Peaceful Resistance: A Window To Progress And Tranquility Is That The Whole Truth?

I read an interesting article, PEACEFUL RESISTANCE: A WINDOW TO PROGRESS AND TRANQUILITY (NHARNET.COM – 5.11.2010) a couple of months ago. It grandly pronounced EPDP’s art of struggle in a nutshell – Peaceful Resistance. A tactic which is also the strategy.  The article further boasts EPDP is the first Eritrean party to officially endorse such a policy.  Peaceful resistance is the window to progress and tranquilly declares the header in big format. I couldn’t help wondering that tranquility denotes more to the emotional and religious than the political. Anyway, why not a wide door instead of just a window!

This writing, triggered by the current happenings in North Africa, especially in Libya, is a late reaction to the article and it intends to examine whether peaceful resistance alone can uproot deep seated tyrannical governments like  the  one  in  Eritrea  and whether  peaceful  and violent  resistances are  mutually  exclusive absolutes?

I am of a peaceful temperament. I don’t remember having initiated any physical or word aggression. Like almost every Eritrean child I grew up under an aggressive and tyrannical `Father’. Because he brought us our daily bread and sheltered us, the whole family was at His total mercy. He was the Patriarch and his word was the Law. The man was huge and muscular it was futile to confront him directly and physically. And, above all, He was our Father. In our patriarchal society nobody condones any confrontation against the Father. Least of all my mother, though she was the most oppressed of us all. Or despite of it. One day I did defy Him and learnt never to do it again. But I didn’t give up and in time developed my own tactics and managed the monster. Without reading Gandhi, instinctively, I learnt at an early age the magic of words and logic and the power of persuasion and pacification. Most of all, the wisdom to know when to run away. I knew my opponent thoroughly and used his strength and weakness against him. One day I realized he loved learning. He taught himself the Geez alphabet and when he was not drinking himself to death, he went to an Italian night school and learnt Italian and arithmetic.

One day I committed a real crime.  I mean a crime written about in all Holy Books and Penal Codes. It started as a simple test of guts among friends – the would-be-men.  I stole apricots from a neighborhood yard. My second crime – I was caught red-handed. Stealing prohibited fruits brings always problems with it. My father heard of it and I thought my Judgment Day has come!  He came into my room his eyes bloody red and started shouting at me. At the moment I had a book at hand and was reading. I looked direct in his eyes and simply told him to shut up and leave me alone because I was learning. And a miracle happened. He just froze where he stood and looked at me and my book long and strange. Finally, he nodded his head and said, “Don’t do it again!” and left. I took it a book saved my life. From that day on I fell in love with books and kept on reading and reading and my father left me alone. Later on, I even convinced him, though for a short time, to stop smoking and drinking.

I told you this little intimate story to assert that in my small little world, nonviolent confrontation against the Father was more or less successful. But not all the times. There is even a good reason why it worked at all. I had the good luck that my ‘enemy’ was not really my enemy. He was my father. He was loving and considerate in his perverted way; and would listen to if I persist. I know he didn’t mean to hurt me. He was only misguided. 

As I grew up, I developed, shaped and reshaped this instinctive child’s wisdom into usable tactics to avoid bloody physical and verbal confrontations in my daily life. In the first place comes, naturally, cunning (i.e. using your intelligence and your opponent’s against him), patience (wearying your opponent off; also called killing him with time), arguments, and persuasions (killing with words!). Direct physical confrontation always hurts both sides of the conflict. The hand that hits will also be hit by the face that it hits. I must confess I am not even physically much endowed for a physical confrontation; nevertheless, I never run away or hid from a challenge that even sometimes ended up violently. Where logic and persuasion fail, aggressive physical confrontation is unavoidable.

