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The Quest for Socialist Utopia

​Bahru Zewde's "The Quest for Socialist Utopia: The Ethiopian Student Movement c. 1960-1974" (2014) is brilliant. It is detailed, and may be of interest to a narrow audience as a result. However, this exploration of the student movement – leading up to the overthrow of the Imperial Regime in 1974 – is extremely well done, and is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the historical roots of contemporary issues in Ethiopia.

Bahru admirably accomplished his task of "present a more comprehensive and analytical narrative, placing the movement within first its global and then its national contexts. Taking into account both the external and internal components of the Ethiopian student movement" (p. 9). While, at the same time, the book does not set out to defend or vilify any specific group or person. Rather, Bahru argues, "the student movement, the Ethiopian included, has to be viewed not as a philosophical issue but as a historical phenomenon. As such, it has to be understood within the context of its time, not judged from the vantage point of the present" (p. 9.

What was the movement all about? Ending oppression: "There is general consensus that the driving force behind the Ethiopian student movement was rejection of oppression in all its forms. The protests and demonstrations that started to peak after 1965 were directed against one manifestation or another of that oppression. The 'Land to the Tiller' demonstration of 1965 had its objective economic and social equity in the exploitation of the country's most important social and economic asset – land. In 1966, students rose in defence of the poor who were herded in shelters that were considered sub-human. The 1967 demonstration was in protests against the curtailment of the freedom of expression and assembly. The nation-wide protests of 1969, under the slogan of 'Education for All' drew attention to the increasing constraints placed on the poor sectors of society in educating their children" (p. 187).

It was, given the circumstances, a highly influential and effective movement. "For about a decade and a half in the middle of the past century, Ethiopian students made a decisive and fateful intervention in the national affairs of their country", writes Bahru (p. 263). But, the author also wonders how ended up where it did: "there is general consensus that the seventeen-year tenure of the Darg was one of almost unmitigated gloom. The only redeeming feature of that tenure was the land reform proclamation of 1975, which could be said to have been a resounding response both to the passionate calls of the reforming intellectuals of the early twentieth century to alleviate the lot of the tribute-paying peasant (the gabbar) and the slogan of the 'Land to the Tiller' articulated by the students in 1965 (p. 263-264). The author does not only recount the events, but reflects upon them and their significance. For example, he suggests that the radical Marxist ideals with militant adherents were not new in form, but rather a "transmutation of the religious orthodoxy of the classical tradition" and the "Marxist-Leninist writings provided a ready-made justification for such militant opposition" (p. 138). On the future, this eminent Ethiopian scholar, writes: "The country has to come to grips with and move beyond this legacy if it is to have any hope of redemption. At the same time, however, we have to understand that the students did what they did in all genuineness and sincerity. They had not hidden agenda. They were driven by what has driven youth everywhere and throughout the ages – the quest for social justice and equitable development" (p. 280).

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The Great War of Africa

​"Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa" by Jason K. Stearns (2011) "tells the story of the conflict that resulted from these regional, national, and local dimensions and that has lasted from 1996 until today" (p. 8). The author not only has a depth of experience in the region, but also conveys a passion for the places, people, histories, experiences described. More than anything else, it is the way in which Stearns writes that is appeals. This is a story that needs to be read, and also an example of great story telling.

"This book tries to see the conflict through the eyes of its protagonists and understand why war made more sense than peace, why the regional political elites seem to be so rich in opportunism and so lacking in virtue" (p. 6). Stearns focuses upon "the perpetrators more than the victims, the politicians and the army commanders more than the refugees and rape survivors, although many of the protagonists oscillate between these categories. Rather than dwelling on the horror of the conflict, which is undeniable, I have chosen to grapple with the nature of the system that brought the principal actors to power, limited the choices they could make, and produced such chaos and suffering" (p. 8).

"Like layers of an onion, the Congo war contains wars with wars. There was not one Congo war, or even two, but at least forty or fifty different, interlocking wars. Local conflicts fed into regional and international conflicts and vice versa. Teasing out the origins can be a tail-chasing exercise" (p. 69). That is also where Stearns concludes: "The Congo war had no one cause, no clear conceptual essence that can be easily distilled in a couple of paragraphs. Like an ancient Greek epic, it is a mess of different narrative strands - some heroic, some venal, all combined in a narrative that is not straighforward but layered, shifting, and incomplete. It is not a war of great mechanical precision but of ragged human edges" (p. 336).

In some narratives, the international community (i.e. a few powerful states), exerts its will upon the world. The Congolese wars are yet another example of how agency and power much more complex: "As both Museveni and Kagame had learned in their own insurgencies, the international community was inherently hostile to foreign invasions but turned a blind eye to domestic rebellions that called themselves liberation struggles. Go look for Congolese rebels, he told Kagame, who could act as a fig leaf for Rwandan involvement" (p. 53). Readers unfamiliar with the Congo will be shocked with how other nations, particularly Rwanda, played key roles in the Congolese wars.

