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.1
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.2
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.”3
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.4
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.5
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.6
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).7
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.9
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.
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.
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.11
Hence, constitutional law is largely unpracticed and specific potential changes rarely discussed.12
This may be about to change.13
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.14
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.
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.15
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.16
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.17
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.
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.19
Even the preamble, which empowers the country’s “nations, nationalities, and peoples” is debated over.20
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.21
Prime Minister Abiy has been cagey about which amendments he would like to make but has openly sought to introduce private land ownership.22 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.23 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.24
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.25
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.
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.
“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.26
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.27
Meanwhile, OLF’s Bate argues that geographic federalism would be detrimental to the rights of minorities as larger ethnicities would likely dominate state power.28
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.29
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.30
However, ethno-federalists regard the preamble as illustrative of Ethiopia’s pluralism, and believe it reflects the fact that Ethiopia is a multinational state.31
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.”32
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.33
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.34
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.35
If a referendum was held, the secession clause could be abolished.37 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.38 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.
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.39
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.40
With this spectrum of attitudes, reaching consensus on this contentious issue will be no easy task.
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.41
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.42
“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.43
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.44
Main photo: Ginbot 7’s return rally in Addis Ababa, 9 September 2018, Charlie Rosser.
Some actors always opposed the dividing of the regions and, accordingly, it has resulted in numerous, often violent, territorial disputes. Notably, Amhara nationalists call for the restoration of pre-1991 administrative boundaries, in which they claim Wolkait, Tegede, Telemt, Setit Humera, and Raya Alamata areas in Tigray, Metekel Zone in Benishangul-Gumuz, and parts of Oromia. Similarly, Oromia has claims over lands in Harari region and several territorial disputes exist over areas around the Oromia-Somalia border. Another dispute which has escalated since 2018 exists around the Somalia-Afar border, where Somali claims three kebeles (village districts) in Afar. Further territorial disputes also emanate from claims by Benishangul-Gumuz over lands along its border with Oromia, as well as between the Gedeo people in Southern Nations and the Guji Oromo of Oromia. Additionally, Abiy told parliament about the existence of competing claims between Amhara and Oromia over northern Shewa, located in Amhara, as well as competing claims of Wolaita administrative zone and Sidama region over the Blate river.
The 1995 constitution is the fourth in Ethiopia’s history. The first was adopted in 1931 under Emperor Haile Selassie I and confirmed him as an absolute divine monarch. Following the end of the Italian occupation in 1941, the Emperor regained the throne. However, with an increasing number of African colonies gaining independence, there was pressure to reform. Hence, a revised constitution in 1955 enshrined the separation of powers, provided for an independent judiciary, and included protections of civil and political rights. Yet the Emperor still reserved expansive executive powers. The Derg abolished imperial rule in 1974 but didn’t adopt a new constitution until 1987. For the first time, that document recognized the equality of ethnic communities, introduced secularism, and, nominally, protected civil liberties. Still, an authoritarian centralizing regime catalyzed the growth of ethno-national rebellions, which it tried to put down with a campaign of terror and starvation.
In theory, at least, the country’s “nations, nationalities and peoples” were guaranteed autonomy over things like local government and cultural rights and granted rights to self-determination, including the right to secede from the federation.
The Tigray war came to an end last November through a negotiated settlement. Since then, the federal parliament lifted TPLF’s terrorist designation and Abiy appointed its spokesperson, Getachew Reda, as head of the newly-established Tigray interim administration. The commencement of negotiations with Oromo rebels on 24 April represents another potential milestone towards stability. However, renewed fighting less than two weeks after the first round of discussions ended on 3 May dimmed these prospects.
