The Betrayal of the Intellectuals: The Search for a Movement of Liberation of the Critical Thought in the Horn of Africa

January 14, 2018

Ali Moussa Iye

 The intellectual loses his strength when he espouses power

~Noam Chomsky

The Horn of Africa is a region rich in paradoxes. Its history is a prime bone of contention among intellectuals when it should serve as a source of better knowledge for its populations. Its resources have attracted all kinds of fortune hunters from abroad since the earliest times, but its people continue to endure catastrophic famines. The stakes today are higher than any time in the past, but the peoples of this region still confront one another along ancient lines of division and from the same ideological trenches: Christians against Muslims; Semites against Cushites, highlanders against lowlanders, herders against farmers, unionists against secessionists.

Paleontological research attests the antiquity of its inhabitants, yet its peoples cling to tales of prestigious origins elsewhere in attempt to extract themselves from Africa. The Abyssinians trace their ancestry to a tribe that crossed the Red Sea from Arabia. Somali clans claim holy men from Arabia as their progenitors. Northern Sudanese look to Egypt as their place of origin. A myth of having come from lower Nile has a tantalizing appeal to the Oromo. Presumed to be the ‘lost tribe of Israel’, the Falasha found a home in modern Israel.

Fabrication of grandiose myths is not unique to the region. What aggravates the effect of the appeal of their myths here is the absence of the requisite antidote – namely, intellectual emancipation and critical thought. The intellectuals of the region have proved unable to emancipate themselves from the dominant discourses of their societies and cultures. The very people, whose role is to question the beliefs of their societies, revisit their traditions and debunk their prejudices, devote themselves to producing “scientific” legitimization for myths of distant origin, superiority and domination which, not only reinforce stereotypes and divide peoples, but also debase the value of indigenous scientific pursuits.

Intellectuals throughout the region have been seduced, suborned and instrumentalized by local rulers. They have rallied to every flag of convenience raised by powerholders and powerseekers, be they Marxists or capitalists, religious fundamentalists or atheists, military dictators or civilian despots. Regimes of every stripe can find intellectual support and justification for any policy they choose to pursue.

To wit, witness the chorus of intellectual sophistry and argumentation that accompanied the bloody progress of the Ethiopian-Eritrean war. No sustained critical voice was raised on either side of the border to protest the mindless massacre of tens of thousands of people. The same patriotic zeal was manifested among intellectuals during earlier conflicts between Somalia and Ethiopia. There are exceptions, of course, but they are a precious few and they exist to prove the rule. Intellectuals in the Horn of Africa have failed to fulfill their mission as torchbearers.

The precocious interest of foreign researchers in the affairs of the Horn has not helped. Besides subordinating themselves to the cultural prejudices and imperialistic goals of their own societies, they cannot resist ‘taking sides’ in politico-ideological contests in the region, offering ‘scientific’ support to one side or another and sowing confusion. Mesmerized by biblical and Quranic inferences, the people of the Horn are drawn to mythologies that attribute non-African origins to them, and to legends that highlight the external influence on civilizations that flourished in the region. This search for non-African paradigms is the legacy of the racist ideology of European “Africanists,” which has justified the horrible crime of slavery and colonialism by depriving African peoples of any trace of an indigenous advanced civilization in their continent.

Intellectual subordination to the geopolitical dynamics of the region – nationalism, ethnicity, secessionism, irredentism – has produced a body of knowledge contaminated with propaganda that is used to educate future generations. This constitutes a real threat to peaceful coexistence and viable sub-regional integration in the Horn of Africa. It will take very long indeed to ‘de-mine’ and ‘disarm’ such knowledge in order to challenge the demagoguery of intolerance, discrimination and exclusion that lead to conflict.

The new regional order, which follows the recent turmoil in the Horn calls for another approach capable of addressing the important transformations in process. It offers intellectuals a new opportunity to revisit and revise the dominant concepts and paradigms in the region. ‘Liberation fronts’ thrive in the Horn of Africa. There seems to be one for every ethnic group of any consequence in the region. What is badly needed is a ‘liberation movement’ for critical thought.

