The following article is a continuation of the previously published article by the author on the same topic (click here for the first part).
By Olaanaa Abbaaxiiqii* | December 2016
Violence is not the answer!
Unless we are deluding ourselves or burying our heads in the sand and hoping, the writing is on the wall: Ethiopia is dangerously getting closer to plunging into a civil war of a greater magnitude. Day by day, slowly but surely, we are creeping towards the abyss. The future is bleak and dangerous. If things continue the way they are, sooner or later, we may be in a full-fledged civil war. Fortunately, we still have a short window of time to avert it. But do we have in us what it takes to do this?
The Ethiopian government is clueless as to what is just around the corner. Blinded by ideology and narrow self-interest, it is not grasping how dangerously we are getting closer to a civil war. Unfortunately, most of us, i.e. the broad opposition, have also started to subscribe to the theory that violence could be stopped only by violence and preparing for it; and this is driving all of us to a dangerous position. If we really understand what a civil war entails and what its consequences are, there is a chance the stark reality looking directly into our eyes may sober us, and may be, we may start looking for a better way to avert it. This is me grasping at the last straw-hope.
Here, from the outset one caveat: I am not trying to create a false equivalence. I am not, by any stretch, of imagination blaming the opposition as the cause. Obviously, the first and prime blame for why we are heading towards a civil war and why we are not seeking solution squarely lies on the back of EPRDF (the Ethiopian Government).
A civil war is not an easy matter; it’s not a game; and one shouldn’t toy with it. Once it starts, ending it is even harder. While there are many countries that have come out of a civil war and built a stable society, many never fully recover. A civil war usually deepens hatred and leaves a lasting negative consequence in all aspect of societal relationship in a country. Long after the last bullet is fired, the lingering effect of a civil war keeps on passing from generation to generation.
Unlike conventional wars, in civil wars, the theater of conflict is not limited to a battlefield. As a result, hundreds of thousands of innocent people, mostly civilians, including children and women, are the victims. Societal relationship, including political, cultural and economic lives could be totally disrupted. Cities, economic infrastructures, farms, homes and villages could be wiped out. In the wake of a civil war, famine, disease and other pestilence could stalk the land for many years, creating havoc.
However, let me make it perfectly clear, the above does not at all mean that the alternatives to armed conflict, nonviolent resistance, has no risks and does not bring disruptions of its own. As the Oromo nonviolent resistance itself has shown, many would lose their dear lives in nonviolent resistance also, and many would be imprisoned and many others would flee their country. However, compared to violent resistance, the human and material costs are always much less.
Unlike wars between countries, in a civil war, there is no fallback borders to where you can retreat, and by retreating, you feel safe and end the war. Ending the active hostility in a civil war does not usually end the war. One has to win or be defeated. In a civil war, defeat usually ends in a slaughter, and hence, the incentive to continue fighting to the very end. As the examples of Somalia, Congo, South Sudan, etc., shows, a civil war, in some instances, leads to failed states. Hence, the warning, “Don’t play with insurrection.”
Again one caveat: I am not a pacifist. I do understand the role wars and armed struggles have played in history. Certainly, there are instances when violence may be justified. Without armed struggles, many nations and countries would not have regained their freedom and nationhood. Without freedom wars, colonialism would have reigned for many more years. As a result of the U.S. Civil War, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were achieved. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery; the 14th Amendment protected the civil rights of all Americans; and the 15th Amendment guaranteed the right to vote for all U.S. citizens, regardless of race.
So, even though a civil war or any war for that matter, is a great evil, ironically, war also has its virtue; it can lead to resolving conflicts. In fact, there are times, when it is even worthwhile to continue wars to the end rather than ending them prematurely. Sometimes, it’s only at the end of a fully executed war that a conflict could be ended, and peace achieved; prematurely ending them only leads to paralysis, and to a never ending conflict. “Let’s give war a chance” is the right slogan in some rare occasions.
This raises a legitimate question of, “just because a civil war has all these risks and calamities, does that mean people should refrain from fighting for their rights?” Absolutely not! I am advocating against an armed struggle and violence – not only because it has risk and brings about chaos, instability and losses of lives. I am against it mainly because there is a better way to deal with tyrants – that better way has a better chance for success, and that does not involve all the other negative phenomena associated with a violent resistance or a civil war. The alternate to not entangling in a civil war is not, surrendering. The choice is not only between an armed struggle and a total submission; between the two, there is a large swathe of land called nonviolent resistance.
I am writing this piece at this time, because due to EPRDF’s extreme repression against our people, more and more people are convinced that the only way out of our current predicament is through an armed resistance. Even though the idea that violence is the only way-out has been around for many years; recently, it has started getting even more currency after the Irreechaa Massacre. It further received a shot in the arm when the government imposed the State of Emergency. Now with the imprisonment of Dr. Merera of OFC, many are boldly declaring “the era of peaceful resistance is over.” In fact, others who had all along been for an armed struggle are using Merera’s imprisonment as a “we told you so” moment with a sense of smugness.
