A Citizen’s Plea to Opposition Leaders – Eskinder Nega (Addis Ababa)

June 4th, 2010 Print Print Email Email

Mengistu Haile Mariam was livid with fury. This was in February 1990, days after the EPRDF(but really the TPLF) seized Debre Tabor and Baher Dar; the latter the fourth largest city in the country. “You are hereby ordered to head straight to Addis Ababa and report to the Ministry of Defense,” read a stern radio telegram delivered to Brigadier General Abebe HaileSelaise, commander of the 603 Corps; which was responsible for the defense of the two cities.

“Addis Ababa is rife with rumors about my alleged complicity with the enemy,” lamented the Brigadier to the Chief of Staff, Lt General Hadis Tedla, who received him in his office the following day. “But the problem is bigger than me.” The President wants you to write a report about what happened in Baher Dar, told him a sympathetic Hadis. Everyone feared the worst; Mengistu has killed for much less. This sounded too much like a request for his final words. Abebe was not offered an office, nor was he given a timeframe. He was politely but firmly told to prepare and submit the report from his home.

Isolated, confused, profoundly slighted by the rumors, and quite obviously preparing for the worst, a defiant Abebe went on to produce a stunning report that most probably saved his life.

“The enemy attacks with nominal strength,’ wrote Abebe in his report to Mengistu. “It knows our troops scrupulously. It need only sprinkle the area with few artillery fires. Our troops will then routinely abandon their positions without a fight, turning in to a human wave as they retreat in droves. Pandemonium takes over. Soldiers fire randomly; NCOs and Officers are suddenly no where to be found; no chain of command; no discipline; all semblance of an army ceases to exist. And all is inevitably lost.(This has become the norm.)”

Such was the crisis of faith, confidence and leadership that afflicted the Derg in its last days. It was the essential cause of its brisk collapse between 1989, when it made the strategic blunder to withdraw prematurely from Mekele for political rather than military considerations; and 1991, when it was finally—and easily—routed in the vicinity of Ambo, West Shoa.

Faced with the most spectacular thrashing—by way of rigging, of course– of its two decades history, the Ethiopian legal opposition now stands face to face with an analogous crisis of faith, confidence and leadership. As the Derg’s withdrawal from Mekele was a psychological turning point some 21 years ago, so is poised this year’s alleged election outcome as a decisive turning point for the nation. How this crisis is handled will decide not only the fate of one or two organizations; but critically, will chart which way Ethiopian politics—and history—will go hereafter.

Now is the time for the legal opposition to address the challenges it faces, exploit the political opportunities, and isolate the hazards that need to be shunned. Sadly, so far, avoiding the hazards seems to loom larger than addressing the challenges and exploiting the opportunities. And perhaps the role of the Shimagles(elders)—who are shuttling between Meles and opposition leaders—is influencing the course of events. But this may be a fatal error for an opposition facing an existential threat. Certainly, imprisonment must not be avoided at the expense of relegation to permanent irrelevance.

This is not a call for the opposition to mastermind a revolution. The people are not ready, yet. But this clearly a plea by a member of the public, one who cherishes the notion of a peaceful change in his country, for the opposition to show vision, integrity, leadership and guts in the face of naked tyranny.

A clear picture of the opposition’s vision is glaringly lacking. Almost two weeks after tens of millions have been provoked by the “election results”, the opposition has yet to set the tone of its response to the crisis by expounding the goals it has set. This delay puts in to question the leadership’s perseverance and undermines the fostering of a permissive environment for the public to stay engaged—and more importantly, to hope. Too many people—but not catastrophically—are already losing hope and confidence in the legal opposition. And as the experience of the Derg with its army after 1989 lay bare, once confidence and hope are lost they are awfully hard to reclaim.

Indecision, it seems to me, has now become a mortal threat to Ethiopia’s legal opposition. But I am at a loss why this is so. The opposition has an ample supply of leaders who have confidence in their capabilities and potency of their belief; and also have the audacity to act in situations where success is not assured. It time for them to lead us. Genuine leaders risk failure; the worst thing, I think we can all agree, is to do nothing.

But as Lenin had famously asked: What is to be done? Plenty. But for lack of space (as an American friend of mine always reminds me, who, after all, would have time to read an article of more than 1000 words on the web?), let me stick with the big ones.

The first essential step has already been taken. That is, a re-run of the election has been demanded. We know that Meles reacted with his usual assortment of threats; to which, many of us learned with much relief, leaders of the opposition refused to acquiesce. The next logical step is to seek permit from Corporal Kuma Demeksa’s city administration for a rally in support of the re-run at Meskel square in Addis Ababa; which, if stretched to the limit as in 2005, is capable of hosting up to a million people. Whether it gives the green light or denies the permit, the EPRDF is poised to lose. If it grants the permit, it will set the stage for a massive turnout—a tsunami—by the people, which will eloquently undercut its claim of a sweeping majority. I doubt it will tread along this path. If it denies the permit, which is the more likely outcome, only few weeks after staging its own post election rally there, it will clearly show the narrowing of political space that EU observers said had affected “both the process and the outcome of the election.” This will embarrass its international partners further, reinforcing the growing pressure to do something. Domestically, it will steal its thunder; for the first time putting it on the defensive since the announcement of the “election
results.”

The second vital step should be the upping of the diplomatic challenge. To date, the legal opposition has responsibly refrained from lobbying in support of economic sanctions. But the EPRDF has consistently used aid money—in the words of HRW—“to build a one party state.” It has recklessly politicized aid to the point that it could not be ignored anymore. This abuse is unprecedented both in Africa and in the context of the wider world. For Western governments to persist on looking askance is to risk serious scandal at some point in the future. This is clearly a window of opportunity for the opposition. Isolating the EPRDF from its increasingly restless Western partners will be difficult, but it is feasible under present circumstances. A change of heart on the part of the Americans will have transformative effect in the donor community. Meles Zenawi’s bluff notwithstanding, the support afforded by Ethiopia’s Western partners is key to the nation’s macro-economic stability—the core of his argument in favor of the status-quo. Its time economic aid—but of course not humanitarian aid—is used as an important bargaining chip in support of democratization. China will continue to fund major infrastructural projects, but will not step in to fill a vacuum created by a complete or substantial Western withdrawal. We know that from Zimbabwe, where the Chinese bond with Mugabe is deeper and longer than the affiliation with Meles

The “election result” has made everyone uneasy. This includes opposition supporters, the international community; and, quite interestingly, the vast majority of EPRDF members. Only a handful of hardliners—the usual list –relish the prospect of a return to a one party state. They must not be allowed to take the nation back. The opposition needs to stand up to them.

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