t has been nearly six years since Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed (PhD), assumed office, igniting a wave of excitement and aspiration among countless Ethiopians. A multitude of promises for reform, unity, and growth resonated deeply, offering a glimmer of hope to a nation ravaged by years of violence and division.
However, as time has passed, the once-thrilling pledges seem to be fading away, leaving behind skepticism and disillusionment. Abiy’s journey is now fraught with challenges and uncertainties, placing Ethiopia’s dreams and ambitions to the ultimate test.
The nation finds itself in a state of crisis, grappling with a fresh wave of conflicts, political instability, and economic hardship, which strain its people to their limits.
Amidst this uncertain and murky political landscape, the government has demonstrated its commitment to national reconciliation by establishing a National Dialogue Commission tasked with healing the deep-rooted historical grievances among Ethiopians. This initiative was launched a year and a half ago and is expected to continue for three years.
The Commission is currently engaging with a wide array of perspectives, attitudes, ambitions, aspirations, and dreams, representing both optimism and pessimism. However, it is still in its early stages, making it premature to determine its ultimate success.
Critics, including analysts, politicians, and think tanks, have expressed discontent with the government’s control over the dialogue process. They argue that the government’s prominent role undermines the likelihood of a successful outcome. They assert that for a genuine national dialogue to take place, the government should act as one stakeholder among many, fostering an environment conducive to open and inclusive discussions.
Can the Commission deliver a truly authentic national dialogue?
This question lingers in the minds of many, highlighting the key factors that will shape its success. These factors include strong political will, broad societal support, inclusivity, national ownership, and a stable environment that encourages open dialogue. Stability, inclusivity, external influence, and financial constraints are also crucial determinants.
Gebremedhin Gebremikael is a political science lecturer at Mekele University. He believes that the two-year conflict has practically completely destroyed public acceptance of the commission in Tigray, even though he hasn’t conducted an official study on the subject.
“The conflict in Ethiopia is deeply ingrained, and national dialogue alone will not be able to address it,” he noted.
The Commission faces additional challenges, such as managing expectations, effective implementation and follow-through, ensuring sustainability, assessing long-term impact, addressing interests and agenda setting, promoting post-dialogue reconciliation, building trust, and carefully sequencing the issues at hand.
In an article published by the Finnish-based Peace Initiatives network, known as the Inclusive Peace and Transition Network, entitled “What Makes or Breaks National Dialogues,” the transformative potential of national dialogue is explored, highlighting how such dialogues can redefine the relationship between the state, political actors, and society by negotiating a new social contract.
The article highlights the significant influence of various factors on the outcomes of national dialogues. These factors include the resistance or support of national elites, public sentiment, the stance of regional and international actors, the prevailing culture of dialogue, past negotiation experiences, and the presence of violence.
Equally important, it also delves into the factors that influence the likelihood of sustainable agreements being reached, such as the representation, number, and selection of actors, decision-making procedures, choice of mediators and facilitators, duration of the dialogue, support structures for involved actors, and coalition building, among others.
In light of these insights, it is worth acknowledging the high expectations placed on the Dialogue Commission. However, concerns have arisen since its inception.
Several political parties have protested against the commission’s role in overseeing the three-year dialogue process, citing concerns about its lack of inclusivity and perceived bias towards the incumbent government. There are also doubts about the ruling Prosperity Party’s genuine commitment to the national dialogue.
Another issue of concern among political parties, right-leaning organizations, prominent figures, and even the National Dialogue Commission itself is the ongoing struggle between factions in the major regions of Oromia and Amhara. This internal conflict weakens the dialogue process.
In a press conference held three months ago, the Commission criticized the dialogue process and called for an urgent meeting to address disagreements related to participant and agenda selection. This marked the beginning of one of the most crucial phases of any national dialogue.
Yeshiwas Assefa, a seasoned politician and a former chairman of EZEMA, believes that the Commission has faced numerous questions and resentments regarding representation and inclusiveness from the outset. According to Yeshiwas, the primary reason for this is the dominant role of the incumbent party and the way the regime has assumed ownership and responsibility, despite being just one of the stakeholders in the dialogue process.
Furthermore, many politicians urged the Commission to be accountable to the president or an independent body rather than the regime, Yeshiwas says.
“Despite the suspicions and resentments shared by many individuals and political entities, including myself, I believe that giving the Commission a chance and maintaining an optimistic outlook could be a positive sign,”the he says.
However,the question remains whether this Commission “will have the courage to operate independently from the incumbent and become an institution that everyone can genuinely trust to resolve the current challenges facing the country,” expressed Yeshiwas.
