Addis Standard

Op-ed: Between reform and revolution stands slogan: Ethiopia’s hard choice


Hassen Hussein, for Addis Standard

Addis Abeba, March 05/2018 – In a duel between revolution and reform, slogans play a referee’s role. Once chiseled on the tongues of a people on the move, slogans reduce complex issues into simple catch phrases that animate and captivate the street. “Land to the tiller!” chanted the 1960s/1970s Ethiopian youth. And those calling for expropriating land from absentee landlords instantly became not just allies but heroes. The street wasted no time to check if the expropriated land reverted to the peasantry. The establishment couldn’t see that “Law and Order” had run its course and was proving counterproductive. The few sons of the aristocracy who understood the gravity of the situation as to give away their holdings on their own volition became overnight celebrities—Abba Biyya Abba Jobir of the Jimma monarchy comes to mind. The imperial parliament promised to do the same – through a land reform bill. But the imperial court’s hardline wing was busy sabotaging the reformers and playing inside baseball oblivious to the gathering storm that would sweep their entire class away.

The Prime Minister of the day, the youthful Endalkachew Mekonnen, pleaded for time and calm. But whereas the revolutionaries couldn’t stand the snail pace of parliamentary proceedings, the establishment simply couldn’t see that reform held the key for their survival. For the revolutionaries, heeding the entreaties of a scion of the aristocracy—even one with a reformist reputation—was unthinkable. A member of an enemy class is an enemy without distinction.  Why? Because to the agitated youth it was unreasonable for someone to deliver on a promise of reform that would ruin his class’ interests. A radical solution was the only solution sought. So as the established pleased with the military, the country’s only organized force, to crush the “troublemakers,” the revolutionaries coaxed and cajoled it with a more enticing offer—taking over the reins. The aristocracy couldn’t imagine the radical solution as something to be fathomed let alone realized. Beholden to their slogan, the youth didn’t erupt in jubilation the day the army obliged by taking custody of the frail emperor. They did so the day the Dergue promulgated the landmark land proclamation—delivering on their cherished slogan.  The military did indeed snatch land away from the landlords’ hands but few bothered to notice that it didn’t actually hand it to the tiller. The aristocracy—that could have traded land for life—didn’t live to even regret their dithering on reform.

Dangling the nominal right to till the land before the peasantry, while also freeing them from molestation by the landlords, the Dergue invested its actual ownership in the state. With this, it turned the peasantry against the very revolutionaries that made this transformation—unthinkable only weeks ago—possible. Having won the peasantry over, the military turned its guns on the revolutionaries—one after another. What if the youth gave the embattled Prime Minister the time and calm he asked?  What if the nobility saw the writings on the wall and rallied behind reform? If history would or would not have been different, we wouldn’t know. We somewhat know one thing though: The youth—on whose side was momentum—could have waited a few months and brought down if Endalkachew didn’t deliver reform—which couldn’t be said about the military.

Egypt’s youth did same in 2013. Tahrir Square’s glorious hope came crashing down when the youth exchanged a flawed elected leader for an unelected tyrant who would go on to dismantle the revolution’s gains, not block by block but in one bloody sweep and swoop. The youth could have waited a few months and thrown out Morsi —which cannot be said about the powerful military.

The Ethiopian youth of today, led by the Oromo Qeerroo, has been waging a protracted revolution chanting two dominant slogans—Free all political prisoners and Down, down Wayyane [TPLF].  With the release two weeks ago of Bekele Gerba and his OFC colleagues, it savored its sweetest of victories to date—which also resulted in the freedom of other Ethiopians long languishing in jail. The resignation of the nominal Prime Minister capped their winning streak.

One nugget of truth neglected in the euphoria and celebrations two weeks ago is the talk about another catalyst for the release and the resignation—the quiet revolution from within waged by Lemma Megerssa’s new OPDO leadership. The successful nationwide general strike called by online activists, which brought the whole country to a standstill, was simply the coup de grace that hastened what was inevitable.

What the general strike did was rather show the regime, in power since 1991, that its time was up – or so many thought – until Ethiopia’s deep state counterattacked with another state of emergency (SoE). Undaunted by the latter, the the youth exploded in more celebrations – seeing that one of its cardinal demands being met. That was until last Saturday, when OFC’s entourage was forced to turn back from the gates of Nekemte.

The imposition of another SoE, has put the the second slogan – down, down Weyyane (TPLF) – point and center. It has also brought forth another: How to deal with the reformist wing of OPDO in the upcoming and final phase of the struggle?

As they go about fulfilling their second and perhaps primary goal, the youth of today have a lot to learn from their counterparts from 1974. Bringing down a regime is one thing but installing one that lives up to a revolution’s lofty ideals is altogether different. As to the regime, dispersing demonstrations with teargas and life bullets and a show of maximum force through the SoE is easy but buying legitimacy with teargas and bullets is impossible.

