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Against Political Demonstrations in Ethiopia



Tecola W Hagos

The general who advances without seeking fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom.”  Sun Tzu on the Art of War 


Over a year ago when the Blue Party was a hot item, I offered my unsolicited advice in public forums (in websites) that the new Blue Party leaders must avoid confrontational relationships with the Government of Ethiopia during their infancy and also avoid contacting Diaspora perpetual agitators. My sole reason for such advice was that the mobilization and consolidation of political power before any form of confrontation is absolutely necessary, and such premature confrontation and/or association with Diaspora opposition groups would severely undermine the growth and strength of any new political party in Ethiopia.

From my past experience and keen observation of the lives of many of our political organizations, I have concluded that such political organizations suffered most from loose membership and poor leadership. They have no real political teeth to bite with to counter the maleficent acts of the Ethiopian Government. It is tragic to watch such political organizations being snapped into pieces by the Ethiopian Government every time they got involved in public demonstrations. Just watch what is happening to the Blue Party and the eight other political organizations that participated in the recent public demonstration of December 6, 2014—most of their leaders are now in detention and awaiting legal process. How would such strategy of flying into a political flame advance our political goals of freedom, law and order, or justice, or economic prosperity, or a combination of all these for all?

In all of Ethiopia’s modern history, I know of no single instance where any political organization coming into power through such political agitation. The one instance that is often mentioned by people is the student movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which did not empower any civilian political organization to acquire power, but led to a disastrous political turmoil resulting in a brutal military regime taking over the Imperial Ethiopian Government and that proceeded to ravage Ethiopia for seventeen years.  The student movement after stirring up a hornet nest, which is Ethiopia, only succeeded in paving the way that enabled to roll into power a military dictatorship—a calamity that still endures in the successor present government having metastasized into the degenerative ethnic federal system that is our current Ethiopian political major problem.

I have a mountain of evidence that clearly establishes the type of opposition power grabbing effort that we all are party to, either as silent observers or virulent participators in all kinds of opposition organizations based in foreign countries, did not move us any closer to the seat of power nor enlightened us to be politically savvy in determining our political future. We, in the Diaspora, are still shouting our discontent from street curbs in Western cities, and those who are in Ethiopia occasionally in Addis Ababa and a couple of regional cities, while the current Ethiopian Government is gaining respectability internationally and tremendous economic and military power domestically. And if the EPRDF led Government curbs the effect of the divisiveness of Article 39, neuters ethnic based political structures, roots out corruption, implements good governance, limits the economic exploitations by the likes of Al Amoudi, nationalizes all gold mines, returns huge tract of land leased to scrooges of the world back to the people of Ethiopia, stops the adoption of Ethiopian children in foreign countries, stops the migration of Ethiopian females to Arab countries and elsewhere in the World,  it can bring about a truly golden age for Ethiopians and would endure for long. 

Supporting Our National Election Rituals –  ፈሪ ለናቱ።

The irony of our political reality is such that while Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn was being hosted by the World’s premier economic/industrial power-house, Germany, the Blue Party and its associates were demonstrating in Addis Ababa and their leaders were being brutally rounded up and thrown in detention centers with no impact whatsoever on the visit of Hailemariam nor triggering any protest from the governments of other Western countries. If such opposition groups counted on to be rescued by foreign national governments, they better swallow the bitter truth that no such rescue would happen.

I believe, the leaders of opposition political organizations ought to think very carefully about the effect of their actions on the members of their political organizations and the impact on our Ethiopian public. We must not engage in challenging the Ethiopian Government if the result is simply the exposure of our leaders and members to real dangerous situations of possible detentions, or bodily harm, or even death. One must have a good chance of gaining real political mileage before launching any political demonstration challenging the current Ethiopian Government, especially when the issue involves boycotting national elections.  I do not see courage in foolhardy and reckless actions in demonstrations against national elections, where the Ethiopian Government has formidable means to enforce its will. Boycotting a national election does not have as much compelling moral content to gain sympathetic treatment for the Ethiopian opposition groups from the West or anywhere else.

