De-Mystifying the Ethiopian Constitution (Part 1)

The Strathink Editorial Team presents here Part 1 of its series this week on the 1994 Ethiopian Constitution. In today’s atmosphere of change, Strathink would like to remind its readers that Ethiopia is a nation governed by the rule of law–its legal framework spelled out in the 1994 Constitution. Genuine change can only take place within the framework of the Constitution and a good start would be a review of the Constitutional process that took place from 1991-1994, an explanation of what the articles of the Constitution mean, and an analysis of what are the steps needed to make changes within the Constitution’s parameters. 

By the Strathink Editorial Team

There are many misconceptions, both accidental and willful, about how the Ethiopian government is run. Strathink would like to remind its readers that Ethiopia operates under the rule of law—all people and institutions, including the government, are bound to the Constitution.

There was no more powerful message given to the Ethiopian people when former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn gave a copy of the Ethiopian Constitution to current Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed at his inauguration. Why was this symbolism so important? It was an important reminder to the people that change is possible, but only through the legal process embodied in the Ethiopian Constitution.

In a country where the Constitution stands as rule of law, there are steps that need to be taken to ensure that change takes place within the framework of the Constitution. This framework protects the rights and liberties of the people as well as the authority of the government. No one individual or institution is above the law.

Many Ethiopians, like citizens of other countries, are unaware of the principles and framework that underlies the Constitution. The Strathink Editors thought it would be a good time to review the Constitution and begin a discussion about the “deep renewal” and transformation that is taking place inside the country. Change cannot be understood outside the Constitutional parameters that have been the law of the land since 1995.

Part 1 of our series will give the broad outline of the history of Ethiopia’s Constitutions; Part 2 will de-construct the articles of the Constitution, in other words, what do they say; and Part 3 will be an analysis of what all this means in today’s political climate of transformation and change.

Please note that it is important to begin with a discussion of the fundamentals of the Constitution—not exactly the most riveting reading. However, please bear with us. Facts must precede analysis and first we must agree on the facts. Despite what U.S. President Trump says, there is no such thing as “alternative facts.”

A Brief Summary of Ethiopia’s Constitutional History

As all Ethiopian schoolchildren know, there was no Constitution until 1931. Emperor Haile Selassie introduced Ethiopia’s first Constitution in 1931, replacing the ancient Christian legal code called Fetha Negest. The new Constitution, based on the Meiji Constitution of Japan, gave the Emperor absolute power and ascension to the throne based on the family bloodline. It essentially displaced provincial rule and gave the Emperor the power to choose leaders loyal to him throughout the country.

Although the Constitution created a bicameral legislative branch—an upper chamber made up of the aristocracy and a lower chamber chosen by dignitaries and local leaders—the legislature was more decorative than substantive.

In 1955, the Emperor decided to modernize the Constitution to keep pace with a rapidly changing Ethiopia. The upper house of the legislature was called the Senate, and members were appointed by the Emperor. The lower house, called the Chamber of Deputies, was elected by universal adult suffrage, including women. Supreme authority was vested in the monarch, including the right to appoint the Prime Minister. In the 1955 Constitution, 29 articles were included that gave textual rights to Ethiopian citizens, although none to participate in their government. This was a reasonable façade of a modern Constitution, which looked good to the international community if not read too carefully.

Yet a third Constitution was promulgated in 1987 during the rule of Mengistu Haile Mariam. With the adoption of this Constitution, the Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Ethiopia was established and power, at least theoretically, shifted from the executive branch to the unicameral legislative branch—the Shengo. The Shengo was given the power over all national issues, including foreign policy, defense and security, war, economic and social policy, budget and fiscal policy of the country. The president was the head of state and the Executive Secretary of the Communist Party served as the executive president of the republic, president of the council of state, chairman of the Shengo and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

The Constitutional Process (1991-1994)

The Constitution of 1994 had its roots in the National Conference in 1991 called by the newly established government of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). At this Conference, a remarkably broad array of representatives from 27 liberation groups, 22 international organizations and prominent Ethiopians took part. This conference laid down the fundamental principles of the ethnic federalist state, codified in the Transitional Period Charter.

