On Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa

I lived in Ethiopia from 1971 to 1974, before and during the revolution that culminated in the overthrow of Emperor Haile Sellassie on 12 September 1974, and his replacement by a military committee known as the Dergue. I worked as a librarian in what was then called Haile Sellassie I University, and moonlighted as a news announcer at an independent radio station, RVOG. I started writing about Ethiopia only after I had left the country to move to Tanzania, and after I was able to gain some limited perspective on an extraordinary four-year period in my life. In at least one instance, an early piece of mine about Ethiopia turned out to have a much longer shelf-life than might have reasonably been expected.

Ambassador Tesfaye Habisso
Plagiarises My Work, June 2011

This is a cautionary tale about the risks involved in posting scholarly papers, however ancient or obscure, on Internet websites. As scandals go, it was pretty much a storm in a teacup, and had the unintended benefit, from my viewpoint, of drawing attention to a 35-year-old analysis that had never even been published in an academic journal, although it had been cited once or twice.

On 6 June 2011, I received an e-mail from an Ethiopian journalist, Abebe Gellaw, with whom I had had no previous contact. Ato Abebe wrote:

Dear Dr. Colin Darch,

Your scholarly paper on the Ethiopian Student Movement is very insightful and reflects your unique perspective. I have downloaded a copy of the paper from your website.

While I have no doubt that you are the author of the paper, it has been very intriguing to me that another author, Mr. Tesfaye Habisso, has published the exact copy of this paper under his name on EPRDF’s website.

As a journalist, I am trying to get to the bottom of this case. I would like you to kindly confirm who the writer of this paper is. I have also contacted Mr. Habisso, former Ethiopian Ambassador to South Africa, to explain how this could happen. Thank you so much for your time.

The paper that Ato Abebe was referring to was a conference paper that I had presented a meeting in Dar es Salaam in December 1976. I immediately looked at the website mentioned, which belonged to the «Supporter’s Forum» of the Ethiopian ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. There was my paper, with a couple of words changed in the title, and the authorship changed to read ‘by Tesfaye Habisso’.

In all other respects the text was unchanged, and significantly, although the paper had supposedly been written by Ambassador Tesfaye in 2009, included no references to any sources, primary or secondary, later than 1975-1976. This was despite the fact that important academic articles and books on the role of Ethiopian students in the revolution by foreign and local authors such as Randi Rønning Balsvik (Haile Sellassie’s Students: the Intellectual and Social Background to Revolution 1952-1977 [1985]); Fentahun Tiruneh (The Ethiopian Students: Their Struggle to Articulate the Ethiopian Revolution [1990]); and Bahru Zewde (Documenting the Ethiopian Student Movement: An Exercise in Oral History [reprinted 2010]), to mention a few, had appeared in the interim. It seemed scarcely credible that an Ethiopian ‘scholar’ would have ignored all these new sources. On the other hand, my conference paper, presented in 1976 and unrevised, could only have used the earlier sources.

In any event, the incident then received coverage in such Ethiopian online newspapers as Addis Voice, as well as in the South African press. See, for example, the following articles: Abebe Gellaw, ‘EPRDF, Tesfaye Habisso and the 99.6 percent plagiarism’, Addis Voice 7 June 2011, available here; and Fekade Shewakena, ‘The serial plagiarism of Ambassador Tesfaye Habisso’, Addis Voice 15 June 2011, available here;

For local South African press coverage, see Shanti Aboobaker, ‘Envoy Plagiarised 1976 Article,’ Cape Times, 14 June 2011, p.1, 5, downloadable here; and Shanti Aboobaker, ‘Academic, Diplomat Tussle Over Penning of Paper,’ Cape Times, 14 June 2011, downloadable here.

On 5 August 2011, after taking legal advice, I sent an e-mail to Ambassador Tesfaye, requiring him to remove the offending plagiarised text from the EPRDF-SF website. The same day he replied by e-mail, claiming that his critics were politically motivated but acknowledging my sole authorship unambiguously, and apologizing for what he termed his ‘mistake’. He wrote:

… the error occurred simply because I sought to reminisce about the student movement of the 1970s and tried to do that by reproducing … your brilliant article ... without changing the authors’ names and just as they were but somehow the publishers affixed my name to your article … it is quite some time since I asked the EPRDF-Supporters Forum to erase that article from their website … I did not submit your article for any personal gain; nor did I submit it as a partial requirement for a diploma or degree in literature or history or any other area; it happened by mistake. Besides, I have no need to plagiarize anybody's paper when I can write such a paper in my area of specialization. Whatever the case, I sincerely apologize for the error.

Although the piece was not taken down at the time, as of February 2014, the EPRDF-SF website seems to be no longer active.

For whatever reason, however, Ambassador Tesfaye was unable to let the matter rest, and he returned obsessively to the subject in early 2015 with an online article entitled, extraordinarily, “Plagiarism is Not Such a Big Moral Deal: A Belated Rebuttal to Abebe Gelawa’s Allegations,” published on the Ethiopian News website here. Much of the piece consists of an attack on Abebe Gellaw’s motives for bringing the matter to light in the first place, several years earlier, but the ambassador also argues that plagiarism is, after all, not “such a big moral deal outside of academia, industry and a few other areas of intellectual pursuit.” In February 2015, in what is hopefully the last word on the issue, Abebe Gellaw posted a response on the ECADF website, here, quoting me to the effect that if you find yourself in a hole, the best thing to do is to stop digging.



♦ Soviet and Russian research on Ethiopia and eastern Africa: a second look in the context of the area studies crisis. In: Africa in Russia, Russia in Africa: three centuries of encounters, edited by Maxim Matusevich (Trenton NJ: Africa World Press, 2007), pages 133-151. Click here to view or download the PDF file, 1.5 Mb.

♦ Spirituality, reality and history. African Agenda vol.1 no.8, 1995, pages 52-53. Review of books by Roderick Grierson (African Zion), Richard Pankhurst (A Social History of Ethiopia) and Sven Rubenson (Tewodros and His Contemporaries). Click here to view or download a PDF, 385 Kb.

A Soviet view of Africa: an annotated bibliography on Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti. Boston, Mass.: G. K. Hall, 1980. Now out-of-print. Click here to order a used copy.

♦ The Ethiopian revolution. Daily News [Dar es Salaam], 13 September 1975, p.5. Review of Raul Valdes Vivo's book Ethiopia: the unknown revolution . Click here to view or download a PDF copy [300 Kb.] or here for a better-quality JPEG image [3.5 Mb.]

♦ The Ethiopian student movement in the struggle against imperialism, 1960-1974. Paper presented to the Annual Social Science Conference of the East African Universities (12th: Dar es Salaam: 20-22 December 1976). Click here to view or download a PDF [63 Kb.] or here to view an HTML version, also mirrored here. A substantial excerpt was also featured with some comment on the Mestawot blog, here.

♦ The rise of the Amhara state. African Review [Dar es Salaam] vol.7 no.3/4, 1977, pages 106-109. Click here to view or download a PDF, 300 Kb.