By Olaanaa Abbaaxiiqii* | December 2016
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, its 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 blue. It is a continuation of the many years of the struggle the Oromo people have been waging for generations. This nonviolent resistance, however, is not just another protest. It’s unparalleled 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 has encountered in its entire 25-year rule; yes, much superior than all the threats all the armed insurgencies combined have instigated in the last 25 years.
The #OromoProtests 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 have 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, 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 Dr. Merera recently, they are fast to declare the necessity of changing the gear towards an 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 an 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 an 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.
Without having elaborate plan such that incorporate the elements above, spontaneous and uncoordinated actions could not lead to success. On top of this, a nonviolent resistance movement needs clear, shrewd, and courageous organization and leadership that could do this. Whenever a small setback is encountered, rather than abandoning the nonviolent resistance, a movement that has such leadership, goes back to the drawing board, looks inside the movement and assesses the strength and weakness, and comes up with solutions to upgrade the organizational capability.
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 a 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 pipe dream.
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 fizzling out is always huge.
The worst risk a nonviolent resistance could encounter is the fact that it could prematurely degenerate into violence. An episode of extreme repression like the Irrreecha 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 a 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 deathes of our compatriots. However noble this response looks, it’s an emotional decision based on a survival instinct; and it is not an appropriate one to the complex threats of today.
When to counter EPRDF’s violence we act emotionally and backslide to violence, we are playing into the hands of the tyrannical government. It is the government’s wish and hope for the nonviolent resistance – that has garnered sympathy – to change its way and regress to violence. 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 guerrilla fighting by the same method it came to power. On the contrary, when confronted with a 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, a 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 Ba’athists 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 the 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 protesters. 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, the 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 protests 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.
To be continued.
* The writer, Olaanaa Abbaaxiiqii, can be reached at email@example.com