On January 7, when Ethiopia celebrated Orthodox Christmas, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government amnesty announced 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 set up a “Commission for National Dialogue” to “pave the way for national consensus” and, ostensibly, to end the country’s devastating civil war for good.
Ethiopia’s war in Tigray broke out in November 2020, after months of increasing 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. In the course of the conflict, Tigrayan forces made significant gains in neighboring Amhara and Afar regions and eventually began marching to the capital, Addis Ababa.
However, the tide of war turned in November 2021 after a drone-backed military offensive halted the Tigrayan tour to Addis Ababa. Tigrayan forces withdrew in their own region and federal forces said they would not pursue them in Tigray. Abiy fast declared victorybut also stressed his government’s willingness to engage in a “national dialogue” to resolve the conflict.
As Abiy has long ignored calls for a negotiated ceasefire, his newfound enthusiasm for “national dialogue” has been welcomed by the international community and Ethiopians are tired of war.
But is the Ethiopian government really ready to engage in a sincere national dialogue and negotiate an agreement that will bring lasting peace to the country?
There is sufficient reasons for skepticism.
‘National dialogue’ in name only
Since their most recent victory against Tigrayan forces, Ethiopian officials have repeatedly made it clear that the TPLF and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) – an armed group that the federal army has been fighting in the Oromia region since late 2018 – will not be included. does not become any future “national dialogue”.
When several MPs objected to the National Dialogue’s founding proclamation and claimed that it laid the groundwork for “negotiations” with the TPLF and OLA, for example, the chairperson of the Legal and Administrative Affairs Committee, Tsegenet Mengistu, claimed that the proclamation not at all about “negotiation”. She warned about the misrepresentation of the purpose of the initiative and insisted that there was “no article or word” in the document on negotiations.
But what is the purpose of a “national dialogue” that involves no negotiation between warring sides?
In theory, national dialogues are supposed to be inclusive, broad and participatory official negotiation platforms aimed at resolving deep-rooted political crises and conflicts, and leading countries into political transitions. According to the United Nations, national talks “typically involve major national elites, including the government and the major (armed or unarmed) opposition parties, and sometimes the military. Other participating groups include those representing broader 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 true “national dialogue”. By excluding the TPLF and OLA from the so-called “national dialogue”, Abiy’s government has made it clear that its aim is not to achieve sustainable peace and lead the country into a negotiated political transition, but to series of short-term goals.
Abiy’s short-term goals
The primary purpose of Abiy’s “national dialogue” agenda appears to be to alleviate the increasing diplomatic pressure on his government.
Since the start of Ethiopia’s war in November 2020, the international community has called for an inclusive national dialogue to end the deadly conflict. These calls fell on deaf ears for months. But recently, concrete measures especially by the United States against Abiy’s government, led to economic and diplomatic upheavals in Addis Ababa. By setting up a “Commission for National Dialogue”, which does not even have the mandate to start 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 impose its sanctions. to raise against his government.
The second aim of the proposed “dialogue” is to buy time for military preparation in anticipation of the deepening of the civil war. Sources in Abiy’s Prosperity Party claim that tens of thousands of youths have been drafted into the federal army in the past few months alone and are currently being trained in camps across the country.
Prior to that, Abiy had personally called on ordinary civilians to take up arms against Tigrayan forces. A government prepared to engage in a sincere national dialogue and end all violence would have no reason to quickly train numerous new soldiers. The national dialogue process therefore seems to be a prank on the government to buy time to prepare its army for it. launches another attack over his opponents in Tigray and beyond.
And perhaps the most important goal of Abiy’s “national dialogue” is to deceive the Ethiopian people and increase the legitimacy of his government in their eyes. With this initiative, Abiy is signaling that he is consulting all legal 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 drove Abiy to power), his proposed “national dialogue” could be nothing more than a tactical ploy.
The Abiy administration began drafting a new constitution about two years ago that would reconfigure identities and regional boundaries, long before the start of this war. I’m aware of this because I was once a senior member of the Oromia State Administration. The Abiy administration is likely to 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 therefore his constitutional plans, are conveniently left out of this conversation.
Ethiopia is undoubtedly experiencing an unprecedented national crisis. However, an inclusive, broad and participatory negotiating platform can still yield a peace agreement that will bring stability and prosperity back to the country. Unfortunately, Abiy’s so-called “Commission for National Dialogue” cannot provide such a platform.
Many saw the establishment of this commission along with the Christmas amnesty for political prisoners as a sign that Abiy was 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 definitely win this war, silence all his opponents and build a new Ethiopia without any input from numerous Ethiopians who do not support his vision.
The international community must step in to end this charade, and push the government to allow a neutral third party to facilitate a truly inclusive, comprehensive national dialogue. Otherwise, sustainable peace for Ethiopia will remain elusive for years to come.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial views.