The bastardization of Ethiopia’s modernity

Ethiopia has undergone several partial processes of modernization. It has abandoned the traditional order, but has not yet fully replaced it.

“The road to hell”, remarked the late American novelist Philip Roth, “is paved with works-in-progress”. Of course, Roth uttered these words in a literary context. However, the challenge that works-in-progress pose is all too evident in any sphere of life, not least in socio-political change.

Ethiopia is unraveling. Recently, a burgeoning set of political and societal crises have buffeted the country. No doubt, the coming to power of Abiy Ahmed has brought several major improvements. Nonetheless, there is still a high possibility that Abiy’s administration might just be an interregnum, if changes are not institutionalized. A weakening central government, ‘ethnic’ enmities, intractable popular protests, and local rivalries have challenged the monopoly of violence held by the Ethiopian state. Although it has improved since 2017, the Fragile States Index placed Ethiopia as the 23rd most vulnerable country in the world this year.

The post-1991 federal dispensation has made ethnicity the primary element of identity. The divides have become violent, more numerous, spreading in scope with the passage of time. The conflict shifted from a confrontation between the government and society—as during the Derg and in the protests that brought Abiy to power—to interethnic violence in which different groups attacked each other. News of targeted attacks comes thick and fast. These crises are long in the making, but there is an urgent need to analyze what has gone wrong. Why on earth has such a proud and decent society descended into the abyss?

Ethiopia modernises

Ethiopia is a country of many images. It means different things to different people. Few countries have more identities than Ethiopia. As far back as 1974, the late American sociologist Donald N. Levine discussed what he called “scholarly images and assumptions”. Accordingly, the Semiticist, the modernization and the relativist schools of thought are presented as the dominant approaches to the study of Ethiopia. The Semiticist school sees Ethiopia as a Semitic state, “an outpost of Semitic civilization”. In contrast, the relativist tradition sees Ethiopia as a nation of diverse nations, a sort of ethnic confederacy.

In discussing the modernization scholarly image, Levine noted that it was a recent phenomenon, dating only back to the 1960s. Obviously, it was an aspect of the dominance of modernization perspective in social sciences in the 1950s and 60s. Social scientists by then were preoccupied with the process through which traditional societies became modern. Influenced by the evolutionary theory of the 19th Century and functionalist thought of the early 20th Century, modernization theorists charted a universal, evolutionary pattern in which cultural values, economic systems, and political institutions moved along an incremental, linear path from what is marked by tradition to modernity.

The scholarly image which sees Ethiopia as an ‘underdeveloped’ country was none other than modernization perspective by another name. In his seminal book, Greater Ethiopia, Levine also pointed out that the proponents of this third school are few. True, they were few when the book was published in that fateful year, 1974. Levine perhaps didn’t see the clouds were gathering and change was coming. He was not alone. The political historian John Markakis also publishes his classic Ethiopia in 1974. The subtitle of the book was Anatomy of a Traditional Polity.

That was to change after the 1974 Revolution. Academic and opinion articles and books were published dealing with the dramatic ‘transformation’ that Ethiopia was undergoing. Patrick Gilkes, wrote The Dying Lion: Feudalism and Modernization in Ethiopia. Perhaps the most representative of the works came in 1988 when Christopher Clapham published his Transformation and Continuity in Revolutionary Ethiopia. Gilkes’ work emphasized the contradictions that resulted in Haile Selassie’s political modernization and the prevalent ‘feudal’ economic system of Ethiopia.

By the 1990s, it was common to talk about ‘modern’ Ethiopia

Clapham’s meticulous study of the revolutionary transformations that Ethiopia witnessed in the 1970s and 1980s has this to say: “No revolution—not France, nor Ethiopia, nor certainly the Soviet Union—can wipe the slate clean and start again. For a foreigner, returning like Rip Van Winkle to an Ethiopia changed by a decade of revolution, it is the sheer physical familiarity that is overwhelming”. In a nutshell, Clapham is saying that the more things change in revolutionary Ethiopia, the more they stayed the same. “The despot fell”, wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in his The Old Regime and the Revolution in 1856, “but the most substantial portion of his work remained; his administrative system survived his government”. No wonder Clapham’s approach was informed by Tocqueville’s writings!