Elections are the simplest and most direct method of establishing and conferring legitimacy on a particular leader. But elections are riddled with treacherous hurdles that drastically undermine the very purpose of holding elections in the first place, in all developing countries.  In fact, elections create unrealizable expectations and shift the attention of the population from the fact of the struggle for existence to focus on political demonstrations and short-cut schemes.  In Ethiopia, I think the tendency of people is to preserve asset and their energy, which translates on the political stage as dormant population incapable of fighting back or bushing back when squeezed by brutal governmental forces. Such degree of social narcissism undermines any sustained stand against government abuse. The opposition to government oppression and abuse is episodic and erratic in Ethiopia.

It is important that Ethiopians participate in the political life of Ethiopia no matter how narrow that opportunity might be. There can be no meaningful discourse without the input of such Ethiopians. In general, I am skeptical about the short-term value of going through such ritual of elections as a democratic right. However, I find one profound argument in support of such processes, ritual or not. In our local setting, the relevance of election is not so much that it produces immediate tangible results, but that it confirms the idea that citizenship has a serious role in government.  In all early stages of democracy, elections are mere rituals, but sooner or later such mere ritual would turn into our political real power exercise. A great example that supports my statement is the Indian experience with democracy, which confirms now the real value of voters. In order to enlarge a small hole it helps greatly if one inserts a device within such hole that to try from scratch.

The error here is the identification of election with liberal democracy, for elections can have meaningful utility in other forms of governments, for example, in constitutional monarchy. What I just stated is not farfetched, considering the many elections conducted in the then USSR, and currently in China, Cuba and several of the dictatorial governments around the world. And such periodic election is not organic but decoy, and as long as we understand the distinction between these two contentions, the better prepared we are to understand elections and use elections effectively. Let us not give undue and highly exaggerated importance to elections. Thus, when we get opportunities to perform such rituals, let us do so by all means.

Some Realty to Ponder

One monumental error of the past that never fails to upset me whenever I think about it is the boycott of the opposition political leaders from assuming their elected respective seats after the 2005 election, therein choosing confrontational-politics when they have neither the manpower nor the moral imperative to snatch power from the EPRDF. “The National Electoral Board released final results in September 2005, with the opposition taking over 170 of the 547 parliamentary seats and 137 of the 138 seats for the Addis Ababa municipal council. Opposition parties called for a boycott of parliament and civil disobedience to protest the election results.”

  • The Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) won 296 seats
  • The Afar National Democratic Party (ANDP) won 8 seats
  • The Somali Peoples Democratic Party (SPDP) won 24 seats
  • The Benishangul Gumuz Peoples Democratic Party (BGPDP) won 8 seats
  • The Harari National League (HNL) won 1 seat
  • The Argoba People Democratic Organization (APDO) won 1 seat 

Opposition: total 173 Seats

  • Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) won 109 seats
  • United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF) won 52 seats
  • Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM) won 11 seats
  • One Independent Candidate won 1 seat.

One hundred seventy three seats were great building blocks by any standard. That was a monumental improvement from the opposition’s miserable twelve seats of the 2001 election. The 2005 confrontation resulted in the death of hundreds of people who were killed by the Government security forces. And the opposition lost all of its seats by boycotting and confrontations except for one seat, and fractured itself into ineffectual Diaspora groups and a shadow of itself in Ethiopia.

In the last election of 2010 the result was disastrous, there was a single representative from the opposition and a single independent in the House of Representatives. The tragedy will continue as long as our political organizations are led by immature political amateurs who suffer unnecessarily by flying into a political flame. I want you to ponder the consequences of boycotting election by reading carefully the tallying below and the results of 2005 election before boycotting: The Results of the General Election to the House of People’s Representatives elections were held for 547 seats in the House of People’s Representatives in 547 Constituencies

  • The Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) won 499 seats
  • The Afar National Democratic Party (ANDP) won 8 seats
  • The Somali Peoples Democratic Party (SPDP) won 24 seats
  • The Benishangul Gumuz Peoples Democratic Party (BGPDP) won 9 seats
  • The Harari National League (HNL) won 1 seat
  • The Argoba People Democratic Organization (APDO) won 1 seat 

Opposition: total 2 Seats

  • The Ethiopia Federal Democratic Unity Forum (Medrek) won 1 seat
  • One Independent Candidate won 1 seat.

