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Saving Africa From “Global Tribalism” (My “Hall of Fame” Induction Speech)

18 mins read

by Alemayehu G, Mariram

Author’ Note: Below is the full version of the speech I delivered during my induction into the “Hall of Fame” at California State University, San Bernardino on April 26, 2019.**

The video of my abbreviated speech is available in the embedded video below

Thank you. [1]

Al Mariam CSUSB Hall of Fame2

After nearly 5 decades in academia, including as a student, I am honored to be recognized by my peers and inducted into the California State University, San Bernardino College of Social and Behavioral Sciences “Hall of Fame”.

I am humbled by the generosity of the SBS Hall of Fame Committee in selecting me for this very special honor from among many other worthy faculty members.

I am acutely aware that my family members, friends and colleagues present here tonight and the millions of readers of my weekly blogs over the past 14 years have long given up on the remotest prospect of brevity in anything I write.

I suspect some of them may believe I am afflicted by an ailment known as furor scribendi, mania for writing.

But tonight, I shall delight all of you with the brevity of my speech.

It was the garrulous blowhard and “intruding fool” Polonious in Hamlet who enjoined,

Since brevity is the soul of wit / And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief…

And so, I shall.

The substance of my [shortened] remarks tonight consist of only 600 or so words.

But first, I would like thank my wife of 35 years, Mesrak Gessesse, or 39 if you count the 4 years we played hanky-panky, for her love and support.  She is the wind under my wings.

Our daughters could not be here in person but are present in spirit. I thank them for their love and support.

I thank my old friends who showed up tonight. I wish to underscore the word “old”.

I thank Dean Rafik Mohamed for his outstanding, inclusive and attentive leadership of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

I thank chairman Brian Janiskee not only for his long and dedicated service in the political science department but also for his extraordinary leadership which has earned him the respect and appreciation of his colleagues.

I am pleased to see my colleague Mark Clark as an inductee. When Mark found out that I was FERPing [2], he immediately followed suit.

Mark, even though you spurned all of my efforts to become your role model during your long and illustrious career, I am glad you trusted my wisdom in the end and followed me out the door.

I thank all in attendance here tonight.

I congratulate the other inductees.

Induction into the “Hall of Fame” is a special honor which recognizes individuals who have “made substantial contributions not only to their respective professions but also to the greater community”.

I am honored to receive this recognition tonight.

I must say nomination to receive this honor has given me an opportunity to reflect on my decades-long service in American academe as a scholar and  intellectual and my life as lawyer.

I want to take this opportunity to share with you something  that is near and dear to my heart, or more accurately, something that has caused me a lot of heartache and heartburn.

Beginning in 2005 [3], I seriously began questioning my role as a conventional and as a public intellectual.

There is a difference.

A public intellectual is not merely concerned about advancing knowledge and learning but is also dedicated to defending and promoting the public interest.

In my case, that has involved efforts on parallel trajectories: defending and promoting American civil liberties and the U.S. Constitution as a lawyer and toiling as an activist and advocate for African human rights.

The public intellectual connects his or her scholarship to issues and policies that impact the lives of ordinary people, advocates and works for progressive change and above all serves as a self-appointed centurion — displaying courage and leading by example – against all who abuse and misuse power.

Above all, the public intellectual has an obligation to always speak truth to power and willingly shoulders the moral imperative of standing for and with the voiceless, the powerless and the defenseless.

That is why the tagline on my blogsite proclaims, “Speaking truth to power.”

I came to the United States from Ethiopia in 1970, almost 50 years ago. I returned for a visit 48 years later in 2018.

I consider myself an African intellectual in exile.

The late Prof. Edward Said has explained the trials and tribulations of the exiled intellectual better than I ever could.

As an exiled African intellectual, I am concerned about the resurgence of toxic tribalism masquerading as ethnic politics in Africa in general and Ethiopia in particular and the catatonic paralysis of African intellectuals in the face of such tribalism which threatens to engulf the continent.

I shudder to think about the coming to pass of Marshall McLuhan’s prophesy in  Africa.

In 1968, Marshall McLuhan foresaw what could happen in the burgeoning “electronic world that retribalizes man”.

He predicted that we will be living in an electronic envelope and that the quest for identity will hurl 20th-century man back to atavistic tribalism.

He argued humanity will be moving from a global village to a global tribe.

At the end of the second decade of the 21st century, enveloped in the electronic envelope of Facebook and other social media and our minds tethered in digital technology, we are drowning in a bottomless sewer of programmed deceit, disinformation and agitprop.

Social media today, along with conventional media in the hands of untrained and untutored self-appointed journalists in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa, are the midwives of this global tribalism feeding the morbid desire for segregatory tribal identity.

Ecce Homo! (Behold the man!)

Ecce Homo in Africa with his digital crown of tribal thorns.

Global tribal man, especially in Africa, has become an electronic wolf to his fellow man in the 21st century electronic world.

Ecce homo homini lupus!

What is of special concern to me is the fact that violence (not dialogue and debate) has become the lingua franca of the global tribalists in their echo chambers of identity politics in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa.

Today, in my native Ethiopia tribal (ethnic) identity is becoming more important than our “you-nity and hum-unity”.

The evangelists of hate, violence and division preach their apocalyptic gospel to an ancient people on Facebook, or is it Fakebook?

The cancer of tribal identity politics which continues to steadily metastasize in Ethiopia and the rest of Africa is fed by intolerant ethnocentricity, antagonistic exclusivity and shameless mendacity, often resulting in mass atrocity.