I will risk boring you with another little story whose only merit is its intimacy to our collective experience. Addis Ababa mid 1974. The Dergue came into power and proclaimed National State of Emergency and Curfew beginning at midnight. Ten minutes before midnight, I was standing at the door of my student quarter facing the street and smoking my last cigarette when two policemen came and asked me what I was doing there as if they hadn’t seen what I was doing. I explained I was smoking. The shorter of the two asked me if I didn’t know about the curfew. I said I knew but it was not yet midnight and I was not outside. The way I was dressed up only in pajamas and house shoes should have indicated that I was not a dangerous person at all.  But there was another thing that made me dangerous in their eyes. From the way I spoke my Amharic they knew I was a Tigre- the collective label of Tigreans and Eritreans at that time. The big one asked where I came from. I told him I was an Eritrean.  Without uttering another word he slapped me so hard that instantly everything was black around me. My eyeglasses flew to the ground. Before I can peak it up, he had it under his boots and crushed it slowly and deliberately and enjoying every second of it. I didn’t offer him the other cheek. Anyway, he tried to slap me again but I was ready this time and dodged. On the spot I decided no reason, no protest would work with such people. My immediate impulse was to jump on the two and strangle them. But they were both armed with heavy M-14 guns. They took me to a police station as I was dressed. I tried to reason out with the young commander of the police station. He turned deaf ears on me. The next morning they took me to a court of law. I argued with the old judge. I was a fourth year law student at the time. My well thought of and learned legal argument brought nothing. I was sentenced to 30 days imprisonment or 30 birr penal fee. I remember being very angry at the realization how cheap I was – one miserable Ethiopian dollar per day! I argued again how I was supposed to pay the penalty even when I had no pockets on what I was wearing. I pleaded to be allowed to go home with police accompaniment to collect the money. The judge saw no reason in my argument. I begged again for one telephone call. The judge showed no compassion. For not being able to pay on the spot I was sent to the Alem Bekka- a prison for serious criminals. I was shaved and disinfected and put in. I met Mahmud Kidan and other veteran Eritrean political prisoners and they arranged that I phone the Law School – one telephone call that took three days of negotiation with the prison social worker. In the third day, my faculty dean paid the 30 birr (he argued that he should pay only 27 birr but to no avail) and freed me. On this day, my life style and its tactic- peaceful solution of problems- was compromised. I learnt the peaceful way doesn’t work all the time. When the other side of the conflict doesn’t even acknowledge there is a problem and doesn’t want to talk about it; when every logic, argument, accusation, diplomacy fails, then the peaceful way has reached its limit. The logic of confrontation requires that it change its form. On that day I decided to join the armed Eritrean liberation struggle.

At the personal level, peaceful confrontation bases its success on the presumption that the opponent is inherently good and reasonable that if the abused waits long enough by the river side patiently loving, caring, persuading, educating his abuser; the latter would, at late last, understand his wrong doings. But this assumption is not always true.  There are people who do wrong with full knowledge of their actions and clear goals. In addition, there are also lunatics who do wrong with or without full knowledge of their actions. In both cases, pacifist tactics [Please turn the other cheek!]  Would have been a wasted energy. The first must be held responsible for their actions, violently if necessary. The second must be taken out of traffic and put in closed psychiatric clinics. In both cases the reaction is called self defense. Self defense is not only a legally, morally legitimate right, it is also an inborn instinct of self preservation. Every individual and community has the right to defend itself in situations of real and imminent danger. Not defending oneself it is equivalent to committing suicide. Besides the protection of the person, the concept includes the defense of all legal and human rights. Self defense can be peaceful and violent according to the specific danger and situation. Self defense has though its moral, legal and practical limitations which are measured according to the imminence and gravity of the danger. Primarily, the aim of self defense is not to destroy the agent of danger. The aim is to control the danger. But over and over again it might be necessary to destroy the agent in order to control the danger. This principle applies to individual as well as to the communal/national self defenses. The latter is of course a complicated legal, political and military enterprise.

Gandhi is claimed to be the first modern politician to use the principles of nonviolence against the most powerful colonial power of the time and win. What he actually did was make nonviolence confrontational and pushes it to the verge of outright violence.

For its success, nonviolent political confrontation (NVPC) assumes that “no government can rule without the consent and cooperation of its people.  If the people are moved to withdraw their consent and cooperation, the government would crumble and fall down. This state of affairs would be achieved through education, persuasion, targeted propaganda  and civil disobedience [1] Gandhi’s principles of peaceful resistance were latter on expanded and refined to be employed in different environmental specific political and social struggles.  

I concede that Gandhi’s NVPC did a lot to mobilize the Indian masses to fight for their independence. But did NVPC alone brought about Indian’s independence? The truth (or untruth) of this claim is very important to our struggle against tyranny that we must scrutinize it minutely and seriously.

