the emergent field of Ethiopian intellectual history, of which the main focus has been the study of ‘modern’ Ethiopian educated elites, the story of Ethiopian modernity is characterized in terms of estrangement. Cases in point here are: Bahru Zewde’s Pioneers of Change in Ethiopia;ElizabethWolde Giorgis, “Ethiopian Modernism: A Subaltern Perspective”; Messay Kebede’s duology––Radicalism and Cultural Dislocation in Ethiopia and Ideology and Elite Conflicts. In this essay, I contend that characterizing Ethiopian modernity as a mere form of “cultural alienation” is an understatement.

Seeking to valorize the peculiarity of Ethiopian modernity (taken to mean here in its ironical aspect), I argue that the historical entanglement between Ethiopia and modernity has been predicated on an inherent self-colonial desire of the former since the beginning of the twentieth century. While framing the ‘modern’ Ethiopian history in terms of a self-colonial motive, I intend to enrich the ongoing debate on the nature of Ethiopian modernity in particular and to validate the reduction of modernity as a mode of colonization of the Other, namely the non-European societies and histories since the fifteenth century. This way, my argument situates itself to the critical scholarship that problematizes modernity as a hegemonic self-representation of Europe.

What makes the story of Ethiopian modernity somewhat an eccentric case is the fact that it has a self-colonial subterfuge. Whereas modernity was imposed top-down in Africa and other colonized societies as a form of colonization, the Ethiopian variant of modernity was rather a self-instigated historical process. Although Ethiopia has been cherished by Africans (both within the continent and in the diaspora) as the abode of Black/African Freedom (following Ethiopia’s historic triumph of Adwa over Italian colonialism in 1896), there is a subtle and intriguing self-colonial force that underlies the story of Ethiopian modernity. Although the historic Battle of Adwa cemented Ethiopia’s sovereign existence during the high point of European imperialism, the country seemed to have ultimately surrendered to European material and epistemic dominance since the turn of the twentieth century. Such surrender has come in a disguised form, namely as sələane (civilization) or Zemenawinet (modernity). 

When we see a specific Ethiopian context in this regard, Donald Crummey shows that the first diplomatic relation between the Christian Abyssinian kingdom and Europe was made in the fifteenth century. During this time, some Abyssinian rulers, namely Yəsəhaqə and Zärä-Yaqobə, exchanged letters with the Franks. This first historical experience might have contributed to the localization of the term “Franks” into its vernacular form, namely “färäñəjə” (ibid). Today, the term färäñəjə commonly refers to anyone who looks like a white person in everyday language, mainly in Amharic, in Ethiopia.

The relationship between various African societies and the generic West became increasingly asymmetrical since the fifteenth century after the former found itself at the whim of the latter’s material and technical superiority. Such decidedly asymmetric relationship led to a colonial historiography conditioned by a Eurocentric epistemology, which in return was partially mediated by the ascent of scientific racism during the nineteenth century. Accordingly, such hegemonic historiography rationalized European colonial intrusion in Africa as a form of “a historic finality.” Consequently, Europeans were depicted as “the harbingers of new civilization,” writes the most celebrated Nigerian Historian––J. F. Ade Ajayi, “and that they were to leave their mark on the physical and mental nature of man in Africa.”

After describing the colonization of Africa as “the cost of Occidental modernity,” Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze has shown how Europe was able to posit and represent itself and its contingent historicity as the ideal culture, the ideal humanity, the ideal history” (13). And recently, Achille Mbembe, in his seminal work–– Critique of Black Reason, has equated modernity by referring to its constitutive rationality, namely a “Black reason.” Reducing such a founding hegemonic rationality as a simulacrum, Mbembe shows how modern Europe invented the category of race to fit it with the notions of Africa and Blackness since the late fifteenth century.

