Understanding the absence of Ethiopia's 'day of rage'

By Eskinder Nega / June 3, 2011
  What is sad is that the TPLF Plc. Is engaged in entrenching itself as the next class of Ethiopian capitalist at the catastrophic expense of the poor Ethiopian people in a manner only a colonial conqueror sabotages its subject’s wellbeing and wealth.
"What is sad is that the TPLF Plc. Is engaged in entrenching itself as the next class of Ethiopian capitalist at the catastrophic expense of the poor Ethiopian people in a manner only a colonial conqueror sabotages its subject’s wellbeing and wealth. ." Azmera Tesfaye

VOA’s stringer in Addis, Peter Heinlein, a veteran of cold-war stints as a high-profile American correspondent behind the iron curtain, expressed the paradox best.

“Protesters Absent as Ethiopia Marks Anniversary of Meles Rule” read the title of his May 28th dispatch from Addis. “Tens of thousands of Ethiopians have turned out in Addis Ababa’s main square to mark PM Meles Zenawi’s 20th anniversary in power. A day of rage counterdemonstration planned by democracy activists failed to materialize,” reported Peter. But, he notes, somewhat perplexed, “the capital (Addis) is known as a hotbed of anti-government sentiment.” And, say insiders, much to the chagrin of officials who accredit him to work in Ethiopia, he goes on, “the turnout at Addis Ababa’s Meskel Square was a fraction of the one million predicted (by the EPRDF.)”(This is a sober estimate of a journalist who covered Red Square parades in Soviet times.)

Teasingly hailed as “EPRDF’s Pravda” by democracy activists because of controversial post-2005 reports, Reuters, on its part, relayed the opinion of a 23-year-old university student, “I don't think there's an appetite in Ethiopia for an uprising after 2005. I think even most opposition supporters believe a gradual process is the only way now."

May 28th 2011 was supposed to be Ethiopia’s “day of rage,” when thousands of protesters were supposed to peacefully challenge EPRDF’s two decades autocracy. The inspiration came from North Africa. Interestingly, though, the world’s first day of rage was not in authoritarian Egypt as is conventionally assumed but, curiously, in comprehensively democratic US. The Weatherman, a tiny but forceful faction of Vietnam-war protesting students, organized a string of three days long protest rallies in Chicago in late 1969, and famously dubbed it “days of rage.”

The students failed miserably back then, but forty two years later unwittingly inspired copycat protests in Egypt, which culminated in the spectacular collapse of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Democracy activists in almost all Arab countries have since proposed their own days of rage. Some have gained trajectory with a mixture of hope and tragedy, as is the case with Syria and Yemen, but others have botched mysteriously, as is the example of Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Sub-Sahara Africa, no more the exclusive bastion of dictatorships of yesteryears, has less room for days of rages than the Middle East. Democracy has firmly taken root in many parts of the continent. But democracy is also plainly absent regionally in the horn, too, with trend-setter Ethiopia serving as mainstay of the archaic status-quo. No surprise then that with the exception of Somalia, which is still stateless, days of rage had been planned for all horn countries—Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti and Ethiopia.

All have more or less imploded almost from the outset, though there were some protests in Sudan and Djibouti. The reasons vary; each country has to be addressed individually.

Ethiopia’s planned May 28th day of rage kicked off as an online campaign after the dramatic fall of Mubarak in Egypt. Broadly rallying under the catchy “Beka” (enough, in Amharic) slogan on facebook, thousands signed up with amazing swiftness. “There is no reason why we cannot have the Arab uprisings in Ethiopia,” they said. And indeed the clear alignment of political repression, chronic unemployment and high inflation favored their assertion.

But unlike Tunisia and Egypt, where local activists used social media to trigger and sustain mass protests, it was the Diaspora, as opposed to local activists, who launched and to a large extent sustained Ethiopia’s cyber campaign. This is the fundamental difference between the Arab and Ethiopian days of rage.

Though admittedly startlingly small in numbers, Ethiopia is not entirely devoid of local democracy activists. But they were no more significant in relative numbers in either Tunisia or Egypt, where the pre-revolution political settings were strikingly similar to that of Ethiopia. What sets Arab and Ethiopian activists drastically apart is their perceptions of risk.

Risk is essentially a daring foray into unknown terrain. It embodies the possibilities of both success and failure at the same time. Hence it is intrinsically exciting and frightening. Depending on the outcome, the prize could be huge, or conversely, the cost could be devastating. Risk is thus at best unsettling.

Arab activists have amply established their keenness to take risks. But they took calculated rather than reckless risks. In calculated risks the stakes are systematically analyzed and unambiguous goals are set. In the end, even with failure there is no room for regret. The ride would have been worth it. At the opposite pole, success is even sweeter than it would be under normal circumstances. In reckless risks, however, the exhilaration from the plunge is savored more than the result. It rarely has a happy ending. And with the stakes usually involving life and death issues for democracy activists, nor is it a plausible alternative.

Absent the courage to at least hazard calculated risks, the hopes of Arab activists would have degenerated into a pathetic, dreary, unattainable fantasy. But they did have courage and by taking risks infused life in to their movements, conquered their fears, created outlets for their talents and creativities, and most importantly made their triumph possible.

On the other hand, post 2005 local Ethiopian activists have become so risk averse they now demand the certainty of guaranteed results before doing anything. By deferring risk at every turn, May 28th being only the latest one, opportunities to establish legitimacy, recognition and stature have been squandered repeatedly.

The most oft cited reason for the inertia is the repressive capabilities of the EPRDF. Even calculated risks are deemed too dangerous. And indeed, not only is EPRDF’s repressive network extensive but there is also a particular nastiness to the EPRDF leadership that makes it uniquely dangerous. But it is also true that the threat is nowadays habitually overstated. It has become an excuse to do nothing and, luckily for the regime, by the image of invincibility it has projected, a more effective deterrent to dissent than the secret police.

The good news for the nation is that all this could change. It will change all in due time. Peaceful Ethiopian activists have it in them to overcome this predicament.

Mark my words. It’s not over.

The writer, prominent Ethiopian journalist 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 of tug-of-war with the 'system,' 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: serk27@gmail.com