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There is No Alternative to National Reconciliation and Dialogue in Ethiopian Politics

Ghelawdewos Araia, Ph.D  July 3, 2020


The purpose of this article is to critically examine the current complex and complicated Ethiopian politics in the context of conflict and conflict resolution methods and/or strategies, but this essay will also address two inputs, one endogenous and the other exogenous; the former is the peace initiative by the Ethiopian Inter-Faith Council, the Elders, and the Abba Gadas; the latter is a briefing by the International Crisis Group (ICG) entitled “Bridging the Divide in the Ethiopian North”.

However, before I delve into the main and central thesis of this essay, by way of giving some background, I will first discuss what I have critiqued and proposed in my previous articles; most importantly, I will first define the two significant concepts of ‘reconciliation’ and ‘dialogue’.

‘Reconciliation’ in its very simple and literal sense means ‘ironing out differences’; ‘resolving conflicts’, or ‘managing diametrically opposite ideas’; and if we apply the above definitions to a given real world, we might define reconciliation “as a process through which a society moves from a divided past to a shared future”[1] as Bloomfield aptly put it.

‘Dialogue’ literally can be defined as a conversation between two people or two characters in a drama or movie, but in the context of this article, however, and as a matter of course, it must involve conversations between two individual persons or two groups of people in order to resolve problems. In the final analysis, thus, the combined concepts or principles of ‘reconciliation’ and ‘dialogue’ entail peaceful negotiation in order to attain a more stable, orderly, and peaceful larger society, and this attainment, in turn, becomes the precondition for positive and constructive social change, transformation, and development.  

Reconciliation and dialogue must be institutionalized in order to yield a more effective and permanent solution to seemingly irreconcilable differences of ideas, principles, policies, as well as interests. For instance, in discussing ‘reconciliation’, ‘conciliation’, ‘integration’, and ‘national healing’ in Zimbabwe, Oswell Hapanyegwi Chemuru argues “why it is necessary in the final analysis to reconstitute the Organ for National Healing Reconciliation and Integration.”2  That is to say, reinstalling a preexisting institution of reconciliation in the case of Zimbabwe, or establishing a new one in the case of Ethiopia, or regenerating traditional conflict resolution institutions across the board in the African continent.  

Furthermore, Bloomfield elaborates on his reconciliation theory, as “an overarching process which includes the search for truth, justice, forgiveness, healing and so on…It means finding a way to live alongside former enemies…to coexist with them…to develop the degree of cooperation necessary to share [our society] with them, so that we all have better lives together than we have had separately.”3

Africa as a whole was endowed with traditional problem-solving mechanisms and resolution institutions, although the continent was snatched dreadfully of its legacy of reconciliation and dialogue by the slave and colonial eras, twin forces that systematically eradicated African institutions. Even Ethiopia that was never colonized had to share the brunt of what the continent encountered, but the African genius of reconciliation was not completely extinguished and some institutions like Bito (grassroots parliament) of Tigray; the Shimagle of the Amhara (which is also shared by Tigray and is popular for its intervention in problem-solving); the Joka and Kiche systems of the Gurage for administration and reconciliation, just to mention some.

In South Africa, the concept of ubuntu (essence of being human) played a major role in reconciliation and dialogue. In the post-apartheid period, following ubuntu, a joint Tutu-Mandela initiative established a formidable institution of conflict resolution known as Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and like Bloomfield argued above, the South African Blacks were told “to live alongside with their enemies”, their former White tormentors. It is like swallowing a bitter pill in order to heal the larger South African society, and this can happen only when both the tormentor and the victim, the oppressor and the oppressed, the exploiter and exploited are liberated mentally and attain some sense of humanity or ubuntu. Bishop Tutu, to his credit, championed the very essence of ubuntu and told the world that his ubuntu or method of reconciliation is “a quality that includes the essential human virtues; compassion and humanity; of the very essence of being human…then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, ‘my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.’ We belong to a bundle of life.”4

