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ETHIOPIA: A CALL FOR CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM

Teshome Abebe
January 23, 2016


A few days after the TPLF forces entered Addis Abeba in 1991, a lone tank rolled down a gravel highway from Kobo, a small town in Eastern Hararghe, West to a commercial town called Deder. Before entering Deder itself, the tank commander and its crew stopped to chat with the curious onlookers who had come to investigate why the beastly looking motorized vehicle was in the area. The commander asked the crowd if any one had noticed armed men in the area, and specifically, if members of an Oromo liberation front force (ONLF) were present in the vicinity. Perhaps satisfied with the responses, the commander ordered the tank crew to head back to Kobo and to whatever other mission he had in mind. It never occurred to the tank crew that there was a population of citizens who would be at the mercy of the belligerent group hiding in plain view or, if it did occur to them, they did not care.

The abuse and, worse, murder of innocent individuals would begin the next day. According to witnesses, the commander of the ONLF forces in the area at the time went by the name of ‘Burriso’, having taken over the duties earlier from another fellow by the name of ‘Netti Leta’.

In the ensuing mayhem, revenge killing and destruction, my family lost our sister, a mother of three small children, one of whom was just an infant. The family would later be allowed to claim the body (not suitable for viewing given the horrific nature of the killing) from a person whose name was ‘Solomon’. Witnesses say that ‘Solomon’ was, at the time, the chief of the ‘Debeles’—the trainees with a local establishment. *

The tortures and killings were not confined to Deder, they moved down East and South East to a place called Bedeno. While what happened in Deder was not the center of publicity, what transpired in Bedeno, after the TPLF found it garish and inhumane, has now become a matter of public record as the TPLF used the resultant video to tarnish and demonize the ONLF. It is believed, according to witnesses, that the individual who oversaw the murders at both Deder and Bedeno—a woman by the name of ‘Asli’—was later apprehended at the Dire Dawa airport trying to evade capture, and would eventually end up being sent to prison in Addis Abeba for unspecified charges. The killers and murderers would disappear into thin air. 

What happened to the rest of our family and their escape from the man-made ‘hell’ is beyond the scope of this short essay. Suffice it to state that, first, their escape would not have been possible with out the assistance of former friends and acquaintances, and second, people had to abandon their homes, the land they had once called their source of food and income, and whatever else they had to their names, and flee. Having had no one to speak for them or on their behalf, they had quickly become homeless and state less in the country in which they were born and raised families. My father would later tell me that what had surprised him the most was how contagious the hatred had become in an instant. When I visited the place for the first time since the incident in 1998, even the tress, as if in a state of nature’s own rebellion, had died, and those that had been planted anew seemed to refuse to grow. As in all dislocations everywhere else on the globe, the ones that suffer the most are women, old men and children. 

I began this essay with such a profound personal vignette to illustrate a few things: First, that human history is full of cruelty, and that laws and civility are only pertinent when people wish to abide by them. Second, there are thousands of these vignettes all over Ethiopia, and the destruction and misery that is attributed to each is incalculable. We have a responsibility to bring them to an end. Third, my family and I have chalked up our own losses and suffering (which never dims, by the way) as a sacrifice in the name of One Ethiopia just as others have done so with their own loses. While it is very personal, what happened to us has also happened to countless of thousands of others. What makes it even more painful as time goes on is the realization that the One Ethiopia we had hoped for is fast becoming a pipe dream or a potential nightmare. Fourth, I hold the view that most of us believe in the promise of Ethiopia, but that has come to mean different things to different groups. Some promote the interests of the group above the interests of the individual. This in turn has spawned conflicting values and opinions of what the promise of Ethiopia really means. The promise of Ethiopia doesn’t have to include an endless story of repression; it does not have to include allowing ourselves to cry over the same things time and again; and it does not have to include endless stories of fleeing it in turn. All lives matter and they matter even more depending on the circumstances. The death of a family member in the Ethiopian context is not just a manifestation of the mortality of humankind; it is also the beginning of the demise of the economic wellbeing of those left behind. I may not know with absolute certainty, which individual might have ordered the murder, but I can safely say that the imperatives of the system and the imperious manner that laid the groundwork were responsible, and should be rebuked without restraint.

We should all condemn the violent deaths of those who lost their lives in the most recent violence in the country, along with those that lost their lives in and around Addis after the 2005 elections. At the same time, we should also commit in unison that not a single violent death is acceptable to any of us. One of the best ways of avoiding unnecessary political violence is to stop the co-belligerency we seem to encourage or facilitate.

