It was more than two months ago that Tigrayan rebels’ march to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, made international news. At the time, the future looked bleak for the country. A bloody civil war was fought on several fronts. It seemed like the economy was on the verge of exploding. Political observers have expressed fears that the capital may soon fall. There have been 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, is already a so-called “caretaker” government in Washington, DC. established. .
Fortunately, much has changed since then.
To counter the urgent challenges facing the country, Abiy has declared a national state of emergency. He not only called on civilians 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 divert from the battlefield reloaded the ENDF and its allied Amhara and Afar regional forces. With an outpouring of support from citizens of Addis Ababa, they not only succeeded in halting the Tigrayan rebels’ march to the capital, but also decisively pushed them back to their own region. At this point, Abiy made an important decision that probably prevented Ethiopia from getting stuck in a state of perpetual war – he ordered Ethiopian troops not to follow the rebels to Tigray.
Unfortunately, due to rebels’ continued aggression, the war is far from over – fighting continues over areas bordering Tigray. But in many areas previously occupied by rebel forces, rehabilitation work has begun. And signs of normality are finally emerging in Addis Ababa and other cities across the country.
After the victory was declared, the Abiy administration also announced its intention to start a new “national dialogue” to “pave the way for national consensus and maintain the integrity of the country”. To this end, at the end of December 2021, Ethiopia’s parliament adopted a proclamation establishing a “National Dialogue Commission”.
Now the question is in everyone’s minds 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 must first examine why the country needs one in the first place.
Before 1991, Ethiopia was a centralized state and national unity was one of its political principles. But after the fall of the military regime in May 1991, the country was rebuilt as a federal entity, in which different ethnic groups had significant levels of autonomy.
Over the years, this decentralized structure not only polarized the nation to the brink of collapse, but also led certain ethnic groups – such as Tigrayans who controlled The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front through the TPLF – to dominate and oppress others. .
In April 2018, Abiy came to power with a promise to address these issues, put an end to TPLF’s oppression, and once again unite Ethiopians of all ethnicities as one nation.
While he achieved impressive victories early in his tenure with his progressive reform agenda, his vision for a strong federal Ethiopian state functioning above destructive ethnic divisions is unfortunately not supported by all.
While many – including most Amharas as well as urban elites – supported him and his dream of a truly united Ethiopia, radical ethnonationalists continued their quest for further decentralization and demanded a new configuration reminiscent of a confederate system. By reasoning as such, what extreme ethnonationalists want is homogenization of ethnic regions.
This division between those who support 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 much influence over the central government through the erroneous ethnonationalist arrangement. , were among the leading factors affecting Ethiopia in this costly civil war.
So, if Ethiopia wants to avoid another devastating civil war, and embark 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 looming existential threat facing the state has apparently been averted, it’s time for Ethiopians to come together to discuss their different visions for the country and to listen to the case of the incumbent government – which is clear in the 2021 general election demonstrated 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 seem hopeful that the Abiy administration’s national dialogue initiative will help the country reach a national consensus on issues that matter. Others, however, argue that the exclusion of armed groups, such as the TPLF and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), from the process may be seen as a failure from the outset.
Yet the success of the national dialogue is not linked to the participation of armed groups actively fighting the federal government. In fact, their exclusion can help the process to succeed.
In recent years, not only the Abiy administration but also various religious leaders as well as cultural and business elites have tried to resolve the political differences between the TPLF, OLA and the federal government through diplomacy and civil talks. Abiy himself campaigned for the establishment of a commission of national reconciliation in 2018 to listen to the grievances of ethnic groups and end ethnic violence.
All these attempts failed, mainly because Tigrayan elites refused to recognize the government’s authority in any form or form. Groups such as the TPLF and OLA not only refused to engage in any meaningful negotiation or dialogue, but actually took up arms against the federal government, which led to the devastating events of the past 14 months.
So today, as Ethiopia seems to be finally leaving behind the bloody swamp created by the TPLF and the OLA, it would be counterproductive to allow these groups to take part in any national dialogue – especially considering that they have not yet once agreed to lay down arms. 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, national dialogue is an opportunity to pave the way for peace, political tolerance, national unity, political and economic equality, and a shared Ethiopian destiny. Since November 2020, TPLF and OLA have shown 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 Tigrayane 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 that 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 serve as ministers in his cabinet and other levels of government. Similarly, many Tigrayans still serve the government and state institutions. Even Abiy’s current defense minister, Abraham Belay, comes from Tigray.
Ethiopia needs international community 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 refused to see the impossible situation in which the TPLF and the OLA have left Ethiopia, and is treating the federal government – which has done nothing but defend itself against attacks by armed groups. not – like an unreasonable villain. These governments, through declarations and even sanctions, not only helped to encourage the TPLF and the OLA, but also limited the Ethiopian government’s ability to end the conflict quickly and decisively. Furthermore, they have failed to give adequate praise and sometimes even recognition to efforts by the federal government to keep bloodshed to a minimum, such as repeatedly calling for a ceasefire, demanding negotiations, withdrawing from Tigray and not re-entering the region. to enter, even after a decisive victory.
Today, the demonization of Ethiopia in the international arena continues to hamper efforts to build peace in the country. So, if the international community, and especially Western nations, want to help Ethiopians leave this conflict behind, they need to change course. To begin with, these foreign governments should praise and encourage national dialogue efforts, rather than criticizing the exclusion of armed groups from the process.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial views.