Wednesday, April 19, 2006

A Call to Nonviolence

By Fikru Helebo

I wrote an article back in December 1994 with the same title as the title of this posting that was published by Ethiopian Review magazine. The political climate in Ethiopia that led me to write that article is essentially the same today as it was back then and, unfortunately, in some ways it is worse now than it was back then. I am pleased that the idea which I attempted to advocate over a decade ago is being taken seriously by most of the political players in Ethiopia today. But there is still a lot of skepticism about the applicability of a nonviolent strategy of bringing about change in Ethiopia. So, I think it is worth sharing it again since the message that I was attempting to communicate in the article is still useful today. Since much has changed in Ethiopia since I wrote the article, it is appropriate that I clarify a couple of the points that I had made in the article.

1. I picked the names of two individuals who, I thought, at the time I wrote the article, were an embodiment of the nonviolent movement in Ethiopia. One of the individuals I mentioned was Prof. Beyene Petros. I mentioned him because he was the leader of the SEPDC, the only major party in Ethiopia at that time which explicitly chose a nonviolent form of struggle and made it its signature issue by refering to it in its political program. However, after Beyene's betrayal of the CUD leaders in November last year, who were thrown in jail because they called for a nonviolent civil disobedience campaign to protest the disputed May 2005 elections, I don't consider Beyene Petros to be an advocate of a nonviolent movement in Ethiopia any longer.

2. If I knew then what I know now about former US President Jimmy Carter's ties with the Woyane leaders who rule Ethiopia with iron fist, I would not have written positively about the initiative of the Carter Center to mediate between the Woyane government and the opposition groups in that article. However, knowing the nature of some of the less accommodating sections of the opposition, I do believe that they would have tried to derail any attempt by any other group to find common ground among Ethiopian political groups.

Enjoy the unedited article in its entirety!

A Call to Nonviolence

The current political impasse between the Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE) and its opponents should be a cause for great concern to all peace-loving Ethiopians, but especially to those of us who are committed to a nonviolent form of struggle to bring about change in Ethiopia. It was not too long ago when the mere sight of a nonviolence advocate would have been an aberration in the dogmatic world of Ethiopian politics. Not anymore! In the last couple of years, the principles of a nonviolent struggle, which Mahatma Gandhi called Satyagraha (truth-force), have gained much support among members of the enlightened intelligentsia and significant portions of the opposition movements. The emergence of academics such as Dr. Beyene Petros and Prof. Mesfin Wolde Mariam, among many others, in today's Ethiopian politics confirms the growing acceptance of this idea whose time has finally come.

This movement of nonviolence was elevated to a higher level of national importance as a result of the successful completion of the December 1993 Peace and Reconciliation Conference in Addis Ababa. The resolutions adopted at the conclusion of this conference were unequivocal in calling for the escalation of the peaceful struggle to bring peace and democracy to Ethiopia. Although each and every participant at that conference did not take a vow not to ever raise arms again to settle political disputes, it was abundantly clear that the conferees had concluded that a nonviolent means to find solutions to our problems must be given the utmost priority, and this had to be exhausted fully before resorting to any sort of armed struggle.

However, events of the past year have proven that this emerging movement of a nonviolent form of struggle has two bitter enemies who are both determined to prevent it from gaining ground in the Ethiopian political arena. These enemies of peaceful struggle are the TGE and the extremist opposition groups, who both mainly draw their strength from the polarization of the Ethiopian polity along ethnic lines and need each other for their very existence.

For its part, when first confronted by a peaceful movement of a higher moral authority, the TGE was confused and did not know how to react to it. Its decision to renege on its promise to participate at the peace talks sponsored by the Carter Center last February was a good indicator of this confusion and it revealed the TGE's lack of interest in engaging in a peaceful dialogue with the opposition. This decision, which really amounted to a vote of no-confidence on the peace process, exposed the TGE's utter hypocrisy in advancing the cause of peace and its insincerity in dealing with the opposition. But when the TGE finally realized that this peaceful movement was, indeed, a force to be reckoned with and that it is able and prepared to deliver to the Ethiopian people an alternative concept of governance, it then began thwarting all efforts made to bring it to the negotiation table.