For that to happen, we first have to overcome the methodological constraints, the ideological snares, and the psychological reflexes that limit our vision. Far from presenting an exhaustive analysis of this topic, I would like to list a few of these obstacles.

The Tyranny of Mythology

 Addiction to mythology in the Horn of Africa has not only discouraged the production of objective knowledge on the history and culture of its peoples. It also serves as the ideological justification for intolerance, domination and oppression. On one hand, myth serves to legitimate ‘native rights’ on portions of territory within the region while, on the other hand, it asserts the foreign origin of those who claim such rights. Furthermore, these myths would have us believe that no state or civilization appeared in this region before the arrival of legendary heroes from abroad.

The popular history of Ethiopia begins with the spicy legend of Queen Saba and King Solomon whose natural son, Menelik I, is said to have brought the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia and founded Abyssinia. This myth has been intensively used by the “Solomonic dynasty”, whose last representative, Emperor Haile Selassie, reigned until 1974 to legitimize the monopoly of absolute power in Ethiopia.  Propagated by the Ethiopian church, state, intellectuals and artists until recently, this myth, which links Abyssinian ruling class to Jewish lineage, claims a distinction for Ethiopia that separates it from the rest of Africa; a claim other Africans, especially diplomats of the African Union based in Addis Ababa, have always found difficult of comprehend.

The Arab origins of the Somali is the stuff of legend that link their genealogy to that of the Hashemite tribe of the Prophet Mohammed. All Somali clan-families (Darood, Issak, Hawiye, Issas etc) have their own versions based on the same scenario. The usual story is of a Sheikh who left Arabia to settle on the other side of the Red Sea, where he impresses the local people with his knowledge and piety, marries the daughter of the clan chief, and assumes the leadership of the clan.

Myth is not peculiar to Ethiopians or Somalis. Indeed, it is common to most peoples in the region. Their use as potential sources of information for research is not in question here. The problem is the excessive interest accorded to those legends which locate the origin of some populations of the region outside Africa.  Alongside official mythologies, there are also traditions with local reference points that offer useful indications regarding the origin, identity, history and culture of the inhabitants of the Horn of Africa. However, these traditions, that are sometimes dismissed as ‘pagan’, have not aroused the interest of intellectuals in the region. Understandably, it is more rewarding to be concerned with the traditions related to Christianity and Islam supposed to be of higher cultures.

The Crusader Mentality

Religion has been very early instrumentalized by the competing powers of the Horn as an ideology of domination.  In this respect, the region has yet to emerge from its own Dark Age. Aspiring rivals such as nationalism and Marxism proved no match for it. Faith has been, and is still used to mobilize people in conflicts of all sorts, most of which have nothing to do with spiritual matters. Christianity and Islam have been at war with each other for so long in the region that the mentality of the Crusader and the Jihadist continue to imprison peoples’ minds in an implacably antagonistic worldview. The propaganda of intolerance developed by each side has led to the edification of psychological barriers among communities that outlived the military confrontations.

Struggles for hegemony, territory, resources, or identity in the region invariably invoke religious legitimation. The Ethiopian empire was piously portrayed as “a Christian island in the sea of Islam.” Among those who fought to shake off its domination, many perceived themselves as taking part in a Jihad against infidels. Even within the same religious community competing factions invoke sectarian interpretations of their faith in support of their mission.

The Obsession with Territory

In the majority of cases, conflict in the Horn of Africa is over territory. The main reason for this is the interdependencyand complementarity of the strategic areas of the region, which push the various powers in competition to develop ideological discourses based on geography. The borders that colonialism has arbitrarily and haphazardly imposed in already highly disputed territories contributed to aggravate confrontations over land resources.  The result is a collective obsession with territory, which rendered the Horn a setting for unending “war of geography” to redraw the regional geopolitical map and a categorical imperative for rulers and their subjects.

Consequently, relations between communities are reduced to territorial claims and counterclaims. Myth and metaphysics, genealogy and genetics are invoked in support of such claims. Disastrous wars are fought to retain or seize territory which the rulers have neither the interest nor the will to develop for the benefit of the people. The obsession with territory wastes resources in a destitute region and distracts leaders from the real challenge of economic and social development.

