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Ethiopia: How to bring down Meles Zenawi
By Abebe Gellaw
“Freedom is not free; you have to pay for it.” Anonymous
In May 2005, over 2 million Ethiopians came out in full force to demand change
Imagine the power all these people wield collectively when they decide to act together for radical
change, dignity and freedom
Nonviolent struggle is a smart option for Ethiopians to end tyranny
As ordinary Egyptians have erupted in jubilant euphoria at Tahrir Square and on the streets
of Egypt after the fall of the three-decade long dictator Hosni Mubarak, Ethiopians in and
outside of the country have been keenly watching the wind of change from North Africa. We
have witnessed history unfolding once again. When people are determined to be free,
nothing can stop them. After an epic struggle against him, Mubarak had no choice but to
surrender. The world is a better place with the fall of one more dictator. What a beautiful
moment to celebrate and watch!
The momentous events in Egypt and Tunisia are testimony to the power of nonviolent
struggle. When people are united and speak in one voice, nothing can stop them. No guns
and tanks have stopped the peaceful revolutions that have ended tyranny and ushered in
liberation to ordinary people in many countries across the world. Ethiopians also know what
revolutions are like. But they have never tasted the sweetness of freedom and smelt the
aroma of true liberation. The new revolution should be different from the tragic upheavals
that have turned our country into a land of slaves brutalized and exploited by a handful of
Revolution is not a new phenomenon in Ethiopia. In the last four decades alone, two toxic
and bloody revolutions have occurred in our country. Both revolutions were fought in the
name of a better Ethiopia and liberation but the tragic changes they have wrought made
matters worse by turning our land into a much harsher prison where calling for justice and
freedom is a capital crime.
The first revolution was hijacked by a band of ruthless military officers and the second one
empowered not the people but a band of bandits and divisive ethnocrats that have been
exploiting Ethiopia by pitting one ethnic group against another.
The 1974 Ethiopian revolution swept away the monarchy and the ruthless feudo-capitalist
system that had reduced the masses to tenants with no title deeds whose fates were
controlled by the archaic ruling class. Land belonged to the Emperor and his cronies making
the great majority of the Ethiopian peasantry landless in their own land. It was mainly the
anger toward the land tenure system and the hidden hunger in Northern Ethiopia that
mobilized so many Ethiopians under the banner of land to the tiller and bread to the hungry.
In a disastrous turn of events, a small group of junior military officers hijacked the revolution
and emerged as the most formidable force that defined the course of the popular uprising.
What started as a nonviolent movement for change ended in bloodbath when the army
officers turned their guns against the idealist young men and women who had a better
vision for their people. During the dark era of the Red Terror, hundreds of thousands of
fellow Ethiopians were tortured and slaughtered in cold blood.
Then came another revolution that has drastically changed Ethiopia for a second time. This
time round, the revolution was not a result of peaceful mass protests. It was the climax of a
protracted bloody civil war that brought down the Mengistu military regime. The 1991
ethnic-based revolution was dictated by two northern rebel groups that speak the same
language, i.e. the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TEPLF) and the Eritrean People’s
Liberation Front (EPLF). With the full complicity of the TPLF, EPLF seceded Eritrea and
declared independence. TPLF monopolistically controlled state power in Ethiopia and chose
the colonial way of “power sharing” with its subservient puppet ethnic liberation groups it
organised and created in its own image.
In the last two decades, the nation has been divided into two major groups, i.e. those who
accept the supremacy and tyranny of the Meles and his cronies and those who have
rejected the new TPLF-power arrangement. The pro-TPLF camp has been organised under
various ethnic liberation fronts created, funded and controlled by none other than the TPLF.
The anti-TPLF camp, represent those who have been totally excluded from the political
arrangement. Anyone opposed to the TPLF dictatorship is labelled as “anti-peace and antipeople”.
As it stands now, the anti-TPLF camp, i.e. the entire people of Ethiopia, minus the ruling
ethnic junta and its puppets, have only one parliamentary seat and two seats in local
governments. In simple terms, while the TPLF controls almost everything in Ethiopia, the
oppressed people of Ethiopia have been excluded from economic and political
power. Within the hierarchical TPLF clan in power, Meles Zenawi enjoys absolute power as
he is accountable neither to God nor to the people of Ethiopia. During the last fraudulent
parliamentary election, TPLF and its puppets “won” by 99.6 per cent. The regional elections
were even worse; TPLF took it all by over 99.999 per cent. This is not democracy but
thievery at its worst.
The army is controlled by TPLF loyalists. Almost all the generals that have key positions in
the army are TPLF members from one minority ethnic group and handpicked by Meles
Zenawi. The economy is significantly dominated by two conglomerates. The billionaire Sheik
Mohammed Al Amoudi, who has lost the respect of the Ethiopian people when he publicly
declared to be a TPLF loyalist in 2005, has managed to have a significant share in many
sectors of the economy. Nonetheless, the privileged Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation
of Tigray (EFFORT) has emerged as the unchallenged monopoly that pays neither income tax
nor opens its accounts for external audit.
