How to overthrow the Meles Zenawi regime

By Abebe Gellaw / March 9, 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..."

The winds of change that has been rocking the Arab world have once again confirmed the fact that every tyranny is a house built on sand. Unlike rock solid democratic systems that are built on the consent of the people, evil tyrannical regimes are founded on brutality, oppression, corruption, domination, intimidation and abuse of power. When a ferocious wind of change starts, they never stand a chance. They crumble into pieces and fall into the dustbins of history.

As dictators are falling one by one, those still clinging to power are doing their best to show that they are in a better shape than their fallen comrades. Some of the ruthless despots are even showing their softer sides. In Saudi Arabia, Oman and Bahrain, the corrupt autocracies have been doling out more welfare benefits to people demanding freedom.

In Ethiopia, the Meles regime has announced on the state-controlled media that a special taskforce has begun operation to evacuate hundreds of Ethiopian nationals stranded in Libya. This is indeed very unusual. But the news they don’t tell us is that the majority of those fellow Ethiopians in such dire need of rescue have rejected the gesture of “kindness” from a very unkind tyrant they are fleeing from.

It may seem a joke but these Ethiopians stranded in Libya, Somalia and other tough places, after crisscrossing so many rough terrains, deserts and treacherous territories, have been fleeing from the same people who are out to rescue them. What Meles and his rescue team failed to realise is that the vast majority of Ethiopians have been stranded in their own land, in their own Ethiopia. Eighty million people are in need of rescue from Zenawi’s ruthless and exploitative tyranny. That is why so many people are fleeing; running away and dying to get out of the indignity they are facing in their own country. For the desperate people of Ethiopia, their country has proven to be worse than being stranded in a war zone and dying in harsh deserts and turbulent oceans.

 "Ethiopians can never be reconciled to a dictatorship that maintains itself by brute force alone." Prof Al

Dictators like Meles don’t get it. They are deliberately ignorant and narcissistic that cannot see the real world beyond their noses. Meles Zenawi never wants to confront the reality because he wants Ethiopians to live in fear. He wants us to be hopeless. He wants us to feel powerless and dispossessed. He wants us to surrender our dreams for a better tomorrow. He wants us to lose our confidence. He wants us not to believe in freedom. He wants us not to stand in unison but to get divided and weak. He wants us to accept his crimes, oppression, abuse, manipulation and corruption. He wants us to die in silence. And yet, he fears our unity and the collective power that ordinary people are wielding. He fears the tide of a popular movement for change. After all, cowardice is an enduring hallmark of tyrants who dread the freedom of others.

Building a movement

In the aftermath of the May 2005 rigged elections, Meles ordered his army, by his own admission, “to put down the insurrection.” After brutally killing and maiming unarmed peaceful protesters and detaining over 40,000 people in harsh concentration camps, he ridiculed the peaceful marches he turned into a bloodbath. "This is not your run-of-the-mill demonstration. This is an Orange Revolution gone wrong," he told foreign correspondents in November 2005.

One of the reasons why the regime could easily quash the popular desire for change was lack of a formidable movement. A movement is not a spontaneous and disorganised uprising or mass protest. Professor Donatella della Porta defines a movement as “an organised and sustained effort of a collectivity of interrelated individuals, groups and organisations to promote or resist social change with the use of public protest activities.” One can deduce from this that a nonviolent movement aimed at ending oppression is a purposeful, organised and sustained mobilisation whose ultimate objective is to free a nation from unjust, and oppressive systems.

A nonviolent movement should not be spontaneous regardless of the fact that a spontaneous mass action may provide the trigger that can cause an unexpected uprising. As every popular uprising does not necessarily bring about change, if a nonviolent movement is to succeed, spontaneity should give way to an organised and sustained mobilisation which can be done effectively where the groundwork has already been laid in anticipation of triggers.