The war between Ethiopia and Eritrea is a good example of this obsession. Both governments implicitly acknowledged – albeit for different reasons – that the real cause of the conflict had nothing to do with the few pieces of desolate land along their common border. Nevertheless, the explanation explicitly given to their peoples was precisely the issue of this pitiful scraps of land. As if this were the only argument their people could understand, defense of territory was presented as the only cause for which they could be asked to make sacrifices and die.

The dream of greatness that animated the peoples of this region is always expressed in terms of territorial expansion. Witness the nightmare to which Pan-somalism has led Somalia. Little lesson seems to be drawn from that experience by Afars and Oromos who also dream of Great Adal or Great Oromia. The obsessive belief in “the sacred unity of Ethiopia” by Amhara peoples continues to inspire some of their intellectuals who advocate for another war with Eritrea to regain the lost “motherland”.

The Feudal Spirit

It was stated earlier that in some respects the Horn of Africa has yet to emerge from the Middle Ages. Proof of this is the feudal perception of power that prevails in the region. Family-based autocracy which claims divine legitimacy pulled from God-favorite lineage has been the dominant political structure.

Accordingly, the source of power, whatever it may be, is considered prior to the existence of the community and independent of its will. People are not perceived as subjects of their history, but as objects that form a design determined by the authority under which fate has placed them.

They are the flock that happens to graze on the estates of those who hold power. The community is not in a position to deliberate upon its fate, give voice to its concerns, still less to choose its government. The powerholders are not accountable to the people, only to the authority that placed them on the seat of power. They have no constitutional obligations to their subjects, but only charitable duties. They are beholden only to history.

This feudal mentality outlived the abolition of monarchic regimes and continues to influence the political practices of states in the region despite their formal adherence to a Western model of democracy. It is worth recalling that in a region with innumerable territorial disputes, no referenda or popular consultations have ever been held. The livelihood of Ethiopia’s farmers was more than once risked at the whim of its rulers, when they arbitrarily decreed far reaching reforms of land tenure. Similar changes are currently the subject of heated debate in that country among politicians and intellectuals, but there has been no serious suggestion from any quarter that the farmers themselves ought to be consulted. Theocracy was imposed on the people of the Sudan without so much warning, and the people of Eritrea were told they are not mature enough to determine their system of government. In Somalia and Djibouti, the manipulation of the so called “pastoral democracy” has led to a sort of clan autocracy which threatens social cohesiveness.

The feudal perception of power has not allowed serious intellectual scrutiny to focus on indigenous traditions of governance based on popular participation, democratic procedure and consensus that exist in the region such as the Xeer of the Somali-Issa, the Gada of the Oromo, the Baito of Tigray, and the Madqa of the Afar.

These offer models of domestication and management of power that challenge the feudal heritage and could facilitate the lagging process of democratization in the Horn region.

The Fundamentalist Conception of Conflict

Another factor that affects relations between the peoples of the Horn is the fundamentalist, absolutist perception they have of each other. Despite their many affinities, or perhaps because of them, each group has the tendency to regard its disputes with others as utterly ineluctable, and somehow inherent in the differences that separate them.

The manichean dichotomies of religion (Good against Evil, God against Satan) are transposed onto a temporal world of scarcity, where communities are compelled to compete for resources in order to survive.

Cultural, religious, and ethnic distinctions are viewed in terms of a generic antithesis, a primordial contradiction impervious to compromise. The very existence of “the other”, his way of life, well-being, and prosperity, are a permanent mortal threat. Conflict is a struggle to the end, that is the end of ‘the other.’ Any advantage gained by others correspondingly detracts from one’s own cause.

This zero-sum mentality governs political behavior at every level. Witness the way the regimes in Ethiopia and Eritrea chose to resolve a dispute between them that everyone, save themselves, considers petty. Witness the way the ruling parties in Ethiopia and Eritrea resolved disputes over policy that emerged at the leadership level of each. In all the countries of the region, those who lost the argument also lost their party membership, positions in governments to which they had been elected or appointed, their business and some found themselves in prison accused of corruption, treason or plot.

