April 14, 2022
The 11th Conference of the Forum for Ethiopian Scholars and Professionals (FESP) which was organized in partnership with the Institute of Ethiopian Studies (IES) of the Addis Ababa University, was completed. It was organized in a colloquium form and held virtually on March 12 and 19, 2022. A total of eight papers were presented by established academics. The colloquium dealt with the Government’s proposed Ethiopian National Dialogue. It aimed at providing an independent and research-driven inputs to the Commission (Proclamation No. 1265-2021). The selection of speakers was based on (i) the response obtained from two rounds of calls for papers and, (ii) invitation to notable scholars and professionals who have either published or practiced in areas relevant to the work that the Commission is tasked for. To reach the wider Ethiopian public, the presentations were made in the Amharic language and transmitted via Facebook. The full videos are available on Facebook and YouTube (see links below). The speakers came from diverse disciplines and experiences, including a former cabinet minister and scholars from architecture and town planning, economics, Ethiopian studies, history, linguistics, sociology, and accounting. The sessions were chaired by scholars from archaeology and heritage management.
The colloquium was opened (audio) by Professor Minga Negash of the Metropolitan State University of Denver & the University of the Witwatersrand. Professor Minga explained the purpose of the colloquium and attempted to remind the audience about the disturbing state of affairs in the country and, urged that the opportunity for successful national dialogue should not be missed. Citing prior academic and practice (United Nations) literature, he urged that Ethiopia’s political “elite” should have the integrity, and depth and rigor in finding solutions to the complex ethnoreligious conflicts and the basis of the competition for the control of the levers of political power and resources in the country. He underscored that the Commission should be guided by truth, reconciliation, restorative justice, and accountability, without fear or favor, using competent, credible, and ethical expertise, for transitioning the country into a post-conflict political, economic and social order.
In his turn, Dr. Takele Merid, the Director of Institute of Ethiopian Studies (IES) indicated that the broader Ethiopian learned society should be engaged in shaping the future of Ethiopia. He asked a series of questions about Ethiopia’s experiences in conducting successful national dialogues and urged that the identification of national issues is important. He also noted that the IES will take the matter further and try to organize an in-person conference on the topic. Dr. Takele urged that the future of the country should not be left to a few power contestants.
The keynote speaker for the colloquium was H.E. Dr. Yayehyirad Kitaw, Senior Fellow at the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences. Dr. Yayehyirad was the Head of the Institute for the Study of Ethiopian Nationalities, and Former Commissioner of Higher Education and Minister of Education. He presented a paper entitled “What we knew then, what we now know and where should the proposed national dialogue take Ethiopia to?”.
Dr. Yayehyirad outlined the mission, constraints, and results of the research that was conducted by the then Institute for the Study of Ethiopian Nationalities. He demonstrated that the then-national dialogue was inclusive in that it covered several parts of the country. Furthermore, the key outcome of that national dialogue was its ability to feature in Article 2 of “the socialist” Constitution of Ethiopia, 1987. He also indicated that the Institute’s research is archived and is available for those who wish to undertake a proper review of the prior literature produced by Ethiopian scholars. He indicated how his government attempted to manage diversity under socialism and in a unitary form of government. By reminding his audience about the connection between national dialogue and constitution-making, Dr. Yayehyirad implicitly set the minimum standard and the expected deliverables from the Ethiopian National Dialogue Commission (Proclamation No. 1265-2021). Drawing on his experience, he cautioned that working with an incumbent power is not easy and reminded that society should be vigilant so that the process is not hijacked by extremists and/or the regime in power. This national dialogue, he noted, must take cognizance of demographic changes, global trends in diversity management, climate change, global pandemics, and the digital revolution’s role in changing the information landscape. After the keynote speech, three papers were presented. The Session Chair was Dr. Yohannes Zeleke, an Archeologist and a Research Associate at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C. The summary and video link are provided below.
