The Era of Written Constitutions
If a constitution is intended to be a document enjoying a wide degree of popular acceptance which in turn helps to convey legitimacy on the public authority and guides the exercise of power along the lines which the constitution lays down, then none of the Ethiopian Constitutions to date come remotely close to meeting this specification.
The above statement written by a close observer of the constitutional development in Ethiopia in 1993 remains as a main challenge in terms of the processes for making and amending constitutions.
The 1931 Constitution
The coming to power of emperor Haile Selassie in 1930 and the subsequent grant of the 1931 Constitution marks a new epoch. On the one hand this epoch reinforced the traditional position of the emperor as ‘Siyume Egziabiher, Niguse Negast Za-Ethiopia’ which literally means: Elect of God, King of Kings of Ethiopia’ but on the other marked the end of the role of the nobility or at least the gradual reduction of their role in local leadership, the traditional check against the power of the king of kings, to insignificance. Yet, it is important to note that Haile Selassie was crowned with full support of the pre-war modern elite with a mission of ‘Japanizing Ethiopia.’
This also marked the beginning of the culmination of the struggle for centralization, which began with the attempt at unification by emperors during the 19th century and reached its consolidation under the absolutist rule of Emperor Haile Selassie to be further reinforced by the military. The consequence was the alienation of the bulk of the regional actors leading to the center periphery polemics.
The first measure the Emperor took along the process of centralization was the grant of the Constitution. It was a fairly brief Constitution containing fifty-five articles. The first chapter with five articles dealt, as one might expect, with the emperor and the succession to the throne. The famous article three states ‘...the imperial dignity shall remain perpetually attached to the line of his majesty Haile Selassie I, descendant of king Sahle Selassie whose line descends without interruption from the dynasty of Menlik I, son of King Solomon of Jerusalem and of the Queen of Sheba.’ Article four stipulated about the succession to the throne and the subsequent provision explained ‘the person of the emperor as sacred, His dignity inviolable and His power indisputable’. His authority was unlimited and unquestionable and his function multi-faceted: the emperor was the head of the executive, the fountain of justice, the agent of change and the law-giver, albeit moderated by parliament that lacked the competence to enact law. To a careful observer such clauses represent a significant departure from the Ethiopian tradition of the right to rule which was open for any one (presumably from the regional nobility) who combines competence, might and Solomonic legend. With the coming to power of Haile Selassie and his constitution, it was planned to take a different course.
The bulk of the other provisions provided about the power and prerogatives of the emperor. The Constitution vested supreme power in the hands of the emperor and heralded the establishment of the institutions of the chamber of Deputies and the Senate. These two houses were important instruments for curbing the power of the nobility. Close scrutiny over the provisions and the practice revealed that both houses were merely meant to play a strictly advisory role. According to Article 31 members of the Senate were appointed by the emperor from among the nobility and the local chiefs. As for the chamber of Deputies, they were chosen by the nobility and the local chiefs. The presence of the nobility while providing some semblance of legitimacy at the center, on the other hand became part of a toothless legislative body and in a way remained the instrument of the centralizing and modernizing process launched by the regime. ‘They simply found a place for honorable retirement, as they were kept in the capital under close surveillance.’
Consequently, the Constitution’s major outcome was its ability to establish the legal framework within which governmental power was to be channeled and distributed. It was aimed against the personal, arbitrary and ill-defined powers traditionally held by the nobility. It reflected the traditional principle of absolute imperial power without any practical limitations. The Emperor was granted full executive power over both central and provincial government and the nobility and provincial governors were granted no independent authority.
The 1955 Revised Constitution
The Revised Constitution continued to reinforce the process of centralization. The sketchy provisions regarding the powers and prerogatives of the Emperor were extensively elaborated in the new Constitution. The Constitution spent one chapter settling the issue of succession on the rule of male primogeniture. Detailed provisions vested in the Emperor wide powers over the military, foreign affairs, local administration and so forth. Interestingly enough it also contained an elaborate regime of civil and political rights for the subjects. In theory, the Constitution was the supreme law of the land governing even the Emperor. It contemplated even an independent ministerial government responsible to the monarch and parliament, an elected chamber and independent judiciary but these liberal provisions were overshadowed by executive prerogatives reserved to the Emperor who exercised them expansively. Despite the apparent inclusion of the notion of separation of powers, little change was introduced regarding the position of the Emperor. He was both the head of state and of the government and he continued to oversee the judiciary through his Chilot (Crown Court).
A basic development in the revised Constitution compared to its predecessor was the introduction of the representative principle for the chamber of Deputies whose members were elected on the basis of universal adult suffrage. But parliament was granted no control over the ministers indirectly or collectively, who remained responsible to the Emperor. A measure of population representation with divine right of kings was resolved decisively in favor of the latter, with the Emperor retaining direct control over the executive, with the power to appoint ministers and regulate the whole of the executive branch. While one of the two chambers of parliament was popularly elected, it was balanced by the senate, which was appointed by the Emperor. There was a parliament but those who were eligible to be candidates were the nobility and wealthy landlords who were opposed even to modest land reform and by so doing they were the ones that made the Revolution inevitable. A law approved by both houses could not override the position of the Emperor.
Indeed critics state that, even more than its predecessor, the Revised Constitution was a legal charter for the consolidation of absolutism. The absolute powers of the emperor were spelt out in unmistakable terms. ‘By virtue of his imperial blood as well as by the anointing which he has received, the person of the emperor is sacred, his dignity is inviolable and his power indisputable.’ One author noted, ‘in essence the constitutional provisions amount to little more than a formal statement of the facts of political life in Ethiopia. It reinforced the ultimate power of authoritarian regime and the human rights regime were certainly luxury, which the government has not taken seriously, nor had anyone expected that it would. Most of the provisions were dead letters. It served to the regime’s penchant for what amounts to rather crude formalism.’
In 1966 the recommendation to make the Prime Minister become the effective head of the executive with the power to appoint his cabinet, leaving the Emperor in a largely ceremonial role was partly implemented when the Prime Minister became formally responsible for selecting other ministers, but later developments indicated that it was a far too premature gesture to be taken seriously. The same dilemma was to be repeated in 1974 when the Revolution was about to erupt.
