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Inclusive Discourse: A Prelude to National Reconciliation

July 31, 2013

By Teklu Abate

To ensure the rule of law, freedom, and democratic governance in Ethiopia, the opposition mainly use two modes of struggle. What appears to be the dominant modus operandi is peaceful struggle, to which all the political parties operating in Ethiopia are required to subscribe. Armed struggle is preferred by other opposition parties/groups, whose scale of operation seems unclear to date. A limited number of groups claim to be eclectic in their approaches, vowing to use any means available to bring genuine change. The government of Ethiopia dubbed those groups that use the last two approaches as “terrorists” and hence, their physical presence is limited to the jungles and foreign capitals.
The relative effectiveness of each approach could not for sure be objectively judged. Nor is their extent of embrace by the Ethiopian people clear. Generally, one could argue that none of the approaches is effective in ushering real change. Two decades lapsed without any measurable change in the political milieu. Causes and reasons for the failure could of course transcend the boundaries of opposition parties; the ruling party, the Ethiopian people (both the Diaspora and those at home), and international pressures and maneuverings could be held accountable. In my previous paper entitled “Who retards political change in Ethiopia?” (available at http://tekluabate.blogspot.no/2012/11/who-retards-political-change-in-ethiopia.html), I tried to explain how and to what extent each entity unfavorably affected politics in Ethiopia during the last two decades.