Furthermore, Yeshiwasis concerned about whether the Commission would be able to address the current and past challenges facing the country. He pointed out, “Just look at what has been happening in this country over the past two to three years, even after the establishment of the Commission. Can you see the persistent conflicts and chaos while the government claims to be ready to resolve grievances?”
Yeshiwas also emphasized that he does not see the dialogue commission taking a morally superior position above any political group or party affiliation to effectively mediate between conflicting parties and bring them to the negotiation table.
While Yeshiwas maintains some optimism about certain commissioners who possess good personalities, he believes that the real task at hand goes beyond personal traits and a sense of nationalism.
Many Ethiopians are indeed hopeful for a lasting solution in the country. In this regard, Yeshiwas says the Commission should take on a broader range of responsibilities, including bringing together warring factions. He asserts that regardless of their political differences, all entities in the country should have a voice in the dialogue process if a sustainable solution is to be achieved.
The lack of communication among politicians and opposition leaders to resolve conflicts is a major problem frequently cited as the root cause of Ethiopian politics. Yeshiwas envisions the dialogue process introducing a new culture of roundtable discussions and forums to settle disputes.
Gebremedhin on his part believes if the federal government were to enact some sort of governance reform that would enable regional powers to fully exercise power without any interference from the federal government in matters outside its jurisdiction, then things would function more effectively.
However, hope for a long-term solution to the nation’s grievances remains elusive.
Even under such a situation, having the National Dialogue is the only thing that Admasu Gebeyeh (Prof), a former deputy president of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy Party, can think of. within the pages of his book “Consensus Democracy.” Admasu refutes people who cast doubt on the commission’s impartiality or inclusivity. It seems that he is not convinced by related criticisms. He speculates that it might all just be hearsay.
Yeshiwas is certain that greater outcomes are possible if the National Dialogue Commission is granted authority beyond the executive branch of government. He suggests that the Commission should have a legal authority over other parties and be accountable to either an impartial entity or the Office of the nation’s President.
The General Secretary for the Ethiopian Federal Democratic Unity Forum and Chairman of the Joint Political Council, Desta Dinke, shared his perspective.
Initially, Desta says, the Council voted on the success of the commission, with 13 out of 53 political parties opposing the establishment of the Dialogue Commission’s basic principles and calling for its reform, while 40 parties were in favor.
However, Desta says the mere establishment of the commission addresses a significant issue concerning the broader public. He asserts that the key issue lies in the political elites who have been in power and in opposition, perpetuating issues that have divided public opinion and eroded societal values built over many years.
“We believe that the root of the socio-economic and political grievances in Ethiopia usually stems from incumbent regimes. However, the Commission’s proclamation does not give enough weight to the incumbent and political figures, where the problem lies,” said Desta.
According to Desta, many politicians believe that the incumbent is often the root cause of conflicts, and the dialogue should revolve around addressing this issue. The government’s role in the dialogue should not be limited to mere facilitation; instead, as an overseeing entity, the Commission should operate independently, as has been observed in many other countries.
In his view, when it comes to dialogue, there should not be a distinction between the government and the other party. Both entities should be treated equally, and the Commission should carry out its duties independently. The Chairman emphasized that every individual in the country, be it rebels, opposition, whether registered or not, should come together for the dialogue process.
Destasays that the Commission’s call for rebel groups to surrender their weapons and participate in the dialogue process mirrors the government’s similar appeal. In his opinion, if it is as simple as making a call, there “would be no need to establish a commission. A genuine political commitment is necessary.”
Desta acknowledged that government officials sometimes undermine and downplay the views of political parties, but the reality is that these parties have their constituencies that need to be heard.
Even the rebels who are taking refuge in their hideouts have their reasons, so there needs to be an approach that involves listening and discussing their concerns with a strong political commitment and a sense of nationalism to achieve progress, he says.
Beyene Petros, the chairman of the Ethiopian Social Democratic Party (ESDP) and director of the Policy Studies Institute (PSI), holds a hopeful outlook regarding the role and progress of the Commission.
He believes that despite the current imperfect situation, it is worth trying as it may yield positive outcomes.
Beyene acknowledges that the Commission may not be flawless but emphasizes that giving it a chance is important, as it might contribute to resolving the issues at hand. He encourages individuals to provide the benefit of the doubt and contribute to the commission rather than being excessively negative, in order to increase the chances of success.
Despite doubts expressed by elites and political groups, Ethiopians remain hopeful about the Commission’s dialogue efforts, particularly considering the country’s historical pattern of conflicts following regime changes. However, the success of the Commission ultimately depends on the commissioners’ courage, commitment to inclusive dialogue, and the political will of the ruling Prosperity Party.