Nonviolent resistance – the meaning
Gene Sharp defines nonviolent or a civic resistance as a “technique of socio-political action for applying power in a conflict without the use of violence.” Another writer defines nonviolent resistance as an “organized popular challenges to government authority that depend primarily on methods of nonviolent action rather than on armed methods.” In short, nonviolence resistance means abstaining from the use of physical force to achieve an objective of political and social change through popular challenge.
There are those who advocate nonviolence based on ethical or moral philosophy, or even based on religious grounds. These are mostly pacifists. However, Sharp’s definition above is not based on ethical or moral philosophy. It is based on a strategic choice. Unlike the pacifists who choose nonviolent action as a way of life, or who regularly emphasize its moral and spiritual dimensions, Sharp and others promote nonviolent action as a pragmatic method of struggle that is more effective and that works better compared to the alternatives.
There is one very common and almost universal misconception and terminological mix-up among the Oromo and other Ethiopians regarding nonviolent resistance. There is a tendency of equating nonviolent resistance with what they call “peaceful struggle,” i.e. participating in electoral politics. What many call a “peaceful struggle” is limited to participating in conventional political process – like voting and lobbying, and coming to power or getting concession through an election strategy.
However, this is not exactly what we mean by a “Nonviolent Resistance”. On the contrary, nonviolent resistance is mainly conducted outside the conventional political process, like voting, lobbying, etc. In fact, it is usually adopted as a strategy precisely because legal or parliamentary methods of seeking redress are nonexistent or have failed. Nonviolent resistance could utilize or incorporate a “peaceful struggle” as one tactic, but it is not congruent with it. What most Oromos call “peaceful struggle” is close to “nonviolence” as a noun, as used by pacifists. Here, we use the word as adjective, referring to it as “nonviolent resistance” or “nonviolent action”.
Contrary to popular perception, nonviolent resistance does not also mean if someone slaps you on one cheek, you turn to them the other also. Just like the violent one, nonviolent resistance is confrontational. It also uses disruptive techniques; in fact, just like the violent resistance, nonviolent resistance also seeks to take power by force, but the methods used by the two are different.
Nonviolent resistance is a strategy for confrontation, not a passive movement. That is why – rather than calling it a “nonviolent resistance” – some prefer to even go further and call it a “nonviolent insurrection,” or a “war without weapons”. In fact, nonviolent resistance is akin to a military-style strategy, with an emphasis on discipline and organization, taking an appropriate action at the right time using appropriate tactics. For Sharp, nonviolent resistance, just like waging a war, requires wise strategy and tactics, and demands of its activists, courage, discipline and sacrifice.
In the next part (below), we will see how nonviolent resistance worked in history.
The proof is in the pudding: nonviolent resistance works
Nonviolent resistances have led to numerous dramatic changes in many countries around the globe. Understandably, there are also many nonviolent resistances that have failed. I am not claiming that there is a guaranty that all nonviolent resistances will be successful, at least in the short run. There are many scholarly works that studied social movements and the nonviolent means, and tried to understand why some are successful while the others fail. Here, we are not going into that.
There is a deeply held misconception around many people that nonviolent resistance works only in a benevolent dictatorship or in cases of mild tyranny. Others further argue that nonviolence works only in addressing some civil rights or environment issues, and does not work to overthrow a tyrannical government in the face of extreme violence and repression. Those who argue this, conveniently, forget stark historical evidence.
In fact, some of the most repressive regimes in history fell as a result of nonviolent resistance. Suffice to mention the defeat of Marcos in the Philippines, Pinochet in Chile, the Apartheid regime in South Africa, and the communist regime in Poland. And even if we look at recent events, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia were chased out of power through the nonviolent resistance. None of them were benign.
We can add to the above, the 2005 Lebanon popular movement that ended foreign occupation, and the 2006 Nepal uprising that forced the monarch to make major concession, and the 2000 Serbia, the 2002 Madagascar and the 2003 Georgia nonviolent resistances that led to regime changes. If you look at these examples, one can easily see that nonviolent movements can be successful in less developed, economically poor countries as well as in developed, affluent societies. This means it does not matter whether one is in Europe and North America, or Africa, Asia or elsewhere, or whatever type of regime it is, nonviolent resistance could work everywhere and in every situation. Nonviolent resistance does not need a kinder and gentler ruler in order to prevail.
Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, in their seminal work, “Why Civil Resistance Works,” meticulously and rigorously analyzed 323 violent and non-violent resistance campaigns between 1900 and 2006. Their finding is compelling and provocative. According to their statistical analysis with in-depth case studies of specific countries and territories, campaigns of nonviolent resistance were more than twice as likely to achieve full or partial success compared to violent counterparts. Their groundbreaking findings showed that nonviolent campaigns succeeded 53% of the time versus 26% of the time for violent campaigns.
Thus, based on historical experience alone, there is justification why we should opt for nonviolent resistance over armed struggle.
