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Interrogating the Ethiopian National Dialogue

Teklu Abate Bekele

Abstract

Other than opinion pieces and news coverages, there lacks formal studies on the Ethiopian National Dialogue (END). More rigorous analyses drawing on varied data sources are needed for holistic understanding. This exploratory study aspires to extend the debate on this significant and timely national agenda. Specifically, the study answers these questions, How do Ethiopians and people of Ethiopian origin view of the END? What provisions are made available in the Proclamation that establishes and governs the END Commission? These questions are answered through methodically examining the Proclamation itself and surveying the opinions people hold about the national dialogue. Conceptions from policy analysis, critical discourse analysis and institutional theory are used as analytical tools. The existence of different opinions and disagreements among various political and opinion leaders and people on the most fundamental national issues triggered the establishment of the END. The analysis also indicated that the END is multiscalar (it has several levels of engagements) and multipurposed (it has socio-cultural, political and economic motives and purposes). Typical challenges linked to the END include the lack of conceptual clarity, issues linked to the credibility and acceptability of the Commission, and the inclusion or exclusion of terrorist organizations. Strategies for overcoming these and implications for planning and practicing the dialogues as well as for further study are identified.

National Dialogue
Ethiopia’s national dialogue

Introduction

On the 29th of December 2021, the House of Peoples’ Representatives (the House) of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) approved a proclamation that establishes and governs the Ethiopian National Dialogue Commission (ENDC). Its official title is “The Ethiopian National Dialogue Commission Establishment Proclamation No. 1265 /2021”. Out of hundreds of public nominees, the House appointed, on 21 February 2022, 11 commissioners to lead the Ethiopian National Dialogue (END). Even prior to these two milestones, there have been discussions and deliberations on the need for reaching national consensus of some sort. Following the establishment of the ENDC, Ethiopians, people of Ethiopian origin, and the international community have continued to entertain varied viewpoints about national dialogue and consensus more vigorously.

There exist varied public opinions about the founding of the ENDC. Several registered opposition (political) parties, civic organization leaders, commentators, and ordinary citizens seriously challenge the ways the ENDC has been instituted, often pointing out to the lack of transparency and public contribution to its formation as well as to the credibility and impartiality of the commissioners. Others proudly and optimistically support the institution, hoping it could contribute to alleviating the colossal challenges Ethiopia faces. There is a third majority group who neither openly opposes nor supports this national project. On the other hand, in what appears to be a response to public criticism and skepticism, the House emphatically claims that the process that led to the formation of the ENDC was all inclusive, participatory, and transparent. Overall, there still exists a lack of a shared basis of understanding about the national dialogue project and the Commission heading it.

Dialogue on the END itself should thus be considered as an integral part of the ambitious national project. Formal studies and opinion pieces as well as public debates on the national dialogue could support deeper understanding of its motives and purposes and trigger and drive evidence-based decision making at several levels. This exploratory study is part of such a dialogue and is intended to add more momentum to the already existing deliberations of many sorts about the END. The conduct of the study is specifically triggered by two factors.

Four civic organizations in the diaspora (Citizen Aspire for SDGs in Norway, EOTC Global Forum in the USA, Ethiopian Scholars in the Nordic Countries in Norway, and United Ethiopians for Peace and Reconciliation in the UK) organized a virtual joint international conference themed “Global discussion on the Ethiopian national dialogue” on April 19, 2022. Professor Berhanu Mengistu from the USA, Dr Lulseged Abebe from the UK, Dr Desalegn Chala from Norway, and Architect Yohannes Mekonnen from Ethiopia were the invited panelists. The panelists explained opportunities and challenges linked to the national dialogue and identified possible strategies for best practice. Most of the questions and reflections collected from the audience appeared to generally support the cause of the national dialogue. The seminal contributions made by the panelists and reflections from the audience motivated me to raise this question, How do people view of the END and the Commission it heads?

I have then conducted a preliminary literature review to have initial ideas for designing my study. Apart from social and broadcast media coverages, there lacks independent studies on this significant and timely national agenda. A simple Google search using the keyterm, “the Ethiopian national dialogue” results only in a limited number of opinion pieces, not mentioning news coverages (e.g. Allo, 2022; Ashenafi & Deng, 2022; Borkena, 2022; Estifanos, 2022; Gedamu, 2022; Gemechu, 2022; Harter, 2022; Kahsay, 2022; Tegegn, 2022; Tesfa, 2022; Yohannes, 2022). These pieces entertained alternative and complementary views about the phenomenon. The national dialogue is conceived to bring hope (Tesfa, 2022), unity (Gedamu, 2022) and healing (Tegegn, 2022) to Ethiopia. Others indicated that the dialogue process should include everyone (Allo, 2022), and that more women commissioners should have been included (Ashenafi & Deng, 2022). Others claimed that the national dialogue cannot deliver inclusive peace (Gemechu, 2022), deep divisions exist about the national dialogue (Harter, 2022), and that the Commission is facing interferences by internal and external entities and is inundated with agendas (Borkena, 2022).

Although these and possibly other opinion pieces and studies could contribute to our understanding of the phenomenon, more rigorous analyses drawing on varied data sources are needed for holistic understanding. This exploratory study aspires to extend the debate on this significant and timely national agenda. Specifically, the study aims to answer these questions, How do Ethiopians and people of Ethiopian origin view of the Ethiopian national dialogue? What provisions are made available in the ENDC establishment Proclamation? These questions are answered through methodically examining the Proclamation itself and surveying the opinions people hold about the national dialogue. The assumption is that a more comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon is possible through policy (proclamation) analysis and opinion analysis.

The study aspires to improve our understanding of the legal basis of the END and the opinions people hold about it. The final goal is to identify some implications for further policy making and practice by the ENDC, the House, and or the Ethiopian people at large. It is not the intention of this study to urge readers to support or otherwise the END; it rather encourages them to make informed decisions about it based on available data and analysis.

