By Daniel Teferra (PhD)*

Ethiopia was ruled for centuries like a Machiavelli’s polity: with emperor, aristocracy, palace intrigue church and strong army, built on an utterly poor peasantry. The old order had remained intact up until 1931 when Emperor Haile Selassie promulgated the first constitution of Ethiopia. The Japanese-style Constitution enshrined the rule of law while acknowledging the Emperor’s ultimate power over all institutions of governance including a two-house parliament. Although the Parliament was under the direct control of the Emperor, it represented the beginning of a revolution in social ideas in a country where noble birth had the only consideration.

In 1955, the Emperor ordered the 1931 Constitution to be revised. The new Constitution of 1955 introduced an elected lower house of parliament, independent judiciary, separation of powers, human rights and bureaucratic accountability. Political parties were not allowed. Individual candidates chose their own symbols and competed among themselves for seats in their respective districts. Elections were generally peaceful, free and fair. The election of deputies introduced the public to the concept of democratic governance for the first time. The Parliament could authorize taxes and budgets as well as question ministers. The Emperor still held ultimate power.

In the early 1970s, as the country was thrown into chaos and anarchy by mutiny, economic crisis and famine, the Government, led by a new prime minister, announced some initiatives. In order to accelerate the pace of economic development and narrow income disparities, the Government would reform taxes and land tenure.  In addition, a constitutional commission was created to revise the 1955 Constitution.  By August of 1974, the Constitutional Commission reported that it would recommend a liberal-democratic constitutional monarchy.  However, the leaders of the mutiny did not allow the document to be made public.

Eventually, in 1975, the coup makers suspended the 1955 Constitution and abolished the Parliament. Consequently, Ethiopia’s fledgling experiment with democratic governance came to an end. After a bloody power struggle, the officers declared Ethiopia a Marxist-Leninist one-party State (Workers’ Party of Ethiopia, est. 1984). They allied with the former Soviet bloc countries and engaged in an endless and costly war with the northern rebels; thereby reignited the old regional rivalry between the Tigray and Shoa-Amhara. By 1991, as a result of the collapse of the Soviet system and change in superpower politics, the northern rebels finally gained the upper hand and seized state power sanctioned by the United States of America. Subsequently, the victorious rebels formed their own transitional government, dominated by anti-Shoa-Amhara, anti-Ethiopia ethnic organizations. Many parties and groups favoring democracy and national unity were virtually excluded from the Transitional Government.

In 1994, the new Government adopted a constitution. The Constitution came into force in 1995 and provided for a federal government of nine ethnic-based regions (contrary to Ethiopia’s social formation), divided into House of Peoples’ Representatives and House of Federation. In addition, the Constitution provided theoretically for a set of basic human rights, interpreted according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other international instruments adopted by Ethiopia. While the 1995 Constitution allowed a multi-party parliament for the first time in Ethiopia, the legislature was dominated by a coalition of ethnic-based parties, led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Presently, there is only one opposition member of parliament. Ethiopia therefore is a de facto one-party state. The upcoming general election may not alter the situation much unless the 1995 Constitution is reformed. The Constitution does not accord all the people of Ethiopia equal rights. It is ethnic-based and discriminatory. Democratic governance and development require equal citizenship and participation by all groups and interests to create a representative government that can, with national legitimacy, build a democracy for all. Because the current Government in Ethiopia is dominated by one group, such a democratic development is blocked.

The current Regime is militarily powerful and firmly in control. It enjoys the support of the United States and its Western allies. Consequently, it has been unwilling to take socially advantageous steps towards democratization. But internal pressure for change is mounting. In order to stay in power, the Regime has become more repressive. The anti-Shoa Amhara coalition is unravelling and Ethiopian nationalism is on the rise. All these could set in motion again rebellions and clashing political forces and the State may fracture further. The alternative now or after more bloodshed and dying is the crafting of a democratic union dedicated to federal autonomy and representation for all. Only such a union can generate peace, capital, and leadership for development and successful dealing with formidable world forces.

In Ethiopia, ethnic and religious inequities are as old as the country, but Ethiopia’s ethnic groups are not mutually hostile people. They possess many centuries of close connections and interactions.  The bonds among them are deep and strong. Thus, Ethiopia is in a much better shape than the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda and Burundi, where it became the aim, not to just discriminate but to exterminate. Ethiopia’s ethnic conflicts and rivalries cannot be ignored or banned, but they could be constructive so that one group alone cannot dominate a government. These conflicts and rivalries are inherent to Ethiopia’s political system, and could be shaped with compromises to benefit all groups and interests of the society in a balance of power arrangement so that no member of the society should be discriminated against or destroyed because that would imperil everyone else. Everyone has a stake in the survival of even his or her bitterest enemy. Such a foundation is possible in Ethiopia that can ensure all the people a fair share in the sovereignty and wealth of their country.

*Emeritus Professor of Economics at Ferris State University;; UW-Whitewater.