While the recent conflict in Tigray renewed international focus on Ethiopia, more challenges lie ahead, including elections now scheduled for June 5. The state of Ethiopia’s political transition is contested, and the country remains polarized. However, as Ethiopian scholars Emebet Getachew, Mehari Taddele Maru, and Yohannes Gedamu discuss, a national dialogue process may have the potential to address the country’s dilemmas.

Ethiopian refugees wait for relief supplies at a United Nations compound in Hamdayet, Sudan, on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)
Ethiopian refugees wait for relief supplies at a United Nations compound in Hamdayet, Sudan, on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

What is the current state of Ethiopia's political transition?

Emebet: The political transition underway since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power is not Ethiopia’s first. Transition should be considered a recurrent Ethiopian phenomenon which, unfortunately, has rarely occurred peacefully. As with the 1974 revolution toppling Emperor Haile Selassie and the 1991 overthrow of the Derg military government, the consequences of the 2018 transition claimed many lives, even if the transfer of power itself was generally peaceful.

This transition means different things to different people. The initial euphoria that greeted the transition was short-lived. There was limited consensus to propel change. Critics were left out of the transition process leading to avoidable conflicts. The transition thus faces an uphill battle to stabilize and effectively govern the country, especially since reconciliation has not been high on the agenda.

Mehari: Ethiopia faces a “war of visions” as to its future. One vision is of centralization, the basis of which is to reclaim quasi-unitarist powers that have been—at least de jure—dismantled over decades. This vision recalls Ethiopia's contested history of forcible assimilation. The same unitarist governance style, albeit with some aspects of decentralization, is now in the making. Proponents of this vision employ both constitutional norms, and when they deem necessary, unconstitutional, oppressive means including war on those who resist. This vision of centralization is undemocratic and antagonistic to multiculturalism.

On the other side is a vision of federalism, greater devolution of power, more autonomy, confederal arrangements, self-determination and even, potentially, secession. There are also middle positions between the two extremes with overlapping visions, based on maintaining the current constitution, with some tweaks. Ethiopia’s current system of multinational federalism still partially addresses the country’s historical problems, although it is also responsible for spawning new local conflicts.

By appointing new regional state presidents and councils, the prime minister’s office is replacing federalism with centralization. Supporters of Abiy back these actions as part of the transition to democracy and the preservation of the state, seemingly even at the cost of political instability, military confrontation, and the death of civilians. Choreographed narratives of national unity undermine the need for the constitutionally guaranteed governance of diversity. Political leaders of the most critical opposition to Abiy are in jail. Ethiopia has shut down independent and critical local media outlets, increased censorship and state propaganda, and reduced academic freedom. As a consequence, the Ethiopian state is in a precarious situation. The recent announcement of the election calendar only makes the state more fragile.

Yohannes: Reforms by Abiy's administration were initially fast paced, although this has since slowed. But many key promises were fulfilled. In the first year of reforms, prisoners were released, the media revived, and exiled opposition returned to the country. A reformed ruling party has been established, which created inclusive politics by better involving regional political parties than previously. True, there have been serious peace and security challenges: repeated violence in Benishangul-Gumuz, Guji, and Wollega. Sadly, internal displacement and massacres on the basis of identity are now common. The government lost patience and even arrested some opposition leaders. However, the government continued to enact security sector reforms, long-term economic plans and other meaningful development programs, including environmental initiatives such as the Green Legacy Initiative.

Ethno-nationalist political narratives have increased ethnic polarization, inter-communal intolerance and violence, and are antagonistic to Abiy's hope for unity. Such narratives that pit one group against another were exploited by some of Abiy’s opposition. Now that a date for a vote has been set, the 2021 elections will be another major test for Ethiopia’s future.

Given Ethiopia’s many challenges, is there a place for a national dialogue process?

Mehari: There is no military solution to a war of visions. Any government that fails to recognize the precedence of politics over military action risks facing protracted armed resistance and insurrection.

The Ethiopian government rejected calls for dialogue during the constitutional crisis in Ethiopia, when it became clear that elections would not be held on schedule and that the constitutional term of office of the government would soon expire. The government rejected dialogue to resolve the conflict with the Tigray region. Now, the solution lies in building bridges between communities and narrowing the gulf between the different political visions. Since existing institutions like the reconciliation commission are distrusted, a new process is required. A national dialogue is the best option of all, although it will not necessarily resolve all the problems Ethiopia faces.