By the late 1980s and the 1990s, it has become common to talk about ‘modern’ Ethiopia, not just modernization in Ethiopia. As such Bahru Zewde publishes his book, A History of Modern Ethiopia in 1991. Similarly, Teshale Tibebu published The Making of Modern Ethiopia in 1995. Bahru nowhere defined explicitly what he meant by “modern Ethiopia”. Perhaps, he was using the periodization scheme proposed by Joseph Tubiana, in his essay Turning Points’ in Ethiopian History. In contrast, Teshale qualified his use of the adjective ‘modern’. He wrote: “By ‘modern Ethiopia’ we mean not that Ethiopia is modern by the definition of Western Enlightenment…but that it became part of what Immanuel Wallerstein calls the “Modern World System”

Teshale argues that modernity in Ethiopia means different things: state-making and state-formation, peripheralization in the capitalist world-system, and the spread of Enlightenment belief in inevitable progress. Later, in 2008, Teshale lamented Ethiopian intellectuals for their failure “to critically appraise the limits of the Western modernist paradigm, and the extent of its relevance to Ethiopia”. Thus comes the oft-quoted panacea: ‘we need to keep what is good in our culture, and be open to ‘Western’ culture whenever it promotes greater happiness’. Also emphasized here is the need to strike the right balance between Ethiopian and Western civilization. This, for instance, has long been advocated by Kebede Mikael: modernization without Westernization or Americanization.

Understanding Ethiopia’s modernity

Ethiopian modernity is a controversial area. Even more controversial is the balance between Ethiopian and so-called Western civilization. This is an easier-said-than done thing, which leads to polarized debates. On the one hand, there are those who celebrate modernity. On the other there are those who revile it. Ethiopia has been modern. But, it has never been fully modern. It has been ambiguously modern.

Ethiopia has long been in a painful, lengthy process of transition. An Imperfect Journey, as Haile Gerima’s documentary has it. It has long been in the midst of profound changes. It is in between two ends in the continuum: tradition and modernity. Or, to borrow a line from Britney Spears’ popular song: “I’m not a girl, not yet a woman”. It is this ambivalent situation that I refer as ‘bastard modernity’. I must admit that the word ‘bastard’ might seem pejorative; its Amharic equivalent, ‘diqala’ is even more so. It is a general term of abuse. But, we can still have another, value-free definition of bastard. The Oxford English Dictionary defined bastard in its attributive sense, simply as referring to something that no longer in its pure or original form. It is my opinion that ‘bastard modernity’ can be a more plausible description of the politico-economic and social structure of Ethiopia since the beginning of the 20th Century. Bastard modernity can also be used as an analytic construct.

Ethiopia is no more a traditional polity. Food adulteration, to take one instance, was not an aspect of the traditional economy, but it is rampant now. Nor is it a manifestation of modern, capitalist economy. Normlessness is afflicting our society. Consider the recent revelations about gross human rights violations. These were indeed heinous. They have created a moral panic and led to wider discussion in the public sphere. And this is very much appreciated. It is a reminder that we, as a people, have not, yet, lost the necessary moral sensitivity. That we are not blinded. However, we need to know that these events are not exceptional. They rather should be seen as deeply connected to the decline of our norms. We must admit that the same processes could come into play even today, not least in the foreseeable future.

Perhaps, the moral universe was the first victim to fall prey to the predatory modernity. The Ethiopian moral universe was shattered by the atrocious deeds of ‘that generation’. New converts are prone to radicalization. More Catholic than the Pope, the 1960s generation was a result of Ethiopia’s bastard modernity. The sentiment of alienation is also another malady of Ethiopia’s modernization. The grievance narratives, of a certain class, or gender, or ethnic identity, are signs of this sense of alienation.

