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No Longer My Way Or the Highway

Fahamu (Oxford)
10 August 2007
By Mammo Muchie

Politics in Ethiopia, region and in Africa has been, for the most part, destructive since the post-war period, writes Mammo Muchie. There is a need to find an alternative system, where conflict is managed through debate and conversation, rather than by lethal or non-lethal fighting.

'Since anyone who criticises the entire systems of others has a duty to replace them with an alternative of his own, containing principles that provide a more felicitous support for the totality of effects to be explained, we shall extend our meditation further in order to fulfil this duty.' - G. Vico, La Scienza Nuova in 1725, quoted in Reinert, E., 2007, How Rich Countries Got Rich and Why Poor Countries Stay Poor, London: Constable and Robinson.

The success of traditional mediation emerges from rules of engagement that are not predicated on conceptual frameworks of punishment or reward, winning or losing, right or wrong, justice or injustice. Mediation must not free one party and censure the other, make one the 'hero' and the other the 'saint'.

The main concept of traditional mediation is to bring the parties from a state of conflict into normal communication. It asks them to refrain from pursuing grievances through threats, legal action, courts, violence and imprisonments. It brings opposing parties to negotiate, accept the principle of dialogue and find workable settlements.

In some cases, mediation can be so successful that enemies turn into partners. But mostly it is a case of 'antem tew, antem tew', meaning 'stop pushing your maximum demand on the case and settle for the average or the golden mean'.

In a country such as Ethiopia, where litigation is plentiful, poverty and deprivation encourage conflict, and there are insufficient judges and courts, nearly 90 per cent of disputes fall into the domain of traditional mediation. The creation of justice requires more than formal courts. The context of Ethiopia requires that traditional mediation remains critical to redress justice and conflict resolution.

There is thus a lot to be gained from our tried and tested methods of traditional mediation and to develop it by providing the resources to reach and expand the justice sphere in our society. In fact, this alternative method may be the most appropriate mechanism for dealing with the intractable difficulties that our country, region and continent have been suffering from the times of the colonial encounter.

Let us be bold enough to suggest traditional mediation as an alternative to war, violence, endless court wrangling, imitated legal ideas and discourses from Euro-American jurisprudence that may not work in the difficult contexts of our largely peasant societies and peoples.

Perhaps intractable problems that have defied solution, such as the chaos in Somalia, could be resolved, not by mounting an invasion to support despicable warlords, but by supporting traditional mediation amongst peoples.

The problems between Eritrea and Ethiopia cannot go on with each side using refugees as political opposition; but by engaging in mediation, including on the vital issue of why such an unjust settlement was reached in 1991 that denied Ethiopia its historic right of access to the sea.

Settling major political disputes through mediation The submission of the recently detained Ethiopian prisoners of conscience and the government to a traditional mediation process sends a positive signal: left to ourselves, we Ethiopians are capable of dealing with any problem, however intractable, by using local imagination, local arbitration tools and local ideas of fair-dealing and fair play. This is a generous way of reading the outcome.

Beyond the politics and propaganda of the government, the settlement between the prisoners and the government crystallised something new and original in the culture. Regardless of how the regime wishes to capitalise on the release of the prisoners, who were threatened by its courts with the death penalty and life sentences, we ask: does its action betray that it may have broken from fast-held and worn-out politics of 'my way or the highway'?

The only way we can admit proof that the Meles [Zenawi] government is prepared to see traditional mediation as an alternative model of conflict resolution is if - and only if - they commit themselves beyond the contested episode of the prisoners of conscience. The government will only demonstrate acceptance of traditional mediation when it has conceptualised and committed itself to choosing traditional mediation as an alternative and critical method for broad and comprehensive national reconciliation and the resolution of all major conflicts. If they are not prepared to use traditional mediation with the other problems in the country and region, it is fair to conclude they have no commitment to the approach.

While it is an encouraging that the government might consider traditional mediation as an alternative to perpetual conflict, it is not easy to ascertain whether it is converted to this model for reasons of conviction or tactics. From the way it behaved before and after the release of the prisoners of conscience, the regime seems eager to capitalise on the fact that it had to play politics, using the carrot of pardon, after wilfully administering the stick of court punishment.

The prisoners of conscience never recognised the court or the charges against them. Thus entering into traditional mediation, of which some had openly advocated the value for a long time, has been natural to them.

As the government insisted all along that the case against the prisoners of conscience was a 'crime' that only the courts can settle, its submission to traditional mediation is a real climb-down from such a public position. The government stuck to 'the political is the legal and criminal position'. But eventually it gave in to mediation. By its action, if not by its words, it bolstered the traditional mediation system of conflict resolution; in fact doing exactly the opposite of what the government seemed to want to achieve through the courts.

The acceptance in principle of a mediated model of conflict resolution represents a new flexibility, uncharacteristic of this regime for the last 16 years. We must recognise and encourage such flexibility, even from this regime.

