Ethiopia’s Renaissance: Quest for Conceptual and Definitional Parcels

Photo: Castle in Gondar, Ethiopia

By Habtamu Alebachew
Jan 7, 2013

The motto ‘Renaissance’ is by no means a unique or exclusive application to Ethiopia’s usage. There have been many experiences of ‘Renaissance Movements’ in other parts of the world. Western Europe of the 16th and 17th centuries initially pioneered the application in concurrence with its twin motto of the same period, Enlightenment. While ‘Enlightenment’ represents a western surge in epistemological revolution against traditions and ignorance, ‘Renaissance’ controversially symbolizes a call for the revival in the spirit of the golden past of European civilization. ‘Renaissance’ in this European sense is a quest for the rebirth of the spirit that produced the Great Occidental Civilization started by Greek and continued by the Roman Empire roughly from the 3000 BC to 413 AD. This civilization entrenched itself for centuries as a brilliant, rational, exceptional, humanist and earthy success.

To proceed ahead toward the main concern of this paper, ‘Ethiopia’s Renaissance’ as authored by the late Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, based on the above definition, let us have brief assessments of ‘Renaissance’ in its African context.

1. African Context of ‘Renaissance’—from Tabo Embeki to Meles Zenawi
‘Renaissance’ came to Africa in the second half of the 1990s by the former South African president, Tambo Embeki. Embeki advanced the motto of ‘African renaissance’ during negotiations for the establishment of the African Union and NEPRAD at the same period. However, Embki’s proposal provoked a flood of questions from the western media and scholars as to his intended meanings behind the motto in the special context of Africa. Embeki’s proposal did not also knock at the doors of the African scholarship to cause warm dialogue in the fashion of the Franz Fanonian and Senghorian period. With the heatedly debated role of African academics as the simple shadow of western epistemology becoming more pronounced, the motto of ‘African renaissance’ presently failed to blow value euphoria across Africa.

In the mean time, the latte Prime Minister Meles Zenawi intervened in the search for the rediscovery of the motto, ‘African Renaissance’ in his PhD dissertation, ‘African Development: Dead Ends and New Beginnings’ after he introduced ‘the Ethiopian renaissance’ in his country.

As discussed below, Meles went ahead of previous efforts to intellectually attach to ‘African renaissance’ a succinct scholarly definition but, unfortunately, overtaken by death before he released his proposals. He outlined a rationally substantiated definition to the ‘African renaissance’. In his conceptualization, Meles appeared less interested in browsing the past of Africa whatever it might look like; he did not also seem to worry about bringing fragmented success stories together in the past and today as a baseline of his definition. Meles simply based his analysis on the current quagmire of the African state and the African populations as a premise when he writes the following:

Africa has followed two paradigms since independence. The first one which held sway till the early 80s can be called the paradigm of the predatory state. The second one which has held sway since then is the neo-liberal paradigm. The African renaissance must be based on a thorough assessment of the two paradigms, and on analysis of whether the two paradigms have failed and a new paradigm shift is required….. There was a clear need for a new paradigm. The shift in paradigm in Africa came as a result of the incapability of African states to reform themselves and the imposition of the then triumphalist neo-liberal paradigm on African governments. The shift in paradigm was also associated with an intellectual environment in the continent that was governed by what has been called the “There –Is- No- Other- Alternative” (TINA) syndrome.

From these, Meles progressed to have suggested that the essence of ‘African renaissance’ rests on a courageous determination of the African state to embrace the different alternative—the Developmental state or Developmentalism. By this, firstly, Meles envisions and postulates the ‘African renaissance’ as the grand event of Africa’s breakaway from its predatory and neoliberal past; secondly, he proposes that Africans embark on development in inside out direction, as Africans and toward prospered Africa, and not as a shadow of outside agency. Thus, for Meles, ‘African renaissance’ is primarily a continent wide value revolution where the African state comes to the belief that rapid development is not a nightmare but only by effecting a bold paradigm shift. In short, African determination to undertake this shift is the essence of African renaissance, in Meles’s definition.

Meles was equally busier with advancing the motto of ‘Ethiopia’s Renaissance’ stressing on it almost everywhere and at all occasions he made a speech about development. However, Meles did not leave a synthesized political or intellectual document that systematically limited his definition of specifically ‘Ethiopia’s Renaissance’. One can reasonably guess that it could hardly seem that he left the task undone by deliberate intention. The focus and question of this paper is that, now, Meles is not with us, how do we complete curving up the conceptual definition of ‘Ethiopia’s Hidase’ for the next generations? Let us resort to the discussion below.