Today, McLuhan’s global tribalism is spreading like wildfire in Africa because African intellectuals in the continent and in the diaspora are unwilling, unable and unready to play their role as firemen and firewomen.

It is often asked, “Why is Africa poor? Why is Africa beset by conflict, strife and war? Why is Africa a continent of failed states?”

Prof. George Ayittey, the Ghanaian scholar, named one of the “100 top public intellectuals” put the blame on the failed “vampire” or “pirate states”  in Africa “which use the instruments of the state to enrich themselves, their cronies and tribesmen while excluding all others.”

I should like to finger failed African intellectuals as the unindicted co-conspirators with the failed vampire states.

An old Jewish proverb teaches, “A nation’s treasure is its scholars (intellectuals).”

I should like to argue, a fortiori, that Africa’s real treasures are its best and brightest minds!

Ralph Waldo Emerson described the scholar/intellectual as the “world’s eye”.

The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amid appearances. He plies the slow, unhonored, and unpaid task of observation. He is the world’s eye…

Sadly, African intellectuals by and large have chosen to “see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil” in the very face of Tribal Evil which is slowly creeping to swallow the continent.

Indeed, in many instances, African intellectuals have been the disc jockeys of apocalyptic tribal wars playing their melancholy songs of hate, strife and division.

I shall argue Africa is poor, beset by violence and strife because its best and brightest children at home and abroad have chosen to worship at the altar of the unholy trinity,  “I, me and myself.”

Such intellectual narcissism has been the source of the deficit in civic courage — the reluctance or refusal to speak truth to power  and in defense of human rights and the rule of law, and against pernicious tribalism — among African intellectuals  and is a sad testament to their moral bankruptcy.

As I see it, the problem is not just saving Africa, but also rescuing African intellectuals from the morass of intellectual and moral bankruptcy in which they have plunged themselves.

Can African intellectuals save themselves by saving Africa?

To me the word African means Afr-I-Can.

I should like to believe Africa is a continent of “I CAN DO” people.

But seven decades after the formal departure of colonialism, Africa has become a continent of “NO CAN DO” intellectuals.

In June 2010, I wrote a commentary entitled, “Where Have the Ethiopian Intellectuals Gone?”.

Little did I imagine nine years later I would be asking the exact same question!

They say, “tempus fugit” (time flies) and “carpe diem” (seize the day).

But time marches on, and Africa unable to keep pace with rest of the world, can only march to the beat of the tribal drummer.

It seems to me African intellectuals — and more specifically Ethiopian intellectuals — are stuck in a time warp, benighted about their country’s and continent’s painful history, disengaged from its present agony and tribulations and depravedly indifferent to its future.

On April 28, 2014, [exactly five years ago today] I wrote a commentary entitled, “Is there any hope for Africa?”.

It was a question intended to provoke African intellectuals into a fierce debate over the direction of the continent.

The theme of that commentary was “hope’s on the ropes in 2014 Africa.” I asked whether despair or repair looms in the future of Africa.

But my call for debate fell on deaf ears. It proved to be the solitary wail of an African Cassandra in the intellectual wilderness of the African diaspora.

What is to be done?

African intellectuals must get involved and personally identify with the fate of the continent.

They must have skin in the African game of thrones and fight for democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

I am ashamed to admit that Western intellectuals, scholars and human rights advocates and organizations have done more for the dignity and welfare of Africans than African intellectuals.

That is a hard truth to swallow even for one who prides himself for speaking truth to power and anyone who cares to listen!

African intellectuals must articulate a creative vision for the continent. They must be African “(Wo)Man Thinking” in the Emersonian sense, and beyond.

I would argue they must be African Wo/Man Praxis in which African intellectuals objectify thought into action that alleviates human suffering and elevates the human rights and dignity of their people.

Emerson argued the American scholar should be the tip of the spear in creating a new American cultural identity sixty years after the declaration of American independence.

I should like to argue African intellectuals should also be the tip of the spear for a new African (not tribal, ethnic) identity 70 years after African independence from European colonialism.

African intellectuals should put their noses to the grindstone and shoulders to the wheel and come out swinging against the politics of violence — tribalism, communalism and sectarianism on the continent.

African intellectuals must establish knowledge institutions and think tanks, a futile effort I sought to undertake in October 2006 and later in December 2016.

How wonderful it would be to have a “Union of Concerned African Intellectuals” in the continent and in the diaspora.

Most importantly, African intellectuals must teach and empower African youth who today are toying with the fate of the continent using the matchsticks of social media to stoke up and fan the flames of tribalism, communalism and sectarianism.

Finally, whether African intellectuals chose to save Africa (and themselves) from the global tribalism of the electronic age by manning up and taking responsibility for the fate of the continent will determine if they will be consigned to the African Hall of Shame or honored in the African Hall of Fame.  

Thank you very much!



[1] I extend special thanks to my former student Amanda Aguilar who introduced me at the “Hall of Fame” event. I am humbled by her kind words. I believe the greatest tribute a teacher can aspire to get is the heartfelt appreciation of his/her students.

[2] FERP or Faculty Early Retirement Program.

[3] Following the 2005 parliamentary election in Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, the late capo di tutti capi (boss of all bosses) of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front ordered the uses of deadly force against protesters resulting in the massacre and of hundreds of people. The Meles Massacres became a defining moment in my life and marked my transition from a conventional intellectual to a public intellectual.