This study is organized as follows. Employing policy analysis techniques, the study first analyzes the core features of the Proclamation that establishes the ENDC. This is followed by a survey of how Ethiopians and people of Ethiopian origin view the END. The major findings of the study are then discussed, and their implications identified. The analytical frameworks which guide this study and its methodology are briefly explained first. As this is not an academic paper and as it aims at a general readership, effort is made not to use technical language. Anyone with basic English competence can easily understand the core arguments and findings of the study.

As author positionality affects the integrity of studies, I would like to clarify some points. By profession, I am associate professor of comparative and international education at the American University in Cairo and is a permanent resident in Oslo, Norway. My research, which includes policy and practice dimensions, concerns the international and comparative study of higher education systems in Africa. By citizenship, I am an Ethiopian who aspires to stay an active contributor to public discourses of all sorts. I am neither a member nor supporter of the ruling party and the opposition. However, in my scholarly and public engagements, I do not want to claim to be neutral. My analysis in this study follows the logics and principles of the scientific method. My fair analysis of the topic simply emanates from my desire to contribute to the betterment of conditions in my country, Ethiopia.

Analytical Frameworks and Methodology

This exploratory study constitutes policy analysis (the analysis of the Proclamation that establishes and governs the ENDC) and opinion analysis (survey). These analyses could support a more holistic examination of core issues linked to the END and the Commission heading it. The methods and techniques used for policy and opinion analyses are consecutively discussed below.

For supporting a meaningful discussion, the study draws on some analytical frameworks on policy and discourse analysis. The core assumption is that proclamations, laws, policies, strategies, directives, and other similar ‘technologies’ or ‘productions’ are conceived to be discursive; they inherently embody power (Heimans, 2012; Marshall, 2000; Wagenaar, 2007). Although the producer or owner of discourses or policies could claim to be impartial, rigorous interrogations could reveal traces of power embedded in text.

The Prime Minister’s office of Ethiopia had initially started the conception of the national dialogue. Later, it was decided, for reasons linked to impartiality, that the House is the right body who should oversee the END, including the selection and approval of the END commissioners. However, the ruling party, Prosperity Party (PP), technically owns the House, as most House members are PP members, supporters, and sympathizers. It could thus be argued that the Proclamation text embodies varied forms of power, or it promotes the intentions and ideology of the governing party. Meaning, the construction and production of the text, the Proclamation, is not free from inherent political interests, see the discussion section. Employing techniques and principles of policy and discourse analysis in this study are thus found useful to produce critical and fair interpretations of the Proclamation. However, the Proclamation is analyzed from the point of view of public policy and discourse and not law.

Three analytical tools are considered especially relevant for this study. Cardno’s (2018) policy document analysis framework which includes such aspects of policy as policy context, text and consequence is relevant for primarily analyzing the Proclamation. Analysis of policy (the Proclamation) context centers around examining the conditions or factors that trigger and drive its production, and the values that underpin and guide it. Policy text analysis focuses on studying the structure or organization of the policy, the core elements of the policy that are associated with national legal or regulatory requirements, and the procedures specified in the text that provide guidance for practice. The intended overall impact of the policy, the purposes or objectives of the policy, the monitoring of policy implementation, and provisions for policy revision are examined in relation to policy consequence. In sum, the Proclamation is analyzed using the trio conceptual tools of policy context, text, and consequence. This could render a more systematic and meaningful examination of the Proclamation than employing an article-by-article analysis.

For a more critical discussion and interpretation of the Proclamation and then the works and integrity of the ENDC, principles of critical discourse analysis (CDA) are invoked. Fairclough’s (2001) four organizational CDA research issues are especially found relevant in this study. Issues for interrogation include the emergence process of new discourses- the END (emergence), the ways emergent discourses become dominant (hegemony), dissemination of hegemonic discourses across levels (recontextualization), and enactment or practice of discourses (operationalization). Following the analyses of the Proclamation and the opinions of people, these four conceptual tools are invoked to render a comprehensive discussion.

Moreover, such conceptions of world society theory as decoupling, expansive structuration, otherhood, and scientization (Meyer, 2010; Meyer et al., 1997) are complementarily used to discuss issues linked to the establishment of the END and the Commission, strategies and mechanisms that could improve its legitimacy and credibility, its wider dissemination, and effective enactment. This can facilitate the identification of challenges and problems and possible strategies to overcome them.

As indicated above, the second part of the study concerns opinion analysis. To understand how Ethiopians and people of Ethiopian origin view the END, a short questionnaire is developed and distributed. Taking into consideration public opinion and media coverage of the END, the following 10 Likert-type items are constructed. The first item is meant to gather basic demographic information about the participants of the survey.

  1. Demographic characteristics: current residence, nationality, highest education achieved, and livelihood
  2. The Ethiopian National Dialogue Commission is highly needed to resolve Ethiopia’s challenges.
  3. The National Dialogue Commission was established in a transparent way.
  4. The National Dialogue Commission is an affiliate of the Prosperity Party.
  5. The National Dialogue Commissioners are competent to spearhead the dialogue.
  6. The national dialogue must engage the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
  7. The national dialogue must engage the Oromo Liberation Army-Shene.
  8. Religious/civic organizations must be officially represented in the national dialogue.
  9. The Ethiopian diaspora must be officially represented in the national dialogue.
  10. Regardless of circumstances, I will engage in the national dialogue.
  11. The national dialogue will not resolve Ethiopia’s problems and challenges.

These items touch upon various controversial issues linked to the END and the Commission heading it. Questions 2 – 5 and 11 concern the ENDC and its members; 6 and 7 are about inclusion or exclusion in the national dialogue of fringe elements in society such as TPLF and Shene who are labelled by the FDRE parliament as terrorist organizations; questions 8 – 10 cover stakeholders who deserve or otherwise meaningful participation in and ownership of the national dialogue. A 5-point Likert scale is used for rating answers, where 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 respectively refer to Strongly agree, Agree, Neither agree nor disagree, Disagree, and Strongly disagree. SurveyMonkey, an internationally leading experience studying platform, is used to administer and manage the survey.