Nobody has access to EFFORT’s astounding wealth except Meles Zeanwi, his wife and his
most trusted loyalists like masters of corruption Abadi Zemu, Arkebe Ekubay and Getachew
Belay. After Meles appointed his wife, Azeb Mesfin, who is widely known as the first lady of
corruption, as head of his business conglomerate, it turned out that EFFORT is nothing but a
family business making billions of birr in annual profit. While EFFORT controls the fate of the
Ethiopian economy, the stake of the TPLF in foreign aid is managed by two domineering
NGOs called the Relief Society of Tigray (REST) and the Tigray Development Association
(TDA). The exploitative ethnic apartheid Meles and his cohorts have imposed on the people
of Ethiopia has reduced the nation into Africa’s most explosive powder keg that can erupt
Ethiopia under Meles is more unjust than ever before. The poor people of Ethiopia are being
exploited and the leeches in power have been sucking the blood of the nation. While in
public TPLF preaches about state ownership of land, in reality it is leasing and selling the
most virgin and irrigable land that can ensure food security for generations to come to
foreign corporations mainly from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, India and China to grow food and cash
crop for their own market. Under this illegal and unfair arrangement, poor peasants are
being chased away from their birthplace. Out of desperation, so many peasants, who have
lost their livelihoods, have ended up being slaves for the foreign entities and TPLF
merchants exploiting their land and resources illegally.
Nearly ten million peasants and their families still survive on food aid. The handouts given to
them are so little that they barely survive but still starve and suffer unimaginable indignity
and humiliation. They can neither raise serious questions nor complain. If they do, the
ruthless ruling party goons will punish them. They will lose food aid.
In cities across Ethiopia, the ruling TPLF clan and their cronies show off their loots. They
compete among each other to show off their villas, luxury cars, import goods, gold and
diamond. And yet, the greater majority cannot afford to eat. They cannot afford to have a
decent meal once a day despite the fact that Zenawi’s first promise was to make Ethiopia a
breadbasket, where food would be available to all. What he has created instead is a hell for
the majority and a heaven for the selected few TPLF elite who dine and wine with no limits
and relax at Al Amoudi’s Sheraton Luxury Collection at the expense of the poor people of
Ethiopia. This is not the Ethiopia its citizens have been dreaming of. This is not the Ethiopia
that any citizens want to be part of. That is the very reason why Ethiopians need to
dismantle the exploitative ethnic apartheid and create a country where every Ethiopian is
free and equal.
The time for a revolution is long overdue. TPLF’s ethnic apartheid has survived for the last
two decades not because of its strength but because of the fact that the people of Ethiopia
have not found inspirational leaders that are capable of uniting and mobilizing them for the
epic battle for freedom and break off their chains and shackles once and for all.
TPLF is a house of cards. It is fundamentally weak as it is founded on the ideologies of
oppression, injustice, exploitation, domination, discrimination, corruption, thievery and
fraud driven by a greedy colonialist mindset. The only reason why it is still riding roughshod
over our people is because those who have stepped forward to be leaders of the freedom
march have been preoccupied with their own infighting.
The time for self-promotion, empty promises and bravados must come to an end. Leaders
as well as followers must focus on the real issues that really matter to ordinary Ethiopians.
People who have resolved to change their destiny no longer need undemocratic leaders that
preach about democracy and freedom. It is impossible to bring liberation without a clear
vision. To be free of tyranny and oppression is a simple and powerful vision that can
mobilize anyone suffering under the boots of Meles Zenawi and his cronies.
Land to the tiller and bread to the hungry are simple dreams for all. The end of injustice,
indignity and tyranny should be a priority. For these to happen, credible leadership that
never wavers must emerge not from the outdated elites but from the ordinary people.
Ethiopians need leaders that speak the simple language of freedom, justice and equality.
There is no need of calling every professor and doctor to be leaders as revolution is not an
academic debate. There is also no need of recycling failed leaders that have shattered the
aspirations and dreams of the people of Ethiopia to reclaim their dignity.
The momentous events in North Africa have reawakened the spirit of revolution in countries
like Ethiopia where ruthless tyrants have been abusing, oppressing and exploiting their own
people. Revolutions won’t come without a determination to revolt. Revolt against injustice
is a heroic act. It is a holy cause that is worthy of sacrifice. Ethiopians have to be determined
to liberate a square where they will vent out their anger, defy tyranny and declare their
freedom. The day should come when all Ethiopians should sing “Free at last, free at last,
thank God Almighty we are free at last….”
As we have witnessed in the unfolding history in North Africa, bringing down a reviled tyrant
like Zenawi is not a difficult task when people start speaking in one voice. In the second part
of this piece, I will try to deal with practical strategies of nonviolent struggle in the Ethiopian
In the first part of this piece, I started from the presumption that the vast majority of
Ethiopians agree that their country is facing untold misery due to tyranny, corruption,
discrimination, exploitation, injustice, abject poverty, rampant human rights violations and
lack of accountability. The consensus on these popular grievances that have made the
country an intolerable prison to the majority leads us to the fact that drastic socio-political
change is badly needed to transform Ethiopia for the better. If revolutionary changes are
indeed long overdue and inevitable, how then can Ethiopians bring down tyrant Meles
Zenawi and end his reign of terror?
