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The Impasse of Fear in Ethiopia and the Necessity of Comprehensive Struggle

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The Impasse of Fear in Ethiopia and the Necessity of Comprehensive Struggle

By Messay Kebede

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
– Roosevelt

An ounce of action is worth more than tons of preaching
– Mahatma Gandhi

The consensus is that dictatorial regimes stay in power mostly by fear rather than by their effective might. Caught in their fear, people are unable to react and protest, as though they were paralyzed. Granted that fear paralyzes, the primary question then is not so much how to get rid of a violent regime as how to get over fear. So long as fear persists, all the reasons for rising up against the oppressor are simply ineffective. What can defeat fear?

A Country Gripped with Fear

In the conference recently organized by EAST, one of the invited speakers, Graham Peebles, diagnosed fear as the main cause of the Ethiopian political deadlock. On the one hand, denouncing the total absence of democracy, he characterized the situation as “bleak and harrowing.” On the other, he attributed the lack of meaningful resistance of the people to an “atmosphere of fear never seen in Africa.” Ethiopians have no illusion about the regime, but all their complaints and demands are so soaked in fear that they fail to translate into action. He notes that “Ethiopians love to talk endlessly, but there is little action.” Instead, apathy prevails. Peebles also suggests action as the sole remedy. Since fear debilitates, only action can dissolve it, for action conquers fear by breeding confidence and giving strength.

What Peebles failed to mention is that the fear of the people is only a response to an even deeper and pernicious fear of the Ethiopian ruling elite. If there is one factor that explains the political behavior of the TPLF, notably its complete disregard for the democratic provisions enshrined in its own Constitution and its inexorable descent toward dictatorship and barbarism, is its devouring fear of the people. This fear has reached its peak since the 2005 election when the ruling elite came close to being voted out by popular verdict. The subsequent bloody repression of the government and its slide toward repressive methods of ruling were just the early manifestations of a tormenting anxiety triggered by the prospect of losing power.

Unfortunately, the choice of brutal domination does not appease the anxiety; on the contrary, it only intensifies it, obvious as it is that repression only aggravates the popular discontent. The fear of the people urges a tightening of repression, which only further exasperates popular animosity: such is the vicious circle of fear driving the ruling elite into increasingly barbaric methods of government. The paranoia has become so intense that the TPLF felt obligated to establish a spying network whose ramifications stretch to the cellular level of the Ethiopian society.

The economic policy of the regime owes much to the need to quell alternative and competing political movements. The fact that economic activities are entirely under political control means that the need to reward supporters and exclude opponents is the engine that runs the economic machine. As such, it is just an extension of the fear inspired policy of divide-and-rule: all the ugly practices of the economic system, namely, nepotism, ethnic favoritism, corruption, the enrichment of the few at the expenses of the many, the absence of accountability, the disdain for free competition, etc., are so many manifestations of an economic system solely based on the promotion of client-patron relationship.

What needs to be added here is the extent to which the leaders of the TPLF live in the constant fear of the Amhara ethnic group. Nothing of what they have planned and implemented since the overthrow of the Derg is intelligible without the deeply engrained fear of the Amhara in the psyche of the TPLF since its inception. Let no one be misled by the so-called TPLF’s hatred of the Amhara: that hatred is actually fear, and nothing but fear. As Shakespeare puts it, “in time we hate that which we often fear.” Because of that fear, the TPLF adopted policies that are detrimental to Ethiopia and its interests in the hope of preventing the return of the Amhara to power once and for all. Take the federal organization of Ethiopia along ethnic lines: its purpose is not so much to promote self-rule––since the TPLF ignores it––as to dismantle the legacy of nation-building implemented by previous regimes, in addition to fomenting a culture of antagonism between the Amhara and other ethnic groups.

