Thursday, July 24, 2008

Violence & Non-Violence: A Clash of Strategies

By Ephrem Madebo

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 that, though very slim, there was a political space in Ethiopia to wage peaceful struggle. Well, we were unpretentiously right, but today, that political space has faded away and accommodates only one party. Meles and his party have shunned away from pluralism and started a one man democracy where the electorate and the elected are one and the same. Mr. Zenawi has re-defined the concept of "peaceful struggle" in an utterly strange way, and by doing so, he has closed the room for peaceful struggle in Ethiopia. Today, some in the opposition have opted to knock on the closed door, and yet, others have determined to break the door and make sure it will never be closed again. If the knock opens the door, we all will be happy campers; otherwise, we will break the door and still be happy campers. Knock, or break; if our goal is to open the door, why fight on how to open it? The preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads:

"Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human right should be protected by the rule of law"

When justice is manipulated to instigate violence, the masses have the legal and moral obligation to use all means to stop the manipulation of justice. When our enemy is so violent and has no value for peace and human life, we need to have two weapons: love and some sort of defense mechanism. Non-violent struggle does not necessarily mean failure to defend against violence. Any species that does not defend itself is doomed for extinction.

Today, three years after the May 2005 election, many Ethiopians seem to have been re-visiting the old debate of peaceful versus non-peaceful struggle. I guess, it is not a shocker that this debate has been on fire since the inauguration of Ginbot 7 movement. The 2008 Ethiopian soccer tournament in N. America officially came to an end on Saturday July 5. On the same day and a day after, two consecutive public meetings in Washington, DC ignited the Ethiopian public and re-opened the peaceful versus non-peaceful struggle debate of the 1990s. In the center of this debate are students, life long academicians, a plethora of bloggers, web sites, and radio stations. This article highlights some of the major issues raised in the Washington DC UDJ meeting.

Like many people of my generation, I do listen when Professor Mesfin speaks and read when he writes. However, I don't take everything he says as a settled thought or proposal, and I don't read his books the same way I read my Bible. On the July 6 Washington, DC meeting, professor Mesfin used the experience of Gandhi and Dr. King as a classic example of non-violent struggle to make a case for a peaceful struggle in Ethiopia. To be honest, if I was the 'Ephrem ' of 25 years ago, the speech of the professor would have elated me and I would have been an instant opponent of any alternative to a peaceful struggle. Well, his speech has still elated me, but for a different reason. This time his speech gave me an opportunity to disagree with him. Even though I disagree with him, I will never rebuff the enormous benefit I gained from the understanding of Professor Mesfin’s point of view.

I hope my readers will agree that disagreeing with the professor is not just my right, sometimes it is also the right thing to do. A sincere disagreement is a good sign of progress, and it is the beginning of thought. Therefore, I sincerely disagree with my one time college professor. I don't think the Professor himself wants us to change whenever he changes, and to nod whenever he nods; I think his own shadow does that much better than we do.

Before I make my own case for an alternative strategy, I want to point out some important facts that the professor omitted at his DC speech. Yes, as he said it well, Gandhi and King are the ideal examples of non-violent struggle. The courage and the determination of the two champions were similar, and so was the political structure of the two giant forces they fought. But, how about the two governments that King and Gandhi encountered, are they similar to the kind of government that we have in Ethiopia today?

Let’s visit the history of Nelson Mandela, a living legend of freedom. Like Dr. King, Mandela was influenced by Gandhi. King went to India and came back to the US equipped with the non-violent strategy of Gandhi. Dr. King was smart enough to see the similarities between the US and the British governments. He understood that the political space in the US was wide enough to wage a Gandhi like non-violent struggle. To our surprise, Mandela is a person who had more personal exposure to Gandhi than Dr. King because Gandhi himself started his non-violence struggle in South Africa. But, Mandela chose a different strategy than Gandhi. Why? Mandela recognized and valued Gandhi’s non-violence struggle, and he committed himself to non-violent struggle. However, he eventually changed his view when he understood that the enemy he was fighting was absolutely different than the enemies Gandhi and Dr. King fought.