Before I try to make my points, I would like to offer two contrary views that come from the
minds of two different people. The first viewpoint was made by Bereket Simon, one of the
ugly faces of tyranny in Ethiopia. According to Meles Zenawi’s Goebbels, the kinds of
changes that have swept away dictators in Tunisia and Egypt are impossible in Ethiopia. He
told Capital newspaper recently that in Tunisia and Egypt “there are desperate people,
people who have nowhere to turn to.”
“Our people are not desperate. Here we have a public that has seen hope, a public that
enjoys a glimmer of hope more than ever [before] due to recent years’ economic growth
and transformation,” he claimed. “We have embraced democracy, freedom of expression is
widely exercised and the public can put in power whomever it wants through elections.”
This is obviously what the Bereket Simons of Ethiopia want to believe. As it is quite evident,
self-imposed ignorance is a painkiller for dictators that dread facing the reality under their
Contrary to what Bereket and Meles claim, Bill Richardson, former US Ambassador to the
UN and Governor of New Mexico, has this to say: “Ignorance has always been the weapon
of tyrants; enlightenment the salvation of the free.”
Why civil resistance?
Last June, I had an opportunity to attend the Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of
Nonviolent Conflict, at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University,
Massachusetts. It was as a result of this uniquely insightful opportunity and follow-up
studies that I have gained some level of confidence to scrutinize why nonviolent struggle has
failed to take roots in our country since the 1974 Ethiopian revolution and hence make a
bold inquiry on how it can succeed.
It should be noted from the outset that this is not an effort to prescribe a single dose that
can be taken to expunge a dangerous parasitical tyranny from Ethiopia’s body politic.
Instead of trying to come up with a prescription, I herewith offer a few ideas based on my
observations and understanding as a contribution to the ongoing discussions on ending
tyranny and oppression in Ethiopia.
Quite obviously, getting rid of a militaristic tyrannical regime built by brutal rebels is neither
simple nor impossible. It is not simple because Meles Zenawi has repeatedly proven to be a
genocidal killer, who resorts to the use of lethal force to suppress every little protest and
muffle the voices of dissent. And yet, the task of ending his misrule is not impossible
because when an oppressed nation rises up in unison, no tyrant can survive the rage of the
people as it has been proven time and again.
One of the misconceptions that has seriously undermined the popular struggle for dignity
and freedom in Ethiopia for so long can be partly attributable to the fact that there are so
many people who believe that nonviolent struggle has been tested and totally failed in
Ethiopia. But in reality, nonviolent struggle is not only widely misunderstood but also
untested in Ethiopia under Meles. Some political leaders and their followers, whose strategy
of ousting the tyrant through his own bogus elections and a few disorganised protests failed
to make any difference, have repeatedly declared the “end of peaceful struggle”. But the
concept of “peaceful struggle” is by itself confusing as it is misinterpreted as being inaction,
submissiveness, obedience and pacificism. For the sake of clarity, it should be noted that
nonviolent struggle is more akin to civil resistance, people power movements or unarmed
insurrections than obediently running in unfair elections that are deceptively designed to
create a semblance of democratic legitimacy to brutal oppressors like Meles Zenawi and the
rulers of Burma.
Professor Gene Sharp, one of the leading authorities on modern nonviolent struggle, noted:
“In conflicts between a dictatorship, or other oppression, and a dominated population, it is
necessary for the populace to determine whether they wish simply to condemn the
oppression and protest against the system. Or, do they wish actually to end the oppression,
and replace it with a system of greater freedom, democracy, and justice?”
This is an important point because at times people may think that condemning oppressors is
an end that is sufficient enough to bring down a tyrannical regime. Even in our case, there
are so many people in and outside of the country who are preoccupied with the task of
condemning TPLF without waging a well-organised and sustainable struggle that is targeted
and aimed at ending tyranny.
By their very nature, tyrannical regimes are vulnerable and sick. This is due to the fact
oppressive regimes are very costly and their survival hinges upon their security and military
apparatus that consume a huge chunk of the national budget. It is quite obvious that no
nation in any part of the world gives consent to get abused, dehumanised, robbed,
exploited, and oppressed by a handful of corrupt tyrants and their cronies. It is because of
this very fact that the concept of nonviolent struggle or civil resistance, as opposed to the
use of violence for political ends, is based on civil disobedience and nonviolent actions
against oppressors. When people wage a sustained civil resistance against a tyrannical
regime, the financial, security, political and moral cost of violent suppression increases and
becomes more and more unsustainable. While suppressing disorganised and spontaneous
protests is an easy job to do for any tyrannical regime, using violence to crack down on a
well-organised and cohesive movement usually produces the opposite result and can add
momentum to people power movements especially when the popular uprising is deep and
widespread. The collective actions and disobedience of citizens determined to win their
freedom can make a country totally ungovernable to tyrants given the fact that the
controlling capacity of any regime is limited. The more people come out in protest and defy
the regime and its oppressive laws, the more power shifts toward the resisters which can in
turn lead to a significant level of loyalty shift.
