Ethiopia’s Opposition at the Dawn of Democracy?

By Alemayehu G Mariam

demRespeaking Truth to the Powerless

For several years now, I have been “speaking truth to power”. In fact, the tag line for my blog page is “Defend Human Rights. Speak Truth to Power.” It is a special phrase which asserts a defiant moral and ethical position against those who abuse, misuse and overuse their powers. By speaking truth to power, the speaker bears witness against those whose power lies in lies. But speaking truth to the powerless is sometimes also necessary. The powerless have no power to abuse, but their fault lies in not knowing their true power. While the abusers of power have might, the powerless who are abused have the power of right. It is the power of right that the powerless must use in their struggle against the abusers of power in achieving their ultimate victory because, as Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”

In June 2010, I wrote a weekly commentary entitled “Speaking Truth to the Powerless”.  I expressed deep concern over what I perceived to be manifest political paralysis and inaction in the Ethiopian opposition following the daylight theft of the May 2010 election in which the ruling party claimed to have won 99.6 percent of the seats in parliament. I urged the Ethiopian “opposition” to take a hard look at itself and take corrective action. I explained that  “my aim is not to lecture or to bash” but   merely to help “clean out the closet  so that we could begin afresh on the long walk to democracy. It is said that the ‘truth hurts’, but I disagree. I believe the truth heals, empowers and liberates its defenders.”

Ethiopia’s Opposition Through the Eyes of the Ruling Party

As opposition parties, journalists and dissidents faced unrelenting persecution by the ruling party and underwent apparent disarray following the 2010 election, I wondered what the party bosses of the ruling party really thought of the opposition (and the people) in making their outrageously absurd and audacious claim of total electoral victory. I thought then, as I do now, that looking at the “opposition” through the eyes of the ruling party bosses might give the opposition, particularly opposition parties, some insights into what courses of action they ought to take as the political situation evolves given recent changes:

… Zenawi knows the opposition like the opposition does not know itself. He has studied them and understands how they (do not) work. Careful analysis of his public statements on the opposition over the years suggests a rather unflattering view. He considers opposition leaders to be his intellectual inferiors; he can outwit, outthink, outsmart, outplay, outfox and outmaneuver them any day of the week. He believes they are dysfunctional, shiftless and inconsequential, and will never be able to pose a real challenge to his power. In his speeches and public comments, he shows nothing but contempt and hatred for them. At best, he sees them as wayward children who need constant supervision, discipline and punishment to keep them in line. Like children, he will offer some of them candy — jobs, cars, houses and whatever else it takes to buy their silence. Those he cannot buy, he will intimidate, place under continuous surveillance and persecute. Mostly, he tries to fool and trick the opposition. He will send “elders” to talk to them and lullaby them to sleep while he drags out “negotiations” to buy just enough time to pull the rug from underneath them. He casts a magical spell on them so that they forget he is the master of the zero-sum game (which means he always wins and his opposition always loses)…

Who is the “Opposition”?

Who is the Ethiopian “opposition”? That is an intriguing question for which there is probably not a definitive answer. There is certainly not a monolithic opposition in the form of a well-organized party. There is no strong and functional coalition of political parties that could effectively challenge both the power and ideology of the ruling party. There is not an opposition in the form of an organized vanguard of intellectuals.  There is not an opposition composed of an aggregation of civil society institutions including unions and religious institutions, rights advocates and dissident groups. There is not an opposition in the form of popular mass based political or social movements. The problems of “opposition politics” in Ethiopia is the age old  problem that has plagued African opposition politics following the “invention” of the one-man, one-party state in Africa by Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana in the early 1960s. Nkrumah crushed, suppressed and persecuted his opposition, including political parties, judges, union leaders, dissidents. Over the past one-half century, those who opposed the incumbent regimes in Ethiopia have been victims of not only legal and political restrictions but also all forms of persecution including imprisonments and extrajudicial killings.  I find it difficult to fully characterize or quantify the Ethiopian opposition. As I asked in my commentary after the May 2010 election: “Is the opposition that amorphous aggregation of weak, divided, squabbling, factionalized and fragmented parties and groups that are constantly at each other’s throats? Or is it the grumbling aggregation of human rights advocates, civic society organizers, journalists and other media professionals and academics? Or are the groups committed to armed struggle and toppling the dictatorship by force the opposition?

