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Rehabilitation through Violence

Fanon, Colonialism, and Modern Society


The paper reflects on Frantz Fanon's main criticism of ethnophilosophy, namely, that the defense of otherness only alienates further black peoples from the values they need to counter Western domination. Instead, Fanon suggests the liberating and rehabilitating role of violent confrontations, which, on top of forcing respect on the colonizer, wipe the sense of inferiority from the colonized. The paper questions Fanon's denial of the rehabilitative virtue of the defense of pluralism, just as it shows that the efficiency of violence itself depends on the mastery of technological abilities. The issue, then, is less the unleashing of violence than its sublimation into the aspiration for modernity.

1. Introduction

Messay Kebede:
Africa's Quest for a Philosophy of Decolonization.
Amsterdam – New York: Rodopi, 2004.

Editions Rodopi:

Online order:
1 Among the critics of ethnophilosophy, Frantz Fanon occupies a particular place by the argument that only a philosophy of violence consummates the rejection of both otherness and the restoration of the past. Fanon sympathizes with the goal of rehabilitation and perfectly understands the meaning of the strategy of otherness and the passionate attempt to revive the past. Ethnophilosophy aims at persuading Africans that they have no reason to put up with the degrading interpretation of their past, that they can and must reinterpret their past in a way consonant with their pride and interests. In countering the disabilities induced by colonial rule, ethnophilosophy thinks of preparing Africans for a promising future. The purpose of the return to the source, Fanon writes, is to show:
2there was nothing to be ashamed of in the past, but rather dignity, glory, and solemnity. The claim to a national culture in the past does not only rehabilitate that nation and serve as a justification for the hope of a future national culture. In the sphere of psycho-affective equilibrium it is responsible for an important change in the native. (Fanon 1982, 210)
3 Neither the racialization of Africans nor the return to the source can bring about the promised bright future. Instead of understanding black identity as an outcome forged by the process of the actual struggle, the negritude movement resorts to a fixed and ahistorical race attribute, even at the expense of endorsing colonial descriptions of the black entity. The result is the definition of African identity in terms antagonistic to modern requirements. The gap between Africa and Europe further enlarges to the detriment of Africans. Fanon depicts the effects of the African endorsement of racialization as follows:
4He [the Negro] congratulates himself on this, and enlarging the difference, the incomprehension, the disharmony, he finds in them the meaning of his real humanity. … And it is with rage in his mouth and abandon in his heart that he buries himself in the vast black abyss. We shall see that this attitude, so heroically absolute, renounces the present and the future in the name of a mystical past. (Fanon 1967, 16)
5 Since all African attempts to differ from the West backfire by further enlarging the gap, the only choice left for Africans is to settle the issue by means of confrontation.

2. Violence as Self-Creation

2.1 Inferiority of the Colonized

»it is solely by risking life that freedom is obtained; only thus is it tried and proved that the essential nature of self-consciousness is not bare existence, is not merely immediate form in which it at first makes its appearance, is not its mere absorption in the expanse of life.«

