Since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) assumed the high office, the transition that led to his premiership and the reform initiatives he launched, were cherished by various observers, who said the changes delivered a once in a blue moon chance to ensure a democratic transition in the country. Some compared the developments of the 1960s, where student movements and political mobilizations were rife following the deposition of the imperial regime or the 1991 downfall of the Derg regime that led to EPRDF’s takeover.
Many said the country did not fully exploit those historical moments to bring about real political changes and advised lessons to be taken from past experiences not to ruin the opportunity that came now. And one of the major contributors to the prospect was the much-promised general elections conducted in June 2020.
Considerate of the fact that the elections would not fully deliver a “free, fair and credible election,” as frequently promised by the government and pronounced by political parties, the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) rather promised to deliver a “peaceful and credible” election, which “would restore the public’s trust in polls.”
Post-election interviews The Reporter conducted with political party leaders revealed that the elections did not fully deliver on their promises. Political Parties’ Joint Council chairwoman, Rahel Bafie (PhD) told The Reporter at the time that, the playing field was not level for all players, and the ruling party exploited public resources for campaigning.
Ogaden National Liberation Front’s (ONLF), Ahmed Abdullahi said they will not give “an illusion of this being a competitive election.”
However, the newly initiated national dialogue in the form of a commission has revived hopes for a better chance of a democratic transition in the country that would ensure a stable federation.
“I fear that this would fail like the elections,” said Tiruneh Gemta of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), because of questions he has on the inclusivity of the process. “If we want to bring about peace in this country, all fighting forces should take part in the intended dialogues,” added Tiruneh.
Tiruneh is of the view that, although his party does not support anyone to take arms to attain political goals, it is a given that this takes place in autocracies.
Rahel said political parties entered the elections last year, trusting the covenant political parties signed with the ruling party, although that remained at the center without devolving to the lower echelons of the administration, where the elections were conducted on the ground.
“Although the opposition was bound by the rules of engagement in the covenant, the ruling party did not live by the promises it made,” Rahel observed.
This led to the exclusion of some political parties from the elections. Some parties withdrew from the process because their members were detained. However, because the elections would come again after five years, the focus turned to national survival, and political parties prioritized this despite Prosperity Party going in its own way, Rahel explained.
“There is the fear for the national dialogue, that this could be repeated and we have expressed our concerns to the Prosperity Party and the government,” Rahel added.
According to her, the national dialogue in the pipeline is more than parties and elections, hence, it should fulfil some preconditions to achieve fairness and credibility. The Council listed and presented this to the ruling party so that it could be inclusive enough to bring the society’s social, political and economic problems that call for attention.
“The dialogue should lead to a national consensus and if it is exclusionary like the election, it won’t work,” Rahel warned.
Achieving this on the other hand requires ensuring a common understanding from the outset and having a smooth relationship.
“The problem we have with the Prosperity Party is that we only talk and are not listened to and trusted. This does not help anyone,” Rahel underlined.
The issue of inclusivity in the intended national dialogue was also at the center of discussions during the NEBE’s consultative meeting with political parties to ratify a directive guiding discussions among political parties at Radison Blu hotel on Wednesday February 2, 2022.
Pointing out that the preamble in the directive states the outcomes from the discussions by political parties would be an input for the intended national dialogue, the Oromo Liberation Front’s (OLF), Jabessa Gabissa, complained that this should not be the case and needs to be taken-off the directive. His reasons being, as a party, the OLF is not engaging in the national dialogue process.
“There should not be any third party involvement in this,” Jabessa added.
The OLF’s Tiruneh also wanted the separation of the Commission’s work from these discussions apart from opposing the reform works in the country. If the national dialogue commission needs an input from the NEBE, it should approach the Board to get the same. He also questioned the extent of the Board’s certainty concerning the inclusiveness of the national dialogue as stated in the preamble.
However, Zadig Abraha, Prosperity Party’s representative to the discussions, criticized the tendency to downplay the reform works in the country, although he does not believe that all things needing reform have been addressed. Zadig asked for recognition of the little reforms the country has witnessed.
In his opinion, the fact that the outcomes of the discussions will be an input to the intended national dialogue is an opportunity for the parties to get their voices represented in the discussions.
“Making the national dialogue inclusive enough falls on us. And the law clearly stipulates that it would be inclusive. While critical support is appreciated, being indifferent to all things won’t take us anywhere. We should change the way we look at things,” Zadig said.
Birtukan Mideksa, chairwoman of the NEBE, on her part, stated that informing the national dialogue by providing inputs from discussions among political parties is included in the directive based on previous requests to align the two platforms. Birtukan said that providing discussion inputs to the national dialogue would give relevance to the discussions conducted among political parties.
In order to make the national dialogue work, Rahel advises that the process and the actual discussion should match the social values in the country, which the Joint Council conveyed in a letter and by word to the ruling party.
“Ethiopia can’t afford to lose this opportunity. It is a yearned for process and I don’t think Ethiopia can bear its failure,” Rahel said.
In order to achieve this, Rahel indicated that the national dialogue should achieve independence and inclusivity at all levels and free from party interference, unlike the last election. Hence, the government should take part in the dialogue as one stakeholder, apart from carrying out its administrative and logistical responsibilities.
She is of the understanding that the government should entertain questions as a separate entity, as it could be challenged by arguments, which go as far as the era of Emperor Menelik II. And, although this is a sought after process, actions should corroborate this.
“The public also needs to play its role. However, the public needs to be free to express their thoughts without fear of repercussions,” Rahel advised.
Inclusivity, according to Tiruneh, includes involving forces that have taken up arms to bring about intended changes. Hence, he believes, the government should take the lead and bring those involved in the armed struggle into the national dialogue.
“Rather than labelling all opposing forces, the government needs to be open,” he told The Reporter.
Tiruneh also said that the process is not inclusive from the outset and that they knew about the initiative after the law was enacted, for which they could have contributed had they known about it.
Basically, the fight between the Prosperity Party and the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) is a struggle for political power, all forces need to come to the discussion table and save the country’s meagre resources, which are being thrown in the fire, Tiruneh indicated.
Some observers of the national dialogue process asked what inclusivity means and whether it means representation of an idea or political interest of groups in the dialogue. For Rahel, who was also part of the now latent Multistakeholder Initiative for National Dialogue in Ethiopia (MIND-Ethiopia), inclusivity is meant for both ideas and people.
In principle, no idea should be avoided and these ideas should not also be entertained by only a few people. Hence, members of the society need to be involved as much as possible and they should be allowed to bring in ideas they represent. Therefore, the two are inseparable, Rahel added.
In all this process, the National Dialogue Commission should take the role of a facilitator. Had it not been for the lack of an independent entity like Ghana’s independent parliamentary speaker or a trusted religious leader like Desmond Tutu of South Africa, a commission would not be an option to run such an initiative. Rahel says, the previous intentional discrediting, to undermine religious organizations, have affected their credibility.
Although the Speaker of the House of Peoples’ Representatives (HoPR) is not independent, neutrality is expected at least because of his/her representativeness. But still, this requires positivity from the Speaker.
Rahel also believes that, if the public sits for discussions to resolve the problems, it would motivate those in armed struggles to come to the discussion table.
“What we hope is that they would abandon their arms and come to the tables,” Rahel said.
The House of Peoples’ Representatives secretariat announced that they screened 42 individuals from a total of 632 candidates recommended by the public to fill the 14 slots of commissionership to the Commission. The House publicized the 42 people it selected so that the 14 will be selected after public scrutiny.