2. ‘Ethiopia’s Renaissance’ and its Author, Meles Zenawi
The conceptual and value motto of ‘Ethiopia’s Renaissance/Hidase’ has now increasingly gained wide popularity. The late Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, is agreeably the first author of the motto. Meles introduced the phrase ‘Ethiopia’s Hidase’ into official language for the first time when he made a public speech in the City of Harar in 2006-7. As far as I remember, it was on the City’s 1000th anniversary celebration that Meles used the motto. Since then, the motto has grown to become an official language with an increased seriousness particularly after Meles’s death. At present, we are witnessing ‘Ethiopia’s Hidase’ given as a name for various private business firms, products and taxis, etc, here and there. In short, now, the motto is a value guide of many Ethiopian citizens than a simple public rhetoric or vocabulary of the state media.

In its current usage, the motto ‘Ethiopia’s Hidase’ appears to convey a conventionally agreed message of ‘national breakthrough in development’ across the board. One can appreciate that the Great Renaissance Dam has supplied additional material basis for the motto. Slowly, Ethiopian government officials began to use recently the term by mainstreaming it into the development agenda and engagements in almost all sectors—Hidase in our sports, education, tourism, and so on.

It is beyond doubt that the late Meles never coined and used the term ‘Ethiopia’s Hidase’ with out adequate historical, socio-political, cultural and intellectual backgrounds and justifications. Weighed against his superb political sophistication and sharpened skill Meles must have attached politically and ideologically strategic and cross-generational value-goals to Ethiopia’ Renaissance’..

On the conceptual delimitations of the motto, Meles once officially hinted a strong point in Ethiopia’s context. He referred ‘Ethiopia’s Renaissance’ to mean the ‘rise of Ethiopia to the height of the ancient civilization of our forefathers’. He said this at his public address on the celebration of May 28 in 2011 at Mesqual Square. As compared to this, Meles went much further in defining the ‘African Renaissance’ where Ethiopia is obviously also a part.

The problem here is, I guess and feel it myself, that many Ethiopian intellectuals might regard the motto either as conventionally defined by all or as a politically value-laden catchphrase limited to the use of government and party officials. Other scholars with specialty in the area might also understand the motto and the effort to limit conceptually its definition as an ideologically or politically motivated project opposed to their political position. Still for other honest and independent scholars, however, there might be a need from the government or any other pertinent body to supply the baseline definitional guide to iron out the other details of the motto in Ethiopia’s context. This view, I believe, is genuine and worth considering by anyone due to the importance of the following questions.

3. Questions and Conceptual Challenges beyond Meles
Having accepted the mental and morale force of the motto, ‘Ethiopian Renaissance’, as a common value among post-Meles generation of Ethiopians, I must raise some important questions of scholarly interest beyond the very intentions of its author-Meles.

3.1. Questions
Firstly, what did PM Meles exactly want to mean by ‘Ethiopia’s Hidase/Renaissance’ as ‘Ethiopia’s rise’ to the height of past civilization of our forefathers? This question becomes more important when one remembers that Meles first coined and used it not only as an Ethiopian citizen, party and government leader but also as an intellectual excellently analyzing the political history of Ethiopia. I know since Meles’s early days’ convictions that he strongly believed in the fact that all nations and nationalities of Ethiopia have their own respective civilizations and heritages. On this specific issue, however, how do we interpret the concepts ‘Ethiopia’s rise’, ‘past civilization’ and ‘our forefathers’ in the manner that best fits and applies to all nations and nationalities amidst the differentials in our historical past?

Secondly, what are the historical, cultural, social, psychological, traditional and political essences inbuilt into the motto, ‘Ethiopia’s Hidase’ when Meles initially coined and used it? It could never be questionable that Meles needed ‘Ethiopia Renaissance’ to be a common value guide in the national effort across all sectors—democracy, development, peace, etc. It is also out of doubt that Meles envisioned ‘Ethiopia’s Hidase’ in the context of the exiting domestic, regional and global reality. If this is so, from which one of our past civilizations should we revive the spirits of our forefathers for the advancement of our democracy, for example? How could this reconcile with some of our imperial and oppressive political past as opposed to our ancient, egalitarian and democratic-oriented past like that of the Gada System? How can outline the motto to serve the causes of our peace and development today?