Ethiopian news study is to collect data, from Ethiopia and in the diaspora, about the national dialogue. The target population is Ethiopians and Ethiopian origin diaspora who can understand basic English. The focus is on those literates and educated people who are active on social media and other venues and whose voices can affect the political and social dynamics in Ethiopia. As there is not an Ethiopian platform to administer surveys of this type internationally, alternative outlets are used to administer the survey. The popular platform for latest Ethiopian news and analyses, Zehabesha, generously hosted the survey throughout the study period, May 19 to June 9, 2022. For additional circulation, the survey was also posted on my blog, Abyss, and was also shared with all my Google email and Norwegian phone contact lists.

It turned out that 88 participants showed interest in the survey, of which 86 fully completed the survey. Hundreds of people were expected to take part in the study. The reasons for this relatively speaking small sample size could be attributed to the skepticism linked to the national dialogue and the study itself. A case in point is that one of the participants of this study skipped all the items of the survey but left this text only, “You asked if the national dialogue must engage TPLF and Ola-Shene. You failed to include Amhara groups thus inadvertently exposing your hidden agenda”. The participant did not understand the context within which TPLF and Shene are mentioned in the survey and wrongly compared such terrorist organizations to peacefully struggling Amhara groups- there is not a terrorist Amhara group todate. Another reason for the sample size could be linked to the mindset many Ethiopians have about opinion studies- there lacks a culture of participating in formal studies. Regardless of the reasons, some interesting findings emerge from this study. Useful implications are identified based on the analysis of the 86 completed surveys and the analysis of the Proclamation.

The demographic characteristics of the participants are as interesting as they are impressive. As Figures 1 and 2 below indicate, 40% and 26% of the participants currently live in Norway and Ethiopia, respectively, and 50% and 24% are respectively Ethiopians and Norwegians by citizenship. What is more interesting is that 43% and 26% of the participants hold master’s and doctoral degrees (PhD’s), respectively whereas 21% have undergraduate degrees in varied areas of study. The rest of the participants did not indicate their educational qualifications.

Figure 1: Participants’ countries of residence, by numbers

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Except for a handful of the participants who are in their retirement, the rest are professionals working in the public and private sectors in Ethiopia and in the diaspora. This is a highly educated sample who may not represent the general population of Ethiopia but is in line with the intention of this study- to target the educated and media-savvy segment of the population. However, as the aim is to understand the pattern in the dataset, the analysis of degrees of agreement or disagreement these participants have about the survey items are not analyzed based on these demographic characteristics. Such three themes as the national dialogue commission, inclusion-exclusion, and ownership and participation are used to organize the major findings. Percentages of agreement or disagreement are reported for the items belonging to each theme. The legal provisions available for the END are highlighted first.

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Figure 2: Participants’ nationality, by numbers

 

Analysis of the Proclamation

As the introduction above indicated, Proclamation No.1265/2021 establishes and governs the ENDC. It is published in Amharic and English in the Federal Negarit Gazette of the FDRE on the 13th of January 2022. The English version is used for this study and page numbers are cited for quotations. Using policy text, context and consequence as analytical tools, the overall organization and substance of the Proclamation are briefly examined below.

Proclamation Text

As explained above, policy text refers to the structure or organization of the policy, the core elements of the policy that are associated with national legal or regulatory requirements, and the procedures specified in the text that provide guidance for practice. These elements as linked to the Proclamation are briefly highlighted next.

The Proclamation (text) is organized as Parts and not as Articles, see Table 1 below. By referring to Article 55(1) of the Constitution of the FDRE, which stipulates that “The House of Peoples’ Representatives shall have the power of legislation in all masters (I assume this is meant to be matters) assigned by this Constitution to Federal jurisdiction”, the prelude of the Proclamation indicates that the House has that vested power to construct the Proclamation. This sends the message that the House has acted as per the stipulation or provision of the highest law of the nation, the Constitution. It is thus technically difficult to challenge the legal basis of the construction of the Proclamation. However, making the production process inclusive, participatory, transparent, and accountable are expected from such a high governance structure as the House. The House has consistently communicated to the Ethiopian people and the international community at large that the processes that created the Proclamation and the Commission are transparent and participatory. The scale and quality of such claimed democratic practices still remain largely unknown.

 

Table 1: Proclamation elements and organization

Part Coverage
1 Title of the proclamation, definition of terms, principles of the national dialogue
2 Accountability, commission headquarters, objectives of the commission, organization of the commission, terms of the commission, duties and responsibilities, meeting guidelines
3 Number /composition of the commissioners, their appointment, criteria for their appointments, remuneration and benefits of the commissioners, their obligations and rights, removal of commissioners, resignation, replacement
4 The Council of the Commission (which include all commissioners), powers and responsibilities of the commissioners, the vice commissioner, the secretariate
5 Miscellaneous provisions including budget, bookkeeping, effective date

Source: Constructed based on the Proclamation

Various provisions are provided to guide the practicing of the Proclamation. The organization and structuring of the ENDC, the specifications of its terms and duties, guidelines for meetings, compensations and benefits for commissioners, budgeting and bookkeeping, and rights to form committees under the Commission are evident. Generally, the Proclamation seems to cover vital elements expected from authoritative or official productions of this sort. The various parts and sub-parts are logically organized, and the text is generally easy to understand.

However, two points are worth mentioning about the text. One, language problems (typological and grammatical errors) abound, which is not expected from a Proclamation which is attributed the highest stake in Ethiopia now. The language problems are irritating and distract smooth reading. The text should have been stringently edited before its production and dissemination. Two, readers of the Proclamation may quickly realize the complete absence of the specific national issues on which the national dialogue should focus, see the section below.

Proclamation Context

Analysis of policy (the Proclamation) context centers around examining the conditions or factors that trigger its production, and the values and principles that underpin and guide it. The relevance, significance and credibility of textual productions are usually linked to context analysis.

The national dialogue Proclamation identified two justifications or rationales for its production: the existence of different opinions and disagreements amongst actors and the urgent need to resolve them. It reads, “there are difference of opinions and disagreements among various political and opinion leaders and also segments of society in Ethiopia on the most fundamental national issues and it is a necessity to resolve the differences and disagreements through broad based inclusive public dialogue that engenders national consensus” (p. 13879).

