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Beyond power-politics: Dialogue pivotal for Ethiopia peace process

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Picture: Lev Radin/Sipa US via REUTERS – Activists stage a rally against Ethiopia war in Tigray on Times Square in New York on October 15, 2022.

By Emebet Getachew Abate

Following the recently signed peace agreement between the representatives of the Federal Government of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, Ethiopia faces enormous and urgent reconciliation and peacebuilding opportunities and needs. Coupled with the national dialogue process, the peace agreement is a major milestone, implying a new, yet fragile peace paradigm on the horizon.

Driven by decades-long grievances, minimal investment in peacebuilding, deep structural and dysfunctional governance systems, often manifested through resource competition and ethnic rivalry, Ethiopia finds itself in perpetual cycle of violence. Beyond the dominant competing narratives between Ethnonationalists and Ethiopianists, forming deep political fissures, other divergent perspectives also characterise the lay of the land. Albeit escalated conflict patterns, deep divisions, and unfettered ethnic-based attacks and violence, there was a lack of a sufficient and coherent strategy, with foresight and early action to prevent a full-blown violent conflict, through dialogue and political settlement.

To create a favourable context for lasting peace, Ethiopia can pursue a three-pronged peace-making strategy: the national dialogue, the peace agreement with Tigray and elite bargains. While both the national dialogue and the peace agreement represent significant strides, adding a broader elite bargain pertaining to Oromia and Amhara elite, could stabilising localised conflicts as well as encourage cooperation and dialogue over the use of force.

Informed by the evolving context, keeping these nascent processes in silos is efficient, but having a coherent national peace-making strategy can elaborate their shared purpose, and when and how they intersect to achieve the central goal of securing national consensus.

National Dialogue

Preceding the peace talks, on December 29, 2021, the House of Peoples’ Representatives (HoPR) approved Proclamation No. 1265/2014 to set up the National Dialogue Commission (NDC), mandated to identify fundamental national issues; lead an inclusive and transparent dialogue process; improve the relationship among different segments of the society; support the implementation of the recommendation of the dialogue outcomes; develop a political culture that can solve internal problems and lay a firm foundation for national consensus.

However, there were different expectations (at times high) about what the initiative could offer as well as questions on the legitimacy and composition of the Commission. For some, the national dialogue is seen as a platform to discuss power-sharing arrangements, for others, it is perceived as an all-inclusive process to discuss contending national issues or an elite bargaining space to negotiate the vision for Ethiopia. As such, the national dialogue remains a widely open-for-interpretation matter where the expectations on the list of agenda and how it can deliver consensus-based new social contract remain unclear.

In some ways, the peace agreement tackles the challenge of the NDC in terms of securing high-level political commitment which could have been difficult for the Commission to attain on its own. Similarly, if more elite bargains are forged, preparing the political groundwork for dialogue, their outcome can complement the work of the Commission and other peace actors as they facilitate bottom-up dialogues and local peace structures. One challenge in this regard is the question of alignment between elite deals and their buy-in between different elites and those they represent. Part of the Commission’s internal’ task is therefore, to connect these elite deals and integrate them in their consultation process.

Against this difficult backdrop, the national dialogue is not a panacea to resolve all of Ethiopia’s long-standing problems. Rather, if well designed and executed, it can attempt to create an inclusive forum for opposing views, historically marginalised groups, to convene, and agree on a formula that can set Ethiopia on a path of peaceful coexistence, through inclusive outcomes. Equally important is the need to pay attention to less formal and small-scale dialogues happening outside the ambit of the NDC where dialogues contribute to mitigate violent conflicts.

The formal peace agreement

The Pretoria Permanent Cessation of Hostilities agreement and the Nairobi follow-up implementation agreement were signed on November 2 and 12, 2022, consecutively, between the Federal Government of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The peace agreement (the agreement) not only established the premise from which the national dialogue and other elite bargains can follow, but the declaration itself sets a positive precedence to de-escalate the intensity of the war in Tigray. On one hand, the agreement is tailored to respond to immediate needs in Tigray, and on the other, it generates minimal political consensus on accountability and transitional justice mechanism.