However, the regime simply couldn’t recognize that every bullet that kills seals its fate. It appears it is only the reformist wing of the OPDO that does. With their public opposition to the passage of the draconian SoE in parliament, OPDO has  given form to this understanding. How should the youth then read this development? The youth need to realize one thing: As not all revolutionaries are the same, a fact that the revolutionaries of yesteryears learned the hard way, not all members of a repressive regime are the same. There is a thin line between true reformers and true revolutionaries – as there is between revolutionaries and reactionaries and counter-revolutionaries. Co-opting and winning reformists over is the most ideal recipe for a successful revolution. That is if both reformers and revolutionaries are judged on one yardstick: Their contribution in realizing and securing the revolution’s ultimate goals.

But that realization can be easily lost in the heat of the moment. As they head to confront the SoE, the revolutionaries act knowing that the cause of reform is dealt a serious wound. In fact, I am afraid that some may hasten to throw away the baby with the bathwater enraged by the sheer stupidity and arrogance of the establishment. The hard truth however is that toppling a hated regime would mean the realization of the second slogan but not the realization of the revolution’s ideals.

The establishment’s rush towards the SoE shows that it’s as opposed to revolution as reform. For it, both are one and the same. That is why it is likely to first turn its guns against the reformist wing of OPDO, which is still, at least in the short-term, the only organized group best prepared to lead Ethiopia out of the current crises.

Unlike the youth of yesteryears, whose all-or-nothing motto pave the way to the horrors of 1977-2018, today’s has shown more wisdom and sophistication. However, the SoE has now complicated matters. Rather than wetting the appetite for reform, it has made the search for a climatic end to TPLF’s hegemony unavoidable.

The problem is that in today’s Ethiopia, there are few organized groups ready to take over and govern this country of 100 million with a tortured history.  Building a durable and coherent governing coalition is not an overnight gig. Clandestine organizations, however formidable, by their very nature rarely develop into a cohesive governing entity that an already divided country like Ethiopia needs. That is why it is imperative that Ethiopia first underwent a smooth transition under a reformed group that prepares the ground for the genuinely democratic order sought by the youth. Under current circumstances, the alternative to reform is actually chaos rather than bliss.

To make matters worse, with the SOE, OPDO itself has also received a knocking on its head. By itself, meaning without unwitting support from the revolutionaries, it cannot overcome the establishment, let alone lead a successful reform. OPDO is also on the defensive having lost ANDM’s crucial support. The much-talked-about reformist wing in the TPLF has long turned out to be what it has always been—a mirage and a phantom.  SEPDM has once again proven that it is an outfit of NISS, TPLF’s security department. As a result, OPDO’s candidate for the premiership – who was to spearhead the promised reform – is now in jeopardy and with it the reformist agenda itself. Sooner or later, OPDO would have to confront the question of what to do in the inevitable event that its candidate fails to become Ethiopia’s next Prime Minister and it’s reform agenda hit a wall. Will it eschew reform and make peace with the establishment? The problem is that the establishment’s war plan is to take no prisoners. Ditch EPRDF itself? If not, how would it face the streets? If it pulled out, how would it tackle the establishment?

OPDO is clearly caught between a rock and hard place. Regardless, the simple fact is that there are no other alternative force to shauffer Ethiopia today out of TPLF’s tyranny. But this is possible only if it refused to be washed away by the SOE by standing ground making its opposition to the SOE even clearer and its call for reform even louder. In effect, calling out the establishment’s bluff.

The establishment has not learned from the disasters of the 1974 revolution and its own experience over the last three years. Consequently, it is unlikely to ever submit to calls for reform- however loudly pronounced from within and without. It would continue to march toward the abyss. Rather than join TPLF and its still satellite partners in this journey towards the grave, OPDO has to chart a different course—by sticking to the course of reform.  The Qeerroo should also concentrate its rage against the recalcitrant establishment rather than reformers. Although the reformist path could still end up being a dead end, due to TPLF’s intransigence, that is no reason for OPDO to relent and for the youth to shy away from embracing them.

Moreover, should OPDO any longer labor under its slogan to have its candidate installed as the country’s next Prime Minister? If EPRDF decides against its innate will to survive, that is EPRDF’s problem. Besides, why fight for a Prime Minister that is subordinate to the military chief and spy chief whose excesses brought both the party and the country to the cliff? After all, the Premiership needn’t be an end onto itself but rather a means towards reform. Let TPLF celebrate by anointing one of its own. None could render what the outgoing Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn couldn’t in six years and the celebration will be short-lived. Through its passage of the SoE, in such a foolhardy manner, the TPLF dominated EPRDF has made one thing abundantly clear: For it both reform and revolution are one and the same. In Lemma’s calls for reform, EPRDF sees the same slogan “Down, down Wayyane” chanted by the youth.  It is about time the latter also reach the same realization. It is only the combination of the youth’s revolutionary zeal and OPDO’s residual organizational muscle that can break the impasse. If a renewed drive for reform still stumbles, it would simply further consolidate the camp of the revolution and makes victory inevitable. Should it succeed, it makes revolution unnecessary while still being equally revolutionary in its outcome. When hard choices are to be made and much is at stake, as is the case today, slogans shouldn’t stand in the middle of making the most rational and correct call. Get me the hammer! And no sickle, please. AS

Ed’s Note: Hassen Hussein is  Assistant Professor at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, a writer, and Ethiopia and Horn of Africa Analyst. He can be reached at