Or is it all or none of the above?

What is the Proper Role for the “Opposition” in the Ethiopia?

Playing the role of opposition in a police state is not only difficult but also extremely risky. Following the May 2005 election, nearly all of the opposition party leaders, numerous civic society leaders, human rights advocates and journalists were rounded up and jailed for nearly two years. Over the past six years, opposition parties have been denied any meaningful political space and their leaders, along with an ever growing number of journalists and dissidents have been harassed, intimidated, imprisoned, exiled or worse. But the opposition, particularly the opposition parties, have also been severely weakened and suffered erosion of public credibility by failing to develop a coherent set of policies, programs and ideology that are different from the ruling party’s. Some parties and party leaders have lacked accountability and transparency in their actions and omissions. Others have resisted internal democracy within their organizations. Still others have promoted a cult of leadership around a single individual or small group of individuals who themselves have manifested dictatorial tendencies and engaged in factional struggles within their organizations to consolidate their power.

Regardless of how one might define the “opposition” in Ethiopia, there is no question that the ruling party’s  claim of electoral victory of 99.6 percent stands in stark contrast to the fact that in 2005 opposition parties routed the ruling party’s candidates in landslide victories throughout the country. The principal lesson the Ethiopian “opposition” needs to learn from the experiences of the past six years is that the opposition’s role is not simply to “oppose, oppose and oppose” for the sake of opposing. The opposition’s role and duty goes well beyond simply opposing the ruling party and its policies. Their role goes to the heart of democratic governance of the country. Their principal role is to relentlessly demand accountability and transparency in governance. They should always question the actions and omissions of the ruling party in a principled and honest manner, challenge, analyze, criticize, dice and slice the ruling party’s policies, ideas and programs and offer better, different and stronger alternatives. It is not sufficient for the opposition to champion the failures of the ruling party and make broad claims that they can do better.

Heaping insults, gnashing teeth and denigrating the ruling party and its leaders not only erodes the superior  moral position of the opposition, it is also counterproductive  and distractive to the opposition in its role of promoting accountability and transparency in governance. Many in the opposition speak out against those in power in the language of anger, frustration, fear and loathing. Few seem to be prepared to challenge the rulers on the basis of cold hard facts and logic. It is rare to see the opposition undertake a thorough analysis and critique of the ruling party’s policies, programs and projects. That task if often done by foreigners who undertake specialized studies and investigations. For instance, the regime’s policy which allows predatory land grabs by international agro-businesses was exposed not by Ethiopia’s opposition but foreign NGOs and researchers. The disastrous environmental impact of the various hydroelectric dam projects in the country were revealed by foreign researchers, not the opposition. The bulk of the work documenting human rights violations in Ethiopia is done by the various international human rights organizations, not the opposition. Much of the economic analysis on Ethiopia is done either by the various international lending institutions whose review is highly questionable on conflict of interest grounds or economic commentators in the popular media. By failing to challenge the ruling party on substantive policy and programmatic grounds, the effectiveness and credibility of the opposition has been significantly diminished. What is needed is not verbal condemnation, demonization and teeth gnashing against those in power, but critical and systematic analysis of the failures of the regime, its programs, policies and laws followed by well-thought out proposals that offer real alternatives and hope of a better future to the people if the opposition were to hold the reins of power.

The opposition, particularly opposition political parties, can play many vital roles beyond simply preparing to run for elections. They can help build consensus and aggregate the interests of their members and the broader society. They can articulate their policy preferences and choices and educate the wider community. They can promote debate, dialogue and national conversations on issues, problems and the direction of the country. They are best positioned to build and institutionalize  a democratic culture. If opposition parties are to succeed, they must take action to provide leadership training opportunities to the youth and women. Many opposition party leaders are way past the age of fifty and few women are seen at top leadership levels. While “age is nothing but a number”, there is a distinct difference between youth and geriatric politics. The younger generation has greater enthusiasm, dynamism and commitment to carry on with the cause. Opposition parties also need to work closely with media and civil society institutions to reach out to the people.