There are numerous side notes I found interesting, such as reflections on non-violent action (p. 9), intentional false indoctrination (p. 16), psychology of fear (p. 36), the role of economics and poverty in conflict and hatred (p. 95), the long-term societal impacts of conflict (p. 261). The author was seeking to understand the system, and about this, he concludes: "A central reason, therefore, for the lack of visionary leadership in the Congo is because its political system rewards ruthless behaviour and marginalizes scrupulous leaders. It privileges loyalty over competence, wealth and power over moral character" (p. 331).

What lessons can be learned? "This state of affairs should force foreign donors to think more carefully about contributing billions of dollars to development in the Congo without pondering the long-term repercussions… By taking the financing of most public services, donors take pressure off the Congolese government to respond to the needs of its citizens. Ultimately, the rule of law will not be created through a capacity building project in the ministry of finance but through a power struggle between government, local elites, and business circles. Donors need to figure out how to most responsibly insert themselves in this dynamic and not just pave roads, build hospitals, and reform fiscal systems" (p. 332). However, there "are no easy solutions for the Congo, no silver bullets to produce accountable government and peace. The ultimate fate of the country rests with the Congolese people themselves.Westerners also have a role to play, in part because of our historical debt to the country, in part because it is the right thing to do. This does not mean imposing a foreign vision on the country or simply sending food and money. It means understanding it and its politics and rhythms on their own terms, and then doing our part in providing the environment conducive to growth and stability" (p. 337).

My only (minor) recommendation to the author would be to reduce points of repetition. Some stories and facts are returned at different parts of the book. This may have been purposeful, for a readership unfamiliar with the details, but at times gave it a slightly unpolished feel.

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Indigenous Research Methodologies

​A number of past posts presented books on decolonization - Fanon on struggles, Ngugi on language, and Smith on methodologies. How might a grounding in decolonization shape research? Margaret Kovach addresses this question in "Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations, and Contexts" (2009). 

In seeking to understand how Indigenous methodologies have been utilized in research, Kovach presents reflections of Indigenous scholars. Their "stories, interwoven with my own reflections, explore how Indigenous researchers have integrated Indigenous cultural knowledges into their research frameworks and the challenges of doing so within academia" (p. 14). Foundational to what makes Indigenous approaches different is a grounding in decolonization: "introducing Indigenous knowledges into any form of academic discourse (research or otherwise) must ethically include the influence of the colonial relationships, thereby introducing a decolonizing perspective into a critical paradigm" (p. 30). This is key because knowledge is "neither acultural nor apolitical" (p. 30).

The author outlines how what constitutes knowledge is a key question, and one that creates challenges in integrating Indigenous methodologies into academia. "Ancient knowledge is still alive in Cree communities. The most sacred form comes through dreams, fasts, sweats, vision quests, and during sacred ceremonies" (p. 66, see also p. 140). But, "Sacred knowledge is not really accepted in Western research, other than in a peripheral, anthropological, exotic kind of way. This can create a difficulty for the Indigenous researcher, for if one chooses to embrace Plains Cree knowledges one must honour all that they are" (p. 67). This includes committing "to its values and demands" (p. 133).

Kovach's books is one step into the direction of broadening what is considered acceptable and accepted within academia. "Creating methodological choice for Indigenous researchers is but one element of decolonizing research, a process that requires depth, breadth, and attention to various aspects of research" (p. 175). "There are also political motivations. Given the assimilative tendency of Western culture, highlighting the tribal-knowledge basis of an Indigenous research framework rather than identifying it as a more generic relational, holistic epistemology, lessens the risk of a qualitative research community assimilating it" (p. 177).

One of the traits Kovach highlights is the relational nature of research and the need for reflexivity. The book does not simply describe these as traits, but exemplifies these traits throughout, as the author explores her own situatedness and journey with Indigenous methodologies. This book is unique - in its style and content - and it is well worth reading.

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Why Don’t the Poor Rise Up?

​An article in the New York Times in 2015 provoked Michael Truscello and Ajamu Nangwaya to bring together the volume: "Why Don't the Poor Rise Up? Organizing the Twenty-First Century Resistance" (2017). This book is divided into two sections, one on the Global North and another on the Global South, and is an "anthology of radical perspectives on contemporary struggles" (p. 2). The book is a counter narrative to the idea suggested in the New York Times that the poor are not rising up. "The title is both challenging and provocative, in the sense that it is at once a question and an assumption. But is it true that the poor do not rise up? Or do we simply not recognize their resistance and rebellion?" (p. 1). In documenting stories of resistance, the authors seek to address an apparent gap: "We do not have enough knowledge and information on the diverse struggles waged around the world, the wealth of experiences gained, and the lessons learnt from them and numerous victories achieved. Consequently, we do not celebrate them nor gain inspiration from them to wage new struggles. The first-hand experiences and contributions shared in this collection serve as a radical attempt to reverse this trend" (p. 3).

