Sidama Liberation Front

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Statement by Sidama National Liberation Front (SNLF) on National Dialogue Commission in Ethiopia

7 February 2022

In the early months of 2018, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) acceded to popular demand to relax its stranglehold on power. After a brief period of optimism, relative freedom, and political relaxation, the Prosperity Party, EPRDF’s successor, reverted to the rule of violence, stifling press freedom and criminalizing the political opposition. As a result, the hope of a democratic transition has now given way to despair over an authoritarian return.

In the last three years, Ethiopia has been in throes of internecine conflicts that have claimed the lives of innocents, destroyed properties, and violated the dignity of citizens. The airwaves currently are saturated with genocidal rhetoric inciting nations and nationalities against one another. The national economy has been decimated by runaway inflation, foreign currency crunch, mounting debt, and rising unemployment.

Amid this grim situation, the Ethiopian government has proposed a national dialogue to find lasting solutions for the country’s perennial political problems. International stakeholders seem to have put their faith in a national dialogue hoping that it will produce a political settlement. The proposal is a much-needed relief from the relentless drumbeat of war.

We, the signatories of this statement, believe a national dialogue is critical for conflict resolution and political transformation. However, a national dialogue to determine the future of 120 million people cannot be undertaken in the midst of a raging civil war and an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe. We believe the following concrete steps must be taken to create a conducive environment for a national dialogue to take place.

  1. De-escalation of conflicts, suspension of hostilities, a permanent ceasefire, and ultimately a negotiated political settlement to end the civil war in Oromia, Tigray, Benishangul Gumuz, Afar and Amhara regional states.
  2. Open access for delivery of humanitarian assistance to victims of war, drought, famine and displacement avert the looming humanitarian catastrophe.
  3. Release of all political prisoners without preconditions, including the innocent people who were incarcerated for being family members of or espousing the political line of armed combatants.
  4. Expel all foreign armed groups from all areas of the country, particularly Eritrean military, security, and intelligence contingents.
  5. Restrict the activities of regional state militias and paramilitary forces intimidating citizens in various parts of the country.

Once the conflicting parties reach a settlement and agree to a program of implementation, it is possible to imagine that the country has returned the status quo ante bellum and ready for a national dialogue that paves the way for a new political dispensation. 

The proclamation establishing the National Dialogue Commission enumerates important principles as its guide, but the process so far raises concerns that the Prosperity Party is misusing and manipulating the national dialogue as a convenient vehicle to consolidate its power.

  1. The national dialogue succeeds if it is inclusive. Government officials pronounce that armed groups will not be invited. Without the participation of the armed opposition, the national dialogue is unlikely to succeed. The government must repeal the decree that designates the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) as terrorists for the National Dialogue Commission to invite them to participate.
  2. The national dialogue must be holistic in setting its agenda. A consultative process must take place to identify and agree broader set of issues that have hitherto fueled conflicts and themes on which there no national consensus. The apparent singular commitment to erasing the legacies of the EPRDF era is bound to be disappointing.
  3. The processes of the national dialogue must be transparent from the outset to build trust and maintain legitimacy. The House of People’s Representatives has announced it has shortlisted the nominees without announcing the criteria, procedure and method of winnowing down for doing so. The lack of transparency in the process of nomination and selection of prospective commissioners has eroded trust and confidence.
  4. For the national dialogue to succeed, the convener must be credible in the eyes of all stakeholders. This means, the body entrusted with this task must not be seen as harboring political aspirations or have any conflict of interest. Success cannot be expected if the wide variety of participants to trust the convener and participate freely. It is difficult to believe a convener selected by a parliament dominated by a single party is credible.
  5. Popular participation is a key imperative. The dialogue must not be an elite bargain that prescribes solutions. The dialogue needs to be conceived as a national conversation that involves the broader public to discuss and offer solutions to resolve the underlying drivers of the conflict. The proclamation does not seem to envision popular participation.
  6. The very idea of a national dialogue implies that the existing political framework is unable to resolve the issues that have led to conflict. In principle, the national dialogue or the body that conducts it must operate independent of the governance institutions and under its own rules and procedures. The National Dialogue Commission in Ethiopia is a government run institution.
  7. The key stakeholders who participate in the dialogue must be empowered to implement the recommendations that emerge from the national dialogue. In a way, the Ethiopian National Dialogue is taking place with a view to returning to the path of democratic transition. The process now makes implementation of the recommendations of the dialogue subject to the discretion of the incumbent. This is a recipe for failure.

While reaffirm our belief that a national dialogue is an inescapable process to end the conflicts that have led to death and dismemberment, and destruction, we have doubts that the design, conduct and implementation of the national dialogue can address the underlying drivers of conflict holistically. If the Ethiopian process does not rectify the shortcomings we have identified, the danger of continued disagreements and escalating conflicts cannot be avoided.