Which way Ethiopia?

February 7, 2009

By Messay Kebede
Since the disintegration of Kinijit after the release of its leaders from prison, the debate is raging between supporters of armed struggle and those still favoring a peaceful form of struggle. The purpose of this paper is to review their respective arguments and counterarguments, not so much to declare the one position correct as to provide clarity on the strategic choices that Ethiopians face in their fight to bring about social change.
My feeling is that both sides made their choice either without fully understanding the potentials of the alternative choice or without properly weighing the nature and requirements of their own strategic choice. Before examining what the two choices mean in Ethiopia’s concrete situation, I want to present the general arguments that theoreticians and political leaders use to support either peaceful or armed struggle.

Dictatorship and Armed Struggle

The most compelling justification for violent political action is the belief that it is the only and last resort to topple a dictatorial regime. As the latter makes peaceful struggle impossible by the use of brutal repression and the complete rejection of negotiated outcome, it gives no other choice to people than to overthrow it by violent uprising. Not only is it argued that removal of a regime that denies basic rights is a fundamental right of people, but also that it is appropriate to use violence, given that dictatorial regimes only understand the language of force.

Violence achieves two basic truths. First, you show to your opponent that you are beyond life, that you are ready to sacrifice your life for your dignity and rights, thereby regenerating your own worth to yourself. Second, the use of violent means inculcates fear into the dictatorial regime and forces it to think that the business of denying rights to people has become a risky and unprofitable game. Most of all, fear demoralizes the repressive forces as it becomes quite clear to them that the defense of the regime increasingly requires the sacrifices not only of their comfort but also of their life.

For the defenders of violent action and armed struggle, the problem lies less in the legitimacy of violence than in the prevailing ideology painting nonviolent action as the best way to achieve social change. Especially, since the decline of the Marxist ideology of revolutionary change in favor of a reformist approach, nonviolent action has gained new respectability. As a result, the advocates of nonviolence have established their hegemony in all spheres of public expressions and have succeeded in presenting the use of violence as wrong and inefficient.

The hegemonic standing of nonviolence ideology has been instituted through fabricated stories about the efficiency of nonviolence. The cases of Gandhi and India’s independence, of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the US, the fall of apartheid in South Africa, the disintegration of socialist regimes, etc., are presented as evidence of the efficiency of nonviolent movement. These stories deliberately overlook that the changes were obtained through a whole spectrum of actions, the most decisive being the threat of greater or actual violence.

These falsifications go hand-in-hand with the rejection of the role of social violence and war in history. Yet, the most superficial look at history attests that social progress was often achieved by violent means, as witnessed by the violent nature of revolutions. The Marxist belief that force is the midwife of history applies to any historical case where a significant social advancement has been achieved.

The attempt to eliminate violence as a legitimate means of political struggle is to be placed in the context of the hegemonic order of globalization. The triumph of a global capitalist order understandably devalues violence in favor of nonviolence, which always ends up in negotiations and concessions benefiting globalist forces. The universal method of delegitimizing violent political struggle is to call it “terrorism.” Whereas violent uprising contests the status quo, nonviolence establishes norms of political struggle that results in integration and compromises. Western countries encourage and financially support governments and opposition movements that abide by the rules of nonviolent form of political competition. In this way, the world order, as established by globalist forces, is safeguarded against any major disruption.

The Advantages of Nonviolence

It springs to mind that what fuels such a debate is the complete misunderstanding of what nonviolent action really is. The defenders of violent action equate nonviolence with pacifism and submission when the advocates of nonviolent action have always insisted that the equation is utterly mistaken. True, nonviolence is a commitment not to use violent means, but it never preaches submission, passivity, or even patience. On the contrary, it is set on political defiance for the purpose of achieving social change through the practice of civil disobedience or noncooperation, involving such public acts of defiance as strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, etc.

Wrong is, therefore, the view confining nonviolent movement to legalism, understood in the sense of doing only those actions that the repressive regime authorizes. Since it is a rebellious strategy, it openly challenges the repressive rules of the regime. Accordingly, nonviolent struggle does not mean absence of confrontations and serious risks, including numerous deaths, obvious as it is that dictatorial regimes often tend to respond to nonviolent actions with violent repressions so as to discourage further insubordination. Clearly, nonviolent resistance requires as much, if not more, courage, discipline, and sacrifice as armed struggle. The decisive difference, however, so say theoreticians of nonviolence, is that it obtains faster and better results and with less destruction of human life and property than armed insurrection.

