Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Ethiopia’s National Dialogue Needs to Include Everyone

Excluding key Tigrayan and Oromo leaders will undermine the legitimacy of the process and make it harder to achieve peace.

By , senior lecturer in law at Keele University.
A man covers himself with an Ethiopian flag during a rally in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Nov. 7, 2021.
A man covers himself with an Ethiopian flag during a rally in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Nov. 7, 2021.
A man covers himself with an Ethiopian flag during a rally in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Nov. 7, 2021. EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images

On Jan. 7, the government of Ethiopia freed several opposition leaders and activists from prison after the attorney general dropped the charges against them. Authorities say the release of Bekele Gerba, Jawar Mohammed, Eskinder Nega, Sibhat Nega, and other detainees, most of whom have been in prison since July 2020, is intended to enhance and broaden the inclusivity of an envisaged national dialogue launched in December to build consensus on the country’s future. It was a welcome sigh of relief on Ethiopian Christmas Day in what has been a distinctively brutal and traumatic year for Ethiopians.

Still, thousands of people remain behind bars. Government critics, journalists, and activists, particularly leaders and members of the opposition Oromo Liberation Front have not been released. Activists and supporters of the Oromo Federalist Congress, and thousands of civilians ensnared under the state of emergency in Oromia and other places remain in prison. Thousands of ethnic Tigrayans arrested in an ethnically motivated mass detention in Addis Ababa are still in jail. They should all be released if the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is serious about an effective and meaningful national dialogue.

Such a process will require significant and painful compromises by all stakeholders. The process must be inclusive and credible from the start, and there must be an enabling political and social environment to foster conversations, forge agreements, and build consensus on the fundamental political questions that have been destabilizing Ethiopia for decades. The procedures for preparing, conducting, and implementing national dialogues must be inclusive and representative, and there must be proper strategic planning, careful sequencing of activities, and sensible integration of local, regional, and international efforts.

On Jan. 7, the government of Ethiopia freed several opposition leaders and activists from prison after the attorney general dropped the charges against them. Authorities say the release of Bekele Gerba, Jawar Mohammed, Eskinder Nega, Sibhat Nega, and other detainees, most of whom have been in prison since July 2020, is intended to enhance and broaden the inclusivity of an envisaged national dialogue launched in December to build consensus on the country’s future. It was a welcome sigh of relief on Ethiopian Christmas Day in what has been a distinctively brutal and traumatic year for Ethiopians.

Still, thousands of people remain behind bars. Government critics, journalists, and activists, particularly leaders and members of the opposition Oromo Liberation Front have not been released. Activists and supporters of the Oromo Federalist Congress, and thousands of civilians ensnared under the state of emergency in Oromia and other places remain in prison. Thousands of ethnic Tigrayans arrested in an ethnically motivated mass detention in Addis Ababa are still in jail. They should all be released if the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is serious about an effective and meaningful national dialogue.

Such a process will require significant and painful compromises by all stakeholders. The process must be inclusive and credible from the start, and there must be an enabling political and social environment to foster conversations, forge agreements, and build consensus on the fundamental political questions that have been destabilizing Ethiopia for decades. The procedures for preparing, conducting, and implementing national dialogues must be inclusive and representative, and there must be proper strategic planning, careful sequencing of activities, and sensible integration of local, regional, and international efforts.

Ethiopians cannot find common ground on the future of the country by engaging in half-hearted and exclusionary processes. Crucially, a genuine dialogue cannot unfold while major armed conflicts are ongoing. The government must seek a peaceful end to the conflict with the Tigrayan forces, the Oromo Liberation Army, which has been fighting for self-determination for the Oromo people, and other armed groups in the country. Federal authorities bear the primary responsibility for building trust and confidence, and creating the conditions necessary for a comprehensive, inclusive, and credible national dialogue.


Ethiopia faces a deepening political and security crisis threatening the very existence of the country. Some 22 million Ethiopians need humanitarian assistance, and nearly half a million people in Tigray are facing famine-like conditions. Drone and aerial strikes continue to target civilians in Tigray and Oromia, while vast areas in Oromia, Tigray, and Benishangul Gumuz, a peripheral region in western part of Ethiopia facing ethnic strife, remain inaccessible or only partially accessible for humanitarian aid.

