Here is why nonviolent resistance is a no-brainier for the Oromo struggle

Unless we are deluding ourselves or burying our heads in the sand and hoping, the writing is on the wall: Ethiopia is dangerously getting closer to plunging into a civil war of a greater magnitude. Day by day, slowly but surely, we are creeping towards the abyss. The future is bleak and dangerous. If things continue the way they are, sooner or later we may be in a full-fledged civil war.  Fortunately, we still have a short window of time to avert it. But do we have in us what it takes to do this?

The Ethiopian government is clueless as to what is just around the corner. Blinded by ideology and narrow self-interest, it is not grasping how dangerously we are getting closer to a civil war.   Unfortunately, most of us, i.e., the broad opposition, have also started to subscribe to the theory that violence could be stopped only by violence and preparing for it; and this is driving all of us to a dangerous position.    If we really understand what a civil war entails and what its consequences are, there is a chance the stark reality looking directly into our eyes may sober us, and may be, we may start looking for a better way to avert it. This is me grasping at the last straw-hope.

Here, from the outset one caveat. I am not trying to create a false equivalence. I am not by any stretch of imagination blaming the opposition as the cause. Obviously, the first and prime blame for why we are heading towards civil war and why we are not seeking solution squarely lies on the back of the EPRDF (Ethiopian Government).

Civil war is not an easy matter, it’s not a game, and one shouldn’t toy with it. Once it starts, ending it is even harder. While there are many countries that have come out of a civil war and built a stable society, many never fully recover. Civil war usually deepens hatred and leaves a lasting negative consequence in all aspect of societal relationship in a country.  Long after the last bullet is fired, the lingering effect of a civil war keeps on passing from generation to generation.

Unlike conventional wars, in civil wars the theatre of conflict is not limited to a battlefield. As a result, hundreds of thousands of innocent people, mostly civilians, including children and women are the victims. Societal relationship including political, cultural and economic life could be totally disrupted. Cities, economic infrastructures, farms, homes and villages could be wiped out.  In the wake of a civil war, famine, disease and other pestilence could stalk the land for many years, creating havoc.

However, let me make it perfectly clear, the above does not at all mean that the alternatives to armed conflict, nonviolent resistance, has no risks and does not bring disruptions of its own. As the Oromo nonviolent resistance itself has shown, many would lose their dear lives in nonviolent resistance also, and many would be imprisoned and many others would flee their country.  However, compared to violent resistance the human and material cost is always much less.

Unlike wars between countries, in civil war there is no fallback borders to where you can retreat and by retreating feel safe and end the war. Ending the active hostility in civil war does not usually end the war. One has to win or be defeated. In a civil war, defeat usually ends in a slaughter, and hence, the incentive to continue fighting to the very end. As the examples of Somalia, Congo, South Sudan, etc., shows, civil war in some instances leads to failed states. Hence, the warning, “Don’t play with insurrection.”

Again one caveat. I am not a pacifist. I do understand the role war and armed struggle played in history.  Certainly there are instances when violence may be justified. Without armed struggle, many nations and countries would not have regained their freedom and nationhood.  Without freedom wars, colonialism would have reigned for many more years. As a result of the US Civil War, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were achieved. The 13th amendment abolished slavery, the 14th amendment protected the civil rights of all Americans, and the 15th amendment guaranteed the right to vote for all U.S citizens, regardless of race.

So, even though civil war or any war for that matter, is a great evil, ironically war also has its virtue; it can lead to resolving conflicts. In fact, there are times, when it is even worthwhile to continue wars to the end rather than ending them prematurely. Sometimes, it’s only at the end of a fully executed war that a conflict could be ended and peace achieved; prematurely ending them only leads to paralysis, and to a never ending conflict. “Let’s give war a chance” is the right slogan in some rare occasions.

This raises a legitimate question of, “just because civil war has all these risks and calamities, does that mean people should refrain from fighting for their rights?”   Absolutely not! I am advocating against armed struggle and violence not only because it has risk and brings about chaos, instability and loss of lives. I am against it mainly because there is a better way to deal with tyrants that has a better chance for success and that does not involve all the other negative phenomena associated with violent resistance or civil war. The alternate to not entangling in a civil war is not, surrendering.  The choice is not only between armed struggle and total submission, between the two, there is a large swathe of land called nonviolent resistance.

