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Could constitutional reform end Ethiopia’s political forever war?

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This article is part of the Analytical Reporting to Improve the Federation (ARIF) project.

For some in a divided political community, ethno-federalism is the source of all ills. For others, it’s the remedy to them.

At the root of the Ethiopian federation’s brutal polarization is a divisive founding document.

A parliament controlled by the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) adopted Ethiopia’s constitution in 1995, four years after the coalition seized power in Addis Ababa as rebels.

The constitution formulated a federation and, alongside a set of individual rights, it enshrined group rights as it split Ethiopia into nine regions based on ethno-linguistic settlement patterns and two chartered cities.

Although many back then regarded a relatively liberal constitution as a step forward compared to its predecessors, it is by no means free of defects, and has long sparked fierce debate.

The two aspects that cleave opinion most are the creation of administrative units along ethno-linguistic lines and the introduction of self-determination rights—even the right to secede—for what were called Ethiopia’s “nations, nationalities and peoples.”

Proponents refer to this system as multinational federalism and argue it was designed to hold Ethiopia together by granting autonomy to its diverse peoples. They depict it as an imperfect yet necessary effort to rectify Ethiopia’s historical legacy of violent and assimilationist state formation, and unjust relations among ethnicities.

Critics label it “ethnic federalism” and argue that the promotion of group rights has been at the expense of Ethiopian unity. Rather than coming together, they say, long-co-existing communities such as the Tigray, Amhara, Oromo, Gurage, Somali, Sidama, Wolayta, and many others, have grown apart, and that distance has in turn bred violence.

Partly because of the instability and these ideological divisions, ever since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took power in 2018 promising sweeping reforms, the issue of constitutional change has lurked in the background.

While those who decry the ethno-federation saw his premiership as an opportunity to do away with the system, others, including protesters in Oromia who helped put Abiy in office, and Tigrayans, who have waged three revolts since 1943 against the central government, cling dearly to their self-rule rights.

Until now, the premier and his allies have done little to resolve this tension, and instead this fundamental political schism has only become wider—and more violent.

In Oromia, insurgents driven nominally by complaints about denied autonomy have been fighting the federal authorities since 2019. A constitutional dispute over the postponed national elections saw Tigray’s leaders hold a regional election in September 2020 in defiance of federal authorities, an ill-fated decision that precipitated a devastating civil war.

The main fault line in these conflicts, and Ethiopian politics and society more broadly, are diverging visions of Ethiopia as either a multinational federal or centralized state, federal or otherwise. These viewpoints polarize so-called ethno-nationalists and pan-Ethiopianists.

Among Tigray’s current leaders are some of the architects and main proponents of the federal system from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Many Oromos, particularly Oromo nationalists, also support the existing federal system but often argue it has never been effectively implemented.

Typically, its most vociferous opponents are Ethiopian and Amhara nationalists, some of whom depict it as “ethnic apartheid” that, in its design, was meant to counteract Amharas’ historical supremacy and so has undermined Ethiopian unity.

They blame the federal structure for a litany of ethnically targeted massacres since 2018, and also attribute these atrocities to the EPRDF’s record of allegedly exacerbating factionalism to facilitate a divide and rule scheme.

Given these polarized views, action on constitutional reform may prove just as destabilizing as inaction, as there is no easy way to bridge Ethiopia’s ideological divides.

In a speech last year, Abiy attempted to chart a middle ground by claiming his administration is “integrationist”, as opposed to the assimilationist or separatist governments of the past.

All the while, representatives of the ruling Prosperity Party warn against compromising national unity in pursuit of ethnic identitarian goals, and call for multinational unity to be strengthened. Yet there is no indication how that might be realized, and indeed such sentiments can be seen as contradictory.

Reform Mandate

Throughout Ethiopia’s history, every regime change has resulted in a new constitution. A revision occurred only once, when the 1931 constitution underwent changes in 1955.

This era is no different. There have been no formal amendments and only a few ‘informal’ ones, meaning unconstitutional practices that have taken root.

Hence, constitutional law is largely unpracticed and specific potential changes rarely discussed.

This may be about to change.

Since 2018, in several parliamentary sessions, Abiy has raised the need to reconcile opposing views on constitutional matters. However, such affairs took a backseat during the war in and around Tigray, with conflict also afflicting Oromia.

In late 2021, Ethiopia established a National Dialogue Commission in order to hold public discussions on fundamental issues. Abiy told parliament that if political actors fail to reach a consensus regarding the constitution, the matter would be decided by the public in a referendum.

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Eleven commissioners were selected and announced in February 2022. However, opposition parties almost unanimously argued the proposed national dialogue was compromised by the Prosperity Party’s control over it. Nonetheless, the process which stalled during the Tigray war has been resumed, and constitutional issues are expected to be on the agenda.

Although some factions within the Prosperity Party openly support ethnic-based federalism, there is less certainty about the Prime Minister’s vision. Because of the sensitivity of the issue, supporters of the constitution are concerned the ruling party may be disguising its true intentions.

