Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Towards a secure future through national dialogue

As the sixth general elections due to be held in June, which the government has touted to be the first truly democratic polls in Ethiopia’s history, fast approach the nation continues to be beset by a raft of both domestic and external challenges that threaten to push it over the edge. The tragic war in the northern Tigray region which witnessed gross atrocities and resulted in a humanitarian crisis as well as the frequent killings and displacement of innocent civilians across several regions for over three years now has brought the country to its nadir. The spiraling cost of living, the raging COVID-19 pandemic, and the standoff over the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) with Sudan and Egypt also constitute factors that have significant ramifications for the elections. It’s in this backdrop that many question whether the elections can usher in the dividends the government has said they would and there are better alternatives to securing Ethiopia’s future. 

The establishment of a transitional government mandated with leading a national dialogue that leads to a broadly acceptable arrangement on the kind of country Ethiopia should become—and the institutional and constitutional form it should take—has been proposed by a number of political parties, activists and analysts as the only way out of the political and security quagmire Ethiopia finds itself in. The ruling Prosperity Party and the administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) have repeatedly poured cold water on the idea saying it smacks of a shortcut to grab power unconstitutionally and is incapable of bringing about the desired democratic change. Without rejecting outright the viability of installing an interim government in the context of Ethiopia’s unique set of problems, there are legitimate issues that need to be raised regarding its efficacy.

Advocates of the formation of a transitional government maintain that the current constitution is to blame for the political crisis engulfing Ethiopia and as such must be replaced with a new framework hammered out between all stakeholders. While pan-Ethiopian forces, which view it as an imported design that is practically impossible to change due to the fact that doing so requires the agreement of all the regional states, ethnonationalist parties consider it to be untouchable and seek to guarantee its preservation. The inclusive dialogue which must necessarily precede the creation of a transitional government though is fraught with a host of practical difficulties. Who is going to take part in the dialogue? Who has the right to determine the composition of the participants? What are the yardsticks used to select them? What will be the themes of the dialogue? What are the mechanisms by which substantive principles and the processes through which a consensus may be formalized? And how committed are the actors involved in the process to come to and observe any binding agreement they sign up to? Failure to negotiate in good faith and reach an understanding on these matters is liable to defeat the dialogue from the outset.

There has hardly been any expectation that the upcoming elections, which have suffered from credibility gaps, will lead to the ouster of the ruling party or resolve acrimonious disagreements over historical narratives and institutional arrangements. These visions are different, even contradictory, but they have always shared a common trait: they were dictated top-down by the dominant forces of the time with very little room for negotiating. Bringing competing visions closer and healing the traumatic events Ethiopians have been subjected to requires a paradigm shift, a shift that takes into account the various visions’ legitimacy and emphasizes the imperative to go for an inclusive process to negotiate a common vision—or at least a workable political system and institutional structure.

Establishing a transitional government at this critical juncture in Ethiopia’s history is not feasible given elections are around the corner and is destined to not get off from the ground owing to the ruling party’s staunch opposition. However, this does not preclude the process of embarking on a national dialogue underpinned by the principle of give-and-take. Negotiated outcomes are bound to leave every side involved somewhat dissatisfied given they entail compromising on core beliefs. But they must always bear in mind that there can be no zero-sum path to a peaceful, democratic and prosperous Ethiopia. If the conflicting narratives that have proven to be the bane of Ethiopia are to be constructively addressed and thereby move the nation-building process forward it’s absolutely essential that all stakeholders engage in a genuine and all-inclusive national dialogue. It’s then that the country’s future can be laid on a secure foundation.

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