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How not to conduct a National Dialogue

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And how to fix Ethiopia’s

Ethiopia’s government is currently touting an allegedly unprecedented National Dialogue, which it describes as a panacea for the country’s deep-seated political problems.

National dialogues—when inclusive, credible, and transparent—can be an effective tool for conflict management, and even political transformation, in post-conflict societies. However, various governments such as Egypt, Sudan, and Uganda’s have manipulated them, using instead as a facade to absorb international pressure and consolidate domestic power.

Two years ago, amid a horrific civil war in northern Ethiopia centred on Tigray, the federal government initiated an ongoing National Dialogue. The aim was stated as resolving “fundamental differences and disagreements through broad-based inclusive public dialogue.”

However, the country remains embroiled in conflict. Tigray was devastated by the civil war, the Oromo Liberation Army controls parts of Oromia, and much of Amhara is essentially ungovernable after nearly a year of intensifying insurgency and martial law.

Regardless, the National Dialogue Commission has started collecting views on the agenda

As widely acknowledged, and I noted four years ago, national dialogue is needed. But this appears to be merely an attempt to confuse a domestic audience, buy time, and gain international approval.

Stillborn Commission

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has used institutions ruthlessly, capturing or crippling existing ones, and creating new bodies to legitimize temporary measures and consolidate power, then discard them when convenient.

Examples include National Electoral Board, the Legal Reform Council, the Border and Identity Commission, the National Reconciliation Commission, and the National Economic Advisory Committee, whose ambiguous functions have often been hidden from the public.

Meaza Ashenafi, president of the Federal Supreme Court, presiding over the swearing ceremony of the National Dialogue Commission’s commissioners; February 2022.

A key principle of national dialogues is inclusivity from the outset, involving deliberation among stakeholders and reaching consensus on objectives and rules. In Ethiopia, the ruling Prosperity Party, which was previously reticent about national dialogue and controls 98 percent of parliamentary seats, unilaterally established the Commission.

Even the minimalist procedural safeguard provided in the Proclamation was violated. Art. 12(4)  states that “the Speaker shall consult with the leadership and representatives of opposition political parties, civil society organizations, and the interreligious council on the list of nominees.”

As if this was not bad enough, repeated calls for midcourse correction of the design flaws by opposition parties went unheeded.

Ultimately, the Commission was constituted without any scrutiny by political elites or the public at large, and the Prime Minister, unconstrained by any procedural hurdles, nominated the Commissioners as he wished.

This reveals fundamental defects at birth. It is no wonder that someone like Merera Gudina, a veteran Oromo opposition leader and political scientist, dubbed the National Dialogue Commission “dead on arrival.”

Farcical Process

In politics, process, and the perception of it, matter. This is particularly so with a national dialogue. A well-structured and inclusive process ensures legitimacy, fosters trust among participants, and so enhances the chances of achieving sustainable and meaningful outcomes.

The Ethiopian process suffers from chronic legitimacy deficits. In addition to its congenital disabilities, the process of selecting participants, the agenda, schedule, and modalities excluded stakeholders.

The caucus of 12 political parties has boycotted the process (some forwarded conditions), and the warring groups are excluded, while Tigray’s government sits on the fence. Participants in the upcoming deliberations have been selected through the existing government structure controlled by the Prosperity Party.

Both the Islamic Affairs and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church stated that they were either not consulted or insufficiently represented. About 80 prominent Oromo scholars and professionals questioned the integrity of the ongoing process and 81 percent of Ethiopians who participated in a recent survey have no faith in the Commission.

If all pertinent actors are excluded, then whose process is it? Dialogue about what and among whom?

A national dialogue is supposed to be held, in essence, among participants with diverse views and competing interests. The Commission was established to facilitate all-inclusive discussions among stakeholders with a view to bridging differences on fundamental issues.

It is, therefore, a farce to engage in a process that contradicts its very objective.

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What is more worrisome is the Commission’s poor communication strategy. Anyone would expect Commissioners to desist from a damaging media frenzy. But some could not resist the temptation to reinforce prevailing public perceptions, further compromising their legitimacy.

For instance, the Chairman of the Commission, Mesfin Araya, appeared on various media platforms and made various conflicting statements, whereas another member of the Commission, Yonas Adaye, claimed the mandate of mediating between warring parties, which was not given to the Commission.

At the very least, the Commission should be careful in its communications, in addition to acting impartially and transparently.

The process is controlled by the Prosperity Party and its usual allies: Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice and the National Movement of Amhara. The opening ceremony of the agenda selection was mostly attended by Prosperity Party cadres, and the messages delivered by the Prime Minister, as well as the attendant clapping, were more akin to a communist party dinner than a national dialogue.