To put this differently, what Mbembe tries to say to us in his Critique of Black Reason is how the hegemonic self-image of Europe qua modernity has been contingent on the reduction of Blackness and Africa as the essential attributes of the subhuman or the inhuman. This justifies the self-promotion of whiteness and Europe as the quintessence of humanity par excellence. To this effect, the notions of Africa and blackness have been identified, conceptualized, defined, and codified in a hegemonic epistemology and ontology, thus making Black Africa the eternal abode of the subhuman/inhuman Other. As Mbembe writes,

…Historically, the conflict over blackness has been inseparable from the question of our modernity. The name raises a question that has to do, first of all, with the relationship of what we call “man” with animals, and therefore the relationship of reason to instinct. The expression “Black Reason” refers to a collection of deliberation concerning the distinction between the impulses of the animal and the ratio of man, the Black Man being living proof of the impossibility of such a separation….Man distinguishes himself from animality, but this is not the case for the Black Man, who maintains within himself, albeit with a certain degree of ambiguity, animal possibility. A foreign body in our world, he is inhabited––under cover––by the animal… (ibid, 30-31).

Coming back to the peculiarity of Ethiopian modernity, which seems to impose such a hegemonic self-image of Europe, there is one pressing question that we ought to ask: Why did Ethiopia need to become modern? To put this question otherwise, was Ethiopia’s desire to become modern a self-generated impulse or some outlandish force that came as a form of imposition from elsewhere? For Christopher Clapham, Ethiopia’s expedition towards the unchartered territories of (European) modernity was equally a self-inflicted process as much as modernity’s global thrust conditioned it. Here is how Clapham argues by using a comparative historical reasoning:  

For most of Africa, development is something brought on the back of colonialism––an experience that, of course, carries much ambivalence of its own…The idea of ‘modern’ Ethiopia was, however, extensively developed by a remarkable and important group of early twentieth century Ethiopian intellectuals, who …were driven to a large extent by the cognitive dissonance between an inherited sense of cultural superiority and an acute awareness of Ethiopian ‘backwardness’, by contrast not only  with the European states where by far the greater number of them had studied, but even with colonized African peoples whom they were  accustomed to treat with scorn (109-111).

Although Crummey also seems to concede that “…Ethiopia’s interest in Europe, in the largest sense, was always tied up with Ethiopia’s interest in ‘westernization’ and ‘modernization,’ he also admits that Europe had imposed itself upon Ethiopia. European colonial empires, “by subjugating the territories surrounding Ethiopia,” argues Crummey, “and thereby controlling Ethiopia’s access to the wider world, in all senses, at least until the advent of radio and telecommunications, those countries forced themselves upon Ethiopia’s rulers (16).” 

For Crummey, Ethiopia’s relation with Europe gave birth to the hegemonic notion of modernity and “its identification with ‘Westernization’ (ibid).” Consequently, these two conceptual derivatives of the process “have embedded themselves profoundly in the consciousness of Ethiopia” (ibid). This might explain why modernity and Westernization sound like inseparable conceptual coordinates in the story of Ethiopian modernity, save some critical voices in the emergent field of Ethiopian intellectual history, such as Elizabeth Wolde Giorgis.

Modernity is a highly ambiguous concept as much as the phenomenon referred as modernity is marred by ambivalence after making itself camouflaged as a civilizing mission in service of a colonial intent. Yet, unlike African and other intellectuals from the Third World in general, “who readily treated colonialism as exploitation,” as Clapham underscores, “their Ethiopian equivalents often regretted that Ethiopia had failed to gain the ‘benefits’ of colonialism” (111).

Thus, one of the most enigmatic aspects of Ethiopian modernity’s story is: how can we grapple with such a ‘self-colonial’ urge being disguised as a modernizing impulse? Crummey, in contrast, characterizes “Ethiopia’s encounter with modernity … [as] one of active appropriation,” even though he also admits that the story of Ethiopian modernity has resulted in an “epic tragedy.” In his own words, “…the people of Ethiopia are having their history taken away from them, and are having another history, one inferred from global notions of modernity, imposed upon them”(ibid). He blames Ethiopian intellectuals in general for causing such a tragedy for the great majority of Ethiopians, who have hardly had any formal education. 

