inutes of documents reveal disagreements during the drafting of Ethiopia’s 1995 constitution. A few individuals participating in the drafting process reportedly pushed for a centralized democratic system instead of federalism, while an even smaller group proposed a non-ethnic federal structure. But since most individuals participating in the drafting process were selected based on ethnicity, the majority backed an ethnically-based federal system with divisions for nations, nationalities and peoples.
A recently released survey by the Policy Studies Institute (PSI) sheds new light on the concerns of those individuals participating in the drafting process that persist nearly three decades later.
Ethiopia’s divisions appear more polarized today than during the constitution’s crafting, the survey finds.
The PSI study, issued in mid-May under the title “FDRE Constitution After Three Decades: Inquiring Into Whether and What to Amend,” has stirred commentary far beyond political circles, capturing the public imagination. PSI’s work picked at scabs of debate surrounding the multinational federal system, controversial from the constitution’s birth. Advocates argue it accommodates ethnic diversity crucial in a divided country like Ethiopia. But critics say it entrenches divisions, threatening national cohesion.
PSI, Ethiopian government’s think-tank under the Ministry of Planning and Development, typically generates policy recommendations on economic, development and industrialization issues. But critics say it overstepped by delving into constitutional matters, accusing the ruling Prosperity Party of gauging sentiment before altering the constitution sans due process.
The government has never come this closer to altering the constitution, which parliament ratified in 1995. Article 39, granting regions the right to secede, has been the most contested provision among all. Although the constitution lacks an amendment procedure, leading many to argue it must be amended unconstitutionally, it has never been revised. Whenever the issue is raised, fierce arguments erupt between federalists and unitarists over who would benefit and lose.
Though the EPRDF was hesitant to even allow discussion over amendment of the constitution, the opposite has been true under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s administration. Talk of constitutional amendment has circulated widely since PM Abiy came to power in 2018. While many legal experts agree several parts need revision, they stress amendments should not solely target ethnic or self-determination provisions.
Federalists see the constitution as accommodating Ethiopia’s diversity
Federalists see the constitution as accommodating Ethiopia’s diversity. Others argue it promotes regionalism over national unity. Scholars disagree on its suitability. The debate crystallizes around whether the constitution, with its ethnic federal arrangement, accommodates Ethiopia’s diversity or promotes regionalism at the expense of unity. Federalists argue the former; unitarists the latter.
Amending provisions around Ethiopia’s ethnic federal system risks rekindling tensions over core disagreements, analysts say. Researchers at the PSI aimed to avert this with their survey. The introduction states that for supporters, “these constitutional provisions transformed Ethiopia from a ‘prison-house of nationalities’ into a country accommodating its people’s ethnic diversity.” Critics argue those ethnic provisions in the constitution are “dangerous,” dividing society along ethnic lines and weakening inter-ethnic bonds and cohesion by institutionalizing ethnicity through ethno-territorial federalism. The PSI study continues: “The institutionalization of ethnicity and the resultant ethno-territorial federal model are recipes for the disintegration of Ethiopian society and state,” a criticism fueled by recent inter-ethnic violence.
The PSI research involved sending questionnaires to 1,140 randomly selected people from half of Ethiopia’s 86 nations, nationalities and peoples. Probability purposive and snowball sampling techniques were deployed. Probability sampling is like a lottery while snowball sampling uses initial respondents to reach others.
The study excluded half of Ethiopia’s 86 nations and nationalities, including Tigray, recently at war. Many scholars criticize the small sample for Ethiopia’s 120 million people and fault the research design.
Despite criticisms, some findings are interesting. About 77 percent of respondents “agree” or “strongly agree” with amending the constitution, while only 5 percent seek other changes like revision. Just 18 percent believe the constitution should remain intact.
Afro barometer’s survey three years ago found 69 percent wanted constitutional change.
In PSI’s survey, Amhara respondents strongly backed changing the national emblem while Oromo respondents opposed it. Respondents from Amhara, Awi, Ari, Arbore, Sheka, Hamer, Hadiya and Gamo proposed replacing the constitution’s “nations, nationalities and peoples” with “We, the People of Ethiopia” or “We, the Ethiopian People.” They rejected the “historical injustice” in the preamble as divisive and undermining Ethiopian national identity.
Only 48 percent of respondents in the PSI study supported adding new languages to the federal working languages. This is lower than 75 percent in the Afro barometer survey three years ago.
According to PSI, Respondents from Oromia, Somali, Dire Dawa and Harari regions strongly backed adding new languages while those from SNNPR, Sidama and Afar strongly opposed it.
While 54 percent of PSI respondents wanted reform to the current ethno-territorial system, 38 percent wanted it kept intact.
Oromia, Somali, and Benishangul Gumuz strongly support the current system. Amhara, Afar, Sidama and Southwest regions seek amendments.
