The Diplomacy of Nonviolent Change in Ethiopia

By IndepthAfrica
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Sep 9th, 2013
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eth demoIn my commentary last week, “Interpreting and Living MLK’s Dream”, I discussed, among other things, Dr. Martin Luther King’s (MLK) philosophy of nonviolent social change. MLK argued that the “crucial political and moral question of our time” is the “need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence.” I believe the crucial political and moral question for Ethiopians today is how to transform Ethiopia into an oasis of democratic governance in the middle of a sub-Saharan desert of African tyranny in a nonviolent struggle.

MLK dreamt about creating the “Beloved Community”– a community that has rid itself of racism, poverty and militarism. He said, “The end of nonviolent social change is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends.”

The question I seek to address here is whether and how Ethiopians, particularly young Ethiopians, could use MLK’s “diplomacy” of love, brotherhood, sisterhood and nonviolence in their struggle against an entrenched and depraved dictatorship in their country. I use the word “diplomacy” here advisedly to signify the importance of dialogue, negotiations, compromise, bargaining, concessions, accommodations, cooperation and ultimately peace-making and reconciliation. (I plan to offer my views on the “diplomacy of nonviolent change” in Ethiopia on a regular basis in the future.)

Recent clampdown on Semayawi (Blue) Party

According to a BBC report, last week “some 100 members of Ethiopia’s opposition Semayawi party were arrested and some badly beaten.” In June of this year, Semayawi (Blue) Party (BP), a political party comprising of young people and openly committed to nonviolent social change, had organized its first major street demonstration against the ruling regime demanding the release of political prisoners, journalists and human rights activists.  Regime police raided the BP headquarters to prevent a scheduled “rally” by the party to demand political reforms. According to BP chairman Yilekal Getachew, regime police assaulted party members and confiscated sound systems, computers and other equipment. The rally has been rescheduled for September 21.

Regime official Shimeles Kemal “denied there had been a crackdown” and explained that the BP party could not engage in protest activity because the “venue had already been booked by a group condemning religious extremism.” The pro-government counter demonstration was organized by the “Addis Ababa Inter-Religious Conference”, a regime front organization. The regime-staged counter-demonstration was an effort aimed at showing the “vehement opposition of Addis Ababa resident against [religious] radicalism recently observed in the country”.

MLK’s “first step” in nonviolent social change  

How relevant are MLK’s teachings in undertaking a nonviolent moral and political struggle in Ethiopia? Can Ethiopians inform their struggle against tyranny with MLK’s ideas of nonviolence, love, civil resistance and disobedience? I believe MLK’s teachings are relevant to any society suffering under tyranny, dictatorship, racism, poverty and militarism.

MLK taught that the first step in a nonviolent struggle is a commitment to  truth which requires “information gathering”.  He understood that a struggle based on facts (in contrast to propaganda and ideological indoctrination) is a struggle based on truth. He believed that one must thoroughly and methodically research, investigate and gather vital information on the scope, magnitude and severity of problems facing the community before contemplating action. More importantly, one must gain understanding and insight into the lives of the people who are impacted by conditions of oppression and work with social, civic and political organizations engaged in seeking to bring about change. Without fact-finding and community support, the struggle for nonviolent social change is likely to lead not only to uninformed and erroneous decisions but also end up in counterproductive and ineffective actions driven by anger, resentment and impatience.

MLK’s prescription for “gathering information” is consistent with the old adage that there is power in “information” and “knowledge”. Nelson Mandela said it best: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Education is ultimately about acquiring, imparting, accumulating and disseminating systematized knowledge and information. In as much as formal education is important, as Albert Einstein said, “imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

Yet there can be neither information, knowledge, education nor imagination if the human mind is gripped and made captive to the tyranny of fear and ignorance.  Before taking the first step of “information” gathering, those committed to nonviolent change must overcome their fear of tyrants and dictators.

The regime in Ethiopia has ruled by fear (not the rule of law) for over two decades. Dissenters and members of the opposition are harassed, intimidated, arrested, placed in prolonged pre-trial detention, tortured and put on show trials and subjected to extrajudicial killings.  As I argued in my commentary “Edu-corruption and Mis-education in Ethiopia”, the regime has used “ignorance as its most powerful weapon to prevent change and cling to power. They have long adopted the motto of George Orwell’s Oceania: ‘Ignorance is Strength’. Indeed, ignorance is a powerful weapon to manipulate, emasculate and subjugate the masses. Keep ‘em ignorant and impoverished and they won’t give you any trouble.”