The three heroes fought and won three enemies. Gandhi and Dr. King employed similar strategies. Mandela followed his predecessors and started his struggle in a similar fashion, but he eventually changed his view and co-founded the armed wing of ANC. Why can’t we Ethiopians change our view like Mandela did? We can always learn from the experience of others, but we can’t possibly bring the experience of others to our country. When we’re looking for a lesson to learn, we shouldn’t be cherry picking. We can learn from Gandhi, King, Mandela, or any other person, or country. When it comes to a strategy choice, we should definitely listen to Professor Mesfin and many other wise Ethiopians. However, we have to carefully digest their words before we swallow them. We have to ask questions and get answers before shaping our opinion. What does the TPLF regime look like? Does it look like the government of the United States, or the government of the late Peter Botha? Both King and Mandela were influenced by Gandhi, if so, what forced Mandela to change his view? Do we Ethiopians have just 1% of the weapons that King had? These are very important points that professor Mesfin failed to address in his public meetings. I do believe the truth must be told today, waiting for tomorrow is an emotional sleepless battle with yesterday's omissions, and of course the omission of good information is no less reprehensible than tampering with the truth.

In the 1940s, Gandhi, in the 1960s, Dr. King, and in the 1990s, Nelson Mandela immensely influenced their respective governments and led their people to freedom. These three examples of human excellence lived in different continents, countries, and socio-economic orders. Surprisingly, there is something that links the three together. Dr. King went to India and visited Gandhi’s family to get first hand information on Gandhi's peaceful struggle. Gandhi's first effective use of civil disobedience took place in South Africa when he as a lawyer represented the Indian community's struggle for civil rights. The three heroes won the Nobel Prize for peace though Gandhi’s award was post-mortem and no one took the prize.

In 1915, Gandhi moved from South Africa to India and started organizing peasants, farmers, and urban laborers to lead a protest against the excessive land-tax imposed by the British colonial government. From 1915 to 1947 Gandhi employed peaceful resistance (strike, boycott, refusal to serve, non-cooperation) as his weapon to paralyze the complex British social structure in India. In those 32 years Gandhi was arrested 4 times, but he didn't serve his full term in none of those times. As bad as the British were, they could have given Gandhi life, or perhaps even killed him to slow down India's independence. However, the British neither denied Gandhi his right to due process, nor they forced him to sign a self incrementing agreement that would have brought him back to jail. Every time when Gandhi was released from jail, he was free to continue his struggle that eventually ended the British rule in India.

The enemy Gandhi fought 60 years ago is very different than the enemy we Ethiopians are fighting today. The current leaders of Ethiopia are determined to kill as many Ethiopians as they can to stay in power than the British would have to extend their colonial rule in India. The Ethiopian opposition does not have any of Gandhi’s peaceful resistance weapons; in fact, those weapons are illegal in Ethiopia. So what is legal in Ethiopia? Well, the answer is easy. The only peaceful struggle allowed in Ethiopia is to verbally oppose the ruling party using a carefully crafted language, and coronate the TPLF party every five years.

It is evident that the current leaders of Ginbot 7 embraced a peaceful strategy in their quest for democracy and justice while they were in CUDP. There should be no doubt that these same leaders embrace the same strategy today as leaders of Ginbot 7. The significant change between Ginbot 2005 and today is that the TPLF ruling elites saw the determination of the Ethiopian people and banned the peaceful strategy perused by CUDP, UEDF and other parties. The ban was not the end of the game; they also published their own version of "Legal peaceful struggle" handbook. It is every word in this disreputable "handbook" that Ginbot 7 fails to accept. Hence Ginbot 7 employs every possible alternative to bring down the author of the "one man" democracy handbook and his moribund system. Ginbot 7 will never accept the TPLF prescribed "Legal peaceful struggle".

