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Violence is not the Answer! – By Olaanaa Abbaaxiiqi

December 2016
Unless we are deluding ourselves or burying our heads in the sand and hoping, the writing is on the wall: Ethiopia is dangerously getting closer to plunging into a civil war of a greater magnitude. Day by day, slowly but surely, we are creeping towards the abyss. The future is bleak and dangerous. If things continue the way they are, sooner or later we may be in a full-fledged civil war.  Fortunately, we still have a short window of time to avert it. But do we have in us what it takes to do this?

The Ethiopian government is clueless as to what is just around the corner. Blinded by ideology and narrow self-interest, it is not grasping how dangerously we are getting closer to a civil war.   Unfortunately, most of us, i.e., the broad opposition, have also started to subscribe to the theory that violence could be stopped only by violence and preparing for it; and this is driving all of us to a dangerous position.    If we really understand what a civil war entails and what its consequences are, there is a chance the stark reality looking directly into our eyes may sober us, and may be, we may start looking for a better way to avert it. This is me grasping at the last straw-hope.

Here, from the outset one caveat. I am not trying to create a false equivalence. I am not by any stretch of imagination blaming the opposition as the cause. Obviously, the first and prime blame for why we are heading towards civil war and why we are not seeking solution squarely lies on the back of the EPRDF (Ethiopian Government).

Civil war is not an easy matter, it’s not a game, and one shouldn’t toy with it. Once it starts, ending it is even harder. While there are many countries that have come out of a civil war and built a stable society, many never fully recover. Civil war usually deepens hatred and leaves a lasting negative consequence in all aspect of societal relationship in a country.  Long after the last bullet is fired, the lingering effect of a civil war keeps on passing from generation to generation.

Unlike conventional wars, in civil wars the theatre of conflict is not limited to a battlefield. As a result, hundreds of thousands of innocent people, mostly civilians, including children and women are the victims. Societal relationship including political, cultural and economic life could be totally disrupted. Cities, economic infrastructures, farms, homes and villages could be wiped out.  In the wake of a civil war, famine, disease and other pestilence could stalk the land for many years, creating havoc.

However, let me make it perfectly clear, the above does not at all mean that the alternatives to armed conflict, nonviolent resistance, has no risks and does not bring disruptions of its own. As the Oromo nonviolent resistance itself has shown, many would lose their dear lives in nonviolent resistance also, and many would be imprisoned and many others would flee their country.  However, compared to violent resistance the human and material cost is always much less.

Unlike wars between countries, in civil war there is no fallback borders to where you can retreat and by retreating feel safe and end the war. Ending the active hostility in civil war does not usually end the war. One has to win or be defeated. In a civil war, defeat usually ends in a slaughter, and hence, the incentive to continue fighting to the very end. As the examples of Somalia, Congo, South Sudan, etc., shows, civil war in some instances leads to failed states. Hence, the warning, “Don’t play with insurrection.”

Again one caveat. I am not a pacifist. I do understand the role war and armed struggle played in history.  Certainly there are instances when violence may be justified. Without armed struggle, many nations and countries would not have regained their freedom and nationhood.  Without freedom wars, colonialism would have reigned for many more years. As a result of the US Civil War, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were achieved. The 13th amendment abolished slavery, the 14th amendment protected the civil rights of all Americans, and the 15th amendment guaranteed the right to vote for all U.S citizens, regardless of race.

So, even though civil war or any war for that matter, is a great evil, ironically war also has its virtue; it can lead to resolving conflicts. In fact, there are times, when it is even worthwhile to continue wars to the end rather than ending them prematurely. Sometimes, it’s only at the end of a fully executed war that a conflict could be ended and peace achieved; prematurely ending them only leads to paralysis, and to a never ending conflict. “Let’s give war a chance” is the right slogan in some rare occasions.

This raises a legitimate question of, “just because civil war has all these risks and calamities, does that mean people should refrain from fighting for their rights?”   Absolutely not! I am advocating against armed struggle and violence not only because it has risk and brings about chaos, instability and loss of lives. I am against it mainly because there is a better way to deal with tyrants that has a better chance for success and that does not involve all the other negative phenomena associated with violent resistance or civil war. The alternate to not entangling in a civil war is not, surrendering.  The choice is not only between armed struggle and total submission, between the two, there is a large swathe of land called nonviolent resistance.

I am writing this piece at this time, because due to EPRDF’s extreme repression against our people, more and more people are convinced that the only way out of our current predicament is through armed resistance.   Even though the idea that violence is the only way-out has been around for many years, recently it started getting even more currency after the Irreechaa Massacre. It further received a shot in the arm when the government imposed the State of Emergency. Now with the imprisonment of Marara of OFC, many are boldly declaring “the era of peaceful resistance is over.”  In fact, others who had all along been for armed struggle are using Marara’s imprisonment as a, “we told you so” moment with a sense of smugness.

Nonviolent Resistance-The Meaning

Gene Sharp defines nonviolent or civic resistance as “a technique of socio-political action for applying power in a conflict without the use of violence.” Another writer defines nonviolent resistance as, “organized popular challenges to government authority that depend primarily on methods of nonviolent action rather than on armed methods.” In short nonviolence resistance means abstaining from the use of physical force to achieve an objective of political and social change through popular challenge.

There are those who advocate nonviolence based on ethical or moral philosophy or even based on religious grounds. These are mostly pacifists. However, Sharp’s definition above is not based on ethical or moral philosophy.  It is based on a strategic choice.  Unlike the pacifists who choose nonviolent action as a way of life, or who regularly emphasize its moral and spiritual dimensions, Sharp and others promote nonviolent action as a pragmatic method of struggle that is more effective and works better compared to the alternatives.

There is one very common and almost universal misconception and terminological mix-up among the Oromo and other Ethiopians regarding nonviolent resistance. There is a tendency of equating nonviolent resistance with what they call “peaceful struggle” i.e., participating in electoral politics.  What many call “peaceful struggle” is limited to participating in conventional political process like voting and lobbying and coming to power or getting concession through an election strategy.

However, this is not exactly what we mean by “Nonviolent Resistance”. On the contrary, nonviolent resistance is mainly conducted outside the conventional political process, like voting, lobbying, etc. In fact, it is usually adopted as a strategy precisely because legal or parliamentary methods of seeking redress are nonexistent or have failed. Nonviolent resistance could utilize or incorporate “peaceful struggle” as one tactic, but it is not congruent with it. What most Oromos call “peaceful struggle” is close to “nonviolence” as a noun, as used by pacifists. Here we use the word as adjective, referring to it as “nonviolent resistance” or “nonviolent action”.

Contrary to popular perception, nonviolent resistance does not also mean if someone slaps you on one cheek, you turn to them the other also. Just like the violent one, nonviolent resistance is confrontational. It also uses disruptive techniques, in fact just like the violent resistance, nonviolent resistance also seeks to take power by force, but the methods used by the two are different.

Nonviolent resistance is a strategy for confrontation, not a passive movement. That is why rather than calling it “nonviolent resistance” some prefer to even go further and call it “nonviolent insurrection”, or “war without weapons”. In fact, nonviolent resistance is akin to military-style strategy, with an emphasis on discipline and organization, taking appropriate action at the right time using appropriate tactics. For Sharp, nonviolent resistance, just like waging war, requires wise strategy and tactics, and demands of its activists, courage, discipline and sacrifice.

In the next part we will see how nonviolent resistance worked in history.

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