Regarding Article 39, support varied by sub-article. Of the respondents, 70 percent opposed amendments to language and cultural rights (Sub-Article 2). Only 53 percent backed the territorial self-rule right (Sub-Article 3). A huge 75 percent supported amending Sub-Article 1 on secession. Only 20 percent supported secession.
The survey reveals divergent perspectives across regions. Somali and Oromia participants generally back expanding regional autonomy and self-rule provisions. Amhara, SNNPRS and Afar respondents tend to favor amendments strengthening national unity.
Support for the Article 39 provisions was highest among Somali and Oromia region participants, while opposition was greater in Amhara region, SNNPRS, and Afar. Only participants from Somali region had a majority – 52 percent – favoring keeping the secession clause intact.
The contested status of Addis Ababa highlights tensions between regions. Oromo and Somali participants want Addis Ababa under Oromia’s authority, while most others back its current federal administration.
In general, over 60 percent of respondents favored maintaining Addis Ababa’s current constitutional status. However, informants from Harari favored joint administration by the Oromia regional government and federal government. 70 percent of Somali informants viewed Addis Ababa as belonging to Oromos within Oromia’s jurisdiction, whereas the same percentage of Oromo respondents also supported changing Addis Ababa’s constitutional status in Oromia’s favor.
The PSI survey on possible constitutional amendments has come under fire from opposition parties that see it as a government ploy to roll back ethnic federalism.
The Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) outright rejected PSI’s research report on the constitution, saying in a statement that studying provisions for self-determination “is not scientific research.” OFC claims “It is government’s intention to cancel all provisions of self-determination from the constitution, under the disguise of scientific research.” OFC believes reversing the constitution will cause nations and nationalities to fight for their rights again.
Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) head of public relations Bate Urgessa also rejected any state-sponsored move to amend the constitution. He says “The existing constitution tried to reverse and correct historical distortions. The best way forward is correcting the past injustice, starting from equal foot, and building integrated economy. Disintegrated, the nations cannot succeed economically.”
Both OFC and OLF argue PSI’s research lacks credibility and accuse the government of using it as a pretext to roll back ethnic federalism and rights enshrined in the constitution. They see the constitution as hard-won and central to accommodating Ethiopia’s diversity, arguing full implementation – not amendment – offers the best path forward.
Bate sees the constitution as central to accommodating Ethiopia’s diversity. He accuses proponents of changing it of wanting to resurrect the imperial system that subordinated diversity, warning any reversal risks fueling armed resistance reminiscent of the pre-1995 era. He argues full implementation, not amendment, of the constitution offers the best hope for peacefully resolving tensions in Ethiopia’s multiethnic federation.
He says “We believe, they are trying to resurrect that old imperial system. For us the wider south [politically], the major problem begins with how the state of Ethiopia is formed. We believe the state of Ethiopia is formed by force.”
“Today, OLA took up arms because the constitution is not implemented. TPLF fought… because the federal government rejected the regional election in Tigray…Changing the constitution only fuels such conflicts. The more diversity is repressed, he strongest the armed struggle is,” Bate warned.
Political elites from Amhara also argue the ruling party is trying to unconstitutionally change the constitution to fit its agenda.
Constitutional expert Aron Degol says constitutional amendments are needed but should not focus solely on contentious issues. He agrees PSI research focused on contentious articles while avoiding others that could be amended easily yet impactful.
Aron says “Some parts of the constitution need a complete transformation of the ruling party’s political ideology. For instance, property rights and land issues cannot be amended in the constitution unless the ruling party changes its ideology.”
He argues “As long as Ethiopia has an ethnic-based political ideology and governance system, it is very difficult to change much.”
Some scholars in favor of amendments argue land ownership should be detached from ethnicity and identity.
Aron says “Land is attached to identity, history, survival, culture, and ethnic sovereignty. The problem is the constitution did not define ‘nations, nationalities and peoples.’ Land is not just property under the current context of Ethiopia. In Ethiopia’s current context, land is more than property. It is attached to ethnic identity. But fundamentally land is just property. So if ideology changes, land will be just property. But as long as the view of linking land to ethnicity prevails, land cannot just be property.”
Bate agrees: “Nationalism cannot be non-territorial. An ethnic group cannot practice rights in a vacuum without land. Nationalism differs from religion – nationalism has always been tied to territory. Every ethnic nationalist in Ethiopia is attached to its own territory.”
Constitutional experts argue for amendments devoid of political purpose. Legal scholars say parts of Ethiopia’s constitution could be amended without political ideology change in order to solve practical issues. “Several provisions can be amended without any allegiance to shifting politics,” says Aron Berhane, a constitutional law expert. “These parts are technical but could have solved many issues if amended.”