I am writing this piece at this time, because due to EPRDF’s extreme repression against our people, more and more people are convinced that the only way out of our current predicament is through armed resistance.   Even though the idea that violence is the only way-out has been around for many years, recently it started getting even more currency after the Irreechaa Massacre. It further received a shot in the arm when the government imposed the State of Emergency. Now with the imprisonment of Marara of OFC, many are boldly declaring “the era of peaceful resistance is over.”  In fact, others who had all along been for armed struggle are using Marara’s imprisonment as a, “we told you so” moment with a sense of smugness.

Nonviolent Resistance-The Meaning

Gene Sharp defines nonviolent or civic resistance as “a technique of socio-political action for applying power in a conflict without the use of violence.” Another writer defines nonviolent resistance as, “organized popular challenges to government authority that depend primarily on methods of nonviolent action rather than on armed methods.” In short nonviolence resistance means abstaining from the use of physical force to achieve an objective of political and social change through popular challenge.

There are those who advocate nonviolence based on ethical or moral philosophy or even based on religious grounds. These are mostly pacifists. However, Sharp’s definition above is not based on ethical or moral philosophy.  It is based on a strategic choice.  Unlike the pacifists who choose nonviolent action as a way of life, or who regularly emphasize its moral and spiritual dimensions, Sharp and others promote nonviolent action as a pragmatic method of struggle that is more effective and works better compared to the alternatives.

There is one very common and almost universal misconception and terminological mix-up among the Oromo and other Ethiopians regarding nonviolent resistance. There is a tendency of equating nonviolent resistance with what they call “peaceful struggle” i.e., participating in electoral politics.  What many call “peaceful struggle” is limited to participating in conventional political process like voting and lobbying and coming to power or getting concession through an election strategy.

However, this is not exactly what we mean by “Nonviolent Resistance”. On the contrary, nonviolent resistance is mainly conducted outside the conventional political process, like voting, lobbying, etc. In fact, it is usually adopted as a strategy precisely because legal or parliamentary methods of seeking redress are nonexistent or have failed. Nonviolent resistance could utilize or incorporate “peaceful struggle” as one tactic, but it is not congruent with it. What most Oromos call “peaceful struggle” is close to “nonviolence” as a noun, as used by pacifists. Here we use the word as adjective, referring to it as “nonviolent resistance” or “nonviolent action”.

Contrary to popular perception, nonviolent resistance does not also mean if someone slaps you on one cheek, you turn to them the other also. Just like the violent one, nonviolent resistance is confrontational. It also uses disruptive techniques, in fact just like the violent resistance, nonviolent resistance also seeks to take power by force, but the methods used by the two are different.

Nonviolent resistance is a strategy for confrontation, not a passive movement. That is why rather than calling it “nonviolent resistance” some prefer to even go further and call it “nonviolent insurrection”, or “war without weapons”. In fact, nonviolent resistance is akin to military-style strategy, with an emphasis on discipline and organization, taking appropriate action at the right time using appropriate tactics. For Sharp, nonviolent resistance, just like waging war, requires wise strategy and tactics, and demands of its activists, courage, discipline and sacrifice.

Nonviolent Resistance-Historical Examples

Nonviolent resistance (civil resistance) is preferable due to several reasons. Compared to civil war it is more effective, has a better chance to succeed and also has a better chance to peacefully transitioning to democracy. On the contrary, violent resistance has less chance to succeed, and even when successful, usually results in a dictatorship. Violence begets violence; it is self-perpetuating, and therefore, civil war that relies on violence does not in most cases secure a peaceful end.

Nonviolent resistances have led to numerous dramatic changes in many countries around the globe. Understandably, there are also many nonviolent resistances that have failed.  I am not claiming that there is a guaranty that all nonviolent resistance will be successful, at least in the short run. There are many scholarly works that studied social movements and the nonviolent means and tried to understand why some are successful while the others fail. Here we are not going into that.

