Gear Up for the Long Haul

By Messay Kebede

Professor Messay Kebede

What I have grown to dislike is the reading of articles predicting the imminent collapse of Meles and his regime. Often written by people who sound serious, the articles affirm, with a nauseating regularity, that the regime is on its last legs without, however, giving any evidence supporting their prediction, except the state of generalized dissatisfaction of the Ethiopian society. Recently, the tendency to predict has reached a new high owning to the expected domino effect of the Arab Spring, as though some similarities were enough to cause a momentous event as the overthrow of a political system.

While I understand that such predictions express impatience at the increasingly repressive nature of the regime and its arrogant treatment of the opposition, unfortunately, they also reveal an irresponsible and reckless optimism. Does it require anything more than plain common sense to understand that talks about an imminent collapse do no more than demobilize people? Moreover, underestimation of what people are up against is likely to suppress the resources that they need in order to prevail. If well-intentioned people keep telling that the regime is tottering, what else is one to do but wait safely for the announced event to happen? That is why I sometimes wonder whether the predictors are not hidden agents of the regime: indeed, what better means to demobilize a people than to feed it with illusions?

That there is a general dissatisfaction in Ethiopia is a fact. That this dissatisfaction can only intensify as the regime remains deaf to calls for reasonable and mutually beneficial reforms is another given. Even so, those who display a misplaced optimism should understand that generalized dissatisfaction is a necessary condition of popular uprising but not a sufficient one. As shown by many countries around the world, repressive regimes can last for decades despite generalized discontent. To take a very recent example, it took more than forty years for Libyans to get rid of Gadhafi, and they did so, not by wishful thinking, but by an armed uprising. What is more, the necessity of generalized discontent does not entail the predictability of a prompt popular uprising. A largely accepted axiom among theoreticians of revolution is that “revolutions are not made; they happen.” Accordingly, not only wishing for revolution does not make it happen, but also even a call for revolt by an organized party often remains ineffective. In other words, revolution is a complex and objective phenomenon and, as such, not obtainable at will.

From the nature of popular insurrection emerges what needs to be done. Stop predicting or announcing the fall of Meles and his regime; instead, start working for its occurrence. Essentially, this means two things: getting ready for a long and arduous fight and doing everything necessary to bring down the regime. The latter will fall only if, beyond being dissatisfied, people and leaders incessantly work toward such a result by using all available overt and hidden means. When people engage in this kind of fight, the first thing that they expel from their thinking is the goal of a quick victory and, subsequently, the possibility that anything could happen without great sacrifices and hardships. All to the better if, in the process, a quick result is obtained, but that must never be a target.

It is my belief that if the regime could detect in the present dissatisfaction, not the wishful expectation of an impending collapse, but the gestation of a stubborn will to fight by all means, it would certainly entertain the idea of an alternative policy. What encourages the regime to pursue the road of totalitarianism is the conviction that its opponents are not serious, a conviction that the recurring divisions of the opposition further fortify. Unless we adapt the level of our struggle to the political challenge, our miscalculations, unwarranted expectations, and underestimations give life to the regime. Worse yet, in not adjusting our fight to the level of the challenge that we face, we unintentionally suppress the resources that are dormant in the society.
Here I hasten to add that there is no need for some readers to pinpoint contradiction. I am referring to a recent article in which I advocated the path of power sharing as the best way to resolve Ethiopia’s political deadlock. Among the many reactions triggered by the article, the criticism that Meles is incapable of working with the opposition, pertinent as it was, overlooked the evident component that Meles will come to the negotiation table only if the opposition shows some strength. And how else is strength obtained but by how determined the opposition is, which determination is itself a product of its correct assessment of the challenge it faces? Far from weakening the struggle against the regime, as some readers suggested, the article was actually a call for a renewed effort.

More importantly, as implied in the title, the article dealt with “Meles’s dilemma” by arguing that nothing of what he projects to do can become real unless he opens the political playing field. Put otherwise, the article reflected on the self-contradictoriness of his project to bring about a developmental state without seriously changing the existing political system. The article also noted that the ball is in Meles’s court so that his ambition to become a “great leader” awaits the glorious gesture of initiating a grand coalition. For instance, nothing is more pathetic than to see Meles, the leader of one of the poorest countries in the world, participating in the G20 meetings when it is so obvious that his reluctance to reform blocks Ethiopia’s development.

Obviously, a reflection on Meles’s dilemma does not intend to demobilize the opposition; it simply offers an opportunity for Meles to get the best deal he can, both in securing his position and realizing his personal ambition, before the tumults of revolution reach him. Above all, the formation of a grand coalition is also the best deal for Ethiopia, since it gives all Ethiopians the opportunity to learn and practice the democratic culture and forge the institutions that sustain it. What Meles must understand is that the fear of reform should be tempered by the knowledge that reforms work when they are timely. In the meantime, however, what the opposition must do is to upgrade its struggle with new determination and better means.

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