Several points are stashed in this quotation. One, significant opinion differences and disagreements exist in Ethiopia that requires urgent action. Two, the differences and disagreements are linked to “the most fundamental national issues”, which are not specified in the Proclamation. Three, opinion differences and disagreements exist amongst political and opinion leaders and the people. Four, resolving the differences and disagreements is a national necessity and priority. Five, inclusive dialogue is found to be the most effective strategy to resolve the differences and disagreements. Six, the outcome of the national dialogue is national consensus. It is also stated that the Proclamation is produced “since it has become necessary to establish an institution with widespread legitimacy that could coordinate and lead the deliberations capably and impartially” (p. 13880). Meaning, the Proclamation also establishes the credibility and legitimacy of the ENDC.

The Proclamation defines national dialogue as “consultation of different bodies facilitated by the Council of Commissions at the Federal and Regional level on the Agendas identify in accordance with this Proclamation and the Directives to be issued by the Council of Commissions” (p. 13881). The Council of Commissions, which comprises of all the 11 members of the ENDC, is tasked to play a facilitatory or coordinating role in the national dialogue. Dialogues are expected to be made both at the federal and regional levels, indicative of the possibility of forming, under the auspices of the Commission, several committees representing varied interest groups such as civic and faith-based organizations and expert communities.

Two of the most contentious points that are not operationally defined in the Proclamation are “the most fundamental national issues” for dialogue and “national consensus”. These are directly linked to the very processes and outcomes of the national dialogue which are left undefined. This is likely to make the work of the ENDC unnecessarily dauting and complex. Although productions of these kind might not include specifications, providing examples of “the most fundamental national issues” that merit national dialogue could have been included in the Proclamation not only for clarity but also for pragmatic considerations. Operational definitions for national consensus could also have been provided for conceptual clarity and pragmatics such as the practicing and monitoring and evaluation of national dialogues.

However, the Proclamation included principles to guide national dialogues, including inclusivity, transparency, credibility, tolerance and mutual respect, rationality, implementation and context sensitivity, impartial facilitator, depth and relevance of agendas, democracy and rule of law, national interest, and using national traditional knowledge and values. If practiced, these values and principles could create ‘law and order’ to the national dialogue process and contribute toward the realization of its ambition, national consensus.

Proclamation Consequence

The intended overall impact of the policy, the monitoring of its implementation, and provisions for policy revision are examined in relation to policy consequence. The Proclamations does not articulate a clear and coherent results framework specifying aims, goals, and objectives for the END. It simply indicates that reaching national consensus on the most fundamental national issues is the expected outcome of the national dialogue. The following are listed down as the objectives of the ENDC (p. 13882-13883). There lacks a clear logical connection amongst the objectives and how they contribute to reaching national consensus.

  • Identify the topics on which the discussion will take place
  • Facilitate consultation between the various segments of the society
  • Implement an effective National Dialogue process
  • Identify the root causes of the difference on fundamental national issues
  • Have a plan to implement the results of the consultations
  • Resolve the differences and disagreements through broad based inclusive public dialogue that engenders national consensus
  • Enable the creation of new political dispensation that is marked by mutual trust
  • Support the implementation of the recommendations made by the dialogues
  • Build a democratic system of trust between citizens, the government and the People at the national level
  • Develop a political culture that can solve internal problems
  • Lay the social and political foundations on the basis of which current problems can be solved in a sustainable manner, ensuring lasting peace.

 

Especially wanting are creating a shared basis of understanding about the root causes of disagreements and then reaching at a consensus on most fundamental issues. As well as building a democratic system of trust between citizens, the government and the People at the national level. Both the ruling party and the opposition have not shown to us so far a culture of cooperation and collaboration and any meaningful and sustainable consensus on significant national issues. The mindset and culture are wanting in the Ethiopian political space which is likely to put to test the competence and stamina of the dialogue commissioners.

Overall, the Proclamation appears to constitute several elements generally required of productions of this kind. Albeit inadequately, the conditions that trigger and drive its production are mentioned. The composition of the Commission, its expected tasks, and the guiding principles and values are elaborated. However, the Proclamation evidently lacks clear conceptualizations and operationalizations linked to some of the most central ideas linked to the national dialogue. Terms such as the most fundamental national issues and national consensus are left undefined. This could make the work of the dialogue commission unnecessarily arduous and trying. This conceptual deficiency coupled with the lack of logically clear results framework and the unfavorable opinions people hold about the national dialogue appear colossal challenges to the Commission.

The Empirical Part: Opinion Survey

As detailed in the methodology section above, 86 participants living in Ethiopia, Europe and North America completed the online survey about their opinions. Their responses are organized under four themes: about the ENDC; inclusion or exclusion of terrorist organizations, and stakeholders who deserve or otherwise meaningful participation in and ownership of the national dialogue. The major findings linked to these are consecutively presented below. Graphs displaying agreement or disagreement percentages are used to enable a quick overview of the findings.

 

About the National Dialogue Commission  

The above analysis of the Proclamation indicated that the ENDC is primed to coordinate dialogues for understanding the root causes of disagreements regarding the most fundamental national issues and then reaching at national consensus. It is thus significant to study how people view of this positioning of the Commission.

The majority of the participants (80%) agree that the ENDC is needed to resolve Ethiopia’s multifaceted challenges, see Figure 3 below. Ten percent of the participants neither agree nor disagree with this statement and another 10% disagree with it. Overall, the majority tend to have favorable opinions about the aspirations of the ENDC as stipulated in the Proclamation.

Figure 3: National Dialogue Commission role

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However, when the statement is negated, “the national dialogue commission will not resolve Ethiopia’s challenges”, some variations exist (by nearly 10 percentage points) in people opinion compared to the above favorable opinions. Twenty-six percent of the participants generally agree with the statement. This means that they do not consider the ENDC as a body to bring national consensus in Ethiopia. However, 43% of them disagree with the statement and another 26% of them neither agree nor disagree with the statement. Overall, a little over half of the participants (52%) have either negative opinions or are undecided about the matter. The difference in opinions when the statement is stated in the positive and negative remains unclear. It could partly be explained by resorting to arguments linked to participant inconsistency when completing survey items, which is a major challenge in social surveys generally.

