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The 1931 Constitution: the importation of Western concepts via Japan

Emperor Haile Selassie ascended to the throne in November 1930. With renewed vigor and tenacity, he followed his predecessors' then-well-established twin policies of centralization and modernization. In 1931, as a clear sign of his commitment to Western-style modernization, Haile Selassie adopted the first written constitution for Ethiopia. Earlier, the three medieval ‘sacred laws’ (law codes) had constituted the legal basis of this country since the mid-13th century. These three law codes were titled as follows: the Fetha Negast 17/" T fitiha negesit ‘Law of the Kings’), the Kebra

Negast (hOZ 17/"^ kibire negesit ‘Glory of the Kings') and the Serate Mengist (/WC<^+ cro')°?/"d' siri'ate menigisit ‘Rules of Governance’). The law codes had been used to regulate all religious life, state administration and civil matters in imperial Ethiopia until 1931 (Corazza 2002: 351).

The adoption of the Constitution in 1931 followed the long power struggle between the reformists (including the young Emperor) and the traditionalist nobility. The reformists, led by Haile Selassie, sought to modernize the Ethiopian system of government in line with the political practices employed in European (Western) nation-states. As noted in Bahru Zewde’s monograph Pioneers of Change, the first two European-style (secular) generations of Ethiopian intellectuals preoccupied themselves with the ‘urgent’ need to bring about a Western-style modernization to their country (Bahru Zewde 2002).

During the early years of his reign, the Emperor created an alliance with the aforementioned reformist intellectuals. They provided crucial support for his reform efforts. On the other hand, Haile Selassie emerged as the chief benefactor of the intellectuals in question. The Emperor supported the expansion of modern (Western-style) education - that is, independent of traditional religious (Christian or Muslim) models and under the state’s control (Haile Gebriel Dagne 2007: 316, 326-328). In 1925, when he served as regent, under his orders, the eponymous Teferi Mekonnen secondary school was founded. It was the second public (government) secondary school in Ethiopia. By 1935, about 20 public (secular, government) schools had been founded across the country. They provided education for about 8,000 students (Amdissa 2008). In 1925, the Emperor also established a weekly newspaper, titled in Amharic as OCVTi «M?“ (birihanina selam ‘Light and Peace’) (Shimelis Bonsa 2000: 8). This newspaper served as an important outlet for the aforementioned intellectuals to discuss their ideas of modernization. One of the recurrent themes, which they debated at that time, was the need to modernize Ethiopia by learning from the experiences of European nation-states (Shimelis Bonsa 2000: 8).

In the wake of the Japanese victory over the Russian Empire in 1905, Ethiopian intellectuals and the Emperor himself began to pay more attention to Japan. A revelation to Ethiopian intellectuals was that, in the span of three decades, Japan had been able to undergo a successful transformation from a feudal polity to a major industrial power, following the Meiji Restoration in 1868. This success of a non-Western country at Western-style modernization generated a strong motivation to learn from the Japanese experience (Clarke 2011: 7). The infatuation of the Ethiopian intellectuals with the Japanese experience was such that two renowned Ethiopian authors wrote in Amharic about Japan. In their books, they highlighted what Ethiopia should learn from this country. The first of these two books, namely £n17£d -flCVT - UTzf (mahidere birihan - hagere japan ‘Japan: The Source of Light'), came off the press in 1932. Heruy Welde Sellase (19-Z ffiA£ /"Aft. hiruy welide silase 1878-1939), who authored this work, was a renowned writer but also served his country as a politician. Heruy held high posts in Haile Selassie’s governments, such as that of Foreign Minister. Upon his return from Japan, which he had visited in 1931 (Clarke 2011), he published this book. The other book, ClAcnV-T? (japan

inidet selet’enech? ‘How Did Japan Modernize Itself?’), written by Kebede Mikael (ftft£ £ntfth,A kebede mika’el 1916-1998), was published in 1955. Kebede was also a writer of literature in his own right and served as a high-ranking official in Haile Selassie’s administration. Both books highlighted similarities between the two countries and emphasized the importance of learning from Japan for the sake of implementing a Western-style modernization of Ethiopia, which would be customized to the African state’s specific history and culture (Levine 2007; Clarke 2011).