Individuals now freely describe themselves as atheists

At the beginning of the 20th century, Ethiopia began to come into its own as a modern African power. Unlike other African countries, though, modernization in Ethiopia occurred without any major outside intervention. Members of the Ethiopian intellectual classes increasingly compared themselves and Ethiopia’s autocratic order to states and societies in the West. This comparison generated both a new sense of national consciousness and intense criticism of the existing order in Ethiopia. The quest for political modernity reached its apex during the Ethiopian Revolution. The long and gradual ‘quiet revolution’ of the early 20th Century culminating in the hasty, bloody revolution of the 1970s.

All these new developments are the coup de grace of the old system. They have turned the Ethiopian universe upside down. Gone is the traditional Ethiopia. Gone is the Ethiopia which has been romanticized by dozens and dozens of lay (wo)men and scholars alike. Modern education has already created an educated middle class. Urbanization changed the face of the country. The economy was commoditized. Church and the state were officially divorced. On the societal level at large, religion remained a powerful force to be reckoned with. This, however, shouldn’t blind us to see the deep transformations in religious attitudes and institutions themselves. Ethiopia was, and still is in some cases, a country where persons with unorthodox views were ostracized.

Perhaps unprecedented in Ethiopian history, individuals now freely describe themselves as atheists and unaffiliated. Science is on the rise. The Ethiopian Academy of Sciences was established with the goal of advancing modern science. Agriculture remains a large sector of Ethiopian economy, but recent years have seen massive growth in other sectors too, especially services. That sector now dominates the Ethiopian economy with an almost 40 percent share. These trends have led to the emergence of consumerism. Deprived of spiritual connections, people seek material collections as fast as they can. Compared with consumerist goods, non-rival public goods such as public parks and museums are diminishing in importance. Family structures are democratized. Egalitarian, meritocratic, and anti-hierarchical ideals have gained wider acceptance.

Ethiopian politics: Between tradition and modernity

Ethiopia, as we can see, has undergone several processes of modernization. But not fully. It has abandoned the traditional order but has not yet established stable politico-economic arrangements. Politically speaking, modernity, we have been told, rests on reflexive, autonomous, and rational individuals as its subjects. At its core, political modernity yields a new concept of self, based on individualism. And modernity was supposed to destroy the communitarian identity common among traditional societies. The philosopher C. B. Macpherson named this political aspect of modernity “possessive individualism”.

What we have in Ethiopian politics turned this upside down, we may even call it “possessive communalism”. The communal identity was not just preserved; it was transformed to be the cornerstone of the existing political order. This had a detrimental effect on the institutionalization of an overarching Ethiopian citizenship. We have put the old wine in the new bottle, so to speak. Modern political ideas and institutions, such as federalism, political parties and elections, are based on ethnicity. Some of the new media, which are supposed to be non-partisan according to liberal theories, are now practically a mouthpiece for ethno-nationalist causes.

One particular face of Ethiopia’s bastard political modernity was Meles Zenawi. Meles dominated Ethiopian politics from the early 1990s until his sudden death in 2012. From espousing revolutionary democracy to the developmental state, Meles was always an ardent illiberal. His alternative ideology was described by some as ‘Melesism,’ indicating the extent of his power. Meles never used the term himself. And there is no a single place where the tenets of his ideology are found. Rather, they are found dispersed in his speeches, legislation, and written works. Generally, the definitive elements include ethno-nationalism and state capitalism; both against commonly accepted modern liberal values.

Meles’ regime, however, was a continuation of what preceded it. By and large, modern Ethiopia’s political processes are basically the same as those of traditional Ethiopia: dominated by a single person. True, the former dictator Mengistu Hailemariam was seen as “the Red Emperor”. The 1987 Constitution of Ethiopia’s ‘First Republic’ created a presidential system. The president was in a sense the incarnation of the all-too-powerful King of Kings. The 1995 Constitution created a parliamentary system. However, Ethiopia’s system is a government through Parliament, not essentially parliamentary government. King of Kings, President or Premier, they are all similar. They head personal governments, acting like a father figure, with no strong institutions and values.

