Ethiopia urgently needs inclusive national dialogue

And in order to start one, it needs to face its imperial past and legacy.

People gather to mourn the victims of a massacre allegedly perpetrated by Eritrean soldiers in the village of Dengolat in the Tigray region of Ethiopia on February 26, 2021 [File: AFP/Eduardo Soteras]

The civil war in the Tigray region of Ethiopia is fuelling a vicious national and regional conflagration. The five-month-long conflict, which Ethiopia initially defended as a rule-of-law operation with “clear, limited and achievable objectives”, metastasised into a lawless and bloody war, leading to credible allegations of war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

Rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have provided disturbing accounts of atrocities, breath-taking in scale and scope, where Eritrean troops and Amhara militias, fighting alongside the Ethiopian army, massacred civilians, committed horrific acts of sexual violence and “completely erased” whole villages.

Media reports show that Eritrean troops carried out grisly massacres, gang-raped and tortured women, and engaged in extensive and deliberate acts of plunder and destruction of civilian infrastructure. A report by the United States government accused the Amhara militia of “deliberately and efficiently rendering Western Tigray ethnically homogeneous through the organised use of force and intimidation” – an act that Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, called “ethnic cleansing”. The UN has reported more than 500 cases of rape, including instances where men were forced to rape family members. Tigrayan forces have also been accused of committing atrocities.

As the country sinks deep into a grinding insurgency, the humanitarian crisis is worsening. Three-quarters of Tigray’s estimated 6 million people need emergency assistance, with many areas still inaccessible and thousands on the brink of starvation. More than 60,000 people have fled into Sudan and an estimated 2 million people have been displaced internally.

The political and humanitarian upheaval afflicting Tigray is stoking fears of a violent disintegration of the Ethiopian state and broader regional instability. Already, opposition parties in Tigray are calling for a referendum on the future of their region. There is a dangerous military build-up on the Sudan-Ethiopia border after Sudanese forces occupied territories previously under Ethiopian control. There are also reports that Eritrean troops are deployed along the Ethiopia-Sudan border.

To understand how the violence broke out in Tigray, one has to look into the broader political crisis gripping Ethiopia, which is an extension of the deep ideological and structural contradictions pushing the country to the brink.

Aborted transition

The first few months after Abiy Ahmed’s ascent to power were overwhelmingly hopeful. He embraced the language of human rights, the rule of law, and economic prosperity, and introduced progressive measures, enjoying praise at home and abroad.

Abiy spoke of peace, love, tolerance, and reconciliation. To give his rhetoric the appearance of substance and seriousness, he established the Ministry of Peace and a Peace and Reconciliation Commission and appointed a gender-balanced cabinet.

At the same time, Abiy was also doing something else. While projecting the appearance of a humble and unifying leader driving radical reforms under challenging conditions, he was also consolidating power and reorganising the army, the intelligence and security forces, the civil service, the ruling party, and the governance of regional states.

Three years after Abiy’s rise to power, the political landscape in Ethiopia is further polarised and Ethiopian society is even more deeply divided. Rather than promoting reconciliation, building consensus and cohesion among culturally diverse societies through constructive engagement across political and cultural fault-lines, the prime minister is promoting divisive imperial nationalism and laying the groundwork for his centralising and assimilationist vision of the future.

Ethiopia was already on the verge of implosion last year before the conflict broke out. Abiy’s determination to impose his will by any means necessary, including war, sparked the Tigray inferno, plunging the country into the most perilous crisis it has seen in three decades.

Clearly, the prime minister has squandered a historic opportunity to build a new and inclusive society based on shared values and mutual respect. After the Tigray war, the path to building a democratic future will be enormously difficult, but it is still possible. What Ethiopia needs now is an inclusive national dialogue that would serve as an instrument of constructive engagement to secure a new political settlement that would allow Ethiopians to live together in peace and equal dignity. But doing so requires, among other things, confronting Ethiopia’s complex past and imperial legacy.

Imperial syndrome

The Ethiopian empire was founded on the cultural values of the Amhara ethnic group, the second-largest in Ethiopia, and the Ethiopian Orthodox faith. Although the empire collapsed after the 1974 military coup, its legacy remains. Contemporary Ethiopia is still an Amhara cultural construct built on the violent inclusion and assimilation of its diverse and heterogeneous population into an Amhara core.

