The Quagmire of the Opposition and the Way Forward
It is now totally clear that the form of opposition based on the goal of winning parliamentary elections is a dead-end, obvious as it is that the leadership of the TPLF has never contemplated the prospect of sharing power with the opposition, let alone ceding defeat to the verdict of the ballot-box. Ethiopians face two choices: either to resign themselves to the idea of an indefinite rule of the TPLF or to rise up and confront the regime with their own violence. There is, however, a third possibility, which is non-violent resistance and whose essential characteristic is the refusal to cooperate through such actions as massive strikes, demonstrations, boycotts, etc. Though highly efficient to overthrow dictatorial regimes, the recourse to non-cooperation requires the conviction that the government in place is not open to the game of elections and, most of all, leaders ready to suffer all the gruesome hardships that dictators usually preserve for opponents.
Before reflecting on the way ahead, it is imperative to assess correctly the outcomes of the recent parliamentary election. People have reacted diversely to my previous article concerning the election (see “Yes, a Fake Election, but for what Purpose?”), with many disapproving my characterization of the outcome as a “defeat of the opposition.” According to my critics, the blame should be put on Meles, who rigged the results, intimidated both voters and candidates, and repressed the voice of opposition in more than a thousand ways.
What I said in my previous article fully admits that Meles and his clique have used all dictatorial means to annihilate and humiliate the opposition. But then, if the opposition parties knew that the election was anything but a fair contest, they should have withdrawn their participation, especially after they noticed serious breaches of the signed code of conduct. My guess is that most of the opposition leaders were still living in the spirit of the 2005 election and wrongly believed that the people will once again come up with a surprise. The expected surprise did not happen and the bare fact is that the leaders were outsmarted by Meles’s strategy. A confirmation of this is the recent interview that Hailu Shawel gave to the Deutsche Welle Radio Germany in which he says that his party was not defeated, though he regrets that he had been duped.
If you have been duped, it is not clear how it is not defeat. When a party loses, it is defeat, unless the party participated in the election with the goal of losing, which, I believe, was not the case. The main reason for the defeat is none other than the lack of unity of the opposition. Lidetu, Hailu Shawel, and others signed a code of conduct that did not call for the prior dismantling of the totalitarian machine. They are responsible for the defeat, since Medrek and other parties had no other option than to go along: once the document was signed, Meles had all what he needed to conduct elections to the satisfaction of the international community, which is also one of reasons why we have elections in Ethiopia, the other reason being the implementation of a constitutional order that uses courts and other organs of the state to suppress democracy. This new repressive order requires election, not only because it is after international recognition for economic reasons, but also because, unlike previous totalitarian regimes that were based either on traditional authority or military rule, a semblance of democracy is necessary for the legitimacy of the state, which, in turn, conditions the usage of existing laws and courts to protect the rule of a rapacious gang. The new repressive system in the area of globalization and the discredit of totalitarian regimes following the end of the Cold War no longer bans the existence of political parties; it simply makes sure that the organs of the state are used to weaken them.
If the splinter groups had refused to sign the code of conduct and, above all, if they had consulted with other opposition forces, it would have been possible to gain more concessions going in the direction of easing the totalitarian stranglehold. I do not think that we can blame Meles for the disunity of the opposition. Indeed, the main problem was that people were asked to express their choice while being in a state of terror. When people are terrorized, they vote to avoid trouble, not to express their choices. Opposition parties’ main condition to participate in the election should have been tangible measures dissolving the state of terror, one such measure being the release of Birtukan Mikdesa. In 2005 people voted freely because concrete liberalization measures convinced them of the possibility of change. So that, when people believe that their votes will not lead to change because their gut feeling tells them that the ruling party will use all means to stay in power, they understandably vote for safety.
Though I shared the popular sentiment, I personally approved the participation in an unwinnable election because I thought that the main goal of the opposition should have been less to defeat the EPRDF than to increase its representation in the parliament. Short of being able to oust the Woyanne government by majority vote, an increased representation would have prepared a better ground for future electoral contests while not cornering the ruling clique into the use of force to safeguard their power. In this way, we had a compromise between two extremes, a compromise that those in power have obviously rejected by seeking the complete elimination of parliamentary opposition.
