The Black and White of Civil disobedience and Armed Struggle: Are we in the Gray Area?
By Afura Burtukana *
Mar 19, 2006 — Despotic governments all over the world almost always face resistance. The forms of resistance range from civil disobedience to armed struggle. Philosophers and activists have argued for and against both kind of resistance. Their bases for the argument are the severity of casualties, the length of time elapse, and requirement of resources among others. The objective is the effectiveness of the resistance which by itself is a base for the argument.
Civil disobedience is a type of passive resistance (some thinkers do not accept the passiveness of civil disobedience) which uses non-violent technique of refusal to obey civil laws or follow a policy believed to be unjust in an effort to induce change in governmental policy or legislation. Practitioners of civil disobedience claim the moral high ground and base their action on moral rights to recruit followers. It includes forms of disobedience like demonstrations, strikes, sit-in, mass gathering, disseminating flyers, taking over buildings, chaining themselves with each other etc. The practitioners of civil disobedience include religious groups, labor movements, suffragists (political franchise/ voter’s right), feminists, war resisters and other dissenters.
The critiques of civil disobedience argue that the movement is against the status-quo which sets up the laws of the nation-state and thus that makes it loose the moral high ground and actually illegal. The resistance is also not as passive as it claims to be as the nature itself makes it active. The other case against civil disobedience is that it is rather violent and usually is followed by mass unrest. While many cast their doubt about the effectiveness of non-violent civil disobedience, other say even if it works, it is just too slow; many will be jailed, wounded, killed or forced to flee in the mean time.
However, proponents for civil disobedience argue that it is against laws and policies which are unjust to their conscious and they primarily abide to their conscious than the rules of the government. Saint Augustine said that “An unjust law is no law at all… One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly… and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law.” The movement is also passive, according to them, because they are reacting to atrocities committed by the government. By nature, civil disobedience is non-violent but of course, more often than not ends up with the violent action of the government which creates the unrest. The nonviolent activist had to be ready to pay the ultimate scarifies for the cause. The nonviolent activist, while willing to die, should never kill. The beauty of it is, at the end of the struggle all sides will emerge as winners-a positive sum game unlike armed struggle where it leaves the ?losers’ as losers- zero-sum game. “Through our pain we will make them see their injustice” said Gandhi. And those who claim that non-violent way of struggle is too slow have to prove that the armed struggle is no slower.
The legendary freedom fighters Mohandas Gandhi (Mahatma Means “Great Soul.”) and Martin Luther King (MLK) are exemplifiers of using civil disobedience. The theory, however, dates back to 1849 long before the legendaries (it actually can be even traced in the Holy books of the Bible and Koran). In 1849 Henry David Thoreau wrote an essay titled On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. According to the essay it is individuals who, using their conscious, gave power to the state and that same conscious should be used to refute unjust laws dictated by the states. Foremost, people should abide to their own conscious before they do to their government. The essay contains his famous statement “That government is best which governs least,” The essay of Thoreau impacted the practices of both Gandhi and King.
Gandhi was able to implement the theory of Thoreau by developing the notion of Satyagraha (Sanskrit: holding to truth). He combined the theory with Indian tradition and added some self-discipline and moral standards. The civil disobedience compelled The British Empire to withdraw from India. Some activists argue in the line of the ?democratic’ nature of the then British Empire and question whether that would have worked if it was in different places and/or time. Like my History Professor used to say, ?It is hard to deal with the IF’s of history.’
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the 1950’s and 60’s civil right movements in the United States of America. Just like Gandhi, his non-violent civil disobedience, though marred by massive government carnages, paid off by the passage of a civil rights legislation. On his famous letter from the Birmingham Jail, where he was arrested due to the movement he was leading, he wrote “My friends I must say to you we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure.”
As explained above non-violent civil disobedience is throbbing by nature. In due course re-thinking might emerge. The Great African Leader Nelson Mandela in his speech once said “…As violence in this country was inevitable, it would be wrong and unrealistic for African leaders to continue preaching peace and nonviolence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force…”
In our own countries case, the drums and tone of war are beginning to have higher pitch. Now-a-day the sounds of, ?we tried it and did not work’ or ?I told you so’ are becoming louder. The news of clashes here and there, this group captured/’librated’ this and that area are becoming headlines. ?Zemual Goradew’ and like our own famous journalist and writer Zenaneh Mekkonen wrote in his book Netsannet 1987-88
– “Kermo Kermo Temelese
Wurse Huno Derese;
Denum Nafekew Mesel;
Wond Wondun Lememiret Sil”.
The message is that, the non-violent civil disobedience method launched by parties opposing the ruling incumbent, at best are taking too long and the public is running out of patience or it totally failed. The reason, they attest, is mainly the nature of the EPRDF which at any rate does not give any room for a civilized non-violent method of protest. The academia behind these groups argues that Gandhi’s Satyagraha was a success because to an extent the British colonizer understood civility and hence was able to communicate in that language. To the contrary the EPRDF has not yet graduated from Gorilla to Statesmanship and has got to study the vocabularies. Hence, they continue, we have to talk to the government in the language it understands.
They also seem to be convinced that we have given the non-violent civil disobedience all it got but it was just a futile exercise. The majority of the leaders have been arrested, many have been killed and the rest have left either the country and/or the struggle. To the dismay of many, a few have betrayed. Accordingly, these have left the populous in despair and to be desperate. There is a power vacuum, and the room for civil disobedience hereafter is close to none.
Senior members of Kinijit, have time and again, asserted that their party will not abandon its peaceful way of struggling. The objective, they say, is not just a power transition from EPRDF to others but the bottom line is the process of transition. If the Dergue and EPRDF have shown the intention of being life time rulers of the country, by the virtue of the power thrown to them through the barrel of the gun, just like all other dictators through out the world, they ask, give us just one reason why we should trust others to be democratic and willing to give up power through the ballot? They again ask for a guarantee that the armed struggle will be less demanding in terms of resources and sacrifices. In fact, they say, the sacrifice is more sever on the non-violent method when it comes to the leadership level. The proponents of the armed struggle have got to guarantee, again, that their movement will be less time consuming, comparatively. From the outset, say Kinijit leaders, they knew what the price for a non-violent civil disobedience would be, and they were ready for it. When one group of leadership is out of function, the other takes over. And the seemingly “No Action, No News, No Leadership” Time Zone is just a natural component of the struggle.
The leaders of kinijit, who have lived up to their promises and are anguishing in jail, have twice sent a message to the people appealing to them to never give up hope and abandon the non-violent method, “Fellow Ethiopians!! We the leaders, members and supporters of CUDP both inside and outside of prison will continue our peaceful struggle. Therefore, we respectfully call on you to stand with us and continue mobilizing for the peaceful, legal struggle both within and outside of the country until the ruling party comes to the table in search of a negotiated resolution of all outstanding issues that led up to the current crisis.” Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and nelson Mandela did the same years ago. The people of Ethiopia has shown to all political leaders, the incumbent and opposition alike, and to the whole wide world, during the 2005 National Election, that they are a civilized society who knew its democratic right and will settle for nothing less. They have what it takes to make that happen.
* Afura Burtukana is an Ethiopian activist based in USA, he can be reached at