Jawar Mohammed

Nonviolent Struggle: Ethiopian Exceptionalism?

By Jawar Mohammed*

Part I

The long oppressed citizens of Tunisia and Egypt have freed themselves. Libyans are almost there. Bahraini, Yemeni, Algerians, and Moroccans are in the middle of a fierce struggle. Our neighbors, Djiboutians have also risen up. In Ethiopia, debate is raging over whether the current wave of people’s uprising should, could or would reach Meles Zenawi?  While the successes in the Arab world have a visibly energizing effect, skepticism is still dominating the discourse in much of sub-Saharan Africa.

Fortunately, in the last month, most of the misconceptions about nonviolent resistance have been debunked. Thanks to the tantalizing nonviolent discipline demonstrated by the Egyptian protesters, the cultural determinism school of thought, which long declared Arab and African societies as incompatible with ‘civilized’ politics have been practically refuted.  The growing successes of civilian movements against the brutal regimes in Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain have disproved the belief that nonviolent resistance works only against soft-authoritarians who value human life.

Skeptics are using “ Ethiopian Exceptionalism” to argue that nonviolent strategies would not work in Ethiopia. Three of the most repeated arguments are: ethnic fragmentation, composition of the military and low Internet penetration. These arguments have strong factual bases and do not warrant outright dismissal. However, Ethiopia having a different condition from Egypt or Tunisia does not necessarily prevent waging a successful nonviolent resistance. It just requires a strategy specifically tailored for the exceptional realities in Ethiopia.

The Internet

Social media gave a tremendous boost to organizers in Egypt and Tunisia. But its role is exaggerated. Now, some are saying nonviolent strategies don’t work in the absence of extensive access to Internet. However, it is important to remember that, nonviolent movements have achieved their objectives in India, Chile, South Africa, Philippines etc even before the invention of the Internet. The Internet made some aspects of strategic planning easier and faster. It eliminated the security risks involved in clandestine physical meetings while making it simpler to reach and mobilize large population, quickly.

Less than 1% of Ethiopians have access to the internet through a single provider owned by the state. This will obviously make Ethiopian organizers less advantageous than their North African counterparts. Yet, it is primarily the critical mass (students and young professionals) that is involved at the strategic planning stage. In Ethiopia, sizable members of this social group have access to Internet and mobile phones. Besides, as we have observed elsewhere, once a resistance movement takes off, a regime will most likely cut all communication services, rendering the Internet useless. Therefore, organizers have to develop alternative means’ of communication in order to coordinate actions and expose the regime’s atrocities.

Egyptians were not fully prepared for the Internet blackout. But they overcame these challenges by reaching out to the outside world to which Google responded by creating a voice to text system. The call to tweet system allowed people to use landlines to leave messages that were posted on their twitter accounts as tweets.  As such, the low Internet penetration will not save Meles; it might just make it a bit harder for the organizers. In fact, if he chooses to follow on Mubarak’s footsteps and unplug both the Internet and telephone, he will be the one at the losing end as his security apparatus, party structure and public share the same telecom system. Shutting off the country’s sole telecom system will disconnect most of his oppressive machinery. This was one of the factors for the quick demise of Mubarak’s 1.5 million strong police. Since the least financed individual citizens have proven to be more creative than the resourceful state bureaucracy, it is likely that the movement will find a way to turn darkness into strategic advantages.

In the past, activists had difficulty attracting international attention to atrocities committed by authoritarian regimes.  The ongoing wave of revolution has captured the global spotlight more than ever before. Every dictator is under a media watch and any sign of resistance will definitely gain broader coverage. A picture or video clip taken on a cheap cell phone in rural Ethiopia can instantly wind up on social media. This fresh and irrefutable firsthand account will reach the biggest news outlets – fresh and unedited. There was practically no media in Libya in the early days of the protest. Gaddafi shut down all communications to the outside world. But this did not prevent the evidence of his brutality from reaching the watchful eyes on international community, sometimes as it was happening.  