There is a deeply held misconception around many people that nonviolent resistance works only in a benevolent dictatorship or in cases of mild tyranny.  Others further argue that nonviolence works only in addressing some civil rights or environment issues and does not work to overthrow a tyrannical government in the face of extreme violence and repression. Those who argue this, conveniently forget stark historical evidence.

In fact some of the most repressive regimes in history fell as a result of nonviolent resistance. Suffice to mention the defeat of Marcos in the Philippines, Pinochet in Chile, the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the communist regime in Poland. And even if we look at recent events, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia were chased out of power through the nonviolent resistance.  None of them were benign.

We can add to the above, the 2005 Lebanon popular movement that ended foreign occupation, and the 2006 Nepal uprising that forced the monarch to make major concession, and the 2000 Serbia, the 2002 Madagascar and the 2003 Georgia nonviolent resistances that led to regime changes. If you look at these examples, one can easily see that nonviolent movements can be successful in less developed, economically poor countries as well as in developed, affluent societies.   This means it does not matter whether one is in Europe and North America, or Africa, Asia or elsewhere, or whatever type of regime it is, nonviolent resistance could work everywhere and in every situation.  Nonviolent resistance does not need a kinder and gentler ruler in order to prevail.

Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, in their seminal work, “Why Civil Resistance Works”, meticulously and rigorously analyzed 323 violent and non-violent resistance campaigns between 1900 and 2006.  Their finding is compelling and provocative. According to their statistical analysis with in-depth case studies of specific countries and territories, campaigns of nonviolent resistance were more than twice as likely to achieve full or partial success compared to violent counterparts.      Their groundbreaking findings showed that nonviolent campaigns succeeded 53% of the time versus 26% of the time for violent campaigns.

Thus, based on historical experience alone, there is justification why we should opt for nonviolent resistance over armed struggle.

Why are Nonviolent Struggles More Successful than the Alternatives?

Nonviolent resistance method starts from one fundamental assumption: authoritarian regimes survive because they get a wide range of obedience from the population they lord over. Without such obedience there is no way they could continue to rule. Thus, the immediate and cardinal purpose of any resistance should be to bring about the withdrawal or denial of obedience the people have hitherto given to an authoritarian regime.

Compared to violent resistance, nonviolent resistance is better positioned to attract active participation of the people.  The very fact that nonviolent resistance has less risk compared to its counterpart makes it a better vehicle for attracting more people. People who because of age, gender and disability cannot participate effectively in violent struggle can easily participate in a nonviolent resistance. Nonviolent resistance can also attract business elites, intellectuals, religious personnel and institution, etc., who for one or reason or another cannot support armed struggle. All these expands the participatory advantage of nonviolent resistance over armed insurrection.

Unlike violent resistance, nonviolent resistance is relatively open to all, it’s not only for able bodied men. People of every walks of life can participate actively in it without leaving their home or work, relatively with less risk to themselves and their families. The same is not true in the case of a civil war.  The moment civil war starts, immediately the number of mobilized shrinks.  Once the method of struggle shifts, hundreds of thousands of people who used to be actively protesting in the street go back to their home and become aloof. Thereafter, the confrontation, rather than being between the populace and the government, becomes between two armed groups.

The larger the number of participants and the more diverse people are mobilized by a nonviolent resistance, the more chance it has to bring about loyalty shift.  The more defection there is, the more undermined and weakened will be the tyrannical regime. And the more it is weakened, the more people dare to defy it further. The high level of mobilization is the most important feature for success. Thus, the participatory advantage of the nonviolence resistance is the key factor in destabilizing the incumbent and giving a chance for the nonviolent resistance to be victorious.  Thus, every effort should be done lest we take action that diminishes or minimizes the participation of the people.

It should also be noted that it is this participatory advantage of nonviolent resistance that makes it an excellent conduit to transition to democracy.  Evidence clearly shows that struggles that unwaveringly avoid violence have much more chance to bring about democracy.  Once they degenerate into violence, their chance of bringing about democracy diminishes.  Those who come to power through violence mostly end up turning tyrannical.  It should not be forgotten that violence is what brought EPRDF to power, and if we want to break this vicious cycle, violence should not be the way to get rid of it.