The South African initiative of TRC had a worldwide impact and influence, and as a result many well-meaning grassroots leaders, who in one form or another, attempted to change their respective societies via reconciliation and for the better. A good example of the latter initiative is the formation of TRC in Greensboro, North Carolina, USA. Spoma Jovanavice discusses the 1979 massacre of Black marchers in Greensboro, and twenty-five years after, in 2004, he says, “Greensboro residents inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to take public testimony and examine the causes, sequence of events, and consequence of the massacre. The TRC was to be a process and a tool by which citizens could feel confident about the truth of the City’s history in order to reconcile divergent understanding of the past and current city values, and it became the foundation for the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the United States.”5

With the above definitions and ‘thick description’ (to use Clifford Geertz words) of reconciliation and dialogue, we can move on to the current Ethiopian political reality that must be examined with extreme care and that requires an extensive critical social thought and investigative discourse for an agenda to heal the present sickly Ethiopian society. Although this is not the first time I have devoted some space to national reconciliation and dialogue, the present article is perhaps destined with a more daunting task, given the current precarious, fragile, and frightening Ethiopian reality on the ground.

Back in 2001, I contributed an article entitled “The Exigency of National Reconciliation and Legitimate Consensus in Ethiopia” and the essay thoroughly examined the rift or schism that occurred within the TPLF in the wake of the Algiers Agreement, and subsequently ended up in cleavage that created a splinter group, a faction within the Party. In that article that was published nineteen years ago, I stated, “The fear of mine, I gather, is of course the concern of all Ethiopians who love their country without prejudice to ethnicity and particularism. Some cynics may altogether dismiss the crisis within the TPLF as an internal problem that has nothing to do with the overarching national interest. This is naivete par excellence. I, for one, do not subscribe to politics based on ethnicity as I have indicated several times in many of my writings; I am in favor of a pan-Ethiopian agenda, and I have always been, but I do acknowledge the TPLF’s role in the making and shaping of contemporary Ethiopian politics. It is with this in mind that I want to urge Ethiopians to see beyond narrow interests and try to figure out the gist of the political phenomena that may have had an exogamous element.”6

And I further argued, “the schism that has enveloped the TPLF, therefore, has to do with the Ethiopian government policy on Eritrea, the handling of the Ethio-Eritrean war, and the post-Algiers rapprochement between Eritrea and Ethiopia and the subsequent formation of the United Nations Temporary Security Zone (TSZ).”7

Interestingly, both of the above quotes reflect ethnic politics and Eritrea’s involvement in Ethiopian affairs respectively, which are still considered as a major problem of subterfuge that, in turn, fuel the fire in Ethiopian politics. At any rate, additionally, I argued in the same paper, “once opposing ideas, or ideas different from the established norm are respected, then we won’t have problem reconciling difficulties and we can even adapt…relationship patterns”8 that can resolve disputes, but I was wrong; two decades after I wrote that article, Ethiopia is still bewitched by an even greater problem that requires massive infusion of reconciliation and dialogue to overcome.

Again, back in 2010, I contributed another article entitled “National Reconciliation and National Development in Ethiopia” with the sole purpose of inviting “well-meaning Ethiopians including scholars and professionals, civic organization leaders, Ethiopian community leaders, advocacy group and activists, political parties, and coalition organizations”9 to sit on a round table and discuss matters surrounding conflict and conflict resolution. In the same article, however, I attempted to formulate the nature and characteristics of a ‘negotiating regime’: “First and foremost, the principle of negotiation demands and requires equal footing of the negotiating parties, if at all it is going to have genuine fruitful result. It is in this spirit that I like to suggest to the Ethiopian government to initiate dialogue with the opposition, especially with the Diaspora and home patriotic opposition.”10

At a time when I wrote the above article, while I appreciated and admired EPRDF’s initiative to enter dialogue with the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), I found it paradoxical that the EPRDF-led government was unwilling to sit in a round table and negotiate with the opposition parties in Ethiopia. Despite this irony, however, I tried to underscore the viability of negotiation by opposing parties: “The politics of both parties could be at variance or situated at the extreme sides of the continuum, but both must understand that divergent perspectives, enriches a society in transition and brings meaningful and enduring transformation.”11

Ten years after the above article was written, Ethiopia is still enmeshed in a terrible conflict precipitated by the conflicting groupings that also includes the present regime of Abiy Ahmed, a government that is far from resolving problems, disputes, and confrontations in a peaceful way. On the contrary, the present regime seems to facilitate rather than mitigate or halt discordant politics that has now afflicted much of Ethiopia.

