You are currently viewing What to Expect from the Ethiopian “National Dialogue”? 

What to Expect from the Ethiopian “National Dialogue”? 

Participants representing various community sectors discussing national dialogue agendas at Ghion hotel, Addis Abeba (Photo: NDC/Facebook)

By Milkessa Gemechu @milkessam

Addis Abeba – The Prosperity Party-led government of Ethiopia launched on May 29, 2024, what it calls “the agenda gathering phase” of the national dialogue in Addis Ababa, the federal seat. The government pushed to kickstart both the transitional justice and national dialogue processes despite widespread criticisms questioning the constitution, credibility, and goals of the Ethiopian National Dialogue Commission and the impartiality of the transitional justice.  The Caucus of Opposition Parties composed of eleven opposition groups in Ethiopia on May 23, 2024, accused the National Dialogue Commission of failing to fulfill its stated purpose of facilitating an “inclusive” national dialogue and instead being abused by the ruling party. Most importantly, conflicts in Oromia and Amhara are actively going on right now and rebel forces such as the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) are excluded from the processes and thus from the outcomes. Tigrayan forces were also not part of the process from the very beginning because the Commission was established during the war in Tigray. Why did the Prosperity Party-led Abiy administration rush to hold its “national dialogue” without meaningful participation of key stakeholders? Does the said dialogue resolve the political and security crises in the country by ending the civil wars? 

First of all, let me discuss how the Ethiopian National Dialogue Commission came into being. The Commission began functioning in 2022 after its founding proclamation was enacted in December 2021 by the Federal House of Representatives (Proclamation No.1265/2021). The Commission is an offshoot of the two predecessor commissions–1) Reconciliation Commission established in 2018 by Proclamation No.1102 and 2) Administrative Boundary and Identity Issues Commission established in 2019 by Proclamation No. 1101. These commissions became defunct in December 2021 when the Ethiopian National Dialogue Commission was formed by the House of Peoples’ Representatives.  

When the National Dialogue Commission began functioning in 2022, the two defunct commissions handed over all the duties, documents, and properties to the new one in the presence of the speakers of the House of Peoples’ Representatives and the House of Federation. Thus, the visions and goals outlined in the defunct commissions transformed into the visions and goals of the National Dialogue Commission. If there is a difference between the former commissions and the new one it is that the former was directly accountable to the Prime Minister of Ethiopia and the new one is responsible to the House of Peoples’ Representatives controlled by the Prosperity Party. In close observations, there is no difference, it is a Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Their main goal was to execute the political vision and program of the Prosperity Party as I argue in the following. For instance, the constitutionality of the Boundary and Identity Issues Commission was seriously challenged by various scholars from the get-go. Still, the Abiy administration established it anyway, and at one time Addis Ababa University cooperated with the commission and conducted studies that were never publicized.    

Anyway, the two commissions are gone. It is the time for the Ethiopian National Dialogue Commission. Its founding proclamation outlines seven major objectives of the Commission. It is worth quoting at length: 

1. Facilitate consultation between the various segments of the society by identifying the root causes of the difference on fundamental national issues and identifying the topics on which the discussion will take place

2. Implement an effective National Dialogue process by ensuring that National Dialogues are inclusive, lead by a competent and impartial body, with a clear focus on the cause of disagreements, guided by transparent system, and have a plan to implement the results of the consultations

3. Establish a system of deliberations that will improve the relationship among the different segments of the population as well as between the public and the Government so as to enable the creation of new political dispensation that is marked by mutual trust

4. Support the implementation of the recommendations made by the dialogues and build a democratic system of trust between citizens, the government and the People at the national level

5. To develop a political culture that can solve internal problems that have been simmering for centuries through dialogues and create a conducive environment for the building of a democratic system

6. Lay the social and political foundations on the basis of which current problems can be solved in a sustainable manner, ensuring lasting peace

7. Lay a firm foundation for national consensus and the building of a State with strong legitimacy (Article 6, Proclamation No.1265/2021). 

For sure, no one would oppose these broad democratization and peacebuilding goals. They are impressive words, terms, and concepts, and look like a lion on the paper. But the devil is in the details. The drama of neglecting these goals began right from appointing the commissioners which was left to the House of Peoples’ Representatives tightly controlled by the Prosperity Party. Frankly speaking, it was the ruling party’s matter and commissioners were the Prosperity Party’s appointees. There is no piece of evidence to prove the other way around. 

Second, the National Dialogue Commission has held various town hall meetings with cadres’ handpicked participants in various towns in the country with heavy military security assistance. All local governments are run by what is called “armed cadres” due to the insecurity caused by the ongoing conflicts, especially in Oromia and Amhara. It is impossible to oppose and live in peace in local governments in Ethiopia under the Abiy administration. If you are lucky, you will be kept behind bars, if unlucky you will be taken out of prison and get your executions. That is the situation in Oromia and Amhara. The only way you can oppose Prosperity Party rule is either you join the rebel forces or you should get out of Ethiopia. In such a situation, you can guess who the participants of this national dialogue are. OLA is excluded. Rebel forces in Amhara are excluded. Oppositions whom the Abiy administration turned orphans by detaining and killing their officers and members are excluded. This is not a dialogue, it is a monologue. The objective of such drama cannot be to resolve the root causes of the problems in the country, and it will not build trust, democracy, and lasting peace.