Nonviolent struggle is a systematic way of waging and escalating coordinated and organised
mass actions and campaigns using the power of mass mobilisation, protest, persuasion, civil
disobedience and disruptive measures that can cripple the regime. It has so many innovative
techniques, tactics and strategies that have proven to be effective in ousting many
tyrannical and oppressive regimes around the world. While the dramatic revolutions in
Eastern Europe, Egypt or Tunisia appeared to be spontaneous to television viewers across
the world, the reality is that so many passionate activists that played significant roles in
igniting and building the momentum of the movements were working behind the scenes.
Waging a successful nonviolent struggle, requires some level of mass mobilization,
organisation, strategic planning, discipline and leadership that will give the movement a
purposeful direction and devise different tactics and strategies.
It is quite obvious that neither Egypt nor Tunisia is similar to Ethiopia. It is indeed true to say
that Ethiopia has its peculiar problems that are more complex than the average nations
suffering under tyrannical regimes. The worst part of our political reality is the level of deep
ethnic division and hostility that has been deliberately created and fomented by Meles
Zenawi and his trusted lieutenants in order to sustain their tyrannical divide and rule
system. There are over 90 political parties in Ethiopia, most of whom are ethnic “parties”
created and controlled by the TPLF. Despite all that, when a nonviolent struggle starts in
earnest, the calls for change and freedom mostly make it possible for different groups to
form broad-based coalitions and narrow differences with a view to ending oppression as it
has been witnessed in many cases.
People living under oppression share similar discontents and grievances which can fuel and
energise their struggle for freedom. Suffering under a corrupt and oppressive regime
inevitably begets widespread discontent that can easily be turned into a popular uprising for
change. It is because of this fact that regime change in oppressed countries rarely come
without mass protests, uprisings, revolts and revolutions as the stake of losing the reigns of
power is too high for those who are ruthlessly and criminally abusing, exploiting and
oppressing their own people. Tyranny cannot be possible without abuse of power and the
exertion violent force. As a result, in the process of the struggle against oppression,
sacrifices such as being killed, injured, jailed, displaced or being forced into exile, can be
inevitable consequences for many people because tyrants rarely relinquish power and
concede defeat without a stiff resistance. Compared to armed struggle, however, the cost of
waging a well-coordinated and organised nonviolent struggle is much less minimal.
Civil resistance against Meles Zenawi
Since 1991, we have witnessed so many half-hearted efforts and uncoordinated activities
but we have never witnessed the rise of a formidable movement, be it armed or unarmed,
that is capable of bringing down the tyrannical regime of Meles Zenawi. It is for this very
reason why ordinary Ethiopians, leaders as well as opinion makers need to start debating
and devising ways of building a movement capable of undermining, disobeying, defying,
cracking, crippling and ultimately dismantling the tyrannical regime through mass
mobilisation and civil resistance.
The struggle may take a few days, months or years. No matter how long it takes the
resilience and sustainability of a nonviolent struggle is a crucial factor in weakening and
crippling the regime. Unless the struggle against the tyrannical regime is ignited and
escalated in earnest, the regime may not face the stress and strains necessary to make it
easier to bring it down. Those who are expecting that the people will suddenly erupt like a
volcano to get rid of the regime must be committing an act of oversimplification because it
is much easier to violently suppress a spontaneous revolt than a well-coordinated and
organised movement that has well-defined objectives and cohesive leadership.
Nonviolent struggle is not obedience to oppressors nor is it waiting for dictators to reform
and step down out of their own volition. It is rather a war waged through civilian uprising,
resistance, campaigns, mobilizations and disobedience. For a nonviolent struggle to succeed
in bringing about the desired outcome, it must normally be well-coordinated, organised,
planned, strategized, unified and sustained for a length of time.
In the last two decades, nothing that resembles a civil resistance has been waged in
Ethiopia. The truth of the matter is that tyrant Meles Zenawi has not survived in power for
over two decades because of the strength of his army or his Gestapo-like security apparatus
but because of facing weak adversaries that have neither realistic strategies to end Zenawi’s
tyranny nor a clear vision for change.
The lack of a cohesive opposition and serious movements capable of converting the deep
popular discontent into a movement for change has given the Meles regime a great
advantage without a fight. In most cases, certain individuals usually make themselves
indispensible and relegate their causes to a less important status. As a result of this fact, the
tyrant has never been seriously challenged for 20 years despite the fact that his reign of
terror is extremely vulnerable as it is oppressive, corrupt, discriminatory, unjust,
undemocratic, unconstitutional and illegitimate that is not even willing to respect the letters
of its own constitution.
It may be true to say that the May 2005 elections were serious challenges. Millions of
Ethiopians were agitated for change. But the opposition lost the rare political capital as the
people were not mobilized into a movement, which is more difficult to suppress and
dismantle. Before the agitated mass were organised into a formidable political movement,
which could have shaken off the yoke of oppression by now, the leaders wavered and
started dismantling and undermining one another. The effect of the blunder is still felt as so
many Ethiopians became disillusioned and lost faith in almost all the leaders that were
supposed to lead the march for freedom.