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
(Note 4)
6 To understand the role of violence in Fanon's philosophy, we begin by indicating why for Fanon the relationship between the colonized and the colonizer cannot be translated in terms of Hegelian dialectics. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's dialectics between master and slave relates a situation in which the need for recognition sets one human being against another human being. Recognition refers to the desire of each individual to be accepted as a free being, that is, as a being beyond the mere act of existing. At the initial stage of human history, the demonstration that human dignity is the only way by which one individual can gain recognition from another individual (Hegel 1971, 232). The extent of the readiness of individuals to sacrifice their life is a manifestation of freedom, and the proof that they are indeed beyond mere existence. To use Hegel's words:
7it is solely by risking life that freedom is obtained; only thus is it tried and proved that the essential nature of self-consciousness is not bare existence, is not merely immediate form in which it at first makes its appearance, is not its mere absorption in the expanse of life. (Ibid., 233)
8 The struggle for recognition turns into a fight for life and death. Those individuals who back down from staking their life accept defeat and become slaves. Because slaves accept to work in exchange for the preservation of their life, their masters are relieved of the necessity of working. In thus placing between themselves and nature human tools, slave owners fully assert and enjoy their freedom. This is not, however, the end of the story. Through toiling and the subsequent mastery of nature, slaves reappropriate the sense of dignity and freedom. In shaping nature, the toiling consciousness (ibid., 239). By contrast, the master is in a precarious situation. For one reason, the freedom that the master enjoys is recognized by an unfree human being. For another, the choice of a mode of life reduced to the mere consumption of nature accelerates the dependence of the master on the slave, thereby turning the autonomy of the master into (ibid., 237).
9 This dialectical reversal is headed for the rehabilitation of the slave even as it knocks the master off the pedestal. The reversal opens up an historical process progressively leading to the dissolution of bondage and lordship in favor of the universal recognition of equality and freedom. What Hegel establishes is, then, that violence is a necessary moment in the history of the recognition of human freedom. This history initiates a contradictory outcome: it asserts freedom through the negation of freedom. However, slavery generates the conditions of its emancipation so that the process moves toward the mutual cancellation of servitude and domination.
10 According to Fanon, the colonial situation cannot deliver this outcome of mutual recognition, blocked as it is by the assumption of the inferiority of the colonized peoples. The Hegelian situation describes the loss of freedom as a result of defeat between two contending individuals; it does not portray a situation where the one partner is considered as subhuman. In the colonial situation, defeat itself is construed as an expression of that inferiority and not, as Hegel describes, as a lack of courage. In the dialectics of struggle for recognition, the humanity of the contenders is never in question; the fight is about knowing who is ready to defend freedom to the point of accepting to sacrifice life. Radically different is the colonial situation. Though the situation exhibits a similar desire for recognition, it does not fall under the same dialectical rules. Because bondage is more a loss of freedom than an attribute of inferiority, Hegelian slaves can recover their freedom from defeat. Not so the colonized, who are slaves by nature, so to speak. Toiling can never remove their sub-humanity. Here servitude is a dialectics without possible synthesis, that is, mutual recognition.

2.2 The Rehabilitating Value of Violence

Frantz Fanon
(1925 – 1961)
11 This awareness of colonialism as an obstructed dialectics explains Fanon's philosophy of violence. The colonial situation is not expressive of a struggle for recognition similar to what Hegel had in mind. Unlike the Hegelian slave who (Masolo 1994, 34-35). Why? Because colonial servitude has no positive, human outcome for the colonized: this kind of servitude is a deadlock. The demonstration of the desire for freedom and recognition by risking one's life remains the only option. Since colonial racism deprives the colonized self of any hope of obtaining recognition, some such absence of positive outcome brings dialectics back to the initial stage of confrontation where the willingness to die decides the fate of one's freedom. Showing that the African is beyond life becomes the only assertive expression of freedom and dignity.
12 Violence begins its dissolving impact by subjecting the colonial master to fear. This fear suspends the assurance of the colonial lords; it also inculcates in them the respect of those individuals who prefer death to continued servitude. This violence becomes decisive, as the colonized, fully identifying with their wretchedness, understand that they have nothing to lose. Hegelian slaves have a stake in the world that their labor shaped, and hence aspire to become full members. Such is not the case of the colonized, who have nothing to gain as a result of racial exclusion. Dispossessed of attributes and belongings, their essence is their wretchedness. To assume this wretchedness is for them to acquire the experience of pure subjectivity as absolute negativity.
13 This level of identification defines the colonized by the readiness to risk their life. No identity drawn from the past can reach this new self. Such a self has no other definition than this readiness: it is pure freedom because it values freedom more than life. In relating themselves to freedom through the readiness to die, the colonized clearly indicate what is at stake. They no longer consent to be defined by fixed attributes, for instance, as belonging to a race or having this or that glorious past. All these attempts have failed, and the colonized must show their humanity, not in an incarnated form, but in a pure, transcendent, universal form, as ready to die for freedom, in short, as untamable. says Fanon, in the colonial situation, (Fanon 1967, 229). What comes first is the humanity of the colonized, the struggle for recognition as human beings, not the recognition of particularity. The struggle is for human rights, not for the recognition of difference or sameness.
14 Violence expresses this disincarnate, ethereal freedom. It is how freedom exists less as an attribute than as the very subject exacting recognition through the risking of life. The rehabilitating value of violence lies in the unequivocal assertion that the colonized are ready to risk the only and most precious thing they have, to wit, their life, for their dignity and equality. Violence brings the whole issue of the emancipation of the colonized to a final showdown: the awe-inspiring act of violence cleans the disabilities inflicted by colonial rule off the soul of the colonized. It forces respect on the colonizer, but more importantly, it brings the colonized round to the idea of their own self-respect. Completely disavowing the method of ethnophilosophy, which expects the rise of pride and dare from cultural revival, Fanon maintains that (Fanon 1982, 147).
15 Violence alone can succeed in undoing the drawbacks of colonial rule. In particular, it dissolves the inferiority complex from which the colonized suffer. Contrary to native thinkers who internalize the feeling of inferiority by endorsing otherness, the revolutionary thinker does not demand the equality of races without ever explaining how equality tallies with the notion of racial differences. Fanon finds the whole attempt to find an untarnished definition of the black essence useless and self-defeating. Clearly differentiating his project from that of ethnophilosophy, he writes:
16it would be easy to prove, or to win the admission, that the black is the equal of the white. But my purpose is quite different: What I want to do is help the black man to free himself of the arsenal of complexes that has been developed by the colonial environment. (Fanon 1967, 30)
17 Discourses on the equality of races are far removed from the right solution for the simple reason that they do not attack the inferiority complex with which the notion of race is saddled.

