How to bring down Meles Zenawi (Part II)

Waging a nonviolent struggle is a smart option to end tyranny in Ethiopia
By Abebe Gellaw / February 23, 2011
Let the new march start afresh "Let the incoherent activities end. Let the petty bickering stop. And let Ethiopians unite against poverty, hunger, corruption, injustice, discrimination, humiliation…in their own country. Let the new march start afresh..."

In the first part of this piece, I started from the presumption that the vast majority of Ethiopians agree that their country is facing untold misery due to tyranny, corruption, discrimination, exploitation, injustice, abject poverty, rampant human rights violations and lack of accountability. The consensus on these popular grievances that have made the country an intolerable prison to the majority leads us to the fact that drastic socio-political change is badly needed to transform Ethiopia for the better. If revolutionary changes are indeed long overdue and inevitable, how then can Ethiopians bring down tyrant Meles Zenawi and end his reign of terror?

Before I try to make my points, I would like to offer two contrary views that come from the minds two different people. The first viewpoint was made by Bereket Simon, one of the ugly faces of tyranny in Ethiopia. According to Meles Zenawi’s Goebbels, the kind of changes that have swept away dictators in Tunisia and Egypt are impossible in Ethiopia. He told Capital newspaper recently that in Tunisia and Egypt “there are desperate people, people who have nowhere to turn to.”

“Our people are not desperate. Here we have a public that has seen hope, a public that enjoys a glimmer of hope more than ever [before] due to recent years’ economic growth and transformation,” he claimed. “We have embraced democracy, freedom of expression is widely exercised and the public can put in power whomever it wants through elections.” This is obviously what the Bereket Simons of Ethiopia want us to believe. As it is quite evident, self-imposed ignorance is a painkiller for dictators that dread facing the reality under their own boots.

Contrary to what Bereket and Meles claim, Bill Richardson, former US Ambassador to the UN and Governor of New Mexico, has this to say: “Ignorance has always been the weapon of tyrants; enlightenment the salvation of the free.”

Why civil resistance?

Last June, I had an opportunity to attend the Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict, at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Massachusetts. It was as a result of this uniquely insightful opportunity and follow-up studies that I have gained some level of confidence to scrutinize why a nonviolent struggle has failed to take roots in our country since the 1974 Ethiopian revolution and hence make a bold inquiry into how it can succeed.

It should be noted from the outset that this is not an effort to prescribe a single dose that can be taken to expunge a dangerous parasitical tyranny from Ethiopia’s body politic. Instead of trying to come up with a prescription, I herewith offer a few ideas based on my observations and understanding as a contribution to the ongoing discussions on ending tyranny and oppression in Ethiopia.

Quite obviously, getting rid of a militaristic tyrannical regime built by brutal rebels is neither simple nor impossible. It is not simple because Meles Zenawi has repeatedly proven to be a genocidal killer, who resorts to the use of lethal force to suppress every little protest and muffle the voices of dissent. And yet, the task of ending his misrule is not impossible because when an oppressed nation rises up in unison, no tyrant can survive the rage of the people as it has been proven time and again.

One of the misconceptions that has seriously undermined the popular struggle for dignity and freedom in Ethiopia for so long can partly be attributable to the fact that there are so many people who believe that nonviolent struggle has been tested and totally failed in Ethiopia. But in reality, nonviolent struggle is not only widely misunderstood but also untested in Ethiopia under Meles. Some political leaders and their followers, whose strategy of ousting the tyrant through his own bogus elections and a few disorganised protests, have repeatedly declared the “end of peaceful struggle”. But the concept of “peaceful struggle” is by itself confusing as it is misinterpreted as being inaction, submissiveness, obedience and pacificism. For the sake of clarity, it should be noted that nonviolent struggle is more akin to civil resistance, people power movements or unarmed insurrections than obediently running in unfair elections that are deceptively designed to create a semblance of democratic legitimacy to brutal oppressors like Meles Zenawi and the rulers of Burma.

Professor Gene Sharp, one of the leading authorities on modern nonviolent struggle, noted:

“In conflicts between a dictatorship, or other oppression, and a dominated population, it is necessary for the populace to determine whether they wish simply to condemn the oppression and protest against the system. Or, do they wish actually to end the oppression, and replace it with a system of greater freedom, democracy, and justice?”

