Commissioner Ambaye, thank you for sitting down with Horn Review to discuss some of the Ethiopian Reconciliation Commission’s preliminary work in one of the most ambitious endeavors in Ethiopia’s socio-political history.

Question: Commissioner Ambaye, again, thank you for taking the time with us. What has the process of establishing the commission been like?
A: Given the novelty of this project, its scope, and its grand ambition, establishing an office- that matches the mission is undoubtedly taxing. There has not been such a prior organization tasked with conducting national dialogue, with the relevant structure, experience, and lessons. Given the complexity and multi-faceted nature of our problems, and the sheer size of the country, it is important to draw from the experience of various peace organizations throughout the nation.

There are many aspects of establishing a smooth-running office with our mission being often time-bound and objective centered. Admittedly, establishing a smooth functioning institution is no small, or easy, task; by that I mean the physical presence of the institution. This also requires employing a substantial number of employees: from subject matter experts to administrative and logistics personnel. As I previously mentioned, this office does not have a preceding organization; so, in terms of the required human resources, we are starting from scratch- in the true sense of the word. I consider obtaining the relevant manpower as one of the big tests facing the commission, and I can say that we are on track with our timeline. There is quite a need for high-caliber and dynamic minds, you don’t get those easily.

So we have to reach out to some partners and also offer incentives to sort of get the professionals. So that’s also part of establishing an office. For example, there is often a need for competent and experienced public relations firms, but those services and professionals may not be attainable on the existing public salary scale. This service alone requires its own modality. We do our best to offer an incentive package that requires negotiations with various professionals. Luckily we have come to an understanding with partners, like the UNDP, in mobilizing for and securing the funds to onboard top experts and professionals.

Question: why is the establishment of the office a top priority for the commission? Please elaborate on its importance for our readers.
A: The lion’s share of our engagement so far has been institutionalizing the commission in accordance with the proclamation mandating it. This is primarily to lay the groundwork for a national-level process for which the people can take full ownership. Developing the various protocols, working manuals, and other such materials, is also critical to the smooth functioning, efficiency, and accountability of the commission.

Question: So how do you find the posture of the office now?
A: I would say that it is ever-maturing. I wouldn’t say everything is finished, but we are yet to reach the plateau. I say we are maturing for the previous reasons I have mentioned. There are lessons we are learning as we progress, from our own learning curve.

Question: What has been the engagement of the commission with civil society organizations, NGOs, and local institutions? How have you attempted to involve them in reaching the public about token points?
A: Given the scope of this task, we are engaging government institutions, political parties, and civil society organizations which are some of the main stakeholders of this process. Though we plan to work more closely with them in the latter stages, we were able to ‘lightly’ engage them in our work by familiarizing them with our work and establishing working relationships with them, so far and their willingness to cooperate has been encouraging. Our priority, as a new institution, has been establishing the various offices and functions of the commission.

Before the establishment of the Commission itself, I was part of the national Our engagement with civil society organizations (CSOs) has been part of our broader engagement efforts with different stakeholders. As you may know, there are over 3,700 registered CSOs in Ethiopia and it is impossible to individually engage them all; a more targeted approach proves necessary. In our general approach, we classify civil society organizations into two groups: international CSOs and locally owned CSOs. We have subsequently identified those civil society organizations who have, for the past couple of years, been working on issues relating to peace, dialogue, and reconciliation.

In addition to engaging them as valuable partners in the process, we thought it important to learn from their expertise and experience throughout their peace-related efforts in the country. For example, we were able to engage the MIND-Ethiopia (Multi-stakeholder Initiative for National Dialogue) team. They were one of the principal actors conducting various dialogue efforts for the last 18 months.

Question: Do you find the aforementioned CSOs to be receptive and welcoming of the commission’s work?
A Yes! They are not only willing and receptive, but they are also very enthusiastic about the commission’s role.

However, given the multitude of adjacent tasks for the commission, we may not be going at the pace they anticipate; understandably so for the reasons I previously stated. It is my understanding that they show a genuine interest in meaningfully engaging with us. To continue with the earlier example of Destiny Ethiopia, the precursor to MIND-Ethiopia, they were key in initiating the idea of national-level dialogue to work toward lasting peace. In addition, Justice for All, EID – Ethiopian inclusive dialogue, – Initiative for Change, Ministry of Peace, joint political parties, and other such stakeholders, are involved.

So “mind” was established and the ones I listed above was a few of the actors in this process for 18 months. We felt like it was important to talk to them and get some lessons from the mind. We were able to talk to them and we have been in constant touch with them. We have been getting quite insightful advice from them – that’s one level of engagement we have with them. We also have an engagement with the Ethiopian Civil Societies Council, It is a newly established council that oversees the various existing civil societies. I know it’s quite new but they seem to have a good handle on coordinating civil societies; as they are newly operating, they cannot yet provide substantive support, as we speak. The coordination aspect is very important. We have had contact and quite an encouraging engagement with them. I hope our engagements will prompt more partnerships and materialize into a working agreement, of some sort. CRDA, as one of the major actors in civil societies in Ethiopia, is also present.

