The Ethiopian national dialogue: To the making or breaking?

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‘How many of us (Africans) have really paused to seriously examine and challenge such ideas as development, planning, progress, the need for democracy, and the nation-state as the best form of political and social organization?’

Ama Mazama, quoted above is an Afrocentric thinker known for her infusion of African content into American education. Afrocentricity as defined by, Asante (1991) ‘is the study of the ideas and events from the standpoint of Africans as the key players…’. The failure of understanding that the global ideas and frameworks need to be adapted to local context can undermine the evolution of more effective institutions. The inability of leaders and political actors in Africa to integrate home-grown ideas into “flat pack” approaches is one reason that the continent has seen “incomplete democratic transitions’’ (Adetula, 2011).

Ethiopia is embarking on a discourse to mitigate accumulated political, economic, and social disputes through a national dialogue, which is long overdue. After a turbulent recent period with the replacement of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front government with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party, and the conflict in Tigray, the current government has finally accepted the need for a national dialogue.  Ethiopians and allies are now hoping to make the national dialogue a reality, and that it will take Ethiopians through the healing and reconciliation process.

To achieve this, it is critical to take an Afrocentric approach.

To bring Mazama’s question to the Ethiopian context: Can we Ethiopians pause, seriously to examine and challenge the direct copy method and come up with the best applicable indigenous communication approaches to the national dialogue that can bring us closer to starting the healing process?  

Communication is an interaction and relation-based human struggle to create, construct meaning, and share. Everything we live for evolves around this binding concept of communication. The first model of communication signifies, according to Carey (1989) – who departs from the dominant transmission view of American communication scholars – meanings such as ‘imparting, ‘transmitting,’ and ‘sending’. Carey argues such a model represents a common culture in the industrialized world, such as his own, the USA.

Africa is an enormously multicultural continent with fifty-five independent states. Among the many heritages that we identify, one common theme is a focus on the communal, whether this be the family, community, or ethnic group. Ethiopia is no different. This creates the opportunity to respond to crises and disagreements through customary dispute resolution mechanisms chaired by the elders.

Although they may be called different, examples of such practices can be round across rural Ethiopia. The Gadaa system in Oromo and some parts of the southern culture, the “Shengo: in northern Ethiopia, the Gar/ Haajo in Somali, and “Makbaninna” in Afar culture are just some of these platforms. We can therefore safely infer that a communication method that focuses only on elites, and provides citizens with no active role in the process of dialogue, will be less effective in the Ethiopian context. Instead, it is important to adopt a model that resonates with ordinary people. Such an approach would emphasise, according to Carey, “sharing,” “participation,” “association,” “fellowship,” and “the possession of a common faith”.  These communal values can take us back to where it matters most if we bring them into the process of the national dialogue.

The most contested issues among the political elites of the country are the issue of nationalism, whether that is ethnic or Ethiopian-centred, and issues related to the constitution and the design of the state. The different sides of these positions all reflect long-standing discourse and narratives. It is therefore only by bringing people together to create a common understanding and narrative that the disagreements can be overcome. Another way of putting this is that the national dialogue is as important as a process as it is an outcome. 

This means that the way the dialogue is done, and how this is prepared, is critical to its outcome. The Ethiopian national dialogue commission was established towards the end of 2021. After the eleven members of the commission are endorsed by the parliament in February 2022, the group travelled to different parts of Ethiopia, except for Tigray due to the war. It was affirmed that branch offices, in all universities in the regions of Ethiopia, would be opened. The commission, in its press briefing, also indicated that  groups might try to dictate the topics and the nature of the dialogue, but it would not allow such interference.

That being said, so far there is no evidence of practical, public and open approaches being used. On February 2023, the first consultation session on ‘Policy Options for Transitional Justice’ was started by government officials in which various contradictory issues were raised including the whether it was needed at this stage. Both the national dialogue commission and the transitional justice process are established by the government and are supported by international donors, with the commission securing 80 million birrs from the US in its founding year. Despite this, sluggish progress coupled with the very limited updates given to the public has created the impression that this process will end up being largely procedural, dependent on a small number of politicians, instead of a grassroots movement that might drive sustainable structural change.