Because violent resistance has less chance of mobilizing participants, it also has less chance of bringing about loyalty shift.  In fact when there is violence, the police, military and security, rather than shifting their allegiance, dig theirs hills in. If huge defection does not occur, it is always extremely difficult to win an entrenched adversary in power that is controlling all the repressive state machinery.

As nonviolent resistance attracts a large size of participants, and especially when it has reached a certain stage and is diversified, repression against it becomes extremely difficult and costly to the tyrannical government. And when repressive actions are taken in such situations, they could have a boomerang effect.  In fact, sometimes, widely publicized repressive incidents are precisely the sparks that trigger mass uprisings. With the continuation of the growth of participants in the nonviolent resistance, the likelihood of division within the government and its institutions, like the police, military, media and bureaucracy becomes certain.

Nonviolent resistance is more advantageous because it could be done relatively on the cheap compared to the violent insurrection. Conducting a protracted insurrection is an extremely expensive undertaking. It is so expensive that most armed struggles that became successful in history had to partly or mostly rely on foreign backers or allies for arms and money.  Propaganda aside, it is a rarity for self-reliant armed movement to become successful.

For the Oromo people who do not have external allies, one could easily discern why choosing the nonviolent resistance is a no-brainer.  Moreover, because you don’t owe anybody anything when conducing nonviolent resistance, you will not be anybody’s client or stooge and you will not be controlled by an outside force.  On the contrary when you rely on foreign forces to conduct armed struggle, the chance of your being controlled and used by them is enhanced.

It should also be noted that armed struggle is not viable in many places. Factors such as having foreign backers, suitable terrain for defense, geo-politics, internal cohesion, having outlet to neighboring countries, and many others are determinative in conducting a successful armed struggle.

Having grievances, just cause and an extremely brutal regime as adversary, does not by itself justify blindly opting for an armed struggle for the sake of it.   Before undertaking such a far-reaching scheme, one should first meticulously and seriously take stock of pros and cons and the possibilities of winning and the cost involved in it and then decide.  Nothing justifies pursuing and supporting unpractical ideas and myopic strategy that in practice has failed again and again.

The Oromo Nonviolent Resistance

The Oromo Protest which is continuously raging since November 2015, has fundamentally exposed the brutality and instability of the Ethiopian regime. Furthermore, it has brought to the world stage the genuineness and seriousness of the Oromo issue.  The genesis, strength and weakness and its significance for the whole region is a subject for another topic.   In this section I will be focusing on the importance of staying the course of nonviolence, and reflect on the danger of degenerating into violence.

There is no question that this round of #OromoProtests is not something that came out of the blues.  It is a continuation of the many years of struggle the Oromo had been waging for generations.  This nonviolent resistance, however, is not just another protest. It’s unequalled in its size, sustainability and effect. It is the severest threat the Oromos have posed to any of the successive governments over the last 100 plus years. No doubt, it is also the gravest threat the EPRDF had encountered in its entire 25 years rule; yes, much superior than all the threats all the armed insurgencies combined have instigated in the last 25 years.

The #Oromo Protest became such an existential threat to the EPRDF government that it had to declare a state of emergency to save its rule. By declaring this, the regime is admitting the seriousness of the threat.  No armed struggle that Oromos and others had waged against EPRDF so far has even come close to causing this.  Thus, the #OromoProtests has clearly demonstrated that nonviolent resistance is a much more potent force, more powerful than armed struggle in fighting against repression in Ethiopia.  This is no more a theoretical conjecture or speculation; the #OromoProtests has shown in practice that nonviolence is better than armed struggle in shaking the brutal regime to its foundation.

Thus, the question becomes, why abandon such a potent method of struggle that has started bearing fruit?  At this stage, when we have started seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, why go back to a method of struggle that has so far miserably failed?  Many of our people have now become believers in armed struggle, not because they are trigger happy or because they are hateful, but because they see no other option out of this quagmire.