This ill-advised decision on the part of the TGE has since fostered a political environment in which it has become more difficult to sell the ideals of a nonviolent movement. On the other hand, this polarized atmosphere has become a godsend to those voices of extremism who preach armed struggle as the only way of forcing the TGE to negotiate, and this, in turn, has encouraged some Ethiopians to sympathize with their divisive message of intolerance. This has played right into the hands of the TGE masterminds who have all along been looking for a pretext to unleash their provocative terror campaigns to silence and discredit the opposition, including the advocates of nonviolence.

For their part, those extremist elements in the opposition camp, who, by the way, do not hide their disdain for the idea of a nonviolent struggle and view it as just an exercise in futility, also did their very best to undermine the development of a positive and constructive political dialogue among Ethiopians. The disinformation campaign these extremist groups waged against the Carter Center initiative was one prime example why these groups are not at all interested in a peaceful process that will inevitably lead to a compromise solution which will not fully please everybody. Their rush to declare the peaceful struggle dead on arrival, as evidenced by their statements made before the December 1993 Peace and Reconciliation Conference, is a clear testament to how little they value the peace process.

These extremists have also been trying in vain to portray the proponents of nonviolence as an out-of-the-mainstream intellectuals who do not understand the mind-set of the Tigrean ruling elite, who themselves had gotten to this point by usurping power from the Derg regime through violent means and has since shown little inclination to share this power with other Ethiopians. Some of them have even gone further than this and have accused us of complicity and conspiring, along with the TGE, to temper their determination to oust the Tigrean "occupying army."

So, it is not then surprising that. this budding nonviolent movement is facing a stiff resistance from all corners of a traditional society such as ours, one that puts a lofty premium on vices like vindictiveness and pride much more than it does on the virtues of peacemaking and humility.

As we debate the future course of the struggle for peace and democracy in our troubled motherland, I would like for us to consider the following hard truths. First, we in the opposition are up against an opponent which is armed from top to toe and is more than willing to flex its muscle anytime and anywhere it is confronted by force. Second, we Ethiopians have already paid dearly in terms of precious human life and limited material resources because of the intransigence of the combatant parties in the protracted civil wars of the last three decades. Third, the state of ethnic relations in Ethiopia at the moment is at its worst, at least since the turn of this century, and, therefore, it is not farfetched to suggest that any future military conflict in Ethiopia is sure to have a decidedly ethnic dimension. The dire consequences of such a conflict are not hard to imagine; it only suffices to look at the carnage in Rwanda, Somalia and Bosnia. Fourth, we Ethiopians are among the poorest inhabitants of this planet Earth, with an annual per capita income of around $110, a life expectancy of only 47 years, and more than half of our population still living in abject poverty. These are only a few of the long list of depressing statistics about our country that most of us do not like to be reminded of. So, may I ask, is it fair to live off the back of our people, and on top of that, still continue to ask them to sacrifice their meager resources to fund military causes that have gotten us into this dungeon in the first place? Need I say more to discourage these extremist groups and the TGE from pursuing their fatalistic adventures?

The extremists would have us believe that conditions in Ethiopia are so intolerable, say, as compared to five or fifteen years ago, that only force will reverse this trend. The arguments advanced by the more sophisticated among them are subtler and even seem to be logical to some extent. For instance, they suggest that some violent actions are required now if we are to avoid a greater destruction later. It's immoral not to fight back against cancer in its earliest stages, so goes their argument. It is the right thing to do to attack it before it spreads around and become incurable, they assert. But this is an age old argument that is designed to appeal to one's emotion, and not to reason, in the context of the Ethiopian political dilemma. For one thing, these warmongers are part of the cancer that is eating away at the fabric of our society. For another, they are the least qualified, of all people, to administer the cure, for the cure they prescribe has proven to be a total bust in the past. Also, these people hopelessly advocate their hollow doctrine of a carrot and stick approach towards the TGE, but, they know it and the Ethiopian people also know that, they do not have the kind of support they need to deliver neither the carrots nor the sticks. This extremist's infatuation with the outmoded Machiavellian tactics of yesteryear confirms more than ever that their primary goal is the usurpation of political power and not the provision of real solutions to the urgent problems that our people face everyday.