Most crucial here is less the rejection of violence than the choice of nonviolence as the most appropriate or the only method to bring about social change. Violence is not refused on grounds of religious or moral principles; rather, nonviolence is selected on grounds of greater efficiency. In other words, the best method of changing a dictatorial order is not violence, be it armed struggle or violent uprising, but nonviolent action.

Advocates of nonviolence want the debate to be over efficiency rather than morality. One basic argument in favor of greater efficiency is that nonviolent methods confront dictatorial regimes where they are weak. Indeed, the choice of a violent response to the violence of the state is a confrontation against a ready-made repressive force that has the advantages of number and resources. It is never smart to attack where the enemy is superior.

To be sure, supporters of violent methods readily object by pointing out that guerrilla warfare is precisely a method that counters the military superiority of the state. It is a form of war that neutralizes the advantages of the professional army and police of the oppressor through the use of mobility and elusiveness, thereby changing weakness into tactical offensive. Nonetheless, theoreticians of guerrilla warfare also insist that specific conditions are necessary to make this form of war successful, such as the full support of the local population, the suitability of the terrain, the availability of sanctuaries––often provided by neighboring countries––etc. Where such conditions are not met, guerrilla warfare has trouble making headway.

This dependence on specific conditions indicates that guerrilla warfare is not a universal panacea against dictatorial regimes, as opposed to nonviolent action, which is available for any society at any time. Moreover, it is by no means certain that armed struggle always succeeds in defeating militarily established states. Interestingly, when armed struggles fail, people invariably turn to nonviolent action as the only resort. A case in point is South Africa: when 25 years of armed struggle failed to produce an appreciable military result against the Apartheid regime, the ANC leadership correctly shifted to and encouraged nonviolent resistance. Likewise, the realization of the inefficiency of armed struggle against the state of Israel led Palestinians to adopt the largely nonviolent movement known as intifada.

More often than not, armed struggle achieved military victory after a protracted state of war involving heavy human suffering and sacrifices as well as extensive destructions of property. In light of such heavy human and material losses, proponents of nonviolent action argue that nonviolence achieves change in lesser time and with less sacrifices and destructions. What is more, it guarantees a better result, for history teaches us that regimes established as a result of military victory are usually not better than the regimes they overthrew. At any rate, they are not likely to put in place a democratic political system if only because the militarized leadership of a guerrilla movement is little inclined to draw its legitimacy from popular consent. Obviously, armed struggle creates a new power that is as independent of the people as was the ousted regime.

While a guerrilla movement is liberation by proxy, nonviolent movement requires and develops the active participation of the working people. Herein lies the power of nonviolence: it is the active mobilization of the power that people effectively control, namely, noncooperation. Surely, if a sufficient number of people repeatedly withdraw cooperation, engaging in acts of disobedience, for example in large strikes, the net outcome is that the country becomes ungovernable. Provided that it is widespread, noncooperation thus gives a strategic advantage to the working people by deploying a weapon against which repressive forces have little leverage.

Experience shows that regimes threatened by violent uprisings often become even more brutal, thereby causing greater loss of lives and resources. Repressive forces are most at ease in a situation of violence in that they have been trained and equipped to handle it. Different is the case when repressive forces encounter a peaceful mode of protest applying the tactics of noncooperation. The wider the noncooperation becomes, the less easy it is to repressive forces to coerce a great number of people into cooperation, not to mention the fact that the use of brutal methods against peaceful people could itself be morally troubling to police forces. Even if the most common assumption is to say that unarmed protesters will simply be gunned down by a dictatorial regime, history attests that even the worst regimes are reluctant to brutalize organized nonviolent people. So that, both the scale and the method of protest give advantages to the people by putting the repressive forces in an unfamiliar terrain.