Therefore, whether Meles is butchering the people of Adigrat, Gode, Moyale or Matama, the fact will be on Aljazeera, broadcast back to his subjects and to the wider world. He cannot stop it.  At the moment dictators are at a great disadvantage. This is a golden moment that needs to be seized by all oppressed people yearning for freedom.

Composition of Military

The Egyptian army was showered with praises for its neutrality, and rightly so. However, too much credit is given to the “professionalism” of the army than other factors such as the role of the United States and most importantly the strategy organizers deployed to restrain the military. By emphasizing the ‘professionalism’ of the army, the planners made a tactical choice long before the confrontation. Once repeated by analysts and pundits alike, the army was systematically put under moral pressure to protect its image.

The primary duty of every military is to protect the government of the day. The degree of its loyalty could be different depending on connections with the ruler. A lot has been said about the loyalty of the Ethiopian military to the system. Much of the discourse focuses on the top commanders’ ethnic identification with Meles. It is true that Meles has assigned Tigreans to most of the key command positions. And the primary rationale for this is a cold strategic calculation rather than favoritism (see my article on Tigrean Nationalism).

Unfortunately, the opposition has been attacking the strength of this strategy. They attack the military because they seem to have resigned to the assumption that all those officers are loyal to Meles. This was exactly what the strategy was designed to achieve. This strategy must change now. Correcting factual errors and myths about the composition and internal dynamics of the military is crucial. It is common to refer to the current Ethiopian military as the TPLF army. This is factually incorrect because;

  1. Members of the military come from all corners of the country and Tigreans make up no more than 10%.  

  2. Most of the soldiers below the rank of colonel were not part of the rebel movement. As such, they have little ideological or personal connection with the rulers. The majority of the TPLF’s rebel soldiers were demobilized early on to engage in business activities and some were purged while many others have retired.

The scary image about the “Agazi” division that was involved in quashing the 2005 protests needs to be reexamined. This division is described as a Tigrean only unit or sometimes as being full of mercenaries. Anecdotal evidence shows that there are several non-Tigrean Ethiopians within the rank and file of the division including the command.  Most dictators have ‘presidential’ guards composed of elite soldiers who have proved their loyalty; this is certainly the case for Agazi. Most of the misinformation is provided by the regime to create a terrifying image of the military and a hostile situation between the army and the people. Critics of the system have further exaggerated, the ‘otherness’ and cruelty of this division, which further terrifies the public.

Despite its role in strengthening loyalty, ethnic composition of the military does not make it more effective against nonviolent resistance. The apartheid system in South Africa had almost an entirely white military. But it did not save the system from crumbling under the weight of people’s power. Nonviolent strategies avoid the regime’s strong pillars and target its weakest links—what Gene Sharp calls Achilles’ heels. Instead of taking the military head on, South African strategists organized a nationwide boycott of white businesses. There was nothing the security and military could do, besides harassing and arresting the key organizers. As months went by, the economic costs were unbearable even to the most racist businessmen. Thus, the cost of repression against the Black community was systematically transferred to the White community that was previously ambivalent or supported the regime.  When the going got tough, the White South Africans turned up the heat on the regime, and the resulting crisis brought down the government.   The hardliner P. W. Botha was replaced by a moderate F.W. De Klerk, opening the door for ‘ pacted’ (bargained) transition.

As illustrated in this example, movements can employ several tactics either to avoid direct confrontation with the regimes’ means of coercion or minimize their repressive capability. The use of low-risk actions (boycotts, work stoppage, traffic jamming, etc) at the initial stage have proved more effective.

In Ethiopia’s case, a detailed assessment is needed to devise realistic strategies to cope with the regime’s means of coercion and dissolve the military’s loyalty to the system.  From the limited information available to me, I would argue that, in the face of a carefully planned and disciplined nonviolent uprising, Meles’ violent tactics will not stand a chance.