Providing real solutions for our people means devising ways in which they will be self-sufficient in feeding themselves rather than begging for handouts on their behalf from the rich nations year after year. Real solutions for our people means investing in their education and health services, and it also means contributing constructively to the economic and socio-political development of our country. Friends, is the suffering of our people from recurring droughts and famines any of your concern? Is the explosion of AIDS cases in Ethiopia a cause for alarm to you? Do you really care about the future of the hundreds of thousands of our young people who are languishing in our cities without jobs or hope? What about our posterity? If your answer to these and other pertinent questions is in the affirmative, then let me humbly suggest to you that it is virtually impossible to direct our attention to addressing these urgent problems when we are devoting our resources to objectives that are inherently destructive. So, I am calling upon you all peace-loving Ethiopians to divest your resources and efforts from all violent methods of struggle and invest them into nonviolent ones.

It is worth noting what Mahatma Gandhi once said to the British viceroy in India at the peak of his peaceful struggle to end British colonial rule in India. He said: "My ambition is no less to convert the British people through nonviolence, and thus make them see the wrong they have done to India. I do not seek to harm your people, I want to serve them even as I want to serve my own..." If Gandhi can bring himself to say this to his colonial rulers, to those who treated him as a second class citizen in his own country, why shouldn't we Ethiopians be able to say the same to each other? Our country's very survival depends on our willingness to find a common ground within our differences.

Gandhi's glorious experiments with a nonviolent struggle have since then been refined and successfully implemented in many countries around the world, most notably in the United States by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. So, I say, if nonviolence has worked in India, South Africa and the United States, why not try it in Ethiopia? I fervently believe that a militant nonviolent movement is what is needed at this juncture to force the TGE to compromise and join hands with us in rebuilding Ethiopia. I also believe that, given the chance, Ethiopians will choose to solve their problems through peaceful means, and they deserve to have our full support to make it happen. In this process of peaceful struggle we will have learned a lot about ourselves and, hopefully, we could also be role models to others who find themselves in similar predicament.

In parting, I would like to warn the nonchalant and the procrastinators amongst us to recognize that Ethiopia can not be saved from her current slide into mayhem by the efforts of a few individual activists only or by the generosity of her rulers. This can only be accomplished by the full engagement of all Ethiopians in the peaceful struggle and our determination to persist in it till the end.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

May-to-May, the Political Saga of Ethiopia

By Ephrem Madebo

In the last twelve months, the journey of the Ethiopian people towards justice and democracy has been wearisome, disappointing, and daunting. Unlike any other time in our entire history, in the last twelve months, we Ethiopians saw the sparks of a democratic process, yet as we started participating in the process, we found ourselves far-flung from democracy. Between May 2005 and May 2006, the Ethiopian people dangled between hope and despair, between power and helplessness and between joy and sorrow. This agonizing emotional rollercoaster has obligated many Ethiopians to re-examine the past and look for alternative ways of solving the seemingly intractable dilemma of our nation. From May 2005 to November 2005, the Deddesa valley and the city of Kaliti were turned in to a makeshift concentration camp for elected MPs, the streets of Addis Ababa were washed with the blood of innocent citizens, teenagers who mourned the death of their friends were charged for genocide, and mothers who protested the arrest of their spouses were shoot on the head. Just like the other eleven months, there are only thirty days in May (Eth.Calendar), but what happened in May 2005 is a haunting iniquity that hangs around to posterity. Evidently, to the citizens of Ethiopia, the May-to-May period is characterized by hope and despondency, by elevation and degradation, and by agony and short lived ecstasy. Everyday, the conscious mind of parents [parents whose children paid the ultimate sacrifice] tussles with the memory of their massacred children, and it takes an instant break each May as it fails to reason out the heartrending loss of life.