Enter Abiy

The coming to power of Abiy Ahmed can be seen as part of a continuous process, not an isolated event. It is only one act of a drama, the end of which is not yet written. A year into office, Abiy and his government have come under fire on a number of occasions. Abiy-mania is now over. His aura has vanished. The ‘Oromara’ alliance that puts him on the throne is in disarray. His sense of purpose, however, seems intact. In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Abiy remarked that what sets him apart from others is his perspective on time. “I see tomorrow”, he said, while others are stuck with the past.

No doubt, this lacks empathy. Even more so, this fails to understand that the ‘past’ in Ethiopia isn’t even past. Despite all the efforts to radically break from the past, we are condemned to live in the shadows of it. People are preoccupied with the past, and this significantly affects the present. They see the past with nostalgia, as their environment is dramatically transformed, not to say disrupted. This has led to what the scholar Daniel Lerner has termed “rising frustrations”. We need, thus, to stop indulging in utopian thinking. Let’s face the monster that is present.

The will to reform isn’t a recipe to the way to reform. As Mohammed Girma has noted, “the Ethiopia that Abiy Ahmed inherited pretends to look like a modern state, and yet, shows the symptoms of an aging society”. His supporters, as disillusioned as they may seem, argue that Abiy is a reformist leader whose endeavors are frustrated by reactionary and ultranationalist forces here and there. There is some truth to this. On the one hand, Abiy is criticized for going too far. On the other, he is criticized for doing not quite enough. Nevertheless, Abiy is a product of his time; a time which he wants to transcend.

Ethiopia is in need of innovative solutions

Bastard modernity lies at the roots of the Ethiopian predicament. Its symptoms are multiple and complex. The traditional political culture continues to exert significant influence. The elites are as disoriented and fractured as they have always been. Legitimate leadership is a scarce commodity in the Ethiopian political marketplace. Ethiopian national identity remains a bone of contention, making the state vulnerable to internal threats. The Ethiopian state isn’t yet able to establish a centralized and territorial governance. Markakis considered the penetration of Ethiopian state apparatus into the peripheries as one of “the last frontiers”.  He concludes that “the project [of state-building in Ethiopia’s peripheries] is far from completion and its end cannot be predicted”.

His second frontier is the establishment of representative, democratic government in Ethiopia. The good news is that Ethiopia, despite the recent slowdown and missing tax revenues, has been one of the fastest growing African economies. This has potentially enormous implications in improving the capabilities of the state, if it is sustained. Most importantly, this will augment the possibility of a fair distribution of opportunities and benefits.

But the constraints mean that Abiy’s government has limitations to its policy choices. There is no silver bullet. Nor is there a magical philosopher stone. In any case, the durable solutions are to be both innovative and incremental. Ethiopia is in need of innovative solutions; “a new science of politics indispensable to a new world”, as Tocqueville wrote in the context of 19th Century U.S. Similarly, a continual improvement and adjustment of institutions requires sustained effort over a long period of time. This is not the place to debate whether Abiy’s policies are effective or not. Suffice to say that they set new grounds, new rules, without overreaching. His rhetoric appeals to the better angels of our nature. Let’s just hope that he has learned something and forgotten nothing.

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Main photo: A farmer in front of Country Club Developers housing estate near Legetafo, Oromia; February 5, 2016; William Davison

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished. 

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About the author

Tezera Tazebew

Tezera teaches at the University of Gondar's College of Social Sciences.


  • Thank you. It made me understand the ambivalent state of Abiy’s transition at a deeper level. I also enjoyed your article on the Davos man on Ethiopia Nege. Looking forward to further pieces.

  • Abiy Changed :
    Andreas Eshete With Alemayehu Gebremariam.

    Abay Tsehaye with Girma Birru

    Aboy Sebhat Nega with Lema Megersa

    Besides that the same oppressing radically ethnic based political system is still there.

  • Excellent and timely analysis of traditional and current Ethiopia’s contradictory transformation (“modernity”) and stagnation (“traditional”) system of socio- economical and political evolution. Article also highlights both the premature hopes and the potential dangers/ risks ahead.
    Kudos Mr Tezera Tazebew.

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