Aug 13 2016

Lessons from Canada for Ethiopia in Quelling Violence

(Tesfai Hailu)

“There’s a lot of bleeding hearts around who don’t like to see people with helmets and guns. All I can say is ‘go ahead and bleed’ but it’s more important to keep law and order in this society than to be worried about weak-kneed people who don’t like the looks of …” (The late Canadian PM Pierre Elliott Trudeau)

In 1970, Canada “plunged into its worst crisis since the Second World War” in what eventually became known as the October Crisis. A provincial cabinet minister from Quebec was kidnapped and murdered, while a British diplomat was also kidnapped, later released, by a radical separatist group called Front de libération du Québec (FLQ).

In the name of freedom and sovereignty for the French-speaking province, the FLQ, resorted to political violence unprecedented in Canada’s contemporary history.

Subsequently, the then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (the father of Canada’s current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau) “invoked the only peacetime use of the War Measures Act in Canada’s history … Civil liberties were suspended and Canadian armed forces were deployed throughout Quebec. The police were enabled with far-reaching powers, and they arrested and detained, without bail, 497 individuals, all but 62 of whom were later released without charges”.

Photo - Troops on the streets of Montreal, Canada, during the 1970 October Crisis [Credit: Montreal Gazette]

Photo – Troops on the streets of Montreal, Canada, during the 1970 October Crisis [Credit: Montreal Gazette]

From this crisis, Trudeau emerged as one of Canada’s greatest political figures, particularly after a defining moment wherein a reporter ambushed him with questions, yet the late PM “displayed an iron resolve”:

Reporter: “Sir what is it with all these men with guns around here?”

Trudeau: “There’s a lot of bleeding hearts around who don’t like to see people with helmets and guns. All I can say is ‘go ahead and bleed’ but it’s more important to keep law and order in this society than to be worried about weak-kneed people who don’t like the looks of …”

Reporter: “At what cost? How far would you go? To what extent?”

Trudeau: “Well, just watch me!”

As promised, the Trudeau Government quelled the violence soon after. Not surprisingly, the action taken – particularly the suspension of civil liberties – were criticized as ‘excessive and dangerous’ by opposition groups and other critics. But there is no doubt that it ultimately saved Canada from further violence, and the country’s conceivable disintegration.

Of course the situation in Ethiopia is more complex and delicate than it was the case for Canada. Indeed, while Canada had to deal with only one specific challenge from a group of separatists, multiethnic Ethiopia is confronted with multiple political, ethnic and sectarian problems. While the North American country was already a mature democracy at the time of crisis, Ethiopia is still an emerging African democracy. Trudeau’s Liberal government had “the full support of the Premier and the Provincial Liberal Government of Quebec”, while that is not necessarily the case – at least not evident – in Ethiopia, particularly when it comes to the Amhara Regional Government that appears unable or unwilling to live up to its responsibility of putting an end to violence and lawlessness in its front and back yards.

Nonetheless, before the loss of lives of law enforcement officers and private citizens becomes the new normal, the country has to learn from Canada that it’s certainly “more important to keep law and order in this society than to be worried about”:

a) The media’s negative spin and reporting of any necessary action, especially in this information age and the era of social media when just about everyone has become a self-appointed reporter, talking head and/or political analyst.

b) Special interests that view public violence as the best available means to an end.

c) Opposition party leaders who put their partisan political interests and lust for power ahead of the country they confess to love and people they claim to represent.

d) ‘Weak-kneed’ political allies that may be reluctant to be part of any action against violence and lawlessness.

e) The ‘bleeding heart’ groups in the ‘rights business’ – such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch – that cherry-pick in their all-too-familiar condemnation of violence in developing countries, but are conspicuously silent when it comes to similar use of force in the West.

f) The ‘international community’, aka Western countries, that typically go as far as they want to stop any form of violence in their home turf, yet hypocritically feel obligated to rebuke and lecture developing countries on ‘excessive use of force’, while paradoxically providing a safe haven to propagators of hate and agents of violence.

To reiterate, the Ethiopian Prime Minister does not have the luxury of dealing with only one public crisis at this point in Ethiopia’s history. Still, if there is one important lesson for Hailemariam Desalegn to learn from Trudeau, it is that a leader cannot and should not appease or try to sugarcoat any form of violence as that could send the wrong message that the government is besieged, and in retreat, which of course is a recipe for disaster.

In his recent interview with the media, PM Hailemariam appeared to grapple with trying to make sense of the insensible current violence by bringing up economic hardship and the growing pains of development the country is going through. Nevertheless, while the concern that the unemployed, underemployed and the economically deprived segments of society are being used as cannon fodder is definitely valid, caution should be exercised not to inadvertently give a socioeconomic ‘root cause’ spin to the violence.

Instead, the primary factor behind the violence and lawlessness ought to be identified for what it really is: a shortcut to power by any means unnecessary, including the use of violence, hence should be condemned in no uncertain terms, backed with unwavering action.

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2 Comments
  1. samuel getachew

    You didn’t even try to address the reason’s why Oromo & Amhara people are protesting. All you want is this undemocratic government to quell legitimate forms of protests against the TPLF regime.
    Lastly don’t compare Pierre Elliott Trudeau with Ethiopia’s PM Hailemariam Desalegn. One is a natural born leader whereas Hailemarian is more of a follower ( of TPLF leaders) Those “self-appointed reporters” you criticised are necessary since state owned media as well as this one are used by the regime to spread lies. You know it so does the rest of the world.

  2. Alem

    Tesfai, You have no sense to compare Canada to Ethiopia. You think you understand how different democratic Canada of the 20th century is to undemocratic one-party ruled Ethiopia of 21st century? You identified the reason for public protests as “a shortcut to power by any means unnecessary, including the use of violence.” You must be joking or else you are blind to realities in the country. Because you refuse to consider what even Tsadkan came to conclude regarding the ruling party’s massive corruption, nepotism, and undemocratic governance and its preference to quell public grievance through violence instead of dialogue and compromise [published recently in Horn Affairs, fyi] you end up promoting violence; you say protests “should be condemned in no uncertain terms, backed with unwavering action.” Do you know how Tigray Liberation Front seized power? And how it has retained power in the past two decades? Be reasonable and be good. Good luck!