While transitional justice is a low-hanging fruit for peace actors to support different components of it, truth-seeking and recognising the needs of victims and survivors are central to justice, reconciliation, and non-repetition. Despite the fact that the African Union Transitional Justice Policy Framework (AUTJP) has not been fully tested in other contexts, AU’s strengthened role would add value in incorporating international norms/standards and best practices. As opposed to superficial and ad-hoc engagement, there is also an interface between the AU and the NDC, where they can co-ordinate on TJ (transitional justice) through joint planning and execution of activities, to enhance the overall peace-making effort.

Cautiously received by different actors, the agreement has a stand-alone civilian protection agenda, where both parties are expected to comply. While this is a strong pillar of the agreement, tangible and measurable changes on the ground are largely relegated to the signatories of the agreement and humanitarian actors leaving the role of independent civil society including the media out of monitoring process. Though the monitoring and verification mechanism, and the timetable and implementation matrix appear weak, the agreement remains the only framework binding the parties from relapsing into large-scale violence. Among other factors, resolving the contentious issues of the disputed areas between Amhara and Tigray, delivering accountability, and managing both interim and permanent new politico-military dispensation in Tigray remain the defining elements for sustainable peace in Ethiopia.

Elite Bargains

Although the source and actors of major conflicts in Ethiopia vary, they are inter-related, requiring a connected strategy to mitigate them. The conflict system in Oromia region, particularly in Western, Eastern Oromia and partly Shoa, are linked to each other. With recurrent drought in places like Borena and Bale Zones, the humanitarian crisis in Oromia has been exacerbated. While demands for greater autonomy or self-rule are cross-cutting issues, competition over resources and identity politics are key drivers of conflict. Both state and non-state armed actors have committed crimes and atrocities, with no sign of abating. With escalation in recent weeks, Western Oromia has become a theatre of large-scale violence further complicating the conflict dynamic.

With lessons from Tigray, or the 2018 dialogue between the government and the Ogaden National Liberation Front that has ended decades-long armed insurgency in Somali region, or recent peace negotiation between elites in the Benishangul Gumuz region, elite bargaining can be part of the broader strategy to address the types of violence consuming Oromia, its borderlands and beyond. If considered in a comprehensive manner, the peace-making effort can either stretch from Tigray to Western Oromia and other areas or shrink by resorting to quick fixes without focusing on the need for a broader and meaningful peace process, which will have sustained changes on the ground.

As is often the case, negotiating with non-state armed groups can be seen as incentivising armed insurgency, but military strategy alone may increase the cost of war, especially when the insurgent activities are embedded in society. While the government may have the military upper hand, recognising the limitations of pursuing military solutions only could offer alternative ways of settling armed resistance in Ethiopia. Strong political determination is needed to acknowledge that violence is politically and socio-economically costly. The commitment from political elite is a key factor to making or breaking all peace-making efforts including the national dialogue.

Considering the rapidly evolving context and the unstructured nature of elite bargains, the NDC must also adopt agile and flexible working arrangements, where they build on the outcomes of high-level political settlements, to inform parallel dialogue processes at various levels.

Process-Factors for Positive Outcomes

Unlike war, the journey of peacebuilding processes requires investing in relation building, patience, sustained dialogue, and prioritising people-centred focus. While the pathways to peace are non-linear, with the peace-making strategy, a combination of different process factors can situate Ethiopia on the right track of peacebuilding.

1) Resetting public discourse from war to peace

In the last two years in particular, the role of the mainstream media and social media cultivated certain narratives and discourse to catalyse war efforts. A critical mass was built to mobilise for war, sell narratives that promote and justify the actions. Unfortunately, such critical mass or a peace movement across ethnic lines, committed to end the violence not only in Tigray, but in different corners of Ethiopia was/is absent. Instead, the task of peace-making was outsourced to external actors.