This mentality can equally explain the intractable nature of the civil war in Somalia. The important lesson to draw from this experience is that the homogeneity in terms of ethnicity, culture, religion and language that many nationalists are dreaming of, is not sufficient guarantee for any social and political harmony. It confirms that ethnic diversity is not necessarily a formula for conflict. It may even be easier sometimes to compromise and find common grounds, when a society is constituted of diverse groups who are destined to live together.

In Search of an Alternative Vision

 Intellectuals in the Horn have developed a narrow vision that tends to exaggerate differences between peoples and amplify discourses of exclusion. Now that all which could have contributed to widening the gaps between communities in the Horn has been done, it is time to look at the other face of the region’s reality. Beyond the imperative of intellectual integrity, which compels us to revisit the mistakes of the past, the plight of our region calls for a new approach. Intellectuals in war-torn societies can no longer allow themselves the luxury of concentrating on issues which stir up hatred and exacerbate division. It is their responsibility to rediscover what brings peoples together, to reconstruct bridges that have been destroyed, and to highlight the common fate of all peoples in the Horn.

It is time for intellectuals to emancipate themselves from the narrow discourse of their rulers – past and present – the tales of conquest and domination, of plunder, enslavement and extermination of ‘infidels’. It is time to overcome the reductive vision of history, which equates the complex evolution of societies with the petty intrigues of palace politics. Our approach to history must look beyond the concrete footprints left to posterity by pretentious dynasties, and seek to find evidence also of those much more evanescent traces of peoples’ achievements. It is time to illuminate the web of interdependence and interaction which in the past helped the peoples of the region to transcend their differences for mutual benefit. For example, the economic nexus that wove a regional web of trade, facilitated population mobility and inter-cultural dialogue. A focus on economic inter-dependence could encourage a degree of regional integration, the prerequisite to regional peace and development.

The study of this economic “rationality,” which links peoples beyond their cultural prejudices and political confrontations would help the renewal of the conceptual frame on the Horn of Africa.

Another area to which research should give more emphasis is the investigation of common ideals that could bring peoples together and help them to transcend the barriers of prejudice and bigotry. Intellectuals should revisit traditional values, historical acts of solidarity and generosity displayed in the past by the peoples of the region to overcome their antagonism. Recall how the Abyssinians sheltered the first followers of Prophet Mohammed when they had to flee Arabia for a time, and the gratitude the Prophet expressed for this deed. There are of course glowing narratives of protection and accommodation of the other throughout the Horn of Africa which can serve as inspiration for the present generation of the region.

A new intellectual vision must reinterpret the notion of “patriotism,” one that insists on the defense of human values and rights wherever they are under threat, irrespective of national or cultural boundaries. This is the only kind of patriotism that is likely to reconcile, beyond their differences, all those sharing the same the ideals.

This new vision requires to break with traditionalist and primordialist analyses, which have only imprisoned the peoples of the Horn within stereotypical imagery, purporting to capture the quintessential “nature” or “essence” of their culture. Rather, such attitude has tended to sentimentalize and romanticize the traditional order, only obscuring its dynamics and capacity for internal transformation and adaptation.

The Horn of Africa has had more than its fair share of liberation movements, warlords and chieftains. It has had enough of imported ideologies and prophets of doom and salvation. It has produced more than its quota of bards and minstrels who sing the praises of autocrats in elevated and sophisticated tones.

Enough of intellectuals who betray their own “raison d’être”. Today, the Horn needs intellectual who resist invitation to sell their soul to powerholders. What it is badly needed is institutes for research, reflection, and academic exchange, which are genuinely independent of the power of the state, of interest groups, and of short-term politicking.

It is time for the intellectuals of the Horn of Africa to launch a “liberation movement” for themselves. A movement for the emancipation of critical thought and the development of free mind. More than ever, we need this new spirit and vision to respond the current challenging situation in the Horn of Africa. Download in PDF format here


Ali Moussa Iye, he holds a PHD in Political Sciences from the Institute of Political Sciences in Grenoble, France. He is Chief of the History and Memory for Dialogue Section of UNESCO, where he runs the Slave Route Project and the General and Regional Histories Project, including the UNESCO General History of Africa.