Thursday, February 22, 2024

Resuming the stalled peace talks with open hearts and minds

The collapse of the second round of talks between the Ethiopian government and the self-described Oromo Liberation Front-Oromo Liberation Army (OLF-OLA) in Tanzania has elicited expressions of disappointment by everyone who had expected that they would result in the conclusion of a deal. As expected, recriminations flew back and forth soon after the talks ended early this week, with both sides blaming each other for the failure. The government put down the breakdown of the talks to the “intransigence” of OLF-OLA and said “the obstructive approach and unrealistic demands of the other party are the principal reasons why these talks could not succeed”. OLF-OLA, on its part, said the federal government was “only interested in the co-optation” of its leadership “rather than beginning to address the fundamental problems that underlie the country’s seemingly insurmountable security and political challenges.” The crumbling of the negotiations means there is no realistic end in sight for a resolution of the deadly insurgency that has been rocking the Oromia region for over five years anytime soon.

Taking a stab at reaching a negotiated political settlement to bring the rebellion in northern Ethiopia, which has exacted a heavy humanitarian and economic toll in the Oromia region, to a close is admittedly fraught with extreme difficulties. After months of fighting which has seen the OLF-OLA widen the areas where it’s active but also sustain military losses, the federal government and the rebel group seem to realize that total military victory is simply unattainable and hence need to compromise. Although both sides have not heeded calls for a humanitarian ceasefire to alleviate the plight of the defenseless civilians who have borne the brunt of the insurgency, the fact that they have shown a willingness to engage in a dialogue has at least been a cause for optimism by many. Unfortunately, the reluctance of both parties to take concrete steps that help contribute to the brokering of a deal has dashed hopes of a peaceful settlement and cast doubt over whether they are truly committed to resolving their differences through a genuinely inclusive and transparent process or are taking part in talks for appearances’ sake.

Despite the foundering of the latest round of talks, the fact that negotiating sides decided to continue the talks from where they left off was a step in the right direction. Had they succeeded, the ensuing cessation of the OLF-OLA’s armed struggle would have enabled the inhabitants of the violence-stricken areas of Oromia and beyond to breathe a deserved sigh of relief. Part of the reason why the negotiations thus far have failed is the inability of all sides to embark on confidence and security building measures necessary to establish trust between them. Given the complex nature of the conflict devastating Oromia, it’s only natural that a peace deal is forged after protracted negotiations. That is why it’s important to display patience and perseverance in any initiative aimed at bringing about a negotiated end to the internecine strife. After all brokering a comprehensive peace deal is akin to marathon; not a sprint.

Seizing the fragile momentum for peace requires a shift away from the reflex to assume the worst of one’s adversaries and towards recognizing the legitimate concerns and grievances of others. Though it may be impossible to eliminate ingrained animosities and distrust, Ethiopians have no option but to do everything to give peace a chance. Needless to say, future negotiations, if they ever get off the ground, must be conducted in a transparent manner and deliver not only accountability of the persons who have committed atrocities, but also redress for traumatized communities. In view of the political roots of the destructive insurgency in Oromia, it’s incumbent on the government and OLF-OLA should display the courage to end the fighting– even if that means offending some of their allies. If Ethiopians cannot overcome our collective failure of imagination and put paid to one of the horrible chapter in our history through dialogue, it will only portend a dire future for the country.

The untold misery of innocent people caught in the crossfire between the government and OLF-OLA make it imperative for the warring sides to return to the negotiating table in the shortest possible time. Nothing can stop them from achieving reconciliation and permanent peace even though the path to this goal is torturous and bound to suffer from frequent setbacks. If they truly have the interest of their people at heart, they should swallow their pride and recommit themselves to resuming the stalled dialogue with open hearts and minds.

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