Ethiopia: The Exam Leak: Nonviolent Direct Action or Vigilante Act?

This week Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education cancelled the national university entrance exams after insiders leaked the English and Mathematics papers and distributed them online. As a result, the Ethiopian social media was on fire for a day or two — netizens supporting, opposing and debating the action.

Shiferaw Shigute, Minister of Education, told the media: “After a cross check, we decided to terminate the whole exam since we had no evidence that the other exams were safe.”

The BBC reported the situation, stating:

“People supporting the protests for greater rights for Ethiopia’s Oromo people are saying that they are responsible for the leak.”

The BBC further explained:

“The activists…wanted Oromo students to have more time to study for the entrance exams after their high schools had been closed for several months during a wave of protests at the end of last year and the beginning of this year.”

Social Media Reactions 

The majority of the exam takers and the general public expressed outrage when the leaked papers began circulating on Facebook.

Some of the online activists who oppose the government also denounced the leak as “irresponsible,” “national disgrace,” and “vigilante justice,” and argued that such an action “sets a precedence” to normalize lawlessness, or acting above the law, in the name of “a greater cause.” Others from the same circle supported the leak as a justified “civil disobedience.”

Meanwhile, the Oromo activists who distributed the papers online and their supporters celebrated the exam cancellation and rescheduling as a “major victory” for their cause and as an “embarrassing” event for the government and its media outlets.

Nebil Sultan, from Adama, Oromia region, shared his view on Facebook, saying:

“[The exam leak] happens every year … And this time [activists] used it for their own purpose and it was almost everywhere before [they posted] it online … So the problem is … [the government has] some bigger issue to figure out than exam leak.”

Taddese, who is a diaspora-based independent observer of Ethiopian politics, wrote to me via Twitter that “there isn’t any military or political gain in undermining the national school system,” and “it’s similar to sanctioning a country with the full knowledge that the lumpen will bear the brunt of the sanctions.” He added that “if this were a defense academy, or a school for elite children, I would concede political gains.”

However, Taddese also agreed that the leak has achieved the goal of keeping the issues affecting the Oromia region at the center of national discussion.

An anonymous commenter on Facebook, who goes by the nickname Sagalee Qeerroo, opined that:

“[Leaking, distributing the exams] was a good action because Oromia region students [were unable to attend] class for the last five months due to protest. Most of the [students] and elders [begged the] federal government to [postpone] the exam. But the regime refused. Thus why [the] action was taken. …the aim of leaking exam [was] not to support students without their ability. The major aim was to [disqualify] the exam. It was nonviolent and systematic way of [pressing] the government.”

Nonviolent Direct Action 

American historian Howard Zinn once said in an interview:

“Direct action means acting directly on the object of your protest or the source of your grievance, as opposed to petitioning or lobbying. We see it in strikes….Another form of direct action is non-violent sabotage.”

Thus, within the context of nonviolent direct action, the term nonviolent sabotage best describes the action of leaking and distributing the university entrance exams online as a form of protest.

Waging a strategic nonviolent conflict is a form of warfare, but without arms. We know that armed forces and terrorist groups plan and execute a violent sabotage, such as bombing a hospital, as a means to an end. Though nonviolent activists cannot act on or endorse violent sabotages, they may use nonviolent sabotages as part of their strategy to disrupt normality. But they risk losing credibility as a nonviolent group with a sabotage gone violent.

As far as I know, sabotaging the national exams has not caused the death of civilians or the destruction of critical infrastructure, but the action has scored few points against an adversary, the EPRDF leadership.

The nature of nonviolence requires implementing direct actions consistently against the institutions of an adversary — infiltrating and targeting weaknesses, planning and executing SMART goals (SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time Bound).

Given the Oromo activists have taken credit for the exam disruption, they are very much aware of the propaganda gains from their action. The small achievement is a confidence booster for their campaign as they test the waters, while it sends a clear message to the government that its incompetence will be exploited whenever possible.