Beyond these constitutional provisions, there are other factors that explain the complexity of the process of centralization and its impact on the regional nobilities. We have already noted the fact that the power of the chamber of deputies was not that significant. The hereditary aristocracy was marginalized and if they had any voice it was through the Crown Council, which served as an advisory body to the emperor. Such leading figures of the nobility as Ras Kassa Hailu, Ras Seyoum Mengesha, Ras Mesfin Sileshi and Ras Emiru Haile Selassie as well as the Abun were members of the Council at various times. Furthermore other factors contributed to the gradual decline of the nobility. Although historically they were in charge of military and administrative functions, their position declined due to the state’s creation of modern civilian and military bureaucracy. The creation of a modern army was of particular significance as they lost all their power with it. Lastly, regional nobility were weakened with the result that the nobility drawn from Showa replaced the regional nobility. This led to what Andargachew calls ‘the Showanization of the state,’ that weakened not only the nobility but also the bond between the government and the people.
Thus, towards the 1960s the regime was caught between series of contradictions: between the need for further modernization that needs efficient and decentralized administration on the one hand and the reliance a on personally appointed and centralizing regime, on the other; the growing contradiction between the traditional elite and the rising modern elite that felt isolated and was able to decipher the stagnation; and the narrowly defined identity versus the large heterogeneous population.
The Ethio-Eritrean Federation (1952-1962)
The Ethio-Ertirean federation, as already pointed out, was a significant political factor that influenced the revision of the 1955 Constitution. The crisis related to the dissolution of the federation remained to be the central challenge to three consecutive Ethiopian governments, including the present one. Much has been written about it, but as it goes some way to explaining the operation of a federal system in the continent, we must devote some words to it as well.
The territory now called Eritrea was historically an integral part of Ethiopia since the Axumite Era in the first century AD. Eritrea did not exist as an entity of its own prior to 1890 when it was created by Italy. The historical and cultural background of the Christian Eritreans is identical to those in Tigray. The language Tigrigna is the same as the one spoken in Tigray and belongs to the family of Semitic languages. The Tigrayans, therefore, form a solid bridge connecting Eritrea with the rest of Ethiopia. The death of Emperor Yohannes in 1889 and the shift of center of power from Tigray to Showa created a favorable condition for Italian colonial expansion.
Between the years 1869-1889 Italy insisted on expanding southwards, despite suffering defeats brought upon them by Ras Alula at Dogali. As early as 1887, Menlik the King of Showa had expressed readiness to negotiate with the Italians about supplies of arms in exchange for cession of territory, if this would ensure his speedy accession to power. Menlik seized the opportunity provided by the political vacuum created and sealed an Italo-Ethiopian pact, the treaty of Wuchale, in May 1889. As a result, part of the territory was ceded and in January 1890, Eritrea was born as an entity. In spite of the treaty of Wuchale, Italy continued expanding southwards and occupied some territories leading to the famous Battle of Adwa in 1896. Even after the battle of Adwa, the treaty of Addis Ababa (October 1896) which abrogated the treaty of Wuchale, recognized the independence of Ethiopia, but confirmed the Italian possession of Eritrea until 1941.
Menlik was in no position, according to some writers, to expel the Italians from Eritrea and he left Eritrea in Italy’s possession. Controversies exist as to why Menlik did not insist on expelling Italy from the whole of Eritrea as a victor of this famous war in history. One version of the controversy states that he was compelled to halt further Italian expansion into his territory owing to geopolitical and logistic reasons. If Menlik pursued pushing the Italians out as Ras Alula had wished, then Italy could send more reinforcement and the hard won victory could be lost. Whereas the other version states that the territorial cession is seen from the angle of the then existing rivalry between Tigray and Showa. One should note the fact that Menlik was consolidating his power both in terms of weapons and territory when Emperor Yohannes was busy fighting foreign forces. Because of this, they believe Menlik gave the territory to Italy in a bid to weaken his northern rivals. For instance James Paul recently wrote: ‘Menlik’s 1896 post Adwa treaty with Italy guaranteed Ethiopia’s independence within settled borders in exchange for its recognition of Rome’s sovereignty over the territory still occupied (even after Adwa) by reinforcing Italian armies based in Asmara. Thus was created in a legal sense a new typical artificial colonial territory, which Rome named Eritrea. Menlik was praised for his realpolitik but in appeasing Italy’s colonial appetite he had sanctioned the partitioning of the Tigrayan peoples: those north of the Mereb River became subjects of an Italian colonial rule and those to the south remained independent Ethiopians but were governed by a new monarchy from distant Showa.’
As a result, from 1890 until its liberation in 1941, Eritrea was administered as a colony by the Italian colonial Ministry, under a governor nominated by the Italian king. After liberation Eritrea remained under British rule till 1952. After World War II Italy renounced all right and title to its colonies and the Treaty of Peace signed in Paris in 1947 provided for the final disposal of the former Italian colonies to be determined by agreement among the four allied powers, the USA, USSR, UK and France. Failing agreement, the matter would be submitted to the UN General Assembly for disposition. The four victorious allies established an investigating committee to come up with a proposal on the future of Eritrea. The United States based on its interest in the region and good relations with the Emperor was keen to see Eritrea joined to Ethiopia in unity. The USSR and some Afro-Arab countries were on the other hand opposed to this move. They took the position that only separate existence could guarantee the sovereignty and progress of Eritrea. At the same time, however, they were sympathetic to Ethiopia’s need for access to the sea. Because of disagreements the matter was referred to the United Nations. In November 1949 the General Assembly set up the United Nations Commission for Eritrea, constituting members from Burma, Guatemala, Norway, Pakistan and South Africa whose task was to visit Eritrea and after taking into account the interests of the inhabitants and the interests of all the countries involved to report its findings to the UN. The findings were however divided. Burma and South Africa proposed federation with Ethiopia, Norway proposed union with Ethiopia while Pakistan and Guatemala proposed UN trusteeship for ten years and independence to follow thereafter.
In the period preceding the federation, the demand of political parties in Eritrea was diverse concerning the destiny of Eritrea. Many Eritreans demanded unity with Ethiopia, others requested for immediate independence and still others urged for a partition or at least a different status for the western side of the province. In short, the internal situation was divided.
