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Popular trajectory of PM Abiy and the anachronistic constitutional challenges

While the issue of the ethnic origins is still constitutionally unsettled, there are even stronger arguments against the apparent significance of legally imposing for ethnicity, religion etc… to be revealed on national identification cards, writes Yohannes Woldegebriel.

For several decades since the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution, it has been extremely rare for Ethiopians to hear a highly resonating speech that focused on the historic national bond that has held together the people of Ethiopia. Most politicians who are particularly rooted in the era of the student movement since the 1960s have spent so much of their youthful energy, knowledge, liberty and even lives preaching and highlighting the ethnic, religious, class, ideological and political cleavages.

While such differences have been encouraged, nurtured and effectively used by foreign anti- Ethiopian forces and their local surrogates to achieve and help achieve certain objectives, it has undeniably taken in the past much longer for the innocent laity to unveil the wicked purpose and avoid serving as mere Trojan horse.

There has been little or no discourse among the politicians of the revolutionary generation of Ethiopia, both during the eras of the Derg and the current regime, concerning national unity, national patriotism, national consensus, common history or destiny that are the prerequisites for the harmonious and peaceful existence of the people, economic progress, and political stability – except when the country is engulfed in internal political crisis or is staring down foreign aggression.

The current constitution of Ethiopia, which was introduced with the aim among others, “to rectify historically [inherited] unjust relationships” however, vaguely described as to who did what and on whom, and purporting to be the supreme governing law of the country, in times of peace and war, is now at its most difficult moment, facing the test of time for “newly” established Ethiopia comprising nine regional states and one federal city administration that have “voluntarily” come together and formed a federation on the “graves” of the “dismantled” and “abandoned” notions of the historic united Ethiopia. Unlike previous Ethiopian and many other foreign constitutions, the concept of national unity, territorial integrity, national patriotism, national consensus, national identity, and common national history that binds a modern nation state and people vis-à-vis other nations, however diverse background and even unfriendly may be, are not only absent but have become totally alien and objectionable ideas. Therefore, the pillars upon which the current constitution for Ethiopia’s nationhood is based are principally on the vestiges of communist demagoguery devoid of Ethiopia’s past history.

During his inaugural speech following his election as prime minister, Abiy Ahmed (PhD), broke from the decades-long tradition of narrating the nation’s history in a self-serving, humiliating and divisive manner, and instead set the record with a humble, conciliatory statements and careful selection of the glorious and proud history of Ethiopia, its people and its leaders. This was a daring move that was unprecedented in the annals of leaders of the revolutionary generation. I am fully aware that most of the historical anecdotes in the speech of the PM before the parliament and in various places around the country are subscribed neither by his party cadres’ rhetoric, nor in published party documents or the constitution. This cannot dissuade me though to fail identifying, discussing and appealing for amendment and the elimination of some of the venomous provisions of the constitution for the sake of national unity, respect for individual rights and lasting peace of our beloved Ethiopia.

In his speech following the appointment of his new cabinet members weeks ago, PM Abiy underscored the daunting task awaiting the newly appointed ministers by emphasizing among others, that the peoples’ demand is ‘‘መታወቂያ ለማውጣት ዝምድናና ጉቦ መክፈል እንደማይገባው ነው የሚጠይቀው” “that it should not be subjected to nepotism and bribery to obtain an identification card!.” In this example, the PM tried to illustrate how easily the new ministers should make government service delivery to citizens to meet the request of the public. I understand that this is perhaps the simplest and most sincere example that he could possibly offer to explain to his cabinet members in providing their highly sought public services. The law on the identification card, its preparation and issuance, is however far more challenging than any other work each minister might be tasked with, and for quite some time since the incumbent regime came to power, it involved major breaches of the fundamental constitutional rights to identity and privacy for a sizeable population of the country, as I will explain shortly.

In 2012, the House of People’s Representatives adopted the Registration of Vital Events and National Identity Cards Proclamation No. 760/2012. This proclamation has reportedly not yet been uniformly and entirely enforced throughout Ethiopia due to its inability to cover sensitive issues and numerous individuals the proclamation failed to address despite the lapse of the two years of preparatory grace period that the proclamation allowed. Some regional states, such as Oromia, ensured the state-wide implementation of the proclamation only after taking measures to ignore or refuse to comply with certain mandatory provisions, like the registration of the ethnicity and religion of the person on the identification card.

This law requires the registration of the birth, death, marriage and divorce events of all Ethiopians and provides all persons above 18 years of age to obtain national identification cards. Among other major requirements to obtain an identification card, one has to meet the following:  “the registration…shall contain the following information… ethnic origin and religion.”

