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Derg vs. Woyanne – same goal, different style

By Messay Kebede

In the final analysis, the difference between the Derg and the Woyanne regime in terms of repression and exclusiveness is becoming blurred by the day since the 2005 election. In a previous article, I indicated that the toughening of repression is part of a political strategy associated with the “implementation” of an authoritarian development model, to wit, the developmental state. The strategy is to weaken the opposition to the point of making it irrelevant by removing its influence on the masses, which influence essentially originates from economic plight. A non-participatory regime that provides bread and butter for the masses is not only assured of a long rule, but can even legitimize its political hegemony by electoral victories.

The trouble with an authoritarian model of development is that it needs time to effect tangible economic improvements. And time is what the Woyanne regime does not have so long as a vociferous opposition denigrates its “achievements.” The strategy of the developmental state needs time and time becomes available only when the opposition is silenced. This explains why journalists are the main target of repression: their criticisms deprive the regime of the silence it needs to advertise its “achievements” to the masses. A critical press is utterly damaging for a regime that derives economic progress from above and makes it dependent on the postponement of gratification.


would have been much easier if the silencing of opposition could use lethal repression. The bloody repression of the Derg was fashionable in the context of the Cold War and the ideology of class struggle prescribing violence as the decisive expression of the commitment to the interests of the masses. The collapses of the Soviet camp and of the ideology of class struggle and the subsequent acceptance of multipartism have robbed deadly repression of its entitlement as the midwife of history. This altered context, and that alone, explains why the Woyanne regime hesitates to be as brutal as the Derg.

What this means is that is that the difference between the two regimes since the 2005 election is more a difference in style than substance. The goal remains the same: the control of absolute power through the repression of the opposition. Only the Woyanne regime has replaced sheer brutality with a judicial masquerade, thereby covering repression with the appearance of legality. Instead of silencing the opposition through the threat of violent death, the Woyanne regime has opted for a form of repression whose essential task is to break and humiliate targeted people.

There is an inherent reason for the choice of this form of repression. Together with the international dislike of repressive regimes, the changed context of multipartism leaves little room for the sheer physical elimination of opponents. You cannot claim to be an advocate of multipartism while physically eliminating the leaders of opposition parties. By contrast, you can bring them to court and make them face charges that range from terrorism to constitutional violations. All you need is a docile court system. More exactly, the quelling of dissidents occurs prior to the judicial masquerade; it takes place in the inhuman condition of detention where deprivations, torture, and all forms of humiliation are widely practiced. By the time the accused reach the court, they are already in pieces, wreckages of what they used to be. The court is thus not so much where you defend your rights as where you implore for mercy.

The whole purpose of breaking targeted individuals is to divest the social movement for change of trusted and galvanizing leaders, the outcome of which is none other than a crippled opposition. What else does the context of a leaderless protest guarantee but the continuous prevalence of the Woyanne regime, even in electoral contests? When leaders give in to intimidation and mistreatment, not only are they diminished in the eyes of followers and the masses, but they also seem to recant their political commitments, and so nullify the very existence of opposition.

What follows from this is the need to adjust the struggle to the repressive style. What Ethiopia’s social protest needs above all is the rise of leaders whose main characteristic is the refusal to yield. Indomitability alone can shatter the system by its inspirational impact on the social protest. The latter craves not so much for convincing or sophisticated ideological visions or political programs as for the exemplary behavior of leaders who withstand the scheme of debasement. What the Ethiopian renaissance awaits is not a dam on the Nile; it is heroism.

(The writer can be reached at

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