On the Ethiopian side, Haile Selassie demanded the full incorporation of Eritrea and nothing less. Ethiopia’s claim was based on her need for access to the sea and by the claim of historical title and cultural affinity of the two populations. Furthermore, Ethiopian diplomats successfully invoked the OAU principle of non-territorial intervention in the internal affairs of the state and the need to respect the territorial integrity of African States whose territories were defined by colonial borders. Ethiopia argued that if Eritrea’s plea received a hearing, it would upset the entire post-colonial African state system as legitimized by the Cairo Resolution of the OAU in 1964.
The proposal by South Africa, Norway and Burma, constituting a majority, was finally approved by 46 to 10 with four abstentions. The Eritrean domestic situation, the international context and Ethiopia’s case finally brought what is commonly described as the ‘compromise formula,’ which became UN General Assembly Resolution 390 A (v).
The UN General Assembly passed this resolution on December 2, 1950 and the Resolution stated that Eritrea should form ‘an autonomous unit federated with Ethiopia under the sovereignty of the Ethiopian crown.’ The first seven Articles of the Resolution passed by the UN General Assembly on December 2, 1950 formed the Federal Act. A draft constitution prepared by UN experts was submitted to an Eritrean Assembly and the latter adopted it on 10 July 1952. By proclamation Number 124 of 11 September 1952 the Eritrean Constitution with the Federal Act was put into force in Negarit Gazetta. At this point in time, the federation of Eritrea with Ethiopia came into effect. The Federal Act as well as the Eritrean Constitution provided for a ‘federal arrangement’ between the two governments. According to the Constitution ‘Eritrea is an autonomous unit federated with Ethiopia under the sovereignty of the Ethiopian Crown’. The government of Eritrea was authorized, as a manifestation of its autonomy, to exercise legislative, executive and judicial powers. The actual division of power under the federal act vested a number of basic functions in the federal government: notably defense, foreign affairs, currency and external trade while reserving residual powers to the Eritrean government. These included civil and criminal law, police, health, education, natural resources, agriculture, industry and internal communication.
Many controversies arose over the ambiguity of some of the concepts included in the documents as well as over the whole federal compromise. There seemed a consensus though that the term autonomous unit signified not a sovereign state but rather a politically organized unit linked federally with Ethiopia and that the phrase under the sovereignty of the Ethiopian crown implied that the federation, not the autonomous unit, enjoyed sovereignty.
More controversial were the status of the federation and its subsequent dissolution in 1962. Closer observation of the 1955 Constitution and the Eritrean Constitution seems to suggest that Eritrea was only an autonomous region rather than a full-fledged unit in a federation, as we understand it today. The Resolution characterized Eritrea as ‘an autonomous unit federated with Ethiopia under the sovereignty of the Ethiopian Crown’. It did not accord Eritrea the status of a state in a federal union with Ethiopia. In a federation resulting from two units, one would expect there to be three institutions. The two constituent units and one other overarching federal government for both of them. Furthermore, a supreme constitution which both units submit to, is a requirement. None of them existed in the UN sponsored federal compromise. The Resolution had provided for a Federal Council, an institution that was a faint approximation of a federal body. This body was to comprise Ethiopian and Eritrean representatives in equal numbers and advise the Emperor on matters of the federation. The Council was simply ignored and practically done away with before it could even start functioning. As a result, the federal powers belonged to the Ethiopian government. The Ethiopian Emperor was the sovereign, the Ethiopian courts were the federal courts and the Ethiopian Ministers were the ministers of the federal government. Tekeste states, ‘For all intents and purposes the resulting relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea was not in the least federal. Even according to the intentions of the union, Eritrea was not granted a federal status but only a status of autonomy.’
However, this constitutional ambiguity could not serve as a justification for not implementing even the regional autonomy. Even Eritrea’s mere status of autonomous region was not tolerated by Haile Selassie’s regime. The reasons as stipulated by many writers seem to relate to the nature of the two incompatible Constitutions. Ethiopia by then had a feudo-monarchichal system of government, ideologically sustained by some notion of the divine right of kings. It was imperial. The emperor ruled as an absolute monarch and as head of an empire every part of which he sought to subordinate to himself. The government had a notion of territorial integrity that was incongruent with federal or other structures of decentralization and hence the dissolution was no surprise. By contrast, the Eritrean Constitution was one modeled on those of Western democracy. It provided for three branches of government based on rule of law, it stipulated for fundamental freedoms and a multi-party system.
Haile Selassie demonstrated a considerable diplomatic success when he orchestrated a federation between Ethiopia and Eritrea with the approval of the UN. However, the regime lacked the political wisdom and political will to maintain the regional autonomy. As early as 1955 the Emperor’s representative in Eritrea already hinted at the fact that ‘there are no internal or external affairs as far as Ethiopia is concerned...’ and pointed out that ‘the affairs of Eritrea concern Ethiopia as a whole and the Emperor.’ In 1958 the Eritrean Assembly voted unanimously to abolish the Eritrean flag and use only the Ethiopian flag. In 1959 the Ethiopian penal code replaced the existing legislation in Eritrea. In 1960 the Eritrean assembly voted unanimously to change the name Eritrean government to Eritrean administration and other adjustments connoting its lower position than a federation. On 14 November 1962 again the Assembly voted unanimously for the abolition of the federation. Whether this important series of events was undertaken with full backing from the Ethiopian side or not is a troublesome question. But few seem to doubt the fact that these events were taking place with full knowledge and influence from both sides of the ‘federation.’ In as much as the Imperial regime had wanted to terminate the federation, the Eritrean Union party, the then governing party in Eritrea, cooperated equally to the demolition of the autonomous status.
The controversial debate among Ethiopian and Eritrean intellectuals as well as foreign writers begins with the status of the ‘federation’ that was in force from 1952-1962. The controversy gets reinforced with the impact of its dissolution in 1962. Many believe that by virtue of this compromise formula, the Resolution formalized the decolonization of Eritrea at this moment in time. Others believe that Eritrea was formally decolonized in 1993.
The bulk of Ethiopian intellectuals believe that the Eritrean case is a case of secession rather than decolonization. The argument is that neither the terms of the Resolution nor international opinion following the dissolution allow the General Assembly to reserve residual power to itself upon any violation. The arrangement under the Resolution merely conceived of Eritrea as an autonomous decentralized unit, which is conceptually different from confederation and federation. Legally speaking, such an autonomous status can be modified by the central government and the Ethiopian Crown being sovereign, had every right to do what ever it wanted, though politically it was not advisable. Consequently, Eritrea did not have a legal personality under international law until 1993. Regarding the charge that the re-incorporation of Eritrea in 1962 was illegal, it is important to note that it was the elected Eritrean Assembly that unanimously decided to terminate the federation in the first place. A minority of Eritreans also shares this view. Tekeste for instance wrote, ‘the war in Eritrea had neither [a] colonial character nor that of [a] war fought against [a] foreign dominator. It was an internal war for power sharing or control of state power.’
