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Ethiopia After Meles: Prospects for Change and Stability

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Written by Hassen Hussein

Getting rid of dictatorship by any means necessary is obviously very appealing. But any aspirant to true emancipation has a lot of lessons to draw from the recent experience of the Arab Spring as well as Africa’s tortuous past on the pitfalls of this urge.

Part One of this article asserted that in the short-term the stability of the incumbent regime in Ethiopia, even in the event of the death of its longest serving leader, faces a relatively low risk of implosion from within or without. At the same time, it argued that in the future, even in the best of scenario, the prospects for the continuing hegemony of the Tigrean oligarchy is not as rosy as it appears at present. Subsequent articles would endeavor to look into the internal dynamics of the regime that makes its domination untenable. Follow up pieces would discuss the potentials and shortcomings of the opposition, deficiencies that makes the sacrifices of the people fruitless and prolong tyrannical rule.

This second part dwells solely on the question of strategy. If the unorganized popular forces opposed to the undemocratic rule of the TPLF/EPRDF were to act, what strategy would enhance or impede their ability to further tilt the balance of power in their favor?

Getting rid of dictatorship by any means necessary is obviously very appealing. But any aspirant to true emancipation has a lot of lessons to draw from the recent experience of the Arab Spring as well as Africa’s tortuous past on the pitfalls of this urge. The first object lesson is recognition that the sacrifice of the youth of the previous generation that flocked to the bushes to overthrow despotism has instead produced a new batch of tyrants. To try to emulate the examples of the group dubbed by the former Clinton administration as a new generation of African leaders; Zenawi, Afeworki, Musaveni, and Kagame, to cite just a few, thus represents a misreading of this sad history. Sure enough, the economy has rebounded. But dictatorship is well and kicking. And there is no reason to believe that freedom and economic growth are incompatible.

There is another obstacle. In this age only the naive would seriously entertain an unqualified belief that the traditional protracted guerilla war or violent rebellion that brought these men to palace offered the quickest route to a durably democratic future. Unless backed by powerful global interests, few insurgencies since 1989 made it to the palace as easily as they did previously. Had it not been for Western air support, Melosovic and Gaddaffi could be sitting safely in their offices. And Bashar would have easily suppressed the ongoing protests and stamp out the rebellion as his father did repeatedly.

There is an even larger rationale that trumps all others. Accumulated wisdom tells us that uncontrolled political violence is like opium—it devours the patient, wrecks the hospital, and ruins the doctor in quick succession. That is how many otherwise productive societies, such as Somalia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe, have come to their ruins—by glorifying the most violent in their midst and anointing them as paramount leaders only to wish, of course after it is too late, that they did not.

Those who refuse to still heed the truism that non-violence works and it is no cowardice but actually takes more courage (the difference is that the courage it demands is from inside rather than outside) and a more potent medium of change may have to consider another factor: The times have changed. In the age of people power fuelled by Facebook, Twitter, and the Internet and 24-hour television, no critical mass of well-informed youth would sustainably rally behind the type of hierarchical organizations that brought the likes of Zenawi to power. Besides, Ethiopia’s ruling party enjoys absolute monopoly and overwhelming advantage on violence. And it would be foolish to confront it at its strong points. The effectiveness of the Muslim protest lies in its ability to exploit the ruling party’s weakest links.

Granted organizing under dictatorship is very difficult. Granted, the cathartic value of exacting maximum punishment, an eye-for-an-eye basis, on repressive systems that terrorized society for decades cannot be denied. Nevertheless, those drawing inspiration from Tahrir Square as well as the South African experiment will be better positioned to see to it that dictatorship became an endangered species—beaten out of its last hide out. More importantly, if the youth were to choose the less traveled road of peaceful protests; more of them may live to eventually cheer its burial.

Furthermore, the kind of cross-sectional grassroots mobilization, broad-based cooperation and alliance building, creativity, civic spirit, and horizontal organization that is characteristic of a Tahrir-like movement as well as the Muslim protesters in Ethiopia is more likely to lead to a more democratic society to rise on the graves of dictatorship, ensuring that one’s offsprings lived in freedom, tranquility, and dignity.

Last but not least, although the top brass of the military is still dominated by Tigreans, its loyalty in the face of a determined popular civil disobedience campaign could fracture. In the event of a power struggle within the Tigrean hierarchy, the military become the theater as well as a player in the larger power chess game.

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About the author

Hassen Hussein

Hassen Hussein, a writer, teaches Leadership and Management courses at the Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota and can be reached at hxhuss10@smumn.edu.

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