Book Review: “Medemer” (Abiy Ahmed, 2019, ISBN978-99944-75-82-7, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 280 pages)

Book Review: “Medemer” (Abiy Ahmed, 2019, ISBN978-99944-75-82-7, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 280 pages)

By: Asebe Regassa (PhD)[1]

Note about the review process

Reviewing a book authored by a high-profile political figure in the country is not an easy task for many reasons. Firstly, as the author also acknowledged in the book, it is more of a political document than academic material, and thus, the review requires contextualizing the political (dis)orders in the country. Secondly, as a political document, it inevitably reflects a certain political position, and may not subscribe to or accommodate views from competing political spectrum. As a result, taking this exercise to reflect a balanced review is not an easy task but I tried to maintain the balance. My analytical interjections are purely from intellectual standpoint but as a close observer of Ethiopian politics, I cannot put myself outside the field as indifferent.

1. Introduction

The book authored by the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, titled, “Medemer” (closely translated as synergy) is structured into four broad parts and sixteen chapters. The author articulates the essence and conceptualization of medemer in part one, and claims to have presented the political, economic and foreign relation dimensions of the concept in remaining three parts. The author used a self-reflexive approach just in the introductory section of the book and asserts he grew with the understanding, inspirations, aspirations and determination of inculcating the notions of medemer into his day-today life, institutional set-up and leadership at different levels. He also underlined that the political purpose and motivation of writing the book outweigh the academic purposes, and thus methodological orientations followed were also not purely academic.

2. A Deconstructionist Approach?

The introductory section of the book gives the reader a glimpse of deconstructionist political philosophy and a critique to what Christopher Clapham stated the “politics of development emulation”[2] in Ethiopia. In the form of critical reflection on the crisis of knowledge production and failure to transform the country’s political and economic landscape, the author navigated through attempts made by successive regimes to import foreign models from the West and the East but all resulted in failed stories (pp. vi). Although the nature of state formation that adversely shaped state-society relations into predator-prey relation could also be blamed for the failure of development models, the author is also right in arguing that such failure is attributed to absence of contextualizing foreign philosophies and models. In this regard, a long time observer and researcher of Ethiopian politics, Professor Christopher Clapham, succinctly argued that successive Ethiopian regimes since the mid-19th century failed to transform the country’s politics and economy because they transplanted alien models without adapting to local contexts.[3]

Accordingly, the author’s strong claim to indigenization of knowledge production that in turn can be used to deconstruct the hegemonic Western philosophies of knowledge and ideology is something to be commended. Building on his childhood observation and interaction with the natural environment, which he describes as a conjoint constitution of humans and non-humans, the author tries to embed the relations among humans, and between humans and non-humans within indigenous ontologies of nature-culture relations. In the prologue and introductory sections of the book, he tried to establish his argument on the necessity of connectedness among human beings, and between them and their natural environment. His definition of medemer is presumably derived from the general understanding that cooperation is inherently humane as it fosters realization of intrinsic demands and aspirations at individual and group levels (pp. 1-9). However, for the notion of medemer to be claimed an indigenous political ‘philosophy’, it should be built on indigenous epistemologies and respond to the complex historical contestations and narratives, socio-cultural diversities, political and economic (dis)orders in the country, which the book rarely addresses.

  3. The Missing Links

Despite the assertions of the author in glamorizing medemer as a solution for the multidimensional problems in the country (pp. 34), the book fails to provide strong link between what it asserts and the existing realities on the ground. It also doesn’t provide concrete directions how to move ‘medemer’ beyond an abstract concept. For the sake of convenience, I summarize my critique on four key issues:

