By David Steinman
News of Meles’ illness highlights the general unreadiness of the opposition to assume power upon his departure.
Presently, the most likely scenario that would unfold upon Meles’ death or resignation would be his replacement by a Tigrayan EPRDF successor, with the military enforcing this unpopular choice. When this happens, tragically, due to its disorganization, the opposition will be unable to do more than weakly protest. The situation grows worse by the day as more people, especially the youth and potential military defectors, drift away, disappointed and alienated, from the older opposition groups.
This state of affairs is because no one– whether it’s the EPRDF, the military, the international community or even Ethiopia’s people themselves, takes seriously a divided opposition. But a united opposition will create a coalition sufficiently large and broad as to create an undeniable alternative to EPRDF rule.
There is no shortage of well-known historic examples, and even simple fables, reflecting the truth of the power of unity. Yet, despite these unassailable facts, the opposition has failed to unite. Opposition leadership may cite various reasons for this, but the imperative is so great that no excuse can be sufficient and the opposition leadership collectively bears responsibility for this grave strategic error. Now, more than ever, it faces a stark choice: unify now, urgently, or allow itself, once again, to be passed over and miss this historic opportunity.
There are real policy differences among the various opposition groups. But the opposition is already united on one, overarching goal– the end of undemocratic EPRDF rule and its replacement with genuine democracy. It can achieve this if its leaders meet on an emergency basis and, for the good of the nation, subordinate all other differences to form a unified action front under a coordinated command for the purpose of this single objective. Once the dictatorship is gone, they can submit their differences to a democratic process.
Unification will require agreeing on a common leadership. The existing leaders, whether they are currently talking to each other or not, can collectively succeed if they all get into the same room immediately and not leave until this is resolved.
If they cannot agree on common leadership, they can, alternatively, elect one or more neutral figures to lead. This can be a non-political person, such as a respected academic, businessman, journalist, religious leaders, NGO administrator, royalty, athlete, technocrat or some combination. Almost anybody is better than nobody.
If the opposition leaders are unwilling to do this quickly, Ethiopia’s long-suffering people will benefit by demanding they do so. The Diaspora can guide the way, if necessary, by uniting its various factions here in a similar manner and conditioning further support on the in-country leadership doing the same.
A rare chance for the opposition to move into the coming political vacuum is emerging, but the opposition so far shows every sign of blowing it by failing to unify. Opposition leaders will be foolish to continue on this track and, if they do, they’ll have no one to blame but themselves.
When overthrowing a dictatorship, opposition unification must come above all else. Now is Ethiopia’s time to do it.
The author, an American, was involved with anti-Mengistu activity in the 1980′s, advocated for Ethiopia’s opposition to the US Congress starting in 1992, was an adviser to AAPO and CUD, published the first major media expose of Meles Zenawi’s human rights abuses and was a senior strategic consultant to Kinijit during the 2004-2005 civil disobedience and election campaign.