With the above backdrop, which I believe gives some semblance to the reader of the intriguing Ethiopian politics, I now turn to the endogenous and exogenous inputs, mentioned above, for Ethiopia’s peaceful resolution of conflicts. The exogenous input is that of the International Crisis Group (ICG), and it came up with a proposal of “Bridging the Divide in Ethiopia’s North”. By ‘Ethiopia’s North’ the ICG meant the Amhara and Tigray regional states, but conflicts have now engulfed the entire Ethiopia, and we must indeed reconcile all Ethiopians and not just the Amhara and the Tigray regional states. The ICG’s briefing, “Federal leaders should provide incentives to Tigray’s ruling party to the table” and “urge Tigrayan and Amhara faction to temper provocative stances and explore compromise” is palatable to me, but “The parties could consider…in which Tigray guarantee political representation and language rights to minority population in the disputed territories”12 is embedded in a misperceived and misconceived reality. There are no minorities that seek identity and/or language rights in the so-called disputed territories. In point of fact, all Tselemte, Wolkait, Tsegede, and Raya do speak Tigrigna, and time and again the residents in these districts have reaffirmed their Tigrayan identity.

While ICG’s seemingly balanced solution to the conflict between the two regional states is reasonable, its assertion of Amhara’s claim of lands from Tigray suffers a serious deficit of knowledge of the political history of Ethiopia. “In this dangerous climate,” states ICG, “federal officials and elders should encourage influential regional actors to eschew provocative stances, so that the two regions’ leaders can hold talks in a more temperate political atmosphere. To kick start such a process, federal officials should mend ties with Tigray leaders, perhaps first by offering guaranteed representation institutions and involving them fully in discussions about the election delay.”13 This ICG proposal is very constructive, and if applied could serve as a very effective mechanism in conflict resolution, and also in bringing plethora of opposition parties to the negotiating table.

Nevertheless, as already noted above, with respect to the Amhara claim of territories from Tigray shows that the ICG is either ill-informed or deliberately ignoring the hard facts on the ground. Here is how the ICG puts it: “The Amhara… want these lands returned. Specifically, they assert that the TPLF should return the districts of Welkait, Humera, Tsegede, and Tselemte in West Tigray and North West Tigray zones, as well as the Raya-Akobo [Kobo]”14

In regards to the above claimed territories, as noted above, the ICG lacks the correct information, but the elite leaders of the Amhara Regional State, who were allies of the TPLF when the latter was predominant in Ethiopian politics, became irredentist bravados in the wake of the dissolution of the EPRDF, although in the past they raised the question of Welkait and adjacent lands and claimed them as theirs. Now that they have become comrade-turned-foe when it comes to their relations with the TPLF, they have become more jabbering in their claim of “their lost territories”. Their irredentism, however, could ignominiously falter for the following reasons:

1.       History will stand against their claim, because Tselemte was part of Tigray until it was given as a gift to Empress Taitu by her husband Emperor Menelik after the Battle of Adwa and it was joined to Begemdir and Semien (now Gondar within Amhara State);

2.       Welkait was part of Gondar during the entire period of the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie and the rule of the Derg military regime, but during the formation of the regional states, it became part of Tigray on the basis of language and identity that also applied to all other regional states. Welkait was also part of Tigray in the early 17th century when Dejazmach Gelawdewos of Shire also governed over Seraye (now in Eritrea) and Welkait; the same Welkait was also part of Tigray as testified by a Portuguese missionary by the name Manoel Barradas, who lived in Tigray and also authored a book in 1634 with a map of Tigray. The title of his book is A Seventeenth Century Historical and Geographical Account of Tigray. It is imperative to read Barradas’ map of Tigray in order to understand the extent of Tigray (four times the size of its present size) in the early 17th century. See map in appendix at the end of notes.

             

3.      Parts of Raya, including Alamata, Korem, and Kobo were given as a gift to Prince Asfaha Wossen in 1948 by his father Emperor Haile Selassie and was joined to Wollo province (now part of Amhara). While Alamata and Korem were restored to Tigray during the restructuring of Ethiopia into regional states, Kobo remained with the Amhara state because the predominantly Amharic-speaking residents took over the land during the course of Kobo’s annexation to the former Wollo province. This hard fact is not only part of my research and studies on some documentary evidence, but it is also endorsed by an eyewitness account who was an official in Haile Selassie’s bureaucratic empire; his name is Fitewrari Muuz Beyene and he is still alive.

