Opinion: ‘Peace’ of the tormentor and resistance toward freedom


Alem Mamo, for Addis Standard

Addis Abeba, January 11/2018 – Fostering peace is much more abstruse than waging war or employing violence to address social woes. The multi-dimensional disposition of peace necessitates a wide-ranging approach that addresses all the underlying and deep-rooted factors interposed to the absence of peace in the first place. ‘Positive peace’ is not merely the absence of war and violence. Instead, it is the presence of justice, freedom and equality in the political, economic and social spheres of society.

Conversely, for the oppressor, ‘peace’ is the presence of the conditions to preserve the subjugation of the people. In the mind of the oppressor ‘peace’ is the upshot of power and hegemony. Any challenge or resistance to this hegemony is criminalized for ‘disturbing the peace.’ Therefore, the oppressor’s ‘peace’ must be re-established by any means necessary, including a ‘state of emergency’ that legitimizes the use of even more lethal force.

On the other hand, long-lasting peace is anchored in the fundamental underpinnings of justice and freedom, where the rights and freedoms of all citizens are respected and protected by law. This kind of peace is not imposed from the top through intimidation, force or coercion. It is owned and maintained by the citizens themselves. Genuine peace can only be asserted through the full participation of citizens in the political, economic and social discourse of their communities and country. In the absence of these basic rights, resistance becomes the only form of participation, expression and representation. This is the fundamental belief that authoritarian regimes fail or refuse to understand.

‘Peace’ that is maintained by force is exclusive, short-term and precarious. It only safeguards the political and economic hegemony of those at the helm of power. Such ‘peace’ is like the content of a searing pressure cooker. The pressure is controlled, and the content remains within the confines of the walls of the pot as long us the top is in place. Once the cover is removed, however, the state of the situation radically changes.

‘Strong men’ and their structures and institutions of violence often nurture this kind of ‘peace’. All resources are channeled to building and furnishing these establishments that serve as a lid. The primary reason in which authoritarian regimes are unqualified to building sustainable peace is that they are more invested in building structures of violence, such us military, police, and security and design them all to protect their supremacy. Under authoritarian rule, even the judiciary is a subservient institution that offers codified cover and justification for the violence of the state. Peace can not be fostered through state institutions that are constructed, trained and equipped to unleash violence because their proficiency and code of conduct are primarily nurtured on how to use force. They have no know- how to de-escalate minor conflicts and tension, let alone to positively contribute to fostering peace building practices that could lead to enduring peace.  Peace building is the ‘deconstruction of the structures of violence and the construction of the structures of peace.’[1] The structures that serve and sustain undemocratic rule must be replaced with institutions that foster and safeguard the political, economic, social, cultural and human rights of citizens. In this regard, peace building as a follow through step of political settlement is a vital framework to move the country forward.

For citizens, when all avenues of opportunity to participate, to engage and benefit are closed, resistance becomes the only singular form of expression that is naturally available. Moreover, refusal to live under a system where freedom and justice are denied is an exercise to reclaiming one’s dignity and asserting self-worth. Resistance against injustice is not preconditioned by ‘victory’; it is rather motivated by the instinct to live life with purpose and meaning.  Ultimately, it is people’s resistance that has the capacity to transform state violence into durable peace. Resistance against domination has more qualities of peace than the ‘peace’ of the oppressor.

From the outset peace and resistance may appear to be contradictory. The truth is peace exists in the trail of resistance. Resolution against domination has more virtues of peace than the ‘peace’ of the oppressor. Considering resistance as a just struggle towards cultivating lasting peace is not inconsistent with the true meaning of peace. As Dr. Martin Luther King once surmised, “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”[2]

When power is attained through the barrel of the gun it has a fundamental problem in understanding the authentic meaning of peace. The hangover from the inebriation of a battlefield ‘victory’ becomes incurable and terminal. Furthermore, it often has serious effect on one’s worldview and imagination and understanding of political discourse. Similar with the ‘hammer-nail analogy’, for every social problem and demand by the public they have very limited tools in their tool box. In fact, the tool the oppressors use frequently is the gun. In addition, they maintain a warped understanding of peace. Hence, every resistance, every outcry, every voice for human dignity and justice by the public is labeled and catalogued as ‘anti-peace’, and even worse ‘terrorism.’ The response is often a routine combination of institutionalized state terror and propaganda, immediately followed by the declaration that ‘peace has been restored.’ For them, peace, like a power switch, can be turned off and on. Absolute power often nurtures an inverted understanding of facts and reality. It creates a parallel world removed from truth and substantiation. It engages in self-flattery, indispensability and seeks to create an unverifiable universe of ‘all is well’. Instead of addressing problems in a sensible manner, resources are channeled to creating fictitious narratives and distractions. A few ‘intellectuals’ and foreign emissaries are trotted out and paraded to offer a glowing ‘approval’, applauding the political and economic ‘success.’  For authoritarian regimes, self-glorification and affirmation of ‘greatness’ is more acutely important than facts and truth. Therefore, much of the media, along with loyal and opportunistic ‘intellectuals’, become cheerleaders, rather than genuine participants in a free and transparent discourse.

