Ethiopia Needs a Constitutional Convention
Establishing an inclusive reform process could end the country’s stalemate between unitarists and ethnonationalists.
Ethiopia is bleeding. A tragic war, gross atrocities, and a humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region—as well as killings and displacement in Benishangul-Gumuz, Western Oromia, and Ethiopia’s southern region—has left a cloud of insecurity everywhere. COVID-19, a debt-battered economy, tense negotiations over the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam with Sudan and Egypt, and a border dispute with Sudan add more complex dimensions as elections approach in June.
Underneath these conflicts and the struggle for power and resources lies the diverse country’s inability to tackle clashing visions of its future and usher in an acceptable political agreement on the kind of country Ethiopia should become—and the institutional and constitutional form it should take.
So far, a small group of political elites has defined the Ethiopian vision and sought to dissolve all alternatives, often by eliminating their proponents.
True to its times, the pre-1974 imperial regime, historically associated with the northern Amhara elite, sought to establish a centralized nation. The communist Derg that replaced the imperial regime was more cognizant of the country’s diversity but pursued the primacy of centralized unity over diversity. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) led the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which seized power in 1991. It replaced the primacy of unity with an obsession with diversity and re-imagining Ethiopia as a collection of linguistic groups rather than individual citizens. The principal Oromo opposition groups also supported this approach.
There is now concern that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is seeking to undo the diversity-focused construct despite assurances that he wishes to reconcile and find an elusive common ground between unity and diversity—and between the country’s past and its future.
A recent speech before parliament on March 23, where Abiy spoke of the current linguistic-based regional states as misfitting assemblages with no historical parallel, has intensified fears that he is out to reimpose the old unitarist vision.
These visions are different, even contradictory, but they have always had one thing in common: They were dictated top-down by the dominant forces of the time with very little room for negotiating.
Addressing competing visions and healing the country requires a new radical approach, one that recognizes the various visions’ legitimacy and shifts the focus to agreeing on an inclusive process to negotiate a common vision—or at least a workable political system and institutional structure.
There is always the danger that negotiated outcomes may leave everyone dissatisfied. But there is no zero-sum path to a peaceful and democratic Ethiopia. It is either win-win or lose-lose.
The much-touted transition that started in April 2018, on the back of protests that ended the TPLF’s hegemony and brought Abiy to the helm, is buckling under the weight of unrealistic hopes and expectations.
Interregional and interethnic contestations, particularly between the Tigray and Amhara regions, and intra-ethnic power struggles, particularly in the Oromia region, added fuel to an already combustible situation. The ill-fated and controversial postponement of the 2020 elections amid the COVID-19 pandemic generated a constitutional crisis that compounded the political and security quagmire.
This series of events, particularly since the end of 2019, has been like watching repeated train wrecks in slow motion.
That a change of face at the helm of the ruling party would not solve the country’s layered problems was obvious. Ethiopia needed a genuine transition process. Some called for an inclusive, preferably neutral, transitional government to help the country work out an agreeable political settlement to be capped with elections. Abiy agreed but proclaimed his government was the transitional government that would bring the country into a new era of peace, democracy, and development.
Nevertheless, tensions started to boil over both within the ruling group and between the ruling and opposition groups. Key constituencies in the EPRDF, notably the TPLF and some within Abiy’s then-Oromo Democratic Party, accused him of pursuing a centralizing and authoritarian agenda. The transformation of the EPRDF into the Prosperity Party at the end of 2019 was the last straw that hastened the TPLF’s exit and rocked the cohesion among the ruling Oromo elite, with former Defense Minister Lemma Megersa—a key architect of Abiy’s ascendance—forced out of power.
Outside the ruling party, opposition ethnonationalist parties, particularly from Oromia, agreed with the TPLF in blaming Abiy for harboring what they considered imperial ambitions and authoritarian tendencies.
While elections are planned for June this year, they are already facing credibility challenges. The main opposition groups in Oromia have been forced out of the process, and even moderate opposition groups continue to face tremendous pressure outside Addis Ababa. The expectation is that if elections go ahead as planned, they will return a dominant ruling party and, even worse, spark more violence.
It has long been clear that elections won’t herald a change of guard nor settle fundamental contestations over historical narratives and institutional arrangements.
Despite deep political schisms, Ethiopia has never had the chance to settle these differences through genuine bargain and compromise. The challenge is not that an existing political settlement has collapsed. Such a settlement has never had the chance to emerge and crystalize. Rather, if Ethiopia is to cross to a more peaceful horizon, such a settlement must be hammered out now.
Crucially, many prominent parties, including the ruling Prosperity Party, have included the possibility of political and constitutional reform as part of their programs. Even the TPLF (as well as the main Oromo opposition parties), which midwifed the values and ideologies the current constitutional framework espouses, have called for reforms to strengthen the ethnic foundations and institutional architecture of Ethiopia’s constitution.
Nevertheless, when it comes to practicalities, many often ask: dialogue between whom? And about what? Those who call for dialogue want a guarantee that their deeply held values and institutional manifestations, such as ethnic federalism or even right to secession, will be maintained or strengthened.
These substantive redlines put the cart before the horse. To break the stalemate, the thinking should shift to dialogue that focuses less on guarantees of substantive outcomes and more on the process through which outcomes should be determined.
