Ethiopia: Time for peaceful change
By Eskinder Nega | September 2, 2011
“Of course, you may change the subject of your presentation,” told me a UDJ official affably over his cell phone.
“Thanks. Believe me, this is more topical. Anything else would almost be a waste,” I went on, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically.
“How to realize peaceful change in Ethiopia,” I exploded.
There was a pause. Few seconds elapsed.
“Sure. Why not? I see no problem. But I will have to clear it with the others first,” he said.
UDJ, one of Ethiopia’s main opposition parties, has been organizing weekend townhall-like meetings on the premises of its head office in Addis now for a couple of months. No permit is required. A video presentation by University of Dayton’s Professor Messay Kebede had drawn a respectable crowd. So did the editor of Awramba Times, Dawit Kebede. A presentation by Professor Al Mariam is in the pipeline, possibly next week. I am due early Sunday.
A curious and interesting aspect of these meetings is the increasing involvement of the youth. Perhaps this says something about the restive times we live in. But this is also the age of visibly shortened attention spans. Engaging and sustaining their interest is a formidable task.
Here was my dilemma. The youth are primarily the people I wish to address on Sunday. But the topic I had agreed to dwell on, the role of civic society in a democratic society, while sensible and important, offered little chance of broad reflection. And yet, with events in Libya and Syria dominating headlines, it's time for Ethiopians to at least assess the six months since the advent of the Arab Spring and reflect on the future. I had to change the subject of my presentation.
Friends offered a wide range of advice. Oppression, inflation, corruption, hunger dominated their thoughts. They thought any one of these subjects would suffice. But most preferred I address the exasperating issue of weak opposition groups.
“There would have been an Ethiopian Spring had it not been for the weakness of opposition groups,” many opined. “The people need the reassurance of a viable alternative to press for immediate change. Challenge them to rise up to the occasion.”
“But were opposition groups any better in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya or Syria?” I always countered.” Did the Arab masses have feasible option?”
Silence always ensued.
The missing ingredient, I believe, is neither weak opposition nor absence of political and economic push factors. The shortcoming lies in absence of people who have so far failed to hazard the first steps. Ordinary citizens took the initiative all over North Africa and the Middle East. The results made history. They are powerful precedents for the rest of humanity.
While inspiring words, sober analyses and robust debates are indispensable as ever, they will remain exactly no more than mere words unless translated into actions. To Ethiopia this means risking the core of a much cherished collective vision---peaceful transition to democracy. In the event of prolonged absence of peaceful action, an implosion, perhaps violent and no doubt dangerous, is unavoidable. Needless to say, the status-quo is increasingly untenable.
The time to call for peaceful and legal action has arrived in Ethiopia. History can not be postponed indefinitely.
While working on my presentation I came across an interesting 2006 US embassy cable released by Wikileaks last week. Revealed is what the US department really thought about the 2005 treason trail. There was no call for violence and genocide in 2005. There was only a stolen election.
UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 ADDIS ABABA 001402
SIPDIS SENSITIVE SIPDIS
DEPARTMENT FOR AF DAS YAMAMOTO, AF/E, AND DRL:K.GILBRIDE
E.O. 12958: N/A
SUBJECT: TRIAL OF ETHIOPIAN OPPOSITION BEGINS WITH VIDEOS
Six months after arrest, federal prosecutors began presenting the High
Court with evidence it said would substantiate capital charges ranging
from treason and attempted genocide against CUD chairman Hailu Shawel
and other opposition members, independent journalists, and civil
society representatives. The first two weeks of prosecution arguments
have been underwhelming: more than 20 hours of seized CUD videotapes
have shown public campaign speeches by opposition leaders mobilizing
voters to participate in national elections, as well as town hall
meetings in which local residents throughout the country discuss a
littany of human rights abuses (including detentions, intimidation,
and arbitrary killings of opposition supporters by security forces).
While showing public criticism of the government's policies, in none
of the evidence presented thus far has there been any call for
violence or genocide. ----