Another and most remarkable benefit of nonviolence is the greater prospect of a better society. While a democratic outcome remains elusive with armed struggle, for nonviolent movement, it is almost inevitable. Since nonviolence is the liberation of the people by the people themselves, and not by a guerrilla army claiming to represent them, it activates their direct empowerment. Nonviolent forms of struggle are forums allowing ordinary people to learn and exercise their power. The fact that the liberation is not a gift, but an outcome of their struggle, means that both the spirit and the organizations generated during the struggle provide the best guarantee for the creation of a democratic order. Among the important advantages of nonviolent struggle is also its ability to divide the camp of the opponent. Since unlike armed struggle the purpose is not so much to force the repressive regime into submission as to bring it to the negotiating table, this prospect of a negotiated settlement creates splits within the ruling class between moderates and extremists. The use of nonviolent methods and negotiations, in addition to promising a democratic future to everybody, removes the fear of retaliation from the supporters of the oppressive system. In advocating negotiations, it presents change as a win-win outcome. It was the shift to a nonviolent form of struggle that convinced many white South Africans to abandon the idea of a continued white domination.

Besides dividing and weakening the internal supporters of the status quo, nonviolent movement impacts favorably on world opinion, especially on Western countries. While spectacles of violent uprisings have usually a repelling effect on Western consciousness, nonviolent protests arouse sympathy and mobilize many sectors of Western societies, such as churches, trade-unions, human rights organizations, etc. Seeing the reliance of most third world dictatorships on Western financial and diplomatic assistance, the shift of public opinion in favor of protesters can effectively hasten their downfall through the termination of any form of assistance.

Nonviolence in the Ethiopian Context

The above clarification shows that those Ethiopians who converted from peaceful struggle to violent confrontation on the grounds that the EPRDF has completely closed––since its electoral defeat in 2005––the little democratic space that it had opened had actually a truncated conception of the nature of nonviolent struggle from the very beginning. For instance, in his article titled “Violence versus non-violence: A clash of strategies,” posted on Addis Voice of July 24, 2008 (www.addisvoice.com/article/violence_versus_nonviolence.htm), Ephrem Madebo justifies the abandonment of nonviolent struggle thus: “In the early 1990s, many Ethiopians supported the argument for a peaceful struggle, not because peaceful struggle was the only viable strategy, but most of us believed, though very slim, that there was a political space in Ethiopia wide enough to wage peaceful struggle. Well, we were unpretentiously right, but today, that political space has faded away and accommodates only one party.”

To make the choice of nonviolent struggle dependent on the availability of democratic space overlooks that the democratic or undemocratic nature of the regime in place is not a determining factor. Nonviolence strategy is sustained defiance intent on bringing the opponent to the negotiating table; it sends one powerful message, to wit, the ungovernability of the country so long as the regime persists in its repressive policy instead of opening up negotiations. The events of the 2005 election as well as the growing number of new converts to armed struggle have no doubt fortified those Ethiopians who all along had thought that force was the only way to deal with the TPLF. This does not mean that their position has now become unchallengeable. One could certainly salute their consistency, but they have yet to convince us that armed struggle is the only way to bring real change in Ethiopia. We are not simply asking whether armed struggle can militarily defeat the TPLF in the near future, but most importantly, whether it can institute a democratic political system that can finally relaunch the long postponed modernization of Ethiopia.

Many Ethiopians believe that conditions favorable for a successful guerrilla war do not exist in present day Ethiopia. As already indicated, armed struggles can become successful when there is support from outside, especially when neighboring countries provide safe retreats, training centers, and arms. Both the EPLF and the TPLF waged a successful armed struggle against the Derg because they benefited from the support of neighboring countries as well as remote Arab countries. Likewise, the Cold War situation allowed them to benefit from the sympathy and support of Western countries, especially the US. Unfortunately, these conditions no longer exist, while Ethiopia remains surrounded by countries that are hostile to helping any movement seeking its renaissance and development. That is why existing guerrilla groups have no other choice than to depend on the Eritrean regime, which many Ethiopians consider as a completely unreliable ally, if not a hidden enemy. In light of this regional isolation, nonviolence remains the only strategy left to bring down the Woyanne regime.

