In Ethiopia, elders dissolve a crisis the traditional way

Harvard-educated Ethiopian scholar Ephraim Isaac just led a 'council of elders' to broker a high-stakes political deal.

As the gray-haired man of letters strode into the posh restaurant in Ethiopia's capital recently, wearing his signature long, white yemiyakora tunic and black and white cap, patrons stood up and applauded.

Professor Ephraim Isaac, a retired Ethiopian Harvard scholar who lectures around the world on religion, peace, and conflict, had just helped resolve his country's two-year political crisis using problem-solving methods as traditionally Ethiopian as his garb.

Just weeks ago, 35 opposition members were sentenced to life in prison for spurring election protests back in 2005. Despite widespread pressure from donors and human rights groups who accused Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of stifling dissent, the opposition leaders had been kept in jail for almost two years for attempting to overthrow the government.

It was a deadlock that no amount of outside pressure seemed able to loosen, and the life sentences threatened to escalate the crisis. So it was clear to Mr. Isaac that his people needed a strong dose of traditional peacemaking methods. He led a nonpartisan Ethiopian "council of elders" that quickly negotiated a deal acceptable to both sides: clemency in exchange for an admission of guilt and promise to respect the rule of law.

"In our tradition there is forgiveness and elders mediate and we do not believe in grudge and vengeance," Mr. Isaac explains. "This is a very rich culture."

The release of the leaders marks the beginning of a new chapter in Ethiopian politics, which had been in limbo since the May 2005 elections. The local media credited Ethiopia's ancient tradition of mediation in resolving the political crisis and covered the front pages of the local papers with Isaac's smiling face.

"This 'home-grown' solution negotiated by elders led by Ephraim Isaac is not a common occurrence for politically tense countries such as Ethiopia," wrote the Ethiopian weekly Fortune in an editorial.

The resolution to the political crisis was highly important to the US, because Ethiopia is a key ally in the Bush administration's fight against terror. Ethiopian troops were sent to fight Islamists in neighboring Somalia, and US troops have reportedly used Ethiopia as a base. But US congressmen were trying to pass a bill to halt any military assistance to the country until the opposition was freed and human rights abuses were addressed.

How the crisis developed

The problems began after the 2005 elections. The opposition had gone from 12 seats to over 170 out of 547 seats in Parliament. But it refused to take them because it accused the ruling party of rigging the elections and cheating them of a bigger victory. Foreign observers, such as the European Union, also noted evidence of fraud during the vote.

Demonstrations broke out across the country in June and November of 2005. Security forces cracked down on demonstrators who they say turned violent. Nearly 200 people, mostly protesters, were killed and thousands were jailed.

Many of those jailed were US-educated and highly respected internationally, including a consultant for the UN Economic Commission for Africa, a former UN Special Envoy and prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and a former chairman of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council.

Isaac immediately took upon himself the goal of mediation. His inspiration, he says, comes from the peaceful traditions of his mother's birthplace in Western Ethiopia and the Judaism of his Jewish Yemenite father. He chants long verses from the Bible and tells of mediation and forgiveness throughout Ethiopia's history of ethnic and religious conflict.

He met with the jailed opposition leaders and began a traditional Ethiopian mediating process, which relies heavily on the shuttle diplomacy of respected elders.

Today that method is commonly used to resolve small fights between family members and neighbors. A grandmother or elderly neighborhood shopkeeper might be asked to arbitrate.

For a crisis of this scale and import, numerous nonpartisan mediators were needed. Isaac had no problem organizing it: he is famous in Ethiopia for pioneering in the late 1950s the first organized campaign to eradicate illiteracy, which affected over 2.5 million citizens in two decades, and for being the first Ethiopian to get a PhD from Harvard. He also helped establish Harvard's African Studies department.

'Council of elders'

He quickly formed a shimagelewotch – or a "council of elders." It included 25 of the most prominent members of Ethiopian society, including the famed runner, Haile Gebreselassie; a woman imprisoned for seven years by the former ruling Durg; the chairman of the Ethiopian Lawyers Association; doctors; veteran journalists; former parliamentarians; and retired ambassadors.

"We called it the Coalition of Elders," says Isaac, who as its leader shuttled between the jail where the opposition leaders were held and the prime minister's office.

Twenty months later in a rare event in African politics, the political opposition leaders were granted freedom and the right to return to politics by the very party that had charged them with trying to overthrow the government through violence.

In exchange, the oppositionists signed an apology taking collective and individual responsibility for mistakes that led to the violence that erupted following the May 2005 electoral dispute, although a government inquiry had found the security forces to blame.

"As Ethiopians we have learned the important lessons from this episode in our history," declared Capital, a weekly based in Addis Ababa. "The most obvious one is that we have returned to Ethiopia's ancient tradition of mediated solutions."

However, critics such as Al Mariam, a lawyer and professor of political science at California State University in San Bernadino, Calif., says that the traditional mediation was a government tool used to avoid applying international and human rights conventions and Ethiopian constitutional and criminal law.

"To bring out an ancient and anachronistic institution and say, 'We're going to solve it this way' is dishonest and disingenuous," says Mr. Mariam. "We think it's a smoke screen to divert attention, to deceive and hoodwink the international community, to suggest to them that there is some kind of romantic idea that there are African institutions which … are better at solving the internal problems."

A government tool?

Mariam leads a coalition for pushing the US Congress to pass the Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007, which, if passed, would prevent Ethiopia from receiving aid until it releases the opposition leaders and punishes human rights abusers. Two days after the sentences of the opposition leaders, a congressional foreign relations subcommittee marked up the bill for a discussion in the full committee.

Isaac had expressed opposition to the bill in the past and was accused by Mariam of trying to lobby congressmen against it.

"We have no doubt about his sincerity [to help Ethiopia]," says Mariam, "but we believe he is being used as a tool by the regime to sort of deflect international pressure." Isaac declined to comment on the issue, saying he preferred to stay out of politics.

"It's a newish phenomenon that African leaders feel pressure to reverse themselves in these egregious human rights abuses," says Jennifer Cooke, co-director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "I don't think [Prime Minister Meles freed the jailed opposition leaders] from the goodness of his heart. The Council of Elders was a response to both domestic and international pressure. It was a facesaving measure."

Still, she says, "It's a break from the past."

Opinions in Ethiopia differ, but many believe that the solution was a combination of factors. "I think there was likely pressure from America," said Kalkiden Gazaheng, a university student and part-time salesclerk in the capital. "But the mediators were the ones who convinced the sides to agree."

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