Another point of equal importance is the fact that parallel to the series of measures indicated earlier on, the Muslim League was more or less consistently opposing the measures taken by the Eritrean assembly. It is no surprise therefore that the first armed opposition came from this group. It was to constitute the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). As a protest to the dissolution of the federation, a clandestine movement started around the same period first by the ELF and later by the (Eritrean People Liberation Front) EPLF and continued until 1991. Many consider the dissolution of the federation a cause of the protracted war that stayed for thirty years.
The armed struggle in Eritrea began in 1961 with the formation of the ELF by Eritrean exiles in the Middle East under the leadership of the veteran shifta Idris Awate. Syria and Iraq regarded Eritrea as an integral part of the Arab world and indeed the ELF portrays even today Eritrea as a Muslim nation with a Christian minority. Egypt particularly allowed opponents of the Ethiopian regime to enjoy a safe haven. Its policy is based on dividing and weakening Ethiopia in the hope that the latter remains incapable of harnessing the huge water resources of Ethiopia that flow through the Nile to the Sudan and Egypt. It must be noted here that Ethiopia supplies 86 per cent of the water that flows from Abay (the Nile). When ELF succumbed to its own internal squabbles and failed to absorb the then fast growing Christian opposition joining the struggle, the EPLF evolved as a powerful party to lead the struggle. The struggle both in its own right and in radicalizing the influence it exerted on the Ethiopian opposition in general played a significant role in the regime’s collapse in 1974 and the military in 1991. After 30 years of struggle, EPLF de facto controlled Eritrea in 1991 and a referendum held in 1993 resulted in Eritrean independence.
Considering Haile Selassie’s ambition of centralizing power, the failure of the Ethio-Eritrean short-lived autonomous experience was no surprise. What is more remarkable is that the regime was not willing to tolerate it even though there were clear indicators of the probable long-term consequences of the collapse. The failure of the decade of federal experience also fits the hypothesis that a federal system should be based on a covenant, should have internal support and should not result from outside. Most post-colonial federal experiments in Africa failed for similar reasons. There is another bitter lesson for those who still claim to follow the Eritrean example of secession. Secession or the emergence of an independent state does not necessarily result in the establishment of a stable and democratic state. This is evident not only from the experience of post-independence Eritrea but also from many other of the post-independence African states. Secession or independence simply replicates the nation state without resolving the controversial and normative question of how to politically integrate, share power and resources among several contending forces.
The Revolution and the Coming to Power of the Military
Towards the end of the imperial regime, the centralization and the tension between the traditional forces backing the regime and the modern elite was gaining momentum. Opposition to the regime took many forms. Perhaps the 1960 attempted coup d’etat was a watershed. Infuriated with Ethiopia’s backwardness compared to the newly emerging states in Africa, the designers wanted to restore Ethiopia to its proper place. They promised new factories and schools and also had a plan of introducing a constitutional monarch although the land issue was not raised. Despite its failure the coup succeeded to attract the attention of the university students who became the heirs of the rebels. It was fundamental in the sense that for the first time many realized that the regime whose legitimacy came from the divine right to rule could be overthrown.
The aristocracy that had lost its military and administrative functions to the new elite was no longer the pillar of the monarchy. The young returnees from school abroad on the other hand thought they were working for a regime in which personal loyalty was of prime importance. It was clear to them to see how ignorant, corrupt and inefficient their superiors were. In the course of the 1960s and 1970s the new elite armed with western ideology became the main antithesis of the ancient regime. Alienated from the center and backed by Ethiopia’s traditional opponents of the Middle East, Somalia, Eritrea, Oromos of Bale and the Ogaden were challenging the center. Finally, in the early 1970s, the regime lost two of its Western allies, the United States and Israel at a time when the Middle East was in ascendance because of the power and prestige it derived from its ability to control oil prices. With a view to end hostilities in Eritrea and Somalia and following Arab-Israeli war in 1973 Ethio-Israeli relations were severed. This was followed by cold diplomatic reactions from the United States apparently taken to accommodate the Arabs.
Finally the urban uprising of 1974, the events of January to June of the same year showed a total collapse of the regime and the absence of any obvious successor to it. It should be noted though that when the revolution was about to erupt, the nations teachers, taxi drivers, students, unemployed and the labor union had shown a stake in it thus making it very popular at inception. Towards the end of February the cabinet of Aklilu Habtewold was forced to resign and Endalkachew Mekonene was instructed to form a new cabinet but despite the good profile of the team, it never succeeded to stop the course of the Revolution. ‘The plea for patience (fata) fell on deaf ears and indeed the radicals insisted bulcha bikeyer wot ayatafitim (changing the stove does not make the stew any better).’ Endalkachew was removed in July and replaced by Mikael Imiru, the latter to be replaced soon by the Derg.
Another crucial aspect of the Revolution, however, came from the military. It started with a modest request for economic and social reform like food and uniforms for their members but as many have described it became a ‘creeping coup’ implying the slow but systematic erosion of imperial power culminating in the deposition of the Emperor. Towards June of 1974 the Derg (which means committee in Amharic) which started as a movement within the capital was subsequently broadened with the inclusion of representatives of various units from all over the country and slowly it grew into a military parliament, constituting some 120 members under the chairmanship of General Aman Mikael Andom and Mengistu as the first vice chairman,mainly constituting lower ranking officers. Taking the lessons of the 1960s, the Derg expressly declared loyalty to the emperor and did not show any ambition to seize power.
As far as the affairs of the government were concerned dual power prevailed for something like a month between that of the Endalkachew cabinet and the Derg but power continued to shift out of the hands of the former to the latter. However, the Derg had already the armed forces, the media and police behind it and also secured the blessing of the Emperor. The cabinet was already divided between those working with the Derg and those who opposed it. The Derg continued to replace or isolate those who were not amenable to its whims. As a result Micheal Imiru replaced Endalkachew Mekonen as a Prime Minister on July 22. The Derg arrested the then Minister of defense Abiye Abebe and replaced him by Aman Andom. This time Derg’s control of the cabinet was almost complete.
