Ethiopia: The Question of Identity


Whenever one thinks of the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) a couple of things pops to mind. One is the controversial Article 39 where nations and nationalities were given the right to self determination up to secession.

That was enshrined on the country’s supreme legal document 19 years ago. Almost as memorable as the article itself is the display of extreme jubilation by one elderly member of the Constituent Assembly. The joy and excitement he felt lifted him up from his seat making his way across the assembly hall clapping, dancing and jumping. Luckily, he would always be remembered in conjunction with one of the greatest milestones in Ethiopian history-the ratification of 1994 FDRE Constitution.

In all fairness, his was not an ordinary celebration. Live broadcast of the last day of ratification shows this man being ecstatic not even caring that the robe he was wearing had slipped down from his back and fall to the ground. Without exaggerating, his was an emotion that portrayed the extent of what the day meant for many people. But, one would definitely wonder what was going through his head at that time. And the simplest version of the answer is of course the ratification of the supreme legal document in Ethiopia.

All this was exactly 19 years ago tomorrow. And for the last 8 years, the birth of the FDRE Constitution started to be commemorated by the celebration of Nations and Nationalities Day. The proclamation of the Nations and Nationalities Day by itself is suggestive as to how important the right to self-determination is to many nationals in Ethiopia. Better yet, the proclamation of the day exactly on the day of the ratification of the FDRE constitution is also indicative of how important Article 39 is for the Constitution. This year the celebrations will be held at the capital of the Somali Regional State -Jigjiga- tomorrow. The Constitution was lauded for its commitment to form a federal form of government, liberal democracy and respect of political freedoms and human rights.

The new Constitution of the country defined Ethiopia as a multicultural federation that operates on the basis of ethno-national representation. A bicameral parliament was created: the House of Peoples’ Representatives, with 547 members directly elected by the constituencies for five years, and the House of Federation, with 108 representatives of the country’s nationalities and tasked with constitutional interpretation and deciding on issues related to nations’ self-determination.

An ethnic based constitution:

From the very start of the process, the writing of the FDRE Constitution has seen seen a lot of friction among the parties involved. And it started with the question of what the structure of the Constitutional Drafting Commission (CDC) should look like. Ambassador Taye Atsekesilassie was one of the 29 members of the commission. He vividly recalls that there were two different different ideas as to how it should be organized and what its responsibility should be. Oddly, he confesses that there were groups who wanted to incorporate only those political parties which are part of the transitional process. Furthermore, this group also pushed for giving the commission the power to both draft and ratify the document unilaterally. Meanwhile, strong argument was made for the case of inclusiveness; the Constitution should incorporate political forces outside of the transition process, members of the civil society organizations and professional associations if it is to be a document that reflects opinion of the wider populous. Obviously, the latter won and the commission was formed by the mixture of the different groups mentioned, Taye told The Reporter. Having such a mission, the constitutional drafting committee after conducting a lengthy and hot debate and discussion among different political parties and individuals about the elements and the intentions of the newly ratified Constitution the Federal Democratic Republic was formally declared.

By most measures ratifications of the Constitution can be seen radically reforming Ethiopia’s political system. It transformed the previously centralized style of government into a federalist state redefining citizenship, politics and identity on basis of ethnicity. Ethnic federalism includes ethnically defined national citizenship, self-determination on an ethno-linguistic basis as enshrined in the Constitution, ethnically defined political representation and decision-making at all administrative levels and related policies.

The incumbent, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) argues that the rationale behind incorporating such articles in the Constitution was to create a more prosperous, just and representative state for the entire people of Ethiopia and to give all ethnic groups the power to decide over their affairs and to exercise their own right by themselves.

Despite the much contested economic growth figures and promised democratization, which were claimed to be the direct outcomes of the system, great discontent still abounds the ethnically defined state of politics in country.

Nevertheless, all pundits and opposition groups are against the basic essence of the federalist system. They argue that if handled properly Ethiopia’s ethnic pluralism is an asset to the well being of the nation.

With each ethnic group having its own unique features rooted deeply into its language and cultural values, Ethiopia has a great deal of diversification that it can use in the nation building process, they argue. However, this group also contend that with diversity also comes a risk; a risk of threating the national unity.