The economy is on the brink with rising inflation. The coronavirus pandemic is worsening amid nearly nonexistent preventive measures. Drought is ravaging lives and livelihoods in the Somali region, Oromia, and across the country. To address these and other immediate crises, all stakeholders in Ethiopia must silence their guns and enter into a comprehensive cease-fire. All warring factions must ensure unhindered humanitarian access to all conflict-affected areas. These steps are necessary to build trust and confidence among the intensely skeptical stakeholders and the population.

National dialogues are generally initiated to forge consensus on critical national issues among diverse stakeholders in times of strife. In recent years, national dialogues have been convened in Sudan, Kenya, Tunisia, Senegal, Yemen, the Central African Republic, and other conflict-afflicted countries to generate consensus among a broad range of national stakeholders and pave the way for political transitions and sustainable peace.

The latest prisoner release and the launching of a national dialogue is an opportunity to return to the short-lived but hopeful events of early 2018.

The evidence suggests that national dialogues have resulted in effective transitions and sustainable peace when they are broadly inclusive, nationally owned, internationally supported, and procedurally fair. In the case of Ethiopia, it is the only conceivable post-conflict intervention that could help the country address complex and contested issues of identity, belonging, inclusion, governance, and constitutional priorities.

For several years, various Ethiopian and other stakeholders have been calling for an all-inclusive national dialogue to solve the country’s multilayered conflict. For nearly three decades, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front resisted calls for a negotiated political settlement.

In theory, it was a coalition of four regional parties and five affiliated partners but, in practice, the dominant Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) had the final word over all decisions. Demands for an inclusive dialogue intensified after popular protests forced a change of guard and reform within the long-ruling coalition.

Regrettably, the ruling elite that replaced the TPLF at the helm of power dismissed the proposal and sidelined key stakeholders. In a bid to consolidate power and impose their vision of the future, the Prosperity Party arrested critics and set the stage for a dangerous power struggle, ultimately plunging the country into a disastrous civil war.

Nevertheless, the latest prisoner release and the launching of a national dialogue is an opportunity to return to the short-lived but hopeful events of early 2018 that set into motion a period of promised reform. It is an opportunity to undertake a broad-based and genuine consultation with all stakeholders to work toward a durable and inclusive political settlement that produces real reform.

The Abiy administration has unilaterally already established a National Dialogue Commission to examine contentious historical, political, and constitutional issues. By unveiling the commission, the Prosperity Party has tacitly acknowledged that the prevailing political order is exclusive and that it does not have the answers to all of Ethiopia’s complex problems.

It must now create an enabling environment for a credible, inclusive, and comprehensive deliberation to unfold. So far, the rollout has been haphazard and a single-party affair, lacking the seriousness a major national undertaking of this scope deserves. The actions and decisions at the initial stage of a national dialogue process will have a major impact on the legitimacy of the process in the eyes of the stakeholders and the broader public.

Prosperity Party leaders see themselves as elected representatives with a popular mandate to manage a national project of such enormous consequence. They plan to oversee the appointment of the commission members, and the budgetary and administrative functions of the commission, through the parliament they already dominate. Indeed, Prosperity Party officials continue to telegraph their desire to micromanage the process by ruling out or downplaying possible roles of international stakeholders.

There is already a perception that the proposed national dialogue is an attempt by the Prosperity Party leadership to reclaim political legitimacy and circumvent the comprehensive peace initiative being proposed by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.

The Kenyan initiative, which is not yet public but reportedly has the support of the United States and European countries, envisions addressing the humanitarian crisis, comprehensive cessation of hostilities, release of political prisoners, withdrawal of foreign forces, security arrangements, and an agreement on a political roadmap, before a national dialogue could take place on broader political and historical issues.

The decision by the Abiy administration to launch the process without any consultation with critical stakeholders on the procedures for preparing, conducting, and implementing the national dialogue project calls the government’s intentions and commitment into question.


A national dialogue that commences by excluding critical actors or is stage-managed by the ruling elites cannot lead to sustainable peace. A national dialogue process that does not include the Oromo Liberation Army and the Tigray Defense Forces, two stakeholders with significant support, cannot be considered inclusive. This means lifting the unhelpful terrorist designations and entering immediate cease-fire talks with the two groups.