Those who see nonviolent resistance as a lower stage of growth on a developmental scale, compared to armed struggle, think that nonviolent resistance at a certain stage should always be advanced to the next stage, i.e., to violent resistance.  This view also comes from the assumption that nonviolent resistance has only limited role and cannot be used to overthrow the existing government. Those who have this view, whenever they see any setback in the nonviolence struggle, are always the first to hastily conclude that nonviolent resistance has exhausted its role.  Thus, when the nonviolence resistance has not deposed a repressive regime within few months, or when many demonstrators are killed, or when a leader is imprisoned, as with the case of Marara recently, they are fast to declare the necessity of changing the gear towards armed resistance.

As I have tried to show above, nothing could be further from the truth. Nonviolence resistance is a fully developed form of struggle in its own right, and has better track record of success. It is not an early developmental stage in a continuum of methods of struggle.

It is obvious that nonviolent resistance will not always be victorious.  However, if it fails, it does not fail because of the nature of the regime it is struggling against, or because as a method it has weaknesses, or because as a method it is inferior to armed struggle. If it fails, it is usually because it lacks an agile and clever organization, leadership, and strategy to bring down a resourceful and entrenched dictatorship. “Skills and strategic choice often matter more than conditions in determining the outcomes of these conflicts.”

Waging effective nonviolent resistance is far more complex than one thinks. Effective, short, mid and long-term objectives and corresponding operational plans should be devised just as in the case of waging a war. Which tactic to choose, when, where, how, by whom it should be executed, what should be targeted, and how the tactics should be sequenced, should all be painstakingly prepared.

These are all essential considerations that determine the outcome of the struggle. Without having elaborate plan such as this, spontaneous and uncoordinated actions could not lead to success. Whenever a small setback is encountered, rather than abandoning nonviolent resistance, it’s better to go back to the drawing board, look inside the movement and assess the strength and weakness and come up with solutions to upgrade the organizational capability of the movement. Nonviolent resistance movement needs clear, shrewd, and courageous organization and leadership that could do this.

It’s very hard to gauge how much the #OromoProtests is organized and whether it is led by a fairly centralized, even if loosely, group or coalition of groups.  The demonstration that occurred simultaneously in 200 Oromia cities and towns this past summer is a testament to the existence of a fairly developed coordination.  Let alone in 200 cities, conducting a massive demonstration in just one city demands a huge amount of planning.  Furthermore, I do not want to commit the mistake that most pundits commit wherever they are faced with new nonviolent resistance. There is always the tendency to castigate all new movements as spontaneous, unplanned and emotional outburst. For example the Time magazine described the 2011 Arab Spring movement as “leaderless, amorphous, and spontaneous.”  The Moscow Times in 2004 described the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine as, “… at its core, a spontaneous, emotional outburst …” However, these uprisings were not as spontaneous as they first appeared to the commentators.

Having said the above, even if the #OromoProtests resistance had some coordination and organization, I don’t think there is any doubt that it is not yet coordinated and led by a political party level of organization.  If there is a need to make a change, it is here that a huge amount of effort should be exerted. To successfully overthrow this regime and transition to democracy, this movement should be led by a wide-ranging, inclusive coalition of political organizations and political forces, in which rival opposition leaders suppress their egos and ambitions in service of a larger cause.  Without unifying the major forces that oppose this government, and strategizing, victory will remain a pipedream.

It should also be noted that it’s extremely difficult to sustain a disciplined nonviolent resistance for a long period of time without having a strong political organization or coalition of organizations that give guidance and support. Moreover, in the absence of the leadership of organized political forces, the danger for a nonviolent resistance turning violent or fizzle out is always huge.

The most dangerous situation for nonviolent resistance is the risk that it could prematurely degenerate into violence.  An episode of extreme repression like the Irrrecha Massacre are major factors that could lead to this eventuality.  It is a human nature to react to violence with violence. Fight-or-flight is a human response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat; it is a survival instinct deeply woven into our DNA.  However, this hardwired instinctive response of fight-or-flight could have a disastrous effect on the success of nonviolent resistance, even on our survival. Unless we learn how to control and direct those primitive instinctive reactions and develop a new and more adaptive response to today’s threats, we will be doomed.

When we see on TV or social media the images of people killed, maimed or tortured, by EPRDF and when we hear extreme cruelty the government is committing against our people, emotionally we become extremely angry.  Psychologically, our senses are heightened, and we make hasty decisions. We feel an immediate and intense urge to revenge the death of our compatriots. However noble this response looks, it’s an emotional decision based on survival instinct; and it is not an appropriate one to the complex threats of today.