But when it comes to political demarcation of territories and borders, the most important factor is not land fragment, which can shift positions according to circumstances and change of governments from time to time; the most important factors are the cultures and languages of people who are residents in the so-called disputed territories and how they view themselves in terms of identity; and all these areas, without exception, speak Tigrigna and they identify themselves as Tigrayan Ethiopians.

The endogenous input comes from the Ethiopian Inter-Faith Council, led by Patriarch Abuna Mathias; the Elders, and the Abba Gadas are also part of the mission; they travelled to Mekelle on the second week of June to broker peace between the TPLF and the Prosperity Party (PP) of Abiy Ahmed; they met with the leaders of the TPLF and presented their peace proposal to them; and the TPLF, after receiving the peace delegation gave them an answer that was written in Amharic, the original document I read first, but for the purpose of this article, I will use what was reported by Addis Standard, which incidentally captured it perfectly with a title “Debretsion Calls for a National Dialogue involving All Political Parties”.  

The peace delegation to Tigray said, “The leadership of Tigray regional state and the federal government should immediately sit at a round table and calmly discuss about national consensus as well as discuss on ways of solving global and national challenges together.”15 In response to the peace proposal, Dr. Debretsion Gebremichael, head of the regional state of Tigray, said, “If there is a need to have a platform for dialogue, it should be a national dialogue involving all political parties and Ethiopia’s nations and nationalities.”16 Moreover, “Debretsion has criticized the silence hitherto of the Inter-Faith Council for other crisis that plagued the country, such as blockages of roads leading to Tigray region, the use of public media by the ruling party to wage the rhetoric of war against Tigray for its decision to hold elections; Prosperity Party’s complacency with Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki to sidelining the Tigray region and its people as well as PP’s actions in working with other external forces against the interest of its own people.”17

I strongly believe that there is no alternative to national reconciliation and dialogue in resolving conflicts, societal problems, disagreements, and many other social issues surrounding enigma and political riddle that could baffle citizens. The crux of the matter is, Ethiopia can achieve a sensible, peaceful, stable, and lasting conflict resolution mechanism only by involving all Ethiopians at all levels, in a major conference or series of conferences of national reconciliation and dialogue.

In regards to the above analysis, the TPLF’s proposal of inclusive and broader pan-Ethiopian agenda is on the right track, and Ethiopia could redeem itself from its current debilitating mess by becoming more inclusive and transparent, rather than limiting the peace, reconciliation, and dialogue agenda to the TPLF and the PP only; it would also be short of a national agenda if the reconciliation process limits itself to the elite, intellectuals, and political parties, and if the grassroots Ethiopians are rendered a spectator status.

To be sure, Ethiopia’s problems are compounded and the stakeholders in the post-conflict period are many and highly diverse, and as such we must carefully observe and analyze the Ethiopian reality on the ground: The Sidama and Wolita questions on self-determination, in which the former enjoyed its rights with trials and tribulations, and the latter has yet to find answers for its quest of internal sovereignty; the Qimant self-determination even for a zone autonomy has yet to be realized and/or fulfilled in northwest Amhara region; the continuous war-torn Wellega case and the disturbances in other Oromia State like Shashemene, Arsi, Negele-Borona, and Bale must regain peace and stability; the highway blockage leading to Tigray has yet to be resolved; the peoples support of the Federal system and the constitution that guaranteed the self-determination of nationalities and/or regional states vis-à-vis the ambition of the present regime and its supporters to restructure Ethiopia by installing a unitary state has to be reconciled as well. The two could be irreconcilable, but sitting on a round table for a dialogue on the two political agendas is by itself conciliatory and cultured, but it when it comes to my personal views, I believe that the federal structure has a viable and strong reconciliation tool in its package and reviving so-called geographic demarcation of a centralized Ethiopia could altogether eradicate the relative gain of self-determination of the Ethiopian people attained during the EPRDF rule.