In the last two decades, the majority of opposition political parties pursued strategies that
are contrary to the very concept of nonviolent struggle. Almost all opposition political
parties have adopted a strategy of “ousting” the tyrant through his bogus elections. They
made futile efforts to win stage-managed elections that have been designed to produce the
same result again and again. So in all the elections, they “lost” the fake elections lending the
regime a semblance of democratic legitimacy. The 2010 elections were the worst for
opposition parties including those who had willingly presented themselves as “loyal
opposition” and signed deals with Meles to make the elections “free and fair.” In reality, the
elections were over in 2008 when the TPLF and its puppet parties took all local government
seats that were deliberately expanded to over three million. The regime took all kinds of
oppressive measures to make sure that its tyranny goes unchallenged. That was followed by
the parliamentary and regional elections. The results were the same. As it stands today,
most opposition political parties are fundamentally weak and bankrupt as a result of
internal and external factors. They have been suffering from deficit of smart leadership and
One of the most important methods of waging nonviolent struggle is noncooperation aimed
at denying the regime its perceived legitimacy, control, authority and power over the
oppressed masses. If the adversaries of the regime run in highly restrictive elections without
even having a right to hold election rallies and unfettered access to public media, the
outcome of cooperating with the regime can only end up consolidating the power of the
In Ethiopia under Meles, the only time a nearly competitive election was held in Addis
Ababa and some regions was in 2005. Opposition political parties were at least allowed to
hold rallies, canvass in the regions and there was an air of open debates. TPLF had suffered
a humiliating defeat in Addis and many places. Even then, it was evidently clear that Meles
and his cohorts were not ready to accept defeat graciously. It is obvious that tyranny and
democratic elections cannot co-exist together. This disturbing reality calls into question the
strategy of opposition parties in sheepishly running in fake elections as a means of bringing
about “regime change” or widening a closed political space. The score card may be
shocking. But the net gain of the opposition as a result of repeatedly running in TPLF’s show
elections has proven to be fatal. TPLF and its puppets hold 546 seats in “parliament”. The
entire opposition group has a single seat. In over 3 million local and regional government
seats the opposition has only two. And yet, some of these opposition parties seem to
waiting for another “election.”
It should be noted that though TPLF is a ruthlessly oppressive force, it has strategies and
tactics to quell dissent against its misrule. TPLF’s negative “success” is partly because of the
fact that its leaders think and act with evil strategic calculations to sustain their corrupt
tyranny, domination and projects of oppression. As a result of this fact, we have an
entrenched tyranny in Ethiopia making billions of dollars from its privileged businesses
facing fragmented, weak, disillusioned and disorganised opposition groups that have almost
no strategic planning and minimum common agenda to unify for a cause.
As we have witnessed over the years, none of these political parties have adopted strategic
nonviolent action, which requires knowledge and awareness, as a means of challenging and
dislodging the entrenched tyranny of Meles Zenawi. Because of this undeniable fact,
Zenawi’s tyrannical rule is still intact without facing any formidable challenges in the last
two decades. One can claim that bringing down Zenawi has not begun yet in earnest given
the fact that sporadic resistance and protests in Brussels and Washington DC will never be
enough to win freedom for all.
Dynamic of civil resistance
At the Fletcher summer school that I mentioned above, Jack Duval, President of the
International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, gave a talk on the dynamics of civil resistance.
He contended: “When the people deprive an oppressor of their consent, it reduces the
perceived legitimacy of the system. When people say we do not cooperate with the state of
affairs any longer, because we think it is unjust and wrong that reduces the perceived
legitimacy of the system and engenders a contest for legitimacy. When enough people
refuse to cooperate and withdraw their consent, the cost of holding control by the
oppressive regime goes up which automatically renders the system unsustainable….” In fact,
that is precisely the kind of consideration that must be taken into account to wage an
effective nonviolent struggle.
The TPLF regime has repeatedly expressed its love for what it called the “silent majority.”
After the 2005 elections, TPLF has made significant efforts to undermine the desire for
change. It has crippled civic society groups, closed down over 16 newspapers and expanded
its tentacles. It also systematically used intimidation, threats and oppressive laws to silence
the people so that they would be safely categorised under its “silent majority.” But in
reality, they know full well that the so-called “silent majority” is a volatile and explosive
The withdrawal of consent is one of the pivotal moments of a nonviolent struggle. When
“consent” is clearly, publicly and boldly withdrawn at a massive scale, the controlling power
of the regime will be inevitably undermined making the regime more unstable and
vulnerable. Civil disobedience can effectively deny TPLF the semblance of legitimacy it has
created through deception, corruption, use of force, threats, repressions and bogus
democratic elections that are designed to sustain oppression and inequality.