Indeed, in the current climate of ever-deepening polarization, a national dialogue process that is convened solely by the government will not be seen to be legitimate or credible. There must be a consensus among the stakeholders on the agenda, the operation, the logistics, and implementation of the outcome. In other words, the success of the dialogue will depend not only on who participates but also on who facilitates the process.

Inevitably, such an undertaking requires neutral national institutions, and robust international support. The conduct of supposedly independent institutions, such as the National Electoral Board and Human Rights Commission, over the last two years provide blueprints for what would happen under a government-appointed National Dialogue Commission. The Human Rights Commission has been hobbled by allegations of selective outrage and for adopting official positions. Similarly, the National Electoral Board faced significant challenges for favoritism and failing to censure the excesses of the ruling party.

Abiy’s Prosperity Party must be willing to shed its absolute and unrestrained power and agree to sit at the table as one party among equals.

The Prosperity Party must be willing to shed its absolute and unrestrained power and agree to sit at the table as one party among equals. Given the mutual distrust among key stakeholders and their divergent visions of the future, concerted international and regional support is critical for success.

Furthermore, there are significant divergences on key agenda items within and between regional states, particularly in Oromia and the Amhara and Somali regions. Given the multiplicity of actors and complexity of the issues, the national dialogue process must create the time and space for meaningful local dialogue processes to take place and for regional consensus to emerge.


Finally, the national dialogue must not be reduced to peace talks between the federal government and Tigrayan rebels. Although Abiy’s war against the TPLF has dominated headlines, there are a number of other dangerous flashpoints that must also be addressed, particularly the conflicts in Oromia and the Benishangul Gumuz region.

The road to a lasting peace in Ethiopia will go through Oromia, the country’s most populous state. The Oromo revolution that brought Abiy to power in 2018 was the cumulative effect of years of relentless struggle to address the marginalization and estrangement of the Oromo people from the Ethiopian state. Over the past nearly four years, the Abiy administration had ample opportunities to address the demands of the protesters and the political questions for self-determination and cultural justice in Ethiopia.

Rather than addressing these grievances, the government engaged in antagonizing, dividing, co-opting, and disenfranchising a nonviolent pro-democracy movement to the detriment of the region and the country. Oromia has effectively become a lawless state as corruption, extortions, and extrajudicial killings are normalized.

Ethiopians don’t agree on history, heroes, flags, statues, anthem, or other national symbols. The dialogue is an opportunity to reckon with the ghosts of the past.

As with the Abiy administration, international actors continue to treat the crises in Oromia as a mere symptom, rather than the core of the problem facing Ethiopia. Failure to acknowledge and address the Oromo demand for genuine self-rule, democracy, and equal economic opportunities remains the Achilles heel of the Ethiopian state. The hypocritical treatment and marginalization of Oromo voices must end. Ethiopia cannot be at peace by marginalizing and silencing its key constituency.

Ethiopians don’t agree on history, heroes, flags, statues, anthem, and other national symbols. The dialogue is an opportunity to reckon with the ghosts of the past and renegotiate what it means to be Ethiopian, and envision a new, more inclusive country that embraces diversity and equality.

In order for any settlement reached through national dialogue to lead to sustainable peace, the process must be complemented by transitional justice mechanisms to work through historical and contemporary collective trauma. It is critical that dialogue and transitional justice processes be conducted and addressed within the confines of the constitution and the principle of federalism and self-determination.

Ethiopians must be prepared to make the compromise necessary to avert further bloodshed and move the country forward. Those who seek a repeal and replacement of the federal arrangement should reconsider their maximalist positions in the interest of consensus.

At the same time, federalists who view the prevailing arrangement as sacrosanct must be willing to explore ways to accommodate the fears and concerns of others. For instance, concerns about minority rights at the regional levels, constitutional interpretation, and the composition of the upper chamber of parliament could be reconsidered.

The Ethiopian elite have notoriously reinvented the wheel during every transition since the 1960s. The current generation must summon the will to build and improve upon the prevailing political settlement instead of starting over.

Awol Allo is senior lecturer in law at Keele University. Twitter: @awolallo

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