Session One Theme
Conflict, Ethnicity, Historicity, and Making Ethiopia’s National Dialogue Successful
Date: March 12, 2022
The first presenter was Dr. Ahmed Hassan, an Associate Professor of History and Director of External Relations at Addis Ababa University. His presentation was entitled “Reconciliation in Ethiopia: A Historical Perspective.” Dr. Ahmed started his presentation using a map and stated that “The history of medieval Ethiopia roughly spans the period from the late 13th Century to the mid-16th century”. He then stated that several centuries after “complaints and grievances emanating from such historical issues continue to dominate past and current political discourses and dispensations, contributing to the existing political polarization, the perpetuation of political violence and finally heading towards the absence of national cohesion.” In his key message, Dr. Ahmed stated that “The scholar king Zer’a Yaiqob himself presided over the Council of Däbrä Mitmaq and, played a decisive role in bringing definite settlement of the most serious impasse that had divided the Ethiopian Orthodox Church over a century.” The key lesson for present day Ethiopia, he underscored, is that it can learn from its church history and use a mix of wise leadership and indigenous knowledge in resolving contemporary conflicts
The second presenter was Dr. Zelalem Teferra, an Associate Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies of Addis Ababa University. The title of his presentation was “Deepening national dialogue in Ethiopia, transitioning from an elite deal to communities with special reference to elders and the youth”. Using a sociological perspective, Dr. Zelalem underscored the existence of several positive (negative) “interactions” among Ethiopians that is built on a fused cross-cultural heritage, identity, and history. He underscored that the contemporary debate among politicians has been self-serving and focused on magnifying (ethnographic) differences and negative interactions. In his contribution, Dr. Zelalem urged that the opportunity created by the national dialogue should not be missed and, that the Commission must have a clear strategy for involving elders and the youth. A national dialogue that is focused on finding a pact among the political elite would not even be half complete. Furthermore, excluding elders from the dialogue and characterizing them as “conservative” and supporters of the old order has been a mistake. The dialogue must adequately involve elders, women, and the youth, avoiding mere tokenism. He underscored and reminded his audience that the future of the country is in the hands of the present generation.
The third presenter was Professor Minga Negash. The presentation was based on a research conducted with Emeritus Professor of Economics Seid Hassan of Murray State University. The presentation was entitled “Accountability, Ethnicity, and the Future of Party Business in Ethiopia”. The purpose of the paper was to explore the contextual reform options available for transforming ruling party endowment companies into publicly accountable economic entities that create wealth and jobs. Using vertical, horizontal, and diagonal accountability and neopatrimonialism as theoretical frameworks, the paper examined whether ethnicity has an attenuating (accentuating) effect on government accountability. The international evidence shows that the lack of board (ethnic/gender) diversity is associated with poor corporate governance and the distortion of financial statements. The paper assembled textual data about Ethiopian (unarmed) political parties, the Constitution of 1995, and information about two (EFFORT & Tiret Corporate) ruling party affiliated enterprises. The findings are that ethnic party affiliated businesses mutually reinforce clientelism, regime corruption (regulation and State capture) and, obstruct the attainment of de facto vertical accountability, the cornerstone of contestable elections. Thirteen options were considered for reforming Ethiopia’s ethnic (regional) party statals. Converting them into public interest entities was found to be a better policy. The authors concluded that party-affiliated companies must be one of the priority items for the proposed National Dialogue.
Session Two Theme
Some Sticky Issues in Building National Consensus: – Towards a National Constitutional Convention? How can Ethiopians Emancipate Themselves Peacefully from the Shackles of Articles 104 & 105?
Date March 19, 2022
In this segment of the colloquium, some of the thorny issues that are likely to surface in the national dialogue were discussed. Issues discussed in this session are just indicative and by no means exhaustive. Speaker after speaker, all non-specialists in constitutional law, directly or indirectly raised the poor draftsmanship observed in the 1995 Constitution and raised a puzzle as to where Ethiopia’s legal minds were at the time. The session chair was Dr. Alemseged Beldados, an Associate Professor of Archaeology and Heritage Management, and Director of Addis Ababa University Press.