The Derg continued to weaken and abolish all institutions associated with the Emperor and finally confiscated businesses owned by the Emperor and the royal family. On 11 September, the ultimate attack against the Emperor was perpetrated as the famous film on the 1973 famine (that was kept secret) produced by Jonathan Dimbleby was made public. On September 12, 1974 the Derg suspended the Constitution, deposed the Emperor, and dissolved parliament, thus ending the regime. Although the Derg took over power from June 1974 with the set-up of a military committee, 12 September 1974 marks the official taking over of power.
A convergence of domestic as well as international factors fueled by the urban uprising reflecting regional, ethnic as well as class contradictions as championed by the student movement, was accelerated by the military thus ending the regime with its Solomonic legend. Not only did it end the Monarchy but this time the Derg filled the political vacuum by introducing socialism, a complete change of direction.
What is unfortunate about the Revolution was that despite its popular background, there was no organized civil force that could articulate ‘a road map’ for the masses. It was only the military that was organized and that filled the political vacuum. The two leftist political groups that were in existence allegedly, MEISON (All Ethiopian Socialist Movement) as of 1968 and EPRP (Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Party) as of 1972 had remained clandestine and their activities were limited to their student constituency. The military as the only organized force, therefore, exploited the existing power vacuum and easily took over leadership of the revolution. Because of this, what came to power was the military, not the revolutionaries, defeating the cause of the revolution. Through the mentors, mainly MEISON, the Derg was able to catch up with the leftist dialogue and declared the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) Program in 1976 and its ultimate objective was the setting up of the Peoples Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE) which came out in 1987. From 1974 up to 1987 the Derg ruled by decree.
After consolidating power the first measure the Derg took was to herald, the same date of its crowning, by decree all demonstrations and assemblies illegal. The proclamation that deposed the Emperor transformed the Derg into the Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC), which assumed full state power. Simultaneously it suspended the Constitution, dissolved parliament, banned all strikes and demonstrations and declared Ethiopia Tikdem (Ethiopia First) with its socialist doctrine.
As it started to catch up with the Marxist thoughts it nationalized financial institutions and private commercial and industrial enterprises in January 1975. This was followed by the nationalization of urban land and extra houses. According to Bahru the nationalization measures transferred resources from private to government hands and thereby constituted the economic foundations of totalitarianism.
The Derg also proclaimed the land reform in March 1975. Since 1965 University students had already popularized the slogan ‘land to the tiller’ calling for an end to the Neftegna and Gebar system in the South. The land reform, in as much as it eradicated centuries of social inequalities, appears to have had enduring positive impact. Indeed, by doing this the Derg was able to rob one of the causes of the revolution and at this point in time the Derg was at the height of its popularity. The proclamation abolished all forms of private land ownership and prohibited the sale, lease or mortgage of rural land. In short, it put an end to landownership. Thus, a large section of the people of the south as such was emancipated from servitude, at least in the short run. The large section of the peasantry saw a stock in the emerging regime and was to constitute the bulk of the army. However, even this popular measure had its own drawbacks. Not only did the proclamation fall short of making the peasant the absolute master of the plot but it was also accompanied by a series of unpopular measures. These measures ranged from state control of agricultural marketing that required the peasant to supply produce at fixed government prices to forced resettlement, collectivization and the relocation of peasant neighborhoods to new sites selected by government cadres (villagization). At later stages dissatisfaction with these measures was to be one of the factors for the rallying of the northern peasantry behind the EPRDF in its campaign to bring the Derg rule to an end.
The Derg continued to consolidate power by crushing all sorts of opposition and on November 24, 1975 it announced the shocking news of the death of its chairman General Aman and the execution of some sixty top government officers of the imperial regime. This initiated the cult of political violence that attained its climax in the so-called Red Terror. It was first aimed at the urban guerilla resistance by EPRP members in which thousands of young intellectuals were killed but at later stages, MEISON too was a victim of this terror. It was the official launching of state killing any one suspected of dissenting from the regime including the EPLF and TPLF.
The 1987 Constitution
Final stage to complete the institutionalization and monopolization of power was the promulgation of a new constitution and the proclamation of the Republic. The process of establishing a vanguard and single party culminated with the set-up of the (Workers Party of Ethiopia) WPE in September 1984 with its chairman Mengistu. Interestingly, its formation was against the background of the worst famine in the country, a regime that got to power by publicizing another famine in 1973 was celebrating its new party when lives were lost for the same reason. The draft constitution was completed in 1986 and was formally submitted to public debate and ratified by a referendum in February 1987. In an election in which a single party, WPE members, participated members of the National Shengo (parliament) were elected. While formally the Shengo constituted the highest legislative body, in practice, the Shengo was not to be sitting continuously but only once a year for a set period. The role of the Shengo was undertaken by the State Council. It was the visible administrative organ of state power with the highest responsibility for undertaking the day-to-day state functions. It was also the permanent executive, legislative and administrative organ of the National Shengo. Thereby the National Shengo’s role was reduced in a rubber-stamping body of the WPE.
The Constitution stated that Ethiopia is a unitary state constituting administrative and autonomous regions. It stated that the nationalities are equal and ensured the equality of nationalities ‘through ... combating chauvinism and narrow minded nationalism, [and by enhancing] the equality, respectability of the languages of nationalities as well as through equal participation in political, economic, social and cultural fields and through realization of regional autonomy’.
An important political development of the 1980s Derg epoch was the recognition of the fact that despite all the forces the regime employed to destroy all opposition, the struggle to overthrow the regime persisted in some quarters of the country, mainly in Eritrea and Tigray. With a view to calm this resistance and to rob the rebels’ cause, the PDRE Constitution expressly stated the possibility of organizing regional autonomies. This Constitution was also the first to recognize the presence in Ethiopia of different nationalities. It sought to combine the recognition of the cultural identity of ethnic or national groups and a measure of autonomy for them, with overall subordination to the center in the name of the ultimate supremacy of class solidarity over national identity. What is mysterious is why it came to this point late in time as the regime hinted its acknowledgement of the nationalities’ right to self-determination as early as it took power.