[Official Results of the 23rd May 2010, General Election The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia, June 21, 2010.]

Had the opposition leaders done their homework well, they would have realized that humility and the building of solid political foundation to be far more important than making inflammatory speeches in Western capitals to Diaspora agitators. Had they been astute and politically savvy, they would have laid a good foundation for the political maturity of “opposition” politics and parties, and we would not have been in this predicament of disfranchised individuals. I speculate that had we been wise political leaders, with such solid base of 170 seats, we would have been sharing some power with the EPRDF specially so with the death of Meles Zenawi. Now, because of the wild ambition of some political leaders in the opposition, we lost such golden opportunity and are back to square one, under far more stringent condition (where it seems even an academic criticism of the Constitution is going to be considered a crime) ready to participate in the coming national election. The number of political organizations for the next national election is not firmed up yet, if it is too high it would render any party-based politics meaningless. Some three or four parties would have been effective, and we have to start our journey in order to achieve that great end product of political power.

Conclusion and Recommendations

I recommend for all to listen to the December 1 and 4, 2014 SBS Radio interview of Belay Fekadu, the President of the Unity for Democracy and Justice Party, wherein he expressed eloquently what I think of a great guideline for political participation of oppostion groups. He said among other things, “አንድነት እንደ ፓርቲ እየተከተላ ያለው ስልት ፖለቲካ ምህዳሩን በአግባቡ ፈትሸነዋል። አይተነዋል። የተዘጉ መንገዶች ብዙ ናቸው። እነዚህን ለማስከፈት ትክክለኛው ስልት ምርጫው ዉስጥ መግባት ነው የሚል የጋራ ግንዛቤ አለን። እዚህ ላይ ተመሳሳይ አቋም ነው ያለን።” Here we have a good example of a courageous and wise political leader making strategic long term plan to acquire power through peaceful means using the opportunity open to his party even if that opportunity is tiny. Despite such obvious handicaps, I urge all Ethiopians to participate in this coming national election even if it is a defective process. And I offer to UDJ similar advice I offered over a year ago to the Blue Party: build your membership and political strength before confrontation and demonstrations against the current Ethiopian Government.

If I may paraphrase Abraham Maslow, for any person who is used to using as his tool a hammer, every problem looks like a nail to be hammered in. Thus, until a few years back we, Ethiopian elites, wasted much of our national territorial unity and integrity for nothing, pursuing delusional precept of a “Modern” state on the basis of ethnic federalism, a truly divisive scheme. Recently, I have listened to new apostle of such federalism and the right of secession, presumptuous individuals defending ethnic federalism by equating our Ethiopian case with the structures of a supra national organization like that of European Union. Let us not give that much credence to foreigners even if they swear by the Almighty to be our friends. No one knows better our problems than we Ethiopians do. [Some of the ideas herein in this section are taken from my “Running the Political Gauntlet: The Blue Party and the Diaspora, June 7, 2013.]

It is difficult to change ones ideas especially if one thinks of such ideas to represent universal political values. I do not believe that confrontational political programs would work in Ethiopia. What I see in the political games played out in the last fifty years is the fact that those individuals who are willing to compromise and adopt themselves to changing circumstances are the ones who have succeeded in politics and in the business world. Looking after one’s self-interest is not a bad idea, but much closer to our individual instinct. Let us cooperate with each other first by promoting our individual self-interest before we tackle national political and economic issues. It might well be the beginning of all great political and economic philosophies. Most importantly let us debate the issue of election participation or boycott of the upcoming 2015 Ethiopian national election. Let us examine the advantages and/or disadvantages of participating in that election.

I strongly urge the Ethiopian Government to release all the people along with the leaders of the Blue Party and those from other political organizations who were arrested while demonstrating on December 6, 2015. In writing thus, I am simply trying to deescalate the current volatile political situation. Please, note the fact that I am not in support of the demonstration. I am in favor of participation in the upcoming national elections of 2015.

Tecola W. Hagos

December 12, 2014

Washington DC



















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