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Crisis and Negotiation


Crisis and Negotiation

By Aesop   06/09/2020

Ethiopia is heading towards a crisis. Ury and Smoke (1985) tell us that a crisis has four dimensions. A crisis comprises high stakes, gives little time, is shrouded by uncertainty, and offers narrow options. Parties could raise stakes either deliberately or because they make wrong calculations (mistaken expectations). They may condense the time available to address a problem intentionally or due to reckless management. Parties in crises tend to be uncertain because they lack adequate information about facts on the ground or information regarding their counterparts. Parties may also end up with narrow options because they are unwilling or unable to create alternatives or reconsider the existing ones. So, crisis becomes inevitable.  How does one apply this concept to Ethiopia? By asking four simple questions.

Are the stakes high in Ethiopia? Indeed! The ongoing debate over the election is loaded with high stakes. Postponing the election means transgressing the constitution. Ethiopia cannot retain its democratic façade by pushing off elections. This is particularly true when the pandemic is the pretext. Nobody knows how the pandemic will affect Ethiopia in the near term. That means nobody knows for how long the election will be postponed. This is unacceptable for the masses currently suffering under this regime. If they can’t vote the regime off, how else can they get rid of it? By using force? So, the stake of postponing the election is very high.

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Has uncertainty reigned in Ethiopia? Affirmative! Nobody knows where the dices will fall in the country over the coming few months (if not earlier). The regime is unable to stabilize the country. It is escalating tensions with the only region that is stable in the country, viz: Tigrai. It is also engaged in active skirmishes with opposition groups. The government is unable to maintain a productive and transparent relationship with its counterparts, including human rights bodies. By contrast, it is telling the people the country is facing an imminent external aggression. No one knows who the aggressor is. There is a perpetual chaos internally and an “alleged” threat of aggression externally. Yet, the incumbents never expose the culprits behind. It seems they are deliberately generating uncertainty to keep us on toes. Independent and impartial journalists working to unveil government opacity are facing threats and getting jailed. So, people are having a difficult time knowing the facts. When something bad happens to university students, top engineers, governors, military leaders, and others the blueprint answer is: “we will find out and tell you soon!” But nothing happens. So, saying Ethiopians are facing a high degree of uncertainty these days is an understatement.

Is the clock ticking in Ethiopia? Absolutely! The global pandemic will not go away anytime soon. The term limit of the incumbent regime is ending. The unpleasant interactions over election postponement have only begun. External actors are getting emboldened to intervene in Ethiopian affairs. Negotiation over GERD is turning sour. The economy is starving from hard currency, export earning, and investment inflow. The prospect of retaining foreign donation in times of corona is less likely to flow due to the pandemic. The confrontation between political parties is escalating. Sadly, one of these ticking bombs could explode anytime soon. 

Are the options narrowing in Ethiopia? Totally! How are the options generated? Through consultation. How is consultation achieved? Through inclusiveness. Instead of posing open-ended questions to encourage response, this regime poses multiple-choice questions. Multiple choice questions, by nature, tend to narrow options. This was seen during the election postponement debacle. The government offered four options without consulting opposition political parties. It didn’t even give them a chance to choose one of the four options. Rather, it selected on an option for them- constitutional interpretation. This regime threatened to wage war against anyone opting for another solution.

Hence, based on the four indicators of a crisis, viz.: high stakes, limited time, uncertainty, and narrow options, one can assert that Ethiopia is in a crisis. But this conclusion is insufficient unless one looks at the underlying cause. What is wrong with these people? A crisis is an outcome of wrong decisions. At least at the individual level, wrong decisions are the byproducts of cognitive and perception biases.

Lewicki (2012) catalog four perception and twelve cognitive biases during negotiation. The four perception biases are: stereotyping (social or demographic), halo effect (generalization based on a single factor), and selective perception and projection (assuming others are like you). This regime is rife with perception bias. It labels particular social groups traitors and thieves. It concludes the diplomatic rapprochement with Eritrea and the accolade which followed bought legitimacy among the masses. And, it assumes other parties, leaders, regions, and countries are at the same level of maturity, capacity, and effectiveness as it is. In short, this regime is living in a bubble.

