This article was published in partnership with Ethiopia Insight.
Amid the transition, the nation endured the assassination of the army’s chief of staff, the arrest of several major politicians, and, more critically, the rise of multiple armed factions and the eruption of war between the federal and Tigray governments. As these and other tensions across the country escalated, the federal government decided to conduct a national dialogue.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, whose Prosperity Party (PP) enjoyed a landslide victory in last year’s national elections, announced at his inauguration ceremony in October the government’s plan to carry out a national dialogue.
On 29 December 2021, the House of Peoples’ Representatives (HOPR) approved a proclamation to establish a National Dialogue Commission. The 11-member commission has a three-year term, extendable at the house’s discretion.
According to the proclamation, the national dialogue’s main objective is to resolve the “difference of opinions and disagreements among various political and opinion leaders and also segments of society in Ethiopia on the most fundamental national issues… through broad-based inclusive public dialogue that engenders national consensus.”
On 21 February, parliament appointed the commissioners from among 14 candidates presented by the house speaker, Tagesse Chafo. These candidates were selected from a list of 42 nominees who had previously been selected from a pool of 632 individuals recommended by the public online and in person.
However, several politicians and media outlets criticised the selection process for lacking transparency and failing to sufficiently include all stakeholders.
The Ethiopian Political Parties Joint Council (EPPJC), a coalition of more than 53 registered parties, including the ruling PP, issued a statement on 14 February urging HOPR to temporarily halt the selection process and reboot it in an inclusive and trustworthy manner.
Former chairperson of EPPJC and chairman of Afar People’s Party (APP), Mussa Adem, told Ethiopia Insight that the process’ opacity meant many stakeholders had a very limited understanding of the proceedings.
“The establishment process should have been a lot more transparent. Candidates should have been evaluated on convincing and merit-based criteria on a publicly open forum in order to guarantee the public’s trust in the commission,” he explained.
Mussa added that political parties were not sufficiently involved. Although a deliberation forum was held between the Ministry of Justice and EPPJC on the draft proclamation, commentaries and suggestions made by political parties were not incorporated.
“Mainly, the council [EPPJC] has called for the commission to be accountable to the president due to the ruling party’s overwhelming majority in parliament,” he said.
According to the chairperson of Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (EZEMA), Yeshiwas Assefa, the recommendation by EPPJC and their party to make the commission accountable to the president, Sahle-Work Zewde, and not parliament, was rejected on the grounds that there was an insufficient legal basis.
“Based on extensive research, our party made important recommendations; although a few of our points were incorporated under the proclamation, several key aspects of our recommendation were not given consideration,” he told Ethiopia Insight.
Mulatu Gemechu, the Oromo Federalist Congress’ (OFC) Deputy Chairman, is concerned that the exclusion of independent organs from the establishment process could hinder a successful outcome.
“Members of the commission are nominated and appointed by the HOPR, which is 98% comprised of Prosperity Party officials; no entity other than the ruling party had a say on the matter, and so it’s hard to expect the commission to be independent,” he said.
The HOPR, on the other hand, released a handful of statements via its official Facebook account arguing that the nomination process has sufficiently included the general public as well as all stakeholders, in one instance calling criticisms made by media outlets “disinformation”.
In fairness, the HOPR speaker did form an advisory committee that assisted in selecting candidates. Henock Seyoum, a member of parliament, told ETV that the committee comprised representatives of civil society organizations, inter-religious organs, the speaker of the House of Federation (HOF), and the prime minister.
In addition, the speaker listened to the chairman and deputy chairman of EPPJC’s views on the candidates. Although the process through which the National Dialogue Commission was established hasn’t significantly deviated from what is legally prescribed, some of the criticisms by political parties are merited.
Selecting candidates was largely left to the HOPR speaker, who is a ruling party member. Furthermore, although they were only advisors, the selection process included the prime minister and the HOF speaker.
Still, both the APP and EZEMA leaders recognized the difficulties of forming a commission that satisfies all segments of society in such a diverse nation. Additionally, both recognised some of the commissioners’ professional diligence.
At the commission’s first meeting held on 23 February, chief commissioner Professor Mesfin Araya expressed his belief that the government will refrain from interfering with the commission’s operation and said that he will resign if that occurs.
On 25 March, three months after its establishment, the National Dialogue Commission held its first deliberation forum with representatives of religious institutions and a group of elders selected by the commission. The meeting was said to be an introductory gathering with participants whom the commission plans to work closely with.
At the meeting, Mesfin listed several issues troubling the country ranging from war and displacement to injustice, drought, inflation, and unemployment. Some of the challenges he mentioned are unlikely to be part of the agenda, let alone be provided with a solution through the national dialogue.
As per its establishment proclamation, the commission’s first task is to craft agendas through studies and public discussions that help identify differences on national issues among political and opinion leaders and segments of society.
Nonetheless, the proclamation doesn’t clarify what constitutes a national issue nor does it flesh out the criteria to identify political and opinion leaders.
After preparing an agenda, the commission will organise dialogue forums at the regional and federal levels. In selecting participants, the commission is required to issue a directive providing detailed and clear criteria for selection. Once participants and agendas have been selected, the process of deliberation can commence.
The success of a national dialogue depends on a range of factors, both within and outside the process. The extent of adherence to key principles of a successful national dialogue – among others, a credible convener, inclusivity, and a far-reaching agenda – is among the main elements that will influence its outcome.
Yet, the nature of the convener has already sparked criticism, as has the level of inclusivity. Such shortcomings have the potential to discredit the commission’s independence.