The first presenter was Professor Bahru Zewde, an eminent Emeritus Professor of History at Addis Ababa University and a founding member of the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences. His paper was entitled “Resolutions of Ethiopia’s Identity Crisis as a Perquisite for National Consensus.” Professor Bahru classified his speech into three parts:- (i) the existing (axiomatic) truth, (ii) counter-narratives and their effects, and (iii) potential avenues for resolving the identity crisis. He began his presentation by referring his audience to the conflicts (active, latent) in the Balkans, Cameroon, Ireland, Nigeria, Rwanda, Spain, South Africa, and the former USSR. He underscored that identity-related conflicts are complex and are more than likely to continue in several parts of the world. Regarding the axiomatic truth, Professor Bahru narrated the long history of Ethiopian governments (Damat-Axum-Lalibela-Gondar-Shoa-contemporary Ethiopia), and showed that the country has never been ruled by a monoethnic group. He noted that identities in Ethiopia have been associated with places rather than primordial ethnicities. He also cited episodes of history that forged unity among the commoners, manifested in mixed heritages and fused cultures. The counter-narrative to Ethiopian identity however primarily came from the student movement, the war in Eritrea, and the armed ethnic movements. He underscored that the Commission must be independent, and stated that the controversial constitution should be changed to advance “political pluralism” and prevent the perennial problem of autocracy. He was also cautious about what could realistically be expected from the Commission (Proclamation No. 1265-2021).
The second speaker was Dr. Abate Getahun, an Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics and Communication and the former President of Wollo University. His paper was entitled “Multilingual Policy in Ethiopia: Its Status, Pros, and Cons.” Dr. Abate began his presentation by dispelling misconceptions about languages and noted that a language is much more than an instrument of communication. He also indicated that several languages in the world are facing threats of extinction and Ethiopia is no exception. There is a need to prevent the extinction of minority languages in Ethiopia, he argued. Concerning language policy, there is covert and overt policy. Article 5 and Article 39 of the Constitution though promulgate policy, he underscored that there is more work that must be done. Dr. Abate indicated that at present there is a conference that is aimed at promoting the ruling party’s recent decision to use five “official” languages. He also indicated that the global trend is a move from monolingualism to multilingualism and urged that Ethiopia should have a well thought out language policy, and such a policy should not be driven by political exigency and/or appeasement. In closing, Dr. Abate outlined the pros and cons of multilingual policy and underscored the need that such a policy should relate to education, economic, social, and science policies. It should not be imposed by the political elite. During the Q&A it was revealed that, like in most post-colonial Africa, some activists are lobbying at the highest level to promote “killer” languages such as English and Latin alphabets to replace indigenous African (Ethiopic) writing system, under the cover of “modernity” and multilingualism.
The third speaker was Dr. Ashenafi Gossaye, Program Manager at King County, Seattle, Washington. The title of his presentation was “The Capital City Issue: Where to Go from Here?” Dr. Ashenafi highlighted that cities and urban centers bring together huge numbers of people in a shared space. This makes cities to be engines of economic growth and conducive to providing basic services. He also argued that, as melting pots of cultures, ethnicities, and faiths, cities can play an important role in minimizing ethnic tensions and conflicts. Dr. Ashenafi showed that while Africa, with a 43% urbanization rate, is the least urbanized continent, Ethiopia, with just 20% of its population being urbanized, such a level of urbanization is very low even by African standards. Ethiopia’s urbanization system is also unbalanced and dominated by a single primate city, Addis Ababa, which is a center of gravity for almost everything. Dr. Ashenafi, citing the provisions of the 1995 Ethiopian Constitution that created tensions among the Federal Government, residents of the city, and the Oromia Regional Government, justified why the capital city issue requires a national dialogue. Dr. Ashenafi examined a sample of federal capital cities across the world and classified them into three:- City-States, Federal Districts, and cities within a State/Province. To diffuse tensions, realize self-governance, strengthen national unity and create balanced and sustainable urban development, Dr. Ashenafi suggested the following three ideas to be considered during the ongoing national dialogue: 1) Learn from the experience of Belgium and promote Addis Ababa as a City State. 2) Learn from the experience of South Africa and create multiple capitals. 3) Learn from the experience of Egypt and build a brand-new capital city – Renaissance City?
The fourth speaker was Professor Sisay Assefa, Emeritus Professor of Economics, Western Michigan University. He presented a paper entitled “Reflections on Ethiopian Governance and Leadership Problems That Need National Dialogue: A Political Economy Perspective”. Professor Sisay used various indices to show a serious level of leadership failure and incompetence in running the affairs of the country (camera rotation problem). Regarding the association between quality of governance and the economy, Professor Sisay used international benchmarks (World Bank Index, Multidimensional Poverty Index, and Income Poverty Ranking of Developing countries) and asked why Ethiopia’s position is in the lowest cluster of global governance indicators. He also questioned the integrity and reliability of the data provided by the government. To add to the problems, the wars and their consequences have exacerbated the misery of the population. Citing the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, Professor Sisay echoed the view that hunger and poverty are the results of bad (unaccountable) governments and poor leadership. His policy recommendations were several, including but not limited to changes in the quality of governance and leadership, land ownership structure, monetary and fiscal policy, and called for a referendum for the public to elect between the old provincial structure and the current (ethnic) linguistic configuration of Ethiopia. He questioned whether the promise of prosperity can ever be achieved without changing the institutional settings of ethnicity.