Finally, it should be understood that national reconciliation and dialogue can take place and effectively implemented, only if there is peace and stability in Ethiopia. Peace is not only a precondition to virtually everything in social and political life, but its dividend also could foster development and progress; and though it may sound ironic, peace itself can be attained via reconciliation and dialogue as well. The question of peace, however, remains abstract and devoid of realistic and doable agenda unless it is linked to what Ethiopia has encountered in the last three decades. In this regard, I am of the opinion that Ethiopia’s political culture has dramatically changed in the context of self-determination and ethnic consciousness, and also the inability of successive Ethiopian governments to lead Ethiopia to make transition into a democratic culture and the inability of the regimes to fulfill basic democratic and constitutional rights. With respect to self-determination and ethnic consciousness, this is what I have argued twenty-five years ago: “The TGE’s policy of Kilil and self-determination is commendable, but the consequence of fragmentation as a result of new wave of ethnic political consciousness, and the inability of some minority nationalities to become economically and politically viable, would ultimately preoccupy Ethiopians to otherwise unforeseen problem.”18

The ‘consequence of fragmentation’ and ‘unforeseen problem’ that I saw twenty-five years ago in my debut book, are the politics that have been reflected in Ethiopia in the last five years, and that, in turn, have effectively emasculated the Ethiopian nation-state. On the other hand, even the little gains that Ethiopians have enjoyed during the rule of the EPRDF are now threatened and undermined by the present regime, not to mention the complete loss of rule of law and constitutional parameters. Abiy should have done better given the readymade paved road of governance, but on the contrary his regime does not even allow Ethiopians to go to the polls and vote and the scapegoat apparently is COVID-19; countries around the world, including Malawi in Africa, have recently conducted elections successfully in the midst of the Corona virus pandemic and I have critically examined the necessity of election in my recent article, but non-Ethiopian observers like CNN’s Fareed Zakaria also remarked on the postponed Ethiopian election. “The erosion of democracy from Ethiopia to Hungary,” remarks Fareed and reports that “Ethiopia’s fragile democracy is under threat” and “the Ethiopian parliament has extended the office term for the Prime Minister.”19   

 

Notes:

1.       Ricahard Bloomfield, Reconciliation: An Introduction, 2003

2.       Oswell Hapenyangwi-Chemhuru, “Reconciliation, Conciliation, Integration, and National Healing: Possibilities and Challenges in Zimbabwe”, Accord, AJCR 2013/1

3.      Bloomfield, op cit.

4.      Bishop Tutu is an Anglican religious leader from Cape Town who relentlessly and indefatigably struggled for the release of Nelson Mandela and the dismantlement of the apartheid system.

5.      Soma Jovanovic, Democracy, Dialogue, and Community Action in Greensboro, 2012

6.      Ghelawdewos Araia, “The Exigency of National Reconciliation & Legitimate Consensus in Ethiopia,” East African Forum, April 10, 2001

7.      Ghelawdewos Araia, Ibid

8.      Ghelawdewos Araia, Ibid

9.      Ghelawdewos Araia, “National Reconciliation and National Development in Ethiopia”, www.africanidea.org/national_Reconciliation.html  2010

10.   Ghelawdewos Araia, Ibid

11.    Ghelawdewos Araia, Ibid

12.    International Crisis Group (ICG), Briefing No. 156/AFRICA 12 June 2020

13.   ICG, Ibid

14.   ICG, Ibid

15.   Addis Standard, Bilah Jelen reporting, June 16, 2020

16.   Addis Standard, Ibid

17.   Addis Standard, Ibid

18.   Ghelawdewos Araia, Ethiopia: The Political Economy of Transition, University Press of America, 1995, p. 166

19.   Fareed Zakaria, CNN GPS, July 5, 2020; see also Ghelawdewos Araia, “Postponing the Ethiopian Election could derail Hitherto Accomplished Achievements and Paralyzing Future Worthwhile Democratic Institutions,”

www.africanidea.org/Postponing_the_Ethiopian_election.html

Appendix: 17th Century Map of Tigray: From Manoel Barradas, A Seventeenth Century Historical and Geographical Account of Tigray, Ethiopia (1634); translated from Portuguese into English by Elizabet Filleul and edited by Richard Pankhurst (1996)

All Rights Reserved Copyright © IDEA, Inc. 2020 Dr. Ghealwdewos Araia can be contacted for constructive and educational feedback via dr.garaia@africanidea.org