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Ethiopia’s ambition for highly inclusive national dialogues: Going beyond elites

The Ethiopian government has recently established National Dialogue Commission to build a ‘common ground’ among groups and citizens for dialogues on issues that matter in the course of its nation-building process, avert vicious circle of conflicts, and repair hostilities of various kinds through public dialogue and reconciliation processes with whole inclusive and participatory approach.

This ancient and ‘never-colonized’ African nation, internally, has gone through a ‘breaking and making’ perspective to nation-building episodes that challenged and misrepresented its authentic indigenous African statehood contrary to its legacy in history.

Obviously, the ideological fragmentation in the last half a century of the country can be attributed to the manifestation of post-colonial and cold war political residuals. Whatever the cause, it is the most promising decision for Ethiopia to revisit its political history and craft its way forward for peace, stability, and prosperity given the sociopolitical context and the unresolved political ideologies polarizing and fragmenting the political landscape of this East African nation.

Establishing the National dialogue Commission is not a unique experience for countries like Ethiopia, during and post crises situations, to seize such an approach to heal from adverse consequences of the vicious circle of conflicts while dealing with core causes of the same and secure peace and justice to the required levels. Lately, The sat down with Anteneh Tsegaye (Ph.D.), Assistant Professor of Intercultural Communication at Addis Ababa University to talk about the issue of national dialogue and other related concepts.

Anteneh is known for his insightful comments on current affairs of the country including the proposed national dialogue. Previously he has appeared on various television programs to share his views.

The following is the full interview he gave to The . What is the concept of national dialogue? There are a few questions to reflect on to avoid noises around the concept of national dialogue and success stories and challenges associated with the experiences of countries across the globe could better inform Ethiopia.

To begin with, it is vital to ask about the concept of national dialogue and its intentions in the process of building a common ground among groups for political dialogue and reconciliation process.

Conceptually, national dialogue is a nationally owned political process aimed at generating consensus among a broad range of national stakeholders in times of deep political crisis, in post-war situations or during far-reaching political transitions. It is believed that the process is typically accompanied by broader and inclusive societal consultations, involving all sectors

of society. What are the phases of national dialogue? A national dialogue is a process and its success depends on the same. Obviously, it passes through three successive phases: preparation, process, and implementation.

The preparation phase can be as long, or longer, than the official process, as it often entails mini-negotiation processes in itself to establish key parameters and the institutional framework (i.e. mandate, agenda, participant selection, decisionmaking procedures, etc.).

Some countries task a key institutional body with preparing the process. Once the key parameters are established, preferably by consensus, the process (or negotiation) phase -the most public phase of the national dialogue – begins. Once an outcome is reached, the implementation phase begins.

The success of national dialogue can be defined on two levels, first in terms of whether an agreement was reached or not; and second, the extent to which the agreement was actually implemented.

What kind of national dialogue does Ethiopia need? Elite bargain or grassroots dialogue? In principle, national dialogue involves the public at all structural levels, formal or informal, and brings significant actors to the table, going beyond the elites, to deal with issues of discontents and misunderstanding in the course of the nation-building process.

In its real sense, for example, civil society leaders, and even external actors, can initiate informal dialogues between key actors, even if they have lesser mandates than one initiated by the state.

These informal dialogues can entail trust-building meetings, negotiations, and consultations that lay the groundwork for formal national dialogue. In practice, however, it is often attempted after exclusive elite-based negotiation formats which have failed or are considered inadequate to prevent further instability as lessons learned from the failure of countries in the current conflict zones. Ethiopia needs a highly inclusive and bottom-up approach to a national dialogue.

Engaging the public and civil society should enforce the Ethiopian national dialogue as the country owns indigenous approaches to dealing with conflicts and reconciliation processes. As history informs, the elites of Ethiopia have been at the center of political fragmentation and agenda-setting for more than a century. Can a national dialogue solve all contentious problems as many people argue? A national dialogue’s context and objectives have a significant impact on its development and outcome.

There is no guarantee that any national dialogue will succeed, and many have failed. Whether a national dialogue has actually succeeded is often a contentious question. The outcomes of national dialogues are sometimes intangible and difficult to measure.

They may include the strengthening of a culture of debate and free speech; the breaking of taboo issues; the entrenchment of certain norms of inclusion and representation of marginalized groups; and the ability to keep all the political actors inside the political process. In addition, dialogue may at first be considered successful, but then be followed by disastrous instability or even war.

For example, in 2013–2014, the Yemeni National Dialogue Conference (NDC) was praised for its inclusiveness and technical quality, but its recommendations were not implemented and the country went on to face a violent conflict and deep humanitarian crisis. Participants’ willingness and the technical quality of the process thus do not guarantee a positive outcome.

