Ethiopia: The Proof is in the Pudding-Nonviolent Resistance Works

By Olaanaa Abbaaxiiqi

Nonviolent resistances have led to numerous dramatic changes in many countries around the globe. Understandably, there are also many nonviolent resistances that have failed. I am not claiming that there is a guaranty that all nonviolent resistance will be successful, at least in the short run. There are many scholarly works that studied social movements and the nonviolent means and tried to understand why some are successful while the others fail. Here we are not going into that.

There is a deeply held misconception around many people that nonviolent resistance works only in a benevolent dictatorship or in cases of mild tyranny. Others further argue that nonviolence works only in addressing some civil rights or environment issues and does not work to overthrow a tyrannical government in the face of extreme violence and repression. Those who argue this, conveniently forget stark historical evidence.

In fact some of the most repressive regimes in history fell as a result of nonviolent resistance. Suffice to mention the defeat of Marcos in the Philippines, Pinochet in Chile, the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the communist regime in Poland. And even if we look at recent events, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia were chased out of power through the nonviolent resistance. None of them were benign.

We can add to the above, the 2005 Lebanon popular movement that ended foreign occupation, and the 2006 Nepal uprising that forced the monarch to make major concession, and the 2000 Serbia, the 2002 Madagascar and the 2003 Georgia nonviolent resistances that led to regime changes. If you look at these examples, one can easily see that nonviolent movements can be successful in less developed, economically poor countries as well as in developed, affluent societies. This means it does not matter whether one is in Europe and North America, or Africa, Asia or elsewhere, or whatever type of regime it is, nonviolent resistance could work everywhere and in every situation. Nonviolent resistance does not need a kinder and gentler ruler in order to prevail.

Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, in their seminal work, “Why Civil Resistance Works”, meticulously and rigorously analyzed 323 violent and non-violent resistance campaigns between 1900 and 2006. Their finding is compelling and provocative. According to their statistical analysis with in-depth case studies of specific countries and territories, campaigns of nonviolent resistance were more than twice as likely to achieve full or partial success compared to violent counterparts. Their groundbreaking findings showed that nonviolent campaigns succeeded 53% of the time versus 26% of the time for violent campaigns.

Thus, based on historical experience alone, there is justification why we should opt for nonviolent resistance over armed struggle.
Why are Nonviolent Struggles More Successful than the Alternatives?

Nonviolent resistance (civil resistance) is preferable due to several reasons. Compared to civil war it is more effective, has a better chance to succeed and also has a better chance to peacefully transitioning to democracy. On the contrary, violent resistance has less chance to succeed, and even when successful, usually results in a dictatorship. Violence begets violence; it is self-perpetuating, and therefore, civil war that relies on violence does not in most cases secure a peaceful end.

Nonviolent resistance method starts from one fundamental assumption: authoritarian regimes survive because they get a wide range of obedience from the population they lord over. Without such obedience there is no way they could continue to rule. Thus, the immediate and cardinal purpose of any resistance should be to bring about the withdrawal or denial of obedience the people have hitherto given to an authoritarian regime.

Compared to violent resistance, nonviolent resistance is better positioned to attract active participation of the people. The very fact that nonviolent resistance has less risk compared to its counterpart makes it a better vehicle for attracting more people. People who because of age, gender and disability cannot participate effectively in violent struggle can easily participate in a nonviolent resistance. Nonviolent resistance can also attract business elites, intellectuals, religious personnel and institution, etc., who for one or reason or another cannot support armed struggle. All these expands the participatory advantage of nonviolent resistance over armed insurrection.

Unlike violent resistance, nonviolent resistance is relatively open to all, it’s not only for able bodied men. People of every walks of life can participate actively in it without leaving their home or work, relatively with less risk to themselves and their families. The same is not true in the case of a civil war. The moment civil war starts, immediately the number of mobilized shrinks. Once the method of struggle shifts, hundreds of thousands of people who used to be actively protesting in the street go back to their home and become aloof. Thereafter, the confrontation, rather than being between the populace and the government, becomes between two armed groups.

The larger the number of participants and the more diverse people are mobilized by a nonviolent resistance, the more chance it has to bring about loyalty shift. The more defection there is, the more undermined and weakened will be the tyrannical regime. And the more it is weakened, the more people dare to defy it further. The high level of mobilization is the most important feature for success. Thus, the participatory advantage of the nonviolence resistance is the key factor in destabilizing the incumbent and giving a chance for the nonviolent resistance to be victorious. Thus, every effort should be done lest we take action that diminishes or minimizes the participation of the people.

It should also be noted that it is this participatory advantage of nonviolent resistance that makes it an excellent conduit to transition to democracy. Evidence clearly shows that struggles that unwaveringly avoid violence have much more chance to bring about democracy. Once they degenerate into violence, their chance of bringing about democracy diminishes. Those who come to power through violence mostly end up turning tyrannical. It should not be forgotten that violence is what brought EPRDF to power, and if we want to break this vicious cycle, violence should not be the way to get rid of it.

Because violent resistance has less chance of mobilizing participants, it also has less chance of bringing about loyalty shift. In fact when there is violence, the police, military and security, rather than shifting their allegiance, dig theirs hills in. If huge defection does not occur, it is always extremely difficult to win an entrenched adversary in power that is controlling all the repressive state machinery.

As nonviolent resistance attracts a large size of participants, and especially when it has reached a certain stage and is diversified, repression against it becomes extremely difficult and costly to the tyrannical government. And when repressive actions are taken in such situations, they could have a boomerang effect. In fact, sometimes, widely publicized repressive incidents are precisely the sparks that trigger mass uprisings. With the continuation of the growth of participants in the nonviolent resistance, the likelihood of division within the government and its institutions, like the police, military, media and bureaucracy becomes certain.

Nonviolent resistance is more advantageous because it could be done relatively on the cheap compared to the violent insurrection. Conducting a protracted insurrection is an extremely expensive undertaking. It is so expensive that most armed struggles that became successful in history had to partly or mostly rely on foreign backers or allies for arms and money. Propaganda aside, it is a rarity for self-reliant armed movement to become successful.

For the Oromo people who do not have external allies, one could easily discern why choosing the nonviolent resistance is a no-brainer. Moreover, because you don’t owe anybody anything when conducing nonviolent resistance, you will not be anybody’s client or stooge and you will not be controlled by an outside force. On the contrary when you rely on foreign forces to conduct armed struggle, the chance of your being controlled and used by them is enhanced.

It should also be noted that armed struggle is not viable in many places. Factors such as having foreign backers, suitable terrain for defense, geo-politics, internal cohesion, having outlet to neighboring countries, and many others are determinative in conducting a successful armed struggle.

Having grievances, just cause and an extremely brutal regime as adversary, does not by itself justify blindly opting for an armed struggle for the sake of it. Before undertaking such a far-reaching scheme, one should first meticulously and seriously take stock of pros and cons and the possibilities of winning and the cost involved in it and then decide. Nothing justifies pursuing and supporting unpractical ideas and myopic strategy that in practice has failed again and again.

In the third and final part we will why the #Oromo Protest should stay the course of Nonviolent Resistance.