While addressing structural and institutional violence is the key to build durable peace, equally important is the presence of leadership that has the full awareness of the general environment and ability to interpret the circumstances with honesty. Such leaders have the capacity to transcend. They are not driven by partisan political calculation or blinded by the pigeonholed and exclusive politics of ‘my group.’ Their motivation is much greater than themselves, their group, or a political party. Presently, there is a grave paucity of leadership in the Ethiopian political realm. Here I am not implying that there are no leaders. In fact, there are countless leaders with designated roles and duties, as well as those with no defined duties or titles (shadowy figures lurking from behind the stage) with more raw power than those with official designation.

Of dependable leaders

True and dependable leaders do not only preach their ideas to the public, but also instruct and lead by example. One of the most remarkable leaders of our time, the first democratically elected president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, faced numerous leadership tests during his tenure as the head of his party, the African National Congress (ANC), and later as the president of South Africa. Each time, he responded with courage and bold decisiveness. Here is one powerful example of his leadership in building an inclusive and democratic ‘Rainbow Nation.’ In sharing new ideas to his political entourage, Mandela could behave more like the teacher in conventional classroom, since his close associates, of course, knew him personally. Early in 1994, for example, the executive committee of the ANC was set to discuss the question of the country’s national anthem. The country’s first fully democratic election would be held in April 1994, and it was clear that the ANC would win. The existing anthem, Die Stem, seemed obviously unacceptable to the committee members, as it celebrated the triumph of nineteenth-century Afrikaner trekkers as they fought and conquered the indigenous peoples. Mandela was slated to preside over the meeting in which the issue was to be discussed, but he was called away soon after the meeting began.

During his absence, an overwhelming majority of the committee members expressed their wish to replace Die Stem with Nkosi Sikelele, which expressed the suffering of the indigenous people. Tokyo Sexwale, a leading ANC figure who had spent time with Mandela in prison, vividly remembered the mood at the meeting during Mandela’s absence. “We were enjoying ourselves. It is the end for the Die Stem song, we said. The end no more.”  When Mandela returned to the meeting, however, he responded much like a correcting schoolmaster. “Well, I am sorry. I don’t want to be rude…but this song that you treat so easily holds the emotions of many people whom you don’t represent. Yet, with the stroke of a pen, you would make a decision to destroy the very -the only- basis that we are building upon: reconciliation.”[3] It is this kind of extraordinary leadership that spared South Africa from the cycle of possible bloodshed and revenge. Mandela’s and one of the world’s most prominent peacemakers, Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s, vision of a ‘rainbow’ nation was firmly built on the principles of Ubuntu, a philosophy that holds: A person is a person through other persons. None of us comes into the world fully formed. We would not know how to think, or walk, or speak, or behave as human beings unless we learned it from other human beings. We need other human beings in order to be human. I am because other people are.[4]

This principle and leadership guided South Africans to see beyond the other and into each others humanity and ultimately build a common and shared future under the law that treats all citizens equal. Such a profound quality of leadership should be an enduring lesson for the current and future leaders in Ethiopia and around the world. Leaders have a profound obligation to lead by example and to be role models in their behavior, moral and ethical practices and principles. Some of these qualities include integrity, truth telling and broad-mindedness. It is evident that most of the current top leaders in Ethiopia have consistently shown ubiquitous mendacity of lies, greed, cruelty and self-indulgence.

A glimmer of hope?

While, such lack of leadership remains a major concern and anxiety of the Ethiopian people, there is a glimmer of hope coming from a young and aspiring regional leader. His name is Lemma Megersa and he is the President of the Oromia Regional State. Young, charismatic, dynamic, articulate, calm, broadminded and fearless. In recent days, along with his deputy, Dr. Abiy Ahmed (according to his publicly available curriculum vitae and research work, he has a strong academic and leadership background in peace and security studies), they have unapologetically demonstrated to the country and the world what genuine leadership should involve. They are literally providing a breath of fresh air to the distraught public. These two are daring to provide the much needed leadership with a dependable quality and generous spirit. They have single-handedly – within the government – rushed to the salvaging of the country. Moreover, they have reinvigorated the essence of national unity, peaceful coexistence and spirit of cooperation. They are doing all of this from their regional post, while the national leaders are preoccupied with polarization and fomenting violence. In a research work entitled Countering Violent Extremism through Social Capital: Anecdotes from Jimma, Ethiopia, published with Sweden-based Life and Peace Institute, Dr. Abiy Ahmed contends that the use of force shouldn’t be the only approach to deal with extremist ideology. Cultural norms, traditional ceremonies (such as coffee ceremony) and rituals could serve as valuable resources in bringing polarized communities together to engage and work towards an understanding and ultimately peaceful coexistence.[5] His academic background, professional experience and insightful personality are great assets for desperately needed national reconciliation and peace building work in the country.