At the war’s onset, Abiy’s allies in Amhara unconstitutionally annexed lands in Western Tigray, as Tigrayans call it, or Welkait, as Amharas refer to it, and ethnically cleansed them of Tigrayans, actions that further complicated one of many intractable territorial disputes. Amhara politicians are now concerned that, as part of the peace accord signed with the TPLF last November, these lands will be returned to Tigray. They argue that Welkait was unjustly incorporated into Tigray when Ethiopia’s federal system was adopted. Although there was no Amhara region prior to 1995 and census data indicates these lands were historically inhabited primarily by Tigrigna speakers, meaning they belong in Tigray according to the logic of the multinational federal system, Amhara nationalists reject the existing federal setup and yet make ethno-nationalist claims of their own based on the fact that Welkait was historically governed by provinces associated with Amharic speakers (Begemdir or Gondar). They claim the people of Welkait identify as Amharas, that these lands were taken by force in 1995, and, in an effort to engineer the population in favor of Tigrayans, atrocities were committed against Amharas and Tigrayans were resettled into these areas.
Some of Abiy’s opponents, particularly Oromo and Tigrayan nationalists, accuse him of engaging in war to suppress their regional autonomy in an effort to revive a unitarist state reminiscent of past regimes led by Menelik II, Haile Selassie I, and Mengistu Hailemariam. Despite his rhetoric in favor of Ethiopian nationalism and against ethno-nationalism, Abiy’s views on the current system remain ambiguous. There are no major political factions in Ethiopia explicitly calling for a return to a unitarist state but rather for a different version of federalism based on, for instance, geographic rather than ethnic divisions.
Prior to the conflict, Tigray had drifted from the control of federal authorities and began to talk of becoming a de facto state. Some Tigrayan commentators believe the war is about forcing the people of Tigray to “bend to Shewa,” meaning to acquiesce to the state’s consolidation and centralization of power. The TPLF was angered by three main issues: the postponement of national elections, Abiy’s replacement of an ethnically-based ERPDF coalition with a new national Prosperity Party, and his rapprochement with TPLF’s arch-enemy, Isaias Afwerki. Isaias was Abiy’s ally in the Tigray war and is strongly against Ethiopia’s federal system. Given that Eritrea is a country composed of nine ethnic groups seeking to impose a unified national identity, Isaias views the proliferation of ethno-nationalism in Ethiopia as a threat to Eritrea.
While, in theory, the EPRDF championed multinational federalism and autonomy for Ethiopia’s “nations, nationalities, and peoples,” in practice it was also guilty of centralizing power.
In the past, Ethiopian and Amhara nationalism have been, in many ways, synonymous. But, in recent years, there has been a growing distinction between the two. Contemporary Amhara nationalists oppose the federal system but nonetheless articulate their demands using ethno-nationalist rhetoric. Some even claim that Amhara identity and nationalism are themselves a creation of the federal constitution. An example of this was a famous debate in July 1991 between Meles Zenawi, then president of the Transitional Government of Ethiopia, and the intellectual Mesfin Wolde-Mariam on the question of Amhara identity. Meles argued that a distinct Amhara identity existed, while Mesfin countered that the new administration was attempting to artificially engineer such an identity. What’s undisputable is that ethnic consciousness now exists among Amharas, though, like any other ethnic group, internal divisions and tensions also exist.
Abiy’s ‘Medemer’ philosophy pushes for a united Ethiopia and determines ethnic division to be a major obstacle towards realizing a prosperous Ethiopia. Still, his plans for the future of Ethiopia’s federation are unclear.
The principle of constitutional entrenchment means that amending a constitution requires higher standards compared to ordinary pieces of legislation. Nonetheless, constitutional amendments are not an infrequent phenomenon. More recently, Angola, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and Chile, to mention a few, have enacted significant constitutional revisions. Informal amendments refer to unconstitutional practices that have nonetheless become the standard operating procedure. An example of an ‘informal’ amendment in Ethiopia is Article 98, pertaining to concurrent taxation powers. Although the constitution stipulates that taxes in these areas need to be jointly levied and collected by the federal government and the regional states, in practice, this has been the exclusive preserve of the federal government.