Why are nonviolent struggles more successful than the alternatives?
Nonviolent resistance (civil resistance) is preferable due to several reasons. Compared to civil war, it is more effective; it has a better chance to succeed, and it also has a better chance to peacefully transitioning to democracy. On the contrary, violent resistance has less chance to succeed, and even when successful, usually results in a dictatorship. Violence begets violence; it is self-perpetuating; and therefore, civil war that relies on violence does not, in most cases, secure a peaceful end.
Nonviolent resistance method starts from one fundamental assumption: authoritarian regimes survive because they get a wide range of obedience from the population they lord over. Without such obedience, there is no way they could continue to rule. Thus, the immediate and cardinal purpose of any resistance should be to bring about the withdrawal or denial of obedience the people have hitherto given to an authoritarian regime.
Compared to violent resistance, nonviolent resistance is better positioned to attract active participation of the people. The very fact that nonviolent resistance has less risk compared to its counterpart makes it a better vehicle for attracting more people. People – who because of age, gender and disability – cannot participate effectively in violent struggle can easily participate in nonviolent resistance. Nonviolent resistance can also attract business elites, intellectuals, religious personnel and institution, etc. – who, for one or reason or another, cannot support armed struggle. All these expands the participatory advantage of nonviolent resistance over armed insurrection.
Unlike violent resistance, nonviolent resistance is relatively open to all; it’s not only for able bodied men. People of every walks of life can participate actively in it without leaving their home or work, relatively with less risk to themselves and their families. The same is not true in the case of a civil war. The moment civil war starts, immediately the number of mobilized shrinks. Once the method of struggle shifts, hundreds of thousands of people who used to be actively protesting in the street go back to their home and become aloof. Thereafter, the confrontation, rather than being between the populace and the government, becomes between two armed groups.
The larger the number of participants and the more diverse people are mobilized by nonviolent resistance, the more chance it has to bring about loyalty shift. The more defection there is, the more undermined and weakened will be the tyrannical regime. And the more it is weakened, the more people dare to defy it further. The high level of mobilization is the most important feature for success. Thus, the participatory advantage of the nonviolence resistance is the key factor in destabilizing the incumbent and giving a chance for the nonviolent resistance to be victorious. Thus, every effort should be done lest we take action that diminishes or minimizes the participation of the people.
It should also be noted that it is this participatory advantage of nonviolent resistance that makes it an excellent conduit to transition to democracy. Evidence clearly shows that struggles that unwaveringly avoid violence have much more chance to bring about democracy. Once they degenerate into violence, their chance of bringing about democracy diminishes. Those who come to power through violence mostly end up turning tyrannical. It should not be forgotten that violence is what brought EPRDF to power, and if we want to break this vicious cycle, violence should not be the way to get rid of it.
Because violent resistance has less chance of mobilizing participants, it also has less chance of bringing about loyalty shift. In fact, when there is violence, the police, military and security, rather than shifting their allegiance, dig theirs hills in. If huge defection does not occur, it is always extremely difficult to win an entrenched adversary in power that is controlling all the repressive state machinery.
As nonviolent resistance attracts a large size of participants, and especially when it has reached a certain stage and is diversified, repression against it becomes extremely difficult and costly to the tyrannical government. And when repressive actions are taken in such situations, they could have a boomerang effect. In fact, sometimes, widely publicized repressive incidents are precisely the sparks that trigger mass uprisings. With the continuation of the growth of participants in the nonviolent resistance, the likelihood of division within the government and its institutions, like the police, military, media and bureaucracy becomes certain.
Nonviolent resistance is more advantageous because it could be done relatively on the cheap compared to the violent insurrection. Conducting a protracted insurrection is an extremely expensive undertaking. It is so expensive that most armed struggles that became successful in history had to partly or mostly rely on foreign backers or allies for arms and money. Propaganda aside, it is a rarity for self-reliant armed movement to become successful.
For the Oromo people who do not have external allies, one could easily discern why choosing the nonviolent resistance is a no-brainer. Moreover, because you don’t owe anybody anything when conducing nonviolent resistance, you will not be anybody’s client or stooge, and you will not be controlled by an outside force. On the contrary, when you rely on foreign forces to conduct armed struggle, the chance of your being controlled and used by them is enhanced.
It should also be noted that armed struggle is not viable in many places. Factors, such as having foreign backers, suitable terrain for defense, geo-politics, internal cohesion, having outlet to neighboring countries, and many others are determinative in conducting a successful armed struggle.
Having grievances, just cause and an extremely brutal regime as adversary, does not by itself justify blindly opting for an armed struggle for the sake of it. Before undertaking such a far-reaching scheme, one should first meticulously and seriously take stock of pros and cons, and the possibilities of winning and the cost involved in it and then decide. Nothing justifies pursuing and supporting unpractical ideas and myopic strategy that in practice has failed again and again.
* The writer, Olaanaa Abbaaxiiqii, can be reached at email@example.com