Overcoming the tyranny of fear: Precursor to MLK’s first step in nonviolent social change  

MLK said, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Oftentimes, the oppressed are too fearful, too traumatized and too confused to demand their freedom. For 30 years, Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt by spreading fear and loathing among the population. Invoking a “State of Emergency (“Law No. 162 of 1958”), Mubarak wielded unlimited power and imposed his iron will through a vast network of secret police, spies, informants and honor guards who used torture, intimidation and extrajudicial killings to make sure he stayed in power and his opposition decimated.  By the time he was thrown out of office in 2011, he held an estimated 20,000 persons under the emergency law; and according to human rights organizations, he held over 30,000 political prisoners. When Egyptian youth overcame their fears of Mubarak and stood up to his secret police, spies, informants and bloodthirsty thugs, it was all over for him and his kleptocratic regime. In less than three weeks, Mubarak’s empire of fear, terror and torture crumbled like an Egyptian ghorayebah cookie.

Most of the nonviolent social and political changes we have seen over the past three decades were the direct result of the people losing their fear of the tyrants who oppress them. The Poles succeeded in their nonviolent struggle when they lost their fear of their communist tyrants. In 1981, the Soviets put General Wojciech Jaruzelski in charge to crackdown on Solidarity, a non-communist controlled trade union established a year earlier. Jaruzelski immediately declared martial law and arrested thousands of Solidarity members, often in in the middle of the night, including union leader Lech Walesa. Jaruzelski flooded the streets of Warsaw, Gdansk and elsewhere in Poland with police who shot, beat and jailed strikers and protesters by the tens of thousands. The crackdown drove the opposition underground. Where the jailed union leaders left off, others including priests, students, dissidents and journalists took over. Unable to meet in the streets, the people gathered in their churches, in the restaurants and bars, offices, schools and associations.  By 1988, Poland’s economy was in shambles as prices for basic staples rose sharply and inflation soared. In August of that year, Jaruzelski was ready to negotiate with Solidarity and met Walesa. In December 1990, Lech Walesa became the first popularly elected president of Poland. It took nearly a decade to complete the Polish nonviolent revolution. When Poles overcame their fears of Jaruzelski and his Soviet backers and stood up to his secret police, spies, informants and bloodthirsty thugs, it was all over for him and his iron-fisted regime.

Nonviolent social and political change came to many of the former Soviet republics and post-communist countries in Eastern Europe through the so-called “color revolutions” (people wearing symbolic colors to show their demand for change) over the past decade. In Serbia (2000) Georgia (“Rose Revolution” 2003), Ukraine (“Orange Revolution” 2004) and Kyrgyzstan (“Tulip Revolution” 2005), ordinary people engaged in defiant massive nonviolent street protests which culminated in the removal of oppressive and corrupt regimes. Not long ago, the “Arab Spring” dawned in the Middle East when Ben Ali’s regime in Tunisia was swept away in the “Jasmine Revolution.”  The one common element in the “color revolutions” was the fact that they were led by  youth who had lost their fear of their tyrannical oppressors.

How do the people lose fear of their oppressors?

The history of nonviolent social and political change shows that people lose the fear of their oppressors when the burden of their material conditions outweigh the fear of their oppressors. Simply stated, people lose their fear of their oppressors when they just can’t take it anymore. They come to a point where they stand up and say, “Enough is enough!”

During the civil rights movement, African Americans lost their fear of police thugs, police dogs, police informants and police brutality when they became sick and tired of the dehumanization, discrimination and segregation they faced daily. When the bus driver threatened to have Rosa Parks arrested if she did not go to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, her answer was, “You may [have me] arrested.” She ain’t moving; and she will no longer accept second class citizenship. MLK’s essential message at the 1963 March on Washington was the same.   It was equality and justice for black people under the Constitution or escalating civil resistance, civil disobedience and protest. He announced, “We  can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality… and our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity…”

Gandhi launched the salt march of 1930 to protest the British salt tax which charged ordinary Indians for a basic necessity of life. Instead of paying the tax submissively, Gandhi engaged in a massive act of civil disobedience leading tens of thousands of people to the sea to make salt. The British arrested over 60,000 people, but thousands more took the places of those arrested forcing the British to come to terms with Gandhi’s demands.

In the past two years, the youth that led the “Arab Spring” mustered the courage to confront their long-standing dictatorships because they felt hopeless, helpless and futureless. The Middle East, like much of Africa, is experiencing a youth bulge (large segment of the population comprised of children and young adults). Neither the leaders nor the political economy of those countries is capable of accommodating the needs of this burgeoning population. There are few productive employment opportunities for young people. The vast majority of the people could no longer afford the basic essentials of life while the ruling elites and their cronies wallowed in a sea of corruption, oil revenue and Western aid.

