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How not to conduct a National Dialogue


And how to fix Ethiopia’s

Ethiopia’s government is currently touting an allegedly unprecedented National Dialogue, which it describes as a panacea for the country’s deep-seated political problems.

National dialogues—when inclusive, credible, and transparent—can be an effective tool for conflict management, and even political transformation, in post-conflict societies. However, various governments such as Egypt, Sudan, and Uganda’s have manipulated them, using instead as a facade to absorb international pressure and consolidate domestic power.

Two years ago, amid a horrific civil war in northern Ethiopia centred on Tigray, the federal government initiated an ongoing National Dialogue. The aim was stated as resolving “fundamental differences and disagreements through broad-based inclusive public dialogue.”

However, the country remains embroiled in conflict. Tigray was devastated by the civil war, the Oromo Liberation Army controls parts of Oromia, and much of Amhara is essentially ungovernable after nearly a year of intensifying insurgency and martial law.

Regardless, the National Dialogue Commission has started collecting views on the agenda

As widely acknowledged, and I noted four years ago, national dialogue is needed. But this appears to be merely an attempt to confuse a domestic audience, buy time, and gain international approval.

Stillborn Commission

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has used institutions ruthlessly, capturing or crippling existing ones, and creating new bodies to legitimize temporary measures and consolidate power, then discard them when convenient.

Examples include National Electoral Board, the Legal Reform Council, the Border and Identity Commission, the National Reconciliation Commission, and the National Economic Advisory Committee, whose ambiguous functions have often been hidden from the public.

Meaza Ashenafi, president of the Federal Supreme Court, presiding over the swearing ceremony of the National Dialogue Commission’s commissioners; February 2022.

A key principle of national dialogues is inclusivity from the outset, involving deliberation among stakeholders and reaching consensus on objectives and rules. In Ethiopia, the ruling Prosperity Party, which was previously reticent about national dialogue and controls 98 percent of parliamentary seats, unilaterally established the Commission.

Even the minimalist procedural safeguard provided in the Proclamation was violated. Art. 12(4)  states that “the Speaker shall consult with the leadership and representatives of opposition political parties, civil society organizations, and the interreligious council on the list of nominees.”

As if this was not bad enough, repeated calls for midcourse correction of the design flaws by opposition parties went unheeded.

Ultimately, the Commission was constituted without any scrutiny by political elites or the public at large, and the Prime Minister, unconstrained by any procedural hurdles, nominated the Commissioners as he wished.

This reveals fundamental defects at birth. It is no wonder that someone like Merera Gudina, a veteran Oromo opposition leader and political scientist, dubbed the National Dialogue Commission “dead on arrival.”

Farcical Process

In politics, process, and the perception of it, matter. This is particularly so with a national dialogue. A well-structured and inclusive process ensures legitimacy, fosters trust among participants, and so enhances the chances of achieving sustainable and meaningful outcomes.

The Ethiopian process suffers from chronic legitimacy deficits. In addition to its congenital disabilities, the process of selecting participants, the agenda, schedule, and modalities excluded stakeholders.

The caucus of 12 political parties has boycotted the process (some forwarded conditions), and the warring groups are excluded, while Tigray’s government sits on the fence. Participants in the upcoming deliberations have been selected through the existing government structure controlled by the Prosperity Party.

Both the Islamic Affairs and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church stated that they were either not consulted or insufficiently represented. About 80 prominent Oromo scholars and professionals questioned the integrity of the ongoing process and 81 percent of Ethiopians who participated in a recent survey have no faith in the Commission.

If all pertinent actors are excluded, then whose process is it? Dialogue about what and among whom?

A national dialogue is supposed to be held, in essence, among participants with diverse views and competing interests. The Commission was established to facilitate all-inclusive discussions among stakeholders with a view to bridging differences on fundamental issues.

It is, therefore, a farce to engage in a process that contradicts its very objective.


What is more worrisome is the Commission’s poor communication strategy. Anyone would expect Commissioners to desist from a damaging media frenzy. But some could not resist the temptation to reinforce prevailing public perceptions, further compromising their legitimacy.

For instance, the Chairman of the Commission, Mesfin Araya, appeared on various media platforms and made various conflicting statements, whereas another member of the Commission, Yonas Adaye, claimed the mandate of mediating between warring parties, which was not given to the Commission.

At the very least, the Commission should be careful in its communications, in addition to acting impartially and transparently.

The process is controlled by the Prosperity Party and its usual allies: Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice and the National Movement of Amhara. The opening ceremony of the agenda selection was mostly attended by Prosperity Party cadres, and the messages delivered by the Prime Minister, as well as the attendant clapping, were more akin to a communist party dinner than a national dialogue.

In sum, the process is neither national, nor a dialogue.

Unpromising Outcome

The quality of an outcome is highly predicated on an idea’s worthiness and the delivery process’s legitimacy.

Given the Abiy government’s instrumentalization of similar processes in the recent past, the political rationale underpinning the establishment of the Commission, the deliberate exclusion of key actors, the lack of a conducive environment owing to ongoing conflicts, and, above all, Abiy Ahmed´s declaration that a transitional government is not up for discussion, it is safe to say that a promising outcome is unlikely.

Regardless, even if it was, the Commission has no legal mechanism to implement its recommendations. It is up to the Prime Minister and his rubberstamp parliament to pick and choose which recommendations to act upon.

Salvage Operation

Despite these problems, Ethiopia cannot afford to miss yet another opportunity for real change. Something needs to be done before it is too late. Below are some recommendations to reinvigorate the Ethiopian National Dialogue, in order of importance.

  • Pause the ongoing activities

Use this grace period for introspection, listen to public opinion, learn from the experiences of other countries, and, most importantly, talk to the armed actors in the bush.

  • Call for a national peace convention

This would allow for reaching a comprehensive ceasefire and elite bargaining on sticking points, including those pertaining to the Commission’s legitimacy deficits and the process thus far. As experience shows, the vast majority of successful national dialogues are preceded by ceasefires and /or are the product of elite consensus. There is very little chance of a successful national dialogue in the midst of raging civil wars. Thinking otherwise is misguided at best and insane at worst.

  • Establish an inclusive committee

Once a comprehensive ceasefire has been signed and consensus reached on major issues, it is essential to establish an ad hoc body constituted of all relevant stakeholders. All successful national dialogues have one basic thing in common: the incumbent should participate in the process as an equal partner, not as an overlord.

  • Take a gradual approach

One of the common pitfalls in conducting national dialogues is putting too much food on the plate. A national dialogue is not a panacea for every socio-political problem, and it is inevitably a long process accompanied by many twists and turns. It requires sustained interaction and unwavering political commitments in which parties build on small gains, minimize derailments, and incrementally resolve entrenched issues.

  • International partners must wise up

Time and again, the U.S. and its Western allies get Ethiopia wrong. The TPLF’s Ethiopia emerged from violence to be a paradigm of development before it became, once more, an authoritarian nightmare. Abiy Ahmed was a messiah one year a pariah the next. They applaud sham elections and legitimize “reforms” used merely to consolidate power.

Once again, they are in the thick of it, backing a flawed, insincere National Dialogue. The international community, particularly the U.S., Canada, and the European Union, must put meaningful pressure on Addis Ababa and provide conditional support only.

More specifically, until the government ensures inclusivity and concludes comprehensive ceasefires with Oromo and Amhara insurgents, they should withhold support for the process.

In sum, it is not too late to save the patient—but emergency surgery is required.


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

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