During Gandhi sat on his mat and preached general civil disobedience and noncooperation, there was enough physical violence against the British colonialism from other Indian political sectors including Gandhi’s own party. One of the party leaders, Subhas Chandra Bose even went as far as aligning himself with the Axis powers to fight against the British.  He put together an Indian Legion in Germany from captured Indians soldiers who fought for the British and the Indian National Army in Japan. By the end of the war, India had almost its own army – the Indian Royal Army.

Gandhi was not at all the ultimate peaceful person that people talk about. He took part in at least two wars directly and actively, albeit, as stretcher-bearer*. At all the wars that England undertook he encouraged his Indian compatriots to join the British army as combatants to learn the art of modern warfare. But the British government rejected his appeal because it knew of his hidden intentions. As far back as his South African stay, he has a dream of building an Indian national army. The big question is why would a peaceful political activist like Gandhi feverishly agitate for the establishment of a national army?

Gandhi was neither a philosophical nonviolent; nor a war monger. He was only an outright pragmatic politician and tactician who would employ any means that would bring him nearer to his goal – India’s independence. .  Gandhi would even extend his universal love to the Devil himself if he could help to get rid of the hated British. Asked whether his duty in war and belief in peace contradict, he replied: “While war and nonviolence do seem contradictory, they are both conflict resolution vehicles. I have said time and again that nonviolence is not the same as making peace. It is still a fight that has to fight as bravely as a soldier in a war – only the weapon is different.

Many people mistake nonviolence as compromise or avoidance of conflict. Fighting a violent war is better than accepting injustice. So really there is no contradiction in fighting a just war, and believing in nonviolence. Both duties are to be carried out to preserve justice and peace.” [2]

Quit India was his biggest most compelling mass movement in the history of his struggle.  Whether it was a big success is arguable. Some historians claim that it sucked a lot of the economic, political and military energy of the Empire and more important it shattered its will power to keep on occupying India. Others, including British Prime Minister of the time underscore its achievement and ascribe the success of the independence movement to the ever growing dissatisfaction and mutinies in the Royal Indian Armed Forces. [3]  

From these facts we can safely conclude that Gandhi’s policy played a very great role (perhaps the greatest) in undermining British colonialism in India. But, without the threat of armed rebellion hovering all over India, the British wouldn’t have been forced to grant India its independence. Gandhi quasi provided them a way-out to quit India with grace. 

Gandhi was certainly not a saint; only a consummate pragmatist. He converted India’s weakness to strength and moved the whole population against the British. He would be naturally reluctant to use the Indian Royal Army to fight the British, but if it were the last resort and had a chance to win, I think he would have condoned its deployment. Otherwise he wouldn’t have encouraged his countrymen to join the British army as combatants and learn techniques of modern warfare. Gandhi was a shrewd tactician who understood that violence and nonviolence were not absolutes and not mutually exclusive.

Thus, it is a combination of many factors, including the fact that England was very weary of the Second World War that brought about Indian’s independence.


The arguments supporting peaceful resistance as contained in the article can be summarized as such. The CONs are imaginary counter-arguments.

PRO:  Violence fosters the culture of violence.

CON: Perhaps.

PRO: Violence breeds violence.

CON: Naturally. For every action there is an opposite equal reaction. This slogan is, though, meant to warn the initiator of violence. By the way, nonviolence breeds violence, too. That is exactly what happening in North Africa and the other Arab lands.

PRO: In our situation violence would only harm the innocents without affecting the dictatorial system at all.

CON: Ever heard of a Napoleon, a Hitler or an Issaias who fell down at the war front? (It is always             the poor, innocent conscripts who die!) But the disintegration of their armies brought about their demise.

PRO: Violence “will provide a good propaganda ammunition for the regime to discredit the opposition for further bloodshed of Eritrean lives.”

CON: Can the regime discredit the opposition more than it already did! It does not recognize its existence at all. What difference would it make anyway?

PRO: If the enemy is strong – well armed and organized – then NVPC is the practical art to resist. Look what is happening in Libya! A NVPC exploded into a full scale civil war because the opposition didn’t debase Kaddafi enough.

CON: That proves only that violence and nonviolence are inter-changeable. Nonviolence is a time bomb. When a dictator answers with the violence, then it would be difficult to control it in a frame. Emotions explode. Sorry there is no one in Libya who would fast to death to stop the violence. 

