The Ethiopian Opposition: On Keeping the Momentum

18 mins read

By Teklu Abate
protest_coverFor the last two decades, the ruling party, EPRDF, set the agendas for political discourse, putting the opposition to a clear defensive position. The former drafted, ratified, and implemented rulings and laws solo several of which are calculated to contain and neutralize any form of public dissent. The opposition has had nothing to do about it but to mildly shout that the political playing field was and is too narrow to play. Discourses related to national economics and development were/are also the exclusive business of the ruling party. Moreover, it was/is the EPRDF only who re-defined/s our border lines and our relations to neighboring countries. The opposition reacted in some forms to such maneuverings. Generally, one could safely argue that the EPRDF and the opposition have respectively assumed their offensive and defensive roles for years.
Very recently, we happen to witness bits and pieces of developments that conjointly point to a different scenario where the opposition seem to manage to put their agendas on table. The public demonstrations called up on by the Blue Party last May just broke the silence. Although the event itself was neither an outcome nor an output, it was found significant in several ways. Several writers excellently lamented its implications and I also managed to outline some of the important lessons learnt from it in my May short commentary ( Stated simply, the rallies could be considered an ice breaker; they effectively teared down that big blanket of fear and silence from the Ethiopian political horizon.

And that spirit of claiming natural and constitutional rights does not stop there. The Blues vow to come back to the streets again and again until their demands are met. They sort of have given the ruling party a three-month grace period to act. Moreover, the Unity for Democracy and Justice party (Andinet) are also coming to the fore again. They are planning rallies that are to take place in regional towns first and finally in Addis Ababa. Other parties and fronts might join hands and make serious and series of demonstrations that could put EPRDF at the defensive. If the regime does not effectively respond to the demands, the sizable rallies could have huge potential for bringing a massive and peaceful popular uprising that could be lethal to the ruling party. In a way, the refreshed demands of the opposition seem to appear a nuisance to the ruling party- they tend to defend this time around.
Before the opposition reach at that stage, a stage where they clearly and in a sustained way take the offensive position, they must identify and deal with a whole array of challenges and hurdles put forward by the EPRDF. The power of the opposition to maneuver and to bring their efforts in scale would define the trajectory of Ethiopian politics for years to come. The opposition (here I refer to those based in Ethiopia) need to regularly and well ahead of time reflect up on a host of challenges and issues.
Several writers created possible scenarios and offered recommendations. To me, if the opposition adequately, timely, in a sustained way, and at scale do or meet the following, success (genuine democratic governance, freedom, the rule of law, and justice) is very likely to come. The recommendations below relate to the content and method of peaceful struggle as well as the nature of leadership deemed appropriate for the time.
Injustice as the enemy
We know that the ruling party is behind the state of affairs wherein Ethiopia finds itself since 1991. Still, the enemy of the Ethiopian people is not EPRDF/TPLF as such. Any peaceful and meaningful political struggle must thus aim at combatting such real enemies as injustice, corruption, killings, nepotism, random detention, persecution, lack of freedom, backwardness, stagnation, unaccountability, and the like. If struggles aim at EPRDF as an entity, there would not be any guarantee that we would have democratic culture once the regime is gone. Plus, if struggles focus on the real enemies, those in the EPRDF circle might feel that they are not singled out and hence they might, after some time, decide to change their political lanes. This way, it is possible to create a future where the opposition, EPRDF sympathizers and members, and the general public live in peace and tranquility. This is what we could learn from Nelson Mandela of South Africa, to forgive for the sake of cohesion and lasting change. Fight to bring justice and freedom and not to liquidate a group.
National reconciliation
Yes, because of EPRDF’s policies and propaganda, we suffer a lot. We tend to look through ethnic lines only. We fought each other several times and thousands are gone forever. And many still languish in such earthly hells called Kaliti and maekellawi. And many have left their country to escape from everything. Despite all these, the opposition must tolerate and preach peaceful co-existence. Ethiopia should be home not only to those who fight to bring change but also to those who are very responsible for all the mess. That spirit of forgiveness must be at the core of any political struggle. We cannot bring lasting peace by killing or persecuting the oppressors but by forgiving them. Of course, those few at the top of the EPRDF power echelon might be held accountable to their deeds through a free and fair justice system. But a national reconciliation that includes all groups and parties and individuals is for sure a panacea for solving every other problem. And this is not a tried and tired approach in Ethiopia. The opposition could benefit if they consider this as an option.
Nearly all EPRDF seminars and conferences at home and in the Diaspora are reserved for supporters and members. That created the gulf between the regime and the populace in general. The opposition must be significantly different from the ruling party in this regards, too. Reconciliations, workshops, conferences, seminars, and other party moves must accommodate all. The youth, the elderly, the rural and urban population, the educated, the business people, EPRDF members and sympathizers, and the Ethiopian Diaspora need to be considered while planning, implementing, and evaluating programs or projects. If struggles are dubbed peaceful, there is nothing to hide from EPRDF people. By inviting them to opposition forums, it is possible to show transparency and accountability and to enter in to discourse. Let’s create that culture of debate as it is the opportunity to positively influence and be influenced.
Practical and strategic