Yohannes: Yes, there is always a place for national dialogue, as long as there is genuine commitment. Past Ethiopian regimes, including the one led by the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) before 2018, downplayed the need for such dialogue by saying that the timing was not right, and that Ethiopia faced too many challenges at that moment. The Abiy government is the first in Ethiopian history to have established a reconciliation commission to study and recommend solutions. As with his other initiatives, however, some of Abiy's opponents undermined the idea of this commission. However, I have hope that this is a good place from which dialogue can start, if people agree that reconciliation is also about looking forward rather than just arguing about the past. It is time to talk about the common challenges that every Ethiopian faces, not only concentrate on particular, group-based grievances. 

Emebet: Initiatives that foster national dialogue are needed more than ever in Ethiopia. Existing civil society initiatives should not be overlooked. One such initiative is the Multi-stakeholder Initiative for National Dialogue (MIND), a coalition of Yehasab Me’ad (Plate of Ideas), Destiny Ethiopia and the Political Parties’ Joint Council, endorsed and supported by the Ministry of Peace. MIND intends to bring “contentious issues to the table and discuss them one by one to create a common understanding step by step.” Led by civil society, MIND aims to build confidence in the concept of dialogue among participants. An inclusive national dialogue could help MIND strengthen its attempts to resolve challenges to peace and security.

How could a successful national dialogue process for Ethiopia be designed?

Yohannes: Work could start with the reconciliation commission, which could educate the public about the dimensions of reconciliation and what the commission aims to achieve. Some critical differences among groups and parties must be examined, and a task force that involves all stakeholders organized to debate and reach at least partial consensus. The goal should be to arrive at a common national agenda.

Emebet: For a national dialogue to succeed, five aspects must be considered:

  • Credibility of the conveners: Public trust in who convenes a national dialogue is especially critical in a deeply polarized society like Ethiopia. The whole process depends on the integrity, impartiality, and public perception of the convener(s).
  • Inclusivity: If critical participants are excluded from the process, the credibility and legitimacy of the process will be reduced. Inclusion is an ongoing process, and broad-based consultations are necessary if people are to feel they are represented in both the process and the outcomes of the dialogue. A commitment to inclusivity requires both formal (track 1) and informal (track 2) efforts. It also requires being gender and conflict sensitive.
  • Institutional linkages: Dialogue does not occur in a vacuum. Thinking how the process involves, for example, regional governments and processes, such as the elections and the reconciliation commission, will strengthen the coherence of the effort. Critically, it is unlikely that dialogue can be sustained if past grievances and serious human rights violations are ignored, so links to the institutions responsible for these processes is also needed.
  • How dialogue outcomes will be implemented: A dialogue process will not in itself solve the problems of the country. Effective implementation of the dialogue’s outcomes is needed, including of any recommendations to amend policy and legislation as well as on accountability and reconciliation. The high expectations of the process must be managed.
  • Mobilizing resources: Significant technical and financial resources are needed to involve large number of participants and multiple consultations.

Mehari: Dialogue design must be a guided by the goals of the process. Further, the process must account for realities on the ground, in particular, the war in Tigray and conflicts elsewhere in Ethiopia, the detentions and stifling of critical voices in the political opposition, political prisoners, and recent atrocities, assassinations, and displacement.

There should be a pre-dialogue to consult stakeholders and to solicit views on the central issues to be addressed. These consultations should also inform the dialogue’s design. The design of the dialogue needs to consider structure and rules; the core agenda; criteria for determining the participants, who may include, but not be limited to, political parties and armed groups; seating arrangements; and a realistic timeline, all outlined in an implementation roadmap. A sound communications strategy is vital to build and maintain trust, publicize progress, address dis- and misinformation and where necessary, change behavior.

Ultimately, Ethiopian ownership of the process, participants' political will, and determination to ensure implementation will be intrinsic to the success of any dialogue process.

Emebet Getachew is country program manager at the Life & Peace Institute in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Mehari Taddele Maru is a professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. Yohannes Gedamu is a lecturer in political science at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, Georgia.

The views expressed by the authors are their own.

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