Most officials and cadres often claim that the core fact the constitution introduced is unprecedented respect for the identity of nations, nationalities and not ethnicity or ethno-politics as many of the rejectionists and detractors of the constitution and the regime would prefer to describe. In reality, the concept of identity is essentially explained in terms of ethnicity in this and many other proclamations (and not identity as some would prefer to use). Whether we like it or not, ethnicity therefore is the most important legal requirement for the preparation and issuance of identification cards to Ethiopians that has also become centre stage in the constitutional regulation, the federation and its components, the law-making bodies, politics, social, economic, military, justice, public service, election, appointment/employment for public office, education and other spheres of the country.

The issue of ethnicity has always preoccupied the Ethiopian student clandestine movement but it was officially sparked after Walelign Mekonnen prepared his inciting propaganda piece under the title, “On the Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia,” dated, November 17, 1969, that attempted to provide a simplistic analysis of the rights of “nationalities” in Ethiopia. Walelign also questioned what the Ethiopian people are composed of and stressed that “it is made up of a dozen of nationalities with their own languages, ways of dressing, history, social organization, and territorial entity. He further disparaged Ethiopian nationalism as nothing more than “fake.” On the other hand, his piece went to the extent of praising the struggle and galvanizing secessionist forces that were proxies in the payroll and in the service of Ethiopia’s enemies.   Much like Walelign, the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Front (EPRP) maintained the same view. The Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) bigwigs have often reiterated that there is no “super national Ethiopia” and that Ethiopia is “nothing without its nation and nationalities.”

Accordingly, ethnicity in present day Ethiopia is institutionalized and deeply entrenched, which in my opinion is the fateful reproduction of the leftover of the revolutionary generations and the bankrupt Marxist Leninist ideology that has nothing to do with the history, culture, and psychology of the sidelined part of the population.

The current constitution professes to respect the identity of nations, nationalities and peoples without defining or providing the scope and the perimeter that each of these words stand for. Ironically, these words not only determine the identity of individual Ethiopians but also delimit the states that are members of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. If the identity of an individual Ethiopian can be defined in terms of the provisions of the constitution, there is certainly no problem.  For example, if an individual Ethiopian is Amhara, Tigre or Oromo, it might be easy to determine his identity as Amhara, Tigre or Oromo.

But, I very much doubt that the identity of the overwhelming majority of Ethiopians can be easily defined as such and in the most simplistic way Marxism-Leninism had thought to the framers of our current politics and constitution. Like the majority of the people of Ethiopia, for example, I was born from parents who come from different “nations, nationalities and peoples” that the constitution has assigned to different states. My birthplace is in Addis Ababa, yet another different place and arguably another state.

The current constitution does not define and determine my identity as I indicated, in terms of ethnicity. I don’t know to which of the multitude of “nations, nationalities and peoples” that I belong. The constitution does not provide me with the tool to determine my identity. In as much as my identity is not defined or determined, I don’t have any right or claim to my identity and cannot be affiliated to any state. Nor do I have any right to demand the safeguard or protection of my language or culture in the same way the constitution guarantees to “nations, nationalities and peoples.” As a result of the lack of an appropriate constitutional device to define myself, there is no political party within the ruling party or the opposition that can represent me. There is not a single member within the Houses of the Federation and the people’s representatives that could safeguard my identity or interest.

While the provisions of the constitution might provide various safeguards to me as an individual, I am not entitled to any “group right” that “nations, nationalities and peoples” are entitled to such as the right to establish their own state, the unconditional right to self determination, and the right to a full measure of self government notwithstanding the most generous and liberal provision of the constitution on bills of right that presuppose to be mandatorily “interpreted in a manner conforming to the principles of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenants on human Rights and International Instruments adopted by Ethiopia.”

As a result, I am one among more than approximately half of the population of Ethiopia to be disenfranchised, discriminated, abandoned and rejected by the constitution without any safeguard of the group rights offered to “nations, nationalities and peoples.” I am, therefore, justified to solicit and require the support and the learned scholarly analysis of fellow constitutional lawyers who have the magnanimity to claim and assert the infallibility of “the constitution of nations and nationalities” as to how I can establish my inherent and fundamental human right for myself as well as for millions of Ethiopians.

Here, I don’t want to be misunderstood or misquoted and would like to make my position very clear that I respect the rights recognized for all “nations, nationalities and peoples” of Ethiopians whose group right or identity has been unduly denied in the past and are now assumed to be emancipated, safeguarded and protected by the current constitution. I don’t have any reason to encroach, ridicule or undermine their achievements. However, I vehemently oppose the outrageous legal deprivation of the identity of a large segment of Ethiopians, including myself, whether perceived or real, whose destiny lies on undivided Ethiopia in its totality that has existed for millennia in the past with the sacrifice and indomitable struggle of our fathers and elders that shall continue to outlast our era. I also reject the decades-long denial of my right to personal or group identity, while all other Ethiopians belonging to each nation, nationality, people and state recognized under the constitution that have enjoyed the protection of the vast Stalinist right “for an unconditional right for self determination, including the right to secession.”

On my part, I have always been proud of and never regretted my Ethiopian heritage, identity and citizenship, whether in times of happiness or misfortune. I have never suffered a sense of subjugation or emancipation, inferiority or superiority. I have never had identity crisis since I have always cherished my belongingness to each of my parents. But I want to be defined in my own choice in as much as I have the inalienable right of identity!