According to Mussa, considering the extent of the shortcomings observed so far, re-establishing the commission is necessary for the dialogue to have any chance of attaining its objectives.
On the other hand, Yeshiwas of EZEMA believes that the commission can regain any credibility it might have lost so long as it executes its mandate with transparency and independence.
Considering the state’s position, which regards the establishment process to be flawless, the formation of a new commission is unlikely. Accordingly, the forthcoming tasks of selecting agendas and participants will be grounds on which the credibility of the commission can be further evaluated.
Another decisive factor involves determining which national issues will be discussed. Ethiopia Insight gathered the opinions of renowned politicians concerning which principal national issues they believe should be part of the dialogue.
The chairperson of Balderas for True Democracy, Eskinder Nega, considers the enactment of a new constitution to be among the primary national issues.
“A new constitution must be legislated and enacted through a referendum following sufficient public consultation, a process which the current constitution failed to go through,” he said.
Eskinder also pointed out several provisions in the constitution that he deems to be unjust and incorporated for the sole purpose of enhancing the EPRDF’s grip on power.
“A constitution that can be suspended during a state of emergency and that promotes ethnic sovereignty over national unity cannot be the sovereign law of a democratic nation, and thus to carry it on would be a disregard to the sacrifices made by citizens in combating TPLF,” he explained.
Moreover, he believes that ending the ethnically motivated killing of civilians by armed groups, especially in Oromia, should be among the agendas of the national dialogue.
Mulatu, OFC’s deputy chairman, stressed that while the issue of constitutional amendment should be included in the agenda, the current federal system doesn’t threaten national unity. He pointed out that OFC supports ethnic federalism and that what led to the current crisis is the federal system not being practised adequately.
He said, “a centralised form of government has in many ways persisted after the adoption of the constitution and the [federal] system.”
On the other hand, Mussa focused on the northern war. “For the national dialogue to achieve a meaningful national consensus and a long-lasting peace, healing the damages sustained by the war on all sides must be part of its agenda,” he warned.
The inclusivity of the national dialogue has raised criticism based on the presumption that it won’t include TPLF or the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), both designated terrorist organizations by parliament last year.
Although the presumption is based on statements government officials made a few months ago, there still isn’t any strong evidence that they are to be excluded.
Also, only the commission has the mandate to select participants of the dialogue, although the legal technicality of what would happen if it wants to include “terrorist” organisations is far from clear.
In an official statement released in October 2021, OFC stressed that opposition armed groups should be included in the dialogue. In a parliamentary session on 22 February, Prime Minister Abiy elaborated that, although there haven’t been any negotiations between the government and TPLF so far, this shouldn’t be understood to mean no such talks will take place.
Furthermore, he urged members of parliament to not be resistant to peacefully resolving the war, and also pointed out the dangers a protracted internal conflict poses to the nation.
He said, “if there is recourse for peace, if TPLF comes to its senses and realises that it won’t benefit from war or prevail in battle, we will happily consider [negotiations].”
However, the prime minister took a different tone when it comes to OLA and gave no indication that his government intends to negotiate with the rebel group, which he said has no leadership structure and lacks clear objectives.
Still, the possibility of OLA being part of the national dialogue cannot be totally ruled out given that Abiy has stressed the importance of inclusivity.
Another critical issue raised by the prime minister involves a set of matters that will not be subject to negotiation at the national dialogue. These relate to any form of power-sharing and proposals that undermine the nation’s sovereignty and unity.
He said: “division of power is not part of this dialogue. As per the election, Prosperity Party controls the government of Ethiopia for the coming four and a half years. This is non-negotiable.”
At the moment, the biggest threat to the dialogue’s success and the nation’s stability is the war centred around Tigray, followed by various other conflicts across the country.
Although the prospect of the government negotiating with TPLF to resolve the war in a peaceful manner now appears more possible, it is not clear whether this would be part of the national dialogue.
The prime minister’s remarks to parliament provide an indication that the national dialogue could also involve negotiation forums where peace terms with TPLF would be discussed.
However, Mussa firmly believes that the war must be concluded before the dialogue can begin if any outcome of substance is to be expected from it. Mulatu also expressed concerns regarding the impact of ongoing armed conflict on the national dialogue.
“All warring sides should make their best effort to cease fire and engage in dialogue, and the government ought to play a key role in bringing conflicting sides together. Otherwise, the chance of the dialogue attaining peace in the country is a very long shot,” he warned.
The exclusion of TPLF from the dialogue would impact its inclusivity and restrict any steps towards ending the war. This would also result in the Tigrayan population being almost entirely sidelined from the process.
More critically, as the war first began in Tigray and then expanded into neighbouring Afar and Amhara regions, it has created a deep division between neighbouring societies. In particular, ethnic tension between Amharas and Tigrayans is at an all-time high. This further complicates the national dialogue and underscores the need to ensure sufficient Tigrayan participation.
For the national dialogue to not include the views of a population suffering from war would certainly discredit the process, and also add weight to views portraying the dialogue as a political move designed to alleviate internal and external pressure.
“If the dialogue is aimed at dialling down criticisms from the international community and Ethiopian citizens, it could intensify existing problems as grievances get discussed publicly and yet are left without a meaningful resolution,” Mussa cautioned.
According to Eskinder, due to the existence of political actors less inclined to adopt a peaceful resolution, it would take divine intervention for the national dialogue to bring long-lasting peace.
On the other hand, Yeshiwas argues that the dialogue’s outcome depends on the willingness of the public and the participants. Although it would be unrealistic to expect a solution to all of Ethiopia’s problems, he said the dialogue will at least help in creating a culture of seeking peaceful ways of conflict resolution through dialogue.
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