EPRDF’s myth of brutal invincibility

By Eskinder Nega / August 6, 2010

Medrek announced plans to transform its loose coalition to the elevated status of a “front” at the end of last week. Its constituent members dipped to six from the original eight, after dropping one of its two Pan-Ethiopian groupings and its lone Somali based organization. The rotating presidency has now gone to UDJ’s deputy, Gizatchew Shiferaw; a position he will hold for four months.

Few of the opposition’s even most ardent supporters clamored to celebrate, though. The painful delay notwithstanding, the public was still aching to hear about plans for resistance against this year’s vile “election results.” Anything else was unavoidably an anti-climax.

But the announcement was deliberate for the leaders of Medrek. Having decided against resistance, news of an impending restructured alliance, which the public has long supported, seemed a fitting surrogate to placate public mood. “The election was stolen. But we will not engage in a scuffle with (the) muggers,” said Dr Beyene Petros, Medrek’s new spokesperson. The opposition’s response is to acquiesce to the new reality, not lead a peaceful heroic resistance as many of its supporters— and some in the international community, too— had anticipated and hoped. The opposition is in fact already looking ahead. As one of the leaders of Medrek informed local media this week: “We would like to negotiate with the EPRDF about the
upcoming election.” (Local elections are due in about two years time. The last time they were held, the EPRDF “won” 100 % of the seats.) And thus, the spirit of resistance, which attained its apex in 2005 when the CUD, Press and Diaspora trio challenged the election results, has been bluntly rejected by all political parties in 2010. Not a single party has opted—and dared— to carry the mantle of resistance.

What happened? Is this really a strategic retreat warranted by lack of reparedness? Or does it denote a state of psychological vulnerability that is incapacitating Ethiopia’s opposition?

Ethiopia’s opposition is no match to the EPRDF. Even absent the opposition’s conspicuous military muscle deficit, EPRDF’s discipline, grassroots presence, and quality of middle rankers gives it a decided advantage. In sharp contrast, the opposition is undermined by a variety of inadequacies: lax discipline, weak grassroots, lack of finance, and more seriously, the stigma of recurring failures. But it is exactly the need to beat these shortfalls and save the legal opposition that the inspiring weight of its leaders is now much in demand. Only one election season has elapsed since the inspirational power of few opposition leaders was able to score a seemingly impossible electoral victory. They were constrained by the very same limitations that hamper the opposition now. Resisting a fraudulent election by the same means is no more difficult nor any less achievable.

No mass mobilization relies exclusively—or even mostly—on party machine in modern times. As has become of modern politics itself, mass mobilizations are focally media driven in this age of satellite radio and television and the internet. It is the preserve of the best politicians to know how to use them. The tide of Nazi victory at the beginning of the Second World War, for example, was reversed by the ardor of Churchill’s rhetoric and the allure of Roosevelt’s fire–side chats, both conveyed to the people over the radio, not by the military prowess of the UK, the US or any of the other democracies. None of them were prepared for the brutal efficiency of the Nazi war machine.

Resistance seemed futile, and the cries to give up were strident and seemed more attune to the rapidly unraveling reality. But Roosevelt and Churchill eloquently differed, and went on to famously win the century for democracy. The lesson they left behind for future generations reverberates till the end of time: An inspired people will always beat the odds. Lack of preparedness is an obvious disadvantage but it does not necessarily have to be an incapacitating one.

We know from the 2005 election that a sizable segment of the opposition—even within the CUD, including some who were imprisoned— had already been rendered motionless by a state of psychological defeat. To this group, any altercation with the EPRDF is perceived as an overwhelming encumbrance. In its mythologized world the EPRDF is invincible, positioned always to win. All attempts to successfully face up to it is deemed as impractical and emotional. The imprisonment and subsequent implosion of CUD’s leaders is the irrefutable evidence for the veracity its conviction. Such helplessness dominates its every calculation. And in its state of psychological melancholy, it is temperamentally unable to comprehend
the merits of resistance. Its despondency is hostile to every precept of resistance. There is, in other words, a discernable class within the Ethiopian opposition that has internalized helplessness. That much is certain. The question is: has it been allowed to hold Medrek—whose working ethos is the impractical consensus rather than the practical majority vote—hostage?

One could not help but suspect so. There is no other plausible explanation for the paralysis that has afflicted the opposition. It is high time to address the problem of defeatism within the opposition.

Such defeatism has cloaked the EPRDF with a myth of invincibility. Such myth is already being energetically expressed by many of EPRDF’s supporters amidst the public. The series of events in which “the EPRDF triumphed over the Derg, defeated the Eritreans in the border war, and cleverly maneuvered the collapse of the CUD” are promoted as confirmation of EPRDF’s irrefutable superiority. And when the opposition demanded re-run of the election, EPRDF supporters could not help but mock it for daring to flirt with resistance when all evidences, as they see it, caution against it. But what is troubling is not that gullible grassroots believe the myth, but that its leaders have also come to believe in it. Their intransigence is now intertwined with this self-perception.

At the end of the day, myth will not get the EPRDF very far. Its potency is limited to the extent that it is believed by the opposition and the public. This is where the role of opposition leaders becomes critical. The admixture of the opposition’s perceived helplessness and the EPRDF’s aura of invincibility has suddenly crowded public discourse after this year’s election. And it is threatening to grow in to a mortal threat to the legal opposition. This is no problem for a party machine. It could only be overcome by a lucid inspirational display of will to resist—peacefully and legally— by the opposition. It is necessary and possible.

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