2.3 Race as an Invented Concept

Frantz Fanon:
National Culture and the Fight for Freedom.

The Pitfalls of National Consciousness.

The Wretched of the Earth. Conclusion.
18 Fanon's position concerning the issue of race and racism best accounts for his choice of violence as the only efficient form of rehabilitation. For him, the concept of race is debilitating; it offers no escape. The belief in race coming from the colonized can only be the product of an internalized colonial mentality. When Blacks speak of race, even to demand equality, a white internalized voice is speaking through them. Race is therefore an invented concept: (ibid., 231). Accordingly, there is no way by which the notion of race can be brought to signify equality, given that it was originally designed to negate equality and express hierarchy. Fanon finds stupid and naive the attempt to salvage the notion of race. The racialization of human beings was an insult and remains so. You do not rehabilitate an insult.
19 The best way to remove the insult is first to specify its exact meaning so as to avoid fighting against phantoms. This means the deconstruction of the notion of race. The result of the deconstruction is that inferiority complex (ibid., 13). If racial distinctions are the manner economic inequalities are justified, then the internalization of those distinctions by the colonized turns into an endorsement of inferiority. Negritude and other philosophies calling for the recognition of the equality of races forget that races are originally designed to justify inequality. Nor do they understand that the acceptance of racial classification is an admission of inferiority. The disguise of the social meaning of race as a natural determinant induces these theories to believe wrongly that the parade of diverse inheritances strongly militates in favor of equal status. The exposure of the initial dispersion of the human essence is never tantamount to dissolving the hierarchical conception of race.
20 For Fanon, the primary task of native scholars should have been to avoid falling into the trap of racialist discourses. They should have begun attacking the very notion of race by exposing the practices to which the notion leads. Most of all, the unadulterated affirmation of the human, in lieu of the equalization of races, should have been their dominant theme. If they had taken such a resolute stand against the notion of race, violence would have appeared to them as the only nonracist, unqualified affirmation of the human person.
21 As soon as people exclusively connect themselves with the defense of their dignity as human beings, their subsequent response is less to convince than to remove oppressors. For Fanon, the promised renaissance of black people cannot come through a mere cultural redefinition. Insofar as race signifies economic exclusion, the only remedy is social revolution, the complete transformation of the economic order. Fanon thus joins the Marxist analysis: violence is necessary to destroy an unjust socioeconomic system. The merit of the social analysis of the notion of race is that everybody is put in the same socioeconomic system and races are conceptualized as expressions of unequal distribution of rights and power. The social approach grasps the notion of race as a social construct and reduces its meaning to discrimination. In this way, the fight targets the equal affirmation of human rights through the extirpation of the notion of race.