Constitutional interpretation is mandated to the HoF, the upper house of parliament, and not the federal courts, making Ethiopia unusual in this respect. This has recently changed, according to some interpretations of a recent proclamation. Article 3(2) of Federal Courts Proclamation 1234/2021 stipulates that: “Federal courts shall interpret and observe the provisions of the Constitution pursuant to Article 9(2) and 13(1) of the Constitution,” which pertains to its human rights provisions. Some scholars believe this is an important legal development that settles the debate about the role of courts in the interpretation of the constitution. Another perspective views this proclamation as a minor development, given that it mainly reiterates what’s already written in the constitution. In this view, Proclamation 1234/2021 simply clarifies the matter by stating “shall interpret” which was previously lacking. The Federal Courts always had a mandate to interpret the constitution in reference to its human rights provisions but the new proclamation makes this clear, as it wasn’t before. All other provisions of the constitution remain subject to the interpretation mandate of the HoF. Additionally, Article 6(3) of the amended proclamation states: “Where a case brought before them gives rise to issues of Constitutional interpretation, Federal Courts shall refer the case to the Council of Constitutional Inquiry” prior to rendering a decision on the matter.
OFC’s Merera told Ethiopia Insight that, before the 2021 election, the Ethiopian Political Parties Joint Council agreed to discuss constitutional amendments after the poll, but this hasn’t materialized. Additionally, Yeshiwas Assefa, former Chairman of Ezema, stated that, although there are differences of opinion as to what changes are needed, the majority of political actors agree amendments are required.
Long-simmering tensions erupted into an all-out war between the Tigray and federal governments on 3 November 2020. Eritrea quietly deployed its troops into Tigray and federal authorities received support from Amhara militias and special forces as well. All sides in the war have been credibly accused of committing atrocities, but some of the most heinous and widespread abuses were committed by the three intervening forces in Tigray. The Tigray war was officially concluded in November 2022, with the signing of a peace deal between the TPLF and the Ethiopian government. The guns have been officially silenced in Tigray and the siege conditions imposed by federal authorities have improved, but the humanitarian situation in Tigray remains dire. While the national armed forces were occupied with the war up north, OLA armed insurgents grew stronger and engaged in what some regard to be an ethnic pogrom against Amhara “settlers” in Oromia. Oromo nationalists instead depict the OLA insurgency as part of an effort to assert the self-determination and autonomy promised to them under the federal constitution they feel has been denied under both the EPRDF and Prosperity Party. Among Amharas, the federal government is widely criticized for its inaction against the group, and the Oromia government is believed by many to be in support of the insurgency. In a recent parliamentary session, Abiy adamantly denied such accusations, but at the same time acknowledged that some individual Prosperity Party officials could be supporting the insurgency. The response by federal and regional authorities has, in fact, been intense, involving a mass arrest campaign, extrajudicial killings, and an equally brutal counterinsurgency that involves the use of drone strikes.
Several officials within the Prosperity Party have made statements in support of ethnic-based federalism. Most recently, the speaker of the HoF and Oromia’s president both described this system as a victory brought about through half a century of struggle. Abiy himself, though, never speaks clearly in support of ethnic or multinational federalism and instead merely uses the term federalism. Supporters of the constitution Ethiopia Insight spoke with from the OFC, OLF, and ONLF, among others, all seemed confident this aspect of the constitution won’t be changed anytime soon. On the other hand, Prosperity Party representatives constantly speak about strengthening unity but don’t say what they will do to achieve this. This ambiguity has fueled speculation on all sides of the political spectrum.
Ethiopia’s current boundaries came to exist in the late nineteenth century where northern rulers from a mostly homogeneous political unit historically called Abyssinia incorporated self-governing southern indigenous groups such as the Oromo, Somali, Afar, Sidama, Wolayta, and others into their empire. In order to consolidate their control over the newly acquired territories, Emperors Menelik II and Haile Selassie I launched a process of assimilation structured around an exploitative land tenure system, the choice of Amharic as state language, and the growth of the Orthodox Christian Church. After 1974, the Derg regime continued the same assimilationist policies but with different means, under the slogan ‘Ethiopia Tikdem’ (Ethiopia First). It acknowledged the cultural and religious diversity of the country, but wanted to solidify national unity by adding the Marxist-Leninist ideology of the common interests of the working masses to the already existing instruments of assimilation. Though some, notably Oromo nationalists, regard the past administrations’ social dynamics to have been replicated by Abiy’s ‘Medemer’ policy, this ideology at least theoretically acknowledges the existence of diversity as a way to stop it from causing division. For much of his tenure, Abiy has nonetheless stressed pan-Ethiopian ideals and denounced ethno-nationalism.