Building a movement is not an easy task. It requires common vision, broad-based unity, strategic planning, some sort of organisational structure and widely accepted leadership. Almost all the objective conditions necessary to start a serious movement for radical change exist in Ethiopia. There is an almost universal consensus that the domination of the Tigrian People’s Liberation Front led by Meles Zenawi, his wife and their trusted cronies is the root cause of our misery. None of the changes that people had expected after the fall of the Mengistu regime in 1991 have happened. The only visible change is the oppressive domination imposed on the Ethiopian people by Meles and his cronies, who are accumulating wealth beyond our imagination. There is widespread discontent as a result of grinding poverty, unemployment, abhorrent discrimination, exploitation, corruption and human rights violations in the face of an expanding security apparatus that has been designed to sustain fear and terror.

Despite the fact that there are so many groups and parties that are avowed to fight the tyrannical regime all these groups have not yet built a serious movement aimed at freeing all Ethiopians, from the bondage of tyranny. One of the reasons why the cruel Apartheid system collapsed was because so many whites, who were supposed to be privileged citizens, began to question and challenge their own system, a sentiment which spread up to the upper echelon of the Apartheid regime that realised that the horrible system was no longer sustainable. A movement that can be appealing to all including those who are opportunistically oppressing their fellow citizens has a greater chance to succeed than one that intimidates and threatens any section of the populace.

According to Dr. Janet Cherry, a leading South African activist-scholar, a movement must have a cause or a trigger and a clear vision appealing to a broad-section of the populace. It should have an organisational base, a widely accepted and respected leadership, a strategy and broad-based unity among a wide array of allies committed to the common cause.

If a formidable movement is to emerge in Ethiopia, it should be appealing to broader sections of the society irrespective of their ethnic, linguistic, cultural, religious, social and political affinity. Oromos, Amharas, Tigrians, Afaris, Somalis, Harraris, Gambelans, Sidamas, Kembatas, Gurages…Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Protestants, Catholics or atheists. Men, women, young people, the aged,…sympathizers of OLF, ONLF, Medrek, ARENA, AEUP, EDP, UDJ…students, teachers, blue collar workers, peasant farmers, business people, poor, middle class, rich…all ordinary people without distinction should be able to be mobilized under simple visions that appeal to every Ethiopian. No one should dominate or try to take ownership of a nonviolent movement for freedom. It should be a movement of ordinary Ethiopians united against the oppression and indignity they are facing in their own country. Their common vision should be clear; i.e. to make Ethiopia free from oppression, inequality, corruption, tyranny, grinding poverty and indignity. It should be a movement to reclaim our country, freedom and human dignity. It should be a movement of all against a handful of criminal tyrants.

One of the challenges that mostly arise in a struggle is the question of leadership. Every ambitious political party and glory-seeker individual may want to lead. But those who want to serve are the ones who give greater weight for the cause than their own self-interests and glory. The majority of people who have led successful struggles and helped dismantle oppression are those who have proven to be selfless and unwaveringly committed to the causes of freedom. Mandela, Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., Lech Walesa or Vaclav Havel, have not fought for their own glory. They have not deliberately made themselves indispensable but their unshakable resolve to win freedom at any cost has made them globally respected and revered.

Those who aspire to lead the march for freedom must remember the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He said: “If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That's a new definition of greatness.” Simple and humble people with clear messages that resonate with ordinary people have a compelling chance of being great leaders of a nonviolent struggle than some of the haughty politicians that have come and gone in Ethiopian politics. Leaders must be unifiers that inspire the masses more than anything else. Those who do not have this essential quality of leadership must not dare to lead in the forefront because once a movement against a ruthless tyrannical regime is started in earnest we cannot afford to blink. We need to remember the fact that Kinjit had a great chance of developing into a formidable movement. But it is now a teachable moment that can lend invaluable lessons to learn from.

Strategy and tactics

The ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu is credited as saying: “Tactic without strategy is the noise before defeat.” Like armed conflict, strategies and tactics devised to win battles are critically important. Those who are devising and employing strategy and tactics must know what they are doing and they should be able to make realistic expectations in terms of positive and negative outcomes of their decisions and actions.