2.4 The Birth of a Historical Subject

Jean-Paul Sartre:
Preface to »The Wretched of the Earth«.

Kwame Nkrumah:
African Socialism Revisited.
22 This breakdown of race classification into human and socioeconomic contents forcefully vindicates the regenerating impact of violence. The irreplaceable value of violence originates from the unique power to dissipate the deference inculcated in the natives. The colonized cannot free themselves from this deference unless they learn to become daring and disrespectful. Violence is the way to such learning: it smashes what the natives have been taught to respect and revere. Only when the natives develop such an irreverent attitude can they rise above all oppressive forces. By subjecting the colonial world to the dissolving impact of violence, they commit the crime of lese-majesty that unleashes their autonomy. says Fanon (1982, 94).
23 Violence cannot extract the colonized from the arsenal of complexes without at the same time inaugurating their historicity. The act by which the colonized become defiant is also how they begin to exist for themselves, and so become real subjects. Violence thus attains self-creation. It is transition to historicity, since (Serequeberhan 1994, 71). Resistance against the colonial army requires a new and higher form of organization, just as it institutes new forms of relationship among the participants. Such a struggle promotes a whole process of culture change in which people develop new ideas and forms of struggle to defeat a more powerful army. On the basis of their fighting organization, they also imagine a new social order. As Irele remarks:
24In the general mobilization of the physical and psychic energies of an entire people, old values inappropriate to the situation were swept away, new values created, presaging a new social order. The revolution thus took on the significance of an immense process of collective metamorphosis. (Irele 1986, 138)
25 To recapitulate, Fanon goes beyond the Marxist characterization of violence as the He reads into the aggressive resistance against colonialism the gestation, the birth of a historical subject. Through the violence directed at their oppressors, the colonized peoples reconstitute their human self in an autonomous and unrestricted way. They emancipate from colonial neurosis by chasing out the settler through force of arms. During the struggle, they also develop efficient and more humane social relationships that can readily serve as a foundation for a new and just social order. Jean-Paul Sartre summarizes the whole outcome when he writes that, for Fanon, (Sartre 1982, 21).

3. Impotent Violence

26 The evaluation of Fanon's stand against ethnophilosophy must bear in mind that Fanon does not raise the issue of violence only as a means of expelling the rule of an outsider. He attributes to violence a therapeutic and creative value: violence liberates the colonized from inferiority complex and turns them into active makers of history. My purpose is to question the alleged therapeutic and creative value of violence.

3.1 Other Ways to Defend Pluralism

Other ways than racial classifications exist to defend pluralism. Such is the case, for instance, of cultural pluralism. 27 Let me begin by saying that Fanon's rejection of the rehabilitation of the past sounds excessive. His position would have been correct if, instead of characterizing the rehabilitation of the past as a useless and detrimental attempt, he had implied that it was not enough to obtain liberation. What makes his argument against the rehabilitation of the past even less receivable is that, more than anybody else, Fanon has studied the profound and devastating effects of inferiority complex on the colonized peoples. His study suggests that this sense of inferiority has been inculcated by a deliberately disparaging discourse on the history of these peoples. If so, the reason why the attempt to refute the colonial discourse would be without effect is not clear. The discredit of the legacy of the colonized peoples having induced the inferiority complex, the rehabilitation of the legacy should act as an antidote.
28 Fanon's resolution to convince the colonized that they have no other option than recourse to violence is at best exaggerated and highly restrictive. The method of ethnophilosophy, notably the claim to otherness and the subsequent endorsement of the notion of race, can be debilitating. Still, other ways than racial classifications exist to defend pluralism. Such is the case, for instance, of cultural pluralism, which draws diversity from cultural rather than biological inheritances. This position is all the more consistent the more identities are ascribed to inventions, a case in point being Fanon himself. To say that »the nigger« does not exist any more than the white man is to hold that what distinguishes people is less their biological determinants than the way they choose to define themselves. This fact of identities being constructs allows the cultural approach to pluralism.
29 Fanon's opposition to cultural rehabilitation does not yet indicate why violence should take the lead. His argument that the rehabilitation drawn from the past is an illusory wealth, which distracts the colonized from fully identifying with their wretchedness and hence from growing into a real revolutionary force, can be seriously contested. The question whether violence is an efficient and relevant response to the challenge posed by Western hegemony must be posed against the background of economic power being the major driving force of the modern world. No response is really defiant of the West if it does not pave the way to economic power.

