Anational dialogue” is an inclusive method of socio-political action that brings together the key stakeholders to discuss a crisis or looming crisis that has political, economic and social implications for a given country. Regardless, the national dialogues have-- various challenges which-- may be complemented by public inquiries.

Africa provides several examples of the national dialogue process. For instance, a thought -provoking debate occurred on a BBC programme, News Africa Live, which took an interest in national dialogues when then-President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria wanted to organize a national dialogue in 2005 to address the country’s national challenges, especially the problems of the oil-producing Niger River Delta region. News Africa Live asked its listeners whether they knew of national dialogues being held in their own country and what their outcomes had been. The programme received feedback from all over Africa and the African Diaspora. The responses were mixed. Some listeners supported the holding of national dialogues, others thought that they were a waste of time and money, while yet others complained that the recommendations of some past dialogues had never been implemented (such as the Liberia National conference of 1998). The supporters of national dialogue quoted as examples the reconciliation between the Nuer and the Dinka ethnic groups of Southern Sudan in 2002 and the positive results in Mozambique and South Africa in 1994, the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2002, and Kenya in 2008.

National dialogues have also been conducted outside Africa: for example, one was conducted in Mexico in 2000 to address drought and desertification in heavily populated areas punctuated by uneven development. The crisis brought together members of both the local and the national Mexican government, academia, civil society and the private sector. According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report in 2009, the participants in the dialogue reached agreement on how to address Mexico’s socio-environmental issues and how to educate the public on the importance of these problems.

Using National Dialogue to Address Natural Resource Management

Resource-rich African countries present special challenges with respect to national dialogues, given the marked income disparities between local communities and the revenues being obtained from the extraction of natural resources. Local communities in resource-rich countries most often have no equity participation in the companies that are logging, mining or drilling in the extractive sectors. With or without an equity stake, however, local communities obviously have a large role in deciding how to interact with the counterpart company – from adopting shared goals and objectives to the other extreme, criminal vandalism or destruction of the company infrastructure or assets.

Historically, though, central governments have had monopolies of control and have made all decisions on natural resource use nationwide, which is fine provided that the central government is honest and transparent. Unfortunately, the latter has often not been the case. Examples from the Niger River Delta region of Nigeria and the Chad-Cameroon Oil Pipeline project, among others, are instructive. One member of a Chadian village along the pipeline was interviewed by Frank and Guesnet of the Bonn International Center for Conversion in 2010, and he had this to say about the villagers' impressions of the project:

“We were being betrayed. I don’t know if it is the state betraying us. The companies told us that the petroleum will develop us, like the USA, France---we awaited this development, but to our surprise they destroyed our trees, the roads, polluted our fields and we live in dust, the health gets worse. There are a lot of children dying, many families are mourning their children because of the pollution.”

This is not an isolated case; many other resource-rich African countries have similar problems. Clearly, resource-rich regions should revisit their economic and political problems.  This raises the question of how a national dialogue like the one that occurred in Mexico might be used in this process.

In order to be effective, a national dialogue requires self-reflection, a spirit of inquiry, and acceptance of the possibility of personal and institutional change. Participants in national dialogue must be willing to address root causes and not just surface symptoms. Moreover, a dialogue is not a one-size-fits-all strategy and there are neither winners nor losers. Based on the 2009 UNDP report, success for a national dialogue calls for clear objectives, flexibility, ownership, understanding of the actors involved, careful preparation, transparency and understanding of shifting power dynamics

A national dialogue is not a panacea for all national crises, however. Moreover, national dialogues should only be encouraged if they have a bottom-up approach. Each region of a country should be ready to participate fully in a national dialogue by contributing to the agenda and providing representatives. A former Norwegian Foreign Minister noted that a national dialogue can be successful only if the mediators and others involved are well equipped to deliver effective and long-lasting results. The examples of Northern Ireland, South Africa, Iraq, and Kenya following the election results of 2008 are instructive.

A Case for Public Inquiries

Given the complexities of organizing a national dialogue, one way to complement the process is by organizing well-focused local public inquiries. Jay Marakenko’s paper, published in 2007, argues that governments should consider establishing joint public inquiries for strategic resources such as oil, gas, diamonds and timber involving both local and national jurisdictions.  However, Steve Richard’s article, published in 2010, warns that unless the public inquiries are properly handled, they may end up fuelling the crisis or challenge that they have been called to address.

To avoid this, the organizers should ensure that the communities where the national resource is located are involved in the entire process. Because of the many issues that the public inquiry will generally cover, the communities should be assisted, as in Canada, the United Kingdom and elsewhere, to prepare for the public inquiry. The communities' views should be heard and should be captured in the public inquiry process. Among other things, the process should ensure in the end that affected communities receive a fair compensation for the loss of their land, the cost of resettlement, or other ways in which they might be impacted. One approach followed would be to have the compensation money put into a fund that is managed by a local development committee that is representative of the areas affected. The committee members would be elected for a period of two years by a general meeting of the communities affected. Every year there would be an independent audit to check the progress of the activities funded by the proceeds of the sale of the resources from the area. The audit should be presented and discussed by the general meeting of all key stakeholders. The report should be published well in advance of the meeting, in the official language, with a summary in the local language(s). Any irregularity regarding the use of funds should be referred to the authorities.

In the search for an effective public inquiry model, much can be learned from the ways in which local social clubs are managed. Many of these clubs have excellent governance practices, especially the way in which they elect their committees to manage the clubs' affairs. For instance, many of them raise sufficient funds from their members to expand their activities and services. Some of their best practices could be replicated by local development management committees responsible for managing the proceeds from the sale of natural resources.

In short, a credible public inquiry managed by an independent entity or person may ensure that the affected communities, regardless of their views, are heard. This could avoid a repetition of the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline experience, where one of the community members from the project site said that “we were promised development and all we got is misery.”