Ethiopia’s new national dialogue can unify the divided nation

Prime Minister Abiy’s initiative can put Ethiopia back on the path to sustainable peace and prosperity.

Ethiopians carrying national flags and a large photograph of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed are seen during a pro-government demonstration in Addis Ababa
People gather under a placard showing Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at a rally organised by local authorities to show support for the Ethiopian National Defense Force, at Meskel square in downtown Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, November 7, 2021 [File: AP Photo]

It was more than two months ago that Tigrayan rebels’ advance towards Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, made international headlines. Back then, the future looked bleak for the country. A bloody civil war was being fought on multiple fronts. The economy appeared to be on the brink of implosion. Political observers were voicing fears that the capital may fall before too long. There were reports that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the political group that led an authoritarian government in Ethiopia for 27 years before Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s rise to power, had already established a so-called “caretaker” government in Washington, DC.

Thankfully, a lot has changed since then.

To counter the urgent challenges facing the country, Abiy declared a national emergency. He not only called on citizens to take up arms to defend the capital, but personally joined the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and its allies on the battlefield.

Abiy’s decision to lead from the battlefield recharged the ENDF and its allied Amhara and Afar regional forces. With an outpouring of support from citizens of Addis Ababa, they not only managed to stop the Tigrayan rebels’ march towards the capital, but also decisively pushed them back into their own region. At this point, Abiy made an important decision that likely prevented Ethiopia from being stuck in a state of perpetual war – he ordered Ethiopian troops not to follow the rebels into Tigray.

Unfortunately, due to rebels’ continued aggression, the war is still far from over – fighting continues across areas bordering Tigray. But in many areas previously occupied by rebel forces, rehabilitation works have begun. And signs of normalcy are finally emerging in Addis Ababa and other cities across the country.

After declaring victory, the Abiy administration also announced its intention to start a new “national dialogue” to “pave the way for national consensus and keep the integrity of the country”. To this end, in late December 2021, Ethiopia’s parliament passed a proclamation to establish a “commission for national dialogue”.

Now the question on everyone’s mind is whether Abiy’s new initiative can finally create the conditions for Ethiopia to heal, leave ethnic divisions behind, and start working towards a united, peaceful and prosperous future.

Why Ethiopia needs a ‘national dialogue’

To understand how Abiy’s new national dialogue initiative can help Ethiopia, we first need to explore why the country needs one in the first place.

Before 1991, Ethiopia was a centralised state and national unity was one of its political tenets. But after the fall of the military regime in May 1991, the country was reconstructed as a federal entity, in which different ethnic groups had significant levels of autonomy.

Over the years, this decentralised structure not only polarised the nation to the brink of implosion, but also led to certain ethnic groups – such as Tigrayans who controlled The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front through the TPLF – ruling over and oppressing others.

In April 2018, Abiy came to power on a promise to address these issues, bring an end to TPLF’s oppression, and once again unite Ethiopians of all ethnicities as one nation.

While he scored impressive victories with his progressive reform agenda early on in his tenure, his vision for a strong federal Ethiopian state that functions above destructive ethnic divisions was sadly not supported by all.

While many – including most Amharas as well as urban elites – supported him and his dream for a truly united Ethiopia, radical ethnonationalists continued their push for further decentralisation, demanding a new configuration reminiscent of a confederal system. In arguing so, what extreme ethnonationalists want was homogenisation of ethnic regions.

This division between those supporting Abiy’s vision for a federalism that works and those who do not, as well as the TPLF’s refusal to accept it can no longer have oversized influence over the central government through the faulty ethnonationalist arrangement, were among the leading factors that pushed Ethiopia into this costly civil war.

Thus, if Ethiopia is to avoid another destructive civil war, and get on a path to sustainable peace and prosperity, an honest national dialogue between many opposing voices in the country is a necessity.

Now that the imminent existential threat facing the state appears to be averted, it is time for Ethiopians to come together to discuss their different visions for the country, and listen to the case of the incumbent government – which clearly demonstrated in the 2021 general election that it has the support of the Ethiopian public. Only after such an honest and open dialogue can the country make progress in solving its problems and moving forward.

May the national dialogue succeed?

Most Ethiopians appear hopeful that the Abiy administration’s national dialogue initiative will help the country achieve a national consensus on issues that matter. However, others argue that the exclusion of armed groups, such as the TPLF and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), from the process might deem it a failure from the start.

Yet, the national dialogue’s success is not tied to the participation of armed groups actively fighting the federal government. In fact, their exclusion can help the process succeed.

In recent years, not only the Abiy administration but also several religious leaders as well as cultural and business elites have tried to resolve the political disagreements between the TPLF, OLA and the federal government through diplomacy and civil discussions. Abiy himself pushed for the formation of a commission of national reconciliation back in 2018 to listen to the grievances of ethnic groups and end ethnic violence.

All these efforts failed, primarily because Tigrayan elites refused to acknowledge the government’s authority in any shape or form. Groups like the TPLF and OLA not only refused to engage in any meaningful negotiation or dialogue, but actually took up arms against the federal government, leading to the devastating events of the last 14 months.

So today, as Ethiopia seems to be finally leaving the bloody quagmire created by the TPLF and the OLA behind, allowing these groups to participate in any national dialogue – especially considering they did not even agree to lay down arms yet – would be counterproductive. The federal government may eventually reach a peace settlement with the TPLF and the OLA, but this settlement will be separate from the outcome of the national dialogue.

For Ethiopians, the national dialogue is an opportunity to chart a new path for peace, political tolerance, national unity, political and economic equality and a shared Ethiopian destiny. Since November 2020, TPLF and OLA demonstrated that they have no interest in getting on such a path, so there is nothing to be gained from including them in the national dialogue.

But the exclusion of the TPLF and the OLA from the process should not be seen as a sign that Tigrayans and Oromos will also be excluded from the national dialogue. These groups are crucial members of the Ethiopian nation, and there is no reason to believe the federal government is trying to exclude them from its national dialogue initiative. In fact, the federal government is currently led by an Oromo prime minister and many other Oromos are serving as ministers in his cabinet and other levels of government. Similarly, many Tigrayans are still serving the government and state institutions. Even Abiy’s current minister of defence, Abraham Belay, hails from Tigray.

Ethiopia needs international community’s support

All in all, Prime Minister Abiy’s ambitious national dialogue initiative, despite the TPLF and the OLA’s efforts to keep the deadly conflict alive, has a good chance of uniting Ethiopians and paving the way for sustainable peace and prosperity. But these groups are not the only ones hindering the federal government’s chances of building peace.

For too long, the international community – led by Western governments – has been refusing to see the impossible situation the TPLF and the OLA have left Ethiopia in, and treating the federal government – which did nothing more than defending itself against attacks by armed groups – like an unreasonable villain. These governments, through statements and even sanctions, not only helped embolden the TPLF and the OLA, but also limited the Ethiopian government’s ability to swiftly and decisively end the conflict. Furthermore, they failed to sufficiently praise and at times even acknowledge attempts by the federal government to minimise bloodshed, such as repeatedly calling for ceasefires, demanding negotiations, withdrawing from Tigray and not re-entering the region even after a decisive victory.

Today, the demonisation of Ethiopia in the international arena is continuing to hinder efforts to build peace in the country. Thus, if the international community, and especially Western nations, want to help Ethiopians leave this conflict behind, they should change course. To start with, these foreign governments should praise and encourage national dialogue efforts, rather than criticising the exclusion of armed groups from the process.

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