What has this got to do with a Constitutional Reform?

Let me first state the central theme of this hortatory essay. Without pretension, I believe it is time for a Constitutional Reform in Ethiopia. Specifically, it is time for an unlimited constitutional reform to revise the existing constitution to the extent that it is deemed proper.

Because I am not a lawyer, I cannot discuss with a degree of competency what is legally wrong or undesirable with the current constitution of Ethiopia. Many have written about it, and I will leave that discussion to constitutional lawyers and other experts or the politicians. There is one thing I know, however, and that is that the current constitution lacks broad based ownership, and while there are elements of the constitution that have served the country well, it has also exposed the country to potentially major and catastrophic upheavals emanating both from within as well as externally.

Minutes before the soldiers dragged out Atse Haile Selassie from his palace in 1974, his last words to the country and to the world were, and I paraphrase, ‘Ethiopia has many enemies both internal and external. I urge you to be very careful with your actions’. These were prophetic words from an aging emperor, but one who understood Ethiopia and Ethiopians better than any of those soldiers who would later end up not only precipitating the “red terror” regime, but also causing the systemic weakening and eventual bankruptcy of the Ethiopian state leading to the current regime.

Among the reasons for a constitutional reform, and an effort to engage the Ethiopian people in the ultimate ownership of the resultant document, include: 

• The constitution was forced upon the Ethiopian people by the TPLF and OLF. Both of these groups thought that they had something very important to achieve using the framework of the rigged constitution. Once adopted, however, the TPLF outmaneuvered and outmuscled the OLF, forcing the later to abandon the coalition. The TPLF would later create the OPDO and the other sister parties—not as representatives of their respective constituencies-- but as representatives of the TPLF to the regions that they are supposed to serve. A discontent block that left the EPRDF, the OLF, is now the irreconcilables.

• The period between 1991 and 1995 was a period that could rightly be called a period of “Carthaginian Peace”. Consequently, the constitution was drafted and adopted under conditions of brutality that demanded total subjugation of the defeated side. The drafting, approval and imposition of a constitution under conditions of a brutal ‘peace’ by completely crushing the enemy do not constitute the acceptance of such conditions. This was a condition under which one could not speak on their own behalf. As a consequence regardless of the fanfare with which it is presented, a forced choice between diminished options is no choice at all.

• There are significant and important constitutional questions that plague Ethiopia today. To the extent that Ethiopia is experiencing difficulties with regard to its durability, sovereignty, and integrity, a significant contributor is the current constitution.

• Many believe that the initial motivation for the current constitution is the greed for power, and that today’s Ethiopia is indelibly shaped by it. There are large segments of the population who believe that the constitution came about at a huge cost, and some will neither be able to forget nor forgive even if its legacy so far has been largely dubious.

• While the constitution through Articles 104, and 105 provides provisions for amending it, it is not entirely clear how change can be effectuated even if it were deemed necessary and ultimately supported by the ruling party.

• While most parts of the Constitution are based on political sociology to make the governing of a particular group inevitable, it also relies on political psychology to define the state of mind of a people. Perhaps an elaborate set of institutional checks and balances would have served better given the evidence of what we are witnessing today.

• While Article 39 has gained most notoriety among the commenting groups, it’s presence seems to me more for comfort than for effect because the implementation of this particular article is quite cumbersome as it currently exists. A careful reading of this article may also lead one to question what it is actually designed to conceal or even encourage. Never the less, it is my personal opinion that a majority of Ethiopians would disavow it if given informed free choice.

• The constitution is not gender neutral (See Article 75 (1.a), (1.b) as an example, even if the Amharic version appears to be so. 

• Because it is not specified in the constitution, the majority of Ethiopians are not convinced that the political leaders will do whatever it takes to preserve the durability, sovereignty and Integrity of the country-- the sine-qua-non for the unity, happiness, progress, prosperity, fulfillment and development of her diverse children. The three imperatives, the trinity, as it were, should be invariable to who governs or the structure of government envisaged. In my opinion, the durability, sovereignty and integrity of Ethiopia are non-negotiable. It is the basis through which, borrowing from Afewerk Tekle, we admonish and erase the sorrows of Africa’s past, embrace the struggles of its present, and become guardians to the hopes of the future. 

