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Analysis: Dialogue amid civil war and violence: Mission impossible?

The cover design of the May 2022 edition of Addis Standard’s print magazine, where the story below was featured on.

By Addis Standard Staff

Addis Abeba – The ruling Prosperity Party (PP) is dead set on getting Ethiopia to experience its first ever “national dialogue” and has subsequently micromanaged the creation of a “National Dialogue Commission (NDC)” through a parliament overwhelmingly controlled by the ruling party itself.

From the get go, the creation of the NDC was met with rejections by a host of opposition political parties who raised serious questions on the Commission’s legitimacy. But theirs pale in comparison to the multifaceted crises Ethiopia is currently going through.

A major civil war that started in Tigray in November 2020 and has since expanded to Afar and Amhara states has ripped Ethiopians’ social fabric apart, painted nations with each other’s blood, and left a trail of devastation in its wake; today Ethiopia is home to a tattered economy mainly as a result of the civil war, and a series of national disasters including a severe drought that has left at least eight million Ethiopians in need of immediate food assistance; and multiple militarized violence covering almost all regions in the country.

In the midst of this, the ruling PP has recently elected PM Abiy Ahmed as its first President, and reshuffled its executive and central committee members, triggering a flurry of question on its intentions behind the proposed “national dialogue”, the process of its formation, its impact on security, political stability, and ordinary peoples’ lives.

The question that Ethiopians have in mind amid state enthusiasm and preparations for the dialogue is therefore “what is a national dialogue?” and “Is Ethiopia stable enough to hold one?”

Divergent reactions, skepticism and questions of legitimacy

Addis Standard reporters have interviewed dozens of Ethiopians living in different parts of the country on these and other critical questions surrounding the “national dialogue.” Unfortunately, the answers from most interviewees offer little comfort to those most affected by the multi-layered crises in the country and are being told that the dialogue is the ultimate panacea.

Many argue that the process was plagued by controversies and cast doubt on its benefits, especially since many opposition parties announced their withdrawal from the process.

These reactions differ from region to region and are divided along religious and ethnic lines. Whereas many of the interviewees living outside of the capital Addis Abeba have little to no knowledge of the process, those in urban areas across the country seem to recognize the process and have divergent interpretations of it.

Hisham Tahir, a civil servant in Semera, Afar region, expressed his concerns about the outcome as he, like many others, complained about the lack of representation in the process. Others from the same region are skeptical of the process and question its outcome particularly in light of the lack of security and stability in the region due to the presence of Tigrayan forces in bordering towns and the militarized violence that has killed many, displaced thousands and caused immense damage to civilian infrastructure.

In Oromia, similar concerns about representation were echoed. Jateni Gada, a resident of Nekemte city, in the East Wollega Zone, is among those who questioned the legitimacy of the process. “I don’t believe this dialogue is going to be as fair and inclusive as I understood from the beginning. The government itself is at the root of the crisis; how can the [same] government that created the problem solve it alone?” Jeteni asks. “Imagine, the commissioners of the national dialogue are chosen by the supporters of the government and the government itself; we can’t accept it, because the other groups will not accept them, and their decisions.”

Most importantly, Jateni is critical of the ongoing military engagement between the Oromia regional government and the federal forces on the one hand, and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), on the other. “There have been dozens of murders, burning of houses, arrests, and displacements on a daily basis. Due to security issues, even humanitarian assistance cannot reach these people. If we don’t reach an agreement [to end the conflict], the dialogue is just a symbol, and I don’t think that will work or will be successful.”

Similar sentiments were echoed among ordinary residents and professional individuals across different zones of the Oromia regional state. Boona Nurriddin, a resident of Shashemene city, described the process as “the government discussing with itself.” Boona is of the opinion that “discussing with yourself and discussing with others who have different political perspectives is completely different.”

But the reactions were different among interviewees in Amhara and in Southern Nations Nationalities and People’s (SNNP) regional states who spoke to Addis Standard. Ashenafi Angasu, a civil servant in Debre Sina, Amhara region, said that raising awareness about the importance of the dialogue process among communities in the region was the goal of the first round of activities. Addis Standard couldn’t corroborate Ashenafi’s claims from the regional state’s communication bureau.

However, other interviewees, like Sisay Gizaw, a student in Gonder University, were skeptical about the process itself, and worry that the political elites will push for armed groups that they accuse of targeting Amharas across Ethiopia to be included. Sisay angrily remarked: “These groups can not be allowed to sit [in the same] table after killing, and displacing people. They destroyed the Social fabric of the country and they need to pay for it.”

Abinet Chemere, a lawyer, and Tamen Ena, a professor, from Wolayita zone of SNNP, both believe that a national dialogue is necessary to bring the country out of the state it is in today. In SNNP, and especially in the Wolayita Zone, where demands for statehood were met with heavy security crackdowns, ordinary residents and professionals voiced cautious hope, but insisted that representation in the form of grassroots movement was a necessary step for the process to succeed.