But this has not been possible. If I want to obtain my identification card, I am legally required to declare my “ethnic origin.” Neither the ethnic origin of my father nor my mother could be of any help. I don’t know of any legal guidance or list of names of “nations, nationalities and peoples” made available by “the House of Federation” as required by law that mention my identity which can best fit my choice of identity for the purpose of obtaining the national identification card. In the past, such anomaly had been often emotionally and forcefully resolved by various mediocre ethnocrat administrative authorities with a haphazard and arbitrary designation and assignment in favour of one or other ethnic origin deemed “appropriate” to determine my identity or lose the service requested. This is not an imaginary or hypothetical case but a reality to Ethiopians born from or adopted by parents of mixed ethnic origin. The same is true in the case of Ethiopians born from one Ethiopian parent and one foreigner parent, or naturalized Ethiopian citizens as well as all those who wish to assert their own identity as an Ethiopian, defying governmentally defined ethnic origin.

While the issue of the ethnic origins of these categories of Ethiopians is still constitutionally unsettled, there are even stronger arguments against the apparent significance of legally imposing for ethnicity, religion etc… to be revealed on national identification cards.

I am aware that very few countries in the world require ethnic origin, religion or other group classification to determine the identity of individuals to issue national identification cards. In many parts of the world, this is deemed to be an encroachment on the privacy rights of an individual. It is true that the registration of ethnicity, sex, age, and settlement etc… might have statistical, election related or planning advantages in conducting population census. Arguably, it might even be contended that “the number and spread of nationalities, based on the list submitted by the House of Federation through population census” as provided under article 7(5) of the Census Commission Re-establishment proclamation no. 449/2005 might help for administrative purposes including ensuring the self determination of nation, nationalities and peoples. Such registrations though required under the relevant legislation remain confidentially within government records for specific objectives and are not accessible for the purpose of identifying individuals. Sadly, for the purpose of population census, the ethnic origin of persons to which I and millions of Ethiopians belong to is not evident to be included even within “other Ethiopian national” categories from among the list of 85 nation, nationalities and peoples when ironically, the House of Federation was in fact able to give the name of an inexistent ethnic group called “Guagu” that did not have a single person registered in the record during the census conducted in 2007.

When group classification on account of the ethnicity and religion of an individual is required on national identification cards, many argue that it will “force a person to be affiliated with a governmentally-defined group and expose persons to profiling and human rights abuses based upon their group identity.” While in times of peace it might have little or no advantage, except for few ethnocrats supposedly representing the group, “in times of crisis such classifications facilitate the targeting of persons on the basis of group affiliation, making individuals readily identifiable for possible attack or other violations.”

Still researchers studying the significance of registering certain affiliations on national identification cards also fear that “when information about group identity (such as ethnicity or religion) becomes a factor in the interaction, that information alters the card-viewer's judgment. At a minimum, the presence of group classification categories on national ID cards creates and reinforces heightened awareness of group differences.”

There had been few but very threatening incidents when national identification cards were used for ethnic and religious profiling and the resulting attack in both the developed and developing world. The worst example in Africa is Rwanda, where the country’s national identification cards classify its people into four ethnic origins. Those ID cards served to facilitate one of the most tragic and heinous crimes in recent history. Rwanda abandoned the obligatory registration of ethnic origin on national identification card following the signing of the peace agreement between the Governments of the Republic of Rwanda and the Rwandese Patriotic Front, also called “the Arusha Accord” in 1993 when Ethiopia officially sanctioned its introduction in a law adopted 19 years later.    

There are in fact historical, sociological, cultural and other factors among Ethiopians to refute even the remote possibility of similar atrocities. But one might not rule out and can argue that politicians might use such differences and profiling for narrow and self-serving purposes, as has been happening occasionally and gradually escalating ethnic tension as observed in various regions of Ethiopia.

In this regard, I would like to applaud the decision of the Oromia Regional State to defy the mandatory group classification of the bearer of the regional state identification card, in conformity with the very nature of the state and its population as the hospitable settlement of the most heterogeneous “nations, nationalities, peoples” and other Ethiopians.

That simple illustration mentioned by PM Abiy on issuing identification cards to his new cabinet actually involves immense constitutional and legal implications providing the road map to tackle the long ignored and forgotten rights of huge portions of the population of Ethiopia. It would require actions to reform and remedy the conspicuous pitfalls of the current constitution without antagonizing “nations, nationalities and peoples,” while ensuring and promoting Ethiopia’s renewed national unity, harmony, consensus, patriotism, pride, common destiny and sustained economic development as reiterated in the PM’s numerous speeches – much to my delight.

Ed.’s Note: Yohannes Woldegebriel is a legal expert. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

 

Contributed by Yohannes Woldegebriel
Contributed by Yohannes Woldegebriel