Abiy’s political philosophy, ‘Medemer’ (synergy), envisages a more united Ethiopia and considers ethnic radicalism to be amongst the nation’s primary problems, an approach that ethno-nationalist factions associate with Ethiopia’s assimilationist past.

A range of opinions exist regarding constitutional amendment. While some rigidly support the existing framework, most believe it can do with some improvements, and others call for the adoption of a new constitution altogether.

A survey conducted by Afrobarometer in 2020 suggested the public largely supports change on some level, and these findings were repeated more recently in a research conducted by a government think tank.

What’s less clear is what changes need to be made and through which mechanisms. Given the depth of division, reaching consensus is no small order.

Contentious Clauses

Many aspects of the constitution have been sources of disagreement among politicians and the public since its inception. Certainly the most controversial is the type of federalism.

Getachew Assefa, a constitutional law scholar at Addis Ababa University, cited ethnic-based politics, including the organization of regions based on ethno-linguistic settlement patterns and the right to secession, as the primary source of division.

Even the preamble, which empowers the country’s “nations, nationalities, and peoples” is debated over.

More divides exist around the fact that the power of constitutional interpretation is vested in the House of Federation (HoF), a political entity as opposed to a quasi-judicial organ.

Prime Minister Abiy has been cagey about which amendments he would like to make but has openly sought to introduce private land ownership. Proponents of multinational federalism also identify land administration as in need of reform, but for different reasons.

Under the constitution, land is owned by the central state and the people. The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) are among the political factions that believe this violates regional self-determination by preventing regional governments from owning land.

Article 47(3), which outlines the process of acquiring regional statehood, is another clause cited as being in need of reform, while Bate Urgessa, a senior political officer of the OLF, raised the lack of clarity regarding the special interest of Oromia in the capital as a further shortcoming of the constitution.

The federal government’s role, including taxation power, the recognition of individual and minority rights, and more recently the issue of ethnic and religious rights, are other contentious aspects.

According to Bate, genuine democracy may have exposed more shortcomings in the constitution. “It hasn’t truly been tested under the non-competitive, single party rule,” he said.

Ethnic Federalism

Proponents say ethnic federalism was intended to bring equality among Ethiopia’s diverse people and thereby ensure harmonious coexistence.

Federal arrangements along ethno-linguistic lines have proven to be relatively successful in nations such as Switzerland, Belgium, and India. However, critics point out that hasn’t been the case in Ethiopia as ethnically motivated violence keeps rising.

They say the system of “ethnic” federalism itself is the underlying factor behind the polarization and believe the constitution must be overhauled to attain peace and unity. Alternatively, backers of “multinational” federalism point to the improper application of the constitution and lack of democracy as the source of intercommunal conflict.

As Zerihun Gebregziabher, leader of Ethiopian National Unity party, explained to Ethiopia Insight, although federalism is necessary because a unitary form of government won’t fit such a diverse nation, the current system is polarizing.

Aftermath of a protest in Wolenkomi, Oromia; December 15 2015; William Davison

“When ethnic groups are granted total autonomy over respective areas, they inevitably aim to solely benefit their ethnicity, which in turn is hindering citizens’ right to pursue livelihoods and reside in a place of their choice within their country,” he said.

Zerihun’s party and others want a new constitution with a federal structure where states are formed on the basis of non-ethnic attributes, such as geographic distinctions.

Yeshiwas Admassu, an attorney who helped draft the constitution, wants the same. “Federalism is advantageous in many regards, but centering it on ethnicity is driving the Ethiopian people apart, who are intertwined and have coexisted for long despite their differences,” he told Ethiopia Insight.

Conversely, Haileyesus Taye, director of the Center for Constitution and Federalism Training at the HoF, regards multinational federalism as the only viable system of government for Ethiopia.

“The reality is there are groups with distinct historical, cultural, and linguistic identities who desire to exercise self-rule and who also have common national interests. The two can only be managed under a multinational federation,” Haileyesus said.

​​Merera Gudina, leader of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), claims the conflicts are because federalism as designed hasn’t been implemented. “Self-determination right was welcomed by many who longed for ethnic equality, but they were left equally disappointed as its antagonists when they realized it isn’t going beyond strengthening the center’s power grip,” he said.

Meanwhile, OLF’s Bate argues that geographic federalism would be detrimental to the rights of minorities as larger ethnicities would likely dominate state power.

The contention around ethnic federalism extends to the reference of so-called nations, nationalities, and peoples, which the constitution assigns sovereign power to, a concept seen as inclusive by some and divisive by others.

Yeshiwas Assefa, former chairman of Ezema, a party that aims to establish citizenship-based politics, believes many provisions need to be the focus of an inclusive amendment process, including the preamble.

However, ethno-federalists regard the preamble as illustrative of Ethiopia’s pluralism, and believe it reflects the fact that Ethiopia is a multinational state.

Abdirahman Mahdi, leader of the ONLF, claimed, “there is no single people called Ethiopians.” In his view, “the people are composed of nations and nationalities that came together and formed the Ethiopian state.”