Some Ethiopians argue that, besides unfavorable conditions, the very policy of the TPLF regime makes armed struggle a dangerous choice for Ethiopia and Ethiopians. Indeed, the strategy of the regime largely consists in exploiting ethnic diversity through a systematic policy of divide and rule that feeds ethnic tensions and shapes ethnic groups into competing forces. Inevitably, this situation of ethnic tensions and competitions taints armed struggle so that it is easily viewed more as a weapon for ethnic domination than as a mere expression of ethnic grievances. Far from uniting ethnic groups, the choice of armed struggle will thus drift them apart, since each group will want to have its own army. What this means is that the pursuit of armed struggle may turn ethnic tensions into generalized or indiscriminate wars that will be difficult to control. Only a large scale nonviolent movement in which ethnic groups participate more as protesters than as members of guerrilla groups can reduce the tensions deliberately provoked by the ruling elite.

Common sense indicates that the best way to deal with aggravated ethnic tensions is to build inter-ethnic coalitions through the recognition of the legitimate concerns of each ethnic group. Not only does this approach undermine the ideology of the regime, but most of all it removes the fear that change would result in another form of ethnic domination. Especially, only through the building of inter-ethnic coalitions can the fear many Tigreans have that the fall of Meles would trigger ethnic retaliation be eliminated. For instance, a coalition with the TPLF splinter group would send a resounding reassurance that nothing of the kind is going to happen. Clearly, inter-ethnic coalitions are better established through nonviolent movement than through the formation of guerrilla groups.

The choice of armed struggle seems to overlook the psychological side of the situation. Given that armed struggle cannot be successful without a large popular collaboration, it is important to know whether a large majority of Ethiopians is ready to support it. Whether we like it or not, what prevails now is a deep disenchantment as a result of successive deceptions since the fall of the imperial regime. Each time groups (the EPRP, the Derg, the EPLF, the TPLF and others) rose and claimed to bring about better conditions, the outcome was a change from bad to worse. Can armed struggle be successful in this climate of utter disenchantment?

It follows that nothing is more urgent than to rebuild the shattered self-confidence of the people by involving them in nonviolent forms of struggle, which require their direct and sustained participation. One way of combating the traumatism and the subsequent retreatism caused by successive betrayals of elite groups is to practice forms of protest that ask ordinary people to become their own liberators. What else is more needed in Ethiopia today than this rebuilding of people’s self-confidence ruined by decades of repressive regimes through the empowering act of nonviolent defiance?

Let it be added here that nonviolent form of struggle is what we need to wipe out the barbarism of Ethiopian political competition. When the TPLF seized power in 1992, I remember a television interview in which Meles bluntly declared that those who oppose the new power have only to do what the TPLF did, that is, become a victorious army. In so saying, Meles was actually revealing his idea of legitimacy: the TPLF deserves power because it defeated the Derg militarily; if you want power, you will have to do the same thing and defeat us militarily. Entitlement to power resides in the readiness to fight and defeat, it does not lie in the will of the people. In other words, power is up for grab for all those who are ready to fight and die for it. Consequently, power is never handed over; the only way by which it can change hands is when it is taken away. The Ethiopian political competition is a bloody zero-sum game.

Meles and his regime concretely demonstrated the nature of the game in the 2005 election. When the result of the election showed the emergence of a new power whose legitimacy emanated from the will of the people, Meles and his followers were quick to transform the situation into a form of competition that gave them the upper hand. They did so by provoking people into violence so that they could crack down in the name of law and order. They thus declared a state of emergency and banned all demonstrations in advance while engaging in massive electoral frauds that would surely anger people. The trap worked perfectly as very soon acts of angry protests multiplied in various places of Addis Ababa. Having transformed the peaceful election into a confrontation, Meles had changed the situation to his advantage: he was now in a familiar territory with all the necessary means to prevail.

One wonders what would have happened if, instead of angry demonstrations, which were dealt with excessive force, according to many observers, the protest had taken the form of a general strike paralyzing the government and shutting down production units. Unfortunately, this was not likely to happen: with the exception of taxi drivers, the country was not prepared for this kind of defiance. Neither the lack of unity among opposition forces nor the absence of prior expressions of defiance and organizational frameworks, as a result of the reduction of peaceful struggle to electioneering, was conducive to a generalized noncooperative response.

The lesson is clear enough: in order to make nonviolent struggle successful in Ethiopia, the first condition is to create a “culture of resistance.” Those who still advocate peaceful struggle must understand that the attempt to change the regime by means of election remains illusory––unless a situation of force majeure erupts––without the simultaneous creation of a culture of resistance through the practice of nonviolent actions. The regime will continue to win elections by means of fraud, intimidation, bribe, imprisonment of leaders, etc., so long as it is not made to understand that any illegal maneuvering will lead to widespread unrests, making the country ungovernable. If the defenders of nonviolent struggle persist in confining their activism to electioneering, then they have no argument against armed struggle. They can even be accused of collaborating unintentionally with the regime, since their participation in elections that they know are not winnable only shores up its democratic façade.

