Lately, the upcoming 2015 election has been the subject of discussion among Ethiopians in the pages of EthioForum and other opinion columns. Not surprisingly, many of these discussions tend to veer towards pessimism and cynicism.
It is a foregone conclusion that the EPRDF is going to win the 2015 election. As we have seen in the 2010 election, the EPRDF has drawn poisonous lessons from its virtual defeat in 2005 and has perfected a two-pronged approach to maintain itself in power through the instrumentalization of elections. First, it has developed the art of lawful illegality transforming the law into a tool for conducting and covering government crimes. It contravenes the Constitution it penned in 1994 by taking law-coated illegal measures that flout the human, political and civil rights of Ethiopians. It has thus instituted legal and illegal roadblocks that obstruct Ethiopians and the democratic opposition from exercising their rights of expression and association. Second, the EPRDF state is a vengeful state. It has penetrated Ethiopian society with its various organizations of surveillance and control. It uses these to clobber and persecute citizens who oppose or criticize it. That there is a heavy price to be paid by all who do not submit to the will of the EPRDF and vote for it is the threat that hangs over every election the EPRDF conducts.
This double-pronged attack against Ethiopians enabled it to win all the seats but one in the 2010 election. As one could see from the increasing crackdown on the free press and on members of the opposition since then, the EPRDF has accelerated its double-barreled repression to counter the ever-intensifying Ethiopian aspiration for democracy. Indeed, the EPRDF government recognizes this aspiration in its characteristically deceitful way by paying lip service to democracy. It does so by perversely claiming that its electoral rituals of self-perpetuation in power, held every five years, are democratic elections. However, such lip service to democracy, coming from the EPRDF, is nothing but hypocrisy, which, as we know, is “the homage that vice pays to virtue”.
The EPRDF practice of elections is cynical, to say the least. In light of what appears to be then a lost cause, some are adopting a pessimistic view about the 2015 election. Others have become cynical. They claim that if the democratic opposition participates, it is going to lose; and if it does not participate, it also loses. This is a cynicism that mirrors the cynicism of the EPRDF and traps Ethiopians in a self-defeating false dilemma. I would like to argue that there is no warrant for either pessimism or cynicism despite the fact that the outcome of the 2015 elections is a foregone conclusion.
Taking Democracy seriously
The history of elections conducted under the aegis of the EPRDF conclusively shows that it does not take its own claims about democracy seriously. The democratic opposition has to demarcate itself clearly from the EPRDF by taking democracy seriously, precisely because, unlike the EPDRF, the democratic opposition honours the almost half-a-century old Ethiopian struggle for democracy. Let us us not forget that the struggle for democracy predates the EPRDF by decades. It is a struggle for which Ethiopians of all origins, beliefs and ages have shed their blood. To take democracy seriously is to affirm that their sacrifices are not in vain, and that the struggle for democracy should continue by all means. To adopt pessimism and cynicism, even under conditions that are totally inimical to the democratic process, as is the case in 2015, is to turn our back on their sacrifices; it is to be less, much less, committed to democracy than the previous generations who have given up their lives with the hope that the following generations will redeem them.
Second, if one is committed to democracy, pessimism and cynicism have no place in the politics of a country such as ours where, for the great majority, each day is a life-and-death obstacle course. True, a dispassionate consideration of the machinations of the EPRDF, of its total control of the electoral process, and of its determination to use the resources and power of the state to thwart the democratic voices of Ethiopians, is certainly depressing. But for an Ethiopian committed to the liberation of the country from tyranny, such a depression cannot be more than the expression of the “pessimism of the intellect”. A commitment to democracy in Ethiopia must subordinate this “pessimism of the intellect” to the “optimism of the will” or political wené, to use an Amharic expression.
For Ethiopians, the importance of the primacy of the “optimism of the will” over the “pessimism of the intellect” cannot be overstated. Politics for Ethiopians committed to democracy is authentically political only when it is an active and organized conviction that posits democracy as indispensable and non-negotiable. Such a politics needs an “optimism of the will” or political wené, because democratic politics is thoughtful action driven by the conviction that an alternative to the regime of tyranny is ineluctable in Ethiopia, sooner or later. Every step, every act, and every phrase in such a politics contributes to dissipating the fog of lies and repression with which the EPRDF has blanketed Ethiopia. Obviously, this implies that Ethiopians do not have the luxury nor the time to be pessimistic, defeatist, or cynical about the 2015 election. The question then is: how should the democratic opposition express its political wené or “optimism of the will” in the face of a regime that has already decided that it will win and the opposition will loose?
