Yonas Adaye, holder of a PhD in Peace Studies from the University of Bradford in the UK and a postgraduate diploma (with merit) in Research Methods for the Social Sciences, currently serves as Deputy Commissioner of Ethiopia’s National Dialogue Commission as well as Director of the Institute for Peace and Security Studies at Addis Ababa University, since 2019.
With expertise gained through advanced degrees, Yonas has pushed for dialogue to resolve the nation’s strife. He says the Commission’s activities have been hampered by ongoing conflict. Though challenges persist, Yonas remains hopeful that through open discussions, the Commission can help Ethiopia move past divisions and build a more just and stable future for all.
Mesfin Feleke of The Reporter sat down with Yonas to hear his perspective on the crucial work of the Commission. EXCERPTS:
The Reporter: It’s been over a year since the National Dialogue Commission was formed, yet Ethiopia’s struggles continue. How has the Commission tried mitigate or address these issues?
Yonas Adaye (PhD): The commission was established a year and half ago. Our mandate, as set out in the Proclamation, is to uncover the underlying causes of conflicts occurring in the country through interaction and dialogue with society.
In fulfilling this mandate, the Commission is required to adhere to two fundamental principles. The first is to foster national understanding and consensus across the country’s diverse societies. The second is to foster trust between the people and the government, as well as within society itself.
So, in my view, the Commission has discharged its duties since its establishment.
We have structured our work into five phases, beginning with a pre-operational strategy. During this phase, we examined the successes and failures of other countries’ national dialogue processes to identify relevant lessons for Ethiopia.
The second phase involved preparatory work, during which we visited all parts of the country. We spoke with prominent civic, political, and religious leaders to obtain their input and support.
These consultations helped us better understand the challenges facing different societies while also communicating the aims and benefits of national dialogue as an initial step towards adopting it in Ethiopia. We accomplished this well by bridging gaps between ourselves and the regions and building connections.
As noted earlier, we explored other countries’ experiences. As a starting point, we examined Benin’s process closely. Benin engaged in rigorous discussions with diverse sectors of society during implementation, with religious and civic groups, political parties, scholars and others playing leading roles. This partnership, combined with public openness to reform, has yielded governmental and constitutional changes.
Do you think your commission is capable of achieving outcomes comparable to the proposed approach?
I don’t see any clear reason why Ethiopia shouldn’t pursue this course of action.
International mediators have engaged in negotiations for Tigray and Oromia, yet your commission has not mediated the ongoing crisis in Amhara. What are your thoughts on this, and does your commission have the means to mediate the current situation?
First and foremost, we must acknowledge our organization’s mandate. Our organizational operations are fully constrained by the proclamation’s mandate. For example, while we were able to successfully gather information and identify dialogue participants from Sidama, Harar, Dire Dawa, Western Ethiopia, Gambella, and Beni-Shangul, we were unable to begin our tour of the Oromia and Amhara regions as the conflicts had worsened daily, becoming an impediment.
It is important to remember that the National Dialogue Commission is the first of its kind in Ethiopia. As members, we come from diverse backgrounds with little expertise in this field. As an academia, I view these situations from that perspective. Thus, my expertise, insights, and policy studies have guided my problem-solving approach and efforts to establish a tradition of peaceful conflict resolution in the country.
Given our limited direct involvement in the peace process and mandate, we proved our worth during the Federal Government and Tigray People’s Liberation Front peace negotiations in Pretoria, South Africa. Nevertheless, we received counsel from the international community on how to constructively engage the two parties in resolving their differences through initiating African solutions to African problems.
Furthermore, while the peace process was underway, we were given the opportunity to engage with leaders of civil society, representatives of political parties, civic organizations, and religious leaders to discuss the matter from different perspectives and create awareness.
How can you ensure it’s not too late to make progress, and that the Commission will deliver results? Other Commissions lost public trust by not addressing problems promptly. What can you do to fulfill your goals and maintain credibility?
We are working diligently to build public trust. Recently, we called on both warring sides to unconditionally end the recent crisis through diplomatic channels and expressed our willingness to facilitate this process.
It is never too late to achieve unanimity. All armed groups that oppose the government belong to this constituency. Their fears and intentions are ours as well. Therefore, we must enable peaceful resolution of conflicts. In this, we received a positive response and hoped for a better outcome.
Given that a peace negotiation was held between the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Federal Government in Tanzania, Zanzibar, wasn’t facilitating those talks within Ethiopia part of your mandate as the National Dialogue Commission? Did you not have the capacity to convene those negotiations domestically?
We have all the capabilities required of us as a commission. However, given our limited understanding of this sector and unfamiliarity with one another at this early stage, it would be premature to pass judgment on our work.