There is a difference between strategy and tactics. The leading expert on modern nonviolent struggle, Professor Gene Sharp, identifies two strategies, i.e. grand strategy and campaign strategies. Grand strategy is an “overall plan for conducting the struggle that makes it possible to anticipate how the struggle as a whole should proceed.” The grand strategy should be based on the vision of the movement and need also analytically consider many complex issues beyond ending tyranny such as considering a viable transition if the system collapses.

Campaign strategies are targeted at the success of a certain campaign. If the campaign, for instance, is aimed at achieving a nation-wide election boycott, there should be a strategy in order to effectively reject inconsequential elections like the ones we have been having in the last twenty years.

Civil resistance is a knowledge-based struggle. Activists and leaders involved in nonviolent struggles should equip themselves at least with the basics of how to wage an effective struggle that will ultimately subvert and dismantle the tyrannical regime. They should be able to devise smart strategy and tactics to prevail over the violent agents of oppression. Small group studies, discussions, brainstorming, active communications, knowledge and material sharing among those who are passionate about the movement is an important element in the struggle. As Gene Sharp puts it:

“The leaders need to become experts in nonviolent struggle. Knowledge about nonviolent struggle also needs to be spread widely. Greater knowledge and understanding of the nonviolent techniques throughout the population will increase the difficulty for the opponents to “behead” the movement by imprisoning or killing the leaders. Leaders serve as spokespeople and offer, organise, and can implement solutions to problems. Leadership can be by group, committee, individual, or a combination of these. In some cases, it has been difficult to identify leadership in such movements.”

Successes as well as defeats are integral parts of any forms of struggles. The success of a nonviolent movement can be partly attributed to strategies and tactics employed to win the battle. While tactics also require careful planning, they are limited in scope. Tactics are limited plans of actions and they determine, as Sharp noted, how particular groups of resisters shall act in specific situations. “A good strategy remains impotent unless it is put into action with sound tactics,” he underlined.

Nonviolent strategies and tactics that have proven to be effective in one setting may not necessarily be successful in a different setting. It is imperative that those who are involved in organising and leading a movement at various levels should be aware of the unique environment and situations they find themselves in. In any conflict, including nonviolent ones, situations may change frequently and drastically. Those who have been providing some sort of leadership and organising have to be quick thinkers that adapt their strategy and tactics according to the dictates of the time and changing circumstances.

The end of fear

When ordinary Egyptians got mobilized against the Mubarak regime, each and every individual was freed from the shackles of fear even before the tyrant fell down. One of the cyber activists that made significant contributions to the struggle against Mubarek was the tech savvy Google executive Wael Ghonim said the major victory in the struggle was the defeat of fear. When people stopped being intimidated by the firepower of the brutal regime, nothing could hold them back from reclaiming their freedom and dignity.

In a recent TEDx event, Ghonim said: “Everyone was silent. Almost everyone was scared. There were only a few brave Egyptians going to protests, getting beaten up and arrested. But the majority were scared…. Dictators cannot live without force. They want people to live in fear. That psychology of fear had worked for so many years….The Internet has played a great role to [allow them] to speak up their minds….Egyptians have proven that the power of the people is much bigger than the people in power.”

The basic rights enshrined in the constitution must be respected. Organising, peaceful assembly, protesting injustice, petitioning authorities, freedom of expression...should be fully respected. A regime that does not respect its own constitution is unconstitutional and unfit to govern. People have a legitimate right to demand the respect of their basic rights and to live in freedom without fear of persecution and extrajudicial killings. The constitution states, though on paper, that power belongs to the people. An unjustified fear of the power of people is contrary to the spirit of the constitution.

Every Ethiopian in and outside of the country should stop fearing their evil tormentors. They are only agents of criminals in power who are waiting their assured place in the stinky rubbish bin of history. When people think and act fearlessly in unison, they always destroy the barrier of fear that brutal tyrants have erected to prevent them from living in freedom and dignity.


The writer, Abebe Gellaw, is editor of