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New Study Shows Ethiopians Are Fed Up with Ethnic Federalism, Demand Change To Constitution


ADDIS ABABA – A new study shows that majority of Ethiopians want to amend the Constitution especially the powers of ethnic groups as sovereign owners of the nation, the ethnic-territorial system and the controversial Article 39 which grants ethnic groups the right to secession. 

The research team led by Dr. Tilahun Tefera and his colleagues from Addis Ababa University briefly reported their findings to the audience.

They explained that the Ethiopian Constitution, adopted in 1995, establishes a federal democratic republic and sets out the rights and duties of citizens and the structure of government. However, certain provisions and articles, especially those related to ethnic issues, have been the subject of repeated debates and disputes over the years.

They said that although the Constitution contains various articles, they mainly focus on the articles that receive much attention in the literature. In other words, the study focused specifically on the ethnic-related provisions and articles of the Constitution. They also emphasized that the study was based on what the Ethiopian people said about the different articles of the constitution.

In terms of methodology, they mentioned that the study included all national regional states except the Tigray region. The survey used 41 of the 86 ethnic groups listed in the 2007 Ethiopian census, as well as ethnic communities in all regions of Ethiopia except Tigray, where the security situation didn't allow participation in the fieldwork. The study used systematic random sampling to ensure the validity and representativeness of the results.

As findings, the researchers noted that empirical data collected from the field indicated that respondents to the study wanted to improve Article 8 of the Constitution, which establishes ethnic groups as sovereign owners of the nation, as well as aspects such as the working language of the federal government, the national emblem, administrative boundaries based on ethnicity, and the controversial Article 39, which grants ethnic groups the right to self-determination, including the right to secession. The study also addressed issues related to the organization of political parties based on ethnic groups.

The researchers explained that their data show that respondents believe that the emphasis on ethnic-based federalism and the right to self-determination has the potential to fragment the nation and undermine its unity.

The results showed that a majority of respondents favor reform of the ethnic-territorial system. Among other things, the survey found that respondents believe that Ethiopia's current constitution should be amended. Respondents were also in favor of introducing another language as a federal working language in addition to Amharic.

The Policy Studies Institute (PSI) released these research findings titled "FDRE Constitution After Three Decades: Inquiring into Whether and What to Amend" on May 16, 2023, at the Hilton Hotel, Addis Ababa in the presence of various stakeholders including the Ministry of Peace, House of Federation, regional government officials, National Dialogue Commission, academics and other dignitaries.

Prof. Beyene Petros, Director General of PSI, said that the Constitution protects fundamental rights and freedoms, such as the right to life, liberty and security of person, freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, freedom of expression and press, and property right. These rights are further elaborated in another section of the Constitution, which focuses on the rights of women and children. Prof. Beyene briefly summarized that the Ethiopian Constitution is a comprehensive document that reflects Ethiopia's commitment to democracy, human rights, and diversity.

Prof. Beyene added, however, that the Constitution is still a work in progress and that there are always debates and discussions on how to amend, revise, improve, and effectively implement its provisions.

Prof. Beyene, a veteran politician in the country and a respected member of the academic community, recalled that the Constitution remains a bone of contention for many people and groups to this day. He added that everything will be changed as far as it benefits our people and our country, including this constitution.

He then stressed that the goal of the day's workshop was not to dictate the articles of the Constitution that should or should not be amended. He stressed that PSI was not asking for a constitutional amendment or revision. The point was to present what society thinks about the Constitution. He emphasized that the goal of the Institute was to show stakeholders what the empirical data collected in different parts of Ethiopia says about the Ethiopian Constitution and then open up further discussions about it.

Then, H.E. Dr. Seyum Mesfin, State Minister at the Ministry of Peace, explained the different features of constitutional amendment and revision in his opening speech. He said that in Ethiopia, there are three prevailing conceptions of the constitution. The first group claims that the Constitution is meaningless and even never replaces the cost of publishing it. The second group, which is highly polarized, says that not a single word from the Constitution should be touched. The third group believes that the Constitution contains both fundamental and destructive articles. He added that this group prefers the destructive articles to be changed as t they believe that “they are a cause of national instability.

H.E. Dr. Siyum also stated that countries around the world, including the U.S. and India, have changed their constitutions so many times that Ethiopia should also change its constitutions because circumstances change frequently.

Following the presentation of the findings, the invited high-level participants working in various ministries and parliament, including academics, raised many questions, comments, and opinions about the findings. They said the methodology used in the study had to be reconsidered, as the respondents are mainly from urban areas and the study does not include the Tigray region.

A workshop participant also expressed that the public should have been informed about the study and there should have been a discussion about the issue, including in the media and among relevant stakeholders. He also said that the results did not provide details on how to integrate the Tigray region.

Some of the participants also felt that the constitution is not the cause of political unrest and instability in Ethiopia. Rather, they said, the root of the problem lies in the lack of implementation of the constitution and not in the constitution itself.

One workshop participant said the study was an attempt to suppress the rights of nations and nationalities guaranteed in the constitution and to present the other version of history as the dominant agenda ahead of the planned national dialog.

A participant also said amendments are possible with any constitution, but in the context of Ethiopia, detailed national discussions are needed before engaging in constitutional amendments.

The researchers then noted all the suggestions, comments, and opinions and they stated that they had conducted the study very carefully because a constitutional study is sensitive by its nature. They added that they would consider many of the suggestions made by participants to further refine the paper.

PSI learned that this workshop, themed "FDRE Constitution After Three Decades: Inquiring into Whether and What to Amend," was covered by more than 42 national and international media, including TVS, radio stations, Youtubers, bloggers, and newspapers.

In conclusion, H.E. Prof. Beyene assured that this investigation was conducted without any interference or political interest. Prof. Beyene said that one of the goals of presenting research results on this type of platform is to share our ideas so that the audience can discuss them further.

In this regard, Prof. Beyene said, "We have been very successful today as many ideas are expressed after the presentations" He concluded by thanking all workshop participants, researchers, and workshop organizers.


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