As noted previously, we are still in the third phase of identifying our agenda and dialogue participants. The actual conduct of the National Dialogue will take place in mid-years of the next Ethiopian calendar year. Consequently, we are carrying out our responsibilities according to the strategic plan established when the Commission was formed.
To succeed, we must first understand the context of our strategic goals. Without that context, our efforts will lack direction. Appreciating the context will help us implement our strategic plan effectively and achieve better results.
However, if we do not address the root causes of problems and find solutions, it could undermine our work and credibility. As a result, we are currently making progress toward clarifying our objectives before moving to the fourth phase.
You mentioned the Commission has identified dialogue participants from some areas. However, Amhara, Oromia, and Tigray regions are where many of the political tensions originate. Aren’t you potentially missing engaging the most critical stakeholders by not including representatives from those most impacted regions?
We intended to start with basic tasks and progressively take on more complex issues. It’s not about prioritizing some over others; it’s that the work requires building up tasks incrementally. Furthermore, the challenges ahead are more intricate than what we’ve analyzed so far. Experience in these areas helps us identify strengths and weaknesses, thereby enhancing our logistical and personnel capabilities. Generally, the science-based roadmap begun with the least problematic and worked toward increasingly problematic ones.
Between the ongoing conflicts and the citizens’ waning confidence, the Commission now finds itself in turbulent waters. How does the Commission plan to turn the tide and deliver the relief that Ethiopians desperately need?
Given the magnitude of the country’s current issues, we welcome all criticism directed at us. Within this criticism, you can see the people’s desire for solutions, as well as their trust and value in the Commission. It demonstrates their expectations. It would be wrong of me to deny the public’s right to demand an immediate response from us.
For us, we are working hard to achieve our goals using the mandate that has been provided to us. This is particularly crucial in light of the country’s current difficulties. It is critical to recognize that we are not alone in this journey. All stakeholders, including religious leaders and societal elites, have pledged their unwavering support for restoring peace and stability in the country.
As I previously stated, we accept criticism and utilize it to motivate us to go further. I am confident that we can do better in the days or months ahead. The assistance we would get from all stakeholders might considerably support us in meeting our objectives of creating a peaceful society.
Rising polarization among politicians, activists, elites and the public has complicated reconciliation efforts. Does overcoming disputes to complete objectives seem surmountable in this climate, or an immense struggle given entrenched issues and ongoing conflicts?
We were not granted authority via proclamation to directly implement or oversee peace mediation during times of conflict. Our commission was formed to convene dissenting parties for discussion and input. In other words, we facilitate dialogue and make recommendations regarding how the peace process should be carried out.
Furthermore, we are also responsible for liaising with those executing the peace process and ensuring its proper conduct. We are tasked with informing the public if correct implementation is not occurring. Follow-up studies will reveal where progress halts.
These processes comprise the five phases of the Commission’s strategic plan, as initially mentioned. Follow-up and assessment constitute the fourth and fifth stages. Therefore, it is paramount to recognize that we are not members of the executive branch or peace negotiators. We serve solely as dialogue facilitators and an advisory body recommending how the peace process might progress.
Given the disagreement around where dialogue should commence, have you determined a starting point? Have you established a framework for organizing the topics of discussion?
Identifying and addressing sensitive issues is crucially important. In Sidama’s case seeking liberation from the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR), we faced a similar challenge. It was a highly contentious topic then, with competing ideologies beginning with Menelik II, Haile Selassie I and the EPRDF period.
It was a time that brought needed calm to our people. We needed to be pragmatic in our selections throughout the process. As I said before, the experience provided valuable insight into managing such situations going forward.
So how do you identify the root problems now?
In the near future, an all-inclusive discussion will be held amongst all regional states. Afterwards, we will carry out the National Dialogue across Ethiopia using an agreed framework.
What thorny issues have come up since the commission’s inception? Have external forces like the government or general public ever directly influenced your work?
The continuation of disputes from one region to the next has hampered our efforts to pave the road for Ethiopian peace and stability. Existing problems prevent us from achieving our objectives.
For example, after peacefully resolving the situations in Sidama and the South-Western regional states, Commission members convened a general conference to deliberate our next steps. We decided to visit the Amhara and Oromia regional states. However, conflicts emerged in both areas, thwarting those plans.
A second disadvantage for the Commission could be considered “Great Expectations” from society. In this way, the public persistently expected us to satisfy their demand for solutions.
Amid multiplying skirmishes that mar the nation, how do you envision overcoming obstacles to achieve your objectives?
Even with ongoing challenges and disputes, we hoped for improved resolutions. However, as commission members, I can confidently say nothing will prevent us from achieving our objectives.
Moving forward, what contributions will be needed from all parts of society to safeguard the nation’s stability and people’s welfare into the future?
As a member of the Commission, I urge the whole population not to lose hope. We invite all relevant stakeholders to join us in our organizational task.