Nonviolent Struggle: Ethiopian Exceptionalism?
By Jawar Mohammed*
Social Fragmentation and Civil Resistance
One of the key reasons why dictators remain in power is the fragmentation of the society across ethnic, religious, ideological, and professional lines. Whenever their power is threatened, dictators resort to using the societal fault lines to foment division and weaken dissent. Therefore, waging vertical resistance against oppressive systems require strategically addressing the horizontal tensions within the population.
a. The likelihood of success for nonviolent resistance increases with broad societal participation by diverse and all segments of the population.
b. In the presence of intra-group fear, suspicions and competition, movements are vulnerable to the divide and destroy tactics of the regime.
The regime’s divisive methods need to be countered with unifying strategies and tactics. For such a strategy to work, having accurate information on the causes of the fault lines and concerns of each segment of the society as well as studying past tactics employed by the regime to instigate conflict is critical. This should be followed up with strategic planning to counter the regime’s divisive methods with tactics that not only undercut the measures but also make it backfire against the regime.
On the day the Egyptian resistance organizers announced their plan of January 25 th march, a Coptic Church was bombed. In a dramatic contrast, on the second day of the uprising, the world watched Egyptian Christians protecting Muslims during Jum’a prayer. We also saw members of the Muslim Brotherhood forming human chains against possible attack on a church. In a popular slogan, repeated by the protesters, Egyptians chanted Regardless Of Which God You Pray To, We Are All Egyptians. A picture of an Imam and a Priest holding Koran and the Cross together sent a powerful message of unity. Such a change in a week’s time might sound as if a miracle had struck Egypt. But the truth is all of these actions were results of prior planning.
From the outset, the organizers acknowledged the fact that Egypt has a history of communal conflict and violence. The legacy of extremist and violent religious movements still lingers. Therefore, resolving the insecurity of the Christian minority was important not only to bring that constituency onboard and withstand Mubarak’s divisive tactics but also address the fear of the West about a possibility of an Islamic Egyptian state. They were successful beyond expectations. It is important to note that most of the ground work was done months, if not years, before put to test at Tahrir Square.
Overcoming Meles’s Divide and Rule Tactics
Ethiopia’s history and contemporary politics has led to the development of tensions among various ethnic groups and acute ideological polarization among the political elite. Over the years, competing nationalism with contradictory assessment of the past as well as diverging visions of the future has emerged. The current regime practices open discrimination and publicly promotes communal hostility. This might make civil resistance difficult but not impossible. It is possible to overcome these conditional challenges by expanding knowledge about nonviolent tactics and through careful strategic planning.
Meles has effectively utilized the ethnic card in the past. Early in his rule, he survived the Oromo resistance by scaring the day light out of the Amhara. He preached the Oromo rebels would not only exact revenge against the old ruling class but also split the country to form an independent Oromia state. Meles survived the wave of urban resistance in 2005 by scaring the previously marginalized communities about the return to the past—the Amhara oppressive rule. Furthermore, he was able to maintain the loyalty of his support base, the Tigreans, by convincing them about the possible retribution they would face, if they abandon him.
The efficiency of these strategies has significantly decreased in the past five years because;
1) The prisoner’s dilemma between the Amhara and Oromo constituency is reaching its final stage as each side is realizing that neither benefits from the status quo. The multiple efforts at forming alliances and the significant improvements in dialogue—both in public and behind the scenes—are evidence to this. Hardliners are no longer the leading voices of each political community and the shift in rhetoric has opened the door for calmer consultations.
2) The Tigrean constituency is no longer an uncontested domain of the ruling party. This can be attributed to two reasons.
a) Tigreans have begun to realize the only beneficiaries of current policies are Meles and a small circle of his cronies at a great cost to their people.
b) The emergence of ‘their own’ credible alternatives among the opposition is chipping away at the secure base that served Meles well. The defiance showed by the people of Tigray in support of the opposition during the recent election is an irrefutable evidence of the shifting ground.
This does not mean that all sources of divisions have disappeared. There is still a fear about post Meles era. The unrelenting rhetoric of Amhara groups to replace the current federal system is a serious concern for previously marginalized groups. Similarly, the refusal of ethno-nationalist movements to renounce demands for independence is worrisome to the Amhara. Both of these concerns are legitimate. However, a regime change via nonviolent resistance is unlikely to lead to realization of those fears.