When we act emotionally and backslide to violence to counter EPRDF’s violence, we are playing into the hands of the tyrannical government. Reverting to violence is what the government wants us to do.  It gives it a pretext and justification to use further harsher lethal force against the opposition. We always hear people saying we should talk to the government in the language it understands, i.e., with guns. However, I say we should “talk” to the government in the language it does not understand.

EPRDF is a government that came to power through the barrel of the gun, and it’s a government that maintained itself on power through the barrel of the gun.  It’s a government that feels very well at home when fighting against insurgents; and it should not be forgotten that it is always difficult to bring down a government that came to power through guerilla fighting by the same method it came to power. On the contrary, when confronted with nonviolent resistance, the EPRDF feels totally baffled, acts like caught off-guard and behaves like a deer in a headlight.  Therefore, it is there, where its weakness lies, that we should attack.

Of course, nonviolent resistance is rarely completely and totally nonviolent. A certain amount of violence is always expected. Usually those violence come from those who are outside the mainstream group who are not abiding by the discipline of the movement or done by those fringe groups who defy the leaders. Sometimes it also comes from agent provocateurs implanted by the government. The danger is when the tyrannical government’s repression is acute, those small groups could easily derail the movement from nonviolence to violence.  This is especially true when the movement is not led by a strong organization.

We can learn a great deal from the Syrian nonviolent resistance that degenerated into violence. When it began in March 2011, the Syrian movement was nonviolent. As long as it remained nonviolent, the movement was able to garner support from all sectors of the Syrian society.  It posed the gravest challenge to the Syrian Baathists in more than 40 years of their rule. When the government acted with its usual brutality its repression backfired, and the number of protests and participants steadily increased. The participants in the nonviolence resistance included people from diverse ethnic, social, and religious backgrounds, including the Alawites. During demonstrations the chants included, “Christians, Alawites and Sunnis, we are one!”

The Syrian nonviolence activists were able to win some concessions from Assad at the early stage. The government released hundreds of political dissidents, granted citizenship rights to the Kurds, dismissed the governor of Daraa, who committed atrocities against demonstrators, and it lifted the 48 year-old emergency law. And many defected from the bureaucracy, Ba’ath party, diplomatic corps, business community, and the security forces. As a result, the movement’s camp steadily expanded.

By the summer of 2011, it was estimated around 30,000 soldiers had defected from the Syrian army.  However, at a time when civil resistance was gaining public support, on July 31, 2011, the movement leaders made the momentous declaration of the formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to protect civilians and to overthrow the regime with arms. “This, however, played into the regime’s hands as it led the rebels to engage the government on military terms where the Assad rule remained at its strongest.”

The Assad regime was also playing the activists by committing purposefully cruel acts, like capturing children and torturing them, to trigger violence among protestors.  This further increased the growing desire for revenge among ordinary people. The belief that the nonviolent resistance was an unsuitable and weak strategy to face Assad’s repression given the level of repression rose. The dominant conviction among the activists became, that it was impossible to bring the regime down with only peaceful means.

The Assad regime at some places left the military depots unguarded so that the people could raid and arm themselves to a degree. By doing this, the regime purposefully increased the capacity of the movement to go violent.  When the resistance turned violent, this gave the Assad regime a pretext to use indiscriminate lethal force, including warplanes and chemical weapons that were not used when the resistance was nonviolent.  On the other hand, armed struggle in Syria heightened divisions among religious and ethnic groups, hardening extreme views and dismantled the solidarity that was created during the nonviolence resistance. The rest is history and we know the tragic situation in Syria today.

There is a great deal that the Oromo and Amhara Protest could learn from the tragic Syrian situation. I hope nobody wants Syria to be repeated in Ethiopia. However, whether we like it or not, there is a frightening similarity between the two situations.  It is incumbent on all who are concerned about the protest in Ethiopia to study the Syrian tragedy and draw lessons from it.

The writer can be reached at Olaanaabbaaxiiqi@yahoo.com



About the author

Olaanaa Abbaaxiiqii

Leave a Comment