Key elements of waging a successful civil resistance movement
According to Dr. Peter Ackerman, one of the leading experts and financiers of civil resistance
movements, there are three key elements necessary to wage a successful civil resistance
movement aimed at ending tyranny and oppression in countries like Ethiopia and Burma. In
a 2009 video, Dr. Ackerman has the following to say on the elements of waging a civil
The first thing is unity. A civil resistance movement must unify the widest possible spectrum
of society: young, old, all ethnic groups, all religious groups, all economic strata, around a
limited set of achievable goals, and designate for the moment a leadership that has
legitimacy to mobilize all these groups in service of those goals. The second thing that’s
required is planning. There has to be capacity for that leadership to look objectively at what
its capabilities are, how it can mobilize, what tactics are at its disposal, how to sequence
those tactics in a way that has the biggest negative impact on the opponent….
That planning needs to go on at an offensive and defensive level. Defensive level means
there are things you should anticipate…. For example, you might have an oppression that
might end up killing some of the leadership. There needs to be planning for redundancy of
And then the last of the three is nonviolent discipline…. The reason I use the term discipline
is to emphasize that it’s a strategic choice, not a moral one. Because civil resistance can’t
succeed unless you induce loyalty shifts and multiple defections from the other side that
basically weakens the power base [of the regime]….So unity, planning, and nonviolent
discipline are the ingredients that are sort of the necessary conditions for a successful civil
resistance movement. And I think, expressed this way, they transcend all cultures and all
It appears that the three key elements of civil resistance movement are still missing in
Ethiopia. As a result of the deficits of unity, strategic planning and leadership, Ethiopians
have not been able to seriously challenge and confront the tyrannical regime. If Ethiopians
are serious about winning their freedom, a formidable and all-inclusive civil resistance
movement must be born without any delay.
In the last part of this series, I will try to touch upon ways of building a movement, devising
realistic tactics and strategies that may be used to wage an effective civil resistance in
Ethiopia in order to bring down Meles Zenawi.
The winds of change that has been rocking the Arab world have once again confirmed the
fact that every tyranny is a house built on sand. Unlike rock solid democratic systems that
are built on the consent of the people, evil tyrannical regimes are founded on brutality,
oppression, corruption, domination, intimidation and abuse of power. When a ferocious
wind of change starts, they never stand a chance. They crumble into pieces and fall into the
dustbins of history.
As dictators are falling one by one, those still clinging to power are doing their best to show
that they are in a better shape than their fallen comrades. Some of the ruthless despots are
even showing their softer sides. In Saudi Arabia, Oman and Bahrain, the corrupt autocracies
have been doling out more welfare benefits to people demanding freedom.
In Ethiopia, the Meles regime has announced on the state-controlled media that a special
taskforce has begun operation to evacuate hundreds of Ethiopian nationals stranded in
Libya. This is indeed very unusual. But the news they don’t tell us is that the majority of
those fellow Ethiopians in such dire need of rescue have rejected the gesture of “kindness”
from a very unkind tyrant they are fleeing from.
It may seem a joke but these Ethiopians stranded in Libya, Somalia and other tough places,
after crisscrossing so many rough terrains, deserts and treacherous territories, have been
fleeing from the same people who are out to rescue them. What Meles and his rescue team
failed to realise is that the vast majority of Ethiopians have been stranded in their own land,
in their own Ethiopia. Eighty million people are in need of rescue from Zenawi’s ruthless and
exploitative tyranny. That is why so many people are fleeing; running away and dying to get
out of the indignity they are facing in their own country. For the desperate people of
Ethiopia, their country has proven to be worse than being stranded in a war zone and dying
in harsh deserts and turbulent oceans.
Dictators like Meles don’t get it. They are deliberately ignorant and narcissistic that cannot
see the real world beyond their noses. Meles Zenawi never wants to confront the reality
because he wants Ethiopians to live in fear. He wants us to be hopeless. He wants us to feel
powerless and dispossessed. He wants us to surrender our dreams for a better tomorrow.
He wants us to lose our confidence. He wants us not to believe in freedom. He wants us not
to stand in unison but to get divided and weak. He wants us to accept his crimes,
oppression, abuse, manipulation and corruption. He wants us to die in silence. And yet, he
fears our unity and the collective power that ordinary people are wielding. He fears the tide
of a popular movement for change. After all, cowardice is an enduring hallmark of tyrants
who dread the freedom of others.
Building a movement
In the aftermath of the May 2005 rigged elections, Meles ordered his army, by his own
admission, “to put down the insurrection.” After brutally killing and maiming unarmed
peaceful protesters and detaining over 40,000 people in harsh concentration camps, he
ridiculed the peaceful marches he turned into a bloodbath. “This is not your run-of-themill
demonstration. This is an Orange Revolution gone wrong,” he told foreign
correspondents in November 2005.
One of the reasons why the regime could easily quash the popular desire for change was
lack of a formidable movement. A movement is not a spontaneous and disorganised
uprising or mass protest. Professor Donatella della Porta defines a movement as “an
organised and sustained effort of a collectivity of interrelated individuals, groups and
organisations to promote or resist social change with the use of public protest activities.”
One can deduce from this that a nonviolent movement aimed at ending oppression is a
purposeful, organised and sustained mobilisation whose ultimate objective is to free a
nation from unjust, and oppressive systems.