Here is a list of things to consider:

a.     The local police are the primary face of the repressive machinery particularly outside the capital. They are poorly equipped and the least skilled. They also live with people, underpaid (perhaps among the lowest paid state employees). Thus, they are as grieved as the rest of the population. But violence and abusive behaviors are well entrenched traditions of the police. They could be merciless at first encounter but will be the first to wither away as the uprising gathers momentum.

b)      Some regional governments have their own special police; a rapid response brigades whose primary responsibility is stepping in when a situation overwhelms the local police. Well armed and with better training than the local police, the rapid response lineup has a good record of containing midsized riots. But its strong regional loyalty is always a threat to federal authorities.

c.     The Federal Police, numbered in few thousands, are highly effective in its rapid response, is quick to be mobilized and well trained in crowd control. However, this force’s capability, discipline and morale is in decline because they are underpaid while mostly stationed in camps within in major cities.

d.    The National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) is believed to have an extended network of agents. But it relies on the Federal Police for muscle which is a source of tension between the leadership of the two agencies. NISS has been expanding and actively recruiting for its new branch of IT security.

The TPLF has built an impressive intelligence apparatus during its rebellion years but the quality of its intelligence has been in a steady decline since they took power. Currently, as part of Meles’ strategy to secure their loyalty, the primary concern for many leading agents is accumulating wealth, through extortion, land sale, and partnership with the black-market sector. Credible sources indicate that, they are busy running their own personal affairs; most agents cook up Intel that is passed on to the politicians. For example, the botched Somalia operation was largely attributed to such problems. It was under the agency’s nose that a top general recruited hundreds of soldiers and defected to a rebel movement. Agents often fail to identify actual rebel operatives, and instead roundup innocent citizens to present to their bosses.  Strangely, during last year’s reshuffle Meles has put the NISS under direct control of the Prime Minister’s office indicative of the lack of confidence in the top spy chiefs. Nevertheless, this organ is quite loyal to the system and possibly the last to defect. Yet its culture of Intel fabrication and the widespread corruption works against the status quo.

e.     The Ethiopian National Defense Force is combat tested and is relatively in good shape but lacks experience in dealing with civilians. It has been expanding officer’s colleges and also increased production of its own light weaponry. But due to poor infrastructure and outdated vehicles, its tactical mobilization is rated poor. Yet there are several units stationed in barracks within close proximity of the capital.  Thanks to Meles’ deeply anti-military sentiment (due to fear of a coup) the morale of the soldiers is low. They draw a small salary from the regime and the rising cost of living has made it difficult, particularly for long serving career officers.  Due to perceived ethnic favoritism, mutinies and high profile defections have been taking place. The regime has responded by purging or ‘grounding’ almost all Oromo and Amhara senior officers and replacing them with Tigrean loyalists. This strategy might have prevented potential coups but makes the regime extremely vulnerable to nonviolent strategies. Since the majority of the soldiers feel marginalized, they identity with the grievances of the people, likely to turn on the system on the first sign of weakness on the part of the regime.

Overall, the state of Meles’ forces of coercion is favorable to the resistance than the status quo.  Meles knows prolonged crisis will expand the crack and weaken his position. Therefore, he is likely to try intense and deadly repression during the early stage. Below are few strategic recommendations for the resistance organizers to reduce the efficiency of security forces

  • Self-restraining and  organized action, nonviolent discipline are vital for co-optation

  • Increase direct or indirect contact with the military, police and security

  • Maximize social contact between the military personnel and population in order to keep them informed and engaged

  • Communication should be strategic

    • Providing reassurance about their personal and institutional future

    • Warning about personal accountability for their action or inaction
    • Appealing to their humanity ( future of the children, etc)

  • Physical barriers could also be used to reduce mobility of security forces

Jawar Mohammed is an independent researcher and a recent graduate of Stanford University. He can be reached for comments at jawarmd@gmail.com; you can also access his articles at www.dhummuugaa.wordpress.com or on OPride – Jawar’s Corner.

Part II: Social Fragmentation and Civil Resistance

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Collaborative stories written or reported by OPride staff and contributors.

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