The Quagmire of the Opposition and the Way Forward – Messay Kebede

June 15th, 2010 Print Print Email Email

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, (more…)

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 But then, if the opposition parties knew that the election was anything but a fair contest, they should have withdrawn their participation, especially after they noticed serious breaches of the signed code of conduct.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.

  1. Ethiopiawiw
    | #1

    I absolutely agree with Messay that the time for toothless opposition against a murderous regime is over. The so called peaceful struggle we have witnessed so far in Ethiopia is nothing more than self defeating. Woyane eprdf has the armed forces to advance its interests, and the oppositions shouldn’t be afraid to inject the power of the people to finish it all. Public disobedience is a must if we wish to end reign of terror and dictatorship in our country.

  2. aha!
    | #2

    It is embarassing that the loyalist opposition parties, which have been maintaining a sizable seats in the parliament in past under coersion and intimidation, while continually petitoned the government for political space through a third party government, has gained but one parliamentary seat under the formidable coalition, called Medrek, of the would be Tigrai-Harena/fdd/efd(u)r, a mirror image of TPLF/eprdf in basic structure of ethnic and/or secessionist policies and politics, which is contrary to the alignment of KAEUP, EDP and others with the national agenda for Unity, territorial integrity, sovereignity of Ethiopia and Ethiopians.

    With this set up of political models in the past five years, three way thug of campaign was created during the election, instead of a two-way thug of campaign, in which the negative forces of disintegration, TPLF/eprdf, and Medrek constitute the same sides but in separate angle and KAEUP, EDP and others for unity, territorial integrity, sovereignity of Ethiopia and Ethiopians on the opposite side pulling against those two forces, while being subjected to disproportionate forces of coercion and intimidation of its candidates, observers and supporters by the TPLF/eprdf regime at all “killils and woredas”, while the votes for UDJP in the Amahara and Tigrai region goes to Medrek, a mirror image of TPLF/eprdf, which is in rivalery with the current regime with same agenda in style of governance under ethnic boundries, ethnic federalism and rights to secession upto self determinaton in tact.

    You are still hanging your hopes on Medrek, rather than KAEUP and other which stand for unity, territorial integrity, sovereignity of Ethiopia and Ethiopians under liberal democracy/ideology, for Medrek stating “It seems that the formation of Medrek around some basic democratic rights constitutes a good starting point for cementing the unity of opposition parties”, when the true unity of these opposion parties is towards the national agenda and liberal democracy/ideology to save Ethiopia from disintegration and individual freedom and liberty from ethnic dictatorship of one sort or another.

  3. Anonymous
    | #3

    Haven’t we seen enough in the last 20 years that TPLF never operated by the rule of law and don‘t respect Democracy? How do we expect a better outcome from a group of people that have locked up innocent people for life, robbed the country, tortured and massacred innocent Ethiopians? TPLF have already started by expanding Tigrea province by taking land from Gondar and Wollo. And they have already separated themselves by saying they are from Tigrea instead of Ethiopia…the recent report from Seattle is the clue. Mark my words: it is my assumption that soon Meles will start another war with Eritrea to overthrow or kill Esayass, and Meles will take over and rule Ertirea and Tigrea as one in the near future. Meles has all the stolen Ethiopian money in his hands, the army and pilots that have been trained at the expense of Ethiopian people. In the last 20 years, Ethiopian people have been used, laughed at robbed, abused, kicked and tossed like a rug doll by TPLF and they will do so till they build that greater Tigrea and dismantle Ethiopia a little bit at a time.

    Oppositions better come up with a better plan than expecting a fair and free election from a man that have given orders Ethiopians to be massacred. Oppositions wake up, stop being fooled by a dictator and criminal at that.
    Good day,

  4. mateos
    | #4

    The day they called themselves opposition is the day they became opposition. How could they call themselves when different creatures invaded their homes and lives with out any mercy?? They kill their brothers and sisters at will; they sale and trade Ethiopians at will; they invade and reinvade neighboring countries and people for donation purposes; In my true opinion the Ethiopians are being humiliated, herded, and murdered by Abebe/Legesse/Mathza/Meles and his boss Bereket for reasons that are known only to the two and their keepers!!!

