Article 39 of the Ethiopian constitution “is extremely provocative and is the one behind most of the conflicts and instabilities that raged the country for more than three decades now,” says the author calls for futuristic constitution
By Belayneh Begajo
Article 39 of the Ethiopian constitution is one of the most debated and the most controversial provision that attracted the attentions of wide ranges of people within and outside the country. Probably it is the only constitutional provision in the world that allows unconditional secession. It is extremely provocative and is the one behind most of the conflicts and instabilities that raged the country for more than three decades now. Part of the articles that exploded controversies in Ethiopian politics since 1995 reads as: “Every nation, nationality and people in Ethiopia has an unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession”. The confusions and conflicts we experienced for the last several years has strong connection to this part of the article. The statement in the provision is packed with extremely negative tones of words like ‘every …’, ‘unconditional’, self-determination and ‘secession’; which openly translated and used in negative, abusive and premeditated ways. After the coming of new administration in 2018, the conflicts occurred in Somali region and the recent crisis in Tigray are two classical examples of cases that traces back to the constitutional crisis.
The political narratives of self-determination, unconditional secession, sovereignty of the people and so on were widely used in 18th and 19th century when most of the continents of the world were under the control of the colonial powers. At the time, countries under the control of foreign forces took up their arms to fight for their unconditional self-determination against the repressive colonial forces. At the time, colonial forces were unleashing their untold oppressions and exploitations on countries and continents under their control. Africa, Asia and Latin Americans were all the victims of colonial powers of the time. The essence of the 1995 constitution article 39 in particular is the political discourses of the colonial times and were imitated to the Ethiopian political landscape by the elites of the time. During the colonial era, political narratives of self-determination, independence, unconditional secession etc were so relevant as it was used as a spring board to unify countries and people against the repressive foreign powers.
When it comes to the Ethiopian context, the political narrative of 18th and 19th century cannot work in today’s Ethiopia. Article 39 of the constitution mirrors the colonial time perspectives and imported to the free land of Ethiopia. Importation of the old colonial time mindset to Ethiopia reality is not only irrelevant but believed to be a political conspiracy aimed to undermine the Ethiopian unity. Constitutional provisions of that nature are most likely imposed by the external powers who wished to see the African icon disintegrated by such wrongly framed narratives. Unfortunately, foreign led wishful thinkers used Ethiopia as a lab to experiment their hidden political agenda and as a result Ethiopians paid unbearable prices for years now.
The divisive political thoughts constitutionalized and institutionalized in the country had distorted the society from their common vision, and created destructive and negative mindsets. Numbers of cases of destruction that occurred in Ethiopia over the last 30 years are because of such colossal divisive political thoughts. Most of the territorial boundaries of African countries were, for example, determined by the colonial powers but when it comes to Ethiopia, internal borders between different ethnic groups were demarcated for administrative purposes. And yet since the 1995 constitution, several internal border related conflicts exploded in different parts of the country, including the conflicts between Amhara and Tigray regions, Oromia and Somali regions, between residents in south and Benishangul regions etc. Border related conflicts were predicted as imminent between different regions under article 48. This is a bit odd. If ‘all sovereign power resides in the nations, nationalities and people of Ethiopia’ (according to article 8), then why conflicts of interest between nations, nationalities and people were not assumed in the constitution as it was assumed between regions? It is fair to argue that the political forces of the time had a premediated and hidden goals when they assumed conflicts between regions.
In a diversified society of more than 80 ethnic groups, imagining self-determination and secession is so dangerous and unrealistic. The implication of self-determination and secession in countries of more than 80 ethnics groups means that all the ‘nation, nationality and people’ can raise the question of self-determination and or secession at some point in time. In other words, the demand can arise at any level i.e., at region, at zone or district whenever they needed. It is so naïve to assumed secession as simple as family divorce. It is also so odd to imagine secession in the context of common ownership rights on the lands of the nation as articulated under article 4/3 of the constitution.
The future will tell us how many border related conflicts were triggered before and after 1995 constitution. Most of the deaths and displacements occurred in the country since 1995 are largely connected to the constitution. Ethnic related conflicts and destruction that we witnessed for years was unprecedented and its widespread impacts were unimaginable. The thoughts of article 39 exploded a deep and extremely negative mindset in the larger society and destructed the social fabrics and relationships between different ethnic groups. It will be important to evaluate the overall impacts of the constitution on the social, economic, cultural and political life of the Ethiopian society since it came into effect in 1995. The costs and benefits of the constitution needs deep analysis to understand how far the country was hurt and how much benefited in the last 30 years.
As many experts argue, such negative thoughts were deliberately constitutionalized and used as a bargaining chip to institutionalize a hegemonic political group in the country. Ethnic based regional state arrangements and the way it was put into practice seems to suggest a pre-emptive implementation plan of self-determination and secession. In this regard it is critically important to rethink and evaluate the current federal administrative practices and its implication on the unity of the country. Different aspects of the federal administrative practices and setups such as regional constitutions, regional flags, regional level special forces and militia are some of the important aspects that needs deep evaluation as to how far they added values for the long-term goals of the country. As much as possible, the government need to be sensitive to the divisive elements in the administrative systems, policies and practices; and avoid them as soon as possible. It is very important to revise some of the issues that reinforces divisive mindsets in the society. As a nation it is also important to focus on and redirect the society to the bigger picture of national unity and uplifting their inspiration and trusts between citizens.
No Ethiopians felt colonized by one another and yet no Ethiopians deny the fact that all the governing elites in the past created considerable discontents and discriminations among the population. But that did not change any one of us to the extent of questing our citizenship of being Ethiopian. The colonial mentality and the mentality of 18th century will never ever fit to the today’s Ethiopia nor to any other country in today’s free world. The political forces that brought such controversial article into the constitution has constantly been denying the history of Ethiopian people who lived together for generations. No political powers and discontents in the past and today had able to destroy the Ethiopian unity as the elites, who drafted this constitution, falsely tried to justify their provocative provisions. Despite all the political unfairness that was witnessed in Ethiopia for years, Ethiopians created their common values, cultures, norms, languages and visions as one united society.
The old political systems as we know them always uses division between people to sustain their dictatorial political games. Dictatorial governance systems, discriminations and undemocratic political processes had been part of human history in the world but on contrary human ingenuity and persistent struggle have brought evolutionary development of democracy, solidarity, common goal and unified global governance structures including UN and UN human rights declaration. The existence of undemocratic political process in a given country does not justify secession; it rather brings the people together to struggle for a common goal and for a common destiny.
Every one of us has our own ethnic backgrounds and no one will deny ethnic based identity rights. The rights of ethnic identity involve the rights of developing once language, culture, social values and so on. These rights are universal and universal rights are expected to be respected no matter where we live, who we are and what ideology and political party we belong. Self-determination including the rights to secession is not a solution in a diversified society like ours. Article 39 is the worst negative imagination and is the imagination of the elites’ own illusionary creation who are so egoist, corrupt, abusive and self-centered. The new generation should uphold and consistently work on togetherness, unity and connection as order of their time. The new generation should reject the imposed primitive perspective of village thoughts of separation, secession, hatred, mistrust, egoism, illiteracy and war. Ethiopians need to look around themselves to understand the beauty of diversity, which exists everywhere in harmony and is divine intention.
Belayneh Begajo is an economist by profession and he can be reached at email@example.com
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