  1. A wrong assertion about Indigeneity of the concept: although the author criticized models and ideologies emulated both from the West and East and blamed them as culprits for democricide, collapse of indigenous institutions and values, and for socio-economic crises in the country at least for the last half a century, he failed to concretely ground his alternative pathways into indigenous philosophy and knowledge. Bashing down an ideological orientation and glorifying another has been among mechanisms rulers use in legitimating what they upheld is the only lanes to modernization, development, transformation and progress. In contrary to his own assertions, the author failed to cite a single reference on indigenous epistemologies of knowledge production, governance, nature-culture relations, etc. The list of reference materials on the bibliography is a testimony to this. Therefore, nothing is indigenous about medemer.
  1. Stretching the concept beyond its limit: the author has provided dictionary definitions of the Amharic word, “medemer” as “collecting together, adding, accumulating, connecting, and making one” ( 40). While some examples in the book such as the need to add upon existing assets, connecting together social capitals, connecting nodes of different elements in the system for complete functioning of the system/institution are valid, others are too much taken out of context. For example, the author cites the victory of Adwa as the best example of medemer. Adwa victory can be better understood as cooperation and unity than medemer.  Similarly, the author tries to construe actor-network as medemer (see pp. 44 about network and cooperation between coffee traders). If an actor-network theory, which is an established principle in social and institutional networks, is appropriated as a feature of medemer, the latter should not considered a new “philosophy”.
  2. The assumption of homogenizing Ethiopia and failure to recognize existing realities: Ethiopia is a country of many contradictions and competing historical narratives. It is a country of diversities not only in terms of cultural values and practices but also in the spheres social relations and worldviews. The well-established north-south dichotomy is not a geographical division. It is, rather built on boundaries between a hierarchically ordered social relation in the North, and almost egalitarian societies of the South. Nevertheless, the author has made a wrong presumption that Ethiopians have many shared values, practices, beliefs, customs, narratives and identities that can be added together, collected, accumulated and mobilized for the realization of what he calls common goals ( 146). On the one hand, the author didn’t mention at least the building blocks of these common values (if any), and on the other hand, he ignored the argument by many scholars that Ethiopia’s political discord, particularly among major groups, is because they don’t have common values to share.[4] Be it in law of nature or through human interventions, adding, collecting and connecting contradictory nodes, values, practices and beliefs would rarely result in what the author envisions as a mechanism of addressing century-long problems of the country.Another generalization and mismatch between the author’s assertion and the existing reality on the ground is the notion of building “Ethiopian Democracy” (chapter 6). He clearly discussed current contradictions between advocates of individual right (citizen nationalists) and group right (ethno-nationalists, as he labels). However, his prescription as a solution is reconciling both views through medemer, which I doubt would result neither to an “Ethiopian democracy” nor to accommodation of both contradictions. Indeed, the author didn’t discuss what it means “Ethiopian Democracy”, and if at all it is possible to forge
  1. Failure of putting concrete strategies to translate medemer into everyday life: the book discussed at length the trajectories and ruptures in Ethiopia’s emulation of foreign ideologies, and why it failed. Beginning from competing narratives on the formation of the Ethiopian state all through the revolutions, and the associated political and economic crises, the author has thoroughly analyzed at least with the focus on what Ali Mazrui calls the curse of adopting ‘western taste without western techniques of production’.[5] However, nowhere in the book has the author clearly put concrete strategies and pathways to indigenize the politics, economy and social relations except grossly asserting that Medemer is a solution. The question remains, how?

The book is an important resource for understanding Ethiopia’s politics of ideological emulation and how it resulted into political crisis, economic collapse, institutional weakness and more importantly irresponsive government systems over the last half-century. It also succinctly reveals how hegemonic state system was built and consolidated through coercive power, which it used as a mechanism of control and domination over individuals and groups. However, in contrary to the claims of the author in the prologue and introductory sections as medemer was born and grew up with him in Bashasha village, the entire content of the book devoted to bashing down mainstream discourses without trying to (re)build a new foundation on or in place of the wreckages of what it has destroyed. A reader who carefully reads the prologue and introduction would be enthusiastic to see the author’s ideological foundations built or designed using building blocks at least from anywhere in the country if not from Bashasha elders, institutions, forests, mountains, and valleys. Therefore, it becomes premature to prescribe medemer as a medicine to cure the country’s multifaceted wounds though the book should not also be out-rightly rejected useless.

[1] The reviewer is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Indigenous Studies at Dilla University, Ethiopia.
[2] Clapham, Christopher (2006). ‘Ethiopian Development: The Politics of Emulation’, Common Wealth and Comparative Politics 44(1): 137–50.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Megerssa, Gemetchu and Kassam, Aneesa (2019) Sacred Knowledge Tranditions oft he Oromo oft he Horn of Africa (UK: Fifth World Publications).
[5] Mazrui, Ali A. (2002) ‘Who Killed Democracy in Africa? Clues of the Past, Concerns of the Future’. Development Policy Management Network Bulletin IX (1): 15–23.

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