The Many Faces of Fear

It is usually believed that one antidote to fear is anger, which is often translated into hatred. Anger overcomes fear because it is so powerful an emotional state that it overwhelms all other concerns. However, it was also noticed that anger does nothing to a soul already paralyzed by fear. Mix fear with anger, and you obtain despair and resignation, which is none other than the inability to be really angry. If fear has convinced you in advance that there is nothing you can do against the regime, then your anger simply dissolves into apathy.

One of the consequences of the disabling effect of fear is the tendency to rationalize. People gripped by fear always find a lot of reasons for not doing anything. Unfortunately, more thinking cannot defeat the tendency to rationalize. Yet, this is what most Ethiopians are apparently trying to do. In presenting the Woyanne in the most despicable terms, Ethiopians hope to ignite the will to fight back. The right knowledge, it is believed, especially the one that refutes the discourse of the government, should trigger action. Because we know that no regime falls except by action, we believe that if we talk a lot, it will drive us to action. Sadly, the finest description, the most accurate theory can do nothing against apathy: it falls on deaf ears. Discourses do not defeat fear.

Another damaging effect of fear is the propensity of the oppressed to constantly quarrel among themselves. Since I cannot direct my anger against the oppressor, I find an outlet by venting it against my fellow oppressed. Ethiopians constantly complain about the lack of unity among opposition parties. What is more, numerous efforts to overcome divisions and create a united front have invariably failed, even though the parties have a lot more in common than what divided them. Why is it so? For the obvious reason that disunity prevents action, which in turn feeds on fear. If you assume for one second that there is only one united opposition, what else remains but the deployment of collective action? Whereas where unity prevails there is no excuse for postponing action, for a divided opposition action is not really an option, since it has no chance of success. The determination to act drastically diminishes if I suspect that others are not likely to follow. Fear advises and nourishes divisions.

One question intriguing many observers is that young Ethiopians are defying all sorts of danger, including loss of life, to reach the shores of Europe and America. Indeed, not only is the number of young Ethiopians who want to migrate staggering, but also most of them ascribe their plight to the incompetence and segregationist economic policy of the regime. Nonetheless, they prefer the perils of clandestine immigration to the alternative of fighting by all means to change the existing regime. How does one explain this preference, which is no less dangerous than the confrontation with the TPLF? The obvious answer is that clandestine immigration, however risky it may be, still harbors the promise of success, whereas the fight against the TPLF seems to be devoid of such hope. We catch here the most pernicious effect of fear, to wit, the erosion of confidence.

The other factor blocking the course of change in Ethiopia is, of course, the fear of the ruling elite. As we saw, in addition to increasing the recourse to repressive methods, fear advocates exclusionary economic policies. Even though the actual government knows that its policies cause mounting discontent, it cannot contemplate for one second the formulation and implementation of reforms for fear that they would encourage popular unrest and galvanize opposition parties. Reform is perceived as a sign of weakness, whereas the continuation of the same policy is interpreted as a display of strength. Once fear has convinced you that any concession to the people or opposition parties means weakness, you have nowhere to go but in the precipice of self-destruction, unfortunately by taking the whole country with you. Fear blocks reforms because it blocks wisdom, even to the point of jeopardizing self-interest. Like Plato said, “we can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”

Fighting Fear

We need to reverse the commonly accepted order of things: instead of going from ideas to action, we should try the reverse order of going from action to ideas. This means that ideas are supposed to support, enhance action; they do not cause action. Action is not trigger by representation, but by will. The French philosopher, Henri Bergson, wrote: “we can’t make will out of thought; we can, by an effort of will, think. Volition, not thought, is the basis of conscious life.” In other words, consciousness is not primarily a thinking and, secondarily, a willing activity. How could it be so when we perfectly know that thought, however galvanizing it may be, does not generate volition? Thus, when you succumb to an evil act, it is not that you do not know what is right; it is simply the will to resist that is failing you.