The leaders of Ginbot 7 did not avoid, or runaway from their strategy, they were pushed, or forced away from their lifelong creed of peaceful struggle. TPLF has drastically changed the rules of the game. I don’t think the opposition should be a rambling piece that forces itself to fit in the TPLF puzzle! It should have its own game, and its own strategy for winning the game. This is exactly what Ginbot 7 did, i.e. design a multifaceted (versatile) strategy to bring Mr. Zenawi’s dictatorship to its knee.

For Ginbot 7, or for all of us for that matter, peace is not the absence of war or conflict. Peace is not a gift from any person or government, it is something to be created and to be maintained by people. Peace is the triumph of principle, it is the product of faith, strength, will, sympathy, and justice. Peace will never be achieved by tameness or by extinction of the will. Ginbot 7 does not and will not agree with the TPLF prescribed peace that passes the human understanding; rather, Ginbot 7 will lead the masses to create a moral environment where peace reigns as a result of the human understanding.

As I have noted above, both Mandela’s and Dr. King's notion of peaceful struggle was rooted in Gandhi's principle of non-violent struggle. In the 1960's, when King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) applied the principles of non-violent protest, they had the freedom to choose the method of the protest and the places where the protests were to be carried out. All these freedoms that Dr. King and SCLC had are non existent in Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, exercising a God given right is a treason that carries capital punishment.

A momentous peaceful struggle requires two or more opposing rivals that submit to the rule of law, to the democratic process, and to the fundamental legitimacy of the state. In a peaceful struggle, none of the rivals should be able to use force to cause harm on the other. The conflicting rivals and their supporters (including ruling parties) should have equal access to the media, and the role of the press must be impartial to all conflicting parties. Any kind of peaceful struggle is inconsequential in the absence of these factors. When Dr. King made his famous "I have a dream" speech, a speech that changed America for good, the US marshals and secret service agents were not shooting at him, they were protecting him from the KKK. Dr. King did not make his historic speech in a ghetto hidey-hole; he made his speech between the two symbols of American democracy, Capitol Hill and the White House; in front of 250, 000 people.

Mind you, just a few weeks ago, the TPLF gangs banned UDJ’s scheduled public meeting in a private hotel for no apparent reason. Last week, in one of its bizarre moves, TPLF turned down UDJ’s registration application citing outlandish reasons. This amorphous group of gangs has once more proved that it is against "Andinet" whether it is on paper, or in action. The following quote exemplifies the role the US media played in Dr. King’s peaceful struggle for freedom: "King correctly recognized that organized, nonviolent protest against the system of southern segregation known as Jim Crow Law would lead to extensive media coverage of the struggle for black equality and voting rights. Journalistic accounts and televised footage of the daily deprivation and indignities suffered by southern blacks, and of segregationist violence and harassment of civil rights workers and marchers, produced a wave of sympathetic public opinion that convinced the majority of Americans that Civil Rights Movement was the most important issue in American politics in the early 1960s"

The popular victories in India, the US, and in South Africa are the most celebrated and distinguished victories of the 20th century. The leaders of these victories [Gandhi, King, and Mandela] are not just heroes of their respective countries; they are heroes of the human race. We saw how Gandhi and King brought freedom to their people. What did Mandela learn from the two? How does he differ from them? Most importantly, what did we Ethiopians learn from the three champions of peace? To be honest, we in the opposition did not learn anything! If anyone has learned a lesson from Gandhi, King, or Mandela; it must be Meles and his bad guys. Yes, they learned a good lesson on how to block every possible path to democracy, and perform tubal ligation on every fertile uterus that gives birth to a hero like Gandhi, King, and Mandela.

Mahatma Gandhi was a moral leader and an inspiration for Mandela and succeeding generations of South African anti-apartheid activists. Nelson Mandela has frequently credited Gandhi for being a major source of inspiration in his life, both for the philosophy of non-violence and for facing adversity with dignity. Indeed, Mandela was initially committed to Gandhi’s strategy of non-violence, however, he changed his view when he was arrested and charged with treason in December 1956. Mandela attributes his move to a mixed strategy (Violence, non-violence) to the increasing repression and violence from the South African white minority regime. According to Nelson Mandela, he was convinced that many years of non-violent protest against apartheid had achieved nothing and could not succeed.