The Proclamation insists that inclusivity and transparency are among the core values for guiding this national project. Moreover, the House has repeatedly communicated that the ENDC is established in a transparent and inclusive manner. However, opinion pieces published in varied outlets, joint statement made by a consortium of registered opposition political parties, and general public discourse seem to indicate otherwise. This study posed this statement to the participants, “the national dialogue commission was established in a transparent way”. As Figure 4 below indicates, 31% of the participants neither agree nor disagree with the statement whereas 45% disagree with it. Only 23% of them agree that transparency is observed during the establishment of the Commission. This unfavorable opinion and the absence of clear opinions about the item could jointly have serious implications to the credibility, legitimacy and even functioning of the Commission.

Figure 4: National Dialogue Commission establishment

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Public opinion has it that the ruling party, PP, is the creator and God father of the ENDC. The Prime Minister’s office had started the conception of the national dialogue which was later transferred to the House. One could argue that the ruling party technically owns the House, as most House members are PP members and supporters. Contrary to this, nearly half of the participants of this study (47%) neither agree nor disagree with the statement that the Commission is an affiliate of PP, see Figure 5 below. For this group of participants, there seems to lack compelling evidence about political interference during and in the formation of the Commission. Consequently, it appears difficult for most of the highly educated participants of this study to hold either favorable or unfavorable opinions. However, nearly an equal number of the participants agree (27%) or disagree (25%) with the statement. This is yet another significantly wanting area where more study and work is needed for the Commission to win public trust and confidence.

The last question asked about the ENDC is linked to the competence of the commissioners. Participants are asked to express their opinions about this statement, “the national dialogue commissioners are competent to spearhead the dialogue”. Many of them (42%) neither agree nor disagree with the statement, probably because they do not have sufficient evidence to make decision, whereas 41% agree and 19% disagree. The neutral and negative responses also implicate the possible lack of compelling evidence about the competence of the commissioners which might yet raise issues linked to the public acceptability of the commissioners.

Figure 5: National Dialogue Commission and Prosperity Party

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Inclusion-Exclusion of Outlawed Organizations

One of the most publicly discussed controversial issues is whether to formally engage such terrorist organizations as the TPLF and what the government calls Shene in the national dialogue. Other than acknowledging the presence of differences of opinions and disagreements among various political and opinion leaders and segments of society in Ethiopia on the most fundamental national issues, the Proclamation does not specify the entities who are to be included in and excluded from the national dialogue. Moreover, inclusivity and impartiality are stated in the Proclamation as among the core guiding principles and values of the national dialogue. In practice, it is still unclear whether TPLF and Shene are to be included in the national dialogue.

As Figures 6 and 7 below indicate, 45% and 44% of the participants agree with formally engaging TPLF and Shene, respectively. The other 43% (in each case) of the participants disagree with the statement- they do not seem content with engaging these entities in the national dialogue. Nearly an equal number of participants either agree or disagree with the statement, possibly implicating the highly contentious nature of the matter. It seems either excluding from or including TPLF and Shene in the national dialogue appears to be one of the toughest and hardest decisions the ENDC and the Ethiopian people have to make. The formal or official inclusion in the national dialogue of other interest groups such as civic organizations and the diaspora is also a significant and demanding matter for the Commission.

Figure 6: Inclusion-exclusion of TPLF

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Figure 7: Inclusion-exclusion of Shene

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Participation and Ownership

There has been a public outcry that faith-based and other civic organizations as well as the Ethiopian diaspora are not represented in the ENDC. On the contrary, the House repeatedly argued that the 11 commissioners are selected based on what they call a publicly open and transparent process of nomination. Part of the argument is that official representation in the Commission of such stakeholders is not as much significant as trusting and counting on the competence and integrity of the commissioners.

To shed more light on this matter, this study asks the participants to respond to this statement, “religious/civic organizations and the Ethiopian diaspora must be officially represented in the national dialogue”. As figures 8 and 9 indicate, respectively 88% and 78 % agree that religious/civic organizations and the Ethiopian diaspora must be officially represented in the national dialogue. The overwhelming majority believe that such stakeholders need to be officially represented in the ENDC in some form. This is one of the most significant findings of this study which has direct implications to the inclusivity of the Ethiopian national dialogue.

 

Individual Agency

As an Ethiopian or person of Ethiopian origin, are you ready to meaningfully participate or engage in the national dialogue? The meaningful participation of the citizenry is a critical factor for the success of the national dialogue. The participants of this study are asked to react to this statement, “regardless of circumstances, I will engage in the national dialogue”. Nearly 2/3rd of the participants agree with the statement whereas the other 23% disagree. These and the other major findings of the study are discussed, and implications are identified below.

 

Figure 8: Religious/civic organizations representation

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Figure 9: Ethiopian diaspora representation

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Discussion and Implications   

This exploratory study examines the Proclamation that establishes and governs the END, and the opinions Ethiopians and people of Ethiopian origin hold about it. In this section, the major findings of the study are discussed using Fairclough’s (2001) critical discourse analytical tools and concepts from institutional theory (Meyer et al., 1997) as organizing logics, see the methodology section for detail. Issues for interrogation include the founding process of the END as a new national discourse (emergence), how the emergent discourse is becoming dominant (hegemony), the dissemination of the discourse across several levels (recontextualization), and the enactment or practice of the discourse (operationalization). Such concepts of world society theory as decoupling, expansive structuration, otherhood, and scientization are also invoked to further the discussion and to identify implications for policy making and practice as well as further study.

