Ethiopia national dialogue: path to reconciliation or ‘dead on arrival’?Wed, 12 Jun 2024 11:11:07 GMT

Ethiopia last month embarked on a key phase of a national dialogue process aimed at healing the wounds threatening to tear apart Africa’s second most populous nation.While its supporters insist dialogue is the only way to address the myriad problems confronting the fractured country, including deep-seated political tensions and rumbling regional conflicts, critics say it is already “dead on arrival”.In Addis Ababa last month, a “collection of agendas” phase kicked off — where each region can raise issues it wants addressed.Mohamoud Dirir, one of 11 members of the Ethiopian National Dialogue Commission appointed in early 2022, described the exercise as “pivotal” for the country of 120 million people.”It is time to have a genuine dialogue that does not leave any social group, political parties, armed groups, and different actors outside.”Although the brutal two-year Tigray war ended 19 months ago, the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed — a Nobel Peace laureate — is struggling to quell insurgencies in the two largest regions of Oromia and Amhara.A mosaic of more than 80 ethno-linguistic communities, Ethiopia has endured multiple conflicts over identity and territorial claims in recent years.- ‘Critical ingredients absent’ -Sixteen political parties, including Abiy’s Prosperity Party — which has 90 percent of parliamentary seats — joined the Addis Ababa sessions along with representatives of government, civil society and various prominent figures, according to the ENDC.However, the opposition has largely rejected the process and it was not clear if the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which fought federal forces for two years until a November 2022 peace deal, would join up.”The critical ingredients for a successful national dialogue are absent,” said Merera Gudina, chair of the Caucus of Opposition Parties (CoP).He described the consultations as “dead on arrival” as they were not inclusive, impartial or independent but “a game controlled by one party”.Abiy said he was ready to accept proposals that emerge from the dialogue but rejected one major opposition demand — for an inclusive transitional government.”Elections will be the only means of bringing a government to power,” Abiy told delegates. Ezekiel Gebissa, professor of history and African studies at Kettering University in the United States, said by pre-emptively ruling out options the process appeared to be set up “to produce preordained results”.He also said “the guns must be silent” in conflict areas if the dialogue was to have any chance of success.”It is just inconceivable that people who are in the middle of war could have a serious, free and transparent conversation.”He said other conditions necessary were for people displaced by fighting to be able to return home, the release of political prisoners, and the expulsion of foreign forces from Ethiopian soil, including Eritrean troops.- ‘Political will’ -Oromia, Ethiopia’s most populous region, has since 2018 been in the grip of an insurrection by the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), classified as a terrorist organisation by the federal government.In Amhara, the Fano militia — which fought alongside federal troops in the Tigray war — took up arms against them last year following a government decision to disarm all regional forces.Merera warned that the dialogue could actually contribute to “furthering political crises” in the absence of key stakeholders such as those in Amhara and Oromia.Lemi Gemechu, spokesman for the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which renounced armed struggle when Abiy came to power in 2018, leading the OLA to break away, said the process was not credible without armed groups.”As it is, the flawed process will never lead to durable peace or democratic governance.”It can only serve as a public relations exercise both to cheat the Ethiopian people and ensure the flow of badly needed foreign currency by fooling the international community.”The government is currently engaged in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund to try to secure a financial support programme.Ethiopia is grappling with a huge external debt of around $28 billion, inflation at over 23 percent, a currency that has been in decline for years and a persistent humanitarian crisis in the north.ENDC commissioner Mohamoud insisted all interested parties had been invited, noting that conflicts in other parts of the world were resolved only through dialogue with armed groups, such as the IRA in Northern Ireland and FARC in Colombia.”But it needs the political will of all the vying forces… of the government and those who have reason to take up arms against the government.”Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (Ezema), an opposition party that nevertheless serves in government, said it was encouraging all players to give the dialogue a chance.”We expect a revision of the constitution and a free and fair political space as a result of the ongoing national dialogue,” Ezema executive committee member Eyob Mesafint told AFP. The ENDC says the process will continue in the 12 regional states and among diaspora communities, without giving a timeframe.”People expect a genuine dialogue process that addresses the fundamental problems,” said Addis Ababa teacher Mengistu Kebede.”(The government) should prioritise the suffering of the people over maintaining political power.”