Getting Better At Dealing With Conflict – Dessalegn Asfaw

December 5th, 2009 Print Print Email Email

The Ethiopian democracy movement’s long history of internal conflicts is well documented. In my opinion, this has been its biggest obstacle to success. (more…)

The Ethiopian democracy movement’s long history of internal conflicts is well documented. In my opinion, this has been its biggest obstacle to success. The day the movement learns how to successfully deal with these conflicts will be the day democracy dawns on Ethiopia. Alas, that day seems far away. The current UDJ conflict is yet another illustration that even after all these years, the democracy movement, opposition parties, and activists still have great difficulties in managing conflict. But on the positive side, it is also presents an opportunity to learn some lessons and make improvements for the future. It is a slow process, but I am confident that the democracy movement will over time learn from episodes like these and become more effective at conflict management.

In this article, I try and illustrate some of the lessons that I have learned from the UDJ conflict. Before I go on, I should state that I have no inside information on the conflict. All I know about the conflict is what I have seen and read in the public media. I also have somewhat of a bias, but I try not to reflect it in this article! On to the lessons.

1. Think like family.

Simply put, there are two ways of dealing with conflict. One way is where you have no relationship or co-dependency with the other party, so you don’t care what happens to them – you just want to win. It is a zero sum game. For example, a company sues another for infringement of copyright. The parties have no common interests, except perhaps in minimizing court costs. That would be the only reason they might think about a settlement. Otherwise, a court of law with its adversarial approach is a good place to handle such a conflict.

The other type of conflict occurs between parties who have a relationship and have common interests. Conflict between a husband and wife is the classic example. This is not a zero-sum game. What we are looking for is a win-win situation. They are a family, they have common interests, so no matter their emotional state, they inherently care about what happens to one another.

The UDJ conflict is this type of conflict. People got together and formed the UDJ because they have common interests. When they have conflicts, they have to deal with them keeping this in mind. They have to look for a win-win situation. They have to deal with them like a family, not like strangers playing a zero-sum game. Otherwise, they end up hurting all their interests. In this type of conflict, there cannot be a winner and a loser – either both winners or both losers.

2. Effective communication is essential for conflict resolution.

Effective communication means many things, but let’s focus on two. First, it means empathy – putting oneself in place of others. The best functioning groups or organizations are those in which people not only understand each other, but also identify with each other. Let me give an example of what this means. Consider the debate within the UDJ leadership over joining Medrek. If there were a high level of mutual empathy among the leaders, each side in the debate would have been able to not only to articulate but even argue the other side’s opinion fluently. As you can imagine, this level of empathy would lead to a high level of trust and would never lead to the type of acrimony we see now. It would also have the benefit of facilitating thorough discussion and debate, resulting in a robust outcome.

Second, effective communication means restricting debate and criticism to issues rather than personalities. This is a basic, well known fact that hardly needs explanation, but sadly still not gospel in the Ethiopian democracy movement.

Perhaps one problem is that so many of us see personal attacks in the Western democratic world and think that is just as appropriate in Ethiopia. Of course, it is not. In the West, people have already worked together, applying the rules of effective teamwork, and have established rules of the game. They have set their boundaries. In Ethiopia, there are no boundaries, which is why in an atmosphere of personal attacks, communication quickly deteriorates and absolutely nothing gets done. There should be absolutely no room at all for ad hominem and polemical rhetoric in Ethiopian organizations. There’s far too much of it already.

I think another reason for personal attacks is that we think it will get us the upper hand. The idea is that public will believe me when I call the other side ‘dictators’ or ‘hooligans’, and will end up supporting me. Well, anyone who has followed the recent history of politics in Ethiopia would realize that this is absolute nonsense. As soon as they see conflict in politics, the Ethiopian public tunes out and goes into cynical mode. They do not support one side or the other. Their instinct to avoid politics like electricity kicks in, and they simply withdraw.

The best example of this of course is the 2007 CUDP conflict. It may have seemed that during their diaspora tour, the clear ‘winner’ as far as numbers are concerned was the Birtukan Mideksa side, and the clear ‘loser’ was the Engineer Hailu Shawel side (mainly because Ato Hailu’s rhetoric was awful and filled with personal attacks). But no, that was not the case. Both sides lost immensely. They lost more than has ever been lost by any political movement. In a recent VOA interview, Dr. Yacob Hailemariam remarked that he had never seen as popular a movement in Ethiopia as CUDP. No doubt, but look where they are now.

The current UDJ conflict has also been greeted with refrains of ‘there they go again’. It is crucial for such conflicting parties to be extremely careful and sensitive in managing the public perception of their conflict. Personal attacks and character assassination are a recipe for a lose-lose result.

Instead of personal attacks, all dialogue should focus on events and actions and be made in an empathetic tone. For example, instead of saying, ‘Engineer Gizachew and his colleagues are dictators,’ it is far constructive to say something like, ‘On such and such date, Engineer Gizachew, my colleague and friend, changed this bylaw, which I think is in violation of bylaws. I am pushing the Executive Committee to reassess this action.’ One must stick to reporting the facts, and always remember to emphasize that everyone is part of the same team and that the disagreement is familial, not adversarial. This type of dialogue is what leads to successful conflict resolution, and it also has the added benefit of keeping the organization’s reputation intact.

