Playing to the Gallery or a Commitment to Equality, Inclusion, and Reconciliation?
On the 29th of December 2021, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia’s House of Peoples’ Representatives approved the establishment of the Ethiopian National Dialogue Commission. The Bill setting up the Commission states that the commission is meant to “pave the way for national consensus and keep the integrity of the country.” While the decision to establish the National Dialogue Commission is encouraging, the hope for positive and lasting change in the country critically depends on whether the Commission is operationalized in a transparent and inclusive manner as promised in its parent legislation.
The decision to establish the National Dialogue Commission, which comes alongside the release of several political prisoners, including opposition leaders and activists, speaks either to a genuine commitment to reconciliation, justice and inclusivity, or a well orchestrated illusion of an intent to appear so-committed. Hopefully, it is the former.
Historical analysis demonstrates that procedural fairness and inclusivity are key features of national dialogues that are successful in transitioning toward lasting and sustainable peace. In Proclamation 1265/2014, the Ethiopian government commits itself to create a diverse and inclusive national Dialogue Commission, with 11 commissioners, however, many are skeptical about the authenticity of this commitment. The criteria for nomination, particularly that of academic backgrounds, was favorable to the very few elites in the country and in effect eliminated community and religious leaders, the youth, and women by virtue of academic status. Of the 632 nominees to the Commission whose identities have not been made public, the House of Peoples’ Representatives shortlisted 42 candidates for further consideration, and finally confirmed the 11 commissioners from the list of 42. However, there was very little transparency regarding the evaluation metrics that informed this decision. It is hard to tell if it was based solely on merit, integrity, or socio-demographic quota, or if strategic, pragmatic, and other considerations were made, or by whom. This lack of transparency, if left unaddressed, is likely to undermine the credibility of the Commission and fuel suspicions that the process is not free from political influence.
The Gender Question
From a gender-informed perspective, the initial steps toward the operationalization of the Commission have not adhered to the principles of equality, fairness or inclusivity that are expected from national dialogue processes. It is noted that of the 42 nominees shortlisted by House of Peoples’ Representatives, only 4 were women, and of the finally selected 11 commissioners, only 3 are women. When it comes to the national discourse, women, as a specific category of identity, are not taken into consideration because although the Ethiopian federal arrangement is cognizant of ethnicity as an identity, other identities such as gender, age, class and ability etc. are systematically ignored. This, therefore, means that women as a social group with shared social interests are not recognized and the issue of women’s rights and demands, by default, becomes invisible. For instance, the lack of disaggregated data on how many women commissioners were nominated is evidence of this fact.
The disproportionately low representation of women among the shortlisted candidates and the final set of 11 Commissioners to the National Dialogue Commission violates Article 12 (3) of the Proclamation, which requires that “the list of candidates must take into account gender and other forms of pluralism.” The government committed itself to ensure that the identification of commissioners would be participatory and inclusive and would ensure that different groups including but not limited to civil society organizations (CSOs), women’s rights organizations, religious leaders, political parties would be consulted in public regarding the 42 candidates. However, only one consultation happened and it did not create the space for CSOs who work on advancing women’s right to participate.
Women’s Rights Organizations, particularly those working to advance women’s rights and full participation have been excluded from the formation of the Commission. On January 11, 2022, Timran, a local nonpartisan CSO dedicated to advancing women’s participation in politics and public decision-making in Ethiopia, held consultations with different women’s rights and human rights CSOs to nominate female commissioners to ensure that women are represented adequately in the National Dialogue Commission. A joint statement, facilitated by the weekly “Gender in Focus” webinar hosted by the Network of Ethiopian Women’s Association (NEWA) and endorsed by 28 CSOs, was issued demanding the meaningful participation and representation of women in the National Dialogue Commission. When the nominations and final selections were announced, it was a slap in the face for women-led CSOs, whose calls for inclusion had been completely ignored.
The Ethiopian National Dialogue cannot be considered just if women are not proportionally represented in the composition of the Commission, and the national dialogues that will be overseen by it. Furthermore, the aims of establishing national unity, peace, and stability will not be sustainable if half of the nation’s population is sidelined from the national dialogue preparation and process. Ensuring women’s proportional representation will allow women to engage on issues of gender equality and women’s rights that are not prioritized by male-led and male-centric processes and are often swept under the rug. Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in Ethiopia – pre-conflict, during conflict, and post-conflict – is an issue area in desperate need of political action, particularly considering the long history of impunity for SGBV. With the taboo surrounding SGBV and the fact that men are less impacted by it than women, it is a key issue area that will likely be undermined if women are not represented in significant numbers throughout the National Dialogue. Women are capable of spearheading these, and other crucial issues they may have in the constitution and other areas given the chance. The representation of women in the Dialogue process must extend well beyond tokenistic inclusion in order to ensure that the women who participate have real influence and the potential to make a positive impact for Ethiopian women in all their diversity.
The formation process of the Commission has already contributed to the decentering of the toll conflicts take on women and girls as a diverse social group with a vested interest in peace and the outcomes of peace in Ethiopia. Without meaningful and significant inclusion of women in the national dialogue, there can be no justice and sustainable peace – lasting peace is not won with discriminatory practices.
Despite ample reasons to question the methods and motives of the Commission’s establishment, and the implementation plan for the national dialogue, the general air in Addis seems to be hopeful. In the northern regions and parts of Oromia, the situation remains dire, and scrutiny of the National Dialogue Commission and the National Dialogue process itself is the least of their worries as they continue to live in treacherous and uncertain circumstances – in which they have to choose whether to be preoccupied with their rights or survival.
- For the National Dialogue Commission and the resultant national dialogues to have the desired reconciliatory effect, there has to be inclusion of all stakeholders, including civil society actors, women, youth, and marginalized groups in Ethiopia. Additionally, there must be inclusion of power-holders from the informal and traditional sections of Ethiopia including religious leaders, and cultural leaders.
- There must be a recognition that a broad range of stakeholders have a legitimate role to play in overcoming the crisis in Ethiopia. Therefore, for the National Dialogue to be transparent and credible, there must be measures to ensure that:
- Women are appointed on a 50% basis as Commissioners to the National Dialogue Commission.
- The criteria for the rescreening of the commissioner nominees to the National Dialogue Commission are made public.
- Women’s rights CSOs and the wider public are engaged significantly throughout the National Dialogue, using a bottom-up approach.
- Human rights groups are enabled to act as conveners when the various dialogues happen and influence both the formal and informal process.
- Capacity building in national dialogue designing, facilitation and negotiation is provided to the commissioners and technical support staff, to ensure that there is national capacity to effectively implement the mandate of the National Dialogue Commission. This in turn will ensure national ownership and that the dialogues are seen as an Ethiopian process and not an external imposition.
- Indigenous practices of conflict resolution are recognized and incorporated.
- The agenda is set by the public and is free from political power plays and corruption.
- There are platforms for cross regional learning and experience sharing to ensure that the implementation of the national dialogues is informed by best practices from similar processes from the region.
- The Ethiopian Government should ensure that the National Dialogues are not perceived as an end goal, but rather as part of a larger transitional roadmap that is accompanied by economic, structural, political, and judicial reform processes. In the interim, the Ethiopian government is encouraged to facilitate the development and implementation of humanitarian relief measures and economic stabilization programs, as these are immediate peace dividends.
- Strategic Initiative for women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA Network)
- The Ethiopian Human Rights Defenders Center
- The Ethiopian Women Human Rights Defenders Network
- Addis Powerhouse
- Ethiopian Women Human Rights Defenders Coalition
- Siqque Women’s Development Organization
- Good Samaritan Association