This is an important point because at times people may think that condemning oppressors is an end that is sufficient enough to bring down a tyrannical regime. Even in our case, there are so many people in and outside of the country who are preoccupied with the task of condemning TPLF without waging a well-organised and sustainable struggle that is targeted and aimed at ending tyranny.

By their very nature, tyrannical regimes are vulnerable and sick. This is due to the fact oppressive regimes are very costly and their survival hinges upon their security and military apparatus that consume a huge chunk of the national budget. It is quite obvious that no nation in any part of the world gives consent to get abused, dehumanised, robbed, exploited, and oppressed by a handful of corrupt tyrants and their cronies. It is because of this very fact that the concept of nonviolent struggle or civil resistance, as opposed to the use of violence for political ends, is based on civil disobedience and nonviolent actions against oppressors. When people wage a sustained civil resistance against a tyrannical regime, the financial, security, political and moral cost of violent suppression increases and becomes more and more unsustainable. While suppressing disorganised and spontaneous protests is an easy job to do for any tyrannical regime, using violence to crack down on a well-organised and cohesive movement usually produces the opposite result and can add momentum to people power movements especially when the popular uprising is deep and widespread. The collective actions and disobedience of citizens determined to win their freedom can make a country totally ungovernable to tyrants given the fact that the controlling capacity of any regime is limited. The more people come out in protest and defy the regime and its oppressive laws, the more power shifts toward the resisters which can in turn lead to a significant level of loyalty shift.

Nonviolent struggle is a systematic way of waging and escalating coordinated and organised mass actions and campaigns using the power of mass mobilisation, protest, persuasion, civil disobedience and disruptive measures that can cripple the regime. It has so many innovative techniques, tactics and strategies that have proven to be effective in ousting many tyrannical and oppressive regimes around the world. While the dramatic revolutions in Eastern Europe, Egypt or Tunisia appeared to be spontaneous to television viewers across the world, the reality is that so many passionate activists that played significant roles in igniting and building the momentum of the movements were working behind the scenes. Waging a successful nonviolent struggle, requires some level of mass mobilization, organisation, strategic planning, discipline and leadership that will give the movement a purposeful direction and devise different tactics and strategies.

It is quite obvious that neither Egypt nor Tunisia is similar to Ethiopia. It is indeed true to say that Ethiopia has its peculiar problems that are more complex than the average nations suffering under tyrannical regimes. The worst part of our political reality is the level of deep ethnic division and hostility that has been deliberately created and fomented by Meles Zenawi and his trusted lieutenants in order to sustain their tyrannical divide and rule system. There are over 90 political parties in Ethiopia, most of whom are ethnic “parties” created and controlled by the TPLF. Despite all that, when a nonviolent struggle starts in earnest, the calls for change and freedom mostly make it possible for different groups to form broad-based coalitions and narrow differences with a view to ending oppression as it has been witnessed in many cases.

People living under oppression share similar discontents and grievances which can fuel and energise their struggle for freedom. Suffering under a corrupt and oppressive regime inevitably begets widespread discontent that can easily be turned into a popular uprising for change. It is because of this fact that regime change in oppressed countries rarely come without mass protests, uprisings, revolts and revolutions as the stake of losing the reigns of power is too high for those who are ruthlessly and criminally abusing, exploiting and oppressing their own people. Tyranny cannot be possible without abuse of power and the exertion violent force. As a result, in the process of the struggle against oppression, sacrifices such as being killed, injured, jailed, displaced or being forced into exile, can be inevitable consequences for many people because tyrants rarely relinquish power and concede defeat without a stiff resistance. Compared to armed struggle, however, the cost of waging a well-coordinated and organised nonviolent struggle is much less minimal.

Civil resistance against Meles Zenawi

Since 1991, we have witnessed so many half-hearted efforts and uncoordinated activities but we have never witnessed the rise of a formidable movement, be it armed or unarmed, that is capable of bringing down the tyrannical regime of Meles Zenawi. It is for this very reason why ordinary Ethiopians, leaders as well as opinion makers need to start debating and devising ways starting a movement capable of undermining, disobeying, defying, cracking, crippling and ultimately dismantling the tyrannical regime through mass mobilisation and civil resistance.