The vote of thanks and concluding remarks were made by H.E. Dr. Yayehyirad Kitaw, Dr.Takele Merid and Professor Minga Negash. The Master of Ceremonies for the day was Dr. Yohhanes Zeleke. Our media partner, Abbay Media was represented by Ato Kone Fisseha (Washington D.C.), Ato Girum Yilma (Addis Ababa) and Ato Yassin Ibrahim (Addis Ababa). In his closing remarks, Dr. Yayehyirad thanked FESP and IES and said that the issues discussed in this colloquium are relevant to the work of the Commission and the country. In his turn, Dr. Takele Merid complimented all presenters, reiterated what should be on the agenda for the Commission. He also announced that the IES will hold its 21st International Conference of Ethiopian Studies (September 28th to October 1st, 2022), in Addis Ababa, and national dialogue will be one of the items on the agenda. In his final remarks, Professor Minga Negash thanked all those who worked hard to make the colloquium successful. He urged that the Ethiopian National Dialogue Commission should not be allowed to fail like other commissions and, encouraged that Ethiopia’s learned society must wake up to contribute to the transitioning of the country into a post-conflict political, social and economic order.
The Takeaways from the Colloquium
The eight presentations lead to a few guiding principles for operationalizing the proposed national dialogue. Without prejudice and in the spirit of genuine academic freedom, the speakers and participants implored the Commission to:
- Recognize that there is sufficient knowledge regarding thesuccesses and failures of national dialogues emanating from the experiences (and common features) of other countries. There are also lessons from Ethiopia’s own experience. Scholarly works on macro approaches to conflict analysis, handbooks, UN reports, and commentaries are available for mapping the proposed national dialogue.
- Recognize the grave reality on the ground. The national dialogue is taking place in an environment where there are active armed conflicts and ripening new tensions. In addition, millions are displaced and are facing hunger. There are reports of gruesome atrocity crimes (seeUnited Nations 2014 framework; Ethiopian Human Rights Commission; UNHRC). The country is facing sanctions, external aggressions, a tense geopolitical environment and a diplomatic isolation. Unfortunately, Ethiopia is endowed with weak institutions, small economy and a novice leadership.
- It is important to note that there has not been a consensus about the legislative process and the composition of the Commission. The Commission should do its best to avoid conflict of interest and ensure that it has public trust in performing its responsibilities.
- Be cognizant of the fact that national dialogues which have been successful were the ones that were inclusive of broader society and, reached consensus. In this respect, the Commission should have a mechanism to include key actors (political elite, civic, religious and community leaders, women and the youth) and the broader population in the dialogue. To make its mission successful, the Commission is advised to seek amendments to the Proclamation (to enhance the scope of its terms of reference) as early as possible and, make its planned activities known to the public.
- Allow the conversations to be exhaustive as to include all the drivers of conflicts and disagreements, and national concerns and consider all major citizenry’s grievances and reach agreements on key issues facing the country. Avoid either backloading (i.e. putting the conversations to the end of the period) or frontloading the conversations. Clearly decouple the Commission’s activities from the public relation exercises of others. The conversations need to feed intolarger structural changes, including the drafting of a new Constitution.
- As the country is undergoing through armed conflicts and multiple crisis, the results should come out quickly, but not rushed to the extent of missing important activities. The success of the Commission is measured by its ability to serve as an instrument for transitioning the country into a post-conflict political, social, and economic order.
- Be vigilant about the threats of harassment, intimidation, obstruction, hijacking or undermining the work of the Commission. Do not allow the executive or the legislative branch to influence the process or cherry-pick or filter the outcome of the national dialogue.
- Do not permit the national dialogue forum to be used for advancing separatism, hate, trade fear, and/or undermining the unity and territorial integrity of Ethiopia.