On the Role of Intellectuals in Society!!


A Critique of the Shortcomings in Professor Mesay Kebede’s Article

Drs. Tsegezab Gebregergis, London, 7/03/2016

I have written this article dealing with the historical role that Ethiopian and Eritrean intellectuals have played in Ethiopia as a direct challenge to the one-sided, mistaken and undifferentiated views and assertions expressed by the Ethiopian, Professor Mesay Kebede, on the role played by Ethiopian intellectuals during the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie and afterwards in an article titled “Beyond Ideology: The Betrayed Task of Ethiopian Intellectuals” (See ECADF online, January 29 2013).

Consequently, the question I would like to pose at the outset is this: did the Ethiopian intellectuals in pre- and post-revolutionary Ethiopia play a regenerating and transformative role, or a regressive/destructive role as Mesay Kebede claims?

Let me now provide an answer to this question in terms of historical perspective.

To begin with, let me state the historical fact that, as a matter of historical necessity, every society, at a given stage of its economic and societal development, produces intellectuals who respond to its specific needs. Thus, dictated by such historical truth, in the 1960s, at the height of the repressive rule of Emperor Haile Selassie and in response to the historical and social necessities in Ethiopia, there arose a small but dedicated number of progressive left-wing Ethiopian and Eritrean intellectuals who intervened on behalf of the highly oppressed and exploited Ethiopian peasants and other sections of Ethiopian society.

To be sure, there were many educated people in Ethiopia before the 1960s, but they were not intellectuals in the Socratic, Sartrean or Gramscian sense. If they were intellectuals at all, they were the defenders of the feudal establishment. As such, they were less interested in challenging feudalism and the feudal regime of Emperor Haile Selassie. The intellectual intervention on behalf of the victims of feudalism in Haile Selassie-ruled Ethiopia therefore came from the young, progressive and courageous revolutionary Ethiopian students and their leaders.

Among the many resourceful, talented and justice-seeking student leaders who initiated the anti-feudal struggle and challenged the legitimacy of the feudal regime of Emperor Haile Selassie by mobilising the student population under the banners of “Land to the Tiller” and “Right of Self-Determination of the Oppressed Nations and Nationalities”, were the martyred Wallelegn Mecconen, Berhane Meskel Reda, Tilan Gizaw, Yohannes Sebhatu and Martha Mebrahtu.

As far as this author is concerned, the names of these student leaders and those of hundreds of others who took part in the anti-feudal and anti-absolutist struggle in Haile Selassie-ruled Ethiopia played a crucial role, identical to that of Emile Zola in popularising and galvanising the Dreyfus affair in France during the 1880s and 1890s.

Hence, seen from a historical point of view, it was the martyred student leaders in Ethiopia who defined and demonstrated, through their own actions, what ought to be the role in society of intellectuals in general and of progressive intellectuals in particular.

It is therefore important to bear in mind, when raising the question of the role of intellectuals in society, that both Ethiopia and Eritrea have indeed produced highly rated intellectuals; that is, a body of learned people who have the capacity to think critically and who question the wisdom and the actions of their governments. These intellectuals, small in number but highly motivated, have played a historic role in the struggle for the democratic right of the oppressed Ethiopian nationalities and for the right of the oppressed Eritrean people to be free and politically independent.

Sadly, however, as the two liberation front’s (the EPLF and the TPLF/EPRDF) began heading towards the capitals of Ethiopia and Eritrea, Addis Ababa and Asmara respectively, eventually succeeding in toppling the military government led by Mengestu Haile Mariam, forming a TPLF/EPRDF-led minority government in Addis Ababa in 1991, such active left-wing progressive Ethiopian intellectuals have all disappeared from the stage of Ethiopian politics.

To complicate matters, an equally unbearable and distressing episode was the appearance on the Ethiopian political scene of other Amhara-led right-wing intellectuals, angry and rabidly chauvinist, who violently opposed the democratic right to self-determination of the oppressed Ethiopian nationalities and the right of Eritrea and its people to be free and politically independent.