The Ethiopian state does not have minimal legitimacy to speak of. Tigray has been at war with the state of Ethiopia for over two years, Oromia has been at war with the Ethiopian state for over a century now (including the last five years), and Amhara is at war with the Ethiopian state. When people resort to armed struggles and the state uses force to resolve the matter, it implies that the central government is no longer legitimate. If you genuinely desire and have the willingness to restore some aspect of state legitimacy, you need to negotiate to end wars in the country in the first place. The Abiy administration has been unequivocally clear that true negotiations will not happen in Ethiopia. The Prosperity Party is here to run the country for decades to come according to their political equation. That means the civil wars in the country will continue whether the “national dialogue” is held or not.

As I argued two years ago, I will repeat, Ethiopia’s ‘national dialogue’ cannot deliver democracy and peace and we will not see any positive change on the ground. Therefore, what is written on the proclamation as the objectives of the “national dialogue” is not happening. So what should we be expecting at the end of the so-called national dialogue and why is the Abiy administration so determined to undertake this process without meaningful participation of those who disagree on matters of national importance?  

So the “National Dialogue Commission” has announced that it is on the stage of agenda setting. What agenda? Agendas that created the disagreements in Ethiopia. What are they? The Prosperity Party knows the agenda for Ethiopians. That is their assumption. I know for you is a feature of authoritarian arrogance. The participants who are in the conference hall right now are handpicked by the ruling party. The outcome of the discussion is obvious. It is the political program of the Prosperity Party. No need to wait and read the minutes of the “national dialogue,” because you can know the outcomes by reading the political program of the Prosperity Party.  

Therefore, the agenda of the “national dialogue” are most likely to be several of the following. First of all, constitutional revision or drafting a new constitution will be at the top of their agenda as Prime Minister Abiy spoke at the opening ceremony of the “dialogue.” Why is Abiy rushing to write his own constitution unilaterally through this fake “national dialogue”? He and his party have a vision that works toward the dissolution of the current multinational federal system, for which, the Federal Policy Studies Institute has finalized a “study” indicating those articles and clauses in the constitution that are going to be removed. All those clauses providing regional communal autonomy and self-rule principles in the constitution were targeted by the above study. So, what type of federal system is going to be imposed on Ethiopian people? For sure, the new federal arrangement does not respect communal identity, unity, and self-rule which takes us back to the pre-1991 political system in Ethiopia.

The Prosperity party accuses what they call an “ethnic-based” federal system of weakening the Ethiopian state. According to their accusation, the current multinational federal arrangement has weakened Ethiopia and emboldened national groups. By dissolving the current multinational federal system, the Abiy administration aims to restore the “nation-building” project through “national federalism.”  Mozambican liberation leader Samora Machel once said “For the nation to live, the tribe must die.” In the 21st century, be they named tribe, ethnic group, or minority nation, they should be given freedom to run their affairs. To build an Ethiopian nation, many nations should not be targeted and destroyed. Ethiopia and all national groups in the country can flourish together if democracy is allowed to develop. Anyways, the new constitution of Abiy might be already ready for publication. Others such as “national dialogue” are simply ceremonial. Does this move resolve the root causes of the crises in Ethiopia? I am not sure.

In addition to the “national federalism” project, there has been the intention to turn the parliamentary system of government into a presidential system. Abiy Ahmed would love to become the president of Ethiopia being both the head of the state and head of the government of his “national federation.” In multinational societies like Ethiopia, there are arguments for and against both parliamentary and presidential systems. The theoretical and practical questions revolve around which system guarantees minorities more representation and say. Constitutional revisions or writing a new constitution for a country should not be super simple and easy like what we are seeing in Ethiopia. 

The other key agenda to be settled, as can be seen from the preamble and duties and responsibilities of the National Dialogue Commission (Article 9) and repeated by the Prime Minister on June 1, 2024, is drafting the official national narratives. Ethiopia has contradictory national narratives. Groups in Ethiopia largely do not share common narratives, histories, cultures, and languages. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed could not wait to see his version of the national narrative become the official narrative of the country and get the legal green light to force all national groups in the country to learn and obey his national narrative and history. Can Abiy’s administration hold the country together by imposing their favorite national narratives over the rest of the country? I am not sure. 

So, Ethiopia’s “national dialogue” does not resolve the root cause of the disagreements in the country. It does not end the civil war and herald lasting peace. It does not bring about a democratic transition. But it will execute the Prosperity Party’s political program and visions for Ethiopia. A vicious cycle of authoritarian constitution-making and narrative imposition can possibly worsen the complex problems of the country. It is a disaster for Ethiopia.  AS

Editor’s Note: Milkessa M. Gemechu is a former Ethiopia’s Oromia Regional Government official and is now a visiting assistant professor of political science at Albion College (US)

Source: Link to the Post

Leave a Reply