How a splintered country plans to mend

Ethiopia’s new reconciliation commission aims not at punishment for a violent past but at exposure of root causes for past injustices, all in hope of forgiveness and unity.

Ethiopians throw grass into a pool of water as a symbol of riches after the rainy season and to thank the land and water as they celebrate the annual Irrecha thanksgiving festival in the capital Addis Ababa Oct. 5.

Ever since post-apartheid South Africa created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995, nearly 40 nations have tried to account for past wrongs with forgiveness. Only a few have succeeded.

Now it is Ethiopia’s turn. Its attempt, which began this year, could help answer an open question: How does a nation heal after violent trauma?

Ethiopia knows it faces a steep task: dealing with brutality from recent authoritarian rule. The East African state is home to more than 80 ethnic groups, often at odds. After Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office last year, with a welcome release of political prisoners and a revival of democracy, his reforms unleashed long-repressed ethnic frustrations. They even led to a coup attempt. At this year’s world track championships – an event that should have unified Ethiopians around a national pastime – fans spent more time shouting down each other than cheering on their country’s athletes.

With a national census and an election next year, many fear a return to bloodshed – thus the importance of unity. This February, Mr. Abiy, who has a Ph.D. in conflict resolution, formed the country’s first reconciliation commission. It has begun its work of giving voice to victims and placing a long history of human rights abuses in context. The aim is not revenge or retribution. Instead, the commission seeks a narrative for past injustices, to find their root causes and to illuminate them in the hope that understanding will bring forgiveness.

As its mandate says, the commission will promote “values of forgiveness for the past, lasting love, solidarity and mutual understanding by identifying reasons of conflict, animosity that ... occurred due to conflicts, misapprehension, developed disagreement, and revenge.”

Or as Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained about South Africa’s approach: Forgiveness “involves trying to understand the perpetrators and so have empathy, to try to stand in their shoes and appreciate the sort of pressures and influences that might have conditioned them.”

Reconciliation is one thing and identity another, but in Ethiopia, the two may develop together. Unlike many surrounding countries, Ethiopia never had a long struggle with colonialism, meaning that other than a long war with Eritrea, it didn’t unify in opposition to a foreign conqueror. Human rights abuses have been mainly internecine – whether it was during a monarchy, a junta, or single-party rule.

Unlike other countries that created similar commissions, Ethiopia’s attempts at reconciliation come from the inside out. There was no far-reaching regime change when Mr. Abiy took office. The party in power is being reformed, not replaced.

Strengthening national identity may follow a similar path. With so much division, Ethiopia needs uniting values. Love, forgiveness, mercy – those championed by the reconciliation commission and Mr. Abiy himself – offer a starting point. The mission is to create a narrative from decades of abuse, and do so with intent to forgive. This can help recast what it means to be Ethiopian. Perhaps the commission will help change concepts of Ethiopian nationhood from division to unity – unity, that is, around love for fellow citizens.

The commission is not without its challenges. Its mandate comes top-down from the government, rather than bottom-up from the people. For it really to take root, it will need mass acceptance. But the separation between government and people may not be so stark. Mr. Abiy is Africa’s youngest leader in one of its few real democracies. If ever there was a chance to redefine nationhood, it is now, with new generations unencumbered by a troubling past.

Mr. Abiy has made strategic missteps in his short time in office. Ethnic infighting is up in a country already with one of the world’s largest number of people displaced by internal conflict. While he increased the country’s freedom, freedom doesn’t cure resentment. Reconciliation does.

A sudden leap toward democracy has challenged a divided Ethiopia. The commission’s job is to help cool the masses. “Loving each other and casting away the spirit of hatred and revenge” are Mr. Abiy’s stated goals. If the country can embrace those ideals it can reconcile. Divided in conflict or united in love? Ethiopia may be closer to the first but seems ready for the second. The seeds have been sown – now reconciliation only need take root.

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