The issue of national consensus and reconciliation is not a new subject to Ethiopian politics particularly given its history of recurrence since the coming to power of the incumbent Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Many especially in the opposition camp have been pushing for some sort of national reconciliation and the establishment of a government reflecting this national reconciliation and consensus. These voices started to become more prominent especially after the establishment of a transitional government under EPRDF’s stewardship in the early 1990s.
One thing that was clear was that many political groups, especially in the post-transitional period, were feeling increasingly alienated from the political game in Ethiopia. Eventually, quite a few of these group decided to adopt the EPRDF’s old political strategy of waging guerilla struggle and through time become convinced that they have to overthrow the government through an organized armed struggle. In that time, the need to conduct national reconciliation and strive for national consensus was persistently pursued by those political actors who chose peaceful political struggle. Needless to say all these pleas were largely unheeded by the ruling front. Some even say that, Meles Zenawi, the late and longest serving Prime Minister since the formation of the federation, and largely a divisive figure among Ethiopians and the global community alike, could have been a national hero had he been willing to entertain such pleas for reconciliation.
Throughout its history, Ethiopia has endured various levels of injustices on its people mostly due to misbehaving governments as well as conflicts. The product of such unjust practices, political parties in the country have always felt that they and the political interests they represent had been marginalized and pushed aside by the political game in Ethiopia. Not only parties, there are also unorganized groups and communities, which have been victims to the past historical injustices; they too were in need of reconciliation.
“There is no meaningful conflict or animosity among nations, nationalities and people in the Ethiopia to warranty national reconciliation,” has been the official stand of the ruling EPRDF in the past three decades. While others, on the other hand, argued that national consensus and reconciliation is the only way out of the political quagmire the country was into.
After the widespread conflict in the country that resonated across every corner of the Ethiopia since 2015, the question of bringing about national reconciliation and building consensus in this divided nation seem to be gaining currency. As before, the revival of this proposal is still accredited to the opposition camp. According to commentators, reconciliation could really be the thing to save Ethiopia from a looming danger of disintegration while curbing the ethnically-charged political activism in the country.
In a statement that the former PM Hailemariam Dessalegn gave at the end of his five years tenure in the office, he stated that the pardoning and release of prisoners of political significance, in January 2018, was to help the process of social healing; which Ethiopia needs so desperately.
It seems that the time is finally to here to discuss national consensus and reconciliation in the Ethiopian politics as the new administration of PM Abiy Ahmed (PhD) not only considered the proposal but took it one step further by writing a draft proclamation to provide for the establishment of a National Reconciliation Commission. Once the bill passes, the Commission will shoulder the responsibility of bring about a lasting peace to this divided nation. The draft proclamation indeed promises a lot in this regard.
The preamble of the Proclamation states that, the need for such kind of institutionalized reconciliation body rests in “the necessity to reconcile based on truth and justice the disagreement that developed among peoples of Ethiopia for years because of different societal and political conflicts.”
And the establishment of the Commission will help identify the depth and breadth of human rights violations in the country hence helping the recognition and respect of human rights, going forward. In doing so, it will organize forums for the victims and the perpetuators of the said human rights violations to come together in the spirit of reconciliation and lasting peace.
But, despite a positive outlook by the opposition camp for the law had emerged from the stringent EPRDF itself, the Proclamation has faced varied criticisms, especially due to its hurriedly compiled content and lack of proper form as a legal document customary to the Ethiopian law making process. And this, in turn, has resulted in the widening of an existing debate regarding reconciliation.
The first point here is the definition of reconciliation which the draft proclamation left largely open. Surprisingly, the proclamation has no section dedicated to definitions as it jumps from the preamble to a short titles section and finally to the specific provisions catering for the establishment of the Commission.
In an article he wrote to The Reporter on December 8, 2018, Samuel Alemu, a practicing lawyer based in the US, “Reconciliation–what does this word mean to many of us, Ethiopians in particular? Most of us understand the devastating consequences of ethnic and social conflicts. Ethiopia is a country that has been torn by conflicts. For at least five decades, Ethiopians struggled to improve their quality of life, the country’s position in diplomacy, and the country’s relationships with neighbors. Despite major steps taken by Ethiopia, the legacy of violence persists.”
Although the need for reconciliation does not seems to be a matter of debate anymore, its contextual nature and its extent have not received that much of an attention both in the Proclamation and the discussions held at the House of Peoples’ Representatives (HPR).
According to Brandon Hamber & Gráinne Kelly, who wrote extensively on political reconciliation and published by Democratic Dialogue, stress that there are five “strands” which are interrelated to each other when we think of reconciliation. They point out that, developing a shared vision of an interdependent and fair society, acknowledging and dealing with the past, building positive relationships, significant cultural and attitudinal change and substantial social, economic and political change are the five necessities underpinning political reconciliation.
While acknowledging reconciliation is a necessary process following conflict, they still maintain, “It is a voluntary act and cannot be imposed.”