3.2 The Lack of Economic Power

Without economic and technological power, the violence that the colonized brandish against the West is anything but frightening. 30 This issue of economic power is how Hegel takes his revenge on Fanon. Does not Hegel's analysis point out that the mastery of nature is the only dialectical, progressive way to liberation? Contrary to the dialectics of Hegel in which the slave submits and turns his attention to work, Fanon wants the colonized to rebel. Without the episode of violent confrontation, Fanon maintains, the colonized will never gain freedom and self-respect. Freedom remains a mere grant of the colonizers so long as it is not wrenched from them. Galvanizing and fulfilling though the snatching of freedom may appear to be, in the context of colonial and neocolonial domination, Fanon's view overlooks one crucial aspect of the question: the colonized are yet to understand the real reason for their subordination. They will understand the real reason if they ascribe their inferiority to their inability to dominate nature.
31 But then, the issue is not so much the violent expulsion of the colonizer as the resolution to rise to the economic challenge. So long as the economic handicap persists, independence remains illusory. Fanon is right when he states that independence is not enough, but wrong when he stipulates that regeneration cannot occur without the moment of violent confrontation.
32 Without economic and technological power, the violence that the colonized brandish against the West is anything but frightening. The violence of arrows and spears against missiles and jet fighters is unable to achieve any positive outcome. So long as violence is not backed by science and technology, the whole idea of considering the third world as a rising revolutionary force intent on toppling the developed world is nothing but laughable. Insofar as the poor world is granted a power of violence that it does not yet possess, Fanon can be justifiably accused of putting the cart before the horse. In being technologically insignificant, the violence of the third world will be countered by real violence, to paraphrase Fanon. If violence thus resolves nothing because it cannot even be real violence without the power of technology, the narrowing of the technological gap emerges as the only antidote to Western hegemony, and hence the only dissolvent of the inferiority complex. Let alone curing the disease, the prescription of bravado retards the administration of the real remedy.

3.3 Internalization of Colonial Violence

»The fact is it is not violence that is our true nature but anger, the fuel that generates violence. Anger is, to use an electrical analogy, the fuse that warns us of a malfunction. However, sadly, we have learned to abuse anger instead of using it intelligently because the culture of violence is based on the need to control through fear.«

Arun Gandhi
In this issue:
33 As to Fanon's equation of negritude and ethnophilosophy to an internalization of the colonial world, the whole question is to know whether the valorization of violence and the vision of human relationships in terms of violent confrontations are not an internalization of the violent colonial world. The question makes sense in view of the fact that Fanon endows violence with a curative mission. If violence is an outcome of colonial rule, how can it possess curative virtues? The attempt to decontaminate one's soul from such a perversion would be the right attitude.
34 Fanon rightly takes note of the accumulated anger of the colonized people, but never shows how this immense anger could be transformed into a creative work. His proposal is not to sublimate anger; it is instead to let anger explode. Yet is capitulation to anger likely to have a positive outcome when it is merely providing an outlet to destructive impulses? What the third world needs is less to surrender to its anger than to channel it into constructive works. The sublimation of violence, and that alone, would be the right therapy. Alluding to the curative and creative role of sublimation, the apostle of nonviolence Mohandas K. Gandhi gives us the following lesson:
35I have learned by bitter experience, through a period of close upon thirty years, the one supreme lesson, namely, to conserve my anger, to control it, and just as heat conserved is transmuted into energy, so also our anger, conserved and controlled, can result in a power that becomes irresistible throughout the world. (Quoted by Green 1993, 230)
36 Nonviolent resistance has the clear impact of denouncing the barbarism of the colonizer, thereby drawing a clear demarcation line between the values of the oppressor and the ideals of liberation. In demystifying and rejecting violence, nonviolence graciously prepares a bright and democratic future, the very one where force will have no say. Whereas the myth of violence ends up by valorizing violence as a legitimate resource, Gandhi's nonviolent option banishes forever the use of force from human society. Not even against the colonizer was violence used: such is the norm that nonviolence establishes.
37 When anger is given full vent, instead of being conserved and controlled, the outcome is rarely positive. History has repeatedly confirmed the sticking mania of violence. Guerilla movements interiorize violence so deeply that, despite their often generous goal, they end up by instituting violent regimes for the simple reason that they have lost the sense of true human relationships. In this regard, the Algerian case is instructive. As an active participant in the Algerian war of liberation, Fanon believed that the ideals of the war would preside over the emergence of a modern and peaceful Algerian society. The fact that independent Algeria is still torn by violent conflicts and little engaged in a resolute process of modernization invalidates the alleged creative role of violence.
38 Once violence is internalized, it will sully all the behavior of the colonized, who would then behave in the same violent way vis-à-vis each other. This violent disposition has a hand in the failure of most third-world countries to institute democratic societies. Grant violence with the power to provide solutions, and no reason exists to assume that the problems of postcolonial societies do not fall under the same treatment. Viewed from this necessity of cleansing the colonized soul of the accumulated anger, the appeal of negritude thinkers to the particular essence of the black soul appears as a protection against colonial contaminations, as an attempt to preserve a measure of human countenance in a world disfigured by violence. In terms of learning disrespect and shaking off inferiority complex, Fanon and many African scholars fail to appreciate the insolence inscribed in the aloofness from Western rationality that the philosophy of negritude glorifies.