The influence of Japan on Ethiopian intellectuals was such that the country’s reformists of the early 20th century even came to be referred to as ‘Japanizers’ by later commentators. These reformists were convinced that the Japanese model of state centralization, by which the power of Japanese Emperor Meiji was consolidated and the influence of feudal lords curbed, could provide an important lesson for Ethiopia. Addis Hiwet, who in 1975 coined the term ‘Japanizers’ in his English-language monograph on this subject, observed that these intellectuals (i.e. the Japanizers) supported the Emperor and the pro-modernization nobility against the conservatives (traditionalists) (Addis Hiwet 1975: 77; Clarke 2011: 169). The strong influence of the Japanese experience on Ethiopia was clearly demonstrated by the country’s first written Constitution, promulgated in 1931. The drafting of this Constitution was entrusted to the Minister of Finance, Tekle Hawariat Tekle Mariam (+hЛ гЬТС'З'к +Î1A tekile hâwari 'at tekile mariyam 1884-1977), who had been educated in the pre-revolutionary Russian Empire (Augustyniak 2012: 111; Clapham 2006; Tsegaye Beru and Junker 2018). In drafting the Constitution, Tekle Hawariat drew on the Imperial Japanese Constitution of 1889, which is often referred as the Meiji Constitution.1

We claim that it is important here to briefly mention the main features of the 1889 Meiji Constitution. First of all, this Japanese Constitution emulated the model of the 1850 Prussian Constitution2 (Palasz-Rutkowska 2017 [1996]: 116). Historians of Japan generally divide the history of their country into two major periods: the period before 1868 (also known as the pre-Meiji period) and the period thereafter (O’Regan and Khosala 2014: 301). Before the Meiji Restoration, power in Japan was under the control of the feudal lords, where the Shogun3 (military dictator) was at the top. One of the main achievements of the Meiji reforms (or revolution) was the consolidation of the power in the hands of the Emperor4 by undermining the powers of the feudal nobility (Palasz-Rutkowska 2017 [1996]; Horie 1952: 23). With an eye to consolidating the power of the Emperor, the Meiji Constitution declared the nature of the Emperor to be ’sacred and inviolable’ (Berlin 1998: 388).

The strong influence of the Meiji Constitution on the Ethiopian Constitution of 1931 came from two sources. First, there was a feeling in the Ethiopian court, particularly among the reformist intellectuals who were then allied with the Emperor, that Japan ‘was the closest in its political position to Ethiopia’ (Augustyniak 2012:112). The second and most profound source was the gradual emergence of a widening ‘movement’ among educated and pro-reform Ethiopians, who promoted the idea of borrowing political models and institutions from the ‘more developed’ countries of the world (Augustyniak 2012: 112).

The 1931 Constitution was adopted on 16 July 1931. It was divided into seven chapters, which in turn comprised 55 articles. This Constitution provided for the establishment of a bicameral Parliament, consisting of the Chamber of the Senate (?rh°7 fid’ yehig mewesinya mikir bët} and the Chamber of Deputies (?rh°? CLT yehig

memiriya mikiri bet) (Ethiopian Constitution 1931). The members of the Senate were personally appointed by the Emperor, while the members of the lower Chamber of Deputies were appointed by provincial chiefs and the nobility. Both chambers of the Parliament did not have any legislative powers but rather served as a discussion forum on matters that would be of interest to the Emperor (Markakis and Asmelash 1967: 199). This Constitution guaranteed several rights for the Ethiopian subjects - for instance, the right of movement, due process of law, property rights and the secrecy of correspondence (Ethiopian Constitution 1931: Chapter 3, Art. 18-29).

The significant ideas from the Meiji Constitution adopted in the Ethiopian Constitution of 1931, included the consolidation of power in the Emperor’s hands, alongside the introduction of the Western ideas of nation-state, a people and law. Tekle Hawariat Tekle Mariam, who drafted this Constitution, recollected in his autobiography that he was motivated to work on the Constitution, in spite of his strained relationship with the Emperor, because of two issues that he strongly believed were crucial for the country and its future. The first one was the need to maintain the power of the monarchy (PTT/^VT yenigusinet silit’an ‘royal authority’). This, according to Tekle Hawariat, was necessary to prevent the disintegration of Ethiopian unity in the event of succession problems. In this respect, the 1931 Constitution heavily borrowed ideas about the sacred and inviolable nature of the Emperor from the Meiji Constitution (cf The Constitution 1889: Art. 3; Ethiopian Constitution 1931: Art. 5). The other issue was the necessity to furnish the Ethiopian people (diTH) hizib) with an instrument that would help protect their rights as individuals. Only on such a legally enshrined basis would the subjects be able to advance in a Western manner by receiving secular education as the foundational prerequisite for their increasing participation in public life and politics. Over the course of this process, the subjects would hopefully be allowed to become citizens, who could sali-ently contribute to the future political shape of Ethiopia (Tekle Hawariat Tekle Mariam 2006: 401-402).