While many who spoke to Addis Standard from different cities outside of the capital Addis Abeba were unaware of the entire process, on the contrary, interviewees in the capital are informed about it. The reactions by some of the interviewees range from complete support, to conditioned support, to complete rejection. Those who find the process compelling argue that other nations with the worst political conditions have succeeded in conducting such national dialogues. Samuel Tadesse is among those who believe in its success. “America survived the civil rights movement, and South Africa survived the post-apartheid era both via dialogue, I do not see why Ethiopia can’t,” Samuel expressed his optimism.

Like the concerns of interviewees from Afar, Amhara, Oromia and Somali regions, the interviewees who expressed skepticism mention factors including the lack of transparency, exclusion of important stakeholders, the withdrawal of major political parties and interference of the ruling party in the establishment and the selection of the Commission and its eleven commissioner respectively as reason to be skeptical of the outcome.

Call for “national dialogue” is neither new, nor answered

The call for national dialogue to solve Ethiopia’s quintessential political problems is as old as two decades. prominent opposition politicians Professor Merera Gudina, the current chairman of Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), and Lidetu Ayalew, who had been a permanent fixture in opposition politics, and who is currently living abroad, were at the forefront of this call.

Political parties complained that the decision was unilateral and didn’t take into account their participation on critical aspects such as setting a new date for the election and whether or not the office term of the government…

But the call for the need to have “inclusive national dialogue” was adopted by Ethiopia’s international partners, both in the global west and the east, after tensions between the ruling party and opposition parties began to surface following the March 2020 decision by the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) to postpone the much anticipated national elections that was set to take place in August of the same year.

Political parties complained that the decision was unilateral and didn’t take into account their participation on critical aspects such as setting a new date for the election and whether or not the office term of the government, which was set to expire before elections took place, should be extended, and if so on what constitutional grounds. Parties such as the OFC demanded an inclusive dialogue to take place to decide on these issues, while other parties such as Lidetu Ayalew’s Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP) demanded for a formation of an inclusive transitional government.

But the ruling party wasn’t having any of it, and instead proposed four options: dissolving the Parliament; declaring a state of emergency, amending the constitution; and seeking constitutional interpretations. Of the four, it went for constitutional interpretation, and conducted a flawed process, which had allowed it to stay in office and conduct the elections when it deemed it safe.

The decision to postpone the election triggered the Tigray state, led by Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), to conduct a unilateral election for its state council in September 2020; in early November 2020, the civil war broke out in Tigray.

Meanwhile, the three biggest opposition political parties in the country opted to step up their calls for an “inclusive national dialogue,” not only before holding the elections but also as the only viable way to end the war in Tigray and the militarized violence in other parts of the country, particularly in Oromia. Unable to persuade the ruling party, these parties eventually withdrew from the elections. Among those included OFC and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), whereas the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) had its chairman placed under a de facto house arrest.

The elections went ahead after calls both from opposition groups in the country and the international community were categorically rejected by the ruling party, which insisted that election was the only way to guarantee the country’s path to peace, stability and prosperity.

Other opposition political parties like the Balderas for Genuine Democracy, called the electoral process “a failure”, while the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (Ezema) whose chairperson Berhanu Nega is now a cabinet minister for education, expressed concerns about the shortcoming of the process and argued that it might affect peace, sovereignty, and unity of the country; nevertheless, both took part in the elections, which took place 21 June 2021 in the midst of a raging war in Tigray.

Boycotted by all major opposition parties and delayed in many places due to lack of security, the ruling Prosperity Party emerged the uncontested winner of the sixth general elections, and in October 2021, President Sahle-Work Zewde announced the new start of the incumbent’s mandate to govern for the next five years.

Needless to say, the election and its outcome provided neither peace, nor stability, and popular demands for lasting peace, accountability, and economic growth remain unanswered.

“National Dialogue” the Prosperity way

After solidifying its grip in power through an election boycotted by major opposition parties, the ruling party has come up with the proposal for the “national dialogue.” Subsequently, in December 2021, the House of Peoples’ Representatives (HoPR) approved Proclamation No. 1265/2014 to establish the Commission, and in February, it convened a special session to appoint eleven individuals who became the commissioners of the Dialogue Commission.

Just like the elections, the enactment by the Parliament of the proclamation and the announcement of the eleven commissioners for the dialogue commission was met with heavy dose of skepticism largely because, once again, the ruling party dominated both processes which were shrouded with lack of transparency and inclusiveness from the get go.

Once again, major opposition parties boycotted taking part in the dialogue process; OFC said nomination of Commissioners was not impartial, ONLF said it lacked representation, and OLF said it wasn’t even aware of the process itself.

If you take the government, it is a problem maker, if you take the TPLF and other political parties, the same applies. They cannot facilitate and the process should be free for both of them.”

