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Genocide And The 1995 Ethiopian Constitution

Genocide and Ethiopian Constitution

By Maimire Mennasemay

Since 1995, systematic ethnic cleansings have been taking place in various Ethiopian regions.  Because ethnic cleansing is unheard of in Ethiopia until now, one is obliged to ask: why now? 

Violence is not new to Ethiopian history. However, since 1995 we see a type of violence that is qualitatively different from the one that characterized Ethiopian history. One could call it “ultraviolence.” Ultraviolence refers to the articulation of  “ultra-objective” and “ultra-subjective” violence (see here). The first treats the ethnic-other as things and as disposable matter, and the second treats the members of the ethnic-other as vermin, cockroaches, or incarnations of evil that must be eliminated to purify one’s community from being contaminated by it. 

Since 1995, we have seen ultraviolence being directed at identifiable groups of people in  Gara Muleta, Gelemiso, Wolfie, Dansie, Anchara, Arba Gugu, Guna, Arise Negelie, Kofelie, Korie, Gura Ferda, Benshangul-Gumuz, Jimma, Western Hararigie,  Metekel, Horo Guduru, East Wollega, North Shoa, Qelem Wollega, Ilu Aba Bora, Buno Bedele, East Shoa, West Shoa, South West Shoa, Arsi zone, the two Guji zones, Kiramu, Gida  Ayana, Alge, Hurumu, Amuru, Horo Buleq, Jardaga Jarte, Gindeberet, Chobi, Kuye, Merti, Jeju, and Welkait, to name a few (here for partial list). 

Inasmuch as ultraviolence has become an identifiable practice only after the proclamation of the 1995 Constitution and the ethnic federation it founded, we are obliged to raise the question: Is the 1995 Constitution the womb that gestated and gave birth to the ultraviolence that is decimating and dehumanizing so many Ethiopians? 

The 1995 Constitution has a center of gravity made up of two articles: article 8 which attributes sovereignty to “the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia” and not to the Ethiopian people as a political entity, and article 39 which gives “Every Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia” the  “unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession.” The remaining 104 articles of the Constitution revolve around this center of gravity in that their interpretations and applications respect the political limits these two articles establish. Politically, that is, in practice, as we could see since 1995, the various rights and freedoms enumerated in the Constitution are subsumed to the exigencies of arts 8 & 39. 

The “kilil” (ክልል) is precisely the territorial embodiment of these articles. Articles 8 & 39 presuppose that each “kilil” is the space of a particular ethnicity (art.8) and is a potentially independent state (art.39). Thus, instead of being a centripetal force  that holds the parts of Ethiopia together to create unity, the Constitution incubates a centrifugal force that could enable each “kilil” to break away and trace its own independent path. 

These two articles make sense only if one assumes that each “kilil” is ethnically homogeneous. However, this assumption is wrong. The Ethiopian population is heterogeneous. It is deeply intertwined historically, politically, economically, demographically, culturally, confessionally, ethnically, linguistically, and interpersonally. This historical reality belies the claim of ethnic homogeneity that underlies arts. 8 & 39. The contradiction between, on the one hand, the reality of demographic heterogeneity and intermingling and, on the other, the fiction of ethnic homogeneity that grounds the “kilil” is a contradiction that is at the heart of the Constitution and that it cannot resolve insofar as it is bounded by arts. 8 & 39. 

The only way to put the false assumption of ethnic homogeneity that grounds the Constitution in practice is by creating a fictive ethnic homogeneity in each “kilil.” But how?  The current practice is through ethnic discrimination and ethnic cleansings, i.e., killings and expulsions (here). Since the government seems unable to prevent these ethnic cleansings and to punish the perpetrators, one must question the democratic claims of the 1995 Constitution and of the ethnic federation it founds. To see this, let us succinctly examine what the spirit of a democratic constitution is.

A democratic Constitution enables members of a society to go beyond their primary (ethnic) identity and acquire a secondary (citizen) identity (here). The transition from primary to secondary identity is the necessary condition of possibility of democracy: the emergence of a public realm within which freedom, equality, fraternity, public reason, democratic representation, rights and responsibilities are exercised by all, irrespective of the particularities attached to primary identities. (here). The transition creates the realm of citizenship and democracy, i.e., —a realm that is governed by universal principles and norms. 

It is important to see a Constitution as a living document that provides a cognitive mapping of the political and legal horizons which circumscribe and orient political institutions, practices and discourses. It articulates implicitly the matrices of possibilities, expectations, thoughts, images and actions that animate a society as a political and legal entity, and provides a framework for the practice of citizenship (secondary identification) that is not undermined by primary identities. 

Does the 1995 Constitution enable Ethiopians to successfully make the passage from primary to secondary identification without which the exercise of citizenship and the existence of a democratic society are impossible?  Does it create the conditions for the concrete practice of freedom, equality and solidarity, and for the respect of individual rights and freedoms without being fettered by the partial interests of primary identities? The answer to both questions is “no.”