Similarly, in a speech that Haile Selassie gave after the signing of the 1931 Constitution, he outlined the major rationales for his eagerness to promulgate this document (Mahteme Selassie Wolde Meskel 1970: 724-726). These included, first, the need to strengthen the unity (ATkrlT ânidinef) of the people of Ethiopia (VATC/VT rhUfl ye’itiyop’iya hizib). Haile Selassie likened them to a single family, who should be able to live peacefully and cooperate without any discord in the single and indivisible empire. Second, the Emperor emphasized the necessity of allowing the public (i.e. the subjects) to share the burden of governing the country. Third, the male primogeniture in the imperial linage was reconfirmed with an eye to preventing a political crisis and possible bloodshed in the event of any succession problems.

The key objectives of the 1931 Constitution were succinctly summarized by Tekle Hawariat in his speech on the occasion of the celebrations of the first anniversary of this constitution in 1932 (1924EC). He identified the foundations of the Ethiopian Constitution in the following four terms, namely monarchy (TTh nigus, literally ‘king’), people (diTiO hizib), nation (U?C hâger, literally ‘country’) and law (rh°? hig) (Mahteme Selassie Wolde Meskel 1970: 815). In this respect, Chapter 1 of the Constitution, composed of five articles, provided the rules for governing ‘the Ethiopian Empire and succession to the throne.’ Accordingly, ‘throne and the crown of the empire shall be transmitted to the descendants of the Emperor’ (Ethiopian Constitution 1931: Art. 4). Moreover, the Constitution provided that the Emperor was ‘sacred, his dignity is inviolable and his power indisputable’ (Ethiopian Constitution 1931: Art. 5). Obviously, this article was borrowed directly from the Meiji Constitution, which provided that the ‘Emperor is sacred and inviolable' (The Constitution 1889: Art. 3).

The 1931 Constitution mentioned ‘a people’ (rhli'fl hizib) in several articles. Article 1 provided that

the territory of Ethiopia, in its entirety, is, from one end to the other, subject to the government of His Majesty the Emperor. All the natives of Ethiopia [are] subjects of the empire, [and] form together the Ethiopian People (rh'li'fl hizib).

(Ethiopian Constitution 1931)

In addition, Chapter 3 of the Constitution outlined the rights and duties of the people (Ethiopian Constitution 1931). The Constitution also employed the concept of nation-state (U7C hâger, literally ‘country’). However, this document, confusingly, used the same Amharic concept of rh'ti'fl (hizib ‘a people’) when it referred to either ‘the people of the country’ or ‘the country (i.e. nation-state)’ itself. This is evident in the English version of the Constitution, where both the term people and the term nation are used interchangeably to refer to the country’s population (Imperial Government 1969 [1955]). Similarly, this constitution in several articles mentioned the term law, because this document’s central purpose was to legitimize the rale of the Emperor by borrowing Western ideas, as mediated through the Meiji Constitution.

In spite of the similarities that prevailed between the Meiji Constitution and the Ethiopian Constitution of 1931, these two documents also contain differences. One major difference worth mentioning is the provision for the elections of the members of the House of Representatives of the Japanese Diet by the people of Japan in the Meiji Constitution (The Constitution 1889). In the Ethiopian case, Article 32 of the 1931 Constitution provides that ‘as a temporary measure until the people are capable of electing them themselves, the members of the Chamber of Deputies shall be chosen by the dignitaries and the local chiefs’ (Ethiopian Constitution 1931). In sum, both the Meiji Constitution and the Ethiopian Constitution of 1931 were preoccupied with the consolidation and centralization of imperial power by introducing Western constitutional principles and institutions to both Japan and Ethiopia. The main goal was to curb the power of the regions and their traditional noble elites (Vlastos 1997; Smith 2013). In the Japanese case, the contribution of the Meiji Constitution to limiting the powers of the nobility was much more effective than it was in Ethiopia. For instance, the Meiji reforms led to the abolition of feudal ownership of land (Vlastos 1997). In Ethiopia, such a sweeping land reform took place only after the Soviet-Derg Revolution of 1974.

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