  • Frantz Fanon (1967): Black Skin White Masks. New York: Grove Press.
  • — (1982): The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.
  • Martin Green (1993): Gandhi: Voice of a New Age Revolution. New York: Continuum.
  • Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1971): The Phenomenology of Mind. New York: Humanities Press.
  • Abiola Irele (1986): »Contemporary Thought in French Speaking Africa«. In: Isaac James Mowoe / Richard Bjornson (eds.): Africa and the West. New York: Greenwood Press.
  • Dimas A. Masolo (1994): African Philosophy in Search of Identity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Jean Paul Sartre: »Preface«. In: Frantz Fanon (1982): The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.
  • Tsenay Serequeberhan (1994): The Hermeneutics of African Philosophy. New York: Routledge.


Messay Kebede (*1945 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia) is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dayton in Ohio. He obtained his M.A. in Philosophy in 1973 and his Ph.D. in 1976 from the University of Grenoble in France. After the completion of his philosophical studies in France, he returned to Ethiopia and taught philosophy at Addis Ababa University from 1976 to 1993, where he became Chairman of the Department of Philosophy in 1979. His university career was interrupted when the Ethiopian government dismissed him with 40 other instructors from Addis Ababa University for political reasons. He went to the USA in 1996 and joined the Department of Philosophy of the University of Dayton in 1998. His research interests are African philosophy, philosophy of race, philosophy of development and Henri Bergson. He has published numerous articles and is the author of three books, Meaning and Development (1994), Survival and Modernization – Ethiopia's Enigmatic Present: A Philosophical Discourse (1999), and Africa's Quest for a Philosophy of Decolonization (2004).

Prof. Dr. Messay Kebede
University of Dayton
Department of Philosophy
300 College Park
Dayton, OH 45469-1546
Fax +1 (937) 229-4400

It was the spring of 2001 and 43-year-old Berhanu Nega was optimistic. His homeland, Ethiopia, was recovering from decades of conflict, he had just given a speech to university students about academic freedom, and now he had landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport for a business conference in Paris.

Then he turned on his phone. The students he’d spoken to hours earlier had staged a peaceful protest that the police answered with brute force and live ammunition, leaving 40 people dead. A week later, Nega was back in Ethiopia, behind bars.

So began a 14-year-long ordeal that has seen Nega, one of Ethiopia’s leading activists, arrested and jailed twice — once for almost two years — exiled to the United States and finally, condemned to death, in absentia. These days, the would-be mayor of Addis Ababa (he was detained right after he won the election) is an associate professor of economics at Bucknell University. But Nega remains a prominent opposition leader: He is the co-founder of Ginbot 7, an outlawed political party that he leads from the sleepy Pennsylvania campus town of Lewisburg.

