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Social Media and the simmering Ethiopian Revolution (Alem Bitew)

Social Media
“There are no nations! There is only humanity. And if we don’t come to understand that right soon, there will be no nations, because there will be no humanity.” Isaac Asimov, an American author

Declining political space and tightly controlled press have pushed all viable Ethiopian opposition forces and committed journalists into exile, and make diaspora the most vocal opponent of TPLF/EPRDF. The 100% victory in the 2015 parliamentary election marked the complete closure of political discourse and the beginning of insurgency, for the third time in our recent history. According to Mao Tse-tung, insurgencies have three phases: (1) the incipient/latent phase, (2) the guerrilla warfare, and (3) the war or movement phases. For insurgencies to be successful, they do not have to pass through every phase. The current revolution is more or less in the second phase of insurgency in the Amhara and some parts of Oromia regions and in the latent phase in the Gambella and Somali regions, among others.
Despite lack of organization and structural mechanisms, Social Media is more useful in the incipient phase of insurgency. For example, Social Media has been instrumental during Arab Spring in Egypt and even in Syria, during the initial phase, during which organizers share information, spread-out propaganda, evaluate the general trend, establish network, and conduct recruitment. However, it would never replace the actual conduct of insurgency nor advance the political, social, and economic solutions it seeks to achieve. It must be for this reason that people in our community, knowingly or unknowingly, tend to consider participating in Social Media as a fait accompli, without critically evaluating its contribution to the objectives of the insurgency. The bottom line is that Social Media increases the number and range of participation but not guarantee the corresponding level of outcome. The ultimate result depends on the actual planning, organizing, and implementing of activities.

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TPLF/EPRDF sympathizers and its paid propagandists, created after the Chinese model of “50 Cent Army,” have disproportionate access to Social Media to disseminate misinformation. Severely restricted access to and coverage of internet in Ethiopia has limited Social Media use only in the capital and regional cities. Low internet penetration rate (about 2% in 2015) raises doubts about the contribution Social Media for the Ethiopian revolution. In an effort to discourage the insurgency movement, EPRDF has been disrupting the little Social Media space. Inadvertently, Social Media disruption encourages people to relay on personal network that is critical to build thrust among participants, and the strong sense of camaraderie enhances voluntarism. This eventually pressurizes TPLF/EPRDF to open up Social Media on an on-and-off fashion, during which time revolutionary forces could use well-planned and targeted messages.

The importance of Social Media in the diaspora could be instrumental to build broad consensus among opposition forces, activists, and concerned citizens using the unrestricted internet access. In collaboration with traditional media outlets, Social Media can be exploited to reach the movement. For example, key informant form Ethiopia can get in touch with any diaspora based Social Media activists that in turn will disseminate globally. However, such utilization requires organized structure, centralized-framing, and carefully designed and timely messages to enhance liberation movements. Furthermore, exiled forces could reach out the 81% peasantry and supplement the 19% urban dweller using all available conventional media such as ESAT, VOA, Deutsche Welle…etc. than Social Media, as it is a major source of information. For example, during the Egyptian revolution, 70% of the public used Television as major source of information.

Despite its usefulness, however, Social Media has also serious limitations, even in the initial phase of insurgency. For example, unlike personal interaction that is indispensable for active engagement, lack of face-to-face interaction in Social Media makes interrelation and personal bondage relatively weak and undermines commitment and sacrifice that the insurgency requires. However, the role of Social Media in motivating the diaspora is enormous, particularly for awareness raising, open source integellience sharing, and resource mobilization.

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Another major constraint of Social Media is its inability to transform the high level of participation into active engagement. For example, it is unlikely that a one thousand “Facebook likes” will be transformed into neither a comparable number of demonstrators nor volunteers for active insurgency on the ground. Furthermore, as we have seen during the Arab Spring, Social Media has minimal usefulness for political transition and government formation. Research in the field has also revealed that it has little contribution in facilitating political concessions, negotiation, and state formation.

This inverse relationship between the need for increasing active insurgencies and the decline in the importance of Social Media marks the second phase of insurgency, i.e. guerilla type of engagement that requires full level personal engagement. During the second and third (guerrilla warfare and war of movement) phases, Social Media can never replace the indispensable physical operations needed for successful revolution. Insurgencies in these stages require engaging members and institutions as well as resilient strategies on the ground to counter the actions of TPLF/EPRDF. These are stages where political forces, civic organizations, activists, and key social and academic figures need to come together and play indispensable role. One of the formidable challenges that TPLF/EPRDF has created during its twenty-five-years rule is that it made sure that no major political group with national agenda emerge as an alternate force. Thus, despite the challenge, reversing the current trajectory could also be an opportunity if unprecedented and all- inclusive efforts can be deployed to address the plight of our people.
Let as scrutinize more closely, as to why Social Media is less useful in the second and third phases of insurgencies. On one hand, a great advantage of Social Media in bringing higher number of participants during the initial phase comes with a price, as the early stage of insurgency faces significant and subtle internal struggle for leadership. On the other hand, the presence of few vocal groups in the diaspora (the same group that failed us in the past) could derail the new movement from its objectives. Given our history of multiple but untested coalitions and their subsequent debacles, there are genuine threats. For some criticizing an opposition group, even objectively, is tantamount to supporting TPLF/EPRDF, and for those masquerading behind popular demand for “cooperation,” the propensity to dominate any emerging movement is primordial.


Yet, the current crisis is an excellent and historical opportunity for the fragmented Ethiopian elite to come together to entertain the plight of our people. Intragroup animosity has only helped TPLF to enjoy unconstrained dominance all over the Ethiopian power structure, including the eviction of citizens against their will from their ancestral land.

It is imperative that all concerned forces recognize our past abysmal performance, leave behind the old gimmicks, learn from the utterly failed top-bottom approach, and come up with innovative leadership in response to the emerging bottom-up movement. Broader understanding and all-inclusive framework transcending TPLF/EPRDF edified divides are critical, if we were to succeed. With this framework, those with better organization and representation could take the initiative to organize a congress in which all concerned forces negotiate a pragmatic outcome. Vacuum in leadership could not only undermine the revolutionary gains but also provide TPLF/EPRDF with undeserved opportunity to extend its dictatorship. This is particularly worrisome given the regimes renewed commitment to stifle the liberation movement using brute forces and fragment further oppressed groups amid growing solidarity of resistance.

For comment malembitew@gmail.com

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