I am not suggesting that parties should not participate in elections; they are free to implement whatever strategies they deem necessary to get what they want. However, what they cannot do is to lure the people into a type of action that can never deliver the promised liberation. This deception is no less detrimental than the repression of the regime, since it demoralizes the country and, most of all, ends up convincing a growing number of people that armed struggle is the only solution. Unless the regime is forced to negotiate through a defiant type of nonviolent struggle, no serious argument can be made against armed struggle. What is more, the perpetuation of dictatorship will intensify the tension between ethnic groups to the point of making violent confrontations inevitable. The more a dictatorship endures because parties and their leaders only engage in accommodative forms of peaceful competition, the greater becomes the attraction of armed struggle as a much better alternative.

The inability of the people to stop the reversal of the 2005 electoral victory most forcefully demonstrates the need for unity. The necessity of unity is even more imperative for parties that want to make nonviolent struggle really successful. For nonviolent methods, such as strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, etc., to be decisive, paralyzing, they must be general. The best way to create unity is when opposition forces reach a clear political consensus. It has been said again and again: the regime survives because it does not face a united front so that the main weakness of the opposition in Ethiopia is the lack of unity.

Now if we ask why unity is not achievable, the answer is that leaders of opposition parties tend to believe that the hatred of the regime is enough to unite the people. As a result, each party sticks to its original position and expects to be joined by others simply because they hate the regime. This reasoning forgets that each party, in addition to wanting regime change, also asks what change means in terms of gains for itself. So long as there is no assurance that unity brings some benefits, the general tendency is to compete separately even if it is without decisive outcome, not to mention those parties that would rather stay with the regime than risk losing everything in a unity that has no role for them. This applies especially to the opposition parties that claim to represent larger groups, such as the Oromo and the Amhara. These parties must do more than invite others to join them; they must reach out to them.

This is to say that unity must be the outcome of a common political program reached through mutual concessions accommodating the major concerns of each party. Only when each party is assured that its major concerns are taken into consideration that it will defend unity at all costs. I have particularly in mind ethnic parties: those parties that claim to have a national rather than ethnic base must not make unity conditional on the surrender of ethnic identity and interests. Instead, they must opt for a program that safeguards national unity while integrating ethnic concerns.

The irony is that the major weakness of the TPLF lies in the ethnic policy that it initiated and implemented: the much-proclaimed equality of ethnic groups is totally incompatible with the hegemonic practice of the TPLF. What we want in Ethiopia is not the eradication of ethnic or religious identities, but the cessation of their politicization, which is indeed dangerous to national unity as it encourages exclusiveness. The universal means to curb politicization is the establishment of a genuine equality in a democratic system of governance. So instead of decrying ethnicity, which only extends the life of the regime, let us use it both to bring down the dominance of the TPLF and establish a truly democratic society.

Only the realization of unity based on mutual concessions among opposition parties can create the condition of a large, massive resistance against the regime. We seem to forget that what brought down the deeply entrenched Haile Selassie’s regime was the spontaneous spread of urban resistance, which resistance had the particular effect of disconcerting his repressive forces. Unlike the option for armed struggle, unity is imperative for a nonviolent movement, as its strength lies in its massiveness.

To sum up, the debate over the use of violent or nonviolent means becomes serious only if opposition forces are ready to fully implement the resources of each strategy. No doubt, it is easy to argue against armed struggle, but the real issue is to come up with a real alternative, that is, an alternative other than participation in elections, which are not winnable under present conditions. Only when peaceful struggle includes disobedience, so I argue, does it surge as a real alternative to armed struggle. This article is not meant to take a side by supporting or condemning any one strategy. Nor is it intended to tell those who are bravely doing politics under dire conditions or militarily fighting against the regime what they should do. Rather, it is to contribute to the ongoing debate in such a way that Ethiopians have a clear vision of what the alternatives are. Clarity is necessary to decide which alternative can bring change faster and with the least suffering and destruction.