Nevertheless, there has not been a fully agreed up on terms defining reconciliation, thus far.
Apart from the issue of definition, there are also a wide range of questions that have been raised with the introduction of the Proclamation to Ethiopia parliament. One of these is the egg and chicken riddle of national consensus and national reconciliation.
For Merera Gudina (PhD), a veteran politician, political scientist and chairman of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress, it is more of an easy way out to the most important element which is national consensus. “National reconciliation will lead to the needed national consensus,” he told The Reporter.
“First of all, it needs to be appreciated that it came out of EPRDF as it has been against the issue of reconciliation at the national level, for so many years. Reconciliation is one of the solutions to solve our national problems. Reconciliation can play a significant role for national consensus building,” he stresses. “It can help us to close our past chapters and proceed forward.”
But he says that the success of the process is hugely dependent on the ruling party as it has to be committed enough to fully implement it; and that all groups have to be ready for it. For him, the main point of departure is the improvement of the overall political environment; without it the Commission will be established in vain, in his opinion.
“The wound has to be healed,” he asserts. “And a successful reconciliation only comes following the improvement of our politics; otherwise it will only create additional scars.”
Even though there is a wide range of support for reconciliation, there are significant parts of the society that say justice has to be served always.
“What is reconciliation for a young man who lost his life because of tortures at the notorious detention center Maekelawi?” questions one legal expert. “Justice has to be served and there is no way around it.”
Merera is also more inclined to justice but, it is difficult to identify who the perpetuators are and who the victims are as all groups, which were active in the national politics during the past decades portray themselves as victims. He says that, living officials from Emperor Haile Sellasie’s administration portray their administration as a better one while those from the Derge try to argue that Ethiopia that they led was better that the one that exists today. The same attitude is seen within the EPRDF.
“As the injustice in Ethiopia through three governments, it would be difficult to identify the perpetrators. And the justice sector itself is an area to be assessed for improvement,” he argues.
Similar to Merera, there are others that argue that justice won’t bring about reconciliation. Speaking at a National Reconciliation Committee meeting in September, representing a consortium of five parties, Yacob Hailemariam (PhD), a renowned legal expert and politician, stated that, “Despite the wide range of sufferings in Ethiopia over the past 40 years, the issue of reconciliation has never been given a proper attention. We have to prioritize reconciliation before talking about democracy and peace,” he argued.
He also added that, “Many of us have seen what the red terror was; the same with white terror. It has been a time of massacre. That all simply passed without any meaningful reconciliation process. It is true that the perpetrators of the red terror, the Dergue officials, have been punished according to the law. But, court sentences do not bring about reconciliation. It might even worsen it. Hence, national consensus is still imminent. We need to be reconciled with each other before anything else.”
This argument is not argument restricted to Ethiopia but also an international one. The Rwandan genocide criminals’ trial and the Nuremberg trial for the Nazis of the Second World War were meant to give justice to the victims, hence creating a situation in which the future generation could live together. Rwanda’s Hutu and Tutsi now live together, even though some argue that it is a timebomb ticking; and the Nazi’s have been punished with their generation living equally with others.
It is for this reason that many say reconciliation has to always be focused on the future. This is what Abraham Negussie, a Communications officer once wrote to the English weekly newspaper Addis Fortune.
“It is undeniable that governments have been unjust. Thus, when we suggest reconciliation as a political strategy, we need to apply a holistic approach. The focus should always be the future. We must be able to learn from the past and correct historical injustices to create a bright future,” he stressed.
Therefore, with this tool, it is said that the country has to close its traumatic chapter and look for a better one.
Merera believes that the composition of the members of the Commission to be established by the Commission will be very critical; since their acceptance among the public will determine the Commission’s success. In this regard he advises, “it has to be able to analyze the past and identify better solution so as to create the new Ethiopia and take measures that would be a lessons for the society.”
Hence, the Commission will be doomed to fail if it follows the composition of the democratic institutions in the country which he says are meant to cover up the ruling party’s wrong doings.
“Its structure and composition are important for its credibility,” he asserts.
Even through the institutionalization of the Commission as well as the initiative to do so was welcomed, the attention given to the legal document has been a point of criticism.
There are legal experts who feel that the Proclamation is poorly drafted and that it has no definition of important terms like reconciliation.
“The objective of the Commission is very brief and not clear. Reconciliation is stated as auxiliary objective while it is the title of the Proclamation and the term “Reconciliation of Ethiopian People” is very ambiguous and not clear,” questioned one legal expert.
He also points out that the term government in article 3 is ambiguous as it did not identify if it is the Prime Minister, the President or the House of Peoples’ Representatives. The Commission’s term in office is also indicated to be up to three years which he says should have been three years.
With the ratification of the Proclamation yet happen, unofficial list of members of the would-be Commission is already circulating all over the social media.
As there are many issues surrounding the proclamation as well as the subject matter of reconciliation, the public hearing at the HPR is expected to bring together many stakeholders and have a much deeper discussion.