Ethiopia: The Art of Compromise

Published on 9th July 2019


In light of recent Ethiopian history and most particularly the youthful visions of the heroic Ethiopian students of the 1960s, rethinking the political value of Article 39 of the Ethiopian constitution which for the first time armed the Ethnics of Ethiopia to determine their destines up and including the right to territorially separate themselves from the geographic of Ethiopia gives me philosophical pain, but here I venture to articulate a vision that will save us from annihilating ourselves.

Article39 rightly provided our Oromo brothers and sisters, historic rights of taking pride in their heritage and openly practicing their traditions and customs. This is not an easy achievement and our youthful visionaries gave us the article as the ultimate devise of collective and individual sovereignty for all the marginalized ethnics of Ethiopia.

Article 39 is an attempt to harmonize the inherent tensions between the diversity of the Ethiopian people, and their quest for maintaining their Ethiopianity. Stated differently it is a quest for respecting ethnic origins with Ethiopian citizenship, and these parallel yearnings require compromise in order to be harmonized.

The time is now ripe to rethink the meaning of this historic article, but first let me briefly summarize the history behind the content of Article 39.

The Argument

Constitutions are nothing more than linguistic artefacts which need to be periodically revisited by dynamic amendments.  Constitutions like the human beings who write them are temporal devises which control human behaviour, since human character is deeply flawed, contingent and imperfect.  Constitutions rightly aim at regulating behaviour, since they cannot change human character.  Character is shaped by morality and behaviour is politically regulated by a binding constitution through a system of rules, which become laws.  However, constitutions themselves are also flawed human constructions, which must always be revisited, and so is our Ethiopian constitution, specifically article 39, the lynchpin of this otherwise brilliant constitution.

The revision should be done methodically in several steps, which I would like to outline.

(1) A national conference inclusive of all the ethnics and their representatives must conduct open and civil discussions around the theme of rights, duties and responsibilities of Ethiopians as a mosaic of Ethnicities, and the function of Article 39.

(2) After the first testing conference, then we move on to the second national constitutional convention which will gather the best legal minds in Ethiopia and beyond to refine article 39 which methodically safeguards the rights, duties and responsibilities of Ethiopians without dividing them into artificial spaces, called, killels.   The previous attempts of protecting the freedoms of ethnicities, articulated in Article 39could be supplemented by another article which gives the same basic rights and duties without unnecessarily organizing Ethiopian political life around divisive territorial divisions.  Territorial spaces will be replaced by an inclusive life in Ethiopian lands which belongs to all Ethiopians with freedom of movement.

(3) This new vision will then be circulated and discussed by all Ethiopians by a genuinely democratic media, the new function of which will be political education of Ethiopian citizens under the new condition of education free of domination and double think.

(4) The final and important step will be the ratification of a new constitution which draws from the people’s participation and eventual ratification by representatives chosen by the people and from the people themselves.

These steps and several others can result in the development of a new Ethiopia constructed by Ethiopians in concert, a democratic practice.

By Teodros Kiros

Associate Professor Liberal Arts

[email protected]

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