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Editorial: National Dialogue without inclusion of key armed and non-armed stakeholders is a futile exercise

The National Dialogue Commission planned for actual consultations to start in the coming Ethiopian year (Illustration: Addis Standard)

Addis Abeba – Ethiopia is wrapping up preliminary work to launch, in a few months’ time, a national dialogue aiming to find amicable solutions to the multiple layers of the country’s political crises and forge national consensus on its future.

On 29 December 2021, the House of People’s Representatives announced its approval of Proclamation No. 1265/2014, establishing a National Dialogue Commission (NDC) followed by the appointment of eleven commissioners on 21 February 2022.

The NDC was initially met with collective dismissal and skepticism from major political parties, including a request from the Ethiopian Political Parties Joint Council (EPPJC), a coalition of more than 53 legally registered political parties, to “temporarily halt” the process and reconsider steps that will guarantee meaningful participation of key stakeholders and transparency of the process.

What is urgently needed is therefore a comprehensive roadmap for cessation of hostilities to end this violence involving state and non-state actors, followed by agreements for a ceasefire and genuine political negotiations.

Back then, Addis Standard, in an editorial article published in May 2022 in its monthly print magazine, argued that the process of the enactment of the draft bill and the appointment of commissioners, which was micromanaged by the ruling party suffers from two fatal blows (at least): timing and legitimacy.

Timing: The best train for attempting a national dialogue to solve Ethiopia’s transitional political tensions left the station in 2018, when militarized violence broke out between federal and Oromia regional state forces, and then armed members of the opposition Oromo Liberation Front – better known today as the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). After that, Ethiopia has been nothing but an active scene of multiple violence, almost exclusively driven by bad politics. The culmination of that is the civil war that started in Tigray state in November 2020. Today, Ethiopia hosts multiple militarized violence, from north to south, from east to west. What is urgently needed is therefore a comprehensive roadmap for cessation of hostilities to end this violence involving state and non-state actors, followed by agreements for a ceasefire and genuine political negotiations.

Legitimacy: The best experiences from around the world show that national dialogues stand a chance of success when facilitated by neutral parties. The world offers hardly any examples where a ruling party, which is a party to the very same problems dialogues should solve, micromanages the process, let alone chooses mediators in the form of commissioners. Even for such blatant transgression, the ruling party was repeatedly requested by opposition political parties and key stakeholders to ensure a transparent and inclusive process both during the drafting of the bill and the appointment of commissioners; no party outrightly rejected the ruling party’s commandeering of the process, though it is legitimate to do so.

Today, almost two years later, and at a time the National Dialogue Commission is reporting the completion of the participants’ identification phase except in the Tigray and Amhara regions, and transitioning into agenda gathering, the process falls short of adequately addressing these critical concerns.

Even though the war in Tigray ended through a cessation of hostilities agreement in November 2022, another active militarized conflict has since started in the Amhara region. Attempts to end the conflict in the Oromia region through negotiations haven’t been successful, and the hostilities have continued on an unprecedented scale.

It is crystal clear that the outcome of a national dialogue that doesn’t include these two parties and the armed group Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) will have an insignificant impact not only in the Oromia region but also nationally.”

The National Dialogue Commission, despite expressing interest in including armed groups engaged in active fighting with the government in the dialogue, has not taken any practical measures to engage them nor has it provided a clear roadmap on how to ensure their participation. The commission, according to an interview one of its commissioners did with a local newspaper, merely hopes that the armed groups will somehow find their way to the national dialogue by themselves, and while actively fighting with the government.

Furthermore, the commission boasts successfully redeeming its legitimacy as more than 40 out of 63 opposition groups in the country are now working with the commission. However, in the Oromia region, for example, the two most popular political parties that have practical influence in the region – the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) – are not yet willing to take part in the process, casting doubts over the commission’s legitimacy. It is crystal clear that the outcome of a national dialogue that doesn’t include these two parties and the armed group Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) will have an insignificant impact not only in the Oromia region but also nationally. Additionally, the lack of successful inclusion of the Fano, armed militia fighting with the government in the Amhara region, will render the entire process futile.

As far as Tigray is concerned, the commission, which was established under the auspices of a parliament with no single representative from the region, only has verbal assurance from regional authorities of their participation.

According to the UN, “the attitude and behavior of national elites – understood as groups in society who have a disproportionate amount of political, social, and economic power compared to the rest of the society – was found to be the single most important factor influencing the chances of National Dialogues to reach and implement agreements.”

This means, without meaningful participation of the elite, demonstrated commitment of individual commissioners, as well as the commission’s commendable work so far regarding identifying participants from the wider population, and agenda gathering endeavors will have minimal impact on the success of the process.

It may not be too late, though. Devising a mechanism aimed at achieving ceasefires in the Oromia and Amhara regions, even if only temporarily, and ensuring the inclusivity of not only armed groups but also key opposition political parties and other important stakeholders is imperative to redeem the process, and make it achieve its intended purposes. AS

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