As the Ethiopian Student Movement had already popularized it, belatedly the Derg also tried to address the ‘question of nationalities.’ Given Ethiopia’s existing situation, the problem of nationalities it was stated, could be resolved if each nationality was accorded full right to self-government. This means that each nationality would have regional autonomy to decide on matters concerning its affairs. As stated above the Constitution of FDRE was a unitary one but the unitary state comprised administrative and autonomous regions. The National Shengo was empowered to determine by subsequent legislation the autonomous regions, their powers and boundaries. Accordingly, the Shengo proposed five autonomous regions and twenty-four administrative regions. The five autonomous regions were Eritrea but without its Afar inhabited areas, Tigray, Assab for the Afars, Dire Dawa for the Issas, and Ogaden. Subsequent proclamations defined more the powers and duties of the autonomous regions. The fact that special status was granted to some administrative regions reflects the long-standing recognition on the part of the government that there was a serious problem that deserved attention. The new regional structure announced sought to reorganize the entire basis of regional government according to nationalities as determined by the Nationalities Institute, while dividing several of the larger nationalities, including notably the Oromos, Amhars and Somalis, over a number of regions. Its most noticeable legacy may well be in the formal recognition of nationalities and in the groundwork for the division of Ethiopia along ethno-linguistic lines, carried out by the Nationalities Institute.
Again formally speaking an attempt was made to decentralize power and the decision-making process after thirteen brutal years of centralized military administration. A fresh start was made to set up autonomous regions in the areas, which had been a focus of civil strife, ethnic violence and war.
Yet, it soon became clear that the PDRE project with its approach to the regional autonomy of some districts were all a means never taken seriously. Critics are unanimous in pointing out that it was a sham attempt. Opposition to the regime stated ‘It remained the Derg’s Republic not a people’s republic. Real power continued to be exercised by those who seized power on 12 September 1974, that is, the same military officers who have ruled the country under the PMAC continued to rule under the People’s Democratic Republic, everything else being window-dressing. Those familiar face who were in power before the establishment of the Republic were indeed serving the new Republic and by the new Constitution they acquired a democratic legitimacy.’ If anything, the process only resulted in transfer of power from the military and PMAC to the PDRE but in the end the same people who were responsible for all the turmoil emerged as leaders in a civilian dress. As expected, Mengistu became the President of the Republic and remained an accomplished dictator. The question of the return of the military to the barracks and the formation of democratic institutions remained unresolved. Thus, it was an ‘attempt to wrap the military clique in civilian clothes bearing a new name Peoples Republic but remained the same old dictator.’
With the coming to power of Mengistu Hailemariam as uncontested dictator after all the mass killings and unpopular measures including the persistent use of force to settle political differences with all sorts of oppositions, some have even doubted if any revolution occurred at all. It is a contradiction in terms. Regardless of their sweep to power, the soldiers did not bring about anything revolutionary to the existing power relations. True that the Emperor and the basis of his legitimacy (Solomonic line with divine right to rule) was overthrown but the centralized state with its narrowly defined Ethiopian identity remained unchanged. The ideological vacuum for legitimizing the state shifted to Marxism-Leninism as they perceived a relationship between oppressed nationalities and an oppressor nation, which they traced in the image of the state. It also advocated secularism and declared the equality of religion and to this effect the Derg removed some symbols associated with the old regime including the loss of the Orthodox Church as a state religion. As already noted even the land reform failed to maintain its popularity. The nationality issue, the legacy of the old regime and as championed by the students remained unresolved and when the military tried to address it towards the end of its regime, it was not only half-hearted but was also too late. To this extent then one clearly sees the continuity, to an even aggravated degree of the political and social ills of the old regime.
The continuity in the state structure with the old regime was clear. The centralization of power by far exceeded the old regime. Clapham speaks of encadrement, ‘incorporation into structures of control’, implying the complete control of the political space by the Derg in all aspects of life, for instance, through the peasant associations, youth associations, women associations, the kebele and all forms of associations one can imagine giving no space for individual autonomy. The tradition of concentration of power in the emperor transferred wholesale to the new head of state, the President, backed by the only party allowed to operate, the WPE, itself controlling the dozen associations. In this respect Clapham’s remark on the similarity of patterns between the 1955 and 1987 Constitution is worth quoting. ‘In a sense the two documents could scarcely be more different. The first was issued in the name of Haile Selassie I elect of God emperor of Ethiopia, conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the second in the name of ‘we the working people of Ethiopia’, the role which in one is played by God and the emperor was in the other taken over by the alliance of the workers and peasants, the vanguard party. But in a sense the two can be seen as very similar documents. Both of them were intended to consolidate the power of an existing regime by giving it a formal basis, which on the one hand sought to convey an impression of legality and participation to the domestic population and on the other sought external support and recognition by adopting an acceptable external model.’ Now one can comprehend vividly the message of Clapham’s statement in the quotation at the beginning of this section.
Under these circumstances, the Derg’s commitment to regional autonomy was viewed with suspicion. The extent of the administrative and autonomous regions to exercise power decentralized to them was severed by the WPE’s centralized decision-making structure and regional autonomy remained a dream that was never fulfilled. It was a grant from the centralized government that could easily be revoked but besides that it was too little too late. While it was originally argued that this move is right on the mark in line with the program of the NDR and deserves wide support, however, as expected, none of the liberation fronts participated in nor welcomed the move. It was never considered a genuine attempt to solve the problem of the nationalities in Ethiopia. Indeed, the Derg through its war policy gave further vigor to ethnic nationalism. The nationalities question was pressed right after the revolution by the Oromo, Tigrayan and Eritrean radicals. Certainly, the belated measure did not attract the Eritrean groups for which an early federal accommodation would have been more appealing.
As one writer noted it was modeled after the former USSR’s approach to the question of nationalities. The nationalities would enjoy cultural rights and a limited amount of administrative autonomy within their own home areas subject to the overarching control of the communist party. In the Ethiopian situation the WPE played this role and in the end not even the minimal versions of self-autonomy were put into practice. All discontents had to be resolved along class lines under the vanguard WPE and the regime simply paid lip service to regional autonomy.