Unlike typical elite bargaining, this is meant to be the people’s dialogue; in this regard, how is the commission involving ordinary Ethiopians? University students, and religious establishments, to name a few. Relatedly, are there platforms where Ethiopians can provide questions, feedback, or forward their grievances?

A: Indeed. The Proclamation to establish the Ethiopian National Dialogue Commission (Proclamation No. 1265/2021) is clear from the outset. That this endeavor is unlike the typical elite bargaining project in that it aims to involve every gamut of society. However, this is not to say that the project entirely excludes the country’s elites. The process can be considered a hybrid approach, particularly looking at other similar international dialogue experiences. The process engages the public at large, found at every level, and, concurrently, the elites. So these processes go in parallel. So for us, we believe that this process will take both the elites as well as the ordinary citizens, whatever it means would use the same credibility and weight to these actors. So as I said, we are at a crucial preparatory phase where different modalities need to be devised. This will certainly enable us to bring on board the various voices that Ethiopians have. So one website, we are developing a website.

So one thing we’re doing is developing a website. When it comes to the agenda collection phase, we have in mind and in our plan different modalities of agenda collection going to different villages or localities and holding different meetings generating agenda to discuss – that’s one modality. There are emails as well, we’re open to that because within that there are quite a substantial diaspora communities who are not able to directly engage in the dialogue process. So we think one possibility could be virtual engagements of these diaspora communities in the process. Also in a post on collecting agenda, we use every means possible. We have identified this as a major means and finally, if you read a proclamation that gives a mandate to the council, the commission has to identify fundamental national issues. So we have this very simple order, first, we collect all the agendas. Then, finally, the 11 commissions of the council will decide on the national issues that should come to the national plenary. So, in order to do this we are open to and the proclamation also gives place to research done by different actors. So we look into research and see if they would fit in the agenda items.

We aim to use different modalities of engaging the public. As I said this is something still in progress. Institutional websites and different platforms have been identified. We are progressing on that front and diversifying platforms that can capture the different voices of the citizenry.

Question: How realistic is this form of outreach in a country where much of the public lacks access to the internet?

A: You are right. It is hard to reach in a country where internet access is less than 5%. But it gives it some sort of legitimacy to have everything out in the open.

The platforms we are primarily preparing for are organized at the constituency and wereda levels: women’s groups, youth groups, the framers, marginalized groups, the different associations, interest groups, professional associations, and also unorganized groups. So this method tries to capture all gamuts of society, and ensure no voice goes unheard. We often hear One of the questions we get repeatedly is that “wouldn’t it be unmanageable?” There is good running. It looks a little bit ambitious but I hope through this process different discordant voices would be captured and I guess that would somehow give collective healing to the nation.

The more you explain the more the task there is. The whole population is rooting for the success of this initiative.

So, what would you recommend the media do?
A: Quite a number of things. The media should, at the very least, hold us accountable. We, honestly, have that audacity at the commission. But, with that, a legitimate concern because if they understand the sheer importance of their task. I would say that this process is also their own, and with that- they are not mere spectators- but integral parties to the success of the process. They are there to protect the integrity of the process.

Do you believe that national-level media training is relevant to the success of the Commission’s work?
A: Absolutely. In the field of Journalism, there is a specific specialization called “peace journalism”. There are targeted trainings for reporting on sensitive issues, and in contexts where there is a risk of conflict or pockets of violence. The way media entities angle themselves on controversial issues needs thorough deliberation. One must ask, “are we over-emphasizing a few negative items, and minimizing the good?”- as has been the case in many instances. The few moments where the Israeli, Palestinian, and Egyptian heads of state shook hands, having achieved a promising agreement, have had a positive effect on the overall narrative of animosity. Although the process has been arduous and long, capitalizing on the goodwill of the leadership has done more to encourage hope among ordinary citizens of these nations. The focus of the media on positive achievements, as well as a sober analysis of the issues, has a lasting effect- hence why it is so important.

Knowing and understanding what exactly is at stake, a sensitive national-level endeavor is crucial for all involved, especially media entities. One might ask “what sort of media training is important at this time?”

In my professional and academic experience, I am yet to see a country attempt a national dialogue at this level; a population size of one hundred and twenty million, with its complexities and varying narratives, is novel. The interest of foreign entities in this process, be it positively or otherwise, makes this dialogue highly consequential to the broader Horn region.

This is to say: the national dialogue is as much an experiment for the commission, as it is for media entities and other such stakeholders. It requires a careful and methodical approach. Yemen and Kenya have attempted a similar endeavor; though they set out to conduct a comprehensive national-level conversation, they only had a handful of items on the agenda for discussion. Understandably, dialogue experiments have their own peculiarities inherent to the conditions and challenges of the countries, but these experiences are unlike that of Ethiopia. The primary challenge for our country is the multiplicity, and complexity of our issues; added to the intensity of identity-based questions and the risk of triggering-question.

For anyone giving this nationwide endeavor a serious thought, it can be intimidating but I am hopeful that this process would birth a new Ethiopia, that is the hope that keeps me positive and energized, as it should.
(Note: this interview took place in October of 2022. A follow-up on the up-to-date activities of the mission will be shared in subsequent issues)