Earlier in the month, amid the ongoing 40th anniversary of the founding of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Major General Samora Yenus, the Chief of Staff of the Ethiopian defense forces, was expounding on the position of TPLF/EPRDF concerning opposition parties. “If EPRDF hadn’t wanted the existence of opposition parties, it would have closed the door in the first place like the Shabia (i.e.the Eritrean leadership),” he told party affiliated media members and other guests who were invited to hear the story of the insurrection from the horse’s own mouth. “The opposition that we have now is ready to give the country’s core national interests away… it would be happy if the defense forces are disbanded. I wouldn’t call that an opposition,” he kept on lecturing. “Any way I am a service man,” he concluded. Alas that was too late!
One may wonder whether an army chief can publicly attack opposition parties. At least the much talked about constitution in one of its articles claims, “The armed forces shall carry out their functions free of any partisanship to any political organization(s).” By the way, the 20th anniversary of that document and the day of nations and nationalities have just been celebrated with much fanfare.
Threat to the constitution
Ever since the constitution was ratified in November 1994, the preeminent threat to it came from the executive, which for all practical purposes wrote it in the first place. Not only did the government abused its own creations but also kept on making other laws and directives in utter contradiction to the constitution itself. Here are a few instances:
• When former defense minister Seye Abraha fell out with his brother-in-arms, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, he was locked up on corruption charges along with his entire siblings. Bail was out of the question. Again the constitution has a clause that says: “Persons arrested have the right to be released on bail.” To tame the criticism, in a nick of time the government came up with a legislation that denies bail for suspects charged with corruption. To add salt to injury, half a dozen members of parliament who represented the Tigray Regional State were singlehandedly sacked by the Prime Minister who didn’t bother to consult the parliament neither their constituency.
• Freedom of assembly has been trampled upon. In 2005 the then PM publicly announced the banning of all kind of assembly and demonstration under the guise of reducing tension following a controversial election. It would take another eight years before a hodgepodge of opposition activists and religious freedom advocates took to the streets demanding the release of their leaders.
• Freedom of expression has been the most important victim of the government, though. Article 29, which was copy-pasted from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been trashed. As a result, according to Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) census for 2014, Ethiopia has made it to the list of the top ten jailers of journalists in the world; and when it comes to exile, it is in the fourth position even beating Eritrea.
• Never forget that when Meles passed away, way before the official version of August 2012, it took around two months for the current premier Hailemariam Desalegn to assume his rightful position. There is nothing in the constitution that talks about the replacement of the PM in case of death or incapacitation. Why? Because the author of the constitution was none other than the former head himself who was set to lead till death do him part, in which he succeeded.
Revisiting the past
Having overthrown the Marxist dictatorship of Mengistu Hailemariam in 1991, TPLF/EPRDF suspended the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE) constitution and was leading by the transitional charter. That was supposed to pave the way for a new constitution. So a constitutional drafting commission was established. Most of the members were handpicked by the party in power, some were close confidantes of the man at the helm. Professor Andreas Eshete, the late Kifle Wodajo are among the members to mention but a few.
The Commission’s mandate was to draft a constitution; present it to the public for debate; then submit the final version to the president. The president was to send it to the Constitutional Assembly, the final body entrusted with sealing the fate of the document. Unfortunately, out of the 557 members of the Assembly only 18 were independent politicians or representatives of other smaller parties. Otherwise it was all EPRDF’s show. The constitution which is more or less the country-wide version of the TPLF manifesto of 1974 was approved almost by acclamation. To ward off some unexpected legal glitches in the future, the power of interpreting the constitution was given to the House of Federation, the upper chamber of the parliament whose existence is rarely felt.
The making of a Prime Minister
When TPLF/EPRDF came to power Meles Zenawi was the president of the country. Why did he become prime minister? The ethnic politics that he espoused was to have a boomerang effect on him. If he goes for a presidential system, the chance of him being elected by all the people of the country through a direct vote was next to nothing. So he had to pull the tricks of parliamentary system up his sleeve. The public was never enthusiastic about that exercise, let alone discuss the merits of parliamentary system. As everything was a top down approach, the transitional government leaders — with president Meles at the helm — decided parliamentary system as a means to guarantee their eternal hold on power.
So after the Assembly ratified the new constitution, the then minister of information Dr Negasso Gidada was elected president. His role was largely ceremonial. Meles became the all too powerful PM.That way he guaranteed the continuity of his personal grip on power for decades to come by easily swapping hats overnight from president to prime minister. Members of parliament may change; even the president has got two term limits; but Meles’ tenure was for life.
In the name of constitution
From the four constitutions the country ever had, the last one seems to have been abused the most as it became an instrument to wage all kinds of indoctrination under the pretext of safeguarding it. Village political operatives (locally known as cadres) threaten peasants who fail to pay fertilizer arrears by saying they are trying to “dismantle the constitutional order”; when taxi drivers strike that is “crime against constitution”; if a journalist writes about political issues, it is “outrage against the constitution”.
If history is any indication, no constitution in Ethiopia ever withstood the change of government. As such it is just a matter of time before the current one will be adjusted to the tune of whoever controls the Arat Kilo palace next time around.