     The twelve cognitive biases of negotiation Lewicki et. al. 2012 mentioned also point in the same direction. These are irrational escalation (being consumed in the moment’s heat), mythical pie beliefs, anchoring and adjustment (attempting to persevere irrational start), framing (presenting cases), information overload, winners’ curse (doubting success), overconfidence, the law of small numbers (overgeneralization), self-serving bias, the endowment effect (inflating one’s value), and ignoring others’ cognition, and devaluing others’ offers because they want to negotiate.

This regime is also mired with countless cognitive biases. We all remember the countless Freudian tongue slips their leaders made. They say we broke so and so, we are elephants, so and so are hyenas, we will pick our Kalashnikovs, etc. We don’t know the whereabouts of the mythical pie called medemer and its cousins ager-bekel and arengwade limat. We all know how they are stuck in a deadlock because they included a third-party in GERD negotiations (e.g. of anchoring and adjustment). We all know the information overload on public tv and now private cell phones. We all know how they embarrass themselves at the world stage (e.g. refusing to take questions during the Nobel Prize ceremony- winners curse?). We all saw the celebrity lifestyle of taking selfies, crib-shows (palace renovation), pointless trips. Above all, everyone witnessed how they threatened parties because they proposed political consensus (e.g. of devaluing others’ because they want to negotiate). All of these and more instances show how the leaders in the current regime are inflicted by multiple cognitive biases.       

There are many other trappings the manifest when weirdos come together like groupthink and many others. Many problems arise due to unforeseen (systemic) factors like a pandemic, drought, locust infestation, etc. But since Ethiopia is heading towards dictatorship the role of group-biases and systemic failures in generating crises in the country is not as significant as the cognitive and perception biases at the individual leadership level. Even so, identifying the underlying causes of the crisis does not suffice. Recognizing them is only the first step towards resolving them.

Fisher and Ury (1991) plead to never give up on biased counterparts. This is true especially under a crisis. These scholars impart certain principles. First, parties must bargain over interests, not positions. This means they should ask and answer why they think they are right. Second, they suggest parties distinguish between individual counterparts and the issue at hand. Personal qualms go out the window. Third, they prefer invention to contention. The best solution is a new solution, not necessarily the one on the table. Finally, Fisher and Ury (1991) suggest that parties should formulate a standard to evaluate possible options. This standard must be scientific, fair, and efficient. These are the basis of principled negotiation.

Nonetheless, Ury (2007) tells us that principled negotiation is not a universal rule. Sometimes, it is necessary to stand your ground and say “No!”. Some parties agree to a settlement to avoid an attack, confrontation, and/or to accommodate the other party. In this situation, it is necessary to remain steadfast and express one’s objection without betraying the underlying principles of mutual interest on fundamental issues. Ury says adhering to mutual principles helps parties to frame their objection in a manner their counterparts will understand. That is why negotiation is a dynamic process. As Goldman (2008) put it, most negotiators tend to pursue options bearing maximum return for them. However, the negotiators who craft their strategy in a manner that triggers positive feedback from the other party tend to reach a favorable outcome. Goldman (2008) called this process of co-evolution the final principle of negotiation.

In sum, Ethiopia is in a crisis. The stakes are high, the future is uncertain, the time is short, and the curtain is closing with narrowing options. This is happening because of the individual leaders running the country. These leaders have a series of cognitive and perception biases. Group-dynamics (intra-region, intra-cabinet, etc.) and systematic factors (pandemic, foreign actors, etc,) also play some role.  But leadership deficit is the primary generator of crisis in Ethiopia. Principled negotiation is the antidote to these biases. Parties should focus on interest (not positions), on issues (not persons), inventive solution (not one’s position), and set objective standards to evaluate their options. They should frame their options in a manner that encourages positive response and trigger co-evolution. However, parties should not accept positions to avoid an attack, evade confrontation, or secure accommodation. If this happens, they should politely say “No!” 



Fisher, R., & Ury, W. (1991). Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreements Without Giving In. New York: Penguin Group.

Goldman, B. (2008). The science of settlement: Ideas of Negotiators, Pennsylvania: Ali-Aba.

Lewicki, R.J., Saunders, D. M., & Barry, B. (2010). Negotiation. New York: McGraw Hill Irwin.

Ury, W. L., & Smoke, R. (1985). Anatomy of a Crisis. Negotiation Journal, 1, 93-100.

Ury, W. (2007). The Power of a Positive No: How to say No and still Get to Yes. New York: Bantam Books.


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