The Constitution in dealing with regional autonomy did not offer any hope in terms of reconciliation for peace with the opposition. A political solution to the crisis was never whole-heartedly pursued. Political will on the part of the actors was manifestly absent. Indeed, the Derg’s single-minded reliance on coercion on the northern periphery was an essential ingredient in the sequence of events that followed. By totally alienating peasants in Tigray and Eritrea and by creating the conditions for a series of diasporas that began to interact with local politics the Derg set favorable conditions for the rise of the (Tigray People’s Liberation Front) TPLF and EPLF.
Continuity or Reversal?
The Transitional Period (1991-1994)
Four years after the Derg’s Constitution came into force, the regime was almost destroyed by EPLF and TPLF forces and the balance of power completely shifted leading to a new political discourse. In February 1989 the Derg suffered a major debacle in Shire, Tigray which forced it to withdraw completely from Tigray and this indirectly forced the TPLF, an organization which had its genesis in a desire to liberate a province, to think of an agenda that encompassed the whole country. It was in this context that the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF-the ruling party at present) was born in 1989. Economic stagnation and global changes also contributed to its immediate downfall. The Derg, whose support very much depended on the former USSR, was completely debilitated when the latter went into its own crisis.
With a view to bringing together the Derg and the opposition, mainly EPLF and TPLF, the London conference was scheduled in May 1991 that was mediated by Herman Cohen, United States assistant secretary of State for African Affairs. By then the Derg’s position was, however, completely weakened. The movements had controlled or encircled Derg’s last hold, Asmara and Addis Ababa, and its delegates lost vigor in pursuing the peace process. On May 21, 1991, Mengistu Haile Mariam, President of PDRE, left Addis Ababa by airplane allegedly to visit a military camp in the south west of the country. On its way, the plane was diverted to Nairobi, from where the president went into exile in Zimbabwe.
Talks between the then government with EPRDF, EPLF and OLF were scheduled to start on 27 May 1991. No conference took place. Instead the government delegation left the talks and on the following day the EPRDF forces entered Addis Ababa to re-establish law and order. A joint statement of the three movements confirmed their agreement to hold a follow-up conference and to discuss the details of the transition period in general and the formation of a broad based provisional government.
Consequently, a national conference for this purpose was convened in Addis Ababa from July 1-5, 1991. The Conference resulted in the signing of the Charter by the representatives of some 31 political parties, the creation of an 87 seat Council of Representatives and the establishment of Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE). The Conference also agreed on the modalities of the transition process to last two years. In the mean time, elections for local regional government were to be held, a new constitution was to be drafted, general elections for electing members of the constitutional assembly that ratifies the constitution were to be held and finally the election of the new national assembly was scheduled, thereby ending the Transition. The most remarkable feature of the conference was that its members were designated almost entirely, save the representatives of professional organizations and the members from the university, on the basis of nationality, either from existing movements, or in some cases, notably in the South and Southwest, from organizations rapidly formed in order to take advantage of the new political atmosphere. In some cases the representation was divided like in the Oromos between the OPDO, OLF and other similar movements organized on the basis of religion.
As noted already, the national conference adopted an interim constitution, otherwise known as the Charter for the TGE. Composed primarily of leaders of nationality-based parties spawned by the civil war, the conference reflected a dramatic shift of political power from the center to new politicians from hitherto marginalized regions. The Charter established the framework for the provisional government and guaranteed nationalities to preserve their identity, administer their own affairs within their own defined territory, the right to participate in the central government based on fair and proper representation, and the right to self-determination. It expressly empowered all legal and political responsibility for the governance of Ethiopia until it hands over power to a government popularly elected on the basis of a new constitution. Furthermore, the Charter empowered the TGE to establish by law local and regional councils defined on the basis of nationality. While this has clearly been conferred on the TGE some contest if it had this mandate at all.
The establishment of national regional self-governments was provided for in another proclamation. The Charter and the proclamation explicitly provided that the boundaries of the territorial regions be defined on the basis of nationality in order to guarantee the nationalities the right to self-administration. The proclamation distinguished between regional self-governments based on an agreement of two or more adjacent nationalities, and national self-governments, established by any nation, nationality or people.Accordingly, the proclamation enumerated sixty-four identified nations, nationalities and peoples and set up fourteen regions. The law provided for forty-eight of the identified nationalities to be able to start their own national/regional self-government at the wereda level or above. Moreover, it was provided that self-government of adjacent nations, nationalities and peoples may by agreement establish a larger regional self-government within any of the 14 regions specified.
The remaining other nationalities and peoples with small populations were defined as minorities. Meaning a ‘nationality or people which can not establish its own wereda self-government because of the small number of its population.’ These nationalities and peoples with small populations and known as minority nationalities nevertheless were provided with appropriate representation in the district council.
The striking point is that nowhere do the charter and the proclamation employ the term federation in either their preamble or specific legal provisions, although both documents ensure each nationality with the right to self-determination including secession. The proclamation specifically enumerated both the powers of the central government and those of the self-governments.
If one looks at the legal framework from the angle of a federal system, there is no doubt that the balance swayed in favor of the center. A somewhat ambiguous and less precise language was introduced in the proclamation implying that except for specifically enumerated powers of the central government, all other powers including residual powers belonged to the regional self-governments. But the enumeration of the powers of the central government was not exhaustive and contained broad terms.
In the language of the Charter, the Transitional Government shall exercise all legal and political power for the governance of Ethiopia. In no unequivocal manner, the proclamation also stated that national regional transitional self-governments are in every respect, entities subordinate to the central Transitional Government. Moreover, the national /regional council (local parliament) that was the repository of overall political power regarding the internal affairs of the regions, was made accountable to the people which elected it and to the Council of Representatives of the TGE. Besides, the ultimate power arbiter too was the Council of Representatives. More importantly, in the exercise of the powers of the states, the relevant general policy and laws of the central government were to be respected. This was specifically mentioned in six of the ten provisions and was either indirectly referred to or assumed in the remaining ones.
Yet, despite the powers granted to the center the political dynamics as it was practiced and as designed by regional forces indicate that what was envisaged was no less short of a federation. The national/regional governments had law-making, executive and judicial powers and have used them extensively until they were replaced by new elections with the adoption of the 1995 Constitution.
The political implications that followed the introduction of the Charter and the proclamation issued to establish national/regional self-governments certainly represent departure from the past. As one writer noted two political developments were clearly observable: these are the choice of ethnicity as a basic principle of political organization of the state, and society and the reconstruction of the Ethiopian centrist and unitary state by introducing a federal system of government. These two interlinked processes were again anchored on the basic formula of the right to self-determination for ethno-national groups. The political rationale for such a radical change in the fundamental thinking of state organization among other things has been the view that this formula was a decisive remedy for the resolution of Ethiopia’s long-standing problem of the nationality question.