“In remembering the past, the future is remembered”
This remarkable Oromo aphorism (“Kan darbe yaadatani, isa gara fuula dura itti yaaddu“) offers ideas on how to respond to the challenges of participation in an election that has already been confiscated by the EPRDF. When we remember the Ethiopian past, it discloses that politics takes unforeseen historical turns and that the unexpected happens. Who foresaw the heady revolutionary days of 1974, or the ignominious collapse of the Derg in 1991, or the democratic upsurge of 2005? The Oromo aphorism suggests that the future is already gestating in the past, which means that there is no right moment to give concrete expression to the democratic future Ethiopians yearn for. The present is already the right moment, whatever the conditions may be. One cannot postpone the quest for democracy to a time when elections will be conducted fairly. First, an authoritarian regime never conducts elections fairly. Second, precisely because of this, it is the very participation in every election that chisels down the authoritarian edifice, that patiently prepares the ground and sows the seeds for democracy, and that opens the door to unexpected events. The issue is not whether to participate or not; rather, it is how to participate in the 2015 election in a way that advances the cause of democracy in Ethiopia.
The Oromo aphorism could guide us in figuring out this how. “Remembering the future” through our “remembering of the past” draws our attention to the present moment and its relation to the future. The present confronts us with two futures: the immediate future or the days, weeks and months after the election, and the time after the immediate future. This makes us help the distinction, implicit in the Oromo aphorism, between a goal and an aim, a distinction that one also finds in contemporary critical theory. The goal deals with the immediate future; the aim deals with the eventual future we would like to bring about, in our case: democracy. Applied to the dilemma the democratic opposition parties face regarding their participation in the 2015 election, this distinction between goal and aim offers a productive solution, articulated in three parts.
First, the democratic opposition must participate in the election armed with an “optimism of the will” or political wené. Second, its campaigning must have a goal made up of objectives to be achieved in the short term. Third, it must have an aim—the eventual achievement of democracy—to which the goal must be tailored. The goal is premised on the belief that the 2015 election offers an opportunity, one among many, that must be seized for exposing the government’s machinations to thwart the democratic aspirations of Ethiopians, to obstruct their right to lead a life of dignity, and to undermines their interests to live together harmoniously as a people. Not to participate in the election is to forego this opportunity.
The goal of the campaign is then multi-faceted: it articulates publicly how the present government is divisive, corrupt, repressive, and harmful to the common good of Ethiopians; it discloses that the government opposes and persecutes Ethiopians who pursue and defend the rights and common interests of Ethiopians; it unmasks the government’s anti-democratic measures designed to prevent Ethiopians to have a political alternative and to choose freely those who govern them. There are no lacks of examples and cases to substantiate these. In addition, every repressive measure the government takes against those who during the campaign unmask its tyranny, lies and corruption will provide additional proofs of its perfidy. In short then, the goal of the campaign is to expose the destructive anti-Ethiopian nature of the EPRDF government and thereby make the electors—including its members and supporters—and the international community aware of the pernicious lust for power that makes the EPRDF work so hard to stifle the democratic aspirations of Ethiopians.
The purpose of this multi-faceted goal is to erode the will of the EPRDF. Note that, historically, regimes collapse not only because their opponents are strong but also because the regime’s will to stay in power withers away and it can no longer resist the pressure of the democratic forces. The Imperial government collapsed in 1974, and the Derg regime in 1991, not because they lacked the material force to sustain themselves, but because their will to survive melted away like butter in the sun, opening the door wide open for new forces to take power. By using the 2015 election as one opportunity among others to erode the will of the EPRDF, the opposition forces set their eyes squarely on their aim—democracy—and prepare the ground for its final triumph. They will thus enter the post-election period in a way that transmutes their defeat in 2015 into a victory for their aim—the democracy to come—while transforming the victory of the EPDRF into a political gangrene of defeat that gradually and ineluctably leaches away its will to survive.
Transforming defeat into victory
One of the implications of the Oromo aphorism is that we Ethiopians could be a great people—a people worthy of democracy—if we have the courage not to be afraid to fall down (not to be afraid of being defeated in the 2015 election, in this case) and the “courage to rise every time we fall” or are defeated. Indeed, history teaches us that where democratic forces struggle in the context of tyranny, whatever the country may be, the failure of the democratic forces to win elections is also a process that constructs the path that eventually leads to democratic success as long as the failure is a “good failure”: a failure that has fulfilled its goal to discredit the despotism in power. Such a “good failure” becomes the mole that bores through foundations of the seemingly impregnable edifice of tyranny, sapping its will from within.
In light of the adversities Ethiopians face now, the historical task of the democratic forces is then to participate in the 2015 elections, pursue their short-term goal in support of their long-term aim, and “fail better”, to borrow the insightful words of Samuel Beckett. The democratic opposition of 2015 has to “fail better” than in 2010 by more effectively pursuing the goal of discrediting the government, both nationally and internationally, and thus constructing patiently the road that eventually leads to democracy: the undying aspiration of all Ethiopians.
Note. Quoted items are from de la Rochefoucauld, Gramsci, Mengesha Rikitu, Confucius, and Beckett, respectively.