Ethiopia’s national identity, national symbols and national paraphernalia predominantly reflect Amhara cultural values. Christopher Clapham, who studied Ethiopia for decades, describes it as “an assimilatory system, in which initially conquered territories were gradually involved in the national policy through the spread of the Amharic language, Orthodox Christianity, and the political culture associated with the imperial court”.

The nation-building projects pursued by imperial Ethiopia and the Derg military dictatorship, which ruled from 1974 to 1991, were designed to create a common national identity around Amhara culture and language. Ethiopianness, the national identity imperial Ethiopia and the Derg sought to construct, is in essence, an Amhara ethnic identity and Ethiopian nationalism is a variant of Amhara ethnic nationalism.

In explaining this phenomenon, Clapham writes: “Being Amhara is much more a matter of how one behaves than of who one’s parents were; and without this capacity for assimilating other peoples into a core culture which can be regarded as national, and not the exclusive property of a particular group of people, the Ethiopian state would probably have been unable to sustain itself in the first place.”

That is why Amhara culture today conceives itself as Ethiopian and promotes its values, symbols, heroes, language, culture, and ways of being as Ethiopian and valid for all peoples and all nations in the country.

The symbolic and material violence that underpinned the formation of the Ethiopian state and the assimilationist and exclusionary processes pursued during the nation-building project left behind a divisive legacy tearing apart the fabric of communities. Political scientist Edmond Keller observed that “the destruction of Oromo culture, as that of other non-Amhara groups, was systematic. Oromo culture was degraded. It was illegal to write, preach or broadcast in any Oromo dialect.”

These policies had profound material consequences, making certain identities and languages unrecognisable and inaudible. It also affected the socioeconomic opportunities of individuals from ethnic minorities. Writing more recently, political scientist Lahra Smith notes that “In modern Ethiopia, the historical distribution of the political goods of communication, recognition, and autonomy has been highly skewed, benefitting native Amharic-speakers disproportionately.”

This asymmetric relationship between Ethiopia’s various ethnic groups in part served as the rallying cry for the 1974 revolution and the 17-year armed struggle by ethnonational forces fighting to liberate their respective ethnic groups. The 1995 constitutional settlement sought to address these longstanding grievances by establishing a multi-ethnic federal structure that promised each of Ethiopia’s “nations, nationalities, and peoples” a significant degree of self-government, up to and including the right to become independent states.

The idea of ‘medemer’

Abiy came to power on the back of the Oromo protests, a movement inspired by the Oromo national quest for self-determination and autonomy. Oromos made significant individual and collective sacrifices to democratise and consolidate the multi-ethnic federal system. Two years after riding Oromo nationalism to power, it is clear that Abiy has now completely betrayed the Oromo cause and the Oromo national question.

The prime minister has made little effort to hide his disdain for shared historical experiences of marginalised groups, and political organising and mobilisation anchored in collective identity. Addressing the Russia-Africa dialogue forum of ruling parties, Abiy described identity-based politics as the enemy within that must be defeated and called on political parties to come up with “a more truthful philosophy”.

He went on to state that his Prosperity Party has put forward such a philosophy that is homegrown and which, among other things, calls on the nation “to stay away from the dangerous cycle of always throwing away the past and starting with a clean slate”.

Abiy is referring to his idea of “medemer” (Amharic for synergy), which he says serves as the “guiding light” in the governance of the state. Despite his claim, however, medemer is not a new philosophical model for nation-building or governing societies.

It is an uncritical assemblage of liberal enlightenment ideals of individual liberty, electoral democracy, and economic globalisation intended to function as a new vocabulary to resurrect and operationalise the old assimilationist Amhara-centric model of the state.

Abiy and his notion of medemer conceive Ethiopia as a glorious and civilised nation that is being threatened by narrow and irrational ethnocentric forces. For Abiy and his Amhara supporters, the Ethiopian nation-building project was good because Ethiopianisation is inclusive. Ethno-national politics is bad because ethnonational politics is exclusionary. What matters is not the terms of inclusion and the power relations that are created, suggested, sustained, and addressed by it, but the unquestionably inclusive promise of Ethiopia and Ethiopian-ness.

