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Ethiopia’s next steps along a troubled road to democracy

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Pluralism remains officially stifled

The upheaval of 2018 brought an opportunity for peace, democracy, and prosperity to thrive in Ethiopia. However, they have been frustrated by a combination of the old political culture and new emerging challenges.

The devastating war in Tigray, continuing deadly chaos in Amhara and Oromia, and communal conflicts elsewhere affirmed that, as in the past, violence was being employed to try and achieve political objectives.

A culture of tolerance, dialogue, and participatory democracy therefore still struggles to find a place in Ethiopian politics.

As democratic governance and pluralism have strong linkages with sustained peace and security, it is hardly a matter of choice for Ethiopians to establish democracy, including holding free and fair elections.

Currently, however, there are two years to the next general election, and there are multiple roadblocks in the way of a democratic transition.

National Dialogue

In December 2021, the government established the National Dialogue Commission with the proclaimed vision of seeing a national consensus emerge on the most fundamental disputes.

In countries like Ethiopia, where deep-rooted identity-based polarization and decades of authoritarian rule have prevailed, a broad-based national dialogue can—in theory—break the cycle of conflict and bring political transformation.

One of the most pressing issues is addressing the underlying causes of conflicts—which involve the authorities fighting armed groups as well as horizontal communal violence—that are rooted in historical, social, economic, religious, and political dynamics.

Additionally, reaching a consensus on constitutional reform and reconciling ethnonational consciousness with an Ethiopian identity—increasingly contentious since the constitution established an ethnolinguistic federal structure—would push Ethiopia along a democratic path.

Since the commission’s establishment, concerns and recommendations have been forwarded in line with the principles of the process. Major opposition parties such as the Oromo Federalist Congress, the Oromo Liberation Front, and the Ogaden National Liberation Front, however, declined to participate, citing issues of representation and with the commission’s independence. While recently invited by the commission, armed groups are also not part of the process.

Though not falling within its mandate, the commission should have called for a nationwide ceasefire and pushed for its implementation in coordination with stakeholders, including civil society organizations. This would have contributed to silencing the guns—a necessary step towards kickstarting a comprehensive national peace process.

Furthermore, when holding public consultations, the commission’s inability to organize sessions in conflict-affected regions, including Tigray, Amhara, and parts of Oromia, has excluded large segments of society. As a result, the national dialogue was launched without key stakeholders taking part. Who, then, will forward ideas and points of discussion on their behalf?

In addition, though the government has the right to forward its ideas as any other participant, the speech by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at the dialogue’s launch that ruled out any possibility of transitional government contradicts the principles of the process and so raises further questions of its credibility. More top-down edicts will not resolve our problems.

Though late, the federal government still has the opportunity to facilitate a genuine comprehensive dialogue.  More than two years since the commission’s establishment, the government has done little to bring armed groups and opposition parties who declined to participate to the national discussion. Continuing with the same situation would likely result in rejection of its outcome by key stakeholders, including a large segment of society.

Therefore, designing a comprehensive peace plan is needed to bring all stakeholders on board and create a better environment. The commission, within the remaining months of its task, must identify ways of including key stakeholders.

In coordination with them, it then needs to be courageous in pushing for silencing the guns. Its recent announcement that it started identifying participants in Amhara is a good start but should be accompanied by a call for a nationwide ceasefire.

Finally, as past experiences in, for example, Mali in 2024 and  Sudan in 2014-2016 show, governments can use national dialogues to delay elections and stall democratic progress. Ethiopia’s regional and international partners should verify all phases of the process and ensure that this is not occurring in this instance.

Transitional Justice

Long-suffering citizens and Ethiopian partners want the Ethiopian authorities to implement their transitional justice policy in order to redress a painful past, prioritizing recent events. The government recently crafted an implementation plan for the process—but several challenges remain.

Transitional justice has occurred with relative success in societies recovering from conflicts or dictatorial rule, such as in Rwanda following the 1994 genocide and Sierra Leone to address the cycle of impunity after its eleven years of civil war.

In Ethiopia, conflicts are ongoing and repression continues. This calls for all actors to immediately forego violence and instead use political means to resolve any differences. Doing so would allow the government, armed groups, opposition political parties, civil society organizations, and the wider public to think about how to consolidate peace and achieve justice for victims.

While achieving comprehensive transitional justice is a multi-year endeavor, starting with genuine intentions is essential. So far, we have not taken this vital first step.

Even though the government is planning implementation, fundamental questions relating to transparency and inclusivity continue to be raised by the media, opposition groups, and others.

To address these issues, the government should consider diverse voices and take on board all their concerns, such as opposition parties’ call to prioritize peace and national reconciliation. If the government proceeds with implementation phase without addressing the concerns, no legitimate outcome is expected from the process.

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As it was foreign governments that ended the mandate of the international inquiry into war crimes in Ethiopia, and considering the extent  of atrocities committed, the African Union, European Union, United Nations, United Kingdom and the United States, among others, have the responsibility to keep pushing the government and use any leverage they have—such as the decision whether to approve a new International Monetary Fund program—to ensure victim-based justice ensues.