The struggle may take a few days, months or years. No matter how long it takes the resilience and sustainability of a nonviolent struggle is a crucial factor in weakening and crippling the regime. Unless the struggle against the tyrannical regime is ignited and escalated in earnest, the regime may not face the stress and strains necessary to make it easier to bring it down. Those who are expecting that the people will suddenly erupt like a volcano to get rid of the regime must be committing an act of oversimplification because it is much easier to violently suppress a spontaneous revolt than a well-coordinated and organised movement that has well-defined objectives and cohesive leadership.

Nonviolent struggle is not obedience to oppressors nor is it waiting for dictators to reform and step down out of their own volition. It is rather a war waged through civilian uprising, resistance, campaigns, mobilizations and disobedience. For a nonviolent struggle to succeed in bringing about the desired outcome, it must normally be well-coordinated, organised, planned, strategized, unified and sustained for a length of time.

In the last two decades, nothing that resembles a civil resistance has been waged in Ethiopia. The truth of the matter is that tyrant Meles Zenawi has not survived in power for over two decades not because of the strength of his army or his Gestapo-like security apparatus but because of facing weak adversaries that have neither realistic strategies to end Zenawi’s tyranny nor a clear vision for change.

The lack of a cohesive opposition and serious movements capable of converting the deep popular discontent into a movement for change has given the Meles regime a great advantage without a fight. In most cases, certain individuals usually make themselves indispensible and relegate their causes to a less important status. As a result of this fact, the tyrant has never been seriously challenged for 20 years despite the fact that his reign of terror is extremely vulnerable as it is oppressive, corrupt, discriminatory, unjust, undemocratic, unconstitutional and illegitimate that is not even willing to respect its own the letters of its own constitution.

It may be true to say that the May 2005 elections were serious challenges. Yes, that is partly true. Millions of Ethiopians were agitated for change. But the opposition lost the rare political capital as the people were not mobilized into a movement, which is more difficult to suppress and dismantle. Before the agitated mass were organised into a formidable political movement, which could have shaken off the yoke of oppression by now, the leaders wavered and started dismantling and undermining one another. The effect of the blunder is still felt as so many Ethiopians became disillusioned and lost faith in almost all the leaders that were supposed to lead the march for freedom.

In the last two decades, the majority of opposition political parties pursued strategies that are contrary to the very concept of nonviolent struggle. Almost all opposition political parties have adopted a strategy of “ousting” the tyrant through his bogus elections. They made futile efforts to win stage-managed elections that have been designed to produce the same result again and again. So in all the elections, they “lost” the fake elections lending the regime a semblance of democratic legitimacy. The 2010 elections were the worst for opposition parties including those who had willingly presented themselves as “loyal opposition” and signed deals with Meles to make the elections “free and fair.” In reality, the elections were over in 2008 when the TPLF and its puppet parties took all local government seats that were deliberately expanded to over three million. The regime took all kinds of oppressive measures to make sure that its tyranny goes unchallenged. That was followed by the parliamentary and regional elections. The results were the same. As it stands today, must opposition political parties are fundamentally weak and bankrupt as a result of internal and external factors. They have been suffering from deficit of smart leadership and clear visions.

One of the most important methods of waging nonviolent struggle is noncooperation aimed at denying the regime its perceived legitimacy, control, authority and power over the oppressed masses. If the adversaries of the regime run in highly restrictive elections without even having a right to hold election rallies and unfettered access to public media, the outcome of cooperating with the regime can only end up consolidating the power of the regime.

In Ethiopia under Meles, the only time a nearly competitive election was held in Addis Ababa and some regions was in 2005. Opposition political parties were at least allowed to hold rallies, canvass in the regions and there was an air of open debates. TPLF had suffered a humiliating defeat in Addis and many places. Even then, it was evidently clear that Meles and his cohorts were not ready to accept defeat graciously. It is obvious that tyranny and democratic elections cannot co-exist together. This disturbing reality calls into question the strategy of opposition parties in sheepishly running in fake elections as a means of bringing about “regime change” or widening a closed political space. The score card may be shocking. But the net gain of the opposition as a result of repeatedly running in TPLF’s show elections has proven to be fatal. TPLF and its puppets hold 546 seats in “parliament”. The entire opposition group has a single seat. In over 3 million local and regional government seats the opposition has only two. And yet, some of this opposition parties seem to waiting for another “election.”

