A moral dilemma for Ethiopia’s Professor Andreas Eshete

October 8, 2020
by Tedla G. Woldeyohannes

Despite the philosopher’s undoubted talents and achievements, his staunch support for ethnic federalism is a stain on his career.

Professor Andreas Eshehe has been a controversial public intellectual in contemporary Ethiopia. Some admire him so highly while others consider him a morally corrupt person who should not be recognized as an intellectual.

Those who condemn Andreas as a corrupt intellectual who does not deserve to be recognized as an intellectual offer a standard for public intellectuals which Andreas, in their view, has failed to live up to.

According to these critics, frequently, the standard public intellectuals need to meet is expressed in moral terms such that to be a public intellectual one has to be morally upstanding, especially displaying some integrity. The idea is that if a person lacks integrity in choosing personal benefits over a service to the public, that disqualifies that person as a public intellectual. Hence, the charge is that Andreas does not deserve to be recognized as a public intellectual as he has failed the test of personal integrity.

In this article, I share my reflections on Andreas’s role as a public intellectual as I try to look closely at the charge levelled again him. I will point out a moral dilemma for Andreas’s life as a public intellectual. In my view, the moral dilemma I present below is also a serious source of concern for myself as well. It is my hope that Andreas will address the moral dilemma for the sake of the public.

Andreas Eshete as a philosopher

Andreas earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale University (1970) and had subsequently taught at several prominent universities in the U.S. including the University of Pennsylvania, UCLA, UC Berkeley, and Brown University. Earning a PhD in philosophy at Yale and later teaching philosophy at the universities mentioned is a powerful evidence for Andreas’s intellectual caliber. Andreas has also published excellent philosophy essays in peer-reviewed philosophy journals some of which have been cited a number of times over the years.[1]

Andreas is a political philosopher, both in a theoretical and practical sense. In the theoretical sense, his dissertation[2] and his philosophical writings demonstrate his philosophical interests. His life from the time of his student days in the U.S.[3] to his active contribution in Ethiopia, most notably his contribution in the drafting of the Ethiopian Constitution and his subsequent commentaries on the Constitution, amply demonstrate that he put to work his theoretical work in philosophy.

In order to understand Andreas as a philosopher and a public intellectual, it is important to realize that the theoretical issues he wrote about, his chief philosophical interests, are ideas he wanted to put into practice in the Ethiopian context.

Among his writings, his essay on “fraternity” seems to have played a key role in his practical work in Ethiopia. From the three ideals, “liberty, equality, and fraternity”, political philosophers in the West have focused on the ideals of “liberty and equality” and have neglected “fraternity”, as Andreas argued. One key historical reason for this, in Andreas’s view, is that “…when the Americans championed liberty and equality, they had slavery. So they couldn’t with ease include fraternity as a major public value…”[4] Fraternity as a public virtue was not the focus for slaveholding Americans since slaves were considered less than humans to enter into a fraternal relationship with the white slaveholders. Also, fraternity along with solidarity, was seen as a hostile idea, especially after the Russian Revolution because of association of the concept of fraternity/solidarity with radical socialist movement.

Andreas also remarks that fraternity was downplayed in Ethiopia as well since Ethiopians falsely claimed that we were the same human family when we were also slaveholding society.  Andreas argues that the above three examples[5] are historical reasons why fraternity as an ideal, as a public virtue, was neglected in political philosophy in the West that led him to focus on this neglected yet important ideal.

Furthermore, Andreas argues that nationalism is an example of fraternity. He writes, “… nationalism is a civic exemplar of the bond of fraternity. The conditions of fraternity—reciprocal recognition by the parties of their motives of affection and devotion, their practical and affective relations of identification, their embrace of indivisible aims—are also the conditions of the bond of nationalism.”[6]

In the context of Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism, it seems to be safe to apply the idea of “fraternity” to ethnic groups with shared language and culture. By replacing “nationalism” with “ethnic identity”, one can run the same argument that applies to nationalism as an example of fraternity. Having said this, one can also apply, in the Ethiopian context, the idea of fraternity to Ethiopia as a nation state in which all the ethnic groups share some overarching collective history. As such, fraternity applies to Ethiopia in terms of Ethiopian nationalism.[7]

Andreas as a public intellectual

In my view, Andreas has connected some of his theoretical work in philosophy to the practical reality on the ground in Ethiopian politics in various ways.

