Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Ethiopia: What the Libyan Protests Mean to Ethiopia

Photo: The writer | Credit:

By Eskinder Nega*
Courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsViewpoint

ADDIS ABABA (IDN) - Strange as this may sound, there is a mainstream in the unsanctioned confederacy of dictators. Whether of the present times or from the distant past, the mainstream dictator is usually decidedly understated, more often than not a loner, eccentric in private habits, and almost as a trademark, lives in a complex world of paranoia.

Moammar Gadhafi indeed shares some of these traits, but also markedly stands out as part of a glitzy species much disdained by the cool mainstream: the buffoon dictators.

Hitler and Mussolini popularized the buffoon species. They also represent its two sub-specious: the harmful and harmless genres.

History will remember Mussolini more for his absurd theatrics and blunders than the harm he caused. Hitler's outlandish public tantrums and speeches, on the other hand, are a footnote to the epic tale of moral and physical damage he wrought on humanity.

Until Ferbruary 21, Gadhafi belonged more with Mussolini than Hitler. Aside from the Berlin and Lockerbie bombings in a 40 years reign, the world tolerated Gadhafi with bemused indifference. The international media, for their part, seemed permanently enthralled by his blonde Ukrainian female nurse and gun-totting female bodyguards.

Come February 22, 2011, a day after Libya was overwhelmed by people power, however, the world was suddenly confronted with a new, murderous Gadhafi that was much more than a buffoon. Speaking from the doorsteps of his Tripoli residence once bombed by U.S. air-strikes in the 1980s, he was at times shouting, pounding his fists on a podium, and intermittently losing his stream of thought as he scolded his nation's democratic aspiration.

But his instruction to supporters, militiamen and thousands of mercenaries in his pay came out clearly. There was no haziness here. "You men and women who love Gadhafi….get out of your homes and fill the streets. Leave your homes and attack them (the protesters) in their lairs," he thundered.

In a nation where tribal loyalties figure prominently in politics, it was also a subtle call to his kins to defend him. But those who responded, according to eyewitnesses on Al-Jezzera, were disproportionately his mercenaries.

Divide and rule has lost its magic. A new era has dawned in Libya.

The Libyan protests began on the evening of February 15 by about 2000 people. The number of protesters roughly doubled as passersby and activists joined them. The regime reacted with a firm determination to discourage further defiance of its demonstration ban. Up to ten percent of the demonstrators were seriously brutalized. Many more suffered lesser injuries.

As has recently happened elsewhere in the Middle East, state violence unexpectedly and unusually bred fierce public defiance. There were more outraged protesters in Benghazi, Libya's second city, the next day. And the protests spread to other cities.

As is the case in all authoritarian countries, including Ethiopia, Gadhafi's security networks, though one of the most far-reaching in Africa, were simply not large enough -- nor could they ever be – to contain simultaneous uprisings in dozens of cities across the country.

They lost half the country in 48 hours.

Poor Gadhafi was stunned beyond belief.


This is the scenario that will most probably confront the EPRDF (Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front), the ruling party in Ethiopia, if protests are to break out in Ethiopia. A parallel event, albeit on a smaller scale, had already happened in November 2005 when half a dozen cities exploded at almost the same time. The EPRDF was almost, but not quite, stretched to the limit.

Add a few more cities this time around, and crucially, unlike 2005, with a public that will no doubt be adamantly determined to prevail, EPRDF will be hard pressed to control Addis Ababa, Dire-Dawa and Baher Dar, the nation's three largest urban areas, at the same time.

With east Libya serving as the inspiring model, the spectre of whole regions liberating themselves within 48 to 72 hours of protests breaking out is now entirely plausible. Ethiopians in Addis and across the regions are mesmerized by events in the Arab world as never before, and each dramatic twist of events seems to mischievously broaden the possibilities at home. More trouble than it could possibly handle is brewing for the EPRDF.

The reaction of Libya's professional military to the rise of people power has by now become conventional in North Africa. Faced with a choice between mass murder and continued loyalty to the regime, it opted, as had its Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts, to switch sides.

Unfortunately, the balance of power does not lie exclusively with the professional military in Libya. Much to the delight of Gadhafi, his disdain of a powerful professional military has finally been vindicated. Wary of a potential coup, he had for long pampered and better armed his paramilitaries and mercenaries. He will only be convincingly beaten when they finally abandon him. (They most probably ill.)

The military is all the EPRDF has in Ethiopia. There are no powerful paramilitaries or mercenaries to counterweigh the might of the army. Only its forceful intervention on either side in the event of protests, or its neutrality, as was the case in Egypt until the very last moments, will sway the balance of power. In the unlikely event that it will remain fiercely loyal to the EPRDF in the face of nation-wide mass protests, civilian fatalities that run in the low hundreds, as is offically the case for the 2005 post-election riots, will be too much for the international community. This is not 2005.

But whatever the casualty figures, perhaps no country will suggest the kind of military intervention which the British have proposed in Libya in recent days. Nonetheless, a belligerent EPRDF is doomed to a pyrrhic victory, if that is indeed the final outcome, which will irremediably rupture its indispensable relationship with the West.

And this will inevitably mark the beginning of the end for the historical enigma that is the EPRDF. There is no way for it to come out the winner from a violent clampdown.

Gadhafi used every means at his disposal to suppress the protests. Appallingly, artillery, helicopter gunship, and incredibly, even anti aircraft missiles were fired directly at protesters. But to no avail. In Bengahzi, hundreds of thousands of defiant protesters turned on the regime. In smaller towns, the frenzy of the people was harsher.

As casualty figure reportedly climbed to around a thousand, the surge of defections by once Gadhafi loyalists, which started in the military, encroached with no less ferocity to the civilian sector. Fuming Ministers, Ambassadors and religious leaders were soon urging rebellion against the regime.

EPRDF could count on even less officials to stay faithful to it. This will be particularly true of its diplomats. "Ethiopian embassies representing the people” will most probably pop up around the globe. Perhaps the only faithful embassy left will be the one in Beijing. But nothing is certain even there. After all, it is Gadhafi's most dependable comrade-in-arms of four decades who defected first in Benghazi.

All in all, the message to the EPRDF from Libya is crystal clear: don't fight change. You will not win.

*Eskinder Nega is an Ethiopian journalist, who was incarcerated several times for reporting fraud in parliamentary elections in Ethiopia in 2005. He contributes frequently also to and (IDN-InDepthNews/01.03.2011)