A small-scale survey conducted between December 2019 and January 2020 by Afrobarometer, a non-partisan research survey network, found that 69 percent of Ethiopians support amending the constitution and 11 percent support the adoption of a new constitution, while 18 percent are in favor of leaving the constitution unchanged. Afrobarometer polled 2,400 randomly selected Ethiopians. Given how contentious these questions are, a wider selection of respondents would need to be consulted before reaching more affirmative conclusions about where the general public stands on such matters.
While some Ethiopians, oftentimes Tigrayans and Oromos, strongly support the constitution, they still aspire to see modifications on a few of its contents. Conversely, critics, many of whom are Amharas, seek far reaching constitutional reform capable of altering Ethiopia’s ethnic based federal structure.
Bekalu from Balderas also sees the ethnicity-based system and the right to secession as problematic. OFC’s Merera supports the existing system but concedes that the ethnic-based state structure and the constitutional right to secede are the two most contentious constitutional matters.
The constitution’s preamble begins by stating: “We, the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia: Strongly committed, in full and free exercise of our right to self-determination, to building a political community founded on the rule of law and capable of ensuring a lasting peace, guaranteeing a democratic order, and advancing our economic and social development.” It is the reference to Ethiopia’s “nations, nationalities, and peoples” – a concept that draws upon debates over the national question central to the 1960s Marxist student movement that contributed to overthrowing the imperial system in 1974 – that has incited the ire of certain political factions. This debate was summarized in a seminal text written by Wallelign Mekonnen in 1969. Others within the student movement who promoted a pan-Ethiopian vision and those who supported the imperial system were vehemently opposed to this framing. Amhara nationalists also reject Wallelign’s characterization of Ethiopia as a “prison of nations” dominated by Amharas with Tigrayans as junior partners. These concepts formed the ideological underpinning of the constitution and drew upon conceptions of nationhood devised in the Soviet Union.
A council of constitutional inquiry composed of eleven members investigates constitutional disputes and makes recommendations to the HoF. “The presence of an independent quasi-judicial organ is crucial, especially for emerging democracies where it can mediate the political sphere,” Getachew told Ethiopia Insight. Merera and Bekalu also regard the constitutional interpretation powers of the HoF to be unjust and detrimental. Conversely, according to Haileyesus Taye, director of the Center for Constitution and Federalism Training at the HoF, the rationale behind the HoF’s interpretation mandate is to resolve constitutional disputes in a consultation-based manner as opposed to the win-lose outcome of judicial rulings. “Moreover, considering the predicaments existing in the Ethiopian judicial system, such as insufficient levels of expertise and corruption, entrusting courts to adjudicate matters of great national importance can be damaging,” said Haileyesus.
In a recent parliamentary session, Prime Minister Abiy called for amending the land ownership rule under the constitution. “The constitution grants land ownership to the people and states, but brokers have overtaken it […] At least urban lands should be privatized and subject to sale […] That can be corrected if we manage to conduct the national dialogue successfully as it is a constitutional matter,” Abiy said.
However, the reference to a singular state creates uncertainty, because there is no single state in Ethiopia. Rather, there are member states and the federal state. In the division of power, the federal government is empowered to enact land administration laws, and state governments are mandated to administer it.
They believe the power of land administration, including enactment of concerned legislations, should be exclusively vested to regional governments because that is an integral part of self-determination.
Critics of ethnofederalism argue that ethnic group control over formal institutions such as police leaves ethnic minorities and outsiders vulnerable to oppression and even violence. For instance, law enforcement organizations in Oromia are repeatedly criticized for enabling violence against non-Oromo “settlers” in the region, most notably Amharas. Similarly, Amhara regional forces have been accused of partaking in attacks coordinated by Amhara militia forces against Oromos residing in Amhara region. Recently, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church accused the region’s police forces of unjustly killing and imprisoning its followers in relation to an ethnic rights dispute that had ensued.
According to Yeshiwas, the majority of foreign scholars who were invited to comment during the drafting process “criticized the adoption of an ethnic-based federal system and raised concerns regarding its potential to deter national cooperation and unity.”