It is also important that dialogue be as transparent as possible. Don’t wait till the conflict gets out of hand before coming out in public. Unfortunately, the real issues in the UDJ conflict still have not been clearly thrashed out in public. They should have been. If dialogue is constructive and friendly, there should be no hesitation to make it public. Let the public understand not only that there are issues, but that the UDJ is capable of handling them in a mature manner.

3. Leaders are not the only ones responsible for conflict

Many commentators are rightly questioning the wisdom Professor Mesfin Woldemariam’s rhetoric and actions in the UDJ conflict. However, sufficient attention is not being paid to other rank and file members on his side. It is important to understand that a leader without followers cannot do anything. Though in Ethiopia, we tend to focus on leaders, one must understand that leaders, no matter how irrational, and many of our leaders tend to act irrationally, rarely take actions without thinking about whether people would follow them.

When Hailu Shawel took a stand against the rest of his colleagues in 2007, he did so assuming that many of his AEUP supporters would follow him. Those who criticized Hailu Shawel should have also paid attention to those supporters.

If our leaders keep getting into conflict after conflict, then it means that their followers tend to facilitate conflict! We are quick to judge, quick to choose sides, and quick to fan the flames. In other words, the rank and file has just as much to learn about conflict management as the leaders. This is the lesson to learn – everyone has a role to play in improving conflict resolution.

4. Conflict is not about rules and procedures.

Often, conflicting parties describe their conflict in superficial terms, instead of looking at the root cause. For example, a husband and wife may have agreed some time in the past to a rule that neither of them should stay out with their friends past 11pm. However, the husband ends up consistently violating this rule. Obviously, breaking the rule is a problem, but it is not the real issue – there a deeper problem in the marriage. Until that deeper issue is found and addressed, nothing will be fixed.

Similarly, in the current UDJ conflict, each side claims that the problem is the other side’s violation of the UDJ’s constitution and by-laws. This cannot be the root cause of the conflict. If it were only a question of rules, then the violating side would just admit to their mistake and the conflict would be over! Obviously, there are deeper issues at play. Note that if indeed someone is breaking the rules despite the grave consequences, they must have some compelling (to them) reason to do so. It is that compelling reason that must be addressed for the conflict to be fully resolved.

Another problem with focusing on rules is that no set of rules can account for all possibilities. In reality, it is often the case that things happen that are not covered in constitutions or by-laws. Just recall what happened in 2005, when CUDP members were jailed en masse and then finally had their entire leadership imprisoned. The remaining CUDP officials had to make decisions on the fly without a definitive rulebook to guide them.

Because rules can never cover everything sufficiently, members of an association have to rely on common interest and mutual trust to get them by. After all, they first got together to form a group because of common interests. Surely they can fall back on this when their rulebook is found deficient! If not, they have to reassess or rediscover their common interests.

5. Conflict is about common interests.

The standard prescription for solving intra-group conflict is to get the parties to understand that resolution is in their interests, even though they might not realize this at the moment.

The goal of the UDJ as an organization and everyone in it is to help bring about democratic governance in Ethiopia and rise to political power. Therefore every member of the UDJ should assess every action they take in this context. ‘Will it help me realize my and my party’s goals?’ should always be the first question to be asked.

If the parties to the UDJ conflict had thought in this way, they would not have escalate their conflict to the brink as they have done now, in the process damaging both their interests. They would have found one way or another to resolve the conflict.

I would urge everyone in the UDJ to at all times keep their common interests in mind.

6. But what about our principles?

Often, parties to a conflict like to frame it as having to do simply about principles. In the UDJ conflict, similar to the 2007 CUDP conflict, one hears some of the participants talk about the principle of democracy. If I understand it correctly, some on the ‘Professor Mesfin side’, are saying that the other side has broken bylaws and violated democratic principles, which simply cannot be tolerated given that the UDJ’s goal is democracy. They say that if they let the UDJ get away with doing its business in an un-democratic manner, then what is the difference with the EPRDF. After all, the goal is to bring about democracy, not to replace the EPDF with another dictatorship.

A good argument, on the surface. The problem with it, as with all arguments based solely on principle, is that it ignores all the gray areas of life not covered by these principles. The parties in the conflict should ask themselves whether the Ethiopian people have in fact learnt a lesson in democracy by watching the conflict played out the way it was on ETV. Obviously not! What they saw is a bunch of folks unable to resolve even the smallest conflicts with each other. A big part of democratic culture is the ability to manage conflict. It is superficial to just stick to principles. It is only a commitment to common interests and conflict management that induces people to follow principle. Without such a commitment, you simply have conflict after conflict, not democracy.

So the ‘principle’ argument, as good as it may sound, does not fully apply in this situation. I would urge those who make it to reassess their false assumptions about what a democratic culture requires.

In the end, I can do nothing but urge all members of the UDJ and the Ethiopian democracy movement in general to think about the above points of conflict management and how they can put them into practice everyday. Again, think about your real interests. Are you interested in winning little arguments, or winning political power through democracy? If the latter, which is most assuredly the case, then act accordingly.

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