Aron Berhane points to non-political areas like provisions governing election schedules and procedures. The constitution failed to clarify how elections should be handled during situations like the recent COVID-19 pandemic, he notes. The vague mandate for constitutional interpretation currently given to the House of Federation has also proved ineffective, Berhane says. “This would not require changing political ideology. Some countries give this authority to regular courts or establish constitutional courts, like in South Africa,” Berhane explains.
The government argues the constitution is a political document that should only be interpreted by elected representatives in the House of Federation.
But Berhane contends independent institutions like courts would provide better interpretation than political bodies.
“We cannot say the House of Federation is doing a good job on this despite occasionally protecting some rights,” he says. “Giving courts the mandate for constitutional interpretation would make the constitution less politicized.”
Ethiopia’s constitution has been a topic of growing concern, with experts questioning whether it adequately protects fundamental human rights. While it lists a range of civil and political rights, some argue these are flawed, conflating basic human rights with democratic privileges that are harder to guarantee. The right to life, in particular, has proven an ideal that is difficult to uphold.
According to international law, the right to life is inviolable, even during national crises. Yet Ethiopia’s constitution appears to allow for violations of this right under states of emergency. This loophole has elicited criticism from the international community, with many concluding Ethiopia’s constitutional safeguards for human life fall short.
Amending constitutional articles is no easy task, though some argue it need not require an ideological about-face. But Article 39, which grants self-determination rights up to secession even during emergencies, has fueled particular controversy. It requires a referendum approved by two-thirds of a region’s legislature to execute secession. Critics question how a referendum can proceed under a state of emergency, and uncertainty surrounding this issue has stoked tensions.
Ethiopia’s recent political turmoil has underscored the need to clarify this constitutional dilemma. Disruptions from COVID-19 caused the government’s term to end without a constitutional solution, sparking disputes between the TPLF and Prosperity Party that spilled into two years of deadly conflict.
The way out
The minutes of documented discussions during the drafting process of the 1995 FDRE constitution state that all the issues stated in the constitution, including the pre-requisites for secession, are asserted by the representatives of nations, nationalities and peoples; and not imposed by anyone. That means the power of retouching the constitution or not, still resides in regional states, according to officials of PSI.
PSI official said, “This is more than elite bargain issue. It needs consent of each and every Ethiopian citizen. The issue of self-determination, and all the sensitive topics we surveyed, requires participation of every citizen, educated or not. ”Issues that cannot be resolved through agreement will be put to a referendum, according to officials. They say the need for constitutional amendments may only become clear after the planned national dialogue within the next three years.
On the other hand, some insiders argue that the ruling party might revise certain provisions of the constitution before its term expires in three years.
For politicians like Bate, the first task to solve Ethiopia’s long overdue problems is identifying the problems first. “We have to listen to each other’s problems, and admit it. Oromo narrates its own problem. Amhara narrates its own version of problems. All groups tell their version of the past injustices but nobody listens to each other. What seems solution for one side, becomes painful for another side. We cannot go forward unless we admit the past injustices.”
But Bate stresses the right solution to realize peace and stability, and ensure nation building, is to first realize self-determination and accept the diversity of Ethiopia and capitalize on it. “The existing constitution is not the source of the problems we are facing. Even if it is, the solution should come from the constitution itself. What bases do we have to seek solution outside the content of the constitution?”
But some experts wonder why the Ethiopian public is afraid of constitutional change.
“If the public want to live together, why is it so difficult to amend the constitution,” asks Haileyesus Taye (PhD), senior constitutional expert.
The biggest problem behind the current political setup and power structure is the high exposure to dominance by one ethnic group. For instance during EPRDF, it became the sole runner of the country because it had majority members in parliament and the PM was elected from the dominant party in the House. The same power dominance is witnessed under Prosperity Party. As a result, the inter-party friction to dominate power can lead to suppression of other ethnic groups and manifest in ethnic conflict, as witnessed in recent years.
Some scholars recommend that Ethiopia’s problem can be solved without canceling ethnic right provisions from the constitutions. This can be done by changing the political setup and power structure.
“If the form of government is changed to presidential, the current scenario in which one part dominates government leadership will end. Under a presidential system, the president is directly elected by the people and not dependent on parliament. The president will have veto power. But parliament will turn into an active center of policy discussions,” said Aron.
In fact, Ethiopia had a presidential system during Derg. But it did not deliver Ethiopia from its problems.
But if the constitution is going to be revised in any way, several researches and surveys must be conducted on each of the controversial topics. Some experts also suggest establishing an independent commission to conduct professional and proper studies on issues of constitutional amendment.
“Very in-depth studies are required to determine what we want to achieve by amending the constitution. Is it a parliamentary system or presidential system that will ensure the self-governance of the Ethiopian population? In a parliamentary system, the power of the PM depends on parliament. So a presidential system can reduce the dominance of one party in government. Further studies are very crucial,” added Aron.