One of the key drivers of the transitional justice policy was the devastating two-year war in Tigray. As the mandate of the international inquiry into that conflict was ended, establishing accountability for serious human rights violations and achieving other goals of transitional justice rests on local processes. How the transitional justice pillars, such as criminal prosecution and reconciliation, are implemented will determine the legitimacy of the process.

A United States Institute of Peace Transitional Justice handbook contains questions that are relevant to Ethiopia and should be considered: Were the crimes widespread, or focused on one region or ethnic group? Were the crimes acts of the State or, those of insurgents, or both? Are the perpetrators still more or less in power, or has there been a clean transition to a new government? And, are the courts credible?

Ultimately though, the critical question is the level of government commitment to comprehensive justice. Many are doubtful that political and military leaders from the various conflict parties are ready to risk prosecution. Failing to do so would mean Ethiopia continuing on the path of impunity—and pain. To avert this, maximum international scrutiny is essential.

Healthier Politics

The 2018 reforms led Ethiopia’s political landscape to widen, allowing opposition parties, including those engaged in armed conflicts, to join peaceful politics. The broad idea of the reforms was to change the longstanding undemocratic culture in Ethiopia.

Accordingly, the 2021 general election was expected to be a big step for Ethiopia along the democratic path. Despite the optimism, events showed Ethiopia was not ready for political pluralism.

An unprecedented war in Tigray, arrests of journalists and politicians, and communal violence, among others, indicated Ethiopia had not shed its old political culture. With prominent opposition parties boycotting the election, the ruling Prosperity Party ended up overwhelmingly dominating parliament.

The reality of the three years since the 2021 election has been the intensification of internal conflict and the continuation of opting for violence to achieve political objectives. Detention of political figures and widespread arrests under the pretext of supporting armed groups and opposition parties, among others, resulted in a re-shrinking of the political space. In addition, the recent killing of senior Oromo Liberation Front figure, Bate Urgessa, sent a chilling message that dissent was still not tolerated.

In general, the culture of suppressing pluralism has exacerbated grievances over perceived or actual socio-economic inequalities, insufficient political representation, and poor governance. These factors push ethno-political communities towards extremism, which can easily trigger conflict.

The government must take concrete steps to re-open political and civic space to ensure that citizens and opposition parties can engage in peaceful politics.

While the government is blamed for continuing repression, opposition parties also have a history of fragmentation, intolerance, and working to weaken one another, hindering them from establishing meaningful coalitions, or otherwise coordinating to challenge the ruling party. These parties should shed this unhelpful culture to better contribute to Ethiopia’s transition to democracy.

Civil Expression

Journalists also have a vital role and the government must allow them to perform it. Except for a brief improvement  following the 2018 changes, Ethiopia has witnessed numerous continued restrictions on media freedom and access to information, including the internet.

The states of emergency imposed in many parts of the country at different times played a significant role in hampering peaceful dissent and made the work of journalists difficult. Some of Ethiopia’s international partners recently expressed the need to uphold the role of journalism which they described “ instances of  journalists intimidated and unjustly detained for doing their job” and called for the release of detained reporters.

These factors urge the government to be wise enough to support press freedom and be open to criticism, another way to nurture the democratic culture that many Ethiopians desperately want to see develop.

Finally, Ethiopian civil society organizations, which still have to operate in a challenging political environment, have a crucial role. They need to employ tactics such as using social media platforms and regional and international mechanisms to influence national institutions, among others, to advocate for multi-party participatory democracy.

Beyond Boundaries

For Ethiopia to realize a pluralistic order, addressing boundary disputes is an imperative. The current multinational federalism allows what the constitution calls “nations, nationalities and peoples” to have an administrative homeland. While opponents criticize this for exacerbating ethnic divisions, supporters argue self-rule eases ethnic tensions and can strengthen horizontal cooperation.

Ethiopians who want to see the current state structure changed say that in the case of disputes such as Amhara and Tigray’s, creating a new administration not based on ethno-linguistic demographics would heal the divide. Still, this would require constitutional reform, which increasing ethnonationalism and polarization make hard to achieve in short order.

Resolving the Amhara-Tigray dispute continues to test the two regions and the federal government. Unfolding realities show little progress and recent reports of violence in Raya reveal the potential for serious conflict endures. The federal government is largely silent. Transparent triangular coordination between it and the Amhara and Tigray administrations is a must to prevent an almost unthinkable return to large-scale conflict.

While implementing the Pretoria agreement  is the formal remedy, discussions and innovative approaches, including mobilizing people in coordination with civil society organizations to stand for peace, are needed.

Regardless of the eventual outcome, addressing such thorny challenges democratically would help pluralism to finally flourish in Ethiopia.

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

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. You may not use the material for commercial purposes.

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About the author

Nebiyu Daniel Meshesha

Nebiyu is a former Ethiopian diplomat. He served at the Ethiopian embassies in Nairobi and Washington D.C. His areas of expertise include African peace and security, mainly the Horn of Africa.

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