Discourse Emergence

How and why do you think the END is narrated as a significant national project? What factors and conditions trigger and drive its production or construction? What are its specific motives and purposes? These are some of the salient questions one could raise in relation to the END. Effectively answering them requires one to examine the totality of conditions and factors that affect socio-cultural, economic, and political dynamics in Ethiopia. The multifaceted challenges the Ethiopian government has been facing since April 2018, which marked the beginning of the demise of the EPRDF and the founding of the PP, need to be taken into consideration to fully understand the rationales behind and the purposes of the formation of this national discourse, the END. This analysis identifies socio-cultural, political, and economic causes and motives for the construction (emergence), dissemination and publicization (recontextualization and hegemony), and operationalization (practice) of the discourse. However, it is not the intention of this study to engage in a deep historical analysis of events in Ethiopia; only significant conditions are considered for elaborating on certain claims.

Analysis of the Proclamation reveals only one trigger for the establishment of the END. It is explicitly stated that the existence of “difference of opinion and disagreement among political and opinion leaders and segments of society in Ethiopia on the most fundamental national issues” triggers the founding of the END and the Commission. It is however unclear who the opinion leaders are, what scale of disagreement exists among the entities, which segments of society are referred to, and what the most fundamental national issues are. Putting the lack of clarity on these issues aside, one could also mention as additional triggers the existence of difference of opinion and disagreement within the government and ruling party bureaucracies. From its establishment, the PP seems to have questionable internal coherence as a national party, partly due to its inheritance of the infamous EPRDF Constitution, policies, strategies, structures, members and supporters. The methodical dismissal over time of several leaders from their positions in the government machineries consolidates this claim.

The Proclamation thus entrusts the ENDC to 1) unravel the “root causes” of the differences and disagreements existing at several levels through inclusive dialogue, 2) bolster national consensus, 3) create a culture of trust and of working together, and 4) mend degraded social values. The lack of a shared basis of understanding among stakeholders on core national issues seems to trigger the founding of the ENDC. Consequently, inclusive national dialogue is considered as a panacea for Ethiopia’s colossal challenges. This is the only official government discourse which is consistently communicated in media and is also embodied in the Proclamation. However, there are more motives and purposes to the ENDC than engendering national consensus.

This national project, the END, is also thought to boost the legitimacy, credibility, and acceptability of the Ethiopian government at home and internationally. Due to the cruel slaughtering, throughout PM Abiy’s tenure, of innocent Ethiopians in mass especially the Amharas, the forced displacement of millions of Ethiopians from their homes, the compromise of public safety and security even in the cities and towns including in Africa’s capital Addis Ababa, rampant corruption and nepotism, the skyrocketing prices, the advance of Sudanese army into Ethiopian territory, and government impotence in effectively handling the TPLF and Tigray problem etc seem to seriously check on the credibility and acceptability of the current administration. Although the government frequently recites the landslide victory from the last national elections, its political capital as an authoritative governing party seems waning by the day. The recent peaceful demonstrations staged both at home and in the diaspora and social media outrages and opinion pieces are part of public grievances. This frailty of the government is easily sensed by the international community.

The international community has been putting Ethiopia and the government at the center of their diplomacy, albeit the appalling lack of fairness and candidness in their ‘moves’. International organizations including the AU, the EU, and the UN and major powers including the USA and the UK have consistently challenged the Ethiopian government to do something serious about the Tigray conundrum and lately about the unabating killings and displacements in the other parts of the country. Several of them have suspended their development assistance budgets previously earmarked for Ethiopia. The war crime and genocide rhetoric orchestrated against the government by the TPLF were easily accepted and trumped by the West. Their consistent media coverage of the issues must have created seismic pressures to top government officials in Ethiopia.

All these seem to jointly contribute to the turbulent and stormy nature of PM Abiy’s administration and the concomitant deterioration of its credibility as a democratically functioning governance system. The END’ is thus entrusted to ‘jumpstart’ on many of these issues, to boost once again government’s credibility and acceptability both nationally and internationally. Or, the government might have learnt, albeit the hard way, that the war with the TPLF could not be really won militarily; a political solution could have become more ‘profitable’ anyways. The PM, Abiy, has consistently explained how the war is devastating lives and eating up the economy and how a peaceful resolution could become a game changer. The recent formation of the seven-member committee led by the Deputy PM and Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen to conduct negotiations with the TPLF is a case in point.

Regardless of the possible explanations, the government tries to reposition itself and aspires to regain the confidence of its spheres of influence at home and internationally. It aspires to impress partners and actors at several levels by forming a legitimate, credible, and impartial institution, the ENDC. Partly because of the founding of the ENDC and its dissemination as a new discourse, the international community seems to reconsider the Ethiopian government as worth collaborating with and hence, they have started to pledge support to the national project.

Technically, the moves the Ethiopian government have made in relation to the ENDC are expected from a sane and rationale actor. If practiced as intentioned, they could not only contribute to reaching consensus on core national issues but also to politically recalibrate the government and boost its legitimacy, credibility, and acceptability. This political repositioning could directly and favorably affect the ditching Ethiopian economy, too.

The socio-cultural and political triggers and motives of the END could have direct implications to the Ethiopian economy. Partly due to the TPLF-triggered war, the Covid pandemic, lack of safety and security, and the Russia-Ukraine war disrupting global supply, the already weak Ethiopian economy is seriously challenged. The over 30% inflation rate, lack of foreign currency, massive national debt, limited investor confidence, youth unemployment, corruption and boarding etc contribute to the unacceptably high and debilitating cost of life in Ethiopia. Millions of Ethiopians are put on food rations and millions struggle to survive on their own whereas hundreds of thousands flee the country under agonizing conditions. All these seem to shake to the core the confidence the Ethiopian people have in their government. Consequently, the ruling party has no option but to painfully embark on this new project, the END.

The PM office had initially started the conception of the national dialogue, which later was relegated to the House. If executed as planned, it could contribute to reach national consensus, ease tensions and boost security, win the hearts and minds of development partners, build investor confidence, and redirect the scare resources (from war) to the economy. Partly because of the construction of this national project, international institutions including the World Bank, the EU, the African Development Bank and powerful countries have started to offer financial assistance to the government. The US is also reconsidering to enlist Ethiopia to the AGOA agreement. The END is thus conceived as a viable strategy to contribute to revamp the sunken economy.

