Disengaging from the False Dilemma of Armed or Peaceful Struggle – Messay Kebede To Andargachew Tsege

The consecutive rise of two dictatorial and sectarian regimes has convinced a great number of Ethiopians that peaceful rather than armed struggle gives the best opportunity for the democratization of Ethiopia. The experience of armed insurgents instituting sectarian and repressive regimes in Ethiopia as well as in other numerous countries, despite their often widely publicized commitment to justice and democracy, has rooted in most Ethiopians the belief that democracy will never prevail so long as armed groups, which by definition are not accountable to the people, become agents of social changes. Instead, what is needed is to organize, educate, and mobilize the people through peaceful struggle and achieve change by their open and direct involvement. In this way, the people retain the control of change and empower political elites that are primarily both accountable to them and representative of diverse interests. Needless to say, proponents of peaceful struggle know too well that the path is bound to be difficult and fraught with appalling pain and sacrifices, obvious as it is that dictatorial regimes will take extreme measures to discourage and defeat such a movement.

Like most people in Ethiopia, I had so far endorsed both the promises of peaceful struggle and its onerous nature without, however, ever condemning or criticizing those who advocate armed struggle. Not only was I convinced that one cannot separate the means from the goal so that only democratic means can lead to democratic results, but also I persuaded myself that the recourse to armed struggle to overthrow the TPLF would be dangerous to the very existence of Ethiopia. Indeed, the ethnic fragmentation of Ethiopia in the hands of the TPLF could only encourage the proliferation of armed groups that would easily take ethnic banners, thereby precipitating the country into a terrible civil war from which it may not emerge as one country.

On the other hand, I was also perfectly aware of the nature of the TPLF. I never shared the illusion that the TPLF will accept the verdict of the ballot-box and step down from power peacefully. That is why I wrote several papers that many commentators and activists either disliked or labeled controversial in which I argued in favor of the establishment of a national government of reconciliation. The proposal was an attempt to lure the leaders of the TPLF into the democratic process by calming their fear of electoral defeat, which would leave them powerless and venerable to a revengeful policy. I found utterly naïve the belief that the TPLF will play the democratic game when it has so much to lose and nothing to gain. Assurance and confidence building through a transitory process in which the TPLF shares power with the opposition appeared to me as the best way to launch the democratization process.

In the face of mounting opposition, the proposal offered an incentive to the TPLF, namely, the opening of the political field in exchange for a guarantee against complete loss and vindictive actions, the result of which would be a win-win situation for all concerned. The TPLF no longer needed to intensify its repressive policy to say in power, which intensification will only lead, sooner or later, to a violent overthrow either by popular uprisings or armed groups. The proposal thus removed the likelihood of a violent overthrow and protected the leaders of the TPLF from political and economic marginalization.

Unfortunately, far from seeking accommodation, all what the TPLF leaders are doing today suggest the recourse to a policy that is set on using all the repressive power of the state to say in power by all means necessary. Recent arbitrary arrests of political leaders and journalists give an unmistakable evidence of the determination to keep power by all means. Add the recent repression to the twenty years of unfruitful peace struggle to have a clear idea of the deadlock of the Ethiopian struggle for change.

In light of this evidence, the question is to know whether peaceful struggle can withstand and eventual defeat a regime that offers nothing but the perpetuation of its absolute power. If one is convinced that the TPLF will never tolerate the rise of a strong democratic opposition, then what is left but the path of a violent overthrow? If the answer is yes––I do not see how a different answer could be possible––what else is endorsed but the inevitability of a violent confrontation whatever form it may take? But then, the inevitability of violence rehabilitates armed struggle, not only as the only recourse but also as the one that offers the possibility of victory. If one is convinced, I repeat, that the TPLF will never give up power peacefully, then one supports the idea that violence is inevitable. Accordingly, it makes no sense to postpone the inevitable confrontation by falsely dissuading oneself that a peaceful victorious outcome is possible for the opposition.

Moreover, while there is no doubt that numerous exceptionally courageous and committed political leaders, journalists, and activists have sacrificed their freedom and life to force the TPLF to be faithful to its own constitution, the downside is that the regime ends up by appearing invincible, thereby discouraging other challengers and plunging Ethiopians in a state of utter resignation and submission for a very long time. There is a limit to what a country can sacrifice without any tangible result.

