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International Intervention in Ethiopia’s Crisis is Misguided and Dangerous

The purpose of this article is threefold. It starts with an expose that the DNA of the current war between the Ethiopian government and the Tigrayan Liberation Front (TPLF) is inscribed in the ethnic constitution.

The second part shows the international community’s intervention to date is misguided, and some of the comments made by members of current and retired diplomats smack of ignorance and are insults to the peace-loving and law-abiding people of Ethiopia. They are tantamount to encouraging a rogue party to use war as a political transaction to extract undue constitutional concessions.

The third and last part provides a peaceful way out of the crisis without rewarding the TPLF for its criminal attempt to extort political concession through war.

It is the Constitution, Stupid

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 the degree to which: a) the procedural integrity of constitution drafting and ratification processes are legitimate; b) the fundamental legal logic embedded in the constitution is intrinsically consistent and substantively correct; c) the constitution is born out of an endogenous process and effectively integrated in the social fabrics of the nation; and d)the Constitution is amenable to amendments and modifications.

The problem in Ethiopia started from constitutional drafting and ratification processes. A few days after the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi took power in 1991, he granted an interview to Time magazine. During his interview, he laid out in great detail how he intended to govern Ethiopia. That was the day the Constitution was dictated and ratified.

The Constitution is nothing but a parchment screen upon which Mr. Zenawi projected his desire to establish a constitutional framework through which Tigrayan supremacy is institutionalized and the Amhara ethnic group is permanently disenfranchised. By design, it was architected to make amendments and modifications impossible without the agreement of the Tigray region.

The Constitution was billed as the first constitution that established the rights of all ethnic groups. This is a snake oil salesman’s version of its interpretation. The truth is different. The Constitution has three different classes of ethnic groups, each with different levels of constitutional rights.

The first class consists of Tigray, Oromo, Amhara, Somali, Afar, Benishangul, and Gambella. They are fully recognized as ethnic groups and granted constitutional rights and protection with varying degrees.

The second class is the Southern People Region, often referred to as the miscellaneous region. The region as a whole is a square peg that does not fit into the philosophical underpinnings of the ethnic constitution’s circle. Larger ethnic groups within the region such as Sidama, Welaita, Hadiya and Gurage each has more population than Afar, Benshangul, and Gambela. Yet, they are not given autonomy to administer themselves. Their rights were stripped to form a region, consisting of a hotchpotch of over 50 smaller ethnic groups. Since smaller ethnic groups are not economically viable to exist on their own, their larger counterparts serve as their adoptive partners.

The third class consists of several dozensmall ethnic groups that the constitution relegates to a second-class status. The only place they are included in the constitution is in Articles 61and 62, as members of the Council of Federation. Though the Council of Federation is presented as a legislative body, it has no legislative power. Among duties mandated to the Council includes to “perform functions assigned to it” by the House of Peoples' Representatives. The Council’s budget is subject to the approval of the House of Peoples’ Representatives.

PM. Meles never trusted small ethnic groups. They were seen as natural allies to Pan-Ethiopian forces. Therefore, their wings are clipped, and their constitutional rights are violated.  In a televised interview the PM. explained this stating they are pastoralists and are not ready for primetime.

The Constitution Treats Some Regions More Equal than Others

The Constitution is constructed to benefit Tigray and disenfranchise the Amhara ethnic group. Tigray gained fertile lands from the Amara region. In the meantime, Amhara is the only region that suffered loss of lands in all four corners of its geographic proper. Its fertile lands and mineral resources were curved out and incorporated into Tigray, Oromo and Benishangul.

During the TPLF’s era, one of its signature economic accomplishments was infrastructure, particularly roads. A 2017 World Bank report revealed: “Remote and economically lagging regions, and Amhara Region, saw lesser increases in road density… the increase in road density was concentrated in certain regions, notably Addis Ababa, as well as Tigray in the north of the country and in Oromia in the center.”

Another growth indicator the World Bank report used is “differences in the pattern of nightlights over a given time.” This is important because such differences “are correlated with changes in GDP.”

The top three cities outside of Addis Ababa who registered relatively high nightlights listed in the order of high to low are Mekele (Tigray), Adama (Oromo), and Awasa (Southern region).