Of late, Ethiopia has been a darling of Western powers. The landlocked country is considered an island of stability in the otherwise turbulent Horn of Africa. Yes, its name was once synonymous with starving children and charity concerts, but today, Ethiopia posts GDP growth numbers in the double digits. In the past year, foreign investment has skyrocketed. The country is also a valuable partner against the threat of Islamist terrorism — here, in the incarnation of al-Shabab in Somalia, which killed 148 students in April at a Kenyan university.

In Nega’s view, that’s why the the U.S. donated $340 million to a country with such a horrible human rights record. Under Meles Zenawi, who ruled from 1991 until his death in 2012, the government ostracized the opposition and imposed a system of ethnic-based federalism, which enhanced divisions and was useful for repressing certain ethnic groups. Zenawi’s successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, has carried on his legacy of media muffling, extrajudicial executions and torturing dissidents. Nega says protecting a regime that most citizens resent will backfire in the long run: “Ethiopia is ready to explode, it just needs a little match to light it up,” he says. “The West is not going to give Africans democracy, Africans have to fight for it.”

The U.S. State Department did not comment on Nega’s criticisms of U.S. policy in the Horn of Africa. Via email, a representative described U.S relations with the Ethiopian government as “robust” and said it partners “with Ethiopia and its people, as we do with people and governments across Africa, to pursue shared goals of democracy, peace and prosperity.”

I have completely given up on the possibility of a democratic change.


Nega doesn’t look as pugnacious as he sounds. He wears small glasses and, on the day we speak over Skype, a professorial gray cardigan. Surrounded by walls of thick books in his university office Nega, now 57, looks much like any other professor. He talks like one too, explaining concepts with patience and detail. “But that’s his strength,” says Messay Kebede, an Ethiopian professor of social philosophy at the University of Dayton. Kebede says Nega’s deportment makes him seem more charismatic educator than politician. “And the crueler the regime becomes, the more people listen to him.”

The son of a prominent businessman, Nega first got involved in politics in school, in the ’70s, during the final days of Emperor Haile Selassie. He then had to flee to Sudan, where he spent two years reading philosophy in Khartoum’s public library, before making his way to the U.S. There he went straight back to the books, obtaining a Ph.D. in economics and becoming a teacher. In 1991, when the communist government was overthrown, Nega returned home only to find his country “hadn’t learned its lessons yet.” After his short stay in prison in 2001, he left his job as a lecturer and his fertilizer producing company for politics. It was a reluctant decision, he says: “The reality became so terrible that we had to do something to try to change it.”

His party, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, rocked votes in the 2005 elections — Nega won the mayoralty of Addis Ababa — but the joy gave way to a crackdown. Nega was in jail for 21 months; when he got out, he headed almost straight to the United States. Last year, his friend and Ginbot 7 colleague Andargachew Tsige was detained in Yemen and presumably handed over to the Ethiopian authorities. Nega says Tsige’s disappearance and the detention of others has made the struggle personal. “We owe it to them to do everything we can,” he says.

Leaders like Nega are gone and, in the eyes of some, discredited. Without fair elections or international pressure, Nega says only one option remains: force. “I have completely given up on the possibility of a democratic change,” he says. So Ginbot is calling to dethrone Desalegn “by all means necessary.” This is a dangerous route for a country with such recent conflict and so many ethnic feuds, and, opposition leaders inside Ethiopia argue, an easy call for a man at a university 7,000 miles from Addis Ababa. As Merera Gudina, founder of local opposition party Oromo People’s Congress, says, “If there’s a coup, people will die.”

Nega says unnecessary violence would be avoided by educating those with weapons about democracy and the separation of powers; he regularly talks with members of armed groups and other dissidents about blueprints for the future. It will be based on strong institutions, an independent judiciary and economic policies that aim to serve Ethiopia’s poor majority.

Still, despite his best efforts to teach and mobilize, what’s to stop the country from falling into chaos after the last two changes in government? Nega is not sure. “History repeating itself,” he says, “that is what keeps me up at night.”


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