The post election drama of Meles started just a day after the election when PM Meles took the role of the legislative body and issued an emergency condition decree. PM Meles who has the “skill” and the “wisdom” to do everything, hurried to write a new law to enable his hardhearted Agazi squad to kill peaceful demonstrators. The PM was conscious of his unconstitutional move, and he also knew the Ethiopian people would disagree with him; however, he made himself the supreme commander of Addis Ababa to kill demonstrators, disregarding the constitution he wrote. In October 2005, Meles Zenawi, the same dictator who wrote the law to confine and/or kill demonstrators, ordered his rubber-stump parliament to remove parliamentary immunity from elected MPs to throw opposition leaders to jail and be a lone player in the Ethiopian political landscape.

Between July 2005 and October 2005, the opposition parties and the EPRDF regime were occupied with the issue of joining the parliament. Why? - Meles’s existence as a “democratic” leader depends on the transparency of the EPRDF system; moreover, Prime Minister Meles knows his survival as a leader depends on the legitimacy of his actions and how donor countries trust him as a lawful leader. Therefore, no matter how disgracefully he put himself back in power; he still wants to give legitimacy to his rubber-stamp parliament by imploring the opposition to join the parliament. On the other side, the opposition rejected the idea of joining an “executive branch” parliament that stripped immunity from its own members to serve the interest of a dictator. The decision of the opposition [CUD, UEDF] to boycott the parliament is crystal clear; it is to deny legitimacy to the Meles parliament. In my opinion, the decision of UEDF and CUD not to join the parliament was not even a boycott, it was a well-timed decision not to join the assemblage of people who lost the election, but found their way to the parliament through political appointment.

The May-to-May transgressions of the EPRDF regime are innumerable; some are daily emerging new tribulations, and yet some are sins accumulated for years. One of the most detestable and enigmatic actions of Meles is his justification for the 1998-2000 war against Eritrea, and his sightless acceptance of the Algiers accord that eventually gave Bademe to Eritrea. Only months after brave Ethiopians disillusioned the speculative ambition of EPLF and freed the area of Bademe; Meles Zenawi, the 21st century Sultan Ibrahim, put the fate of the freed people of Bademe back on the negotiation table. For the first time in the history of mankind a country that lost the war won the very motive of the war. The chameleon PM of Ethiopia, who has an Eritrean face at dawn and who pretends to be an Ethiopian at dusk, ratified a resolution that transferred Ethiopian territory to Eritrea for the second time in fifteen years. Today, Meles is on the verge of handing over Bademe, the Akeldama of Ethiopia, to Eritrea. If Meles is allowed to stay in power for another five years, I believe he will be job less as there will be no part of Ethiopia left to be conveyed to another country. Mournfully, to Ethiopians this can be the beginning of the end, to Meles it is mission accomplished.

In the months of March and April 2006, Meles Zenawi unleashed his retaliatory punch in areas where most people voted for the opposition. According to reliable sources, in rural areas where TPLF lost the election badly, the ruling party cadres and district officials are intimidating and harassing farmers. The implementation of Planned Development projects is being transferred from areas of opposition supporters to areas of EPRDF supporters. Agricultural credit extension services and the distribution of fertilizers are used as weapons to punish farmer who voted for the opposition. Towards the end of March and at the beginning of April 2006, Meles’s killing squad left Addis Ababa and roved the calm squares of Awassa, Leku and Dilla killing the most vulnerable citizens of society, students and teachers. In Gedeo, the ruling party poured its poison among the Gedeo and Gurgahe nationalities causing a confrontation that claimed the life of innocent people.

In the last six months a series of unexplained explosions have been rocking the city of Addis Ababa. Though EPRDF is still trying to fabricate evidence that links opposition parties to the explosions, so far, neither the Ethiopian government nor opposition parties have come forward with a full explanation of the bombings; moreover, none of the home-grown armed groups have claimed responsibility for the bombings. Some Political Analysts who profoundly understand the anatomy of TPLF blame the ruling party for the explosions. In deed, the TPLF regime that went to war for no apparent reason can easily do such cheap blackmailing bits and pieces to blame opposition parties and distract the attention of Ethiopians and the international community.