• While the constitution has established reasonably good structures and laid out what it professes to protect, Ethiopians are still subject to unpopular political majorities suppressing the rights of both unpopular minorities and unpopular majorities due to a rigged system, and there appears to be no credible mechanism for redress.

• It contains elements that should not be included in a constitution (see Article 43 (4) for example.

• With the adoption of the Constitution in 1995, the machinery of government was designed anew even though Ethiopia has had such experience through the 1931 (which replaced the Feteha Negest, as well as the belief in providence and fate rather than self-determination!), the 1955, and the 1987 constitutions. The most recent constitution has been put to use, and has been tested over the past two decades with ample experience gained regarding what worked and what parts of it have failed or have the potential to fail the Ethiopian people.

• Constitutional Reforms are very common both in the developed nations (generally contemplated under Constitutional Conventions) as well as emerging countries. It is a constant act for continued self-improvement in the governance milieu, and as such, a sign of political maturity as well as inclusivity.

• Ethiopia’s history is replete with violence as a means of achieving power (and of losing power as well) The current government is no different in that sense. The country has never had a post-conflict organization or system to investigate and instigate economic or political reforms with an eye to a genuine inclusive agenda. This agenda should require and incorporate all actors from both inside and outside of the country to arrive at an Ethiopian centered solution with the durability, sovereignty and integrity of Ethiopia at its core. A popularly convened Constitutional Reform is one means of achieving that. Ethiopia, modest as it has been, has always stood at the forefront of the unimagined and has fared well. This would be another chapter in the modest leadership role that it continues to play within the continent as well as for many people of color around the globe.

• The millennial generation is watching how its elders are resolving national problems. The median age in Ethiopia today is an incredible 19.9 years. These will be the inheritors of our legacy. Our legacy to them should never be the interminable and continuing interactions of poverty and violence. We should teach them the truth that in societies where people had governed themselves for years in non-tribal structures with centralized decision-making entities, civil wars have no place or do not last long. Our legacy should never be a long-standing tradition of living in ethnic tribes, and where anyone outside of the immediate ethnic tribal group is considered to be an enemy. If we are honest enough to come to terms with it, the simple truth is that we experience a continuing cycle of poverty and violence because we do not have what it takes to make our country a success. And if one were to pay attention to the hyper-individualists among us, there wouldn’t even be a country called Ethiopia. What a legacy!

• Having designed and implemented a constitution that renders asunder (leads to a violent segregation of) ones patriotism from ones nationalism by playing the ethnic card in a country that is not ethnically homogeneous, the TPLF and OLF appeared to set aside the common human solidarity among Ethiopians; absolved everyone of the country’s past moral failings, records, and their implications for the present; damaged the cause for justice; eroded the moral identity that was bound up with the country; and brought about the diminution of critical moral scrutiny to, love of, and loyalty to laws and even the constitution. As a consequence, and ironically, the leaders are at a constant vigilant alert to checking who is pacified, who is conciliated or is permanently weakened. It wouldn’t be hard to conclude, then, that the outcome of an external aggression from a determined foe would decidedly not have a favorable outcome for the nation under these circumstances.

• Today, the crisis in Ethiopia is political, social, administrative as well as constitutional. In a recent piece, Dr. Desta Andargie, argued that the Addis Abeba Master Plan was constitutional. So, why all the deaths and sacrifices? There have to be other reasons—namely, good governance, corruption and ineptitude, may be even cessation itself. Regardless of the importance of the multitude of reasons for the protests, focusing on just the political and governance issues as a ‘danger’ obscures the problems the system has created both constitutionally as well as administratively. The best avenue for solving major issues of this magnitude is to address the ‘ownership’ issue of the constitution once and for all. While we are at it, let us also be candid with one another: the TPLF does not deserve anything more than a simple gratitude for the sacrifices it has made as a liberation front any more than the various liberation fronts being coddled for holding the rest of the country hostage with an impending threat to carve out ethnic nation states. The best way to address these national issues is straightforward with the entire nation engaged to render judgment as appropriate. If the solutions identified and the systems designed are in harmony, there would be no need to spend resources for continual maintenance of grievances. A constitutional reform provides a formal avenue to develop trust and self-esteem, and even the capacity for empathy and learning more about each other.