During the Egyptian uprising, many feared the Muslim Brotherhood will take over after Mubarak and establish an Islamic caliphate. Similarly, in Pinochet’s Chile and Marcos’ Philippines, moderates and business elites feared a communist takeover. White South Africans worried about economic expropriation and physical revenge by black nationalists. Now we know none of these fears were realized. This is one of the main differences between change through armed struggle and via nonviolent resistance. In armed struggle, almost always a single dominant force emerges. Moreover, as conflict is waged between two armies, the defeated military of the state is often dismantled and replaced by the rebel soldiers. This allows the winning party to have the ability to monopolize power and impose its partisan will.
Victory in civil resistance is an outcome of collaborative work among various political and social organizations and largely that of unaffiliated individuals. Thus, the likelihood of a single group determining the outcome is negligent. Whereas the dictator and top cronies are removed, most of the state institutions, including the military remain intact. As a result, no single group will have the capability to impose partisan objectives unilaterally. In a sense, regime change through nonviolent resistance open doors for reform rather than ushering in a full revolution as in the case of armed insurgency.
Therefore, the post Meles era should not be scary because;
a) The immediate power vacuum will not be filled by a single group rather by a transitional government likely dominated by moderates including those from the old guard.
b) Constitutional writing will not be a unilateral work of a single party but a product of an inclusive, long, and tiresome bargaining. My bet is that the current constitution will be adopted with slight amendments. Even in case of a gridlock, the issue will be settled through an electoral process.
c) Because the army and state institutions will remain intact, secessionists will not be able to break away any part of the country and have to wait for the due process.
d) If secessionists or hardcore ‘unitarists’ are unwilling to compromise on their agenda, they will have to do it through free, fair, and competitive election and referendums. If they can garner the necessary public support, then the people have spoken, no one can stop it.
e) All of the groups calling for self-determination have indicated in different occasions that they would settle for a genuine federal structure built on a firmly democratic, representative, and equitable foundation.
Nonviolent Conflict and Fear of Civil War
When we speak of nonviolent resistance, we are talking about waging a conflict against often a repressive government to destabilize it, obstruct its normal routine, and create nervousness and uncertainty within the pillars of power to drain the systems endurance and bring it down. But unless carefully managed and guided, such confrontations create a precarious situation and could make the country and the people vulnerable to prolonged chaos.
Dictators are most dangerous at the end of their reign. They will do whatever it takes without any concern for consequences. They would use saboteurs to instigate conflict among the population and even within the military and security apparatus—and such actions will have serious long-term consequences particularly in fragile multinational states like Ethiopia. But these dangers could be avoided through strategic planning.
- Organizers should anticipate every possible action the regime will take and prepare responsive tactics. Every repressive or divisive action by the regime should be met with action that strengthens the movement towards unity while delegitimizing the system.
- Nonviolent discipline is the key to the movement’s ability to manage conflicts. The less physical violence on the part of the resisters, the more control they have over the course of the conflict and ability to maintain momentum. This can be achieved by training as many organizers as possible to build the necessary skills. Such preparation helps to identify and pacify the impact of agent provocateurs that aim to turn the situation unto uncontrolled chaos.
- Aim for quick victory but prepare for a long struggle. A prolonged conflict could lead to a stalemate and power vacuum where neither side controls large part of the country making it vulnerable to opportunistic spoilers. With well thought out strategic planning, it is possible to bring down a dictator within a brief period of time. Tactics can be sequenced to reinforce each other and multiply their impact on raising pressure on the status quo to quickly dismantle the pillars of support. But unforeseen circumstances, mistakes in implementation of strategies and external factors could derail the efficiency of the movement. In such cases, it is crucial not to lose momentum for prolonged periods which gives the regime breathing space while weakening the movement’s cohesion by inducing skepticism.
- Diversionary tactics should be employed to cover strategic vulnerability. In the case of a stalemate, new combat front should be opened. Halfway through the Egyptian revolution, Mubarak stopped attacking protesters and tactically waited for the movement to run out of momentum. On the last days of the second week, the Egyptian regime looked unmovable. The number of protesters began dwindling with only few thousands hardcore leaders left at the square. Some opposition members began advocating for negotiation while America walked back from pressuring Mubarak, fearing the survival of his regime. The organizers responded by mobilizing a nationwide boycott. They opened new battle fronts, with fresh combatants—this time workers reinforcing the youth. This counter offensive strategy escalated the conflict, destabilizing the remaining institutions and completely crippling the state.