This is not a proposal that seeks to elevate process over substance. Indeed, the dialogue could first agree on the fundamental principles that must guide the process and provide a yardstick to evaluate the final settlement.
The ruling party and pan-Ethiopian opposition parties may be open to a process-focused dialogue to deliberate, bargain, and adopt an acceptable political settlement.
The main ethnonationalist parties, notably the TPLF and Oromo opposition forces, consider the current constitutional framework as a baseline and often seek to guarantee its maintenance. Nevertheless, a process-oriented dialogue would not necessarily undermine the parties’ goals. In fact, by seeking the adoption of values and principles that protect their ideas as well as processes that can provide them substantial say before the adoption of any new settlement, they could build in mechanisms that protect their preferred constitutional status quo.
A process-focused dialogue could also provide insurance against ethnonationalist fears that the ruling party and pan-Ethiopian political forces are seeking to bypass legal processes and completely remake the current constitutional framework, which pan-Ethiopian forces view as an imposed formula that was deliberately made impossible to change, given that it requires the agreement of all regional states. Ethnonationalist forces could seek processes that give their combined voices effective vetoes over the outcome, and dialogue could put them in a better position to protect core aspects of their values and desired institutions.
Other divided societies with histories of political violence offer lessons for Ethiopia. Consider South Africa in the early 1990s. The transition from apartheid to democracy had to reconcile the many substantive demands of the apartheid government (and smaller groups, notably Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party) and the African National Congress’s wish for a clean slate.
After repeated hiccups and violence, the deadlock was broken only once the parties agreed to a two-staged process, which was adopted as part of an interim constitution: first, deliberation and agreement on fundamental principles (partly offering substantive guarantees), and then a process of crafting a new constitutional framework that gave the old regime and smaller groups a strong say over the final outcome through a two-thirds majority approval requirement in the constituent assembly (or a majority in the assembly and a referendum). The old regime’s trust in ANC leader Nelson Mandela’s assurances of partial continuity, including in the security sector, and guarantees against immediate and punitive economic redistribution further smoothed the transition.
Kenyans also sought a resolution to historical contestations after the 2007 post-election violence through agreements on crafting a political settlement and its institutional manifestation through a new constitution. The agreed process was then incorporated into the existing constitution through an amendment. This process was much less encumbered by pre-agreed substantive principles than in South Africa, instead establishing a procedure that effectively gave rival political groups a veto on the final settlement before its submission to a popular referendum in 2010, which approved the new constitutional settlement and laid the foundations for competitive elections.
No political settlement is permanent, and every generation deserves a chance to contest the status quo and governing political values and assumptions. Every meaningful settlement should accordingly include processes through which a settlement could be amended, improved, or even replaced. Indeed, Kenyan political elites are currently engaged in efforts to alter the constitutional and institutional features ostensibly to attain the original goal of taming the scourge of winner-takes-all politics.
Most recently, Chileans rose up against unpopular policies, which quickly morphed into a demand for a new political and constitutional settlement to replace the ideas, values, and symbolism of the 1980 constitution imposed by military dictator Augusto Pinochet. Under persistent political pressure, the political class agreed to a process through which a new constitution will be deliberated and adopted. The agreed process was then included into the governing constitution through an amendment.
Nevertheless, the new constitution requires a two-thirds majority approval in the drafting body to be elected on April 11, which is before the submission of the draft to a referendum, effectively giving a veto to the ruling party favoring the status quo. Notably, the focus on process allows traditionally excluded groups to secure significant concessions, including 50 percent representation for women in the drafting body and equitable representation for Indigenous groups.
Ethiopian political forces of all stripes should take a cue from these countries. Dialogue cannot and should not be conditioned on untenable substantive redlines, the resolution of which necessitates dialogue. In particular, the insistence that Ethiopia’s ethnic-based federalism should be abolished or is nonnegotiable should be abandoned as precondition for dialogue.
Of course, the process may ultimately lead to the maintenance of the current system or even its strengthening. Indeed, there could be broad agreement that Ethiopia should be a federation and the outcome of dialogue should recognize and build on principles of self-determination while leaving the exact institutional expressions to the process.
Ethiopia has gone through repeated bouts of war and oppression to resolve fundamental differences that cannot be wished away. Flaunting the victor’s manifestos as the new constitutional and political order, as happened under the communist Derg and TPLF-led EPRDF in the early 1990s, would simply worsen or postpone violent contestations.
Accordingly, the ruling party and all major political forces should sit together to hammer out a process that can give birth to a genuine political settlement. Focusing on process will not only break the stalemate but will also expand participation in the process beyond political patrons—including not only civil society organizations but also randomly selected citizens from across the country and of all backgrounds, alone and alongside politicians—to deliberate and agree on divisive political and social issues.
This model was used with some success in Ireland. The unprecedented involvement of ordinary citizens in shaping Ethiopia’s political future would enhance genuine inclusivity and could also encourage a more nuanced stance among political actors.
Ethiopia’s future is in danger—again. The country has wasted opportunities at least twice. The current crisis calls for political imagination, and a process-oriented dialogue offers the country the most viable bridge to a peaceful future.