The politics of appeasement and EPRDF

By Eskinder Nega / July 16, 2010
History will always remember British PM Neville Chamberlain waving a piece of paper, on which rested the signatures of Hitler and himself, as he proclaimed to an eager world, “peace for our time.” The setting was September 1938, a mere nineteen years after the horrors of the First World War had finally ended, and when Europe faced the dreaded prospect of yet another round of cataclysmic continental war. But only six months later, in March 1939, the greatest war the world has ever seen engulfed Europe. The “peace for our time” was no more than a mirage despite numerous concessions to Europe’s dictatorships. Ever since then, Chamberlain’s policy of avoiding war at any cost---to buy temporary peace---has been universally vilified.

Truth to be told though, the policy of appeasement, which insisted on peace at any cost, and was an outgrowth of mass hysteria induced by the horrors of the First World War, was very popular in Europe and North America between 1918 and 1939. In fact, when Chamberlain returned to Britain from Munich in 1938 with the peace agreement between Britain and Fascist Germany that he waved to the world (at the expense of Czechoslovakia’s annihilation, by the way), he was greeted as a hero. He was even invited to Buckingham’s Palace, in an unusual gesture of royal approval, before he reported to Parliament. Only Winston Churchill, who was to replace Chamberlain as British PM in 1940, after the outbreak of war in 1939, was a notable dissenter. And indeed, as Churchill had feared, the policy of appeasement only made things worse by leading the Nazis to believe that their belligerence will always be met by further concessions. In the end, it needed a world war to put an end to this vicious circle in which aggression was always mollified by concession.

The parallel between the two decades liaison between the EPRDF and the legal opposition; and Nazi Germany and Europe’s democracies in the run-up to the Second World War is salient. There is much to be learned from this history.

Of course, this is by no means a call to arms against the EPRDF, as Churchill did against Fascist Germany. I am thinking of what is possible, appropriate and desirable strictly within the confines of the peaceful and constitutional parameters. But this is a protest against the sentiment of appeasement, in the aftermath of EPRDF’s 99.6 % election “victory”, which is threatening to overwhelm the legal opposition because it is on the verge of surrendering all peaceful and legal protests beyond mere electoral engagement---be it in the guise of lack of preparedness or moderation.

EPRDF’s 99.6% electoral “victory” is the upshot of a two decades war of aggression against the peaceful opposition. This campaign stirred circumspectly in the early and mid-90s; achieved some level of confidence and comfort in the late 90’s and early 2000’s; gained trajectory in the aftermath of the 2005 elections; and finally peaked( hopefully!) in the 2010 elections. It was the same with the Nazis. They tasted the water with an illegal rearmament and push into the Rhine; achieved comfort with the Austrian Anschluss; gained trajectory with Czechoslovakia’s demise; and finally peaked with the invasion of Poland when they were finally resisted.

EPRDF first explored how far it could go with a series of clever ploys against its coalition partners in the transitional government of the early 90s, against which opposition parties were disastrously unable to react in unison. When the EPRDF was able to see how much it was able to get away with, it acquired enough audacity to orchestrate a blatantly farce constitutional enactment process. Its dubious outcome was not to be earnestly challenged both locally and internationally and was appeased with cynical resignation. The motion of aggression went on to achieve a level of cruise comfort when the nation’s first “multi-party” election was held absent major opposition groups; only to be hailed for its “historic achievement” by the international community. The opposition, for its part, could muster no more stamina than to look ahead to 2000, when the second round of elections were scheduled to be held, to score some victories. (Not to win the election, mind you. No one dared to hope that much.) In 1998, however, war broke out with Eritrea, and the quest for national unity, not democratic reforms, took precedence; to which the legal opposition patriotically acquiesced. And thus passed the 2000 elections dominated by the EPRDF’s unchallenged sense of entitlement.

By 2005, a few years after the end of the Ethio-Eritrean war, and fourteen years after EPRDF’s rule, both the opposition and the public were ready for change. A crisis ridden EPRDF, undermined by the implosion of its core leadership, in the TPLF, its strongest constituent member, was unsure of its intent and direction and loosened its grip briefly; which led to its swift trashing at the polls. Its reaction was instinctive, overt and merciless.

The legal opposition was divided on how to react. Part of it calculated that the time to resist had come, that this was EPRDF’s Rubicon, which if it is allowed to cross by stealing an election it had lost, will be the point of no return for it. But a sizable element of the opposition, along with the entirety of the international community, felt that the aggression of the EPRDF, though outrageous, had to be placated by appeasement yet one more time. And this was all the opening that the EPRDF needed to maximize what it had began intuitively---it progressively decimated the opposition, the free press and the civil society in 2005 and subsequent years. And sadly for the appeasers, just as each act of appeasement had only increased the appetite of the Nazis for more belligerence; so had the appeasement of 2005 only augmented the craving of the EPRDF for more repression and power. In other words, just as the annihilation of Czechoslovakia was not enough to pacify the Nazis and only led to further aggression against Poland; the concession of 2005’s election to the EPRDF only begot its determination---by what ever means necessary---to trash the opposition in the 2010 elections.(Though the 99.6 % “victory” was attained inadvertently.) Appeasement bred aggression.

The Nazis thought they could get away with Poland, too. They sued for peace after instigating their invasion, but Chamberlain could not oblige them. Both the public and the bulk of his party were against additional concessions. But it is not clear whether he really had change of heart. His Foreign Minister, Lord Halifax, was urging the Poles to accept the Nazis’ demand up to the last minute. The Poles, of course, rejected his advice and plunged the Nazis in to a world war before they had become too strong to be defeated.

The lesson form this tale is clear for Ethiopia’s opposition. Each concession to the EPRDF’s belligerence had made it progressively stronger and more aggressive, as was the case with the Nazis in the 1930s. But war and violence are not an option for the legal opposition, as it was for Europe’s democracies. Out of necessity, and to realize a very necessary break with the nation’s deeply ingrained heritage of political violence, the only suitable option for the legal opposition is within the peaceful and constitutional framework. But participating in elections is not the only means of political engagement in democracies, and even the Ethiopian constitution acknowledges that much. Election participation has become the veil under which lie a debilitating culture of inertia and appeasement in the opposition camp. The legal opposition needs to be saved for the sake of the country, and for that to happen the veil must be lifted and the problems that lies underneath resolved.

The writer, Eskinder Nega, has been in and out of prison several times while he was editor of one of several newspapers shut down during the 2005 crackdown. After nearly five years in the limbo, Eskinder, his award-winning wife Serkalem Fassil, and other colleagues have yet to win government permission to return to their jobs in the publishing industry. Email: