Nationalism and Constitutional Revision: Making Ethiopia belong to all Ethiopians

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      By Edossa Degefe Guta

      The formation of the modern Ethiopian state by Emperor Menelik II (1889‑1913) through force has resulted in today’s dilemma of the way in which we can make Ethiopia that belongs to all Ethiopians in the multiethnic reality. I agree with some of the views that Bitsiet Alemu raised in her article entitled ‘To whom does Ethiopia belong ’; in particular, with her assertion that, “Mismanaged ethnicity became the sword of political conflict creating polarized nationality questions where the answers are deep-rooted into the political and socioeconomic structure of the state”. I also concur with her argument that a solution to the current crisis is closely associated with recognizing the fact that Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic state and “unless we accept that, there won’t be moving forward because historically speaking recognition was impossible for the various ethnic groups”. [1]

      My point of departure is anchored on the omissions and commissions of Bitsiet’s work that I shed light on as follows. Firstly, although the formation of modern Ethiopian state by Emperor Menelik II (1889‑1913) is at the center of the conundrum we are in, she did not pay attention to it. Menelik II’s southward imperial expansion was met by resistance because it involved the use of force which in the later years of Emperor Haile Selassie I (1930‑1974) translated into demands for national self-determination among the oppressed groups and caused nationality questions in turn. Belonging is impacted by injustices that happened in the past. The injustices that happened in the past should be redressed carefully. There is a need to study each society and the claims they have in order to come up with a long-lasting solution for the crisis. The study also needs a careful selection of professionals and mechanisms to check their impartiality. This is for the need to redress past injustices which limit belongingness to Ethiopia.  However, Bitsiet hardly looked at this long politically-loaded historical process but simply blamed ethnic federalism for the excessive polarization of ethnicity and violent inter-ethnic conflicts. Even then one could differentiate between the merits of the system and implementation failures under the hands of the EPRDF.

      In her essay, out from the multitude who proposed alternatives on how to best manage the country’s diversity Bitsiet only engages the views of only two Ethiopians namely Wallelign Mekonen and Ibssa Gutema. For instance, we need to consider Asafa Jalata’s argument who argued that an independent Oromia was a question of decolonization, like Eritrea. As such solution could be found neither in a democratic Ethiopian state nor by properly addressing the nationality question.

      Marara Gudina on the other hand argued that marginalizing a majority and hoping to democratize and decentralize at the same time is a contradiction. He highly recommended accepting the principle of unity in diversity, which would enable it to devise a common agenda for the democratization of the Ethiopian state, which needs to be pursued more honestly and aggressively. Marara’s view is moderate.

      If there are conditions to be fulfilled to become an Ethiopian, it should be identified as some individuals and groups trying to pursue nowadays.  Ibssa’s questions of ‘who is an Ethiopian’ should not be seen only as an imposed mutually exclusive choice between Ethiopiawinet and ethnic group. Rather, one could identify with both, and each could be co-constitutive of the other. That allows infinite possibilities of self-perceptions and identities (also changing by choice across time and space), thus reducing polarization and conflict.

      It is true that ethnic identity has been politicized in Ethiopia to the point where contending nationalism has reached the apex and manifests itself through power politics, militarization, and marginalization. We should not however use the word extremism in our attempt to solve the current crisis in Ethiopia. The use of derogatory names for ethnic groups and framings of elites from ‘other’ groups makes peaceful resolution more difficult and are unhelpful. We should seek words that heal not kill.

      Bitsiet also raised the question of land, partly as land is at the center of conflicts in Ethiopia, and possibly implying that identities need anchorage on some territory. However, she did not push further on this point to highlight the need for debates and discussions on ownership of land and dynamics of territorialization.

      Yes, as Bitsiet emphasized we should use indigenous democratic principles in our attempt to create a genuine national state in which all nationalities participate equally in state affairs. This is not an easy feat, however, as it requires careful selection of indigenous institutions the greatest majority agree on it. I also contend with her argument that historical glories like the Adwa victory could be used to mobilize people against internal disagreements. Instead, they are more relevant to mobilize the public against external threats.


      Who belongs to Ethiopia and what that entails is determined, among others, by the constitution. It is important to consider the desirability of revising the constitution, which is centered in political discourse during the protests and political developments afterward. The constitution needs to be made ‘more perfect’ and aligned to the demands and aspirations of the current and coming generations. This should happen following the provisions included and excluded for constitutional revision and based on the will of the public.

      Almost all dimensions of public life were examined and discussed through the prism of identity politics. The exclusivist nationalism and mode of thinking oriented by “us” versus “them” terms can be resolved only by countrywide understanding or through dialogue. A wide and substantive debate involving the various political forces, non-government organizations and citizens associations, guerillas’, academia and the media is an important prerequisite for adopting a sustainable text, acceptable for the whole of the society and in line with democratic standards. National understanding in terms of legitimacy and sense of ownership of the future constitution for a successful revision process should be promoted. Too rigid time constraints and consultations with hand-picked ‘public representatives should be avoided. Constitutional stability is an important element for the stability of the country as a whole and one should not adopt a new Constitution as a “quick fix” to solve current political problems. This process should also be marked by the highest levels of transparency and inclusiveness. It is thus recommended to ensure, in this and further attempts to amend the Constitution, that all relevant stakeholders, including civil society, and the wider public, are aware of the proposed changes.

      Conflicting parties in Ethiopia have to come out of their boxes, see the bigger picture, revisit their positions and attitudes, stop the negative campaign, refrain from making conflict that of public for political gain, and accept that compromise is an option in negotiation and does not imply defeat. In the Ethiopia scenario, all parties should leave the warrior spirit “I take it all winner-loser scenario” which is not sustainable. Since negotiation which isn’t carried out in good faith continues to erode trust and block progress, all parties should seek compromise – give and take. Therefore, to create a fertile ground for negotiation the conflicting parties need to reconsider the tone and the language they use.

      I recommend country-wide national dialogue before constitutional amendment proceeds. We need to prioritize consensus building. Constitutional amendment works in the case of Ethiopia.  The cases of the Scottish independence referendum and South Sudan secession reflect the absence of inclusive dialogue. That is why I recommend we need to reach on consensus. The amendment of the articles of the constitution is subjective and needs to be conducted through professionals after the wider public agrees on its necessity. Many articles of the FDRE Constitution say the particulars shall be determined by law. This reflects the need for professionals’ participation in the amendment process. The recent establishment of the election board in the Tigray region of Ethiopia needs professionals’ debate to come out of such controversy.

      Decentralization and democratization, which promise to redress and rebalance historical asymmetrical relationships, should be genuinely pursued. The top-down approach of the ruling party, which is inspired by its hegemonic aspirations, needs to be revisited. True decentralization which involves local autonomy in the decision-making processes should be applied. The available perceptions of unequal development across all Ethiopian society and contending collective memories held by different groups should be considered in the search for solutions too.

      The center-periphery relationship in Ethiopia needs to be improved. The culture of condescendingly viewing the peripheral, marginalized people (especially pastoralists and shifting cultivators) should be halted and effort should be exerted to correct it. To sum up, in order to make Ethiopia belong to all of us, it is high time for all actors whether the government, insurgents, civil societies, NGOs, influential individuals, religious leaders…to reconsider their alternatives, policies, and actions honestly and with compromise.

      [1] This article is a response to Bitsiet Alemu’s  article ‘To whom does Ethiopia belong?

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