Eritrea: Peaceful Resistance Or Peaceful Surrender—The New Non-Violence Mantra

The term “non-violent” or “peaceful resistance” has a nice ring to it. It suggests that the person espousing it must be for peace and all others for violence. For those who want to distinguish themselves from the rest of us (run of the mill Eritreans), no other slogan would do as well. Its idealistic charm is a perfect fit for Diaspora intellectuals who are determined to fight the oppressive regime from afar with everything they have got – pen, paper and keystrokes.  EPDP, notwithstanding its recent internal squabbles, is such a one. Its editorial recently posted, an article titled “Peaceful Resistance: A window to progress and tranquility” (November 5, 2010) where the authors solemnly defend their espousal of the non-violence method of struggle.   

EPDP is not the only one that is advancing this mode of struggle however. In fact, it can be said that advocacy of non-violence has replaced communism as the new mantra within certain intellectual circles who once again are falling for a new fad without considering the circumstances under which it can succeed. Fad-hopping enthusiasts aside, there are also some sincere souls that are advocating such a strategy out of purely morally motivated reasons.  It is mainly to the latter (whose opinions I highly respect) that I direct this article. 

To begin, let us clearly understand where the difference of opinion lies. The disagreement is not between those who are for violence and those who are for peace.  I think we are all in agreement that peaceful and non-violent means are generally preferable to violent methods in cases where the probability of success of the former is greater and when directed against someone or some entity more likely to respond to such techniques. The disagreement thus centers on whether we must always and under all circumstances employ non-violent techniques or whether we should use whatever tactics are most appropriate for a particular situation. The writers of the editorial apparently belong to the former. Others (including I) believe that we need to employ whatever means is available to us including (but not exclusively) armed self-defense.

A relevant question to ask here is: from whence did this recent global craze over non-violence emanate?  How and why did non-violence become so popular these days despite its shaky impracticality? Non-violence and pacifist ideas gained currency in modern times largely due to the specter of nuclear warfare and the devastation wrought by the two world wars. With the invention of nuclear bombs, earth’s very survival took center stage overshadowing all other concerns. Realizing that there can be no winners in such a dreadful war, leading thinkers, philosophers and scientists rose to the occasion and began to advocate non-violence as a means of averting a global disaster. 

Gandhi and King, however, were primarily motivated by religion.  But whatever the reasons, the limited success these two champions of non-violence (Gandhi and King) achieved became a rallying cry of pacifists world wide who deliberately exalted these two icons of non-violence as a way of disseminating pacifist goals and ideas. Others such as the British Empire did so for selfish political expediency.  George Orwell even went so far as to say that the British “were making use of Gandhi, or thought they were making use of him… since in every crisis he would exert himself to prevent violence – which, from the British point of view, meant preventing any effective action whatever – he could be regarded as “our man.” 

I sincerely hope global non-violent movement will gain acceptance worldwide but for now, common sense dictates that we deal with what is in front of us.  As President Obama put it in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, we must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified”.  Obama went on to enumerate the limitations of a non-violent movement in the same speech as follows:  A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

A Dictatorship knows no reason and is totally devoid of compassion.  Even ardent advocates of non-violence change their views quickly when they come face to face with naked dictatorship. Albert Einstein, for example, a self-proclaimed pacifist made an exception when Nazis overrun his country. He wrote: “I loathe all armies and any kind of violence; yet I’m firmly convinced that at present these hateful weapons offer the only effective protection.”  Bertrand Russell another pacifist was forced to make similar adjustments in his thinking later in life. All we are saying is that we need that kind of contextualized discernment when considering the case of Eritrea.  Both Gandhi and King were dealing with a relatively benign opponent and within a semi-democratic setting however faulty.  We on the other hand are facing a beast of a different kind –a ruthless dictatorship with no moral scruples whatsoever. 

This is not to say that I don’t understand and sympathize with the views of those sincere Eritreans that are calling for non-violence. I most certainly do. Understandably, Eritreans are tired of violence and tired of fighting but unfortunately whether we like or not; tired or not, the killing machine will continue killing until it is forcibly confronted. “Peaceful resistance” will not prevent bloodshed. The only blood that will be spared is the oppressor’s. The question then becomes whether it is a better strategy to act as sitting ducks hoping for the best or to resist with everything in our power including armed defense.  We agree that non-violence techniques are not about doing nothing but in Eritrea’s case employing many of the non-violent techniques would be asinine, suicidal, or inefficient at best.  Non-violence never works against full-blown dictatorships – a fact that led Michael Walzer to conclude that “Non-violent defense is no defense at all against tyranny”.