It should be noted that though TPLF is a ruthlessly oppressive force, it has strategies and tactics to quell dissent against its misrule. TPLF’s negative “success” is partly because of the fact that its leaders think and act with evil strategic calculations to sustain their corrupt tyranny, domination and projects of oppression. As a result of this fact, we have an entrenched tyranny in Ethiopia making billions of dollars from its privileged businesses facing fragmented, weak, disillusioned and disorganised opposition groups that have almost no strategic planning and minimum common agenda to unify for a cause.

As we have witnessed over the years, none of these political parties have adopted strategic nonviolence action, which requires knowledge and awareness, as a means of challenging and dislodging the entrenched tyranny of Meles Zenawi. Because of this undeniable fact, Zenawi’s tyrannical rule is still intact without facing any formidable challenges in the last two decades. One can claim that bringing down Zenawi has not begun yet in earnest given the fact that sporadic resistance and protests in Brussels and Washington DC will never be enough to win freedom for all.

Dynamic of civil resistance

At the Fletcher summer school that I mentioned above, Jack Duval, President of the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, gave a talk on the dynamics of civil resistance. He contended: “When the people deprive an oppressor of their consent, it reduces the perceived legitimacy of the system. When people say we do not cooperate with the state of affairs any longer, because we think it is unjust and wrong that reduces the perceived legitimacy of the system and engenders a contest for legitimacy. When enough people refuse to cooperate and withdraw their consent, the cost of holding control by the oppressive regime goes up which automatically renders the system unsustainable….” In fact, that is precisely the kind of consideration that must be taken into account to wage an effective nonviolent struggle.

The TPLF regime has repeatedly expressed its love for what it called the “silent majority.” After the 2005 elections, TPLF has made significant efforts to undermine the desire for change. It has crippled civic society groups, closed down over 16 newspapers and expanded its tentacles. It also systematically used intimidation, threats and oppressive laws to silence the people so that they would be safely categorised under its “silent majority.” But in reality they know full well that the so-called “silent majority” is a volatile and explosive group.

The withdrawal of consent is one of the pivotal moments of a nonviolent struggle. When “consent” is clearly, publicly and boldly withdrawn at a massive scale, the controlling power of the regime will be inevitably undermined making the regime more unstable and vulnerable. Civil disobedience can effectively deny TPLF the semblance of legitimacy it has created through deception, corruption, use of force, threats, repressions and bogus democratic elections that are designed to sustain oppression and inequality.

Key elements of waging a successful civil resistance movement

According to Dr. Peter Ackerman, one of the leading experts and financiers of civil resistance movements, there are three key elements necessary to wage a successful civil resistance movement aimed at ending tyranny and oppression in countries like Ethiopia and Burma. In a 2009 video, Dr. Ackerman has the following to say on the elements of waging a civil resistance movement.

The first thing is unity. A civil resistance movement must unify the widest possible spectrum of society: young, old, all ethnic groups, all religious groups, all economic strata, around a limited set of achievable goals, and designate for the moment a leadership that has legitimacy to mobilize all these groups in service of those goals. The second thing that’s required is planning. There has to be capacity for that leadership to look objectively at what its capabilities are, how it can mobilize, what tactics are at its disposal, how to sequence those tactics in a way that has the biggest negative impact on the opponent….

That planning needs to go on at an offensive and defensive level. Defensive level means there are things you should anticipate…. For example, you might have an oppression that might end up killing some of the leadership. There needs to be planning for redundancy of leadership….

And then the last of the three is nonviolent discipline…. The reason I use the term discipline is to emphasize that it’s a strategic choice, not a moral one. Because civil resistance can’t succeed unless you induce loyalty shifts and multiple defections from the other side that basically weakens the power base [of the regime]….So unity, planning, and nonviolent discipline are the ingredients that are sort of the necessary conditions for a successful civil resistance movement. And I think, expressed this way, they transcend all cultures and all time.”

It appears that the three key elements of civil resistance movement are still missing in Ethiopia. As a result of the deficits in unity, strategic planning and leadership, Ethiopians have not been able to seriously challenge and confront the tyrannical regime. If Ethiopians are serious about winning their freedom, a formidable and all-inclusive civil resistance movement must be born without any delays.

In the last part of this series, I will try to touch upon ways of building a movement, devising realistic tactics and strategies that can be used to wage an effective civil resistance in Ethiopia in order to bring down Meles Zenawi.

The writer, Abebe Gellaw, is editor of