Thirdly, Meles’s contribution in bequeathing the motto ‘Ethiopia’s Renaissance’ to the Ethiopian next generation could never remain forgotten. Many Ethiopians, at present, shake off the last slightest doubt that ‘Ethiopia’s Hidase’ has begun actually blossoming. This requires us of passing down the value to next generations through formal education. The problem here is however: how do we write and immortalize the elemental conceptual and practical constituents of ‘Ethiopia’s Hidase’? In other words, how can we tell the next generation in most all-inclusive, integrative and motivating statements?

3.2. Conceptual Challenges and Way outs
I raised these questions for more scholarly reasons. The concept ‘renaissance’ for some scholars in the field is heavily debatable for various reasons. Some social historians doubt even the very meanings and implications of the term ‘renaissance’ itself as a social phenomenon and popular movement. Other scholars, however, refute this and admit that ‘renaissance’ historically existed and socially operated as a spiritual revival movement in opposition to traditionally held oldest and conservative values.

Other scholars accept ‘renaissance’ as a historical occurrence but showed reservations about which people has been qualified for claiming it. Racist and imperialistic views hold to date that applying ‘renaissance’ as a spiritual renewal in search of Great past memories is applicable only to a certain category of societies in world history. For these scholars, a remarkable civilization of all aspects of social life must be there in the past to claim renaissance today; and, societies with this heritage are only those who have recorded (who have their own distinct scripts and numerical) civilizations. In explicit terms, these scholars argue that societies without letters of their own do not have civilization.

For other scholars, civilization goes beyond the above sectional and arrogant categorization to include mouth-recorded and bequeathed legends of the past, past successes but recorded later on, continuing traditions and handed down patterns of behavior and moral rules, and many others. At present, many scholars tend to accept this definition of civilization whereby every society everywhere has an opportunity to promote ‘renaissance’ as a value guide in the present era.

These challenges may include many others if dialogues go initiated. However, I firmly believe that the questions are not beyond the chance to attain broad-based consensus among Ethiopian nations and nationalities for four reasons:

Firstly, Ethiopia’s recent experiences have sufficiently convinced us that no nation, nationality and people in Ethiopia are without their own respective civilization and history. These civilizations are diverse, vast and at differing levels of cultural and literary development but, fortunately, fast recovering and storable;

Secondly, each civilization from the Axumite to the Zagwe, from Gondar to the Oromo egalitarian democratic self rule, from the Gibe and Sidama kingdoms to the Harar city state, etc, have inheritances of the best quality for the promotion of democracy and good governance, development and transformation, peace and security, etc, in the present era of Ethiopia’s generation. The best of our history goes far beyond this in our common achievement in the defense of the common home and many other unforgettable patriotic deeds;

Thirdly, the past history of all Ethiopian nations and nationalities has bequeathed to present generations not only desirable and affirmative memories but also adverse and undesirable traditions and values fettering the process of democratization and good governance, socio-economic development and prosperity, etc,. Thus, the fight for the elimination of this values demand a broad based renaissance movement;

Fourthly, despite undesirable past histories in our relations that pushed us as a society into a mutually suspicious, conflict-laden and unproductive relations, we have made a fundamental paradigm shift, thanks to Meles Zenawi, his comrades and the Ethiopian people at large by way of correcting our basic blunders from which we have begun to reap national benefits, unprecedented in our history. ‘Ethiopia’s renaissance’ therefore has at present a good reason to become more systematized, broadened and held high up as a common mental flag and pointer of our destiny toward a Great People Status.

In general, we, Ethiopians, have now stood on the highest moral ground to have our own ‘renaissance’ as laid down by Meles and conceptually delimited by post-Meles generations.

One can see that ‘Ethiopia’s renaissance’ is a popular motto with little or no political, ideological tones. ‘Ethiopia Renaissance’ is an all time motto and a handy value guide for all citizens regardless of any sectional difference or divergent political positions and opinions of any category. It is too general, integrative, truthful, corrective and educative as a default tool of value socialization of the subsequent generation and to the benefit of all of our country and us. Once Meles curved it up as a collective spirit, let us do the rest of the job by making it more intergenerational and inheritable. This is a suggestion for dialogue.