Principles on National Dialogue: Drawing
Lessons from Abroad
NTJWG Thematic Leader on Memorialisation
As a tool for conflict resolution and a political transformation, national dialogue can be an integral part of a political culture. This comes about as a nation starts a conversation to dialogue with itself on specific national issues in an inclusive manner. A nation that speaks to itself and its people will provide a platform for cohesion and integration, thereby clearing any space for violence as it builds trust.
There is need to advocate for a broad debate regarding a country’s trajectory beyond the known and normal elite decision-makers. The great danger with unstructured and haphazard national dialogues is how it can be misused and manipulated by leaders who seek to entrench themselves in strategic positions and consolidate their power. To begin with, we need to ask ourselves what are the aspirations of the people of Zimbabwe and how can we capture those aspiration in an inclusive and holistic national conversation in order to reach to the Zimbabwe we want. The second question is, are there any international guidelines or principles for national dialogue processes that we can adopt? This is more of a new concept which is becoming popular in a diverse group of countries and circumstances.
Here are some of the advantages of an inclusive national dialogue:
- It broadens the debate about the country’s trajectory for conflict resolution;
- It provides another possibility for a national political transformation;
- It offers potential for meaningful conversation that is inclusive and beyond the antagonists;
- It exposes the traditional and new drivers of conflict;
- It offers a holistic approach to address national issues;
- Points out that there is no one size fits all model;
- It provides opportunities for regional narratives to be made as part of the national agenda and
- If done well. It gives everybody a sense of belonging and ownership of the process.
Of course, national dialogue has to be thought through as it relates to various arms of governance like the role of parliament, the constitution and elections. National dialogue needs all these arms to guide and give it the legitimacy that it requires. It does not ignore important and critical aspects of human rights violations, amnesty, criminal prosecution and investigations. These must come from the national conversation and not just prescriptive as the elite give a lip service to such weighty and emotive issues.
Key Principles for National Dialogue
- Public participation
- Far reaching agenda
- Credible convener
- Clear rules of engagement
National dialogue convenes a broad set of stakeholders for a deliberative process. All key interest groups should be invited to participate. As we maximise the dialogue we include women, the youth, traditional leaders, war veterans, political parties, business people, academicians, the disabled, government representatives, international partners, NGOs, CSOs and FBOs.
Before the process begins an inclusive, transparent and consultative preparatory phase sets-in the foundation for a genuine national dialogue. The initial decisions on the shape, structure of the national dialogue and who is invited to participate can be as critical as it lays down the foundation for trust and willingness on the part of the government and political parties. This is done by a preparatory committee that is nationally selected and inclusive. The National Dialogue Committee (NDC) represents a national departure from the political elite and allows for more representative conversation and contributes to the opening or creation of a conducive environment and the levelling of the playing field.
Transparency and public participation
If there are no sufficient opportunities for the public to remain informed and provide feedback into the dialogue, there is a risk of the process losing legitimacy. There must be a deliberate willingness and structure of linking the national dialogue process to a local conversation and public consultations, regular outreach and media coverage. Delegates or stakeholders are mandated to hold meetings with their constituencies as a way of keeping everybody informed of what is going (Senegal National Dialogue, 2008-09).
A Credible Convener
In order to have a good dialogue there is need for credible convener. This in many ways can be a generally respected and agreed single person, a group or an organisation with no political aspirations or objective that will cause a conflict of interest.
There is always need for a long-standing moral authority and broad constituent base. The person, persons or organisation could be the catalyst in the process. Age, experience and gravitas are aspects that should be considered.
Clear Agenda and Key National Issues
It is critical that key national issues are agreed before the dialogue as part of the agenda. This enables the dialogue to be focused and researched beforehand by everyone involved and enables a broad based consultation. Issues for discussion need to be agreed months or even a year before the dialogue commences. In most cases, it may be required to pre-negotiate and renegotiate national issues to be placed on the agenda of a national dialogue.
The role of religion in government, political rights, basic freedoms, institutional reform, election procedures and the structure of government like federalism or devolution should be part of the agenda. The United States Institute for Peace (USIP, 2019) suggests that a national dialogue’s agenda should provide for substantive conversation around the major grievances of all key interest groups.
Clear mandate and tailored structure, rules, and procedures
National dialogues take place outside of the existing institutions of government. In fact, national dialogues are often convened because the incumbent government and existing institutions are unable to resolve the major issues at hand, either because they are an interested party or there are perceptions that they neither legitimate nor credible.
A national dialogue should have its own set of procedures and rules for making decisions. These procedures should also include mechanisms to break deadlocks if an agreement cannot be reached. Furthermore, a clear mandate lends purpose and authority to a national dialogue, whether it has been established through a peace agreement, law, presidential decree or some other manner.
Agreed Mechanism for Implementation of Outcomes
National dialogues should feature an agreed upon plan to ensure that the resulting recommendations are implemented through a new constitution amendment or other programs. Because national dialogues take place within a broader transition, they often have formal and informal relationships to transitional justice as a process. Without a clear implementation plan, a national dialogue risks consuming extensive time and resources without producing any tangible results. An example is the Bangui Forum Implementation Committee which was formed at the conclusion of the week long dialogue.
Local ownership is crucial for success of any national dialogue process. Without a strong, respected national facilitator and buy-in from a sufficient coalition of the country’s groups, a national dialogue is unlikely to produce any meaningful results. National authorities should bear the primary responsibility for envisioning, organizing, facilitating and financing the national dialogue. Although international assistance can fill important gaps, assistance providers must take great care to leave the fundamental responsibilities in the hands of national authorities. While national ownership is fundamental, there are points at which the international community can provide important assistance.
International actors can offer important support on the follow-up to the national dialogue, while ensuring that the main responsibility and decision-making remains in the hands of national actors. Civil society may also benefit from international support to monitor the implementation of agreements reached through the national dialogue.
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