The center of gravity of the 1995 Constitution is made up, as we have seen, of arts. 8 & 39. In setting these two articles as the limits of interpretations and applications of all the other articles of the Constitution, the Constitution raises an insurmountable obstacle that renders problematic the passage from primary (ethnic) to secondary (citizen) identification. That is, the Constitution itself prevents the emergence of a commonly shared Ethiopian public space as the framework for political relations among Ethiopians based on secondary identification (citizenship) and democratic principles and norms. 

Rather, the Constitution treats Ethiopians as samples of ethnic groups. Articles 8 & 39 imply that the relations between Ethiopians are mediated by ethnic identity and that the interactions between ethnic communities are provisional and contractual—a contract from which an ethnic group could withdraw if its particular interests are not met (art. 39). The Constitution excludes the conditions that enable Ethiopians to go beyond their primary identities and acquire their secondary identity such that they could interact with each other as free and equal citizens. Articles 8 & 39 imply that the Constitution merely establishes a temporary truce between ethnic “kilils.” Neither democracy nor Ethiopian unity have primacy over the limits that arts. 8 & 39 impose on the Constitution. 

Thus, the center of gravity (arts. 8 & 39) of the Constitution injects into the Constitution the negation of democracy. The two articles reduce democracy to ethnic primacy and repress citizens’ freedom; they shrink equality to ethnic loyalty and repress citizens’ equality; and they degrade solidarity to ethnic unanimity and repress citizens’ solidarity. Thus, the rampant everyday ethnic discrimination in the “kilils” and in Addis Ababa. What exists now in Ethiopia is a caricature of democracy. Whereas Ethiopians need forging universal solidarity and cooperation amongst themselves to defeat poverty, disease and ignorance, the Constitution lays the ground for ethnic egoism, discrimination and nepotism (here), for ethnic conflicts and secession, and for genocide.

The deadlock between democracy and anti-democracy is thus internal to the Constitution. Inevitably, political issues that are caught in this deadlock invite anti-political solutions, that is, violence. Violence thus appears to be the implicit condition of the very functioning of the Ethiopian ethnic federation and its “kilils” in all cases that are affected by the internal deadlock of the Constitution. Witness the violence that is afflicting the schools of Addis Ababa (here).  Inevitably, violence as a solution to political problems leads eventually to  ultraviolence—a violence that annihilates or expels those who are transfigured into the evil embodiments of problems. 

The 1995 Constitution has made Ethiopia a land of fear, hatred and violence where the ethnic-other is represented as the incarnation of evil to be eradicated. Thus when the TPLF government cleansed Welkait of its indigenous inhabitants it followed up its ethnic-cleansing with name-cleansing and renamed the area Western Tigray, eradicating thus even the name of the annihilated: the intent is to erase the existence of the indigenous people of Welkait not only from the land but also from history. “Ultra-objective and ultra-subjective violence”—genocide—germinates actively in the anti-democratic 1995 Constitution. 

The 1995 Constitution has paved the road for and opened the gates that lead to genocide. A slow-motion genocide is in the offing in many regions as recent reports of the EHRC indicate (here). Unless Ethiopians succeed in replacing the antidemocratic and violence-generating 1995 Constitution with a democratic one, the whole Ethiopian edifice could collapse into an archipelago of genocidal  ethnic dictatorships lording it over their ethnic subjects in the name of a fictitious ethnic purity. Ethiopians should pull back the emergency brake now and avoid this tragic outcome. They could do it because they have the cultural, intellectual, spiritual, and political resources (here) to give themselves a democratic Constitution and a democratic federalism. 

Would Ethiopians wake up to the genocidal impulses gestating in the 1995 Constitution before it is too late?!

Related reading : Genocide Well and Alive in Africa
Related reading : Some “amendable” articles in the Ethiopian Constitution


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  1. I hope all the discussion from now on will be in replacing the constitution which breeds the Genocide we see now. If those in power are blinded by power we need to keep the discussion alive. Kudos to the writer.

  2. Scrapping altogether or changing the constitution single-handedly by one group or another without national consensus and public referendum is easier said than done. And given complexity of the country’s past checkered history , it is not helpful to contemplate it either at this juncture. Are there some disagreement or other shorting comings, which should be addressed or amended through transparent and evident based formula? Definitely. As for festering grrievidences, an injustices done on victims and innocent civilians who may well have perished in the reported violence during the Woyane rule, in the current regime or even in the Derg and imperial regimes, and surely there are layers and layers of injustice over the last 80 years, it must sought and done through legal means and accountability mechanism and in forward looking manner . Furthermore, federalism system and constitution based federalism of different regions is the sole and unique solution to Ethiopia diverse communities with multi faiths and multi background citizens. Perhaps It is the only way to prevent a capitulation into corrupt , all-too-familiar, all-too-powerful and out of bound centripetal centralism system of rule and authoritarianism thas sucks off the politico and socio-economic air from the different regions and imposed on its own will and wicked ways.

  3. PM Abiy Ahmed the Terrible is responsible for Amhara and Tigray Genocide. Abiy and Prosperity Party are responsible and must be tried for Genocide Crimes!

    Actually Genocide has intensified by Abiy Ahmed all over Ethiopia, Shimelis Abddisa and Adanach Abebae.

    Dictators by nature are coward and that is why they are brutal to send fear and look strong.

    When Dictator is brutal speak the same language that it understands and you will see crumble Infront of your face.


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