To win the hearts and minds of the people, the opposition need to focus on the now and the future simultaneously. Problems and concerns include poverty and starvation, corruption, nepotism, lack of freedom of all sorts, imprisonment, exodus of the youth to the Arab world, scramble of our fertile lands by irresponsible investors, forced eviction of people, our border lines and relation with neighbors and internationally, and the like. The opposition must come up with their plans as to how to solve all these bottlenecks. The people want to see smarter solutions that outachieve EPRDF’s. Meaning, political struggle is as intellectual and discursive as it is pragmatic. This of course requires quality leadership and resource pool.
Competent leadership
Leadership plays a crucial role in bringing change. Unfortunately, we happen to see some of the most incompetent leaders in several of the political parties back home. They are usually made leaders based on family ties, ethnic considerations, seniority, and even gender. Some assumed leadership for decades and still claim that no one is competent enough to replace them. Others seem to ‘own’ political parties through infusing their private resources into party activities. They expect any decision to be made in accordance with their tastes. These kinds of guys should be stopped systematically. If the opposition aspire to succeed, they must make sure they are being led by some of the most competent workforce. People who do not have the knowledge, skill, know-how, and sincerity should not be allowed to enter the leadership rank. As they would retard and at worst divide the struggle. Youngsters must be recruited, trained, and given the opportunity to lead for a very fixed term.
Leadership contracts
Regularly but in a stable way changing leadership might work well in the Ethiopian context for several reasons. One, it would discourage long-time rule and dictatorship. Two, leading political parties cost a lot in terms of resources, time, energy, and other sacrifices including imprisonment and persecution and prosecution. Changing leadership regularly is tantamount to sharing the burden. Three, it would be a challenge to the ruling party to jail and prosecute all the generations of leaders. Four, it would send to the public a message that the opposition is governed by rules and limits. Five, leaders would not have the energy and time to create their own personal networks as they know that they would step down soon. Six, new leaders could
perform with all their energy and competence. Seventh, this formula will produce a great number of experienced leaders in the end who could easily influence the public at various levels.
Involve the people
Ideally, parties are created by the people to the people. But once leaders assume their positions, the public is relegated to making financial contributions only. There is little opportunity to the populace to get involved in decision making and usually lack the means to ensure accountability and transparency of the leadership. To me, the people must be educated to lead themselves. A political awareness program should be created so that 1) people know their rights and obligations quite well, 2) people could defend themselves against injustices of all sorts, 3) people could continue the struggle even when their leaders are jailed or persecuted, 4) the governing party could not imprison the entire or majority of the population but to surrender to their demands or to step down. In fact, the opposition should work a lot on this as it is the absolutely powerful way of bringing, sustaining, and scaling up democratic governance and real changes in economic and social realms. This is the least tried approach in Ethiopia.
Democratic practices
Some parties complain that EPRDF is undemocratic and oppressive. This is true but they themselves are equally undemocratic and oppressive. The way they elect their members and leaders, the way they make decisions, and the way they relate to their members is hardly democratic most of the time. Several of the divisions among the parties could partly be explained by this cause. If they could not govern their small parties well, how are they going to rule over the great nation? Democratic culture seems to be checked by egoistic tendencies, ignorance, and stubbornness. It is hard to bring meaningful change if parties remain secretive, divisive, and autocratic.
Stay collaborative
Inter-party collaborations are crucial as they could ensure resource and spirit mergers. We happened to see fronts and forums that membered several political parties. But they did not bring the struggle to the next higher level. If lasting and inclusive change is to be brought about, there must be a genuine and lasting alliance of some sort. We observed that some parties were reluctant to officially recognize or endorse the rallies called by the Blue Party. Others finally decided to join hands. Although each party has its own plans and resources, failing to collaborate with other parties on issues of national importance is simply unexplainable. Parties could identify areas (e.g. staging rallies) where they could work together while staying near and dear to their own routines.
Networking Peaceful struggle requires resources, patience, courage, and networking. Those parties back home need to jointly develop projects and communicate them to the Ethiopian Diaspora for support including possible funding. Supporting and funding joint projects is more efficient and easier than supporting each and every political party. Information and communication technologies could be used to reach the otherwise unreachable.
Final notes
I tried to highlight the issues and challenges the Ethiopian opposition need to deal with if they aspire to bring meaningful political change. I want to make several points in relation to that though. One, I am not saying that what I presented is the only magic formulas for success. Two, I am not claiming that the opposition do not know or enact them at all; am focusing on scalability and sustainability. Three, some of the points raised have sharp double-edges: they require change both from the opposition and the ruling party. Four, some of them require making sacrifices of some sort from opposition leaders and supporters. Fifth, some of them require time and investment before seeing any result. Lastly, one could be fairly certain that meeting the aforementioned qualities could bring genuine and lasting changes to the political scene in Ethiopia. The opposition must keep the momentum and put the ruling party at the defensive. That way, they could force EPRDF either to play free and fair or to leave the political scene for good.
+++ The writer could be reached at and also blogs at