The fact that opposition forces were not able to see the extremist strategy of the TPLF and presented themselves divided, while still hoping that people will vote as they did in 2005 despite the changed conditions, constituted grave miscalculations allowing us to speak of defeat. Blaming the defeat on the EPRDF, that is, on the winner, does not make much sense, since it is hardly able to bring out anything other than the manner opposition leaders have been fooled. Moreover, to make somebody else responsible for our failings prevents us from having a critical look at ourselves. What we need now is to turn defeat into victory by assessing weaknesses and devising a new strategy.
Can the new strategy be the recourse to non-cooperation? I am reluctant to say yes, not so much because I doubt the efficiency of the method in dealing with a dictatorial regime as because I do not think that we have leaders––with the notable exception of Birtukan––able to launch and guide this form of protest. It seems that nothing is left except the adoption of armed struggle as the only viable alternative.
My intention here is not to discuss about the pros and cons of armed struggle. Nor is it to challenge its feasibility, as in various writings I have already said that when people take up arms to fight for their freedom, nobody has the right to say that they are wrong. And seeing the result of the election, there is no denying that the path of armed struggle will become tempting for an increasing number of people. As to its possible success, it depends on many factors, but it cannot be ruled out, as evinced by the inability of the Woyanne army to crush the armed resistance in the Ogaden.
This article rather addresses to those who reject armed struggle and who, in the face of the TPLF’s intransigence, are at a loss about what to do next. At this juncture, the minimum they can do is to stop fooling the people and themselves by defending the prospect of change in Ethiopia via the ballot box. The time has come to tell the truth to the people so that they no longer hang to the hope of peaceful means of change.
Once change through the ballot box is out of the picture, favorable conditions can appear for spontaneous, unplanned outbursts of popular protests caused by increasing frustration over worsening conditions of life. No political party can trigger such kind protests, but the whole thing is to be ready to take up the leadership when they occur. The minimum also includes opposition forces united around some basic issues of democracy, human rights, and national unity and having, as a token of their unity, an elected executive committee, and not a rotating chairmanship, since the system of rotation betrays the lack of unity and the absence of mechanism to resolve conflicts democratically.
The creation of a united opposition is essential for many reasons in a condition excluding electoral victory. Electoral contests can be used to put pressure on the regime to liberalize under pain of non-participation; they can be useful forums for exposing the regime and for telling the people to take matters in their own hands; they also give a concrete sense of the existence of a team ready to assume power. Last but not least, a united opposition with a long-term perspective can infiltrate all the organs of the state, thereby weakening it from inside. All these measures amount to one crucial message, namely, that everything is ready for change and that the only obstacle is the clique that controls the state. That is why I sincerely believe that the most urgent and crucial task is to create a culture that stigmatizes and isolates all divisive positions in the camp of the opposition and thus generates an instinctive repulsion to such positions as being nothing more than collaborative devices to prolong the Woyanne rule.
It seems to me that the formation of Medrek around some basic democratic rights constitutes a good starting point for cementing the unity of opposition forces. Its political program is a sensible compromise that can unite Ethiopian nationalists and proponents of identity politics. Doubtless, there is room for improvement and contentious issues, if they still exist, should be left to popular decisions once a democratic system is in place. In this way, the main and overriding focus will be on how to initiate optimal conditions for popular uprisings.
With a party ready to assume the leadership together with the worsening of the conditions of life without any hope for change within the constitutional order, the stage is set for a revolutionary uprising originating from the masses. In what I say transpires a situation similar to the one that led to the collapse of the imperial order, with the major difference that an alternative political organization will this time be in place. In other words, the path ahead, as I see it, it is to work toward the gathering of conditions favoring a popular outburst with a political organization and a program ready to step in.
(Messay Kebede is a Professor of Philosophy at Dayton University)