As Merera asked, rhetorically: “How can self-determination be imagined in absence of basic pillars of democracy, such as a fair election, independent judiciary and rule of law? Thus, the people kept rebelling.”
According to Bate, non ethnic-based federalism is formed in nations where differences among society do not mainly emanate from ethnic and cultural identity. “The organizing principle of the struggle in Ethiopia was ethnicity. Several ethnicities had their own kingdom before the foundation of the Ethiopian empire, since then a demand for self-determination has existed in Ethiopia,” he explained.
The constitution defines nations, nationalities and peoples as a group of people who have or share a large measure of a common culture or similar customs, mutual intelligibility of language, belief in a common or related identities, a common psychological make-up, and who inhabit an identifiable, predominantly contiguous territory. Nationality, in that sense, denotes ethnic origin in nations whose unity rests largely on common language, culture, and ancestry.
Many commentators argue that this is an important issue as the preamble sets the tone and guides the direction for the rest of the constitution. According to its detractors, the lack of reference to “people” implies the exclusion of Ethiopian national identity. In order to qualify as an Ethiopian citizen, they say, one is forced to identify with a specific ethnic community. Hence, it leads to rigid ethnic boundaries and promotes division. This preambular statement is therefore a core issue for critics of the current federal system.
According to Bate, the lack of common linguistic, cultural, or religious essence renders Ethiopian nationalism inexistent in reality, and the main aspiration behind its conception is imposing one’s own value over the whole of Ethiopia. Oromo nationalists argue that Ethiopian identity has been fashioned in the image of the country’s northern highland people, mainly Amharas but also Tigrayans, and is thus exclusionary in nature despite on the surface professing to be a unifying force. This explains why Wallelign argued in 1969 that to be a “genuine” Ethiopian you will have to wear an Amhara mask.
Nonetheless, as both of the above interviewees underlined, the recognition of diversity doesn’t necessarily hinder the ability to coexist and obtain a common goal.
Under this provision, any member state has the right to secede, which will come to effect when a demand for secession is first approved by a two-thirds majority in the legislative council of the concerned nation, nationality, or people, after which the federal government is mandated to organize a referendum which must take place within a maximum of three years. Finally, if the demand for secession is supported by a majority vote in the referendum, the concerned member state will cease to be part of Ethiopia.
Multiple interview requests by Ethiopia Insight made to the Prosperity Party and Office of Speaker of HoF weren’t accepted.
Abiy told parliament that secession is a past notion for Ethiopia and it should no longer be contemplated. A while back, the Prime Minister described the potential harm of secession while addressing members of the Prosperity Party’s central committee. “Since the devolution of the Soviet Union, separatism has been taken up as a fashion in many nations including ours, yet many fail to learn from those who seceded and assess its disadvantages,” Abiy said. The Prime Minister added, to stand united is the only way towards prosperity, and, on their own, factions in Ethiopia aren’t capable of triumph, but rather prone to invasion, starvation, and degradation. As an example, Abiy raised the Adwa victory of Ethiopia, pointing out that it wouldn’t have been possible if all religions and ethnicities hadn’t stood together in defense of their homeland.
Another strong indication to this effect was given while the Prime Minister compared the logos of the Prosperity Party with that of Medemer’s. The Prosperity Party’s logo is open palms containing people who aspire to work together, while Medemer’s logo is a ring that locks them inside Ethiopia. “As prosperity is a party, it invites people into the open palms, it doesn’t lock in like Medemer, because prosperity has to run and win elections and Medemer don’t compete in elections,” Abiy explained. Though this is open for interpretation, Abiy is seemingly aware it would not be politically advantageous for the Prosperity Party to openly oppose the right to secession, as that has the potential to disappoint some of its voters.
The secession right is unpopular among most of the urban population and pan-Ethiopianists. It is also seen as unnecessary by some supporters of ethnic federalism. Hence, it’s not far-fetched to assume the majority of Ethiopians might vote against the right to secede in a referendum. The Prime Minister proposed a referendum as the only option outside of consensus, and raised Article 39 as an example.