There are eighteen examples, well beyond summary in a brief post. In general, I had hoped the book would have delved deeper. Many of the chapters are brief descriptive summaries of challenges faced and responses. Readers familiar with this literature might be left wanting. However, for those who do wonder 'why the poor do not rise up', this is a collection worth reading. Two thought provoking quotes:

From Praba Pilar and Alex Wilson: "An early example of these confining constructs was the "Inter Caetera," a papal bull issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493 that laid out the justification for the Doctrine of Discovery. It established that Christian nations had a divine right (based on the bible) to grant themselves legal ownerships of any "unoccupied" lands (where unoccupied was defined as the absence of Christian people) and dominion over any people on those lands. A current example of these confining constructs is the salvation narrative unconsciously reproduced by many in the white Left when approach Indigenous and other non-European communities as allies but present solutions that have been developed in isolation, are paternalistic, and/or are inappropriate to the context. Salvation narratives are often seen as benign, but they are not. hey reflect and perpetuate the early justification for colonization, i.e., that "God had directed [Europeans] to bring civilized ways and education and religion to Indigenous Peoples and to exercise paternalism and guardianship powers over them'" (p. 35)

From Gussai Sheikheldin: "States and markets normalize the exploitation and oppression of many in society through the pretext of order and justice… becoming aware of a phenomenon does not automatically imply that one will care to transform it, so understanding structural sources of oppression in society does not necessarily mean that one will seek to combat them. That is objectively true, but we should also be mindful that any genuine care is unlikely to happen without understanding. Then there's the difference between understanding on the one hand, and 'consciousness' (understanding and caring) on the other." (p. 233-235).

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False Start in Africa (1962)

Rene Dumont's "False Start in Africa" (1962) is arguably one of the most influential and widely read texts on agriculture in Africa. The book is more of a conversation, than it is an academic text. However, Dumont was a pioneering voice for identifying key issues such as soil erosion, micronutrient deficiencies, soil type and quality in agricultural planning, (a degree of) participation and ownership, and of the value of local procurement. Readers might not come across many "new" ideas, but it is certainly worthwhile reading (if nothing else to see what was being said 55+ years ago in agricultural development). 

Dumont recommends irrigation, fertilizer, erosion prevention, affordable energy and livestock as keys to agricultural development (p. 32). At the same time, he outlines many failures of large and inappropriate projects (in these same recommended areas). The book offers specifics as what Dumont feels is appropriate and worthwhile. The author suggests that machinery and equipment are essential - along with a reduction of luxury goods (p. 44) - but similarly outlines that the European model should not be blindly followed. Rather, a new path needs to be made by, and for, African nations (p. 58). In many ways, the book offers nuanced critiques and options for moving forward with positive examples (Dumont criticizes academics for their sole focus on failure, without recognizing success). 

Given that the book was written in 1962, Dumont offers some unique perspectives. He says that "Economic progress requires an exodus from rural areas" (p. 195). He also calls for a radical shift in education - one more focused on technical skills, and not the copying of more academic oriented European models unsuitable to the needs of the nation (p. 202). Dumont promoted African and regional unity, economic unions, and continent-wide coordination (p. 264). He also argued that Europeans should not dictate to Africa (note that the author was a former colonial employee), and says "before giving lessons on socialism to Africa, let us set our own houses in order" (p. 280). 

Amidst these interesting discussions, Dumont also offers his fair share of derogatory comments and bad ideas. For example, agricultural credit, he argues, should be given out by the local peasant leader to 'reinforce his authority' (p. 213). That authority, however, can act to entrench marginalization and exploitation. Although the language has changed, Dumont appears to favor the 'developmental state' model of a single party state to push development forward - at the expense of broad and inclusive participation (p. 240). While it is worthwhile recognizing the useful ideas of this book, we should also criticize it (as it is indeed well worth criticism). 

From one perspective, Dumont appears to contradict himself in different parts of the text. However, as mentioned above, the book reads more like a conversation than a structured flow of ideas. So, irrigation infrastructure failures are pointed out, alongside broad opposition to large projects of this nature, while irrigation is also recommended. In my reading, these are general critiques with specific exceptions, rather than contradictions. Another example of this is land tenure. Dumont argues that tenure security is key (p. 128) but also that the land should be communally or state owned, and land should be taken from farmers in some instances (p. 129). While apparently contradictory, it appears that the general rule advocated is tenure security while revoking that security is the exception. Others more versed in Dumont's opinions, or the rest of his works, may have a better understanding - it is nonetheless worth noting for potential readers that the book is one more akin to hearing stories and getting advice from an experienced grandfather, than it is a systematic research work with clearly stated positions / recommendations.

As a side note: Amongst his advice, Dumont recommends African students to read Frantz Fanon (p. 251).

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Logan Cochrane

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