In this connection, it is crucial to reflect on the nature of the Ethiopian constitution from Andreas’s philosophical point of view in conjunction with the dominant thinking and desire of the politicians at the time who believed that there were a lot of marginalized ethnic groups that came to form Ethiopia as a federal state. Andreas clearly shared the views of those politicians regarding the marginalized group of people under the previous governments and how to address the problems the marginalized had experienced. Accordingly, Andreas remarks on why ethnic federalism, which he simply calls federalism[8], was important for Ethiopia when he was part of the drafting of the constitution:

The reasons of history [why federalism was important]  are of course the fact that there were millions of Ethiopians who were completely marginalized, who didn’t feel they were Ethiopians or who felt they could not be Ethiopians unless they gave up their own identity, hid it, or withheld it. So federalism of course got rid of this necessity. It also made all religions, all cultural communities in Ethiopia, equal and sovereign. So Ethiopia now is going to be a free union of these sovereign peoples who now could retain their identity while becoming full-fledged Ethiopians and in fact the makers and sovereign architects of the new Ethiopia. This is a very important thing.[9]

Furthermore, regarding the opportunity to be a part of the drafting of the Ethiopian constitution, here is what Andreas had to say:

So the constitution was important for me in that respect. Here is another opportunity for another start and a clean start so I thought we should give everything we have to it. So the thing I tried to do in connection with the constitution was to really make the powers that be like the political groups and the leaders, but also regular citizens aware of and engaged with the range of constitutional choices available to Ethiopia, given that we had this clean start.[10]

Ethnic federalism, as enshrined in the Ethiopian Constitution, in Andreas’ view, would be a solution for Ethiopia’s social-political problems. Andreas has written extensively explaining and defending Ethiopian ethnic federalism and there is no need to rehearse his views here.[11] The key point I need to underscore for the purpose of this article is this: Andreas held views as a philosopher that came out of his own philosophical work which he contributed to the drafting of the Ethiopian constitution when an opportunity arose for him to do so. His contribution in this sense can be considered valuable. Even if ethnic federalism is a flawed system, as I do think along with many others, his conviction was that it would solve long-standing problems Ethiopia had faced at that juncture in history. At this moment, I am only reflecting on Andreas’s involvement at the time ethnic federalism was included in the Ethiopian Constitution.

This second reason emerges from his own life experience when he had lived in the U.S., most importantly when he was a student. Andreas was an active participant in the civil rights movement along with African Americans. He identified himself with African Americans and contributed his share in their fight against racism. He was also an active participant in the Ethiopian students’ movement against the monarchy at the time. In this connection, he believed that in Ethiopia many people from various ethnic groups had experienced discrimination like African Americans in the U.S.. For Andreas, the Ethiopian constitution with its ethnic federalism, which empowers ethnic groups, especially those who were marginalized, was the way to go forward for Ethiopia. This conviction for Andreas was not born only out of his philosophical views, but also from his most defining life experiences against racism in the U.S. and his role in the Ethiopian Students’ Movement.

Now I have completed the two most important reasons why Andreas chose to be part of the drafting of the Ethiopian constitution and his defense of ethnic federalism in subsequent years. In my view, the reasons I offered are by far more compelling than other reasons that suggest that Andreas was a corrupt person and that is why he joined the corrupt government of the late Meles Zenawi. So many accuse Andreas of a moral failure for his work with Meles. Note this carefully: I’m not defending Andreas from those accusations—I’ll address them below—but then what I’m saying now is this: For Andreas to contribute to Ethiopia in the manner he did initially is not an example of corruption.

When individuals contribute what they believe is valuable to their country even by working with a government that is corrupt to one degree or another, that does not automatically make them corrupt as well. Those same individuals can end up being morally corrupt later when they had ample opportunities to keep their personal integrity but did not for whatever reason. Is it the case that Andreas is such a person, someone who started out as a responsible individual who gave what he had to his country, but later became morally corrupt? I will try to answer this question next.

A moral dilemma for Andreas

I point out below a few key issues that I have found extremely puzzling about Andreas’s long-standing defense of ethnic federalism, and his close working relationship with the late Ethiopian prime minister, Meles, whose brutality as a leader need no discussion. I am familiar with a number of issues people often raise about Andreas to indicate how much he has morally failed, and many keep saying that to be an intellectual like Andreas is setting a bad example to other intellectuals as well since those who accuse him think that he is a corrupt intellectual.

Put more strongly, it is also often heard that to be educated or to be called an intellectual, one must prove that they are morally better than those who do not have such an educational background to be called intellectuals. I do not endorse this accusation without qualification as to who is an intellectual or a criterion that is used to indicate who is educated or an intellectual or who is not. This is not to a place to address this issue in detail.