Small victories are crucial for energizing a nonviolent struggle. Scoring small tactical victories will not only boost morale, but could also help convince the movement’s base that one can anticipate a steady progress.

Self Aggrandizement and Political Culture

The nonviolent saboteurs have achieved their specific goal for now, and while you debate whether the action is right or wrong, they may be onto other tactical pursuits, propagandizing their efforts on social media. They may over-exaggerate their minor success, but that is how a propaganda sounds.

Making oneself appear larger than life is common for propagandists; and nonviolent activists are not the exception. Exaggeration sometimes helps to keep the momentum going. But then everything has a limit.

Extreme self aggrandizement can backfire when it is overused and delivers inadequate results. Even Edward Snowden, who has leaked one of the most sensitive state secrets in history, has never bragged about his action to such an extent level that he now sees himself as the center of the universe.

The danger for any “activist” group is becoming a mirror image of that it opposes, which is the ugly face of the political culture in Ethiopia and its neighborhood.

Rediet Wegayehu, who is also a diaspora-based independent observer of Ethiopian politics, remarked that:

“…It is almost impossible to bring diverse groups of people to one table when the [country’s important issues] revolve around few (male) personalities dictating the show. We have seen some activists and their followers becoming copycats of the [authoritarian, ‘strongmen’ system] they resist, reinforcing the attitude that ‘us vs them’ is the only way to bring political change.”

She also said that:

“Our political culture is [so polarized] we mainly focus on how to ‘defeat’ and alienate the ‘other,’ simplifying legitimate concerns and critical views into mere categories of ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ camps. [And that] is both unsustainable and leaves no room for nurturing unity in diversity.”

Some argue comparing the opposition’s cathartic dysfunction with the ruling party’s ruthless intolerance of dissent is a “false equivalence.” But that is their way of putting a lipstick on a pig.

The reality is the aversion to differing opinions exists in both the ruling party and opposition environments. The dissimilarity between the two sides is that one runs the government and has illegitimate authority to repress the other. As long as the political culture stays intolerant to dissenting voices, inside or outside a political camp, simply getting rid of the EPRDF rule will not end Ethiopia’s deep-rooted problems; the country may, in fact, explode, and there are some waiting for the explosion to happen so that they can achieve their geopolitical agenda.

Conclusion

Was distributing the exams online wrong (or “a low point in activism”)? It depends on who you ask. But a page from any strategic nonviolent conflict manual tells us that a nonviolent direct action, including nonviolent sabotage, that targets the weaknesses of an adversary is a legitimate action.

And a nonviolent sabotage is slightly different from civil disobedience, though both are direct actions within nonviolence. Civil disobedience indicates someone is consciously disobeying laws of the land without necessarily imposing it on others, and nonviolent sabotage, on the other hand, means you are not only disobeying laws, but you are also deliberately creating a bloodless chaos within a state, forcing others to pay attention.

Boycotting to participate in the national exam system, for example, would have been an example of civil disobedience. And distributing the exams online to demand for a reschedule might have seemed a vigilante justice; however, from a nonviolent standpoint, it was a legitimate sabotage, a minor nonviolent direct action that exposed the government’s weakness. The goal was to put pressure on the government and it has unsurprisingly succeeded.

The question remains, however: What’s next? If the goal is to keep on repeating similar nonviolent tactics as the movement’s means to an end, capitalizing on the exam leak success, where will that lead and what exactly is the end? So long the diverse masses perceive the movement’s end goal as shady (a major threat to their national or regional interests), the tactical means will hardly win a broader support. The exam leak case has shown that even those who are against the government could not tolerate the school system sabotage, which they saw as a vigilante justice. And that will give the government an opportunity to quickly recover from an embarrassing tactical punch and then strike back.

Furthermore, if the individuals who “pull strings” and propagandize about their exploits on social media are in their safe distances, behind keyboards, while endangering local activists, who do not have the same luxury as those in diaspora, then how will such activities shake the government and empower the general public, which has been hungry for an organizational leadership on the ground to counter power abuse and secure its democratic rights?

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