- If momentum continues to decline, suspending the campaign by emphasizing concession gained should be considered. There will be another round. Learn from mistakes, improvise strategies, and prepare better for the final push.
- Another way of avoiding a civil war is to make sure that no segment of the population (ethnic, religion or region) remains as the last strong hold for the dictator. Cornered in Tripoli, Gaddafi is trying to frame the conflict as a civil war between Western and Eastern Libya. I could anticipate Meles fleeing to Mekele and fortifying himself there to use Tigray as his shield. Such a move can be prevented by organizing resistance in every part of the country thereby creating unwelcome environment everywhere. Statement of denunciation and rejection by high profile members the specific community could also help in discouraging the dictator.
Every dictator wants to limit his subjects’ imagination to a choice between living under tyranny and facing Armageddon. However, time and again, unified, disciplined and strategically planned nonviolent movements have disproved such prediction. Once people break the chain of fear and tear down the wall of tyranny, they can use the resulting civic environment to find creative solutions to their multifaceted problems. Under the watch of the free press and demand of practical results by the population, politicians who now rely on populist rhetoric will be forced to be realistic and moderate their position in order to broaden their appeal and garner electoral victory. Extremist ideologies will be put to test in competitive election or can be resisted peacefully. Public sympathy for such ideologies during repression usually does not translate into electoral support afterwards.
Conclusion: Word of Caution
There is no model revolution : The quick success of the latest revolutions have given rise to simplistic perceptions of nonviolent resistance. Commentators are debating whether the Egyptian, Tunisian, Libyan or East European model should be adopted in Ethiopia. This is a misguided debate because no country can serve as a model for another. Due to differences in social structure, nature and strength of the regime, every movement must develop realistic strategies based on careful and detailed assessment of the realities on the ground. Strategies and tactics that worked in one country may fail in another. We should look into both successful and failed movements not with hope of replicating what they have done, but to learn from their experiences and devise our own strategies to suit our unique realities.
“It’s so easy even a caveman can do it” attitude : This is yet another simplistic interpretation that underestimates the level of preparation that is needed for a nonviolent uprising to succeed. Deceived by seemingly spontaneous swelling of crowds, the importance of leadership and organization are sometimes written off as unnecessary. A nonviolent movement needs leadership, but it does not require a figurehead. Leaders of nonviolent movement are usually invisible because such resistance is not organized in the traditional hierarchical manners. There is also a need to detach the movement from personalities and their politics.
It is also important to clear up the confusion between two social phenomenons: protest and movement. Both are group action by means of expressing views aimed at influencing public opinion to bring change policy. The difference is that protest is a specific reaction to a particular event or situation. A movement however is a sustained series of contentious and collective public campaigns that employs varieties of tactics and methods. In a movement there is a common objective, and not only do the actors know what need to be changed but they also have strategies to achieve it.
On the other hand, a protest could be one of the tactics used by a movement just like boycotts, sit-ins, and strikes. For example, take a rally in the aftermath a stolen election as a tactic for a movement. In case of a protest, participants would disperse after brief standoff. In a movement, protests could be preceded and followed by actions targeting the system—a sign for a larger objective than just airing grievances. Prior strategic planning can be evidenced from the unity, sequential tactics, and discipline shown by demonstrators. We would see a sustained build up of momentum, and the demonstration survives and even gets stronger in the face of a violent response from the opponent.
It takes building a movement to bring down a dictator and replace it with a democratic system. It is true certain riots could bring down a regime. But only an organized movement guided by well planned strategy can sustain the uprising, maintain focus and unity of the public to prevent a return to dictatorship either in the hands of a military junta or due to a consolidation power by new hardliners.
Therefore, while it looks quite simple, successful nonviolent revolution is usually the result of a sophisticated and innovative strategies and tactics. Expanding our knowledge of nonviolent strategies and building our tactical skill is essential to successfully crushing a determined and well financed regime with absolute control over all means’ of coercion.
*Jawar Mohammed is an independent researcher and a recent graduate of Stanford University. He can be reached for comments at firstname.lastname@example.org; you can also access his articles at www.dhummuugaa.wordpress.com or on OPride – Jawar’s Corner.