Gandhi (later King) reportedly said: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” That may be true in certain situations but let us see if his counsel holds true in all circumstances.  Imagine this.  You are sitting in your room with your family of 5 and a deranged person barges into your room determined to kill everyone.  He kills one of your daughters and you see that he is intent on killing you all.  Horrified, you take out your gun and kill him before he kills your son.  In this scenario two people die including the aggressor.  If you did nothing, everyone would have died.  Thus, in this particular case, defensive action (though violent) saved the day.

Another possibility is that as soon as he barges in, you confront the attacker with a weapon and the attacker runs away without committing a single crime.  No one dies. This is the deterrent power of being prepared and armed. An eye for an eye would be justified in this case if taking an eye (the aggressors’) will save many eyes of innocents.  On a national scale, that is exactly what we are facing and we need a similar deterrent power of armed resistance to save lives.  Gandhi’s comments spring from certain religious objectives or principles that went beyond practical considerations. That also explains his bizarre advice to the Jews to commit mass suicide than fight back against the Nazis.

Thus, the technique we use must be suitable to the aggressor we face.  To respond non-violently when cornered by a hungry wolf or when trapped by a deranged psychopath is to exhibit extreme poor intelligence. Behavioral psychologists and psychiatrists have long known the phenomenon of incorrigible or hardened criminals who are beyond psychotherapy.  A dictatorship that reduced our 30-year struggle for independence almost to naught and that managed to wreck our country economically, politically, and socially in a matter of years and that continues to terrorize our people is certainly past therapy of any kind.  A restraining order is called for and it is our inalienable right, nay, our civic duty to defend ourselves and our people in any way we can.

The basic right to self-defense is so fundamental to the safety, wellbeing, and security of individuals and nations that almost all countries regard armed self-defense as a necessary precaution against aggression.  In the United States, this right is explicitly extended even to individuals in the 2nd amendment to the constitution which grants the “right to bear arms”. Think about it.  How many countries have armies and why do they have them?  How many have a police force?  How many countries won their independence without resorting to violence?  If non-violence can always bring results, why did our own peaceful movement turn into an armed struggle in the 60’s?  Or are we stipulating that our forefathers blundered seriously when they initiated the armed struggle?   Or is this a case of condoning violence when it is directed against a foreign tyrant and denouncing it against a domestic dictator?

I am posing all these questions not for a theoretical diversion but to make you brood over over the issue a little more closely and to make you realize that non-violence cannot be adapted at all times and in all circumstances as the only strategy.  It is important to understand also that all the successes attributed to “non-violent” movements had a component of armed resistance.  This includes Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement where certain groups within the Indian Independent Movement resorted to armed resistance and in the case of King there was the militant Malcolm X to scare the Government into acquiescing to King.  Mandela also combined armed struggle with non-violent struggle.

Non-violence activists pin their hopes on either transforming the hearts of their adversaries or on garnering so large a following that sheer numbers will force a win. Alternately, the hope is that the techniques will so irritate the aggressing party that it will be inclined to mend its ways.  All these expectations are bound to fail in Eritrea for a number of reasons:

First, we have seen no evidence that the present ruler/rulers have any heart at all let alone a sympathetic one that one can appeal to.  In fact, we know the opposite to be the case.  The regime has many things to atone for but not even once has it shown remorse for any of its atrocities against our people. EPDP writers acknowledge this when they confess the incumbent regime knows nothing but violence” but  seem blissfully unaware that this stark admission weakens their position because if the regime understands only the language of violence then that is precisely the only language that will work with it!

Second, non-violent movements need a saint-like leader with very high morality of the caliber of Gandhi, Walesa, or Martin Luther King or at least someone who is so highly regarded that he automatically draws a large following by dint of his moral force alone. Such a leader is needed because of the almost super-human self-control that such movements require to resist a natural impulse to justified self-defense. Who in the “non-violent only” camp (or any camp) fits this description?  I can think of no one.  Can you dear reader?  This does not mean we can never have or never will of course but even if one were to appear in the future, it will be too late because even a Gandhi needs time to consolidate or mobilize a support base. 

