ADDIS ABABA (HAN) September 18. 2020. Public Diplomacy and Regional Stability Initiatives News. Monitoring Regional Issues. BY:.A constitution is the basic or fundamental law of a state. It performs several functions. It sets up a system of government—a parliamentary system, a presidential republic, or a monarchy. It then allocates power within the particular system—who legislates, who adjudicates, and who enforces.
Most current constitutions also include a system of rights that define the relationship between citizens and their government. Some constitutions even split sovereignty. That is what a federal system claims to do. Constituent parts of the federation are given competence over certain subject matters and the national government over others. Each is to be sovereign only over those issues and subject areas that have been allocated to it.
But whatever system of government constitutions set up and however differently they may distribute institutional power, whether vertically (federalism) or horizontally (separation of powers within the federal government), one common purpose animates most if not all constitutions.
They are meant to forge and develop a political community that enables members to see each other not as strangers engaged in existential struggle against one another, but as co-participants in a common project. Constitutions acknowledge the existence of, or constitute anew, a people. The normative underpinning of a well-designed and well-structured constitutional order is an integrative process of association.
The Ethiopian Constitution is unique in that both by its terms and the political culture that accompanied it during the last 30 or so years has managed to transform neighbors into strangers and a people into “peoples” who sometimes view one another as threats, or even mortal enemies.
Some have argued that it is not the Constitution but only the manner in which it was enforced (or not) that has led to our current predicament where citizens see fellow citizens who happen to be members of other ethnic or linguistic groups as aliens who need to be excised from the regional or local body politic. That view is incorrect.
It is no accident that some activists, even prominent political actors, openly talk about the danger to the purity project of inter-ethnic marriage and of speaking languages other than one’s own within one’s community. The effect (and perhaps the intended purpose) of the Constitution has been to rewrite the long history of hybridity—through intermarriage, intercultural exchanges, and other processes of cooperative endeavors that defined Ethiopians—in the service of a pure community and radical difference.
And the political narrative that has accompanied the Constitution in the last three decades has been one of sharpening, making more salient, the differences among the various groups.
What I shall do in this brief reflective essay is show, through close examination of various provisions of the Constitution, how this basic document has led us where we find ourselves where a people has been fragmented into “peoples,” where these “peoples” do at times see one another as strangers and even mortal threats rather than as co-participants in a common project.
The Constitution seemed designed not as a document for an integrative process of association, but rather as a model of dissociation. To use a metaphor a famous U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Justice Robert Jackson, used in another context, the Constitution resembles a “suicide pact.”
The Preamble: A country or a united nations?
Constitutional preambles are meant to perform three functions. First, they identify who the sovereign is that adopts or grants the Constitution. Second, preambles often set out the circumstances that led to the adoption of the document. Third, they list the principles and purposes that the Constitution is meant to embody and advance.
Here my focus is on the first function on the list—the issue of who the ultimate sovereign is who has adopted the Constitution or on whose behalf the document was approved. Almost all national constitutions which have preambles begin with “We the People [of Country X]” or its variations such as “The People of [Country X]” as the ultimate sovereign which have ordained and adopted the constitution. The reference is to one “people” (singular) either as a descriptive or normative (aspirational) matter.
The Ethiopian Constitution is the only one which refers to “peoples,” in the plural, as the sovereign. It is not quite clear what the term “peoples” actually means. To be sure, the Constitution attempts to define it elsewhere (Article 39(5)), but that open-ended and somewhat incoherent definition is made even more incoherent when the same description is said to apply to “nations and nationalities” as well. Why three different terms are listed separately and successively (“Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples”) when they apparently mean the same thing is rather unclear. One cannot clarify the meaning of a problematic term by adding other vague and equally problematic terms to the list.
Even though the Ethiopian Constitution is alone among national constitutions in using the plural “peoples,” there is actually another basic law that uses the plural as part of its opening phrase. That document is the United Nations Charter. Its preamble begins with the phrase “We the Peoples”. The Charter is the constitution of the United Nations. And the term “peoples” here refers to countries. The United Nations Charter was establishing an organization (a forum) for independent countries not a federal system. It is no wonder that the various ethnic groups who have been designated as “peoples” in the Ethiopian constitutional scheme see themselves and act as if they were different countries.
The level of forces that some of the states have developed and at times display with great fanfare seem to show that these are mini-countries (at least they view themselves as such) that are preparing to defend themselves not from an external threat but from other mini-countries that are constituent parts of a federal system.
So, while almost all national constitutions are designed to transform strangers into co-participants in a common project, the Ethiopian Constitution turned a people into “peoples”; a nation into a United Nations.
Article 47 and “strangers” in their own country
Article 47 organizes the various states along ethnic lines (as “peoples”) and names most of the states after the dominant ethnic group of the region. The description of the state excludes, both textually and symbolically, those Ethiopians who happen to belong to a different ethnic or linguistic group but live within the state border, regardless of how long they have called the place home. Their presence and how they belong become ambiguous.
Indeed, ethno-nationalists have understood the linguistic exclusion of other groups as more substantive, entailing that members of other groups do not enjoy equal membership. They are mere residents and their continued presence is contingent on the goodwill of the majority ethnic groups which are viewed and view themselves as primary stakeholders. They are at best second-class citizens and at worst aliens who pose mortal threat to the identity of the ethnic group whose name the state carries.