The question of nations and nationalities first appeared in Ethiopia political spectrum during the student movements of the 1960s. The then students and the current political movers-shakers, both in the ruling and the opposition parties, were introduced and were highly influenced by the Marxist Leninist ideology especially over the writings of Stalin.

According to Stalin, if a particular group of people share the same language, culture, psychological makeup, geographic territory, and economic system then they qualify to be a nation capable of self determinism. But, the student movement at that time tried to introduce the idea and later incorporate it to the Ethiopian reality without realizing its negative implication for Ethiopia, pundits argue.

Assefa Fiseha (Ph.D.), a scholar at Addis Ababa University Center for Federal Studies, says that the question of identify can be seen or be addressed in two different ways in the context of Ethiopian. The first one, he explains, is real identity questions that might require a serious legal remedy to address the matter. Meanwhile, majority of the identity questions that are raised in Ethiopia are not really about the identity but what they hope would be gained by raiding the question, Assefa says. In this regard, addressing political and economic questions could put the matter to rest than finding a legal solution to the question of identity, he argues further. Assefa’s basic premise is that in a country like Ethiopia where economic and political governance matters affect the people more than issues related with identity, it would not be wise to treat every nationality related issues as constitutional matter.

Endalkachew Geremew, legal expert, also pointed out that the issue of identity and that of minority right in Ethiopia are intricately linked to one another. He argues that basic manifestation of question of minority rights are the issue of autonomy and shared rule. And deep down in side, the issue of autonomy incorporates search for identity.

According to Endalkachew, the question of identity seems to be addressable automatically as per article 39 (1). However, its application in the real world seems to fall short of his assumption. He says, the problem is sub article 5 of the same articles that puts different explanations and requirements as to what identity is, and which states are identified as a “Nation,” “Nationality” or “People”. Sub article 5 states that a group of people who have or share 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 can be considered to constitute either a nation, nationalities or people.

He further argued political commitment is more vital than everything to address the issue. This is because, he said, whatever the cases are extra constitutional issues are over there such as the fear factor of opening Pandora’s box and the limited capacity of the state in terms of resource and budget. He also recalls strong response that the Silte experience brought up on regional states. Most of them, he said, changed their regional constitution, and above all most call up on strong political commitment abate the trend. Every federation has its corresponding ideological inspiration. The question is then what are the ideological bases of the Ethiopian federation?

The EPRDF led government has created nine ethnic-based regional states and two federally administered city-states. The result is an asymmetrical federation that combines populous regional states like Oromia and Amhara in the central highlands with sparsely populated ones like Gambella and Somali.

Ethnic federalism:

Particular attention is paid to how well ethnic federalism has functioned and fulfills the promises to enable popular participation, balance strong urban-rural relationship and highland-lowland disparities, enhance delivery of services and maintain stability. In a similar fashion, Ethiopia’s territorial autonomy in which apparently the bigger ethnic groups (the’ Nations’) such as Tigray, Amhara, Oromo and Somali have been given their own regions in which they constitute the majority and the regions were named following their own ethnic names.

In contrast, several dozens of smaller ethnic groups nationalities and peoples were put together to create ‘multi-ethnic’ regions such as the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples’ Regional State (SNNPR), Gambella and Benishangul-Gumuz.

Even in such multiethnic regions like the SNNPR many ethnic groups were given their own sub-regional administrative structures such as zones, woreda or special-woreda.

As a result, there are some paradoxes, which are still difficult to explain. For example, the Harari, whose total population, according to the 1994 census result, is 131,139, are allowed to establish their own regional state. The state has no administrative zones or weredas and even the total numbers of kebeles of the city are 19 while the rural part of the state has 17 farmers associations. However, in contrast, the Sidama whose population is more than three million were given a zonal status within the Southern region. The House of Federation which has a mandate to look over issues of identity and nationalism has so far resolved only one case of resolution claim for identity presented by Silte to separate from the Gurage and claim to have their own identity. Apart from the Silte case the House of Federation has not addressed pending requests such as Qemant, Komo, Baher Werk Mesmes, Menja, Koncha and so on. Tomorrow the Constitution will celebrate its 19th anniversary with the question of identity, ethnicity and nationalism still remaining.

Neamin Ashenafi, The Reporter