Solving such major national conflicts through traditional mediation is a new phenomenon, regardless of the motivation and subsequent barrage of propaganda. For a regime stuck in a dogmatic time warp of the mindless position of the politics of 'my way or the highway', its latest stance must be acknowledged as new.

Judging by the pardon politics, by claiming it was giving total 'pardon' to those who confessed, after they admitted guilt by signing, it is hard to think that this regime has accepted the principle of traditional mediation. That it had to resort to such gimmick is deplorable.

Its stance does not however eclipse the significance and importance of the emergence of traditional mediation as a new domain. Traditional mediation has been ignored by elites, too often seduced by the trappings of Western legal notions that very often have not helped create sustainable resolutions to our intractable troubles. The fact that traditional mediation is being seen to produce results is significant for efforts to resolve complicated conflicts in Ethiopia, the region and Africa.

The partner group, headed by the Canadian ambassador, appears also to have facilitated traditional mediation efforts. If indeed traditional mediation is supported and resourced by citizens, opposition, government and partners, our country may move faster from pervasive conflict to secure development.

Broadening the domain for traditional mediation Now that the prisoners of conscience are released, and traditional mediation has played a significant role in the process, the prisoners, the mediators, and all who submitted to the process, including Ethiopia's current government and the partner groups, especially Canada, deserve our acknowledgment.

But we must not stop at the first success, and must follow this with a further demand: to create a new alternative method for all the conflicts in our country, region and continent. The only way we can truly appreciate the significance of changing the method of conflict resolution to traditional mediation is when mediation is applied to all domains of intractable conflict based on a sustainable and consequential strategy.

The positive energy and spirit for the millennium requires that all the political prisoners detained from May 1991 be released. And everything must be done to open the opportunity for those who suffered to forgive those who disrupted their lives and killed their loved ones. If families refuse to forgive, it is understandable But government, political parties in opposition and traditional mediators must do all they can to encourage the concept that those who killed others may not handle being forgiven by those they hurt.

Launch the era of productive politics

Politics in our country, region and in Africa has been, for the most part, destructive since the post-war period. A number of productive moments have existed, but have not been sustainable. There is a need to find an alternative system, where conflict is managed through debate and conversation, rather than by lethal or non-lethal fighting. Fair dealing, fair play and the attenuation of grievance thresholds must be clear objectives to create a context where people feel secure to carry on normal lives. The fact that the regime, which has been so adamant in refusing any form of dealing with political opponents, conceded and accepted a mediation process is a break with the last 30 years. The question is whether this new engagement in mediation can be generalised to provide a framework for a national and regional reconciliation strategy from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean.

We should encourage this traditional model as a realistic alternative of creating a radically new political environment, no matter how intractable and difficult a conflict may be. Only then will it be possible for destructive politics to lead into a new era of productive politics. Traditional mediation empowers and accords agency to local stakeholders. It bolsters national self-confidence and creates learning and local competence. It is hugely beneficial in many respects. It requires our total commitment.

A fresh and empowering start We would like to see a generalised and comprehensive application of traditional mediation, and full political support for it inside and outside the country. We would like a full amnesty and the release of all political prisoners arrested since 1991, with the sole proviso that those who enjoy generalised amnesty must commit to carrying out politics without resorting to violence, and by agreeing to engage in debate and a political culture of reason and argument. Perhaps this will not be so difficult, provided the prisoners are fully informed, and their prior understanding is secured.

The acceptance and extension of traditional mediation as an alternative or integral part of comprehensive reconciliation from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean may be the most significant achievement of the millennium. All armed and non-armed political forces would voluntarily accept rules that silence the gun, and put forward programmes and arguments peacefully, getting the people to vote freely and choose the party they support.

We would like traditional mediation to be extended between the Ethiopian government and all its opponents from Eritrea to Oromia, Somalia. Inside the country, we would like to see all the multi-national and self-determined armed and non-armed parties enter into traditional mediation to create a favourable environment of tolerance, free debate and competition where only those voted for by the people can come to power.

What is needed is the courage to stop fearing the loss of comfort of the current position. There is no comfort in continuing destructive conflict. There is everything to gain by creating a peaceful environment. Conflict is productive only when it is pursued within legitimate rules that all have agreed to promote peaceful and civilised competition. Let us hope the coming millennium catapults the nation, the Horn of Africa and indeed wider Africa to climb the great wall of peace, stability, security and prosperity for the next 1000 years.

* Mammo Muchie is chair of the Scandinavian Chapter of the Network of Ethiopian Scholar. He writes on their behalf. He is a professor at the Center for Comparative Integration Studies, Department of History, International and Social Studies (CCIS) (http://www.ccis.aau.dk/) and director of the Research Center on Development and International Relations (DIR) (http://www.ihis.aau.dk/development/), both at the Aalborg University, Denmark.

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