Ethiopia’s National Dialogue: A Dead End or Realistic Path to Reconciliation?

Last month, Ethiopia initiated a crucial chapter of its national dialogue process, aiming to mend its deep political fractures, threatening its unity as Africa’s second most populous nation. Opponents assert that dialogue is doomed from the outset. But advocates see it as the sole avenue to tackle the myriad issues facing the divided country.

In Addis Ababa, the national dialogue commission has started its agenda collection phase, allowing each region to voice its concerns and priorities. Mohamoud Dirir, a member of the Ethiopian National Dialogue Commission, emphasized the pivotal nature of this exercise for the nation’s 120 million inhabitants, stressing the need for an inclusive and methodical dialogue involving all social groups, political factions, armed entities, and stakeholders.

Despite the end of the war in the Tigray region nearly two years ago, the country is still reeling from its aftershock and ongoing insurgencies in the Oromia and Amhara regions. With over 80 ethno-linguistic communities, Ethiopia has faced numerous conflicts over identity and territorial disputes in recent year. 

Sixteen political parties, including the ruling Prosperity Party, participated in the Addis Ababa sessions, alongside government representatives, civil society members, and other notable figures. However, several opposition political groups largely rejected the process. In addition, doubts remain about the involvement of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which was the chief party to the war in the Tigray region until the peace agreement in November 2022. Several warring factions in Amhara and Oromia are also not expected to participate.

Merera Gudina, chairman of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress party, criticized the national dialogue consultations, deeming them futile due to their lack of inclusivity, impartiality, and independence, characterizing the process as controlled by the ruling party.

Prime Minister Abiy expressed readiness to fully accept any decision arising from the national dialogue process, but he rejected opposition demands for a transitional government, which his party views as a “soft coup d’état”, meant to circumvent the will of the people. A transitional government would entail an elite bargain and excludes the population. On the contrary disagreements in the national dialogue process will be decided through a referendum. 

A transitional government is like the scheme that brought to power the previous EPRDF regime after ouster of the Dergue military junta led by Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam in 1991. The decision excluded elections, and it can be referred to as an elite bargain. Many in Ethiopia today would like to avoid such a scenario.

Nonetheless, diaspora-based opposition activists, including Ezekiel Gebissa, a professor at Kettering University prefer this path, and disparage the national dialogue as a predetermined outcome, and stressed the need for cessation of hostilities in conflict areas for the dialogue to succeed.

Other preconditions highlighted by Professor Gebissa include the return of displaced persons, release of political prisoners, and withdrawal of foreign forces from Ethiopian soil. Despite these challenges, the ruling party insists national dialogue is the best option available. It contends opposition politicians and activists are afraid of the ballot and thus want a short cut to power via a negotiated settlement euphemistically called “inclusive transitional government”.

The Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice party (ENDC), an opposition party which has members serving in government position, encourages all parties to engage in the dialogue, expecting revisions to the constitution and the establishment of a free and fair political environment. The ENDC plans to extend the dialogue to regional states and diaspora communities, aiming for a genuine process that addresses fundamental issues and prioritizes the well-being of the people over political interest. It remains to be seen whether members of armed groups actively involved in rebellion would be willing participants.

In the meantime, the international community cautiously awaiting to see how things unfold in Ethiopia. While seeming to lend support for the national dialogue and transitional justice process, many global institutions based in the West are reluctant to put their full weight behind these programs for fear it might be viewed as supporting the current government.

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