Instead of fostering a common national myth and common national paraphernalia that acknowledges and recognises the different experiences and identities of the diverse people of Ethiopia, Abiy is pathologising, maligning, and disparaging the question of subordinated groups for genuine inclusion.

His nostalgic Make Ethiopia Great Again vision has already unleashed unprecedented suffering. The country needs a national dialogue process to prevent further bloodshed and the risk of disintegration.

National dialogue

Subsequent Ethiopian nation-building projects failed partly because Ethiopians were not consulted on the kind of state and society they wished to have. The Solomonic dynasty that ruled Ethiopia until the 1974 revolution was an absolute monarchy. The Marxist-Leninist military junta that came to power after the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie was a military dictatorship and did not seek the consent of the Ethiopian people on the nature and character of the state.

Likewise, the government led by the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) that came to power in 1991 imposed the current multi-ethnic federal system without sufficient democratic debate that a new social contract requires. Although the political settlement codified in the 1995 constitution addresses the longstanding national question and therefore commands broad support, the process through which the settlement was achieved was not democratic, and the government did not attempt to remedy that crisis of legitimacy by properly implementing its central principles and objectives.

The nationwide protests that brought Abiy to power were driven by the desire, among other things, to democratise the federal system and ensure full implementation of the constitution.

Currently, the government appears set to move away from the multi-ethnic federal arrangement into a more unitary and centralised system of government. It is only a matter of time before a new constitution reflecting Abiy’s and his supporters’ vision is imposed. This is the central concern in Ethiopia today, and an issue at the heart of the Tigray war and the armed conflicts in the Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz regions.

Ethiopia is already on the brink of implosion and imposing a political settlement that does not enjoy a consensus among Ethiopia’s diverse population will lead to the collapse of the state. The country will only survive if its leaders and the elite come together to forge a new national consensus and build a new political order that will ensure the dignity, co-existence and solidarity of its people.

To do this, Ethiopia needs an inclusive national dialogue process where all stakeholders can come together and explore critical national issues to arrive at a shared and sustainable political settlement.

A nationally owned but internationally backed national dialogue process could serve as a vehicle for all the parties to come together and examine the different visions of the future that exist in the country and agree on a lasting settlement for the future. A national dialogue would provide a means for competing ideologies and communities within Ethiopia to redefine their relationships and promote greater understandings on divisive and polarising issues. A national dialogue could help bridge the gap between the different actors and foster a culture of communication and collaboration.

But for national dialogue to work in Ethiopia at the current moment, the government needs to recognise the enormity of the moment and create a political environment that would enable an inclusive national dialogue. Ending the armed hostilities in Tigray, Oromia, and Benishangul-Gumuz and releasing all political prisoners are among the necessary conditions for an inclusive national dialogue.

The government also must postpone the election scheduled for June 2021 if a national dialogue is to be meaningful and successful. Going ahead with the election in the middle of a civil war, at a time when societal division and political polarisation are extremely intense, and when there is little consensus on the direction of the country and its constitutional future, carries profound risks for the country.

Conducting elections without engaging in an inclusive dialogue and building consensus on the kind of state and people Ethiopians want to have will not serve the national interest and would simply sharpen the contradictions tearing Ethiopia apart.

The pre-election landscape is already fraught with significant problems, and the outcome is already predetermined. The systematic repression and attacks against opposition parties and their leaders have already forced the main opposition parties in Oromia, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), to boycott the election. Going ahead with the election will deplete the vanishing trust among political actors and undermine public confidence necessary for the national dialogue.

Abiy is doing everything he can to impose his vision of the future on the Ethiopian people in the same way his predecessors did, but his approach is putting the country on the brink of implosion. We can already see the ruins of his vision in Tigray and elsewhere in the country. The stench of disintegration is in the air.

It may be hard to see a way back to the historic opportunity that emerged in 2018 but an inclusive national dialogue could offer a possible pathway out of the current cataclysm and towards an inclusive and democratic Ethiopia.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.