Sometimes the opposition can also agree with those in power to do the right thing and serve the greater public interest. In 2007, the late Meles Zenawi expressed his “hope that [his] legacy” would be not only “sustained and accelerated development that would pull Ethiopia out of the massive deep poverty” but also “radical improvements in terms of good governance and democracy.” Prime Minster Hailemariam has vowed and pledged publicly numerous times to carry out Meles’ legacy. There is no harm in joining Hailemariam implement Meles’ legacy of “improving good governance and democracy.” The opposition should hold Hailemariam accountable for improving good governance by insisting on the release of political prisoners, repeal of repressive laws, opening up of political space and broader democratization.

What Kind of Opposition is Needed Today?

I believe the ruling party’s dominance and persistence is made possible in significant part by the shambolic (chaotic) state of Ethiopian opposition politics. In other words, if the opposition were not so divided and uncentered, the ruling party would have been far less successful in imposing its arbitrary rule. So, what kind of opposition is needed today?

Loyal Opposition? In some parliamentary systems of government, the term “loyal opposition” is used to describe opposition non-governing parties in the legislature. In a functioning democratic parliamentary system, it is the duty of the loyal opposition to challenge the policies and programs of the governing party without fear of harassment, intimidation or persecution. Obviously, there can be no “loyal opposition” in Ethiopia when the ruling party controls 99.6 percent of the seats in parliament. It is not possible to have a one-person loyal opposition.

Silent or Silenced Opposition? There is much silent and silenced opposition to the ruling class. The majority of the people are afraid to show their opposition to the regime because they are afraid of retaliation or retribution. If they criticize the ruling party or its leaders, they could lose their jobs, be dismissed from school, suffer economic harm or even serious persecution. People are jailed for simply saying they oppose the regime. In an incredible development recently, four individuals were criminally charged for stating in public, “Meles is dead. Good riddance. We are not sorry he is dead. The government is dead. There is no government.” (To see the official charging document, press here.)  There are many who privately express opposition but would not dare to make their views known because of fears of prosecution and persecution.

Disorganized Opposition? An opposition that is floundering, angry and disorganized is unlikely to pose a challenge to the ruling party. A disorganized opposition is unable to formulate viable and appealing policies or convert popular discontent into decisive political action. Neither is it able to convince and mobilize its base or expand its reach and influence.

Divided Opposition? A divided opposition is best guarantee for the dominance of the ruling party. The myth of the supremacy and invincibility of the ruling party and its leaders is built on the foundation of a divided opposition. The ruling regime survives and thrives using a strategy of divide and rule; and when the opposition itself is divided, it is easy for those in power to abuse, mock and denigrate them.

A United Principled Democratic Opposition? That is what Ethiopia needs today. Such an opposition is built on a foundation of the values of tolerance, cooperation and compromise.  A united opposition is consensus based and results in a coalition of divergent interests and groups. The coalition provides a  forum  to work together not only to compete in elections but also in formulating broad based policies, providing broader representation of the electorate and broader representation of the views and demands of the majority. Since a  wide consensus of opinion is necessary in coalitions, policies and actions will be debated and examined thoroughly before being presented to the public. Coalitions provide a basis for good governance because their decisions are made in the interests of a majority of the people. Coalitions may sometimes be fractious but the tendency to  build consensus often overcomes that impulse.  The Ethiopian opposition ought to organize around coalition politics to effectively challenge the ruling party and its policies.

What Is to Be Done by the Ethiopian Opposition?

Following the 2010 election, I offered unsolicited advice to Ethiopia’s opposition. It does not seem there were any takers at the time. But I am a tenacious and steadfast advocate who is not easily deterred. So, I offer the same advice again now that the political game has changed and despite the repetitious litany among the leaders of the regime that nothing has changed and things will continue as before. Things have changed fundamentally and will continue to change even more dramatically in the near future. That irreversible change is from dictatorship to democracy. There is no force on earth that can stop that change. No amount of bluster, swagger, bombast, hubris or imperiousness by those clinging to power can stop the change from dictatorship to democracy. There is only one question left to be answered: What is to be done by opposition parties and the aggregation of civic society and media institutions, human rights advocates, dissidents and others in Ethiopia’s transition from dictatorship to democracy?

Atonement and Reconciliation With the People:  All of the opposition political party leaders who participated in the 2005 election need to go back to the people and ask forgiveness for squandering their hopes, dreams and aspirations. They need to tell the people straight up, “We did let you down. We are deeply sorry. We promise to do our very best to earn back your trust and confidence.” The people deserve an unqualified public apology from opposition leaders. They will be forgiven because the Ethiopian people are decent, understanding and compassionate.