After May 2005, the political reality of Ethiopia changes daily and takes an indeterminate path. In this sometimes theatrical and sometime callous reality show where victory recedes as one gets closer to it, there are three groups of actors that collide with each other.
In one group there are the Ethiopian people who are determined to talk-the-talk and walk-the-walk, on the second group we have a divided opposition that failed to provide a unified leadership to the popular movement; and on the third group, we have an enemy who is determined to harm our country. Today, many opposition party leaders who defied the titular parliament are jailed. Other opposition parties who preferred the parliamentary path of fighting for justice have joined the parliament. Yet there are some others who started playing a safe game. There is no doubt that there is a slim possibility of exposing TPLF’s empty promise by categorically challenging and opposing every bill that comes to the floor of the House of Representatives, however, one should bear in mind that joining the parliament legitimizes an illegitimate institution that serves the interest of a tyrant. Finally, I have the following advice for the safe players: In the face of the current political reality of Ethiopia, playing safe is the same as playing for the wrong team.

In Ethiopia, the gleaming pre–election democratic process and the election itself were the outcomes of a consistent and bitter struggle of all Ethiopians. Obviously, the popular movement was facilitated by a myriad of political parties and civic organizations that were less coordinated. In fact, lack of coordination and trust between the different political parties has adversely affected the journey of the Ethiopian people towards democracy. From the Paris conference to the Rockville forum of unity and from the nomenclature change of AAPO [AAPO to AEUP] to the formation of CUD; In the last 15 years, the sons and daughters of Ethiopia have tried to forge a united political party, but the much awaited unity eluded Ethiopians as the different parties and groups firmly stood for their minuscule agenda at the cost of the superior national agenda. In my opinion, in the last twelve months, the failure of UEDF and CUD to work together was the worst political debacle that gave life to the otherwise dying regime of TPLF. Between the months of May and September 2005, the heart of Ethiopians was so big and many Ethiopians were ready to bump into their enemy. In September 2005, when the informal alliance of CUD and UEDF called the stay home labor strike, Meles and company were disarrayed and taken aback, however, the shrewd leader of TPLF knew how to pour water on the fire ignited by the opposition, where as the naive and irresolute alliance of CUD and UEDF listened to the Western powers and dropped its ball to negotiate with Meles. The inexperienced opposition gave Meles ample time to cool off the people’s wrath, the only force that could have brought his totalitarian regime to an end. The opposition failed to use its only power, the people’s power. All in all, the net out come of the negotiation was that Meles successfully defused the grenade that would have destroyed him.

Why was Meles Successful?
There are three factors that helped the Meles regime to slow down the popular movement.

Failure to forge a political alliance: In the May 2005 election EPRDF faced a divided and in many cases a competing opposition. In precincts where EPRDF faced a single opposition candidate, the opposition won, where as in places where EPRDF faced multiple opposition candidates it won. In Oromya and South Ethiopia, in some precincts, both UEDF and CUD had multiple candidates running against EPRDF and each other. After the May 2005, many Ethiopians were impatient to see CUD and UEDF work together. In deed, during the first two months after the election, the two parties responded positively. When the opposition negotiated with EPRDF, the two parties worked together, but when the negotiations failed and Meles showed the tendency of playing his preferred game [muscle game], the two opposition groups failed to work together. The failure of the opposition to deliver a unified leadership culminated to its worst level when CUD boycotted the parliament and the two UEDF member organizations, SEPDC and ONC, joined the parliament.

Indecisiveness of the opposition
: When donor nations initiated negotiations failed, the opposition displayed its meagerness to decide on matters of national significance when it called off the first round of stay home labor strike. In my opinion, nothing relived the anxiety of Meles like the failure of the opposition to execute its own plan. When UEDF and CUD were making decision to join or not to join the parliament, they should have shared information and should have been matured enough to perceive the strategy of each other and their rival in order to play a win-win game. Over all, the indecisive opposition underestimated its internal forces and it expected much from external elements who repeatedly pushed the opposition to join the parliament.