Back to ethnic federalism

Andreas’s contribution, initially, to the Ethiopian Constitution and thereby his strong support for ethnic federalism has been noted above. So far, in my discussion above, I did not question Andreas’s commitment to ethnic federalism. However, it is crucial to distinguish his seeing ethnic federalism initially as a valuable experiment for Ethiopia and his later defense of it in the face of ethnic identity killings that have a potential for a wide-scale ethnic cleansing. Why did Andreas fail to express his concern in public, as often as possible, regarding ethnic conflicts in the Oromia Region and in Hawassa, for example? In the last couple of years, people, for example, Amhara, Gamo, Wolayta, Gumuz, Qimant, among others, were targeted and killed based on their ethnic identities.

One possible answer to this question is that Andreas is just a private individual who is not supposed to address such issues, ethnic conflicts when they take place in the country. [We can put aside, for a moment, Andreas’s roles in various positions he had held that could afford him to do more than what a private individual is expected to do].  But this answer would be unacceptable from an intellectual who defended ethnic federalism for more than two decades. One simple thing he could have done but failed to do so—as far as I know, is this: To address ethnic conflicts as unintended consequences[12] of ethnic federalism.

He could have done this by educating the public on a public media in a series of public lectures and writing essays. Andreas knows so well the power of ideas and he could have acknowledged the terrible fruits of ethnic conflicts, especially in the last couple of years while trying to show how we can avoid such conflicts in the future. In other words, he could have engaged in teaching the public [as a public intellectual] about the importance of fraternity, living in harmony and peace, cherishing cultural diversity, and consequently, arguing that ethnic federalism should not be used to target and kill people from other ethnic groups who live in regions that have been demarcated along ethnic lines. I am not aware of such efforts from Andreas.[13] This is one of the key roles of a public intellectual.

A public intellectual who cares about justice for all is expected to speak out the truth about problems with a view one has supported for a long time, as it is the case with Andreas. Ethnic federalism is built on ethnic identities of people and when it is used for administrative purposes where scarce resources are issues and where conflicting narratives pit one ethnic group against others, it is inevitable to witness ethnic conflicts. That is what we have sadly been witnessing in Ethiopia and conflicts will most likely continue even more frequently if nothing substantial is done to mitigate the deadly consequences of ethnic identity politics. Remember that ethnic identity politics draws upon ethnic federalism as its source to justify ethnic othering[14], ethnic cleansing. Ethnic federalism, in my view, is a double-edged sword in practice, since it can do some good[15], on the one hand, and it is destructive, on another hand.

Consider this: Fraternity is a public virtue, according to Andreas. That is a good principle. In the Ethiopian context, when ethnic identity serves to target people from other ethnic groups in regions that are defined mostly by reference to ethnic identities, fraternity as a public virtue comes into conflict with ethnic othering. Ethnic othering, that is, targeting those who are members of other ethnic groups based on their ethnicity is the opposite of fraternal relationship among members of ethnic communities. To allow fraternity to sit with ethnic federalism is a costly mistake, in my view.

Here is another possible answer to my question above that is available for Andreas, which however faces a serious ethical problem. Andreas writes,

Over time, marked improvement in material life would occasion greater mobility of citizens across ethnic communities, growth in multicultural urban populations, and greater differentiation in the interests of groups. These and similar changes would improve the prospects of political mobilization and organization not rooted in ethnic identity. As federalism surmounts the limits imposed by inhospitable conditions -not least, material deprivation -on the pursuit of democracy, its value may gradually decline. Federalism may well be a self-effacing instrument of constitutional democracy.[16]

According to Andreas, focus on ethnic identity for a political community will phase out in favor of cosmopolitanism and thereby democracy will also be realized in the long run. Since Ethiopia is not there yet, what we experience, including ethnic conflicts, is just part of the package of reality that involves ethnic communities that form Ethiopia as a federal state. That means, Andreas’s silence regarding some of the terrible consequences of ethnic federalism partly receives an answer from his commitment to the good, in his view, that will come out in the long run, i.e., a constitutional democracy for Ethiopia for which ethnic federalism is “a self-effacing instrument”..

In this sense, for Andreas, ethnic federalism is a means to constitutional democracy, which is the good that is desired. As a means, ethnic federalism has consequences such as ethnic conflicts, and that could end up being a large-scale ethnic cleansing or genocide.  I’d argue on the basis of  ethics that a system of federalism, i.e., ethnic federalism, that is embraced even when it  serves as a recipe for  ethnic conflicts, including potential ethnic cleansing, is an unjust or an immoral means even though the desired long-term goal is good. This is a classic example of using a utilitarian ethics to justify a political program that is inherently based on ethnic identity politics. As far as I can tell, in his philosophy, at least theoretically, Andreas is not a utilitarian; however, in practical terms, he must have been committed to utilitarianism.

