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.

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