Ethiopia: The Bounds of Non-Violent Struggle


by Addissu Admas

Ethiopia's state of emergency violates human rights

By temperament and conviction, I have always sought first peaceful resolutions to conflicts. I believe that human beings should exhaust all peaceful means at their disposal before embarking on any form of violent action, even against those who would not hesitate to rain violence and destruction upon them. I am certain that non-violent struggle is not only a moral choice, but a pragmatic one as well: it is far more effective at reaching desired goals with far less loss to human lives and possessions.

I still hold Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King as exemplars of non-violent struggle. And everyone engaged in political struggle should always consult them first before considering any other form of struggle. But the question that nags everyone who is willing and determined to adopt their philosophy of non-violence is to what extent should one adhere to non-violent principles and mode of action. Is there, or indeed should there be, a boundary to one’s commitment to non-violent struggle? If yes, then, at what point?

Both Gandhi and King were profoundly moral persons who were determined, whatever the cost to their own lives, to bring about change to the status quo. They were impervious to being lured into violence. And they were deeply convinced that their powerful adversaries would eventually come to their senses, acknowledge their wrongdoing, and eventually reform. Their spirits were imbued with the optimistic view that human nature was essentially good, or at least capable of being led to do the right thing in the end. But most importantly, they conducted their struggles under political systems which adhered in principle, if not in action, to the rule of law and to human and citizenship rights.

However, like Orwell, I find it hard to imagine a Gandhi or a King emerging in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, or for that matter, in any totalitarian system of any shade or creed, live or defunct. Even though one can legitimately presume that there may have been men and women who, in their inscrutable ways, have tried to struggle against these inherently violent suppressive systems, we have no evidence of their achieving any transformative change on their landscape. Theorists and practitioners of non-violent struggle assure us that if we are ready to pursue non-violent struggle even in the most repressive regimes we will ultimately achieve our goals. Their belief is that no adversary will go as far as exterminating the people it oppresses. According to them, there would come at a certain time a point at which the adversary will become aware of the futility of its violence and adopt conciliatory ways to bring about change. I find again this to derive from an unbound optimistic perspective on human nature. How may one explain the Holocaust, the Stalinist and Maoist purges, Pol Pot’s killing fields, just to mention the most notorious examples of recent history? What these examples have shown is that human beings are indeed capable of committing genocide to maintain unchallenged power, or in the worse of cases, simply to show their power.

I say that non-violent struggle can emerge and grow mostly in States that are at least minimally adhering to democratic rules of governance. As long as there is a real commitment to democratic rights enshrined in the constitution, or as long as human and civil rights remain inviolate, it is not only expedient, but a moral imperative to conduct a non-violent political struggle to bring forth necessary changes. But when a democratic rule of law is suspended or simply suppressed; when the power in existence is determined to muzzle, persecute, torture, and kill with impunity, I see no justifiable reason to continue a non-violent struggle. I am not sure how allowing the adversary or opponent to trample my human and civil rights, to torture and kill me without any resistance on my part would do me any good or anyone else: what I have done is to simply submit to the cruelty and gratuitous violence of my oppressor in the deluded hope of transforming him or her into a moral being. I do not see any commendable value in this. Because, I am more convinced than ever that human beings would rather perpetrate unspeakable violence on their fellow human beings to maintain power than hear the voice of their conscience; presuming they have one.

I stand in awe of our youth, who, despite the determined effort of the TPLF’s regime to silence and suppress their voices with all the tools of violence at its disposal, have continued to struggle non-violently to bring about change. They have been merely exercising their human and civil rights enshrined in the Ethiopian constitution. And yet, the very same regime that continues to gloat for creating it, continues to trample it with utter disregard. Where in lies its credibility? Or for that matter its legitimacy? For all practical purposes, a regime which has violated time and again not only our constitutional rights, but even more tellingly our human rights, should be perceived as being no different from a gang of bandits. As indeed, the great Christian thinker St. Augustine said:

“Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale? What are criminal gangs but petty kingdoms? A gang is a group of men under the command of a leader, bound by a compact of association, in which plunder is divided according to an agreed convention”

If this villainy wins so many recruits from the ranks of the demoralized that it acquires territory, establishes a base, captures cities and subdues people, it then openly arrogates to itself the title of kingdom, which is conferred on it in the eyes of the world, not by the renouncing of aggression but the attainment of impunity” [City of God, Book IV.4]

This, in effect, is what we have in reality in Ethiopia today. Where in lies the legitimacy of the TPLF once it has turned its back on the very basic human and civil rights, and opted violence over the rule of law? How can it consider itself “a government” when all it does is plunder and rob the country blind? The TPLF has in fact shown that it will do anything, even plunge the country into civil war rather than relinquish power. Should the determination of our youth to bring change rely entirely on non-violent struggle? Can we ask them to be tortured and slaughtered by a regime determined to quash all opposition by any means necessary? Can we ask them to be martyrs of an enemy that has no pangs of conscience? The question is not one of moral fortitude only, but one of viability as well!

No one should be naïve as to believe that this regime will change course now or ever. If we understand by change a fair and transparent democratic election, we might as well simply ask directly the TPLF to step down from its high perch. This is what it amounts to in truth! The question then is what alternative is left for Ethiopians in the face of this regime’s determination to use all instruments of repression and violence to silence and subdue all opposition voices?

It is not only natural, but also a moral duty to stand up to a power that has clearly demonstrated to have no qualms in using all instruments of violence to rob us not only of our human and civil rights, but also of our very own lives: I see no merit in sacrificing one’s life if that life, which is so precious to myself and to so many of my fellow human beings, amounts to nothing to my opponent. Indeed, my core moral duty should be not only to make it count, but to defend it by any means necessary.

The second article of the Amendment of the Constitution of the United States declares that “the people should have the right to keep and bear arms”. This right may appear obsolete and unnecessary in highly organized and democratized nations of today. But one should not lose sight of its fundamental import. It is perhaps more meant to preempt the emergence of tyrannical forms of government than the mere defense of one’s property and life! Ethiopians have been deprived systematically of their ability to defend themselves since the advent of the Derg. Until then, it was neither illegal nor uncustomary to bear arm for one’s defense. By the very act of dispossessing people of their arms, not only was the Derg able to effectively quash all opposition, but it also paved the way for the current regime to continue to do the same.

Even though I continue to believe in the moral and practical superiority of the non-violent struggle, I cannot with good conscience defend its practice under all circumstances and under all political regimes. One must in essence make a realistic cost benefit analysis if a non-violent struggle should be pursued or abandoned. If after a careful and thorough deliberation it is deemed that continuing it will only result in loss of lives without any tangible result, it is incumbent on the people to adopt a strategy to achieve their goals by other means. I believe the most reasonable alternative to non-violent struggle is to organize communities of people for self-defense.

The TPLF and the regime it has created is now at the point of desperation and it will resort to every known or unknown extreme measures to preserve its power. Like a cornered animal it is capable of the most violent reaction. We have had already a taste for this since the outset of the first State of Emergency. It is in fact absolutely high time for the Ethiopian people to rise and prepare not to wage war, but arm to defend themselves against a regime which has clearly shown its willingness to clobber, torture, maim, imprison and kill out of the mess it alone has created. Not to prepare for what promises to be the final showdown with this cruel, divisive and predatory regime is utter irresponsibility!

I therefore urge especially the young to be ready not only to defend their rights but also their lives, because it is by now clear that they have an enemy willing to destroy them and their nation rather than surrender to the will of the people.

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