A nonviolent movement should not be spontaneous regardless of the fact that a
spontaneous mass action may provide the trigger that can cause an unexpected uprising. As
every popular uprising does not necessarily bring about change, if a nonviolent movement is
to succeed, spontaneity should give way to an organised and sustained mobilisation which
can be done effectively where the groundwork has already been laid in anticipation of
Building a movement is not an easy task. It requires common vision, broad-based unity,
strategic planning, some sort of organisational structure and widely accepted leadership.
Almost all the objective conditions necessary to start a serious movement for radical change
exist in Ethiopia. There is an almost universal consensus that the domination of the Tigrian
People’s Liberation Front led by Meles Zenawi, his wife and their trusted cronies is the root
cause of our misery. None of the changes that people had expected after the fall of the
Mengistu regime in 1991 have happened. The only visible change is the oppressive
domination imposed on the Ethiopian people by Meles and his cronies, who are
accumulating wealth beyond our imagination. There is widespread discontent as a result of
grinding poverty, unemployment, abhorrent discrimination, exploitation, corruption and
human rights violations in the face of an expanding security apparatus that has been
designed to sustain fear and terror.
Despite the fact that there are so many groups and parties that are avowed to fight the
tyrannical regime all these groups have not yet built a serious movement aimed at freeing
all Ethiopians, from the bondage of tyranny. One of the reasons why the cruel Apartheid
system collapsed was because so many whites, who were supposed to be privileged citizens,
began to question and challenge their own system, a sentiment which spread up to the
upper echelon of the Apartheid regime that realised that the horrible system was no longer
sustainable. A movement that can be appealing to all including those who are
opportunistically oppressing their fellow citizens has a greater chance to succeed than one
that intimidates and threatens any section of the populace.
According to Dr. Janet Cherry, a leading South African activist-scholar, a movement must
have a cause or a trigger and a clear vision appealing to a broad-section of the populace. It
should have an organisational base, a widely accepted and respected leadership, a strategy
and broad-based unity among a wide array of allies committed to the common cause.
If a formidable movement is to emerge in Ethiopia, it should be appealing to broader
sections of the society irrespective of their ethnic, linguistic, cultural, religious, social and
political affinity. Oromos, Amharas, Tigrians, Afaris, Somalis, Harraris, Gambelans, Sidamas,
Kembatas, Gurages…Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Protestants, Catholics or atheists. Men,
women, young people, the aged,…sympathizers of OLF, ONLF, Medrek, ARENA, AEUP, EDP,
Ginbot 7, UDJ…students, teachers, blue collar workers, peasant farmers, business people,
poor, middle class, rich…all ordinary people without distinction should be able to be
mobilized under simple visions that appeal to every Ethiopian. No one should dominate or
try to take ownership of a nonviolent movement for freedom. It should be a movement of
ordinary Ethiopians united against the oppression and indignity they are facing in their own
country. Their common vision should be clear; i.e. to make Ethiopia free from oppression,
inequality, corruption, tyranny, grinding poverty and indignity. It should be a movement to
reclaim our country, freedom and human dignity. It should be a movement of all against a
handful of criminal tyrants.
One of the challenges that mostly arise in a struggle is the question of leadership. Every
ambitious political party and glory-seeker individual may want to lead. But those who want
to serve are the ones who give greater weight for the cause than their own self-interests
and glory. The majority of people who have led successful struggles and helped dismantle
oppression are those who have proven to be selfless and unwaveringly committed to the
causes of freedom. Mandela, Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., Lech Walesa or Vaclav Havel,
have not fought for their own glory. They have not deliberately made themselves
indispensable but their unshakable resolve to win freedom at any cost has made them
globally respected and revered.
Those who aspire to lead the march for freedom must remember the words of Dr. Martin
Luther King Jr. He said: “If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be
recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is
greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.” Simple and
humble people with clear messages that resonate with ordinary people have a compelling
chance of being great leaders of a nonviolent struggle than some of the haughty politicians
that have come and gone in Ethiopian politics. Leaders must be unifiers that inspire the
masses more than anything else. Those who do not have this essential quality of leadership
must not dare to lead in the forefront because once a movement against a ruthless
tyrannical regime is started in earnest we cannot afford to blink. We need to remember the
fact that Kinjit had a great chance of developing into a formidable movement. But it is now a
teachable moment that can lend invaluable lessons to learn from.
Strategy and tactics
The ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu is credited as saying: “Tactic without strategy
is the noise before defeat.” Like armed conflict, strategies and tactics devised to win battles
are critically important. Those who are devising and employing strategy and tactics must
know what they are doing and they should be able to make realistic expectations in terms of
positive and negative outcomes of their decisions and actions.
There is a difference between strategy and tactics. The leading expert on modern nonviolent
struggle, Professor Gene Sharp, identifies two strategies, i.e. grand strategy and campaign
strategies. Grand strategy is an “overall plan for conducting the struggle that makes it
possible to anticipate how the struggle as a whole should proceed.” The grand strategy
should be based on the vision of the movement and need also analytically consider many
complex issues beyond ending tyranny such as considering a viable transition if the system
Campaign strategies are targeted at the success of a certain campaign. If the campaign, for
instance, is aimed at achieving a nation-wide election boycott, there should be a strategy in
order to effectively reject inconsequential elections like the ones we have been having in
the last twenty years.