Here is another reason to suggest that Andreas must have been committed to utilitarianism in his ethics as a practical philosopher, as a philosopher who practices his theoretical philosophical views. One of the sources for most people who express their outrage about Andreas is his close association with Meles, the late prime minister, i.e., his working for and with him.  How is this a problem for Andreas? Here is how: Consider Meles’ brutality to Ethiopians during his tenure as a leader. Also, consider these: The senseless loss of lives following the 2005 national election. You can add all the unjust imprisonments and tortures of citizens for their political beliefs and for working as journalists. Think of all the human rights violations committed under Meles’ watch.

In Meles’ mind, all the evils committed under his leadership were justified. On what ground all the evils committed under the leadership of Meles are acceptable or justified? I submit that there is no morally acceptable justification for killing and torturing innocent people because of their political views or for exercising freedom of expression and working for the press. There is no justification under any system of government for brutally treating its own citizens.

Now think about the role of a public intellectual.

At the very least, a public intellectual is supposed to serve the interests of the public, the interests of those unjustly treated by the government, those who lost their lives for someone else’s political gains, those who lost their freedom, etc. Since there is enough evidence that shows that Andreas initially cared about the historically marginalized people in Ethiopia as one of the foremost intellectual architects and defenders of ethnic federalism, there is no reason to expect Andreas to keep silent when the same people are brutally treated by the same government which claims to defend ethnic federalism along with Andreas.

Note this: The concern I am raising here, at this moment, does not apply to Andreas when he initially worked with the government in issues about the constitution. One can raise issues with Andreas going all the way back to his association with the Meles government. That is not what I am doing here for reasons I’ve offered in the first part of this article.

If Andreas were a utilitarian in his ethics, he would claim that all the brutality committed by Meles was justified. That is the way that tyrants justify their actions to keep clinging to power. Philosopher Russ Shafer-Landau writes,

Utilitarians reject any absolute ban on killing innocents (or torturing them, or stealing from them, etc.). This has a very important implication: any kind of action, no matter how awful, is permitted, provided it is necessary to prevent an even worse outcome. This utilitarian rationale is the one that many truly vicious political leaders have relied on to defend their record. In a candid moment, they might admit to having tortured their opponents, crushed civil rights, allowed their cronies to enrich themselves at the expense of the country.  The story is always the same: we are not perfect but toppling us and allowing our opposition to take over would be even worse. So you must support us.[17]

Shafer-Landau adds, according to utilitarianism, “…we must maximize well-being, but sometimes we can do this only by committing some serious injustice. Moral theories should not permit, much less require, that we act unjustly. Therefore, there is something deeply wrong about utilitarianism. To do justice is to respect rights; to commit injustice is to violate rights. If it is ever optimific to violate rights, then utilitarianism requires us to do so.”[18]

If Andreas wants to embrace utilitarianism to defend himself regarding his silence when Meles brutally treated innocent citizens for many years, such a defense would mean that it was okay for Meles to have committed all the evil things in his tenure as the leader. But such a defense is morally unacceptable. Furthermore, Andreas’s work in philosophy, especially his writings on the value of character, or virtues, which he appears to favor does not sit well with utilitarianism. It is more plausible and even defensible to say that Andreas is committed to virtue ethics; ethics that focuses on virtues, excellent moral characters as desirable traits.

The preceding discussion gives rise to a moral dilemma for Andreas as follows: (1) Either Andreas has consistently cared about the rights and dignity of the marginalized seeking justice and fraternity among Ethiopians in his role as a public intellectual, or (2) he has been a morally corrupt person who has been valuing his own personal benefits from his close association with Meles and his government over his integrity as a public intellectual. If Andreas chooses (1), he faces an immediate problem. That is, his silence for many years when Meles brutally treated fellow Ethiopians due to their political beliefs, and for exercising the freedom of expression. If Andreas has not been silent regarding these issues, the public deserves to know what he has done about all the human rights violations under Meles.

If Andreas chooses (2), that would make him a corrupt person, which is what his critics have been saying about him. Therefore, which horn of the dilemma Andreas chooses, the consequence is a serious problem for his integrity as a public intellectual over many years. I hope to see Andreas’s response to the dilemma presented above in whatever way he chooses so that the public can get a chance to hear from Andreas himself regarding the issues I have presented.