In 1960, Nelson Mandela, the late Walter Sisulu, and other South Africans formed the military wing of the ANC, and in 1961 Mandela became the leader of ANC’s armed wing, aka Umkonto We Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation). In the 1980s, it became clear that the apartheid regime was in an irreversible crisis and its economy was in recession. Though ANC’s leader [Mandela] was in prison, it was the activities of ANC’s armed wing (Umkonto We Sizwe) that forced the apartheid regime to talk to the liberation movements, in Particular the ANC. The following script is taken from the statement of the National Executive Committee of the African National Congress on the 25th anniversary of the formation of Umkhonto We Sizwe: "By that time the demands of our people were loud, persistent and clear: all our efforts as a people, the whole record of relentless struggle under the leadership of the African National Congress, were being met with ever-increasing violence and repression by the racist State. The time had arrived when we needed to reinforce our mass political action with the hammer blows of an armed struggle"

The Ethiopian government is not an Apartheid government like the government of South Africa that Mandela fought, and it is not a democratic government bounded by a constitution like the US and the British governments that King and Gandhi fought. But, if there is any resemblance between the three, many of the acts of the Ethiopian regime are carbon copies of the South African Apartheid regime. The US and the British governments have a constitutional brake that limits the amount of power they can use on subjects. To the TPLF government, power is the only method of conflict resolution, and the constitution is nothing more than a piece of paper that can be repelled by a simple memo. Gandhi and Dr. King enjoyed the independent media that popularized their concept of freedom. In Ethiopia, there is neither free press nor independent media. These are important comparisons that the professor omitted in his speech here in DC. In fact, if he includes these facts in his public addresses, he would reluctantly make a powerful case for an alternative that he passionately opposes.

A culture of impunity is built into the DNA of the Ethiopian leaders, and some of the clearest examples can be found in the post 2005 election massacre of innocent civilians, and the recent treason size crime of giving undisputed Ethiopian territory to Sudan. My fellow country men, a debate for an acceptable strategy is necessary and constructive, however, the foul languages and the enemy-like attacks are destructive and totally uncalled. As long us we have a shared objective, let’s peruse the strategy that we think is right while supporting each other. If victory puts us together at the end of the road, we will jointly kneel down to praise God for the victory. If somehow none of us gets to the finish line; sadly, this simply means we both failed. Obviously, the Ethiopian people do not want us to fail again. We need to agree, listen to each other, and work together on the bigger issues of our nation even as we peruse different strategies. Amen!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Listen to Siye Abraha

It seems to me Siye Abraha, the former college student turned guerrilla fighter turned defense minister tuned prisoner of conscience turned politician, has learned very important lessons from his varied experiences about methods of struggle. His insight on this topic is convincing and it should be heeded. This is just a small portion of the interview Siye did with Harambe newspaper and it comes to you courtesy of Ethiomedia.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Freedom is not Free

An inscription at the Korean War Memorial at the National Mall in Washington, DC reads "FREEDOM IS NOT FREE". Yes, indeed, it is not! The price for the freedom that Ethiopians in America enjoy was paid for by the blood and tears of hundreds of thousands of soldiers who fought and died in foreign and domestic wars (excluding the so-called Indian Wars) wearing the uniforms of the United States Armed Forces. This freedom was also equally paid for by the thousands of civil rights activists who fought a valiant "peaceful war" against racism and injustice in the US. So, we should never take this freedom we enjoy for granted. One day, hopefully soon, Ethiopians in the motherland will enjoy the same freedoms that we enjoy in the US. But, it is imperative that Ethiopians opt for "peaceful war" to attain their freedom. Happy Independence Day!