Until Ethiopia adopted the Constitution in 1995, the Transitional Period Charter formed the legal framework of the state. What was especially significant about the Charter was the establishment of two parallel systems of government—a central government and the regional governments. The regional governments—called “nations”—were formed along the lines of ethno-linguistics characteristics. The National/Regional Proclamation 7/1992 gave the right of these nations, nationalities and peoples to self-determination and ensured the preservation of language, culture and history.

Ethnic federalism, as our readers know very well, was at the beginning a hot button for the opposition. We are not going to discuss here the strengths and weaknesses of the ethnic federalist model. We will leave that discussion to Part 3. Suffice it to say here, ethnic federalism was a core principle of the Transitional Period Charter and was a foundational framework for the 1994 Constitution.

Politically, the transition to the 1994 Constitution was fraught with conflict. In 1993, a peace and reconciliation conference was called by the opposition, led by the Coalition of Ethiopian Democratic Forces (COEDF). Formed in 1991 in Washington, D.C., COEDF was an awkward alliance of organizations that previously were at war with each other—the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Party (EPRP), MEISON, the monarchist Ethiopian Democratic Union (EDU) and the Tigray Peoples’ Democratic Movement (TPDM). COEDF also included about 30 Ethiopian civil society organizations. COEDF organized the Paris Conference in 1993 with the aim of opposing; 1) the EPRDF; 2) Eritrean independence; and 3) ethnic federalism. The EPRDF banned COEDF from Ethiopia as an external political organization.

The Transitional Charter laid the foundation for the constitutional process. The Charter mandated a Constitutional Drafting Commission. In an interview with Addis Standard in 2016, former Ethiopian President Negasso Gidada spoke about the members of the Drafting Committee:

I was just a member of the Commission. The late Kifle Wodajo was the Chairman while Ato Dawit Yohanes was the Secretary. Seven members of the Commission were from the Transitional Parliament; out of seven, only the two of us, Dawit Yohanes and myself, were from the EPRDF. The rest were drawn from civic organizations, from non-EPRDF and non-members of the Transitional Government.

According to former President Negasso, the Commission developed 73 questions around the fundamental principles under debate for the Constitution, including:

  • The role of monarchy
  • State structure (parliamentary or presidential)
  • De-centralization of state power
  • Language
  • Self-determination

 Former President Negasso, in this interview, explained that meetings were held by the kebeles to discuss the various issues under consideration; alas, there were few opposition who attended the meetings, according to the former President. He further explained, “But the answers were gathered from these discussions and were brought to experts who drafted them in to different articles. These experts brought the formulated articles to the meetings of the Constitutional Drafting Commission. We debated on the articles and with our recommendations they were sent back to the experts to have them put into the draft constitution. That was the process by which the constitution was drafted.”

 What happened next, explained former President Negasso was, “Representatives from each woreda (there were about 500) throughout the country were elected in to the Constitutional Assembly. And it is this assembly that finally accepted the constitution. The 73 questions that we put forward were put into 106 Articles. These 106 Articles were then brought to the constitutional Assembly and were adopted to become the country’s constitution. For your information, I was the chairman of the Assembly; former president of the Amhara regional state, Addisu Legesse, was the vice chairman and former president of the southern nations and nationalities regional state, Abate Kisho, was the secretary.”

 The Constituent Assembly ratified the Constitution on December 8, 1994.


Despite a boycott by many of the opposition groups organized at the time, the 1994 Constitution went through a public vetting process that included people across the country, experts and civil society organizations. It was remarkably transparent and, according to former President Negaso Gidada, was certainly not dominated by the EPRDF. In the interview cited here, former President Negaso, a member of the Constitutional Drafting Commission, described a robust public discussion of the most controversial issues of the draft Constitution.

Please send us your comments and stay tuned for Part 2 of this discussion.













One Response to “De-Mystifying the Ethiopian Constitution (Part 1)”

  1. Baraki Weldegabriel says:

    It is a timely and indeed constructive summary for all interested Ethiopians to read and meditate upon ! Thank you for making this historical formation of the Constitution.available !!


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