A personal note

I had opportunities to talk to Prof. Andreas several times including interacting with him at a public lecture I gave at Addis Ababa University in 2012. He is a fellow Ethiopian philosopher I hold with the highest respect for his penetrating mind and his brilliant academic life. Many say in pubic and in private to me that Andreas has failed academically because he has not published a lot, or he did not stick to one academic institution as a professor as many would choose to do so, if they can, for various reasons. None of those who say such things understand what it means for a philosopher to choose to devote one’s life to what that individual values regardless of what the society deems as a successful life.

Most of those who accuse Andreas of failing to write much more philosophy, if he had published a lot more in philosophy journals, would not be among his readers. Philosophy essays published in professional philosophy journals in general are for professional philosophers. Not all philosophers value publishing in philosophy journals if they value doing something else with their lives. I see no reason why that cannot be the case with Andreas given the fact that he had spent a significant amount of his life working on issues he cared about that in his view are of greater value for Ethiopians.

A case in point is his contribution to the Ethiopian constitution and his subsequent writings on ethnic federalism.  Those who have read what he has published in philosophy journals can attest to his brilliance and his ability as an intellectual to produce first-rate work of philosophy. Not all academic philosophers value the same pattern of life as the rest in academia. This is a simple fact of life. I presented above a moral dilemma Andreas faces based on some aspects of his life as a public intellectual and my respect for him as a fellow philosopher did not prevent me from challenging him with what I take to be a serious issue about some aspects of his life about which many in public have expressed their concern or even outrage over many years. I hope that this article presents Prof. Andreas with an opportunity to address the concern I have expressed based on his work as a philosopher and a public intellectual.

[1] See the  following essays, “Contractarianism and the Scope of Justice” , Ethics, 1974; “Fraternity” , The Review of Metaphysics,  “Character, Virtue and Freedom”, Philosophy, 1982; “Does a Lawyer’s Character Matter”? in Lawyers and Justice: An Ethical Study, ed., David Luban, 1989,  pp. 270-285.

[2] Titled, “The Social Structure of Freedom”, Yale University, 1970.

[3] See  his interview with Dagmawi Wubshet. Callaloo, Volume 33, Number 1, Winter 2010, pp. 102-116.

[4] See the Interview by Dawgmawi Wbushet.

[5] See the Interview.

[6] Andreas, “Fraternity”, in The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 35, No. (September 1981),1, p. 36

[7] One can challenge this application of fraternity as an expression of nationalism in terms of Ethiopian nationalism in the current Ethiopian political context where ethno-nationalism is much more pronounced than Ethiopian nationalism.

[8] To call federalism in Ethiopia simply “federalism” rather than “ethnic federalism” is misleading to say the least. The ten regions in Ethiopia are demarcated along ethno-linguistic lines and there is no way to call such a demarcation simply federalism as if we’re talking about the States in the US. There are no black or white States or Spanish speaking or English-speaking states in the US.

[9] See Andreas Eshete’s Interview with Dagmawi Wubshet.

[10] See the Interview.

[11] See the following writings by Andreas on Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism: “Federalism: New Frontiers in Ethiopian Politics” (August 2013); and an essay with Dr. Samuel Assefa, ‘Reflections on Expanding Democratic Space” (December 2018).

[12] Note that I do not endorse this answer. I am only pointing out a possible answer Andreas could consider.

[13] In an article Andreas and Samuel Assefa wrote together, “Reflections on Expanding Ethiopia’s Democratic Space” a concern was expressed about a danger populist, nationalist groups could cause for the stability and the very survival of the Ethiopian state.  Note that this article was written in December 2018. But this article nowhere articulates and underscores the concern I raised above.

[14] “Ethnic othering” is targeting people on the basis of ethnic identity.

[15] The “good” I’ve in mind is about the affirmation and celebration of diverse cultures and languages in Ethiopia in a manner that is much different from what had been the case in Ethiopia. Even so, I do not think that ethnic federalism was needed to accomplish this good. The US is a melting pot for many cultures, yet the US is not founded on ethnic federalism. Far from it!

[16] Andreas, “Federalism: New Frontiers in Ethiopian Politics”, August 2013.

[17] Shafer-Landau, The Fundamentals of Ethics, 2012, P. 144.

[18] Ibid, P. 144-45.

1 COMMENT

  1. What credentials or intellectual it on he ever exists, rather a smart ass opportunistic decadent he actually is. A Juda at his core. He shocks a hand with a devil as a disciple of a devil. Ethiopia will be better of seeing his kinds just goon for good

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