Analysis: Why a study by state funded think tank to amend Ethiopia’s constitution faces criticism

The 13th Ethiopian Nations and Nationalities Day Celebrations in 2018 Addis Abeba. Photo: Anadulu

By Abdi Biyenssa @ABiyenssa &

Beka Atoma Boru @bek_boru

Addis Abeba – On 16 May, a government-funded policy think tank, Policy Studies Institute (PSI) released an unprecedented research that no one heard of while being prepared. Titled ‘FDRE Constitution after three decades: Inquiring into whether and what to amend’, the 374 pages paper was presented for a discussion in the capital Addis Abeba. 

Organizers say the study has taken two years, and stated that its objective was to examine a public desire for the amendment of the current constitution of Ethiopia, to assess provision of FDRE constitution that can be subject for amendment, to investigate the social and political factors that necessitate amendments, to predict the factors that may facilitate or obstruct the amendment process, and to comprehend constitutional amendment experience of selected countries.

The study focused on selected provisions of the constitution which discuss topics related to group rights, including the sovereign rights of nations and nationalities starting, from the preamble, and elaborated in Article 8 that “All sovereign power resides in the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia”, as well as the national emblem, the federal working language, ethno-territorial federalism arrangement, Article 39 on the right to self-determination of nations, including and up to secession, and the status of Addis Abeba. Also included in the study, is the topic related to ethnic-based political parties, which is not a subject of Ethiopian constitution.

Accordingly, the study says that “41 of the 83 ethnic groups listed in the last census of Ethiopia were selected by a systematic random sampling, and ethnic communities in all regions of Ethiopia except Tigray where the security situation didn’t allow a fieldwork participated.” 

“A majority of the respondents (54%) advocate a reform to the ethno-territorial system”

Among other findings, the study stated that 75 % of 1123 survey respondents believe that the current constitution of Ethiopia should be changed. 48% of respondents supported additional language for the federal working language in addition to Amharic, whereas 44% opposed it.

“An overwhelming majority of support for additional language comes from survey respondents from Oromia (76%), Somali (90%), Dire Dawa (96%), and Harari (94%) regions. The largest three oppositions to additional language comes respectively from SNNPRS (59%), Sidama(58%), and Afar (56%),” the study stated.

When it comes to the current structure of the country’s federal system, the study revealed that “a majority of the respondents (54%) advocate a reform to the ethno-territorial system”, while “a non-negligible minority of 38% of the survey respondents argue that the current system should be kept intact”. 

“The largest number of survey respondents favoring the current ethno-territorial system comes from Oromia (91%), Somali (66%), and the third from Benishangul Gumuz region (64%). The largest three communities against the current ethno-territorial system thus seeking amendment are Amhara (78%), Afar (77%), Sidama (71%) and Southwest (70%),” the study stated.

The study has also included a survey on the topic of the controversial status of the capital Addis Abeba, where it said over 60 percent of the respondents are in favor of maintaining the current constitutional status of the city.

Following its announcement the study has faced fierce criticism particularly from activists and intellectuals from the Oromia region.

“The methodology used in the research is problematic to begin with”, Monenus Hundara, a researcher and expert on federalism, told Addis Standard. He noted that the sample size and geographical sample representations have visible flaws, as the survey respondents are mainly from urban areas particularly in the Oromia region, and also for the fact that the study did not include Tigray.

He added that the provisions of the constitution discussed in the study are predetermined by a group who may have political interest as opposed to making it open to the survey respondents. He also criticized the secrecy of the study saying that the public should have been told about the research, and there should have been a discussion on the issue, including in the media and amongst relevant actors.

“You will not find 1% let alone 71% majority in the Sidama region who disagree with the current regional structure”

Elias Tesemma, Chairperson of the Sidama Federalist Party (SFP)

Girma Gutema, an independent researcher and human rights advocate, who is also a member of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), scrutinized the finding and methodology of the study saying that the study has “fundamental methodological flaw” with regard to sample representation.

“In the November 2019 general referendum, the YES vote for Sidama statehood was a staggering 98.5%. Yet according to the new study said to have been commissioned by PSI, 71% of Sidamas said they want to dismantle their newly established regional state,” Girma wrote on his Facebook.

“Unless they want us to believe that Sidamas changed their mind in under two years of getting what they fought for many decades, thereby essentially abandoning the fruit of [their] long struggle, how can this ever be comprehended?” he asked.

Chairperson of the Sidama Federalist Party (SFP) and assistant professor of Law at Hawassa University, Elias Tesemma told Addis Standard that in addition to its methodological shortcomings, the study was conducted on a wrong premise that considers the constitution as the source of the political turmoil and instabilities in Ethiopia. He rather said the source of the problem is failure to fully implement the constitution not the constitution itself.

“You will not find 1% let alone 71% majority in the Sidama region who disagree with the current regional structure,” Elias noted as opposed to the study, and thus said that the research is done based on a predetermined political agenda and used a “cooked” data.

He emphasized that the study is an attempt to suppress rights of nations and nationalities guaranteed by the constitution, and to set a narrative of a certain political camp as a dominant agenda ahead of the planned national dialogue.

“A new social contract followed by a legitimate government is needed before indulging in constitutional amendments”

Yohannes Woldemariam (PhD), researcher

Yohannes Woldemariam (PhD), a US based researcher on Horn of Africa politics on his part believes that the study released by the PSI is an attempt by the government “to change the conversation by setting untimely agenda as a diversion” from dire political, social and economic situations of the country.

“Amendments are always possible with every constitution but in the context of Ethiopia, a new social contract followed by a legitimate government is needed before indulging in constitutional amendments,” he noted.

In his interview with a Kush Media Network, Tsegaye Ararsa, a Melbourne based constitutional scholar lawyer and political analyst, questioned the mandate of the PSI with regard to conducting research on constitutional issues. 

“The Policy Studies Institute is not mandated to study constitutional problems, rather it is mandated to study government policy,” Tsegaye said, calling the study “ an intellectually charged political mission.”

Among the several points Tsegaye criticized the research is its timing. “It is not the right time for constitutional revision, a democratic transition must precede the constitutional revision/amendment, and the current government is not fit to make constitutional revision or reform or amendment.”AS

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