I have long and repeatedly argued that Ethiopia’s youth will be the tip of the spear of nonviolent social change in Ethiopia (no pun intended). The youth bulge is estimated at 70 percent of the population. According to a 2012 USAID study, “Ethiopia has one of the highest urban youth unemployment rates at 50 percent and there is a high rate of youth under­employment in rural areas, where nearly 85 percent of the population resides.”  Another 2012 youth unemployment study in Ethiopia reported that the “current 5 year [Ethiopian] development plan 2010/11-2014/5, the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP), does not directly address the issue of youth unemployment, but rather implicitly through improved performance of the various sectors in the economy.” The study found that “in 2011, 38 percent of youth were employed in the informal sector” which “often provides low quality, low paying jobs.”  The study reported high underemployment rates; “approximately 50 percent of youth reported being available and willing to work more hours.” There is a substantial segment of the youth population that is not only unemployed but also unemployable because they lack basic skills. On the other hand, access to public sector jobs depends not so much on merit or competition but connections and party membership. The youth will no doubt demand greater economic justice and radical political reforms that will enable them to have increasing input in governance.

It is unlikely that the regime can remain indefinitely in power by using repression and violence, particularly against the youth. No amount of force can crush or subdue a rising tide of young people in the population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2050, Ethiopia’s population will more than triple to 278 million, placing that country in the top 10 most populous countries in the world. Demographic changes, persistent  unemployment and galloping inflation, limited educational opportunities, ever increasing cost of living and expanding social media will make the youth in Ethiopia a powder keg on short fuse.

Overcoming fear together and finding courage together

I do not want to suggest here that fear and loathing resides only in the hearts and minds of the oppressed. Fear strikes not only the victims but also the victimizers. Those who run the regime in Ethiopia and their cronies   have their own fears and tribulations. As I argued in great detail in my commentary, “Terminal Paranoia”,  regime leaders have used fear to cement their ugly and divisive ethnic politics. By setting one group against another and inspiring distrust and hatred, they have managed to cling to power for a long time. Today, the façade of political institutions they have created for the various ethnic groups to maintain their control no longer works. Their appeal to ethnic loyalty inspired by fear of what other groups might do to one group no longer holds sway. They are overwhelmingly rejected by every single ethnic group in the country, bar none. The people have come to the obvious realization that the regime’s “ethnic federalism” (Bantustan-style regions) has only served the interests of a few kleptocratic ruling elites and their cronies. Thus, the ruling elites fear “payback” for their nasty games of ethnic division.

The innermost fear of the regime operators is the likelihood of a spontaneous mass uprising. Regime leaders are terrified by the prospect of a sudden popular uprising breaking out and literally consuming them. They have deep fears of accountability and retribution.  They know they have committed unspeakable crimes against humanity, war crimes and serious crimes punishable under their own criminal laws and the Constitution. They also know that they will be held accountable for their corruption and abuse of power if a mass uprising takes place.  The specter of prosecution and punishment for crimes they have committed keeps them in a state of high anxiety and sleeplessness. In the final analysis, the regime’s problem is the same as the proverbial tiger rider’s. They have been riding the Ethiopian tiger for over two decades. They know one day they have to dismount; and when they do, they will be looking straight into the angry eyes, gleaming teeth and pointy nails of one big hungry Ethiopian tiger!

Truth and Reconciliation

MLK dreamed about creating a “Beloved Community”. Ethiopians cannot aspire to create a “Beloved Community” permeated with fear. My understanding is that many regime leaders and their supporters are gripped by fear and desperately seek an “exit strategy”. They seek assurance that they will not face extreme retribution in the event of change; indeed, they hope to get some accommodation that will allow them to retain their wealth while having an opportunity to play a role in the future of the country. The victims of the regime fear the use of indiscriminate violence to cling to power as seen after the elections in 2005 where hundreds of people were gunned down in the streets.

Perhaps there is a way to “negotiate fear itself.” Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk managed to negotiate their fears in a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Mandela had to make distasteful moral choices and tough political compromises. de Klerk had to convince his diehard Apartheid racists that change is not easy but their choice was to abandon their ways and come to terms with the new reality or lose everything. He told his people, “In order for change to happen, you must really accept the need for change. Yes, it’s scary.”  By negotiating their fears, Mandela and de Klerk made significant strides to create their “Beloved South African Community.” South Africans have a long way to go; and two decades later, they are still struggling with the economic and political legacy of Apartheid.

If Ethiopians are to create their own “Beloved Community”, they must begin to “negotiate their fears”, which requires a reckoning with the history of the past 22 years and an open and honest discussion of their innermost fears. MLK said, “The end of nonviolent social change is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved  which transforms opponents into friends.” I believe it is time to invent a “new diplomacy of nonviolence” which facilitates the creation of a Beloved Community in Ethiopia. It is a diplomacy that stresses dialogue, negotiations, compromise, bargaining, concessions, accommodations, cooperation and ultimately peace-making and reconciliation. MLK said, “Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated.” It has also been said that the “only thing to fear is fear itself.” I believe the only thing to fear is fear of each other; and the only thing to be courageous about is to communicate with each other without fear, with honesty and in good faith.

Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.

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