Their messages aren’t deodorized, and sanitized conjectures designed for political expediency.  The unintimidated call by both is not only genuine and effective form of communication with the public; it is also a declaration of freedom and political independence. They have enthused and galvanized citizens inside the country and within the diaspora. One excited supporter told me “for the first time in my life, I am going to hang pictures of politicians in my house voluntarily.” “Can you guess who these politicians are?” she asked rhetorically. The popularity of these two men is spreading like wildfire. They have clearly articulated their vision, and they are promoting it to the public with passion, despite criticism from various corners. Hence, they put the welfare of their country before their own. It’s a noble trait that seems in short supply within the country’s current breed of leaders.

“We must work towards national unity.” Lemma asserted. “Ethiopian identity is not something one can put together as he/she wishes and dismantles it on a whim. Ethiopian identity is built on historical and cultural threads which binds the people in one shared garment of identity and unity. It is not something that is going to unravel easily. This is the reality. When we decided to join in this executive meeting we came with a principled position. Which says, the hell with our individual pride and grandeur, this is not about our individual power or about me or anyone leader this is about our country. Our power and authorities are not more important indispensable than our country. We are driven by saving our country. This is our primary agenda and impetus. Nothing else.”[6]

The truth is under normal political circumstances these words would not have been considered profound or extraordinary. The fact is the situation in Ethiopia is nothing but extraordinary.  For some members of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), of which  Lemma Megerssa’s Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) is the largest member, the name Ethiopia is despised and advancing social cohesion is considered a betrayal and contrary to the political design. Equally, advocating for national unity is a criminal act in which some were sent to prison or forced into exile. True leadership is far removed from petulant mean-spiritedness and temper tantrums. Forward-thinking leaders have their sights on the big picture and the ‘common good’, while tyrants often sing their own praise with over-inflated self-worth. Leaders who put others and country first have fortitude, courage and determination that is crucial in time of crisis. In Lemma Megerssa, one such hope is distantly visible.

Lifting a traumatized nation up

Ethiopia is a traumatized nation. Seventeen years of terror under the rule of military dictatorship followed by twenty-seven years of ethnic tyranny have inflicted deep physical, emotional and psychological trauma on considerable number of the population. Mothers have watched their children being shot and killed before their eyes. Political prisoners have endured unimaginable pain because of cruel and inhuman treatments. Many survivors speak of being tortured for days at a time. Others testify being forced to stand naked before their torturers for hours. Some young men describe a horrifying image of being castrated and their nails being pulled out. Families are destroyed, children are orphaned, and considerable number of the young people are forced to flee the country. More than forty years of trauma has taken its toll on the population in general.

The culmination of all this has left the people of Ethiopia with only one option, to rise-up and reclaim their dignity and live life under just, and democratic system of governance. Consequently, peoples’ resistance of oppression to live in freedom has reached a point of no return. Amid mass imprisonment, torture, and even death, the Ethiopian people have remained firm and continue to demand a fundamental change. From sporadic small-town rebellion, to a widespread national resistance with specific demands for democracy, freedom and justice. The government must listen to these demands and follow the peoples’ lead. Failure to do so is not only detrimental to the survival of the government itself, but also it could plunge the country and the region into a further devastating crisis.

The spirit and determination of the resistance against oppression in Ethiopia has a significant potential to redefine and re-frame the conceptual and practical discussion around non-violent resistance. Obviously, non-violent resistance remains an effective form of transformative change. However, there are on-going questions and debates within the Ethiopian pro-democracy movement on the efficiency and limitations of it. The issue is further compounded by the fact that in recent history there has never been peaceful transfer of power in the country.

The reverberating popular discontent seeking freedom from the dungeons of oppression is not going to cease because some rhetorical concessions and compromises were made. The time for political bargain among and between political parties to solve the country’s multifaceted problem has long passed. The current political standoff is between the people of Ethiopia and those who claim to run the government. Most of the population has made crystal clear its demand for fundamental change is not going to be subdued because of political horse trading. Political manipulations, gimmicks and unending perpetual meetings and ‘deep reforms’ have failed to deliver the result the people have demanded time and again.

The government in Ethiopia has two stark choices. It is either peacefully relinquishing power to a transitional administration that facilitates change towards democratic form of governance or take the country into chaos and blood-stained path that could lead to an unknown and possibly unpleasant destination. In the end, when the role of the judiciary becomes legislating repression, resistance becomes the only path that could potentially lead to peace. AS

The writer, Alem Mamo, can be reached at alem6711@gmail.com

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the writer’s and do not necessarily
reflect the editorial of Addis Standard.


[1] http://toolkit.ineesite.org/toolkit/INEEcms/uploads/1151/4_CPR_Network.%20(2005).pdf

[2] https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

[3] Volkan, Vamik (2004). Blind Trust: Large Groups and Their Leaders in Times of Crisis and Terror. Charlottesville, Virginia. Pitchstone Publishing.

[4] Tutu, Desmond (19970 No Future Without Forgiveness. New York. Published by Doubleday, a division of Random House.

[5] http://life-peace.org/hab/cve-through-social-capital-anecdote-from-jimma/

[6] This statement is publicly available on video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3pyABUwvsw

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