As seen during the war, media is a critical instrument in shaping and influencing society’s perceptions and opinion in favour of war. Though the impact of the war takes its root in different facets of lives, redirecting the energy toward peace discourse would be a major step to halting hostilities. Since the signing of the agreement, the discourse has significantly shifted, and more can be done to normalise the language of peace and move away from zero-sum rhetoric. Instead, the media can use its influence to generate public awareness, communicate expectations and possible outcomes of the peace processes.

2) Credibility and inclusivity

Along with the systematic move to change the public discourse, it is imperative that building credibility and ensuring that the steps taken to create dialogue spaces are genuine and inclusive. To forge the needed coherence, longevity, and success of the implementation of the existing/future peace processes, the inclusion of actors who are disgruntled and marginalised, would essentially improve the peacebuilding landscape, through further elite bargains and/or other informal processes.

Likewise, women, youth, civil society, and other groups were completely absent during the peace agreement and the composition of the NDC was criticised for not having more women as commissioners. Beyond anecdotal embellishments, the essence of inclusion is to mean the meaningful representation of issues and interests of groups. When designing, planning, and executing, the participation of different groups should not be a box ticking exercise, rather a thoughtful space—where they can participate meaningfully, through their shared and individual lived experiences and capacities. The more these processes are inclusive, the better their credibility and ownership.

3) International support

One of the commonly known limitations of international peace-making is the haste to secure negative peace, aimed at enacting ceasefires, but falls short of rendering positive peace, which is more than achieving political peace, focused on rebuilding long-term state-society relations and institution building to break the cycle of violence. While consolidating the momentum is pragmatic, making substantive moves by maintaining diplomatic pressure to coax parties, increase humanitarian assistance, provide technical support in operational areas, and help broaden/deepen the peace-making effort through inclusive engagement are vital ingredients.

From the cessation of hostilities agreement, Article 10(3) intersects with the work of the NDC, underpinning the importance of transitional justice in line with the AUTJP. This provision means that the AU is not only the guarantor of the agreement but will also continue to play a critical role from verification and monitoring, to accompanying the implementation of the agreement. Here, beyond the intensified geopolitical competition and interests, effective co-ordination within the AU and between other regional (IGAD) and international partners (UN, EU, US) is imperative. For example, since the signing of the peace agreement, the monitoring and verification team of experts are not deployed on the ground, to oversee and report on the progress. Keeping the milestones in check will not only help increase the credibility of the process, but also ensure the documentation of the progress and hold parties to account. As alleged violations continue to be reported, urgent and robust MVM is essential to ensure the agreement is respected and civilians are protected as promised in the agreement. In this regard, the AU Peace and Security Council should convene regularly, to track the implementation and take corrective measures when needed. In conclusion, while the temptation to backtrack from commitments to peace is common, it is high time for Ethiopia to recalibrate its resources and capacities to capitalise on recent gains through a coherent peace-making strategy that promote non-violent methods. Going forward, although implementing the peace agreement will take its practical pace, every measure and political decisions taken should be guided by deftness and wisdom rather than purely competitive parochial interests. Beyond zero-sum rhetoric, pivoting toward peacebuilding narrative is needed as it will consider different variables: focused on addressing the root causes of conflicts, relationships, compromise, mutual recognition and operate within the constitutional parameters, until trust is re-established, and relations are normalised. If these delicate developments are connected and guided in an inclusive and conflict sensitive manner, and intentionally designed to transform violent conflicts, they have a great potential to repair the social cohesion, usher political stability and re-stimulate reform programmes.

Emebet Getachew Abate is an expert on peace and security and peacebuilding in the Horn of Africa. She is Country Manager for Peace Building in Ethiopia at the Life and Peace Institute.

This article is published on Accord