It is in the interest of everyone concerned to convene a constitutional conference. The EPDRF has a vested interest in the maintenance of order and stability, even if I personally sense that the precipitous decline of its capital in good will should be of great concern to it. Of all the political actors in the country, I believe it is the EPRDF that has the most to lose if civil strife were to engulf the nation, as well as the most to gain because of the publicly stated goals it has championed, and the progress it has made so far. Furthermore, it is the one party that had attempted to govern with a constitution (albeit unsatisfactorily), and should be more interested in the maintenance of a political order for the sake of the nation and in the furtherance of the goal for economic self-sufficiency. The opposition parties, the fugitive parties and all the rest, who have yet to educate and convince the Ethiopian people what the country would look like after they have assumed power, could use the occasion for rapprochement as well as to gain public legitimacy and even a buy-in of their vision for the nation. The eventual winners will undoubtedly be the Ethiopian people.

There is an even fundamental reason of why the EPRDF must by necessity be the leading advocate for a constitutional reform. Looking back at the monarchy and the Derg regimes, Ethiopians must note the valuable lessons learned. The emperor could have avoided the tumultuous events that engulfed his last days in power, and the consequences it wrought on the nation if he had willingly transferred power in an orderly manner. Thoughtful people could disagree, but the period after the 1960 attempted coup d’état or even the period of time in 1972, when famine ravished the then province of Wolo and some of the other northern provinces would have been ideal. Instead, like all monarchs and/or power hungry rulers, no one could tell him that his time was up, and that both the imperatives of the times as well as the changing nature of world alliances demanded his relinquishing power.

The second, and similar lesson was that of the Derg regime. Mengistu Haile Mariam was too late in recognizing that the wheels of his government had fallen off. By the time he and his crowd came to their senses, both the times and the country had already abandoned them. As a consequence, they could not save the country from what had befallen it.

Having sacrificed significantly, and having witnessed the sacrifices of their countrymen, the EPRDF is in an invaluable position to help bring about appropriate changes that would guarantee the three invariables, namely, the durability, sovereignty and integrity of Ethiopia, along with a continued momentum to achieve the developmental goals it has set for the nation. Everything else it had accomplished so far would have been forgotten if it fails to benefit from the lessons of the past. It has the backing of foreign powers; it still has an adequate reserve of political capital among its supporters; and it holds the reins of power. It is time to think about future generations of Ethiopians and the stories that they are likely to tell!

In the preceding paragraphs, I have attempted to point out some of the reasons why Ethiopia needs a constitutional reform. If there is anything we need to talk about, it is the national well-being. That conversation does not go well when people are married to their positions at the disregard of all other opinions or inputs. Many of us have read unending ad homonym pieces about the sins of others in what could be considered destructive thinking. It is extremely difficult to address national issues unless we discover what it is that people actually believe in. The constitution should be one of the things that should pull everyone together, not because it is ordained but because it is the one document that establishes unambiguously the structures of government and the rights that are to be protected.

Writing about the impending civil war and the potential impact of Whahabism in Ethiopia, in a piece titled “The Whahabi Invasion of Africa”, Dawit W. Giorgis states that, “In a civil strife, the government will lose power but the people could lose their country.” Powerful testimony to the wisdom that the time to tackle divisive issues would be under conditions of relative peace, and not after the wheels of government have flown off. There is no need to remind Ethiopians that the former empire was held together not because it had always had moral purity; not because it could pass a test of whether it was brutal or not, or that it was ethical or not. By modern standards, it would fail all of those tests. It was held together instead, because most people decided to willingly cooperate with it. Similarly, given its arsenal of weapons, the Derg could have stayed in power for a little bit longer had the Ethiopian people cooperated with it willingly. Today, no government would survive for long that does not enjoy or aspires to cultivate the cooperation of its citizens even if it can show off devout believers from among the confused jugglers of multiple identities.

I realize that other well-known and thoughtful individuals have called for reconciliation in the past. I believe that that is an important step if and when the basis for reconciliation has been identified and preliminary agreement reached that all parties would be called to submit to critical moral scrutiny. Otherwise, it simply does not make sense to argue for reconciliation when we know that the problems in Ethiopia today are partly due to the manner in which the constitution was birthed, is currently viewed, understood and implemented. Reconciliation without addressing these issues would be like going to a confessional—similar to the good governance conversations taking place today in Ethiopia. Once the confession is over, everyone goes back to what they were accustomed to and comfortable doing!


Teshome Abebe is Professor of Economics and Former Provost and Vice President. He may be reached at: teshome2008@gmail.com

*Full names have been withheld to protect the innocent, but the message to those who maim and kill the innocent is that those who are left behind will someday tell the story!


 

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