Likewise, when the EPLF leadership believed that it was about to capture Asmara and declare Eritrean independence during 1977-78, when more than 90 percent of Eritrea was in the hands of the Eritrean liberation forces, all the vocal, democratic and critically thinking revolutionary Eritrean intellectuals who joined the EPLF in its early years were murdered. This was followed in 1978 by the disintegration of the committed Eritrean intellectuals who split from the twin sister organisations, Eritreans for Liberation in North America (EFLNA) and Eritreans for Liberation in Europe (EFLE).

As a result, apart from emotional, one-sided, sometimes defamatory and highly political and propagandist materials, there does not exist a critical work with democratic content dealing with the Eritrean/Ethiopian war that ignited in May 1998. What does exist is a huge body of propagandist materials in the form of articles and commentaries written by Ethiopians and Eritreans either in support of the EPLF/PFDJ-led government of Eritrea and against the TPLF/EPRDF-led government of Ethiopia, or vice-versa.

Today, then, unlike the highly skilled, committed and legendary Ethiopian and Eritrean intellectuals of the early 1960s and late 1980s, but with the exception of some principled individuals from both camps (such as the courageous and progressive Professor Mesfin Woldemariam and others), the majority of Eritrean and Ethiopian intellectuals have forfeited their intellectual sovereignty and willingly joined the bandwagon of the single ruling parties in both Eritrea and Ethiopia. Indeed, they have become their spokespeople and propagandists, while others have become totally indifferent to the sufferings of the people of the two countries.

Consequently, the shift in the role of intellectuals in the two countries, from revolutionary defiance to conformity and submission, is felt deeply by the people of both Ethiopia and Eritrea. This has been especially so after Eritrea became independent and the TPLF/EPRDF assumed power in Ethiopia in 1991.

It is, however, wrong to portray the pioneering first generation of progressive and committed Ethiopian intellectuals as a virulent type of radical and to attribute directly or indirect responsibility to them, as does Professor Kebede, for the prevalence of tyranny in Ethiopia since the fall of the monarchical system.

Besides, the adherents of the various versions of Marxist-Leninist socialism do not act from the premise or belief that the first condition of real change is the merciless destruction of inherited features, as Professor Kebede has erroneously stated. Rather, they advocate integrating Marxist-Leninist teaching with concrete economic, social and cultural realities prevailing in one’s own country in order to catch up with and meet the needs of a people who have remained politically, economically and socially some 150 years behind the more advanced countries.

After all is said and done, it appears to this writer that the good Professor has erred in many respects in writing his article because he does not recognise the reality and necessity of sharing the universal values and aspirations of every society living in different corners of the world. Instead, he seems to hanker after life in the dark ages of Ethiopian history.

Thus, in dealing with the subject matter of his own choice, Professor Kebede seems to have felt that he was pitted against nihilist revolutionaries. In reality, he was facing revolutionary intellectuals who wanted to create a secular, rapidly industrialising and forward-looking Ethiopia, while Professor Kebede seems intent on restoring a stagnant, traditional, feudal Ethiopia.



  1. Thank you Drs Tsegezab
    It is very educational. I agree with every thing you said except the line about Professor Mesfin Woldemariam.
    This guy was a chauvinist hard line Amhara and he never believed or accepted Eritrean independence. To call him ” the courageous and progressive Professor Mesfin Woldemariam” is beyond my comprehension.
    Please, keep up writing and I hope other Eritrean intellectuals will follow your example and educate us.
    Romay Abraham

    • My dear esteemed brother Romay,

      The word “courageous and progressive” is not used in reference to his stand on Eritrea as such, but it is rather as an attribute to his life-long brave stand and struggle as a teacher and a political activist against US-imperialism: the number 1 enemy of the Ethiopian people’s aspiration for an autonomous historical development.
      Mdre Bahri