The practice of national dialogue and reconciliation is not a new phenomenon in the world and Africa. Although its importance has been voiced by several opposition parties and civil society organizations, no meaningful attempt has so far been made to implement it to resolve the conflicts and sporadic unrests that flared up in the country for almost a half-century.
This process, however, is the first of its kind in the country and needs to be conducted in an adequate legal-technical manner with proper cultural and socio-psychological context. Here, at least three concepts are involved in defining the essence of the entire process. The term national indicates that the dialogue is conducted at the federal level extending to various levels of government nomenclature.
Dialogue is a process that leads to reconciliation and culminates in the creation of a consensus on issues related to the overall issues about nation-building. Six major principles should qualify a national dialogue and reconciliation process.
The first principle is the principle of inclusivity. This implies including the major stakeholders and elements of the political system into the dialogue process including women and their organizations, youth representatives, traditional leaders including the Aba Geda and elders, war veterans, political parties, business people, persons from the academia, persons and associations of disabled persons, government representatives, international partners, NGOs, CSOs and representatives from faith-based organizations.
Before the startup of the process an inclusive, transparent and consultative preparatory phase sets in the foundation for a genuine national dialogue. The initial decisions on the shape, the structure of the national dialogue and who is invited to participate can be as critical as they lay down the foundation for trust and willingness on the part of the government and political parties.
According to the Proclamation that provided for the establishment of the National Dialogue and Reconciliation Commission, this is done by the Commission and its various sub-committees that is nationally selected and inclusive. The National Dialogue Commission (NDC) represents a national departure from the political elite and allows for more representative conversation and contributes to the opening or creation of a conducive environment and the levelling of the playing field.
The second principle is the principle of transparency. If there are no sufficient opportunities for the public to remain informed and provide feedback into the dialogue, there is a risk of the process losing legitimacy. There must be a deliberate willingness and structure of linking the national dialogue process to a local conversation and public consultations, regular outreach and media coverage. Delegates or stakeholders are mandated to hold meetings with their constituencies as a way of keeping everybody informed of what is going on (Senegal National Dialogue, 2008-2009).
The third principles have to do with a credible convener which is the Commissioner- General in the Ethiopian case. To have a good dialogue there is a need for a credible convener. This in many ways can be a generally respected and agreed single person, a group or an organization with no political aspirations or objective that will cause a conflict of interest.
The fourth principle has to do with clear national agenda. Key national issues must be agreed upon before the dialogue as part of the agenda. This enables the dialogue to be focused and researched beforehand by everyone involved and enables a broad-based consultation. Issues for discussion need to be agreed upon months or even a year before the dialogue commences. In most cases, it may be required to pre-negotiate and renegotiate national issues to be placed on the agenda of a national dialogue.
The role of religion in government, political rights, basic freedoms, institutional reform, election procedures and the structure of government like federalism or devolution should be part of the agenda. The United States Institute for Peace (USIP, 2019) suggests that a national dialogue’s agenda should provide for substantive conversation around the major grievances of all key interest groups.
The fifth principle is interrelated with setting a clear national agenda. National dialogues take place outside of the existing institutions of government. National dialogues are often convened because the incumbent government and existing institutions are unable to resolve the major issues at hand, either because they have no clear mandate and tailored structure, rules, and procedures interested party or there are perceptions that they are neither legitimate nor credible.
A national dialogue should have its own set of procedures and rules for making decisions. These procedures should also include mechanisms to break deadlocks if an agreement cannot be reached. Furthermore, a clear mandate lends purpose and authority to a national dialogue, whether it has been established through a peace agreement, law, presidential decree or some other manner.
The six major principles have to do with the Agreed Mechanism for Implementation of Outcomes.
National dialogues should feature an agreed-upon plan to ensure that the resulting recommendations are implemented through a new constitution amendment or other programs. Because national dialogues take place within a broader transition, they often have formal and informal relationships to transitional justice as a process. Without a clear implementation plan, a national dialogue risks consuming extensive time and resources without producing any tangible results.
The Proclamation that provided for the formation of the National Dialogue and Reconciliation Commission had enacted additional principles on article 3 of the proclamation including the principles of coexistence, credibility, objectivity, the practicality of the agenda set, nonaligned facilitation, democracy and the principle of the rule of law.
The proclamation enacted the major objectives of the establishment of the national commission which provide for the implementation of the principles based on dialogue and reconciliation based on issues identified at the national level.
The Commission is expected to ensure that the dialogues at all levels are conducted in an open-minded and accommodative manner. In a country like Ethiopia where ethnic exclusiveness and the misinterpretation of the federal system has prevailed, conducting a national dialogue among diverse ethnic groups is certainly not going to be an easy task.
The proliferation of local conflicts and the mindset they have embedded in the minds of multiple ethnic groups in the country may prevent looking at all issues in a wider spectrum by focusing on the big picture.
Such national dialogue would also require setting more refined and workable ground rules that could help to facilitate smooth discussion. Repletion of already discussed issues, misconceptions and misquotations during discussions need to be handled in a more respectful and with a wider level of patience.
Just like in any society, the discussants may face difficulty in learning to listen to views that they may not appreciate. In this case, it is important to prepare clear cut strategies and tactics that could help to promote inclusive and more transparent discussions without emotive gestures.
Moreover, discussions need to be well planned and guided to avoid any level of sidetracking issues in the main agenda set for discussions. Once the Commission is established, it would be good to benchmark the experience from other countries that had conducted similar dialogue and reconciliation processes and blend it with the national context in Ethiopia.
Both the international and local media outlets could play a positive role in promoting the processes poof dialogue and reconciliation in Ethiopia. Given the alarming level of misinformation and propaganda war on the country, mainstream and social media outlets can try to influence the deliberations of the conference.
The Dialogue and Reconciliation would certainly be tasked with preparing the major criteria for participating in the dialogues at all levels. The Commission is also expected to shortlist the institutions, parties and CSOs, prominent individuals and scholars who are expected to participate in the national dialogue.
Moreover, without directly interfering or influencing the deliberations, partner countries and international agencies can play a supportive and facilitative role in the rollout of the national dialogue process.
One important aspect of conducting a dialogue and reconciliation process is the care that needs to be taken in documenting the entire process from the national level up to the lowest level of government nomenclature. This creates a learning process for future deliberations and would be instrumental in serving as source material for further research works.
The process of national dialogue and reconciliation is not expected to lead to a total unanimity on everything under discussion but to create a solid national consensus on major issues of national importance and draw action plans towards their implementation. In the timeline leading to the discussion, conducting multiple and interdisciplinary workshops and seminars would help to streamline the national dialogue and would help to create a common understanding of legal and technical terminologies that may be used in the entire process.
A dialogue at the national level is not a discussion about individual government or party officials. It is about conducting discussions on major issues of importance related to spelling out the most outstanding challenges the country is facing and soliciting agreed-upon homegrown solutions for resolving the challenges.
The proclamation provides for the establishment of various sub-committees that would help in the smooth running of the entire process. It is to be noted that dialogue and reconciliation cannot come up with the desired results overnight. This entails patience, full commitment and dedication to the strategic objectives of the Commission.
The National Dialogue is expected to strengthen the unity of the country and help to resolve the most outstanding issues that the country has been facing in its modern history. However, there is still more to be desired before the objectives of the National Dialogue and Reconciliation Commission are fulfilled to the desired level.
Editor’s Note: The views entertained in this article do not necessarily reflect the stance of The
BY SOLOMON DIBABA
THE THURSDAY 20 JANUARY 2022