National dialogue: concept aloof to Ethiopian elite
As common prescription for healing the wounds of the past, national reconciliation, national dialogue and national consensus are the most commonly suggested remedies by the different political actors, elites, scholars and notable public figures in Ethiopian political, social, economic and historical affairs.
Though the concept is repeatedly expressed and suggested as a prescription to heal the wounds, the outcome from such initiatives in addressing the political and historical cleavages occurred in the past doesn’t seem to be adequate to achieve its desired goal.
Politicians mainly in the opposition camp have been repeatedly forwarding the idea of national reconciliation and consensus agendas, at least in the past two decades. However, the officials of the then incumbent the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) rejected the idea out rightly. Moreover, apart from suggesting the need for national reconciliation and consensus it is still not clear what the agenda would constitute; and who actually would be the participants and the facilitators of such an initiative.
Nevertheless, the idea seems to be gaining momentum once again; especially after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) assumed the higher echelon of power in the country, two and half years ago. One of the decisions made by the PM after assuming power, indeed, was establishing different institutions to deal with the national reconciliation and consensus issues. Specifically, in February 2019, the parliament adopted a proclamation that allows the establishment of a national reconciliation commission, the first of its kind, in a move to institutionalize such initiatives; although still some politician are questioning its mandate and the selection process of its members.
According to different literatures, any country that goes through a transition, be it from the protracted civil war to a civilian government or from the dictatorial regime to democratically elected government, has an assignment to deal and rectify the wrongdoings of its predecessors so as to build a unified and all-inclusive political system, which in turn makes the future of that particular country hopeful and bright.
Thus, a country under transition has to address all tragedies and egregious human rights violations that happened in the past, for it to move forward smoothly. Although it is challenging for a country under struggle with many problems to fix up and to walk forward, it is equally required to unravel the truth, to rectify the victims and to hold perpetrators accountable.
According to the report by the Inclusive Peace and Transition Initiative, published in 2017, national dialogues provide an inclusive, broad, and participatory official negotiation framework, which can resolve political crises and lead countries into political transitions. With mandates that include political reforms, constitution-making, and peace building, national dialogues are convened to address issues of national concern, typically longstanding causes of conflict that have been brought to the fore by political protest or armed insurrection.
According to the same report, national dialogues are typically convened at times when the fundamental nature or survival of a government is in question. Thus, they are usually intended as a means of redefining the relationship between the state, political actors, and society, through the negotiation of a new social contract. In such historical moments, pro-change and anti-change forces are bound to emerge.
Six political context factors play a decisive role in influencing the outcomes of national dialogues, namely: national elites’ resistance or support, public support or frustration, support or resistance of regional and international actors, existing culture of dialogue, experiences of prior negotiations and violence.
Similarly, another six processes are also influential on determining the outcomes of the national dialogues, such factors that shapes the outcomes are, representation, number, and selection of actors, decision-making procedures, choice of mediators and facilitators, duration, support structures for involved actors and coalition building among included actors.
Working towards reconciliation among various sections of Ethiopia’s society must be a priority to help achieve and maintain stability, according to various political commentators. Failing to address the root causes of ethnic violence and conflict risks undermining hard-won economic and social gains, and threatens the political stability of Ethiopia and that of the whole East African region, they argue.
National reconciliation, consensus and dialogue do not occur naturally or through a mere desire to have it; instead, it requires active efforts and planned interventions that include active involvement of all stakeholders. Henceforth, if such initiatives meant to achieve the desired goal and provide the real change, designing, implementing and administrating must correspond with realities on the ground.
The efforts of addressing such issues, therefore, must be seen from this perspective, many argue. A recently initiated effort to discuss over the matter, a consortium of Political Parties’ Joint Council, Destiny Ethiopia, and Yehasab Ma’ed in concert with the Ministry of Peace, plans a national dialogue initiative dubbed Multi-stakeholder Initiative for National Dialogue (MIND- Ethiopia).
MIND-Ethiopia, which recognized the contribution of past dispersed efforts to conduct a national dialogue in demonstrating the possibility of narrowing down the polarized politics in the country through roundtable discussions, it also pointed out that there are limitations to these efforts like too narrow agenda topics, deficits in inclusivity, lack of coordination and participants fatigue, because of calls from different bodies regarding the same issue.
The objectives of the national consensus process will be bringing various contentious issues to the table and discuss them one by one to create a common understanding step by step, reads the press release by MIND-Ethiopia. To do this, the Initiative will gather all-inclusive and wider agenda topics from scholars as well as various members of the society. It will also be a continuous process, which includes experience sharing from other countries, and implement the same by matching it with indigenous knowledge, it was disclosed.
However, many still suggest that such initiatives should be all-inclusive and take the recent detention of politicians as a hindrance to realize the desired goals of the consortium and suggest the involvement of the general public through different stages is critical to achieve the desired outcome. And they advise both the newly established consortium and the commission to take some lessons from the national consensus and reconciliation model of Tunisia, South Africa, and Rwanda to bring successful outcomes.
Similarly, advocates of the national reconciliation and consensus state that even though identifying and reaching on an agreement on the root cause of the problem, political consensus over agenda and its process is an essential precondition for their contribution to stability and peace. According to such advocates and various literatures, political consensus over the agenda and the process is important because, political support gives legitimacy to the agenda, which in turn increases the social and political cost of non-compliance.
Moreover, Ethiopia’s complex context of horizontal and vertical violence with a multitude of actors requires the re-establishment of social cohesion. The building of mutual respect as the basis for non-violent interactions in the future necessitates the restoration of individuals’ status in society and the clarification of truth in relation to past violence. The participation of community members, elders, and religious leaders in the process is therefore indispensable many suggested.