This question is particularly fraught in Oromia for a number of reasons, most notably that Oromo political factions have historically been much less unified than others, such as Tigrayans. The fact that Ethiopia’s capital is in the middle of Oromia is a further complicating factor. Oromos claim ‘Finfinne’ (the Afaan Oromoo word for Addis Ababa) as their ancestral land but given the legacy of imperial expansion and state building, the capital is now highly multi-ethnic and contains the bulk of the country’s economic life. As such, separating this from an independent Oromia or including it within such an entity would both be complicated propositions. Given these realities, Jawar Mohammed and the OFC have argued in favor of multinational federation or confederation as a means to transform Ethiopia from within rather than seceding. While not unified on the matter, the OLF and OLA have been more willing to consider secession as an option to address Oromos’ longstanding demands for autonomy and self-determination.
Ethiopia’s Somali constituency has historically been divided among those who associate with Ethiopia and those who call for either secession to create an independent Ogadeni state or irredentism to join Somalia. Given the instability and lack of an effective central government in Somalia, for the most part, since the fall of Siad Barre’s regime in 1991, the calls to join Somalia have become much less prominent. Notably, Barre’s regime waged a war against Ethiopia from 1977-1978 in an attempt to create a pan-Somali state, as colonialism divided Somalis into five territories—Italian Somaliland (Somalia), French Somaliland (Djibouti), British Somaliland (today’s de facto state of Somaliland), Kenya, and the Ogaden in Ethiopia. The Ogaden are the dominant clan in Ethiopia’s Somali region and some call for their own state. Under the EPRDF from 1991-2018, these sentiments were brutally suppressed. Meanwhile, the region’s current leader, Mustafa Omer, is more associated with the ideology of pan-Ethiopianism.
The brutal war between the central government and TPLF involved large numbers of Ethiopians rallying against Tigray after labeling the regional government, and by association the people of Tigray, as a sworn enemy of the nation. This caused many Tigrayans to begin calling for secession despite the Tigray war not initially starting as a secessionist conflict. TPLF elites have historically been divided between those in favor of and against secession, but the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi expelled many Tigrayan nationalists from central power following the 1998-2ooo war against Eritrea. Despite the TPLF’s legacy of flirting with secession during the anti-Derg struggle, during its time at the helm of central power both Tigrayan elites and the Tigrayan public tended to view Ethiopia, and Ethiopianism, more positively. Some factors that make Tigrayan secession less likely include the fact that, because Tigray was among the founders of the Abyssinian Empire, Tigrayans for most part sees themselves as an integral part of Ethiopia. Additionally, if Tigray were to secede it would be bordered by a hostile Eritrea to the north and the remainder of the Ethiopian federation to the south. Hence, it would potentially be faced with several economic and political challenges.
The need for inclusivity in the amendment process is well recognized. “All existing relevant questions must be brought to the table and objectively entertained. Any constitutional amendment must result from deliberation. If we make changes to the satisfaction of one side only, questions and dissent will keep on arising in a different form,” Yeshiwas Assefa stated. Likewise, Bekalu said, “the amendment must ensure an inclusive public participation at its core and include all political parties and also involve civil society and association of intellectuals.” Similarly, Merera emphasized the necessity of consensus through dialogue. “Political actors holding opposing stances on key aspects of the federal system should deliberate towards a certain compromise, only then constitutional amendment can be realistically considered,” he said.
“It’s only after the people get used to the hint of real democracy that a consensus based and constructive constitutional amendment able to better the country can take place,” said Merera.
Although the Tigray war has seemingly stalled the dialogue progress, following the peace agreement with the TPLF last November, the National Dialogue Commission told state media that it has commenced contact with Tigray and preparations to start the national dialogue are nearing completion.
As outlined in Articles 104 and 105, constitutional amendment depends on the approval of the House of Federation, House of Peoples’ Representatives, and Regional State Councils. Under Article 104, constitutional amendment proposals are to be presented for discussion to the general public and those whom the amendment specifically concerns. However, this provision doesn’t stipulate what impact the public consultation will have on the amendment and how it relates to the procedures stipulated under Article 105.