A highly successful two days long conference focusing on conflict resolution, transition, democracy and nationalClear Photo.0003 unity for Ethiopia was completed on March 27, 2016. The conference was organized by Vision Ethiopia, a non-partisan organization whose objective is seeing Ethiopia transitioning to peaceful, stable, united, democratic, prosperous and livable place for all its citizens. The conference was organized in collaboration with ESAT. It was held at the Georgetown Marriot Hotel in Washington, D.C. With the exception of the designated keynote speaker, Dr. Merera Gudina, Chairman of Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) and Vice-Chairman & Head of Foreign Relations, Ethiopian Federal Democratic Unity Forum (MEDREK), and Mr. Abiye Yassin Ibrahim of Addis Mieraf in Belgium, all of the 28 speakers arrived at the venue. Speakers, moderators and participants came from various parts of the United States and Europe (Germany and Norway). Professor George Ayittey of the American University, Dr. Anuradha Mittal of Oakland Institute and Ambassador J. Carson, Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs sent their apologies because of scheduling conflict, health condition and an emergency. Dr. Merera Gudina was unable to travel to Washington, D.C. from Ethiopia because of travel restriction imposed on him by the Government of Ethiopia. Mr. Abiye Yassin could not fly out of Brussels, Belgium, because of the horrific terrorist bombing at the Brussels International Airport and the subsequent closure of the airport.
The conference was divided into six sessions. Representatives of Vision Ethiopia moderated five of the six panels. Professor Getachew Begashaw, Dr. Ashenafi Gossaye, Mr. Gizaw Legesse, and Professor Minga Negash moderated the five panels while the sixth session (women’s forum) was moderated by Ms. Lulit Mesfin. Speakers were senior academics, representatives of rights based civic organizations, individuals, religious leaders and three political organizations pursuing different political positions, programs and strategies of their own. The political organizations were Arbegnoch Ginbot 7, Ethiopian People’s Congress for United Struggle (Shengo) and Oromo Democratic Front (ODF). The list of speakers included Mr. Obang Metho, Dr. Erku Yimer, Dr. Assegid Habte-Wolde, Mr. Gashaw Gebre, Professor John Harbeson, Professor Achamyeleh Debela, Mr. Aklilu Wondaferew, Mr. Lencho Bati, Mr. Neamin Zeleke, Miss. Elizabeth Lakew, Mrs. Sewasew S. Johannessen, Mrs. Assayesh Tamiru, Ms. Wossen Debela, Mr. Ermias Legesse, Dr. Mesfin Abdi, Professor Seid Hassan, Professor Ezkiel Gebissa, Professor Teshome Abebe, Dr. Beyan Asoba, Professor Alemayehu Gebremariam and Professor Messay Kebede. The Master of Ceremonies was Ms. Birtawit Girmaye of ESAT.
The participants of the conference held a one-minute remembrance silence for the most recent victims of the protests in Oromia, Konso, Humera, Afar, Somali, Gambella and Wolkayit regions, the 18 million of Ethiopians who are suffering from the effects of drought and famine, those who are in prisons and the internally displaced.
Speaker after speaker underscored that the TPLF/EPRDF narrative of Ethiopia and the crisis in the country is utterly irresponsible and misleading. Speakers underscored the severity of the drought and famine, internal displacement, outmigration, the incomprehensible election statistics, the mounting domestic and foreign debt, rising inflation and cost of living, rampant corruption and the alarmingly skewed income distribution, and the recent increase in state and non-state led violence in various parts of the country. There was unanimous agreement among speakers and panelists that the current protests are bursts of prolonged grievances and the results of the political and economic machinations of the ruling party over the past 25 years.