Third, even if we had been blessed with a Gandhi-like personality amongst us, a non-violent movement would never mushroom or grow into an effective force in Eritrea simply because the Government would never countenance it.  PFDJ can immobilize and crush unarmed protestors in a twinkling of an eye – a fact that became hair-raisingly manifest when ex-tegadeltis tried to demonstrate in Mai-habar and more recently with the G-15. Thus it would be suicidal to stage even a simple march inside Eritrea let alone to wage a full-fledged non-violent struggle! The leaders would either be executed or put away (as many have in the past) which reminds us of Orwell’s very astute observation who wrote: It is difficult to see how Gandhi’s methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again.”  Sound familiar?  Orwell adds that “Without a free press and the right of assembly, it is impossible not merely to appeal to outside opinion, but to bring a mass movement into being, or even to make your intentions known to your adversary.”  – [emphasis added]. 

Fourth, non-violent techniques can encourage the oppressive regime to commit more heinous acts secure in the knowledge that the opposition will never lift a finger to help the oppressed.  The absence of counter force or threat of force will certainly embolden it to pursue its current policies unimpeded.

Fifth, with no organized armed resistance, our forcibly recruited children and other soldiers will have fewer options to defy the oppressive regime.  Many of these soldiers, having seen the regime’s brutality first hand, would never risk their lives on non-violent resistance if they see no prospect to fight the enemy.  But with an armed resistance around the corner, they will have courage knowing that they can at any time join their brothers and sisters and a gun will be placed in their hand to repulse the oppressor.  But if the opposition were to resort to non-violent only strategy, the only way open to them would be unarmed trek across the border risking being arrested or killed.

Sixth, where will the non-violent movement get its recruits?  Even if the non-violent movement had media power to equal that of the GOE, it would take considerable time to build support for such an intensely unrealistic vision of the struggle? Even if they could be persuaded to join quickly, they would soon abandon it in the face of massive and immediate repression. It may seem easy and practical to those who are wallowing in their starry-eyed dreams of “peace and tranquillity” from afar, but to those who are daily experiencing the rough and tumble of life under the oppressive regime (whose loved ones may even be in jail, killed, or disappeared), the non-violent mantra would seem like a cruel joke. 

If this “peaceful resistance” being advocated is not just another name for “peaceful surrender”, then all these new Eritrean Mahatmas need to do to prove their case is to gather like-minded individuals around them and to boldly march into Asmara chanting “we have a dream” (as King did) or stage a protest comparable to Gandhi’s salt march to Dandi or any of the various confrontational techniques of non-violent resistance! If they successfully survive such an ordeal, I will be waiting for them at the airport to pay homage to their miraculous powers. If they cannot, then they should stop pretending to be apostles of non-violence and confess that their chant has more to do with a hope of striking a deal with the regime than a genuine struggle for freedom. Put another way – surrender!

For all the above reasons and much more, non-violent only strategy would never work in Eritrea except to delay, divert, and confuse the resistance from the real task at hand.  I therefore urge all Eritreans including EPDP to more deeply and intelligently study the literature on this subject with an eye on its applicability to our situation.  It is evident from the article in question that the editors did very little independent thinking on the subject.  Take for example, the strange statement they make towards the end of their article that “War doesn’t end war”.  I am not going to comment on it hoping that most readers will see the meaninglessness of such an assertion themselves.  I will merely give a hint: the answer lies in history (including our own).

Armed resistance, however, should not be an end in itself but a means to an end – a means to erect a rule of law and democracy.  Once the objective achieved, a more forgiving and a more charitable attitude should be adapted. It will be the collective responsibility of our people to watch out for those with tendencies to commit excesses. Too severe punishments should be an exception not the rule reserved for those who committed heinous verifiable crimes against our people. In other words, the opposition in triumph must act responsibly, wisely, and with a goal of paving the way to a peaceful prosperous Eritrea.

Final note:  EPDP has complained that “Beating on EPDP these days has become a fashion of the EDA leadership.”  I don’t know if this is true but I hope my article will not be taken that way.  It is wrong in principle to beat down someone who has already fallen or about to fall.  Sadly for EPDP, its ambitious project of amalgamating ex-EPLFers and ex-ELFers into one did not live up to its expectations. Instead, the union produced a super-elitist zygote that became a great liability for both EPDP and the opposition in general. That is why I sometimes I think the boycott may have been a blessing in disguise because their pompous posturing would have made it difficult for other participants to successfully conclude the conference as they did. The boycott did little to damage the conference but did a lot – an irreparable harm – to the reputation of EPDP. Indeed, EPDP committed a huge public relations blunder by boycotting the conference but even worse would not learn a lesson from it.


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