Learn From Past Mistakes: It is said that those who do not learn from past mistakes are doomed to repeat it. Many mistakes and blunders have been committed by opposition leaders in the past. These mistakes need to be  identified, studied and lessons drawn from them so that they will not be repeated again.

Understand the Opposition’s Opposition: The opposition’s opposition should not be underestimated. Their strength is in dividing and ruling and in playing the ethnic card. If the opposition unites and acts around a common agenda, they are powerless.

Stop Playing Victim: Some in the opposition manifest “victim mentality”. When one feels like a victim, one tends not to take action or responsibility. There is some recent criticism of Hailemariam over his public statements concerning the jailed journalists, political prisoners and other issues. Last week, he told the Voice of America that the political prisoners in the country are actually “terrorists” who “work with a violent organization” while “wearing two hats”, one “legal” and the other “illegal”. He gave no indication if he intends to open up the political space. The fact of the matter is that regardless of what Hailemariam and the ruling party say or do not say, the opposition must be relentless in demanding the release of all political prisoners and repeal of oppressive laws. That is what accountability is all about.  The opposition must always stand up for what is right. Releasing political prisoners is right; keeping them imprisoned is wrong.

Develop a Common Agenda in Support of Issues and Causes: The core issues democracy, freedom, human rights, the rule of law and the unity of the people and the physical integrity of the Ethiopian nation are shared by all opposition elements. Why not build collective agenda to advance and support these issues?

Agree to Disagree Without Being Disagreeable: Opposition leaders and supporters must abandon the destructive principle, “If you do not agree with me 100 percent, you are my enemy.” There is nothing wrong with reasonable minds disagreeing. Dissent and disagreement are essential conditions of democracy. If the opposition cannot tolerate dissent within itself, could it justifiably condemn those in power for intolerance?

Guard Against the Cult of Personality: One of the greatest weaknesses in the Ethiopian opposition has been the cult of personality. Time and again, the opposition has created idealized and heroic images of individuals as leaders, showered them with unquestioning flattery and praise and almost worshipped them. Let us remember that every time we do that we are grooming future dictators.

Always Act in Good Faith: Opposition leaders and others in the opposition must always strive to act in good faith and be forthright and direct in their personal and organizational relationships. We must mean what we say and say what we mean. Games of one-upmanship will keep us all stranded on an island of irrelevance.

Think GenerationallyAct Presently: The struggle for genuine democracy is not merely about winning  elections or getting into public office. The struggle is for great causes — establishing a durable democracy, protecting human rights and institutionalizing accountability and the rule of law in Ethiopia. If we believe this to be true, then the struggle is not about us, it is about the generations to come. What we do should always be guided by our desire to make Ethiopia better for our children and grandchildren.

Give Young People a Chance to Lead: There is a hard reality that most of us in the older generation in the opposition have been unable to face. That reality is that we need to learn to get out of the way. Let’s give the younger generation a chance to lead. After all, it is their future. We can be most useful if we help them learn from our mistakes and guide them to greater heights. If there is one thing universally true about young people, it is that they love freedom more than anything else. Let the older generation be water carriers for the young people who will be building the “future country of Ethiopia,” as Birtukan Midekssa, the first female political party leader in Ethiopia, used to say.

Think Like Winners, Not Victims: Victory is not what it seems for the victors, and defeat is not what it feels for the vanquished. There is defeat in victory and victory in defeat. Both victory and defeat are first and foremost states of mind. Those who won the election by a margin of 99.6 percent project an image of being victorious. But we know they have an empty victory secured by force and fraud. The real question is whether the opposition sees itself as a bunch of winners or losers. Winners think and act like winners, likewise for losers.

The Opposition Needs to Reinvent Itself: The ruling party, though its public statements, is trying to  reinvent itself as the same old repressive police state. They say “nothing will change” from the time of their former leader. The opposition also needs to reinvent itself by rededicating itself to democratic principles, articulating the peoples’ aspirations with greater clarity and cogency, creating democratic alliances, strengthening its position as voices of the people and by always standing up for right and against might.

The Opposition Must Never Give Up: Sir  Winston Churchill was right when he said: “Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” This is a winning strategy the Ethiopian opposition should adopt and practice passionately!