The Problem With Tribal Federalism is Not Its Implementation


Supporters of the failed tribal constitution suggest that the problem in Ethiopia is not the constitution per se, but its implementation.

We have heard the same argument from advocates of communism. The problem was not the system but its implementation. Mengistu’s “Ethiopia First” revolution was not the problem. The problem was its implementation. That is bull crap.

A cursory look at African nations constitution drafting experiences — and aplenty they are — reflects that African leaders use guns to take over the state and then legitimize their rule, among other things, by a customized constitution. For instance, Mobutu may have catapulted himself to the helm of Zaire’s power structure through coup d’etat, but it is through constitutional means that he made himself president for life. Popular African leaders such as Nkrumah and Neyrere also used their respective constitutions as screens upon which they projected their personal philosophies at best, or as legal documents to legitimize their autocratic rules, at worst.

The answer to Hamilton’s query in Federalist No. 1, “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force” depends on: a) the degree to which the procedural integrity of constitution drafting and ratification processes are legitimate; b) the fundamental legal logic inherent in the constitution is intrinsically consistent and substantively correct; and c) the institutional embodiment of the underlying fundamental philosophy is designed in such a way to provide procedural safeguard to constitutional governance.

The current tribal constitution in Ethiopia violates all three litmus tests for a legitimate constitution. The problem started from constitutional drafting and ratification processes.

Few days after Meles Zenawi took power, he granted an interview to the Time magazine. Time and again he told the interviewer, in no uncertain terms, that private property right will not apply to land, the political system will be organized by ethnic groups and the country’s institutions will be recreated to reflect ethnic representation. That was the day the constitution was dictated. As expected, the draft constitution embodied not only the letter but also the spirit of his statement in the interview.

Tecola Hagos (an Ethiopian of Tigrayan Origin) then a visiting constitutional scholar at Harvard University Law School and a onetime senior adviser-turned-critic of Meles, wrote the following: “The constitution seems to have been designed for the sole reason in order to legitimize the pre-determined ascendance of Meles Zenawi as prime Minister.”

Indeed, the constitution became a screen upon which Meles projected his philosophies and enshrined his autocratic rules,

The ratification process was conducted strictly to complete the mechanical cycle of constitutional formation. As Tekola Hagos has noted, the final document was a carbon copy of the draft constitution. Amazingly, even typographical errors that were in the draft were left to remain in the final constitution.

If supporters of the current constitution believe in democratic governance, they will be open to the idea of establishing a legitimate constitutional convention.

Let us have a true constitution convention that involves all sectors of society and let the chips fall where they may. If the people support the current system or some variation of it, let it be. If they come up with a different model, let it be.

But the Tribalist community in the ranks of TPLF, OLF and Jawar’s ecosystem will not support this for obvious reasons.

As Jawar has stated: “Multinational federalism engrained in the current constitution is here to stay. It’s in not up for discussion, let alone negotiation. Anyone caught in some FANTASY should wake up from their hallucination,”

The tribalists’ motto is: “We have gotten what we wanted. Hell with the people.”