The United Nations Department of Political Affairs, in its National Dialogues Research project (2015 to 2017), identified the issues that ‘make’ or ‘break’ a national dialogue, based on seventeen globally held instances of National Dialogues, between 1990 and 2014. The finding suggest that the political context factors; national elites’ resistance or support; public support or frustration; the support or resistance of regional and international actors; local dialogue expertise; and, experiences from prior negotiations are among the decisive influencing factors in shaping National Dialogues.

How can the Ethiopian actors seize the latecomers’ advantage to ‘make’ the national dialogue through these critical political contexts with indigenous communication strategies?

The support of Ethiopian national elites can only be won through a genuine trust-building process that ensures that communication is not only ‘imparting’ meaning from the centre, but also includes an open-hearted approach to share ideas, and construct a communal political faith in the bigger notion of a united Ethiopia. The ethnic-based political elites, federalist groups, and the ‘Ethiopianist’ political elites in and out of the country – especially those of Oromo, Amhara, and Tigray descent – are seen as the dominant players in Ethiopian politics. Including these elites along with all the ethnicities of Ethiopia in the circle of trust for a genuine dialogue is of paramount importance.

Public and elite frustration can only be turned to hope and expectation if we look into how we, as ancient as we are, used to communicate and create meaning that worked for everyone at the table. This must include citizens themselves. The widely used (global) indirect representation of the public can be minimized through the direct involvement of citizens, and this should be done even if it makes the process longer. The rural population, 78% of the total (World Bank, 2021), is still gathering under a tree to deliberate on community challenges and come up with possible solutions. Those communal platforms are genuine, responsible, and wisdom-filled information-sharing approaches that leave no one behind. Healing is a long journey – but discourse is where it begins.

The support of regional and international actors is very important but it is also damaging if the actors are inclined to the normative transmission approach and dictate that whatever has worked somewhere else must be implemented in Ethiopia, even if it does not fit well. So far the United States, United Nations Human Rights Commission and other UN agencies, regional organizations, and academics have been among the stakeholders that have taken part in the Ethiopian national dialogue. These more top-down approaches need to be integrated with bottom-up ones. For instance, there might be stages in the process at which progress requires attitude change among the parties, meaning that slower processes of consensus forging are required. The regional and international actors’ support should focus on amending international best practice to reflect these local realities. The African Union, in particular, needs to be the pioneer of this more patient approach.

Other forms of dialogue with the elders, religious leaders, and community teachers can also benefit the national dialogue. These  citizens are widely accepted by their community and have endured experiences such as conflict resolution, and reconciliation over many years. Open, transparent, and public led selection of community leaders and dialogue leaders in every local administration should be done transparently and critically to ensure that they are not simply plants for a given political party, and are recognised by their own people. The good news is the community has always known its own leaders.

Integrating local and national processes, and deeper conversations alongside ritualistic national dialogues, would help to directly engage the public while ensuring the process moves forwards. Bringing these public dialogues to the media would also help the transparency of the process while enabling the elites and stakeholders to evaluate and align their political interests to the real needs of the people. This lengthy pathway surely might take years of extended dialogues, restructuring plans, and execution along the way, but it would be worth it to make sure that this process of healing and reconstruction lasts. I have learned, as a journalist, how groups or communities can solve problems or conflicts over resources such as grazing land, through intense, genuine, dialogue in an open public gathering. It is through these processes – including appeals, agreements, compensation, and unity building – that dialogue brings polarized parties to the middle. This culturally rooted approach to communication, if applied with unwavering political will, can bring healing, communion, effectiveness, and unison to the fragmented nation of Ethiopia.

It is important to realise that this process will not be easy. National dialogue will raise grievances as well as solutions, and key actors and communities will need to be heard and given time to heal. This is why it is so important to tap into deep values of ritual communication and local negotiation, such as fellowship, trust, mutual benefits, and togetherness, in order to promote long-term reconciliation. It is therefore not just advisable to avoid a top-down and exclusionary process: it is essential. Ethiopia’s very future depends on it.

If we take this path – and only if we take it – Ethiopia will serve in the future as a reminder to the world that the indigenous practices of communication that bind us together can and should be used to enable us to ‘make’ national dialogue instead of ‘breaking’ it.

Tsehay Aklilu (@aktsehay) is a senior journalist & editor in chief, content advisor for the Ethiopian state/public media, a Ph.D. student in journalism and communication and a trainer.

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