In sum, the process is neither national, nor a dialogue.

Unpromising Outcome

The quality of an outcome is highly predicated on an idea’s worthiness and the delivery process’s legitimacy.

Given the Abiy government’s instrumentalization of similar processes in the recent past, the political rationale underpinning the establishment of the Commission, the deliberate exclusion of key actors, the lack of a conducive environment owing to ongoing conflicts, and, above all, Abiy Ahmed´s declaration that a transitional government is not up for discussion, it is safe to say that a promising outcome is unlikely.

Regardless, even if it was, the Commission has no legal mechanism to implement its recommendations. It is up to the Prime Minister and his rubberstamp parliament to pick and choose which recommendations to act upon.

Salvage Operation

Despite these problems, Ethiopia cannot afford to miss yet another opportunity for real change. Something needs to be done before it is too late. Below are some recommendations to reinvigorate the Ethiopian National Dialogue, in order of importance.

  • Pause the ongoing activities

Use this grace period for introspection, listen to public opinion, learn from the experiences of other countries, and, most importantly, talk to the armed actors in the bush.

  • Call for a national peace convention

This would allow for reaching a comprehensive ceasefire and elite bargaining on sticking points, including those pertaining to the Commission’s legitimacy deficits and the process thus far. As experience shows, the vast majority of successful national dialogues are preceded by ceasefires and /or are the product of elite consensus. There is very little chance of a successful national dialogue in the midst of raging civil wars. Thinking otherwise is misguided at best and insane at worst.

  • Establish an inclusive committee

Once a comprehensive ceasefire has been signed and consensus reached on major issues, it is essential to establish an ad hoc body constituted of all relevant stakeholders. All successful national dialogues have one basic thing in common: the incumbent should participate in the process as an equal partner, not as an overlord.

  • Take a gradual approach

One of the common pitfalls in conducting national dialogues is putting too much food on the plate. A national dialogue is not a panacea for every socio-political problem, and it is inevitably a long process accompanied by many twists and turns. It requires sustained interaction and unwavering political commitments in which parties build on small gains, minimize derailments, and incrementally resolve entrenched issues.

  • International partners must wise up

Time and again, the U.S. and its Western allies get Ethiopia wrong. The TPLF’s Ethiopia emerged from violence to be a paradigm of development before it became, once more, an authoritarian nightmare. Abiy Ahmed was a messiah one year a pariah the next. They applaud sham elections and legitimize “reforms” used merely to consolidate power.

Once again, they are in the thick of it, backing a flawed, insincere National Dialogue. The international community, particularly the U.S., Canada, and the European Union, must put meaningful pressure on Addis Ababa and provide conditional support only.

More specifically, until the government ensures inclusivity and concludes comprehensive ceasefires with Oromo and Amhara insurgents, they should withhold support for the process.

In sum, it is not too late to save the patient—but emergency surgery is required.

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Main Image: Ethiopia Insight.

This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

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About the author

Moges Zewdu Teshome

Moges is a doctoral candidate in Interdisciplinary International Studies at the Vienna School of International Studies. He is also the host of the Buffet of Ideas-የሀሳብ ገበታ podcast.

8 Comments

  • As noted in the article, the idea of a national dialogue floated 2 years ago in the midst of the war in Tigray was seen as deceptive and defective. The concept of a national dialogue is best utilized if and when there is evidence of goodwill between political parties.

    The author acknowledges TPLF’s past role in government as a paradigm of development, only to turn around and describe it as an authoritarian nightmare. But I think many observers would say that the war and violence that has transpired in the country in the last 5 years is the nightmare.

  • Thank You Mogess! For Sharing Your View, which is very important for our Clarity! we Appreciate yr Commitment for yr Pple!

  • Dear Moges, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts on the dialogue process launched in Ethiopia recently. While many of the observations you mentioned are relevant and valid, I thought of raising the following points for your consideration and further refinement if possible.

    1) On pausing the ongoing process: As you’re aware, the Dialogue Commission was set up two and half years ago and it has taken quite a long time before it officially launched the consultative process as it envisioned it. You’re now suggesting a pause in the process. How much longer should it be paused? And what change do you expect from the additional wait time you’re suggesting? If the last two and half years haven’t been used ..”for introspection, learning from the experiences of other countries, and most importantly, talk to the armed actors in the bush,” how do you expect that to happen with additional pause on the process?