True, armed struggle is also a very dangerous undertaking, but with the major difference that one is not powerless and can inflict real pain to those who stole others’ freedom. I do not deny that peaceful resistance can prevail over the harshest dictatorial regime given enough time, for no regime is everlasting. Unfortunately, what Ethiopia does not have is precisely time. Ethnic politics is tearing the country apart by undermining, slowly but surely, all the legacies of a common history and shared identity. Whether we like or not, new smaller nations are emerging from the ethnic fragmentation of the country. There is clearly an urgent need to stop the bleeding. What is taking place is as damaging as the direct occupation of the country by a foreign power, which would have naturally given rise to an armed resistance. That the loss of Ethiopia is fomented by treacherous natives should not invite a different reaction.

Above all, it seems to me that the only remedy against the resignation and fatalism that reign in the heart of most Ethiopians is the use of a violent form of struggle. Violence forces us to be free. As Frantz Fanon puts it referring to the colonizer, “the appearance of the settler has meant in the terms of syncretism the death of the aboriginal society, cultural lethargy, and the petrification of individuals. For the native, life can only spring up again out of the rotting corpse of the settler.”  What this means is that we need violence, not primarily to overthrow the TPLF, but to be worthy of it, that is, to recover the dignity and anger that make submission unacceptable. To the extent that violence is a provocation of a repressive regime, which naturally reacts by indiscriminate violence, it ends the safety of resignation and fear. It puts everybody in the state of survival by all means and so moves the use of violence from choice to necessity. What Ethiopians need urgently is not so much the recognition as the imposition of freedom by using violence to dissolve the security obtained through submission. Make life dangerous, and you force people to join the fight.

Additionally, those who are hired by the TPLF to terrorize the people and the opposition do so because the absence of armed struggle gives them complete immunity and safety. As soon as they understand that they can become the target of violent reaction, their incentive to kill, torture, and maim diminishes drastically. For them too, the threat of violence has an awakening impact, since they are asked to kill and maim persons who, having ceased to be docile, transform their job into a very risky business. The revelation of their own vulnerability is how they commence to think, thereby recovering what they had exchanged for easy money, to wit, the ability to think critically. They now understand that their job is demanding the sacrifice of their own precious life and that the exchange is utterly unfair.

Last but not least, peaceful struggle has the chance to prevail over the regime if the latter is threatened by violent overthrow. Experience shows that even the fiercest dictatorial regimes suddenly call for dialogue and reconciliation when they feel threatened by armed insurgents.  The power of violence makes such regimes suddenly reasonable. What this tells us is that we must drop the either/or reasoning that it is hurting us. By vilifying the recourse to violence, we are doing a big favor to the regime in place. What else could better prolong the life of the regime than the opposition condemning the use of violence? It is my belief that peaceful opposition, which we all want to triumph, cannot do so without the backing of armed insurgency. In other words, we must not see peaceful struggle and armed insurgency as mutually exclusive; instead, we should see them as allies working with different means to achieve the same goal.

This idea of partnership needs to be promoted. All the more so as armed struggle by itself, even if it brandished the goal of democratization, cannot achieve it without the support of an organized people. The irreplaceable role of peaceful struggle is that it organizes and educates the people who are the direct participants. Armed insurgency without an organized people would result in nothing else, despite its generous inspiration, than dictatorial rule. If history teaches us one thing is that democracy cannot be imposed and that those who have tried to do so have become the worst dictators. Democracy works only if the people have the clear sense of being the only source of legitimate political authority and have the means to enforce it, namely, organization and leadership.  The triumph of an armed insurgency in a situation where the people show some degree of organization is less frightening and to some extent controllable. Such a people can require that the leaders of the insurgency retain power only under the condition that they win at the ballot box through fair and free elections.

To sum up, the question, armed struggle or peaceful struggle, is a false dilemma. These two forms of struggle are actually complementary. Those who are committed to armed struggle should not denigrate peaceful struggle. On the contrary, they must see it as a necessary component of the democratization goal. Inversely, those who are committed to peaceful struggle must stop demonizing armed insurgency; they should rather view it as a necessary condition for the success of their goal. Instead of either/or, our position must be this and that.

Let there be no misunderstanding: what I say does not mean that I am walking away from peaceful struggle. I am firm in my belief that democracy is unachievable without the acquisitions of peaceful struggle. I am simply taking note of the fact that, given the political fragmentation of the country and the nature of the TPLF, peaceful struggle by itself is incapable of bringing the TPLF to the negotiation table. I am also firm in my belief that the only way to institute a genuine democracy in Ethiopia is through the inclusion of the EPRDF in the democratic process, as opposed to its exclusion. I do not see how a commitment to peaceful struggle would exclude the EPRDF without recourse to violent repression. The best outcome for Ethiopia lies in a genuine negotiation between all the concerned forces with the understanding that, given the nature of the TPLF, the use of force conditions the occurrence of said negotiation.