A 2020 World Bank report notes “most of the chronic poor live in the Southern People and Amhara.” The report added: “Forty-five percent of all the chronically poor in rural areas and small towns live in Southern People region. The share living in Amhara is also high and stands at 31 percent. These substantially outweigh the population shares of Southern People and Amhara which are 20 percent and 23 percent, respectively. 15 percent of the chronically poor live in Oromia, while around 5 percent each are in Tigray and other regions.”

The Constitution is Inherently Flawed

Assume the Oromo region met all the constitutional requirements for secession and leaves the union to form a new country: Oromia. This will geographically separate Gambella and the Southern Peoples regions from the rest of Ethiopia. An Ethiopian from Gameblla region will have to get a visa from Oromia or South Sudan to go the Amhara region.

Since Gambella and Southern People regions are not economically viable to exist on their own, their only option will be to form some form of federation or confederation with either Oromia, Kenya or South Sudan. The only way the Constitution can honor Oromia’s right to invoke Article 39 is by violating the rights of Gambella and Southern People to be a part of Ethiopia.

There is another bizarre twist. If Addis Ababa goes with Oromia, Ethiopia will be a country without a capital city.

The Constitution was made unamendable by design

The US Constitution has been amended 27 times. The first 12 amendments were adopted and ratified during the first 14 years after the Constitution was enacted. In the US amendments are introduced if a two-thirds majority in both chambers of Congress and ratified by either the legislative bodies of three-fourths of the states or state ratification conventions in three-fourths of the state.

In Ethiopia, all regional parliaments must approve any amendment by a majority vote. Tigray that represents less than six percent of the population can block any amendment by a simple majority even if the rest of the regions approve it with 100 percent vote. This was done to make the current constitutional arrangement a permanent fixture.

A Constitution Enforced by the Barrel of a Gun

A legitimate and legitimizing constitution reflects the balance between the promotion of public good and the protection of individual rights. It embodies the nation’s aspiration and the people’s collective will, values and consent to be governed by it. In Ethiopia, the Constitution drives its legitimacy and authority from the barrel of a gun, not from the consent of the people.

One of the intractable problems of the Constitution emanates from the arbitrary partition of the regions. The result has been small scale wars and regular skirmishes between several regions. TPLF’s answer was to use force to suppress any protest related to boarder conflicts.

Though the Constitution allows “unrestricted right to self-determination up to secession” (Article 39), political parties who campaigned for secession were subjected to unimaginable punishment. In the case of Somalia region, advocates of secession were thrown into dens occupied by wild animals.

Article 39, Sub-section 5.3 grants nations and nationalities “the right to organize on a larger territory a self-administrative structure for running their internal affairs and establish governmental institutions for common self-administration.” However, Sidama was met with an iron fist when it invoked its constitutional right to govern itself with full autonomy.

Amhara leaders who protested the systemic disenfranchisement of their rights were met with bullets, tortures and imprisonment.

Opposition leaders who challenged the constitution that created Tigrayan hegemony were condemned to death in absentia. Journalists who reported TPLF’s atrocities and corrupt business dealings were charged with terrorism and handed long sentences. Under TPLF, Ethiopia was the second-worst jailer of journalists in Africa.”

The worst case of constitutional rights violation was committed against the Anuak ethnic group in Gambella. As documented by the Human Right Watch, “Ethiopian National Defense Forces committed murder, torture and rape in the course of widespread and possibly systematic attacks directed against the Anuak civilian population in Gambella.  These attacks bear the hallmark of crimes against humanity under international law.”

A Nationwide Uprising that Toppled TPLF

After 27 years of authoritative rule, the TPLF was met with total rejection in the nooks and crannies of the streets of the nation’s ethnic enclaves. It was rejected not by nationalist unitary forces but by every ethnic parties. A nationwide uprising of young militants, ignited by Qeerroo (Oromo) and joined by Ejeto (Sidama), Zerma (Gurage), Yelaga (Wolaita), and Fanno (Amhara), among others challenged its reign.

The TPLF was fighting two battles simultaneously – one to suppress the national uprising, and another to save itself from growing discontent within the ruling coalition – The Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic front (EPRDF). Despite its brutal crackdown, the national uprising proved relentless and resilient in its call for a change of government. As the uprising swelled and spread in towns and cities large and small, EPRDF agreed to change its leadership.

Dr. Abiy Ahmed won the premiership through a democratic election process consistent with the rules of EPRDF. He got 108 votes compared to the 2 votes the TPLF candidate eked out.

