Ethiopia has been facing political and security crises since 2016. The country has shown signs of heading towards stability, in part due to political reforms it is undertaking, but internal violence remains acute. Sudan is wrapped in turmoil with protesters demanding political change. South Sudan has the daunting task of implementing a fragile peace agreement, against a backdrop of communal violence and atrocities occurring since December 2013.
Apart from the terror threat posed by al-Shabaab, Somalia is struggling with inter-communal conflicts and political disputes between the federal government and its member states. The region is dealing with clashes based on ethnicity, religion and other identity markers. Demands are being made for more just, equitable and democratic governance, as well as remedies to various forms of socio-economic disfranchisement.
These factors work against the fragile state of national unity in the region’s countries. They show that now more than ever, genuine and inclusive national dialogues are needed. Despite their potential to complement existing conflict prevention and peacebuilding efforts, they are underutilised in the region. National, regional and global peacebuilding actors should support national dialogues to help avert domestic political crises and internal armed conflicts.
The overriding goal of national dialogue processes is to promote peace, unity, reconciliation and a shared sense of identity – all critical elements of sustainable peace, but all in short supply in the Horn of Africa. Having wide-ranging mandates including political reforms, constitution making and peacebuilding, national dialogues are political processes that aim to reach a new social contract between interest groups and communities in a country.
Such dialogues have recently gained traction as vital instruments of peaceful transformations. According to the Berghof Foundation’s National Dialogue Handbook, they have been implemented with varying degrees of success in Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain and Yemen.
In Tunisia, national dialogue has been credited for breaking the political deadlock and for building enough political consensus to lead to constitutional and institutional reforms. In such cases, national dialogues have numerous inherent advantages. They effectively respond to local actors’ demands for national ownership, inclusion and wider participation.
In the Horn of Africa, however, national dialogues have not always been well implemented; and at other times citizens have wanted them, but governments haven’t recognised their importance.
In the years before the political upheavals leading up to the current political transition in Ethiopia, there were calls for national dialogue, especially by the opposition and civil society. These were not taken up, and the need for national reconciliation and unity was downplayed as issues conclusively addressed by the country’s constitution and its federalist form of governance.
South Sudan’s government initiated a national dialogue process in 2017 in the absence of any viable peace agreement on the civil war. The process was heavily contested, largely because of its myriad challenges – for example the exclusion of key stakeholders to the conflict (not least the opposition parties and rebel groups) and the lack of a conducive environment for peaceful dialogue.
Similarly, Sudan embarked on a national dialogue initiative in 2017, which President Omar al-Bashir at one time praised as an unprecedented process ‘in which all political and vital social forces took part’. However if the protests and deepening political crisis are any indication, Sudan’s national dialogue was neither inclusive nor genuine. Serious concerns could be raised about the process, its substance and outcomes.
So what must change in terms of the design and implementation of national dialogues in the Horn of Africa to enable countries to overcome their current internal sources of instability?
The region’s deep political crises and post-conflict situations have made governments realise the limits of securitised approaches used in the past. States are recognising the need for political solutions. Al-Bashir recently said that national dialogue was the only way to resolve his country’s ongoing crisis.
Likewise, Ethiopian policymakers have recently taken concrete steps towards dialogue processes, including by establishing a national reconciliation commission this year. In Somalia, there is an increasing recognition that focusing on military interventions has failed to bring about sustainable peace in the country.
National and international actors vested in sustainable peace in the region need to capitalise on these new opportunities to find politically rooted solutions to crises. But there is also a need to go back to the drawing board to ensure the dialogues are genuine, inclusive, as well as owned and driven by national and local players. Unlike in the past, those supporting such dialogues must ensure proper representation, agenda setting, clarity of decision making procedures, and support structures.
The United Nations, African Union and Intergovernmental Authority on Development in particular must rethink their approaches on conflict prevention and peacebuilding in the region. They need to ensure that genuine and inclusive national dialogues are at the centre of conflict prevention, management and resolution efforts. Without this, the current window of opportunity for convening real dialogues may close, and the fragile peace and security climate in the region will remain.