Civil resistance is a knowledge-based struggle. Activists and leaders involved in nonviolent
struggles should equip themselves at least with the basics of how to wage an effective
struggle that will ultimately subvert and dismantle the tyrannical regime. They should be
able to devise smart strategy and tactics to prevail over the violent agents of oppression.
Small group studies, discussions, brainstorming, active communications, knowledge and
material sharing among those who are passionate about the movement is an important
element in the struggle. As Gene Sharp puts it:
“The leaders need to become experts in nonviolent struggle. Knowledge about nonviolent
struggle also needs to be spread widely. Greater knowledge and understanding of the
nonviolent techniques throughout the population will increase the difficulty for the
opponents to “behead” the movement by imprisoning or killing the leaders. Leaders serve
as spokespeople and offer, organise, and can implement solutions to problems. Leadership
can be by group, committee, individual, or a combination of these. In some cases, it has
been difficult to identify leadership in such movements.”
Successes as well as defeats are integral parts of any forms of struggles. The success of a
nonviolent movement can be partly attributed to strategies and tactics employed to win the
battle. While tactics also require careful planning, they are limited in scope. Tactics are
limited plans of actions and they determine, as Sharp noted, how particular groups of
resisters shall act in specific situations. “A good strategy remains impotent unless it is put
into action with sound tactics,” he underlined.
Nonviolent strategies and tactics that have proven to be effective in one setting may not
necessarily be successful in a different setting. It is imperative that those who are involved
in organising and leading a movement at various levels should be aware of the unique
environment and situations they find themselves in. In any conflict, including nonviolent
ones, situations may change frequently and drastically. Those who have been providing
some sort of leadership and organising have to be quick thinkers that adapt their strategy
and tactics according to the dictates of the time and changing circumstances.
The end of fear
When ordinary Egyptians got mobilized against the Mubarak regime, each and every
individual was freed from the shackles of fear even before the tyrant fell down. One of the
cyber activists that made significant contributions to the struggle against Mubarek was the
tech savvy Google executive Wael Ghonim said the major victory in the struggle was the
defeat of fear. When people stopped being intimidated by the firepower of the brutal
regime, nothing could hold them back from reclaiming their freedom and dignity.
In a recent TEDx event, Ghonim said: “Everyone was silent. Almost everyone was scared.
There were only a few brave Egyptians going to protests, getting beaten up and arrested.
But the majority were scared…. Dictators cannot live without force. They want people to live
in fear. That psychology of fear had worked for so many years….The Internet has played a
great role to [allow them] to speak up their minds….Egyptians have proven that the power
of the people is much bigger than the people in power.”
The basic rights enshrined in the constitution must be respected. Organising, peaceful
assembly, protesting injustice, petitioning authorities, freedom of expression…should be
fully respected. A regime that does not respect its own constitution is unconstitutional and
unfit to govern. People have a legitimate right to demand the respect of their basic rights
and to live in freedom without fear of persecution and extrajudicial killings. The constitution
states, though on paper, that power belongs to the people. An unjustified fear of the power
of people is contrary to the spirit of the constitution.
Every Ethiopian, in and outside of the country, should stop fearing their evil tormentors.
They are only agents of criminals in power who are waiting their assured place in the stinky
rubbish bin of history. When people think and act fearlessly in unison, they always destroy
the barrier of fear that brutal tyrants have erected to prevent them from living in freedom
We Ethiopians have clear choices at this critical juncture in our history. We can either cry in
silence or rise up and act collectively to end the humiliation and indignity we have been
suffering under the Meles regime. The choice is ours.
In our struggle for freedom, let us remember the inspiring words of Nelson Mandela: “I
learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave
man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
For those who wish to further deepen their understanding of nonviolent struggle, I
recommend the following materials that are readily available online.
Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential , Gene Sharp
with the collaboration of Joshua Paulson and the assistance of Christopher A. Miller and
Hardy Merriman (Boston: Extending Horizons Books, 2005)
On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: Thinking about the Fundamentals, Robert L. Helvey
(Boston, MA: The Albert Einstein Institution, 2004)
Wael Ghonim: Inside the Egyptian revolution, TED, March 2011
Nonviolent Transformation of Conflict, Mary E. King and Christopher A. Miller, University of
From Dictatorship to Democracy (Amharic translation) Gene Sharp , Albert Einstein
People Power Primed: Civilian Resistance and Democratization, Harvard International
Review, Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, Summer 2005
Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (Article), Maria
Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, International Security, volume 33, issue 1
The writer can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org
Meles is wounded and we need to needle him more until he gives up. This is a psychological war fare, not military. Dear ABE, Yes, it was courageous and necessary to put narrow raciest & Dictator Meles on the spot. Now, we have to keep the momentum. It is people of individual courage like yours who change the world. To see the face of total devastation of the Woyanne midget Meles Zenawi is a clear indication that this is the beginning of the end for him. The Adawa village idiot may not yet flee but he and his Tigrean surrogates can no longer be the same. We will see who will be the “shintam” now.
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