Overall, the production of the END as a national discourse appears multipurposed- it has social-cultural, political, and economic dimensions. One, its official and primary purpose is to contribute to building consensus on core national issues. Two, it is also thought to boost, both at home and internationally, the legitimacy, credibility and acceptability of the ruling party and the Ethiopian government. Three, the social and political motives and purposes are entrusted to contribute to revamping the ailing national economy. Consequently, the Ethiopian government appears to hold higher standards for and expectations from the END than what is embodied in the Proclamation and in public communications. This is a rational decision any sane government could have done amidst similar circumstances. However, achieving the multifaceted purposes depends largely on the making of the discourse more hegemonic across several levels.

 

Discourse Hegemony and Recontextualization

As the introduction section indicated, there seems to lack a shared understanding about the ENDC; the discourse does not yet seem to reach hegemonic status. In a recent meeting held with PM Abiy, the Commissioner indicated that out of 53 registered political parties in Ethiopia, 40 have agreed to work with the ENDC. This is a good number although it is unclear what kind of agreement has been reached and which parties have expressed their interest to work with the Commission. Also, intention to work with the Commission does not necessarily equate belief and practice. Even more so, it is unknown how the remaining political parties, civic and faith-based organizations, and most importantly the people currently view of the END and the Commission.

However, there exist several provisions, strategies and practices that could potentially make the discourse more hegemonic. One, the Proclamation requires the establishment of an institution with widespread legitimacy to coordinate and lead the deliberations capably and impartially. Such terms as legitimate, credible, impartial, inclusive, participatory, capable, transparent, accountable etc are intended to add more salience to the institution running it- the ENDC. The text is articulated to send the message that the ENDC is a democratic and functioning institution. Two, to show that the ENDC is established legally and authoritatively, the Proclamation makes reference to the highest law of the land, the FDRE Constitution.

The articulations linked to the objectives and process of the national dialogue are also intended to make the discourse hegemonic. Three, although they are not specified, supreme importance is attached to the END by claiming that it interrogates the “most fundamental national issues”. However, neither a definition nor a single example is given to operationalize the term. Four, although the objectives of the ENDC are overly ambitious and lack an organizing results framework, they are intended to convey the high-stakes nature of the project. Five, the Proclamation explicitly states that the dialogue process must be transparent and participatory; this is also somehow practiced through the public nomination of hundreds of commissioners. Six, the principles and values identified to guide the END are universal and appealing. Seven, that the ENDC is accountable to the House means that it is given supreme importance and is supposed to shield it from possible interference by the executive branch of government. Eight, broadcast and social media coverage of the project are intended for broader dissemination and publicization of the discourse.

Nine, the expansive structuration or organizational structuring of the ENDC (constituting of the Council of Commissioners, chief Commissioner, deputy chief Commissioner, Secretariat, Committees as may be necessary, and staff) simply sends the message that the project is handled with adequate bureaucracy and hence has elements expected of a modern functioning institution. Finally, the international dissemination of the discourse, especially to the UN, AU, EU, USA and other major powers, is thought to add to its hegemony. Regardless of their real motives, many of these international actors have already expressed their interest to support the initiative.

All these have the potential to make the END more hegemonic. The discourse is being recontextualized at local, national, continental, and global levels. Empirically, 80% of the participants of the current survey agreed that the END is needed to resolve Ethiopia’s challenges. Moreover, over two-thirds of the participants indicated that they could personally engage in the national dialogue regardless of circumstances. Although it is still unknown how many Ethiopians, people of Ethiopian origin, and civic and faith-based organizations hold favorable views about it, the increasing popularity and recontextualization of the discourse could contribute to its operationalization.

Discourse Operationalization

As the ENDC is now in its preparation phase, matters and issues linked to actual enactment or practice (operationalization) of the discourse could not be sufficiently empirically observed. However, issues linked to the inclusion or exclusion of certain entities in the national dialogue and the scale of work expected vs. the functional capacity of the Commission are already surfacing out. These and related issues are discussed and implications for the further planning of the national dialogue, its actual practice, and further study are identified next.

Other than indicating that the END should be inclusive and participatory, the Proclamation does not state the fate of terrorist organizations such as TPLF and Shene. The government does not explicitly state their participation in or exclusion from the dialogue either. Without mentioning such organizations, the Commissioner has repeatedly indicated that the END will not exclude anyone. Even more so, the international community including the AU, EU, UN, and others insist that the dialogue should be all inclusive and participatory. Empirically, there are not formal studies conducted so far to determine people sentiments or views on this contentious issue. In the survey presented above, nearly an equal number of the participants agree and disagree with the idea of engaging the two organizations. Overall, the TPLF-Shene saga is among the most controversial issues the ENDC is likely to face when it starts operationalizing national dialogue.

In my article, I argued that the elected Ethiopian government and the outlawed TPLF (and Shene) should not be considered as equally legit entities for engaging in dialogues for the following reasons. One, the TPLF has already wasted golden opportunities to spare itself and its entourage from the wrath of the Ethiopian people. Two, because of its insistence on and indulgence in aggression, the Ethiopian parliament categorized TPLF as a terrorist organization. Any effort to slip the TPLF through the negotiation table is tantamount to compromising justice and the rule of law.

Three, because of the TPLF-initiated and sustained war, hundreds of thousands of innocent lives are lost; thousands of Ethiopians turned handicaps and suffer from PTSD; innocent women and girls are gang raped; millions of Ethiopians are internally displaced; hard-built public property are destroyed; and due to all these, many Ethiopians are psychologically distressed. The naming and shaming of Ethiopia at continental and global platforms is equally hurting. In the presence of all these incalculable damages made to humanity and the economy, it is being unfair and irresponsible to consider the TPLF as a credible and deserving partner for dialogue.

Four, Ethiopians in the Amhara and Afar regions, who are suffering the most from the brunt of the war, might not have the audacity to accept this matter. Five, if Ethiopia accepts to make dialogue with the TPLF and Shene, we are setting bad example for the future. Anyone or a group of disgruntled individuals can draw their AK 47’s against the government, hoping that they can also break a deal of some sort.