PRO: We must first win the sympathy and support of the regime’s loyalists and thus weaken the regime.

CON: The genuine nationals are already in the camp of the democratic opposition. The PFDJ zealots remain zealots whatever political education and persuasion we use to dissuade them. Their material and spiritual interests are intricately entwined with the regime. They are its hostages. Felitu zidekese harmaz neinikniko!

PRO: We must expose the regime in the civilized world so as to gain international understanding and support.

CON: What please?  Which country, which president, which international political and humanitarian organization doesn’t know about the political nature of the Eritrean regime and the plight of the Eritrean people. Hey, we are at the top 10 list of the worst dictatorial regimes of the world. We are even sanctioned! None of the tactics of the NVPC were left unturned during the last 20 years peaceful opposition. It didn’t bring much. If it seems now that some of the regime sympathizers are changing camps, it is only because of the unabated brutality of the regime itself. By the way, wasn’t it peaceful resistance what we did during the last 20 years ….

PRO: No, it was inactive resistance.

CON: No plausible counter-argument.

PRO: Look, the enemy is strong and the opposition is weak and divided. The only practical way to resist is peacefully. Or else we must invite for foreign military intervention. This would create a situation of civil war. That would in turn give our enemies the chance to invade us and trample over our national sovereignty and security.

CON: At the beginning the Libyan opposition also cried: No Foreign Intervention. But latter it even begged for it. Would somebody call a UN-mandated intervention as foreign intervention?  Certainly it is. Then we must side with Gaddafi. No, we don’t? Its motivation is humanitarian.  Somebody must protect the people from their own mad president.

If we, one day, find ourselves in the situation the Libyan opposition finds itself, would we reject a UN-mandated military help even from Ethiopia? I know now I am treading in a dangerous terrain. But logic itself would answer the question. If we don’t oppose the UN intervention in Libya, then we cannot oppose it in our land.

PRO: We are not philosophical about our NVPC. As things are as they are, NVPC is the most practical way to confront our enemy. If the balance of power changes, if we came to the conclusion NVPC is no more effective, then we will adjust our mode of confrontation as such. That is why we call ourselves pragmatic NVPC.

CON: God be blessed! By the way, was it practical for a small rag-tag Eritrean army to rise against the strongest army and empire in black Africa?  At end we even won ….

PRO: … and at what cost? And what a government did it bring us with? Anyway that is another story. It was a colonial question ….

CON: The question is still colonial – native colonialism. The Eritrean colonial regime occupies the whole land – its wealth and its people – as its private possession just like any foreign colonial occupier. It turned out the whole country into a colossal concentration camp of forced labour, prisons and free shooting and killing fields. The whole social fabric and the Eritrean Nation (if there was any!) is disintegrating.  Indeed, the Eritrean regime is one of the most diabolically horrible, cruel, arrogant, ignorant, non-negotiating, deep entrenched, cunning, total dictatorships that our world ever saw. It monopolizes everything public and thoroughly controls the private life. No constitution. No human rights. No rule of law. No public media. No … (name anything civilized and democratic). It is a system wholly and solely sustained with pure violence and terror. Can we really get rid of such cruel predator state with demonstrations, sit-ins, sit-outs, hunger strikes, funeral speeches, wedding speeches and other 181 tactics?[for the whole list please see Gene Sharp- Tactics of direct nonviolent confrontation]

The pros and cons for the two modes of struggle are endless. Some of them are sincere and some uttered only to serve sinister ulterior motives. But the question poses itself as one of the main stumbling blocks towards unified action against the common enemy. Should it? No.  None of the two forms of struggle would singlehandedly bring about the fall down of the Issaias regime. Both methods can supplement each other. We must only analyse particular situations and pragmatically decide on how and when to use either one or both weapons together. No option should, beforehand, philosophically exclude the other. The only preconditions are unity and exclusion of unilateral foreign military intervention.

References: Wikipedia

  1. Sharp, Gene (1973). The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Porter Sargen. p. 12.
  2. My Part  in War. excerpts from Gandhi autobiography. (Quoted from Kamet’s Potpourri: Ask Gandhi)

3   Dhanjaya Bhat, Writing in The Tribune Sunday, February 12, 2006. Spectrum Suppl.      (Quoted from New World Encyclopedia)

      *Zulu war: 1879-80 and the Boer Wars: 1899-!906


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