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  • From Marxism-Leninism to Ethnicity:The Sideslips of Ethiopian Elitism
  • Messay Kebede

For many scholars, colonialism and neocolonial policies remain the root causes of Africa's numerous impediments to its progress, ranging from the persistence of poverty to the ravages of ethnic conflicts. However, the number of scholars who prefer to ascribe these impediments essentially to the persistence of traditional views and methods and to the lack of reforms radical enough to trigger a sustained process of modernization is not negligible. My position contests this either-or debate and identifies the culprit as the rise of African elitism—a phenomenon implicating the specific effect of colonialism in conjunction with internal African contributions. I take the case of Ethiopia as a pertinent illustration of the precedence of elitism over other hindrances. The fact that Ethiopia, though not colonized, has followed the same declining course as other African countries underlines the derailing role of modern education, whose embedded Eurocentric orientations were quick to uproot those sectors of Ethiopian society that were exposed to it. The outcome was elitism, which spearheaded the trend of deeper marginalization and incapacitation of the country. But first, let me give concrete meaning to the concept of elitism.

What Is Elitism?

The confirmation of elitism as a characteristic effect of colonial rule is not hard to establish. The first scholar who drew attention to the phenomenon of elitism in Africa was a Western missionary by the name of Placide Tempels. In his controversial book, Bantu Philosophy, written in [End Page 163] 1945, Tempels defends the idea that the Bantu people have a rationally constructed philosophy. The revolutionary message of the book is easily admitted when it is recalled that the denial of philosophy, which was almost a universal European attitude, was the manner in which the rationality of Africans was contested. Since the denial was none other than the justification of colonialism as a civilizing mission, it is no surprise that many African scholars hail Tempels as "a real revolutionary, both in philosophy and in anticolonial discourse."1

In addition to refuting the colonial allegation that Africans are irrational and immature people, Tempels reflects on the evil consequences of denying philosophy to native peoples. The trend of considering the African cultural legacy as a collection of irrational and absurd beliefs, he notes, turned the clearing of the African mind of these beliefs into a prerequisite for the inculcation of Western ideas. Instead of dialogue and exchange of ideas, acculturation thus took the direction of uprooting natives on the grounds that they would become fit for Westernization only through the removal of their cultural legacy. Tempels consistently blames this colonial method for causing irreparable damage, especially for accelerating dehumanization and loss of centeredness among the Bantu. "In condemning the whole gamut of their supposed 'childish and savage customs' by the judgment 'this is stupid and bad,' we [missionaries] have taken our share of the responsibility for having killed 'the man' in the Bantu,"2 he writes.

A characteristic result of this inhuman method is the advent of the évolués—a French term characterizing those natives who supposedly evolve into civilized Africans as a result of colonial education. Tempels has no kind words to describe the évolués. He calls them from the start "déracinés and degenerates";3 elsewhere he speaks of them as "empty and unsatisfied souls—would be Europeans—and as such, negations of civilized beings," as "moral and intellectual tramps, capable only, despite themselves, of being elements of strife."4 All these severe flaws point the finger at colonial methods: molded to despise their legacy, these uprooted Africans have so internalized the colonial attitude that they end up by nurturing a contempt for their own peoples similar to that of the colonizer.

To show that colonial education produces people with a colonizing turn of mind, Tempels stresses that the évolués "have no longer any [End Page 164] respect for their old institutions, or for the usages and customs which, nevertheless, by their profound significance, form the basis of the practical application in Bantu life of natural law."5 Since the primary function of the évolués is to serve as local instruments of...