TPLF Rejected Reconciliation and the Nation’s Democratic Reform

Immediately after PM Abiy took power, the drive for national reconciliation started with rapidly cascading reforms. The PM’s peaceful transition and reform agenda won accolades both within and outside of Ethiopia. Foreign Affairs magazine captured the general sentiment stating if Ethiopia succeeds in carrying out its reforms, “it will have a chance not only to reinvent itself but also to bring a wave of reform and perhaps even democratization to the wider region,”

Losing its grip of power after the national uprising did not encourage the TPLF to soul search. Nor did it urge it to be a part of the national transformation process. Instead, it continued to push its rejected agenda and opposing any reform in the economic, political and social sphere: “We will not negotiate on the constitutional order we brought,” its leader declared.

Mohammed Ademo, founder and editor of OPride.com, an Oromo news outlet, observed: “TPLF appears stuck between continuity and change, stubbornly choosing the former to resist the fast-paced reforms being ushered in by PM Abiy Ahmed.” Jawar Mohammed, the nation’s leading ethnic federation advocate, rejected TPLF’s posturing as a “clear indication of intention to renew conflict.” 

TPLF’s Attack Against Ethiopian National Forces

With brazen intention to heighten tensions and brew conflicts, TPLF declared the federal government illegal and illegitimate. True to their character, TPLF leaders collaborated with military officers of Tigrayan origin within the Ethiopian national defense force to slaughter Ethiopian officers in their sleep in the middle of the night. They took military equipment and missiles from the Ethiopian forces and bragged about it, stating that they had equal or maybe even more power than Ethiopia.

Even though they attacked first, they called upon the international community to intervene in an attempt to get political concession using the military equipment they took from the National Defense forces.

The International Community’s Misguided Intervention

The international community’s pressure on the Ethiopian government to negotiate with TPLF is both misguided and dangerous. It is tantamount to encouraging criminal profiteering political oligarchs to use war as an instrument of political concession.

Ambassador Herman Cohen’s statement epitomizes the misguided international community’s intervention. The former US Assistant Secretary of State wrote: “To keep #Ethiopia unified, it must be truly decentralized through unprecedented constitutional dialogue.”

What the diplomat is suggesting is that Ethiopia is better advised to put a hold on its democratic reform and succumb to TPLF’s demands. It is a call to salvage a Constitution that is collapsing under its own weight. The call for a “truly decentralized [Ethiopia] through unprecedented constitutional dialogue” is incomprehensible.

The current system has been tried for 27 years, implemented and chaperoned by none other than its architects and self-anointed custodians. What Ethiopians have seen is war in every border between every region, leading to thousands of deaths and millions of displacements. As though this is not enough, the Ambassador recommends putting the current ethnic constitution on steroid for an “unprecedented” experiment. Ethiopia is not a Petri dish for idiotic political adventure.

The Way Forward 

The way forward must have three critical elements: Stopping the war immediately, forcing the TPLF to honor the constitutional order and giving the people of Ethiopia a chance to determine under what constitutional order they want to be governed.

TPLF must accept that it has ruled for 27 years and has been rejected by the people in every corner of the country. It must come to terms that war cannot be a political instrument to secure concession.

It must agree to have a new regional election as sanctioned and prescribed by the Ethiopian Election Board. The Ethiopian government has never denied Tigray its constitutional right to elect its leaders. What is asked of Tigray is to do it in accordance with the Constitution. The Constitution that TPLF ruled the country for 27 years.

Any negotiation on the future constitutional governance of the country and border disputes between regions must be held between legitimately elected officials or a democratically established constitutional assembly, not by armed parties. It is time “we the people” have a say in the constitution formation, ratification and adoption. I am with Ambassador Cohn that we need “unprecedented constitutional dialogue.” That must be done by way of the consent of the people, not by the barrel of a gun.

TPLF must return all the military equipment it confiscated from the Ethiopian National Defense force and agree to an independent commission to investigate potential war crimes against officers of the Ethiopian National Defense. The newly elected Tigrayan government is illegitimate because the election was conducted in violation of the constitution. The former government of Tigray need to be reinstituted.

The Ethiopian government must agree to stop the war, suspend its drive to replace the government in Tigray, provided TPLF agrees to reinstate the legitimate former representatives. Finally, the Ethiopian government must drop its demand for the surrender of TPLF leaders.

Editor’s Note: Koki Abeselome is the alias Yonas Biru (PhD), the former World Bank official, uses on social media. The views expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter.

Contributed by Koki Abesolome