Let us take a more concrete example. Suppose that I fall into a deep crack. While I am in the crack, the knowledge of what surrounds me would not generate the will to come out of the hole. But if I have the will to come out, I will find the means, the way to do so. In this case, thinking, that is, finding the way, is wholly inspired by the will. From the representation of the surrounding a will cannot arise, but the practical representation of what I need to do can emerge from the will. Here is another example. Suppose that I want to lift a heavy stone. If I simply speculate intellectually on how I would lift the stone, I will never be able to do it, since any idea that I might have appears feasible for the simple reason it is not confronted with the given reality. However, if instead of believing that the idea will inspire me to act, I try to lift the stone, I will quickly know what support or means I need to lift it effectively. Action inspires practical ideas.

Similarly, politics is primarily a matter of will and secondarily of discourse. Since it is about action, what is decisive is the connection between action and will. In order to be brave, Aristotle said, one must practice acts of bravery. To quote him, “by doing the acts that we do in the presence of danger, and being habituated to feel fear or confidence, we become brave or cowardly.” But how can we acquire a virtue that we do not originally possess? For Aristotle, like any virtue, courage is potentially innate, and like any virtue, it needs practice to become actual and develop, just as I need practice to ride a bicycle or to learn how to play piano. What all this means is that action brings success, which, however small it may be, has the propensity to build confidence. When confidence is restored, fear regresses.

It would be wrong to assume that this analysis does not apply to the Ethiopian diaspora. Such an assumption simply forgets that decades of unbridled state terror have profoundly transformed the Ethiopian psyche. How else could one explain the frequency of apathy and divisions as well as the prevalence of discourse over action among the Ethiopian diaspora, even as most Ethiopians enjoy the full protection of democratic rights in Western countries?

The good news is that even in Ethiopia the walls of fear are starting to show some cracks, especially among younger generations. The defying activism of some of the members of the Blue Party and the amazing courage of journalists like Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, and others, are glaring examples of receding fear. Moreover, a growing number of young people are now agreeing with the necessity of armed struggle, which of course constitutes the highest level of political action and hence the ultimate remedy against fear.

Speaking of the necessity of violent confrontation against colonial occupation, Fanon wrote: “violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect.” The similitude of the existential situation of natives under colonial rule with that of Ethiopians under Woyanne domination calls for the therapeutic virtue of violence, be it in the form of popular revolution or armed uprising. Be it noted that nothing would encourage more nonviolent movement in Ethiopia than the background of armed and fighting partners. In other words, nonviolent struggle itself is in dire need of armed uprising, given the crackdown of the government against the use of peaceful means.

Let no one conclude that citing Gandhi, the prophet of nonviolence, together with Fanon, the champion of violent struggle, constitutes a flagrant contradiction. For me, the present situation of Ethiopia equally calls for nonviolent and violent forms of struggle. Without the pressure of armed struggle, the Woyanne regime will not open up the political field, as fear rather than rational concern dictates its behavior. The proof is that, while the regime has forcefully rejected all the suggestions of opposition parties to democratize political competition and refuses to release even one political prisoner, it has recently set free two senior members of the Ogaden National Liberation Front as a token for its readiness to negotiate. The explanation for the governmental change of attitude is that, unlike the opposition parties and the political prisoners, the ONLF is an armed force. Stated otherwise, to liberate Woyanne from its fear, the condition is that it be forced to face the nearness of its demise: when fear reaches its maximum level, there grows the readiness to negotiate.

Clearly, the pressure of arms is necessary for the Woyanne regime to come to the table of negotiation. Equally necessary for the success of negotiations and the guarantee of a democratic future is the presence of a strong nonviolent movement in Ethiopia. In other words, Ethiopia needs both Gandhi and Fanon, for what works for the survival and prosperity of the country is not merely the military defeat of the TPLF, but also the initiation of a process toward national reconciliation and the subsequent building of democratic institutions. What Ethiopia needs is not this or that, but this and that, not nonviolence or violence, but both.

The writer, Professor Messay Kebede, can be reached at mkebede1@udayton.edu

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