Ethiopia’s history of parliamentary democracy is relatively short. Though the first Ethiopian parliament was opened in November 1931 following the adoption of the 1931 constitution during the reign of Emperor Haile-Selassie, it was largely an advisory and feudal body which lacked any legislative authority. It was disbanded in 1974 on the heels of the overthrow of the Imperial regime by the military government and was reconstituted in 1995 after the present constitution was adopted in 1994. Since then there has been a functioning parliament, albeit with several limitations that have prevented from fulfilling its solemn mandate properly. It’s imperative that the shortcomings hobbling this august institution are addressed duly if it’s to effectively carry out the duties entrusted to it.
The Ethiopian parliament must be empowered to exercise the powers vested in it under the constitution in order to play its vital role in advancing Ethiopia’s democracy. As the highest legislative body in the country, it holds significant power to enact and amend laws that shape the country’s democratic processes and institutions. It also serves as a platform for diverse voices and perspectives to be heard and considered. In a country as ethnically and culturally diverse as Ethiopia, the representation of various communities in the parliament is crucial for ensuring that the needs and interests of all citizens are taken into account in the democratic decision-making process. Furthermore, the parliament plays a critical role in holding the government accountable to the people. Through oversight and checks and balances, it can ensure that the executive branch operates within the bounds of the law and respects democratic principles. This is essential for preventing authoritarianism and corruption, and for fostering a culture of transparency and accountability in Ethiopian governance.
Aside from these, the parliament has the responsibility to safeguard and promote human rights and civil liberties. Through the enactment of laws that protect the rights of all citizens and marginalized groups, it can contribute its share to the advancement of a more just and inclusive democracy in Ethiopia via, among others, upholding freedom of speech, assembly, and association, as well as ensuring equal access to justice and opportunities for all Ethiopians. Moreover, the parliament serves as a platform for debating and addressing such pressing national issues as economic development, social welfare, and environmental sustainability, which are essential components of a thriving democracy. Additionally, by upholding the rule of law and respecting fair electoral processes, it can set an example for a peaceful transfer of power and democratic continuity, helping lay the long-term stability and legitimacy of the nation’s political system on a firm foundation.
The track record of Ethiopia’s parliament as far as discharging its constitutional mandates is concerned leaves a lot to be desired. While it was understandably incapable of functioning as a proper legislature during the absolute monarchical rule of Emperor Haile-Selassie, it has not fared much better in the nearly thirty years it has been in existence since its re-establishment. Throughout this period it has been under the thumb of the executive branch of the government, rubber-stamping the decisions made by the ruling party/the government it heads. Consequently, it has not lived up to the public’s expectations in terms of taking a central role in shaping and nurturing Ethiopia’s fledgling democracy, namely enacting inclusive laws; representing diverse voices; holding the government accountable; protecting human rights; addressing national issues; promoting peaceful transitions; and engaging citizens. If the resulting loss of public trust in the parliament is to be addressed any time soon, its failings need to be rectified posthaste.
A strong parliament is the cornerstone of democracy and essential for development. There are several measures that can and indeed must be taken strengthen the Ethiopian parliament. First, it’s of the essence to invest in parliamentary capacity-building and professional development for members and staff so as to enhance their autonomy and capacity as it relates to promulgating laws and exercising oversight power. It’s also important to strengthen the legal framework and procedural rules governing parliamentary activities. Fostering a culture of constructive debate, collaboration, transparency and public engagement is vital as well. Implementing these measures will go a long way to realizing a more robust, inclusive and accountable parliamentary system that is better equipped to fulfill its essential role in advancing Ethiopia’s democracy. All this would be meaningless without a genuine political commitment on the part of the ruling party and other stakeholders.