Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

The Ethiopian Constitution: More Honored in the Breach than the Observance

[Editors Note: This is the second in a series of blog posts from the African Network of Constitutional Lawyers]

More than halfway through the second decade since its adoption, it has become clear that the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia is more honored in the breach than the observance. The numerous violations of constitutional rules in the past eighteen years can hardly be documented in one blog post. In this post, I would like to highlight the most egregious and recent violations of the Constitution with regard to freedom of religion and freedom of expression.

Orthodox Christianity and Islam are the two biggest religions in Ethiopia. Despite the constitutional rule embracing secularism and stipulating that “The state shall not interfere in religious matters” (FDRE Constitution Article 11(3)), it has always been common knowledge that the state had not strictly adhered to this rule. The most blatant and recent interference came when the Ministry of Federal Affairs allegedly organized trainings for Ethiopian Muslim clerics with a view to promote the teachings of an Islamic group of believers called Al Habash. It appeared that the pacifist bent of the teachings of Al Habash (an Islamic ‘sect’/ ‘movement’ founded by an Ethiopian Muslim scholar in Lebanon) appealed to the Ethiopian government which was concerned with the emergence of extremist and violent Islamic groups in some parts of the country. The state’s support and promotion of the Al-Habash, which hitherto did not have a significant following in Ethiopia, angered many Muslims.

Triggered by the sacking of some teachers from an Islamic school in Addis Ababa by the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (which many Muslims consider to be controlled by the government), for the last few months there has been a series of protests held in mosques demanding the establishment of a genuinely representative Islamic Affairs Supreme Council and the cessation of government interference in religious matters. In the past week, the government had started cracking down on these protests by arresting the organizers and violently breaking up the assemblies in the mosques. The government denounces the organizers as terrorists and an unrepresentative minority bent on destabilizing the country.
With regard to freedom of expression, Ethiopia’s unflattering record is well documented by a number of international human rights organizations. The arrest and prosecution of journalists and opposition politicians for opinions that are critical of the government has become routine.

This July for example, nineteen journalists and opposition politicians have been charged and convicted – based on the Anti-terrorism Proclamation, – mostly for statements they have made and opinions they have expressed. Furthermore, in the past week, a prosecutor ordered the impounding of copies of the only private news paper left in Ethiopia that is critical of the government just before its distribution. This is the first time that the provisions of the statute (Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation No. 590/2008, Article 42) that allows such impounding by the prosecutor have been invoked. Before the order to impound was issued, the printer, which is a state owned enterprise, had asked the publishers to take out two stories from the news paper.

The constant violation of fundamental constitutional rights in Ethiopia can only be understood if seen in the context of an ethnically divided political environment in which the ruling elites see repression as indispensable to remain in power. The TPLF (Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front) forms the core of the ruling EPRDF (Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Front), which is a coalition of four ethno-regional parties. The EPRDF owes its accession to power mainly to the military triumph of the TPLF over the former military regime. As a result, the TPLF, which claims to represent the Tgire ethnic group (constituting about 6% of the total Ethiopian population), has become the dominant member of the EPRDF. The dominance of the TPLF is resented by the elites of other ethnic groups such as the Oromo, and the Amhara. The Oromo and Amhara respectively constitute around 34 and 26 percent of the total population. Although the EPRDF has its own Oromo and Amhara wings which are members of the ruling coalition, these organizations are widely perceived as subservient to the TPLF. This perception has nurtured a strong opposition to EPRDF rule in different parts of the country.

All in all, the TPLF has a very narrow support base and its attempt to extend its support base among non-Tigre Ethiopians through its Oromo and Amhara coalition partners has not been too successful. Therefore, to stay in power and maintain the economic and political privileges the leaders of the TPLF have accumulated in the past twenty years, repression has become indispensable. Particularly, since the relatively free 2005 General Election has shown how vulnerable EPRDF is in an open political system, the government had started a systematic program of stifling dissent and organized activity that could potentially be used as a launching pad of political opposition.

It is as part of this effort that various pieces of repressive legislation have been adopted in Ethiopia in the past few years. These include the ‘Anti-Terrorism Proclamation No 652/2009’, the ‘Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation No. 590/2008’ and the Charities and Societies Proclamation (proc. no.621/2009). These laws have been used to tighten the noose on any form of dissent and organized activity that is not controlled by the ruling party.

The exaggerated claims of rising extremism and threats of Islamic fundamentalism appear to be pretexts for the government to keep interfering with the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council. The ruling elites fear that any religious or civic organization which has a wide following and which is independent is a potential threat to their rule since it could be used to mobilize opposition to the regime. The imperative of staying in power compels the regime to routinely disregard freedom of expression, religion, association and assembly. The narrow ethnic power base of the ruling party makes suppression indispensable and constitutional democracy a practically unacceptable proposition. Faced with the option of respecting constitutional freedoms and thereby risking their hold on power on the one hand and on the other hand violating these rights to prolong their stay in power, the leaders of the TPLF have clearly opted for the later. Underlying their choice is not only the fear that they will loose the privileges they enjoy now but also the fear that once out of power, the Tigre will be marginalized and become victims of reprisal.

–Gedion.T Hessebon SJD Candidate, Central European University, Budapest and Assistant Lecturer, Addis Ababa University (on leave)


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