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Introduction: A brief history of the constitutions of Ethiopia
For most part of its history, Ethiopian governance was guided by two key documents: the Kebra Nagast and the Fetha Nagast. The Kebra Nagast (‘Glory of Kings’), written in the 14th century, is a seminal work of Ethiopian lore and a cornerstone of its monarchic legitimacy, emphasizing the emperor’s legitimacy through alleged descent from King Solomon. The Fetha Nagast (‘Legislation of Kings’), initially written in Arabic in the 13th century and later translated into Ge’ez, outlines ecclesiastical and civil laws and has been influential, despite variations in its practical application. These works, embodying Ethiopian national and religious sentiments, have historically underpinned the nation’s governance and legal systems.
Modern Ethiopia has experienced a progression of four constitutions:
1931 First Constitution of The Empire of Ethiopia
This is the first formal constitution introduced under Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign. Article 3 of the constitution affirmed the legitimacy of the Emperor’s descent from Menelik I, son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, as depicted in the Kebra Nagast.
Maneuvering through resistance from conservative factions, the Emperor implemented the 1935 constitution which replaced provincial sovereignties, establishing a unified legal code and a bicameral parliament, promoting civic liberties and political rights. However, despite these reforms, Selassie’s regime remained an autocracy, with the emperor retaining extensive control over legislative, executive, and judicial powers.
1955 Revised Constitution of The Empire of Ethiopia
A subsequent version of the 1931 constitution with updates was granted in 1955 by the Emperor. While allowing for popular elections, the constitution of 1955 largely functioned as a tool to reinforce the emperor’s absolute power, with the parliament having limited real influence. This period of reform marked a shift from traditional governance to a centralized state, but it was characterized more by the consolidation of royal power than by genuine democratization.
In 1974, there was an attempt to revise the 1955 constitution, but it never gained legal status and was overshadowed by the Ethiopian Revolution.
1987 Constitution of The People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia
The 1974 Marxist coup led by the Derg and Lt. Col. Mengistu introduced a socialist military government and a communist constitution in 1987. Article 6 of the 1987 Constitution positioned the Workers’ Party of Ethiopia (WPE) as the leading party, tasked with directing the nation’s development. It established the WPE as the central “guiding force of the state and the entire society”. The 1987 constitution formally granted a wide range of civil rights and personal freedoms, including freedom of speech, press, religion, movement, assembly, and association, along with the right to a fair trial and free education. However, historical accounts reveal that the military rulers largely ignored this liberties, resulting in significant violations of the rights and freedoms the constitution was meant to protect.
1995 Constitution of The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia
The current constitution, ratified in 1994, emerged as a response to the Derg’s regime and is grounded in the concept of “ethnic democracy.” It establishes a two-tiered federal system, dividing the country into nine regional states along ethnic lines and emphasizing ethnic groups’ rights and self-determination upto session. This structure is reflected in the political system, with the Executive Branch led by the Prime Minister, and a bicameral parliament comprising the House of People’s Representatives and the House of Federation, each playing distinct roles in governance.
The 1994 elections, which formed the Constituent Assembly to ratify this constitution, were largely dominated by the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and the TPLF. This period marked a significant shift in Ethiopian politics, moving away from centralized power and towards a federal system recognizing the multitude of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups. The constitution further outlines the structure of state governments within Ethiopia, each with its own legislative, executive, and judicial branches, emphasizing the decentralization of administration to local authorities.
Critics argue that the implementation of ethnic federalism in Ethiopia has exacerbated fragmentation, polarization, and conflict. This is attributed to the granting of unfettered self-determination rights to the country’s ethnic groups, including the option of secession. Such policies have turned secession into a leverage point in political disputes among the countries rival ethnic groups.
In summary, Ethiopia’s constitutional journey has been marked by significant shifts, reflecting the nation’s complex socio-political landscape. These changes have played a crucial role in shaping the governance and legal framework of Ethiopia. Here, I present to you the four constitutions that have been instrumental in this journey, each representing a distinct era in Ethiopian history and governance.