One thing needs to be made clear. That the opposition are so far ineffective not simply because of the nature of the methods they used but mainly because of the extent of their (peaceful and armed) struggles. Struggles were not in match with the level of injustices made by the ruling party. Considering this state of affairs, we could not be able to see any meaningful changes in the times to come. And we are not going to see meaningful changes from the government either. The best one could do to avoid this ugly scenario might be to think what appears to be the unthinkable: to bring the polarized views of the government and the opposition to open, genuine, and rigorous self-scrutiny.
In this paper, it is argued that inclusive discourse, a systematic and sustained discussion of varying and contrasting ideologies, values, and/or opinions, could be entrusted to initiate, bring, and sustain real change in the way Ethiopia is being governed. This with a final goal of compromise, mutual understanding and then reconciliation. Although it is not new at the global
level, it seems untried within the Ethiopian context. All the political changes that took place hitherto were either brought about by armed struggle (e.g. the collapse of the military rule), or by popular revolt (e.g. the demise of the imperial rule). Compared to other tried and tired approaches of the government and that of the opposition, inclusive discourse seems much more appealing to bring future peace and cohesion.
Discourse vs other approaches
Although one could use either peaceful or armed approach to bring change this time around, too, systematic, discourse-driven struggle is presumably far better or more effective for various reasons. One, discourse brings together contrasting views and encourages participants to finally make compromises. This would serve the interests of all parties and hence it liberates both the oppressed and the oppressors. Two, because oppressors will be equally liberated, they take part in nation re-building. Three, the possibility of future conflict and war could be none or little as all would consider the new system their own craft. Four, discourse damages neither human lives nor infrastructure. Five, because discourse formation has national, international, and global acceptance, the possibility of getting immense support in the process seems very high. Six, because of these five and other advantages, discourse could result in enhanced and sustained socio-economic and political transformations that could benefit all Ethiopians.
Who will take part in discourse formation? One could be tempted to mention the government and opposition parties. I argue that all the contours of Ethiopian society should be adequately and fairly represented during the process. It is only this way that one could establish a system accepted by all all the times. We witness that trusting elites only to bring change does not work. To me, meaningful discourse should be conducted by the following entities.
? The government and the ruling party (although they are one and the same in Ethiopia)
? Opposition parties (at home and in the Diaspora that use peaceful as well as armed approaches)
? Representatives of all religions
? The youth
? NGOs
? Professional associations
? The Diaspora
? The media (both print and electronic as well as online)
? The intellectuals
? The elderly, and
? All political prisoners
Moreover, regional and international organizations (e.g. the AU, the EU), foreign governments, and donors could be invited to witness and support the process.
The next logical question could be: who would coordinate the process? To me, both the government and opposition parties should not be the facilitators, as they are the major rivals in the political scene. A sort of an ad hoc committee membering noted and respected Ethiopians could be entrusted to lead the process. In a way, the committee could identify a) a complete list of participants, b) topics and methods for discussion, c) rules of conduct, and, d) expected outputs and outcomes. Their draft could be presented to all interested people for feedback and improvement. Because of the complex nature of the job, committee members should be self-less; mature emotionally, morally, and intellectually; free from past or present involvement in injustices of any sorts, and well-connected locally and globally. However, for members who would come from the peasantry and rural parts of Ethiopia, a different set of criteria (e.g. experience in traditional arbitration) could be used. As a group, the committee should be as agile, ambitious and perseverant as possible.
There is no a single effective approach to the conduct of discourse. Depending on contextual factors and conditions, specific steps and trajectories could be identified and employed. To me, it could help to consider two stages of discourse. First, stakeholders could debate on a whole array of socio-economic, cultural, and political issues. Stakeholders at this stage are likely to 1) assume that only their position is correct, 2) come to the discourse only to win, 3) be defensive, 4) try to prove the other party wrong, 5) engage in finding flaws in the other party, and 6) generally critique their competing partner. This should be expected and tolerated and the committee should have strategies to prevent communication breakdown.
After sometime and using different techniques, it is crucial to advance to the next higher level of discourse- to make dialogues. At this stage, participants should a) assume that each party has his own version of life and living in Ethiopia, b) listen to understand, c) be ready to explore common grounds amidst differences, d) evaluate their own and others’ positions and weigh their national versus party/group significance. The process is expected to urge stakeholders to make
compromises. These would in the end lead to common understanding and then reconciliation at the national level.
Both print and electronic as well as online media could play a central role at debate and dialogue levels. Media, for instance, could invite people to participate in panel discussions on carefully chosen topics. They could also initiate and coordinate online discussions, by inviting writers/speakers from the opposition as well as the government sides. It could be vital to garner huge participation from Ethiopians living in different parts of the world. Following serious and series of discussions on a given thematic area, patterns and trends could be identified. As an example, the first round of discussions could focus on the relevance and significance of this line of struggle and if deemed important, how to proceed ahead. The selection of committee members and specific topics/issues for discourse could only follow this. Obviously, the process is going to be a hard ride.
As solving grand national problems through discourse is almost non-customary to Ethiopian politics, trying to initiate one could face a multitude of challenges. Identifying possible sources of challenges is the first step to devise coping mechanisms. The following could be considered the major ones.
? The government might claim that it is already doing great job to the Ethiopian people (citing its statistics) and hence might not acknowledge the need for discourse
? The government might consider the effort as an ‘underground’ movement that aims to salvage the opposition by creating shortcuts to power
? The opposition might not have the readiness and interest to enter into discourse on account that the government does not understand this sort of language
? And/or the opposition, particularly those that take armed trajectory, might consider this proposal as a calculated covert move by pro-government entities to ‘soften’ opposition movement
? It might be a particular challenge to identify able and ready people who would facilitate/coordinate the process
? The general public might not take the issue seriously and might develop conspiracy theories to ‘explain’ it
? Some countries and groups that do not want to see strong Ethiopia might put hurdles on the way
Final remarks
The type of discourse described above emanates from the fundamental assumption that the general public is frustrated by the way the government and the opposition are doing politics. Each holding its own discourse behind closed doors as if they are talking about different countries. And hence inclusive discourse is proposed to be an alternative to bring change to politics in Ethiopia. Or, it could be used by parties and groups who already got their own mode of operation.
If systematically planned and conducted, inclusive discourse could bring sizable results. The least one could expect from this endeavor is leaving behind the idea and significance of holding arguments with people of diverse viewpoints and opinions. If this happens, it can be considered one major indication of our entry into the 21st Century.
The writer could be reached at teklu.abate@gmail.com and also blogs at http://tekluabate.blogspot.no/.

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