Ethiopia’s new ‘national dialogue’ cannot deliver inclusive peace

The Abiy administration is not ready or willing to negotiate a deal that can bring sustainable peace to the country.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is seen during a campaign event
Abiy is now trying to create the false impression that he is doing something to end the violence to convince the US to lift its sanctions against his government, writes Gemechu [File: Tiksa Negeri//Reuters]

On January 7, as Ethiopia celebrated Orthodox Christmas, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government announced an amnesty for some of the country’s most high-profile political prisoners, in an effort, it claimed, to facilitate “national reconciliation”.

The move came on the back of a decision by Parliament to establish a “Commission for National Dialogue” to “pave the way for national consensus” and, supposedly, to end the country’s devastating civil war for good.

Ethiopia’s war in Tigray broke out in November 2020, following months of mounting tensions between the Abiy-led federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which controls the Tigray region in the country’s north. Over the course of the conflict, Tigrayan forces made significant gains into neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions and eventually began marching towards the capital, Addis Ababa.

The tide of the war, however, turned in November 2021 after a drone-assisted military offensive halted the Tigrayan approach to Addis Ababa. Tigrayan forces withdrew into their own region and federal forces said they would not pursue them into Tigray. Abiy swiftly declared victory, but also emphasised his government’s willingness to enter into a “national dialogue” to resolve the conflict.

As Abiy has long been ignoring calls for a negotiated ceasefire, his new-found enthusiasm for “national dialogue” was welcomed by the international community and the Ethiopians tired of war.

But is the Ethiopian government really ready to participate in a genuine national dialogue and negotiate a deal that would bring sustainable peace to the country?

There are ample reasons for scepticism.

‘National dialogue’ only in name

Since their most recent victory against Tigrayan forces, Ethiopian officials repeatedly made it clear that the TPLF and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) – an armed group the federal military has been fighting against in the Oromia region since late 2018 – would not be included in any future “national dialogue”.

When several MPs objected to the Commission for National Dialogue’s establishment proclamation, claiming that it lays the ground for “negotiations” with the TPLF and OLA, for example, the Legal and Administrative Affairs Committee chair, Tsegenet Mengistu, claimed that the proclamation is not at all about “negotiation”. She warned about misrepresenting the purpose of the initiative and insisted that there is “no article or word” in the document about negotiations.

But what is the purpose of a “national dialogue” that does not involve any negotiation between warring sides?

In theory, national dialogues are supposed to be inclusive, broad, and participatory official negotiation platforms that aim to resolve deep-rooted political crises and conflicts, and lead countries into political transitions. According to the United Nations, national dialogues “typically involve principal national elites, including the government and the largest (armed or unarmed) opposition parties, and occasionally the military. Other groups who participate include those representing wider constituencies such as civil society, women, youth, business, and religious or traditional actors. The wider population is often indirectly included through broader consultation processes.”

In this context, it is impossible to define the process currently under way in Ethiopia as a genuine “national dialogue”. By excluding the TPLF and OLA from the so-called “national dialogue”, Abiy’s government made it clear that its aim is not to achieve sustainable peace and to lead the country into a negotiated political transition, but to achieve a series of short-term objectives.

Abiy’s short-term objectives

The primary objective of Abiy’s “national dialogue” agenda appears to be easing the mounting diplomatic pressures on his government.

Since the beginning of Ethiopia’s war in November 2020, the international community has been calling for an inclusive national dialogue to end the deadly conflict. These calls fell on deaf ears for months. But recently, concrete measures taken particularly by the United States against Abiy’s government have led to economic and diplomatic tremors in Addis Ababa. By establishing a “Commission for National Dialogue”, which does not even have the mandate to initiate negotiations between warring parties, Abiy is now trying to create the false impression that he is doing something to end the violence to convince the US to lift its sanctions against his government.

The second goal of the proposed “dialogue” is to buy time for military preparation in anticipation of deepening civil war. Sources in Abiy’s Prosperity Party allege that in the last couple of months alone tens of thousands of youths have been conscripted into the federal military and are currently being trained in camps across the country.

Before that, Abiy had personally called on common citizens to take up arms against Tigrayan forces. A government preparing to enter into a genuine national dialogue and to end all violence would not have any reason to hurriedly train scores of new soldiers. The national dialogue process, therefore, appears to be a ploy by the government to buy time to prepare its military to launch another attack on its adversaries in Tigray and beyond.

And perhaps the most important goal of Abiy’s “national dialogue” ruse is to deceive the Ethiopian people and increase the legitimacy of his government in their eyes. With this initiative, Abiy is signalling that he is consulting all legitimate power groups in Ethiopia as he moves forward with his vision for the country. Of course, without the inclusion of the TPLF, OLA and other democratic forces such as Qeerroo (the Oromo Youth cohort that propelled Abiy to power), his proposed “national dialogue” can be nothing but a tactical gimmick.

The Abiy administration started drafting a new constitution that will reconfigure identities and regional boundaries some two years ago, long before the beginning of this war. I am aware of this because I was once a senior member of the Oromia state administration. The Abiy administration will likely use the proposed “national dialogue” to create the illusion that there is widespread, informed support for this new constitution. After all, those who have the strongest opposition to Abiy’s vision for Ethiopia, and thus his constitutional plans, are conveniently left out of this conversation.

Ethiopia is undoubtedly experiencing an unprecedented national crisis. However, an inclusive, broad and participatory negotiation platform can still produce a peace deal that will bring back stability and prosperity to the country. Unfortunately, Abiy’s so-called “Commission for National Dialogue” cannot provide such a platform.

Many perceived the establishment of this commission coupled with the Christmas amnesty for political prisoners as a sign that Abiy is finally ready for peace. But Abiy is nowhere near ready to take his place at the negotiating table – he is still trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the international community, and the Ethiopian public. He is still convinced that he can decisively win this war, silence all his opponents, and build a new Ethiopia without any input from scores of Ethiopians who do not support his vision.

The international community should step in to end this charade, and pressure the government to allow a neutral third party to facilitate a truly inclusive, comprehensive national dialogue. Otherwise, sustainable peace will remain elusive for Ethiopia for years to come.

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