Completely shunning the two organizations (from the dialogue) does not equally appear ‘profitable’ to Ethiopia. Holding top leaders responsible and accountable for all the mess they have caused to this country seems in the best interest of national integrity, pride and accountability. They should face fair justice. The rest of TPLF and Shene members including ordinary fighters and cadres could be given amnesty should they immediately lay down their arms and genuinely ask for pardon. The recently formed seven-member government committee led by the Deputy PM and Foreign Minister to negotiate with the TPLF is hoped to raise these and similar preconditions.

The other highly contentious issue concerns the official representation in the ENDC of civic organizations and the Ethiopian diaspora. The Proclamation requires that commissioners be Ethiopians by citizenship. Many tend to argue that civic organizations and the Ethiopian diaspora should be officially made part of the Commission. Moreover, most of the participants in the current survey indicated that civic organizations and the diaspora have to be members of the Commission. However, an 11-member Commission is already established with no representation of such entities. As a result, the work of the Commission may not be easily accepted by these interest groups.

I argue that it is not too late to embrace such representations in the ENDC should there be political will. The Proclamation clearly states the possibility of establishing committees at regional levels, under the auspices of the Commission. Capable and fairminded individuals from carefully chosen organizations could be appointed to serve various committees of their choice.

For its significant contribution to the development of the economy back home and its consistent engagement in public diplomacy, the Ethiopian diaspora must also be duly acknowledged and included in the dialogue Commission. In my previously published post, I interrogated the varied ways the diaspora could be meaningfully and sustainably engaged in national affairs. Diaspora representatives from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America could be elected and or appointed officially and in a transparent and inclusive manner. The representatives could engage with the ENDC primarily virtually complemented with carefully planned and arranged in person meetings. Under the guidance and purview of the ENDC, they could arrange and facilitate dialogues in their respective regions and the outcomes could be shared with the ENDC. Whatever strategy is used, the diaspora community must be meaningfully and fairly represented and engaged in the national dialogue.

Overall, the ENDC shoulders one of the greatest responsibilities thought to bring the much-awaited national consensus and cohesion. Understanding the root causes of disagreements among leaders and the people on the most fundamental national issues, reaching national consensus, creating a culture of togetherness and understanding, and mending the degraded social values in three years seems overly rated. On top of that, the dialogue process is expected to be inclusive, participatory, and impartial. This scale of work, the unclear credibility and acceptability of the Commission, the ongoing ferocious killings of innocent Ethiopians and the displacements of hundreds of thousands, and even the formation of a negotiation team led by Demeke Mekonnen could challenge not only the performance of the Commission but also the integrity of the Commissioners. There is thus a decoupling between the intention of the national dialogue and the efforts and capacities to make it hegemonic and effective. Several alternative strategies are available to overcome these challenges some of which are highlighted next.

One, under the patronage of the ENDC, specialized taskforces or committees (expanse of structures) could be created for planning and coordinating dialogues in Ethiopia and in the diaspora. There could for instance be committees for media and communication, scientific studies and research, monitoring and evaluation, funding and resource mobilization, seminars and conferences, etc. These structures could extend and build the capacity of the ENDC.

Two, there are instances where expansive structuration cannot sufficiently support meeting the objectives. Partnering and collaborating with local, national, African and international organizations and countries could build capacity and mobilize intellectual and social capital. The formal inclusion of faith-based and other civic organizations and the diaspora becomes practical.

Three, more scientization and rationalization of the dialogue process is needed for improving credibility and impact. The highly educated people at home and in the diaspora have a critical role to play; they could conduct formal (scientific) studies and responsibly share their findings with the larger population. Series of commissioned and independent studies that interrogate varied aspects of the national dialogue should be conducted and documented. Possible topics for study may include the conceptualization and operationalization of terms such as national consensus and fundamental national issues that deserve dialogue, strategies to make the process more credible, the views and attitudes of the people, strategies and mechanisms that support effective deliberations or dialogues, roles and responsibilities of the various stakeholders in organizing and conducting dialogues, etc. These kinds of independent studies could unravel unique opportunities, challenges, and threats linked to the national dialogue which will then lead to evidence-based decision making at several levels.

Four, significantly embracing digital technologies could contribute to the efficiency and effectiveness of the process. Thanks to advances in telecommunications technologies, communications could be made in real time across the globe. This is especially important for dealing with international partners and the diaspora. Moreover, having a dynamic and professional website could serve as a virtual space or office where to timely share news, views, plans, and reports as well as to receive feedback from readers. Active and engaging social media accounts could also play critical roles in the dissemination of the discourse as well as in the making of it more hegemonic and impactful.

Not least important is making dialogues about the national dialogue itself and the Commission heading it. This could contribute to rigorously understand the triggers and drivers of the discourse, its motives and purposes, and expected challenges and problems as well as coping strategies. The major stakeholders such as the government, the opposition, media, and ordinary people need to openly discuss the credibility and possible impact of the ENDC and make informed decisions accordingly. This should be considered a critical first step needed in what appears to be a long and arduous walk to national consensus. Formal studies could support meaningful discussions about the END and the ENDC. This study aspires to trigger and drive such fruitful discussions in the times to come.

Acknowledgments

I sincerely thank the participants of this study for taking their precious time to complete the survey. My great gratitude also goes to Zehabesha for hosting the survey, by placing it at the very front page of the platform throughout the study period. These kinds of cooperation are vital for contributing to the common good. Thank you!

 

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1 thought on “Interrogating the Ethiopian National Dialogue”

  1. I appreciate the author for his attempt to run the study. I am assuming the article is published in a peer reviewed journal after going through scientific scrutiny [otherwise it is is invalid!!]. Nevertheless, it appears that the author mixes the process of the national dialogue as if it will be done among organized elite groups [government, parties, NGOs…….]. That is not my understanding of the modality of the process. It will be good the Author to have conversation with END Commissioner [Prof. Mesfin Ararya].

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