In an attempt to address the nationality question, as already noted, the Charter proclaimed the right of all nationalities to self-determination, the preservation of national identities of each group and the right of each nationality to govern its own affairs. The political action set in motion for sure was clear in bringing to an end the notion of unitary state and was committed to devolve political power. This is in sharp contrast to the two earlier regimes. Leenco Lata concurs with this view. ‘It [the process of transition] was more than a regime change. Recasting it [the Ethiopian state] on a totally new basis became the only alternative for its survival as an entity’.
It was certainly an official acknowledgment of Ethiopia as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious state. The emphasis on nationality and the listing of the hitherto forgotten nationalities in a legal document could only be considered as a reflection of that commitment. By so doing Leenco stated the charter elevated to an equal partnership, the bulk of nationalities of the South and the Oromos.
However, the promising beginning did not end as intended. Following the reorganization of the state structure and the national/regional governments, a regional election was scheduled for June 1992. The regional election to regional council was a cause of serious disagreement. While OLF and AAPO asked for postponement, as they were unprepared to compete in the regions, EPRDF insisted to continue as scheduled. Following this and other disagreements OLF, one of the major actors during the making of the Charter, withdrew from the government and attempted to re-launch guerilla insurgency. Other oppositions also withdrew following its suit. Under these political dynamics one writer’s observation that the ‘conference of July 1991 may not have resulted in a one party government, its convention reflects to a large degree a one party dynamic’ seemed to reflect the political reality after the 1992 regional election. Critics state that EPRDF resulted in a process of replication of one existing organization, the TPLF, than a union of existing actors from the spectrum of Ethiopian opposition forces. No doubt the TPLF was dominant and remains to be so at least until 2002 because of its considerable seniority, as it had been established in February 1975. The establishment and development of each of the other organizations had been at least facilitated by the TPLF.
However, at least until the opposition withdrew, unlike present tendencies one can state firmly in retrospect that the TGE was the most legitimate and democratic government that the country had had in its entire history. Although it was not elected, it was able to represent the major contenders of power and the then existing contending views. Certainly, it manifested a clear case of power sharing among major contenders. EPRDF leaders and those who took part in the conference all acknowledged that they and their organizations held detailed discussions on the draft text of the charter during the period preceding the conference. Certainly, representatives from the University were not as active as the leaders of the liberation fronts yet they have aired their views in the conference as representatives.
One of the major tasks of the transitional Council of Representatives was to direct the process of constitution making and pave the way for a new national election based on the ratified constitution. A constituent assembly was elected in 1993, the TGE established a constitutional commission to prepare a draft instrument for submission to a specifically elected constitutional assembly vested with plenary power to promulgate an organic law. Again opposition parties withdrew. Instead of debating the content of the constitution, they denounced the legitimacy of the whole project. As a result, the whole process was under the influence of EPRDF and only few individual candidates representing the opposition participated. The draft constitution was ratified by the Constitutional Assembly on December 8, 1994, which came into effect on August 21, 1995. Ethiopia officially adopted a federal form of government as of this date. National elections were held in May 1995 for regional and federal parliament and the FDRE new parliament was inaugurated on 21 August bringing the TGE and the Charter to an end.
Again under these circumstances one can hardly disagree with Marina Ottaway’s apt observation of the last few years of the transition. ‘It is a formal process devoid of content. The spirit of the democratic transition was missing completely as democratization became purely formal exercise, the major contenders of power from the opposition missing throughout’. Hence the argument that the post 1991 political development did not reverse the historical pattern of domination. However, it is also good to reflect on the nature of the Ethiopian opposition so far. It would be useless to put all the blame on the ruling party. Firstly, the opposition so far has formed a united front only in one respect: in its consistent but at times uncritical opposition to the ruling party. Until the May 2005 election none has come up with a comprehensive policy alternative that convinces the public and hence secures it to their side, the necessary vote to win seats in parliament. Such a serious attempt was made in 2003 but it evolved along a confusing pattern. In the summer of 2003 some fifteen opposition parties agreed to form the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF) in the United States. While this is the first real attempt to forge such a huge coalition of the opposition it seems that the UEDF has thereafter not progressed as much as expected. First and fore most, the process resulted in splits. Predictably, (as of September 2004), two members of the UEDF, AEUP and EDUP (both claim to be multinational but are predominantly influenced by the Amhara political elite except some nominal presence), withdrew from the coalition announcing the formation of another party Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) towards the end of the year. UEDF then remained as an amalgam of an apparently multinational (EPRP and MEISON) as well as ethnic based parties. Following the May 2005 election and the issue of joining or not joining parliament UEDF again split into the ethnic based domestic forces that preferred to join parliament versus those Diaspora based ones who insisted in boycotting it. The CUD in its turn as well although initially appeared as vibrant opposition later went into crisis following the election and its outcome. Among other things, the issue of joining or not joining parliament, internal power struggle among the member parties of the CUD, lack of clarity on crucial issues such as accommodation of diversity and federalism contributed to the post election crisis within the CUD in particular and to the political tension in the country in general. Secondly, having gone through two most despotic regimes, it is simply naive to expect that Ethiopia will overnight turn into democracy. The politics of exclusion and the culture of authoritarianism that took deep roots from 1930-1991 are not going to vanish into thin air suddenly. It will linger for sometime on both sides of the political spectrum the ruling party as well as the opposition.
As the following section will demonstrate, however, one general pattern discernable throughout the emergence of the modern state and which still seems to prevail is the problem of fixation in the Ethiopian discourse with the politics of ‘zero sum game.’ It is for this reason that I earlier noted the TGE was more legitimate and inclusive than any other regime in the country’s history. In a divided society like Ethiopia we cannot afford to have ‘winners and losers.’ The hard lesson one gets, for instance, from present-day Switzerland as well as from the rest of the world with divided societies, is simply that unless the major contenders of power are in some manner absorbed into the political process and made to consume it, there is no end to the polarization. Apart from the linguistic, self-rule and cultural pluralism set since 1991, genuine power sharing remains the only alternative available to end the political deadlock.