Using past and current practices of the TPLF/EPRDF as their guides, most analysts agreed that the ruling party would allow neither free elections nor the establishment of a governing system accountable to the people it purports to represent. Speakers urged that the ruling party’s killings in Oromia, Wolkait, Ogaden, Afar, Gambella, Konso, and other parts the country must stop without delay. Conference participants demand the ruling party compensate victims’ families and the ruling party takes confidence building measures so that conflict resolution negotiations could begin in earnest. Legal scholars and political scientists agreed that the killers cannot “investigate” themselves, and urged for the appointment of an investigative body composed of renowned citizens known for their integrity and impartiality. Speakers, panelists and guest conference participants have observed the contradictory and confusing use of expressions regarding the atrocities being committed against the people in Oromia, Gonder, Konso, Gambella, Afar, Ogaden and other regions. One good example of such conflicting and confusing signals is Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalign’s harsh and deceitful rhetoric which blamed the protests on ‘terrorist elements abroad and anti-peace elements backed by the Eritrean government’ and indicating he would take ‘merciless action’ against them. He followed his threats with a half-hearted “apology” for the death of hundreds of peaceful protesters who were killed by the special force called Agazie, federal police and the army that he purports to be the commander-in-chief. There was a consensus among all conference participants that leaders of the ruling party are sending such conflicting messages thinking that they would get away with murder.
There was also unanimous agreement, both from the speakers and the audience that Ethiopia needs a transition strategy that moves the country from the state of conflict to the state of peace and democracy and national unity. Speakers underscored that this is an opportunity for both the ruling party and the opposition groups. The instrument for the change is a new transitional government which may or may not include the TPLF/EPRDF depending on how it responds to the just demand of the Ethiopian people.
Furthermore, despite the diversity of the speakers, what made this conference unique was the fact that neither a single speaker nor a member of the audience advocated for secession of a region. There was a strong consensus that Ethiopia’s unity will not be guaranteed neither by force nor by the imposition of ideologies favored by some. Rather, Ethiopia’s unity could only be kept through true democracy and federal system, the recognition, preservation and fair treatments of historical and cultural heritages of all ethnic groups, the recognition of past and current injustices committed against some communities and all Ethiopians at large. This is not to say that there were no disagreements among speakers and the audience. We are just reporting that the areas of agreements by far outweighed the areas of disagreements. Full coverage of the conference through ESAT television and radio can be consulted to get full understanding of all the ideas and positions argued on the conference.
There was support for a new dispensation of “constitutional patriotism”, respect for the duality and multiplicity of identities. Some speakers and panelists suggested a restructuring of the country which could be done by taking a “multinational state” perspective. There was a spirited debate on how to achieve this. There was also agreement that indigenous cultures and values be the basis for crafting the new “constitutional patriotism”, but as expected, there was less agreement on specifics. Legal scholars, political scientists, historians and philosophers agreed that work in certain areas is lacking.
The sticky point was whether the ruling party has the incentive to partner in the transition, and whether the top brass of the military and security organ permits the orderly and peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy. Speakers and audience noted that inclusiveness is necessary in that there are about 24 national and 51 regional parties, while the number of armed and exiled groups amounting close to a dozen or so. With the exception of one of speakers, most analysts and participants doubted the TPLF, the core of the ruling party, would be willing to negotiate without facing sufficient pressure from all corners.
Despite elevated excitements on certain sticky points, the conversations were informative, respectful and cordial. We were happily surprised to see many speakers and even members of the audience willingly and purposefully intermingling and socializing inside and outside the conference hall. Moreover, more than 30 participants of the conference, at times with long queues at the microphone, had the opportunity to ask questions and make their own comments. The two days long conference ended on Sunday at 7:45 PM. In addition to being fully engaged at the conference, presenters, panelists and representatives of political organizations participated at reception on Saturday evening and dinner at Ethiopian restaurant in Virginia on both Saturday and Sunday evenings.
It was very heart warming to observe that there was a strong desire and willingness among speakers and conference participants for continued dialogue through similar conferences that clearly exhibited a highly dignified, elevated, and graduated level of discourse among diverse participants espousing diverse outlooks and preferences. Going forward, many of the audience have expressed their delight by what they saw on the conference and have promised to help in the future endeavors of Vision Ethiopia to produce a conference of this quality. The six conference sessions will be transmitted unedited by ESAT, and Vision Ethiopia invites all Ethiopians to take their time and watch the videos. Vision Ethiopia and ESAT convened this highly successful conference so that all Ethiopians, whether those back home or in the diaspora, would be able to contribute to the national dialogue for conflict resolution, transition, democracy and national unity.
Long live Ethiopia!