Power struggle within the opposition
: In the last ten years, power struggle within and between the opposition parties has created a favorable conditions for EPRDF. Meles’s swift and harsh crackdown of the CUD leadership was highly attributed to Lidetu Ayalew’s ambition for supremacy and his determination to achieve his objective at any cost. Before and after the election, instead of working with the how to get there strategy, the mind set of some opposition leaders was preoccupied with the idea of what happens after the demise of Meles. All in all, the relationship between the different opposition parties was full of distrust as the parties grappled and watched the movement of each other.

The success of a political party or any organization is highly dependent on the leadership style of the leader. Though leadership style is not the sole decisive factor for organizational success; organizations that have open, flexible, altruist and charismatic leaders usually meet planned objectives. In Ethiopia, the leadership style of some opposition leaders is not qualitatively different from the leadership style of the two consecutive dictators, Mengistu and Meles. Inflexibility, lack of tolerance, lack of compromise, individual ambition to power, and the attitude of “my way or the high way” are still rampant features among some Ethiopian political leaders. To be honest, it is the behind the scene power struggle and lack of constructive dialogue between the leaders of CUD and UEDF that avoided the much needed alliance of the two coalitions. Between 1999 and 2003, a possible political unity between AAPO, SEPDC, EDP and ONC was cut short by the self-seeking leaders of the four organizations. The recent descend of Lidetu from adored “Mandela-like” charismatic leader to the most distrusted and abhorrent political figure in just six months illustrates the unrestrained power monger behavior of our political leaders.

For many generations, lack of dualism was the main deficiency of the Ethiopian political structure, in fact; Ethiopia still lacks true political dualism. The beginning of Meles Zenawi’s regime was marked by the proliferation of parties and political organizations. Today, there are a large number of political parties and civic organizations; however, the Ethiopian political condition is deteriorating with the passage of every single day. The current political impasse of our country clearly indicates that it is about time to move to a qualitative concept of party organization. The existence of numerous parties dilutes the strength of the opposition; likewise, a zealous attempt to propel a single party to a national stage simply downplays the effort of many people whose aphorism is inclusiveness. Today, many opposition party leaders are in jail, regardless of our part affiliation, we all have the responsibility of fighting for their immediate release. During the Apartheid era, black South Africans utterly embraced the ANC which ultimately led them to victory. Our country Ethiopia lacks Mandela like leader and ANC like umbrella organization. In the last fifteen years, when every time our struggle conceived a promising leader, it was always aborted by TPLF; meanwhile the Ethiopian people have always been looking for a “Moses-like” charismatic leader who can lead them to the Promise Land. CUD has tried to lead us to victory in its own way, UEDF has rambled lonely, and OLF and some others have resorted to the use of force. It just didn’t work! Armed struggle or the use of gun might bring an end to the TPLF regime, but, in the first place, armed struggle is a very long process that consumes human life and countless amounts of material resources, secondly, it will never solve political differences except granting temporary political power yet for another dictator.

Currently, almost all of CUDs leaders are in jail, and UEDF is divided in to the domestic, and the exile UEDF. As the old saying “Divided we fall” goes, we are on the verge of failure. All in all, the two main opposition parties are in a mode of partial paralysis. The mission of TPLF is to be a sole actor in the Political scene of Ethiopia; we should never allow this dream of TPLF to materialize. Ethiopia is a combination of the people represented by CUD, UEDF, OLF, SEPDC, and other parties. It is imperative that these parties and other political and civic organizations start working together and bring the long awaited peace and democracy to Ethiopia. Remember, the love and dedication we have to our country is not measured by the quality or quantity of ideas we bring to the table, it is measured by our tolerance to gracefully acknowledge and treasure the idea of others. Each road that we build to walk alone, every dignified idea that we discard, and every progress that we obstruct will only prolong our pain and extend TPLF’s life.