Secession Right

The right to secession is among the most criticized aspects of the constitution. Article 39 stipulates that every nation, nationality, and people in Ethiopia has the unconditional right to self-determination, including secession.

Historically, Ethiopia has witnessed numerous secessionist movements, including Eritrea’s independence movement that ended in 1993 with its secession, and also radical separatist ethno-nationalist movements in Tigray, Oromia, Somali, and elsewhere.

Though the Prosperity Party appears to support ethnic federalism, it has not clarified its position regarding secession.

However, there’s reason to believe the secession right will be first on the chopping block in any Prosperity Party-led constitutional reform as Abiy has highlighted its disadvantages.

Additionally, his ‘Medemer’ philosophy asserts that diversity should in no way result in division, let alone separation.

If a referendum was held, the secession clause could be abolished. Haileyesus is among those who see no advantage to it. “Federalism ought to be a lasting union. For unsatisfied members to resort to seceding goes against the core idea of such union. As long as there is democracy, problems can be resolved in a discussion” he told Ethiopia Insight.

The question of whether Oromia should secede from Ethiopia or transform it from within has been a central debate among Oromo nationalists. Some view the right to secede as an integral part of autonomy and self-determination. Merera said that his party, the OFC, is neither for nor against the secession clause, as a meaningful degree of self-determination can exist without it.

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Bate said the OLF considers the clause necessary because secession can then take place in a peaceful manner. “Secession can still happen without the existence of a legal framework in place; establishing a legislative procedure will at least help to make it happen in a less volatile manner,” he told Ethiopia Insight.

From the ONLF’s perspective, the right to secede is the only thing keeping the Somali people at the table as greater constraints would add to the already considerable separatist tendencies in the Ogaden, which is part of Somali region.

The constituencies most opposed to secession include Ethiopianists of all backgrounds and Amhara nationalists, who typically oppose ethno-nationalism but nonetheless use such rhetoric to claim territories throughout Ethiopia rather than seceding from it.

Meanwhile, the TPLF’s relationship with secession is complex, as there were always factions within it that sought independence during its struggle against the Derg from 1976 to 1991. But its elites opted instead to control the center for nearly three decades and widespread secessionist sentiments only reemerged in response to the recent war and the atrocities committed during that 2020-2022 conflict.

With this spectrum of attitudes, reaching consensus on this contentious issue will be no easy task.

     Reform Process

Constitutional reform is critical for any nation as it has the potential to cause fundamental changes to the government system and can elicit violent contestation.

Thus, steps towards it must be taken up with care, inclusive deliberation, and consideration of all factors. The process is not one that should be rushed and, most critically, the amendments must be based on a broad consensus.

The adoption of Ethiopia’s current constitution was marked by a lack of inclusive deliberation and any substantial consensus among major political actors or the general population. That resulted in a constitution that failed to reconcile the varying viewpoints. This experience ought to serve as a lesson for any upcoming amendments.

The CCI amicus curie hearings

Moreover, supporters of the federal system emphasize that democratizing the existing system should precede any resort to constitutional amendment. Additionally, they point out, the fact that a single party rules almost throughout the country would make any amendment non-inclusive and be regarded as the Prosperity Party’s change.

“Effecting a major constitutional amendment at this stage will be like opening Pandora’s Box,” said OFC’s Merera, referring to the likelihood of violent backlash to any non-inclusive attempt to water down ethnic self-rule rights.

Similarly, OLF’s Bate raised the necessity of truly participatory politics. “A democratic election will simplify the issue. Parties will put forth their objectives, whether it’s implementing the constitution as is, improving it, or adopting a new constitution. Then the option favored by the majority will prevail,” he told Ethiopia Insight.

Additionally, Bate argues that consulting political parties in a national dialogue won’t be sufficiently inclusive because there is no telling what level of representation unelected parties carry. “Collecting a few thousand signatures and establishing a political party doesn’t necessarily make one a representative of the people,” he said.

ONLF’s Abdirahman shares a similar view. He believes amendment at this stage is destined to be a manifestation of the Prosperity Party’s will. Thus, major changes to the constitution under current circumstances can cause grave harm to the nation.

On the other hand, critics of “ethnic” federalism argue there is no reason to delay the initiation of a constitutional reform process.

Yeshiwas Admassu believes it should be initiated right away and through dialogue any challenges along the way can be tackled to reach a consensus.

Bekalu Atnafu, spokesman for Balderas for Genuine Democracy, an opposition party stridently opposed to the status quo, stated that if a genuine effort towards consensus is made by the center as well as member states, and if the national good is prioritized, successful constitutional reform can occur.

At the moment, the upcoming national dialogue is expected to resuscitate Ethiopians’ attention on the issue of the contentious constitution and perhaps kickstart revisions.

Nonetheless, major questions remain around what amendment procedures would be followed—as well as what degree of consensus can realistically be obtained from a divided political community.

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Main photo: Ginbot 7’s return rally in Addis Ababa, 9 September 2018, Charlie Rosser.

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. You may not use the material for commercial purposes.

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