Rahel Baffie

But its biggest critique came from the Political Parties Joint Council (PPJC), a coalition of 53 local and national political parties, including the ruling party itself. Even before the parliament approved the eleven commissioners to lead the commission, PPJC issued a statement requesting parliament to “temporarily halt” the process and resume after ensuring it was inclusive of all stakeholders, including civil society organizations.

Rahel Baffie, the chairwoman of the Joint Council, and herself a member of the opposition Ethiopian Social Democratic Party (ESDP), told Addis Standard that she “strongly believes that problem makers cannot solve that problem. If you take the government, it is a problem maker, if you take the TPLF and other political parties, the same applies. They cannot facilitate and the process should be free for both of them.”

In separate interviews with several other local media, including those owned by the ruling party itself, Rahel pulls no punches in exposing the flawed process with which the ruling party rushed both the drafting and the enactment of the proclamation establishing the dialogue commission, and the selection process as well as the subsequent appointment of its eleven commissioners.

Is dialogue amid a civil war possible?

The civil war in Tigray, Afar and Amhara regions is markedly classified for its utter brutality, but it wasn’t the first crisis to engulf post-Abiy’s Ethiopia. The first militarized violence started in Oromia regional state when conflict broke out between the then ruling Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) – later incorporated into the Prosperity Party as Oromia Prosperity Party – and the armed members of the opposition OLF, known as the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) – or “OLF/Shene” – to use the government’s classification.

What started as minor militarized violence in Western Oromia has now expanded to include Southern, Central, and Eastern Oromia, to the point that in the first week of April, the federal and Oromia regional governments announced a joint military operation to “eradicate the threat of OLA once and for all”, while also highlighting that “extremist Islamist movements” were operating in the region.

Shortly before it launched the final offensive against OLA, the ruling PP held a major shakeup in its leadership after holding its first ever general assembly on 10 and 12 March this year. The party voted PM Abiy Ahmed as its first president, and Adam Farah from Somali state, and Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonenn were elected as first and second deputy presidents, respectively.

Abdi Mubarak and Abdulrazaq Ahmed are businessmen from Gode and Qabre Dahar respectively of the Somali state. Responding to Addis Standard when asked to comment on the assembly of the ruling party and its outcome for Somalis, they said it will do little to serve the ordinary Somali’s best interest in the region, which is experiencing the worst drought in its recent history.

Ali Yassin, who is a student at Jigjiga University, is more straightforward, “We had the peace deal in 2018, we had many sit-downs with the government where Somalis were supposed to be represented and our demands for better education and health systems were supposed to be met, our demands for better infrastructure were not met either, but most importantly our demands to be treated better were not met. I don’t see how this could be any different.”

While the war in northern Ethiopia and Oromia is undeniably the dominant political failure that plagued the post-Abiy Ethiopia, localized communal clashes, religious and ethnic tensions and at time violence are a fact of life in today’s Ethiopia

The prospect of a successful dialogue with the ruling party’s unquestioned and unquestionable grip on it becomes grim as more questions of “who will participate in the dialogue” remain than there are answers.

So far, there is no indication that major dissenters including from Tigray state will be welcomed at the table; as are the OLA rebels and other armed groups that are fighting against forces of federal and regional governments.

While the war in northern Ethiopia and Oromia is undeniably the dominant political failure that plagued the post-Abiy Ethiopia, localized communal clashes, religious and ethnic tensions and at time violence are a fact of life in today’s Ethiopia from Amhara, Oromia, Benishangul Gumuz, Gambella, to SNNP regional states. Border clashes between Afar and Somali have become a norm. Conflicts between irregular armed groups in Amhara and Oromia, as well as tension between the regional government officials in the two regions is threatening to unleash bloodbath; and armed groups in Gambella (Gambella Liberation Front), Benishangul Gumuz (Unidentified armed groups allegedly supported by foreign governments) have continued to claim the lives of hundreds, and to displace thousands.

A week-long unrest that started in the first week of April has left unknown numbers of civilians displaced and damage to several properties in various places in and around Jinka city, the capital of South Omo zone in SNNP region. An inter-communal violence that erupted the same month in Konso zone of the same region has “led to a new wave of displacement” of about 37,000 people, including about 19,000 women and girls, from 10 Kebeles. In Segen Zuria Woreda of the same zone more than 3,000 people are newly displaced from Karat Zuria Woreda (Fuchucha kebele) due to fighting between Konso and Derashe communities at the beginning of April. In the kebeles of Borqara, Mataragizaba, more than 1,000 persons have been displaced due to the violence, in the recent weeks”, according to a new UN report.

By the time of print in the week of 28 April, at least 21 Muslim mounters were killed in an attack in Gonder, the historic city in Amhara state, at the funeral of Sheik Kamal Legas, a prominent local Sheik in the city who passed away after a short illness. Dozens were injured, and Mosques and private properties belonging to Muslims were torched.

Is dialogue amid a civil war and violence mission impossible? AS

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Editor’s Note: This article was previously published on the cover of the May 2022 edition of Addis Standard’s print magazine.

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