    2) On national peace convention: How do you expect to have a national peace convention and a ceasefire when much simpler actions such as involving the opposition and making the process more inclusive haven’t happened?

    3) On establishing an inclusive committee: What is the basis of your suggestion for establishing an inclusive committee when the repeated calls for it have not been heeded?

    4) On taking a gradual approach: What time frame have you got in mind when you suggest a gradual approach to the whole process? When the country is bleeding in all the corners of the country and the prospects for an inclusive ceasefire is not a likely scenario anytime soon, how much longer can we wait?

    5) On your proposal to the international partners: I go along with your proposal to the international community and the need for them to influence the government of the day to make the process more inclusive and free from its heavy handed influence.

    And as a final comment on your metaphor of a patient on its deathbed needing an emergency surgery, and considering the significance of the whole exercise and the myriad of political challenges we face, I would go for a company reset of the whole exercise rather than venturing into an operation theatre.

    Once again, thank you very much for adding your voice to the ongoing conversation on how we can extract ourselves from the political entanglement we’ve found ourselves in.

    • The author is catching up too slow to the realities, and unfortunately although your thought of reset is fresher I am afraid you missed a critical half.

      Where we are right now is the last major column of contiguous population that is pro Ethiopia where collective or sum of national identity takes precedence over ethnic identity is on its last legs. Amharas are literally the last such group fighting flying Ethiopia’s flag (both civil tri color and the unfortunately the one with blue embelem). The author has forgotten that it was in 2009 the Tigray dominated regime made the plain tricolor civil flag of Ethiopia, and it has been years since that flag has been demonized as the flag of only Amharas that need to be genocided. It’s like the author just woke up.

      Reset is of dubious at best, because what we in reality have is Oromia, Tigray, Somali, and Ethiopia (Amharas + anyone else not blaming Ethiopia and or “Amharas”). Oromos are in power and they’re fighting against OLA much like it is OPDO trying to control power in Ethiopia vs OLA. Both are Oromos with clear distaste for Ethiopia where they aren’t in power. Tigray has proven the same in its ambitions, and Somalis would never be content in Ethiopia and are just waiting for their chance to do the same.

      Can Tigray and Oromia accept an Ethiopia where they will not be able to massacre Amharas, scapegoating them? Can Oromia and Tigray accept an Ethiopia where Amharas exercise their right to finally review and vote whether to accept the Woyanne OLF constitution as is or reject it in its entirety, or to propose modifications, including to the regional boundaries?

      Those are simple requisites for any hope, and bare minimums as well as emphatically rational and reasonable. But what is the answer to this do you suppose from the *population* of Oromia and Tigray for instance?

      Because at last Amharas will not accept any less. No amount of intellectual self deceit (like even putting the issues in Amhara region and Oromia together as if they have anything in common) and burying head in the sand in hopes Amharas will keep accepting their families in mass graves until complete extermination is going to affect what is taking place in the facts we are in.

      One thing is for damn sure though. Oromos should accept that this is Oromos in power (by Oromo’s own standards) and explicitly stand and demand the government withdraw its forces from Amhara region immediately. This is probably the only Step 1 that is close to feasible.

  • It seems deja vu all over again. So no one falls for this anymore nor fooled it by anyone. Unmistakably, the so-called National commission for Dialogue is for Abiy, by Abiy and of the Abiy for himself and his Prosperity outfit and apparatchiks. The main reason behind it , as writer succinctly put it, is to buy time, manipulate both domestic and international audience and eventually consolidate and prolong his tight grip on power. Fair to say, it is fate won’t be much different from many other sham commisions and faux national bodies he announced, concocted and manipulated over the years and then finally disappeared
    without trace never seeing the light of the day. It is dead on arrival.

  • Hello Moges
    Thank you for your well articulated and narrated point of view. I was loughing si much particularly when i read this part “The opening ceremony of the agenda selection was mostly attended by Prosperity Party cadres, and the messages delivered by the Prime Minister, as well as the attendant clapping, were more akin to a communist party dinner than a national dialogue.”

    In general I agree and share your view on Ethiopian national dialogue. Hope the commision get the copy and make remideal to the national dialogue process.

  • When, In politic,
    Power is revolving around ethnic groups , the country should have National Dialogue as soon as possible. which composed of Citizen.

    In my country Ethiopia so called a representative politic. This means that the government is elected by nation and nationality meaning (ethnic groups not fellow citizen). Here, nation and nationality or ethnic groups vote for their government officials. These officers represrnt the ethnic groups ideas and concerns in government. Hence these are our system of government., why should we waite more days to come.
    We need to have national dialogue for the interest of Citizen.

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