Therefore, success or failure depends on various factors. What are the factors affecting the success/ failure of national dialogue? There is no one blueprint for the success or failure of all national dialogues as every conflict context and demand are unique and dynamic.

However, there are two central categories of factors that significantly affect the success or failure of the national dialogue; namely the political context factors and the design or process factors.

First, the political context in which a national dialogue takes place can affect the likelihood of success or failure. For example, political will significantly matters. The greater the level of political will and elite agreement on the way forward, the greater the likelihood of successful outcomes and implementation. Added to this, the links associated with other transitional processes also impact the outcome. National dialogue needs to be embedded in larger change processes in order to promote real structural change.

If disconnected from other political processes, such as constitution-making. It is likely to be counter-productive. Also, there should be common ground among parties.

The absence of diametrically opposed political camps can make it more likely to arrive at a common view or shared objectives in dialogue, allowing for the process to move forward. In contrast, drastically different views can exacerbate distrust and stall the process. The other interesting factor is the public buy-in. Public support or lack thereof can enable or constrain progress in the national dialogue process.

The degree of buy-in is influenced by the availability of public information, good communication, and media engagement – all of which affect the level of transparency and understanding of the process. Learning from past experience is also vital.

National dialogues have benefitted from dialogue expertise and learning from past national dialogues. Ethiopia should take a lesson from Peace Commission established in 2019. This Commission was established before Ethiopia was engaged in war with rebel groups like TPLF.

The failure of this Commission could inform the current. Finally, the role of external actors and national ownership should be considered with care. Support (e.g. political, financial,

and technical support) or resistance of external actors can influence the degree of success of national dialogues. It is important to strike a balance between external support and national ownership.

The latter can increase the likelihood of public buy-in, perceptions of legitimacy – and chances of implementation. However, national dialogue ought to be owned by the nation. Alongside political context factors, design or process factors can influence the likelihood of reaching sustainable agreements. The vast majority of literature emphasizes that the transformative potential of national dialogues can only be realized if they are genuinely inclusive of society.

In order to be truly inclusive, it is necessary to help balance power asymmetries and ensure actual decision-making power. Highly inclusive and participatory national dialogues may render discussions unwieldy, however, and make it difficult to resolve key political questions. The success of national dialogues can largely depend on finding the right equilibrium between efficiency and inclusiveness.

Also, a credible, broadly accepted, independent, respected, and charismatic convener, mediator, or facilitator can significantly affect the strength of the national dialogue, indicating seriousness and trust in the process.

These qualities of the moderator can make or break the process of national dialogue. Ethiopia should recognize the fact that this is not a job employment position. Added to these, decision-making procedures can enable or constrain the ability of national dialogues to reach an agreement and implement it.

While consensus can help to expand agendas and to include often excluded voices, an inability to reach consensus can benefit the more established forces, as the absence of movement can mean preserving the status quo.

Consensus-based decision-making needs to be complemented by other pragmatic mechanisms where deadlocks can be broken, such as the use of working groups. The process ought to be inclusive of the grassroots community in the rural part of Ethiopia often deprived of access to technology. Last but not least, the national dialogue requires confidence-building measures.

The national dialogue must be accompanied by a series of steps to attenuate tensions, in order to establish a level of “working trust” to engage in a meaningful dialogue.

Trust-building is important throughout all phases in order to ensure that agreements are also implemented. At every phase, the process and the decisions made must be well communicated to the public through all possible media outlets.

What should be the role of media and public relations? Public information, good communication, and media engagement are thus key elements, as they influence the degree of public support and perceptions of legitimacy.

Public relations campaigns have contributed to generating more widespread popular support for the implementation of an agreement reached during a national dialogue.

In Benin, for example, radio broadcasts of the national dialogue, published images of the sessions in print media, and the availability of videotapes of the debates bolstered public support.

This coverage enhanced transparency, allowed local populations, including rural populations, to remain informed about key developments in the process, and increased the perceived legitimacy of the dialogue. Providing adequate information about national dialogues to all relevant segments of society is essential to ensure equal chances for broad-based representation.

In Poland, effective media and public consultation activities significantly supported the national dialogue process and contributed to a diversification of the political landscape and eventually a change in power relations.

On the contrary, lack of information sharing effectively hindered any meaningful participation by opposition groups and civil society, resulting in a narrow, politically one-sided process involving the immediate political elite in some countries involved in the national dialogue.

This reinforced the alienating nature of the event. In Sudan, for instance, high levels of media censorship mean that the public had very little understanding of the national dialogue and negotiation of peace agreements. In Guatemala, there was little dissemination of information on advances made in the negotiation of agreements, in the necessary languages.

Improved, widespread dissemination could contribute to greater buy-in and ownership among the population. In sum, Ethiopian media has to take lessons from countries that have experienced national dialogue processes.

BY ADDISALEM MULAT

The Ethiopian   16 February  2022

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