  5. Mebrate M
    | #5

    Like Prof Mesay,I also say that Meles did not win the elections rather the opposition lost it.That defeat originated from the the nature of the opposition’s tactics and strategy that were wholly under the mercy of the regime’s scheme to stay in power.Many of the opposition were docile ‘parliamentarians’ who pretended to look like a real opposition by using their permission to throw a few words of criticism against the regime.Our people saw this.
    Then came Medrek which rushed into the election without contemplating the pace and the nature of its journey and without injecting anything novel and sterner in its strategies joined hands with the others.
    While paying lip service to Bertukan’s ordeal,Medrek failed to make Bertukan’s imprisonment a centre piece of its election strategy in order to rally the people and galvanise the struggle.Our people saw this too.
    When like Bertukan,many others were put behind bars and some were even killed,the opposition considered these events as things to endure passively for the sake of the election and again our people saw this as well.
    In the eyes of our people the opposition was dictated by the regime.While they witnessed the regime deploying all its forces to ‘win’ the election and working ‘flat out’ to stay in power,the opposition by contrast was divided,rudderless and timid.
    The opposition was not something that inspired hope in our people but rather effectively became a reminder of their deep pain inflicted on them particularly in the massacre of May 2005 elections.
    Sadly there was no closure to the trauma of our people although their so called leaders were ‘pardoned’ off and ‘allowed’ to continue their
    ‘legal’ politics while some of them even went as far as shaking the blood stained hands of the dictator.This latter act especially was extremely troubling and disorienting for our people.
    They must have felt that their leaders,like their martyred kids,had died too although this death was a spiritual rather than a physical one.
    In this,our people are rescued by their age old fatalism,they have now come to terms with the inexorable reality around them and they want to simply get on with their tattered lives with out incurring many more loses and traumas.I think this is deeply held in the minds and hearts of our people.I do not think this will change easily.
    What is changing and changing drastically to the detriment of our people’s welfare,however,is the economic situation of the country.
    There is undoubtedly a feverish economic change prevailing in the country characterized by great inequality whose impact upon the material lives of our people and their political thinking is not,to best of my knowledge,properly assessed.
    It seems to me that the juggernaut of this economic drive,while likely to usher in a Chile like ‘middle class’ as the upcoming power base for our TPLF Pinochet,it is set to impoverish the majority making them more powerless and hence fatalistic.The signs are that Meles is banking on this to embark upon his so called ‘Chinese’ experiment with a bid to hold power indefinitely while ‘developing’ the economy.

    So what is the way out? I don’t honestly know the comprehensive answer to this vital question.But I do know one thing.We need a new generation of leaders for the opposition.The current ones must retire wholesale.They should leave the scene for new young generation of leaders who can think boldly and creatively while planning for a long-haul.The tactics and strategies the new leadership should no more be proscribed by the regime’s rational to stay in power.It must not be bought into that scheme.Removing that cardinal error,I think,is a good start.

  6. feyisa
    | #6

    Thanks Messay for boldly mentioning the fact that the opposition is defeated because of traitors and sellout #1 Lidetu #2 Hailu Shawel.These Opposition leaders are the main cause of the prolonging of our people suffering. How could we go forward unless we identify our problems. Those how are responsible have to be held responsible and the Ethiopian people should know them. I have more respect and admiration for leaders like Dr. Negaso than Hailu Shawel. Now, with the departure of Hailu Shawel, the opposition, hopefully can strenthen further. But, the opposition should be careful in forming alliance with Lidetu Kidetu.WE should always remember that how he left Kinigit, weakened the opposition by working for TPLF when he signed the so called Code of conduct and recently how he accepted the election result. He is unpredicatable and proven servant of Meles Zenawi

  7. Teshome
    | #7

    Very insightful, as always.

  8. From Minnesota.
    | #8

    Here we go again, Dr. Mesay. Still playing the blame game.
    You can blame Ato Lidetu as much as you want, but the truth is
    You and the likes are part of our problem. Disseminating animosity
    among us did not get us any where so far, and it will do the same
    if we choose to go the same way.
    Like him or not Ato Lidetu is one of the best Politician our Country
    has ever produced.
    If we embrace him, and his Party, I belive we will get some where, If not
    we will still be thalking the same thing five years from now.
    PS. I know MEDREK didn’t sign the code of conduct, but they didn’t oppose
    it either, atleast prior to the election.

  9. Mebrate M
    | #9

    From Minnesota #8,

    Can’t you tell the difference between a good postmortem and what you call a ‘blame game’?
    Mesay is clinically dissecting the failure of the opposition so that significant lessons can be learnt.I think this is as it should be.
    I suggest that others should follow his good example and analyse,look into and mercilessly examine where it all went awry.In this,we need to have the courage to face our blunders and failures.We need to do this dispassionately and with no sense of partisanship.
    You defence of Lidetu in this regard,I have to say,is anything remotely like an honest self-scrutiny.
    This may not please you but Ato Lidetu,to my mind,is one of my biggest disappointments in opposition politics since 2005.
    Driven by his ego and with his ill-digested mantra of ‘third way’(a superficial option that was dead at its inception in British Labour politics thanks to Blair’s guru,the sociologist Anthony Giddens,now Lord Giddens ) and his pretence of rationality,his whole political posture,to me,has been nothing but classical opportunism.

    Now his defeat in the hands of his parliamentary bosses has conclusively demonstrated the vacuity of his Giddensite sound bites and it has buried them with no hope of resurrection.

    Here then is the important question.What kind of deal is ‘one of our best Politicians’ Ato Lidetu now prepared to cut with Meles in order to revive his lost seat?

    Or will he have the improbable courage to call it a day after such debacle?

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