Crummey is not the only one who seems baffled by the story of Ethiopian modernity, provided that he likes to inject an affirmative frame of interpretation to the story by describing it in terms of “active appropriation.” He deploys the phrase to highlight some local agency in the process of borrowing European modernity as opposed to supposedly passive and uncritical consumption of everything from Europe or elsewhere. Thus, along the same line of affirmative interpretative intake, Matteo Salvadore also discusses the story of Ethiopian modernity by classifying it as a form of “sovereign modernity.” It seems likely that Salvadore’s intention is to amplify the notion of “positive contamination” or “a process of creative incorporation” in the story of Ethiopian modernity. By drawing on Claude Summer, a renowned Ethiopianist philosopher, Salvadore explains “positive contamination” as “the peculiar ability of the Ethiopian literate class to ‘adapt, modify, add, subtract’….(561).” Salvadore goes on quoting Summer and explains what he thinks of a peculiar Ethiopian trait: “Although the nucleus of what is translated is foreign to Ethiopia, the way it is assimilated and transformed into a [sic] indigenous reality is typically Ethiopian” (ibid).

Jean Baudrillard argues modernity is a “modernizing force,” yet using colonization as a civilizing mission of the non-European societies during the late nineteenth century. In the aftermath of the Second World War,  like Samir Amin’s expression of Marxism as “modernity critical of modernity,” Marxism fused with a decolonization urge became a critical toolkit against Europe’s self-imposition as an agent of civilizing mission in the colonial world, including Africa (17). The Ethiopian Student Movement (ESM) adopted Marxism as an emancipatory ideology to dislodge the Ethiopian empire’s despotic feudal order during the long Sixties.

A striking point of convergence between the early twentieth century’s Ethiopian intellectuals and ESM’s generation of the long Sixties is that Europe acted simultaneously as the source of the problem and its possible remedy. While the former strived to reform what they thought was “traditional Ethiopia” by trying to imitate Europe/Japan, the latter sought to transform Ethiopia by taking the socialist utopian version of Europe as a model. In both cases, Europe is taken for granted as the ultimate end of history (in capital H). The task of modernizing Ethiopia, either through a reformist (a liberal-oriented goal) or a revolutionary (socialist-oriented goal), becomes a historical necessity. 

Making matters worse, the hegemonic educated elites in Ethiopia have taken for granted the unexamined notion of the Black Caucasoid as if it meant to signify a mode of peculiarity in negation to Black Africa. Self-identifying to such a hegemonic Eurocentric discursive archetype, the hegemonic educated elites of Ethiopia, namely the haša( a self-reference to the historic Abyssinian Christian Kingdom), have fallen to anti-blackness and Negrophobia epistemic traps. This further shows the enigmatic presence of a self-colonial desire, which resonates with Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Mask. As the Antillean “Negro” sought to “whiten himself” by inversely positioning himself with the colonized “Negro,” such as the Senegalese, the haša self-reference as a “Black Caucasoidoperates using the same logic of inferiority.Ethiopia’s quest to become modern serves as a typical case of Fanon’s argument about “the fact of blackness,” provided that “consciousness of the body is solely a negating activity.” Therefore, this inherent longing to become modern (white) Europe is a reflection of psychological disorder (a “delirium” according to Fanon), emanating from a condition of self-hate for being Black and African at the same time while being in a White world order (109-110).

Sisay Megersa Dirirsa has recently finished his PhD in History at Bielefeld University (via voice on 10 January 2022). His research interests include African/Ethiopian Historiography/Philosophy, Afropessimism/Afrofuturism/African Futurism, Critical Gender/Race Studies, Conceptual/Intellectual History, Deconstruction, Decoloniality/Postcoloniality.

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: Guido Reni (1575–1642), Archangel Michael Tramples Satan (c 1630-35), oil on canvas, 293 x 202 cm, Santa Maria della Concezione, Rome, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.