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Nation building and assimilation: the 1955 Revised Constitution and the 1974 Draft Constitution

In 1955, the imperial government issued a Revised Constitution. In comparison to the 1931 Constitution, the revised document was more elaborate. It contained eight chapters with 131 articles (Imperial Government 1969 [1955]). Several reasons necessitated the revision of the 1931 Constitution. First of all, the 1930s modernizing reforms, the Italian occupation and the wartime and postwar aid extended by the United Kingdom and the United States introduced numerous social, political and economic changes in Ethiopia. Furthermore, under the supervision of the United Nations (UN), in 1952 Eritrea was incorporated, which importantly overhauled Ethiopia into a federation (Fasil 1997: 25). Under this arrangement, Eritrea was to receive its own constitution. Unlike the case of the Ethiopian Constitution of 1931, the Eritrean Constitution was prepared by the UN and adopted by the Eritrean Assembly in July 1952. The Eritrean Constitution contained several provisions on human rights, such as the freedoms of assembly, press and association (Fasil 1997). The document also provided for a democratic system of government. The Eritrea-Ethiopia Federation Act was drafted by the UN too. Emperor Haile Selassie ratified this Federation Act in September 1952, which formally completed the formation of the Federation of Ethiopia and Eritrea. The Federal Act was modeled on the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (Fasil 1997: 25).

Hence, one of the main objectives of the 1955 revision of the Ethiopian Constitution was to narrow the gap between the Federal Act and the Eritrean Constitution on the one hand and the Ethiopian Constitution of 1931 on the other hand. Accordingly, Chapter 3 of the Ethiopian Constitution of 1955 contained a long list of rights, including equality before the law, the freedom of religious worship and the freedom of speech (Revised 1955). However, the 1955 Constitution did not provide for multiparty politics. Yet this document introduced the elections of members to the Parliament’s lower Chamber of Deputies directly by the people of Ethiopia. In this manner, universal suffrage was at long last introduced to Ethiopia.

The quest for building a centralized ‘nation-state’ under the Emperor’s absolutist power was also demonstrated by the 1955 Constitution. In this new document, the status and the role of the monarchy were defined in a more elaborate fashion than they were in the 1931 Constitution. Accordingly, Chapters 1 and 2 of the 1955 Constitution dealt, respectively, with succession and the Emperor’s powers and prerogatives. The principle that the person of the Emperor is sacred, as included in the 1931 Constitution, was also maintained in the Revised Constitution of Ethiopia of 1955. Article 4 of the 1955 Constitution provided that ‘by virtue of His Imperial Blood, as well as by the anointing which He has received, the person of the Emperor is sacred. His dignity is inviolable and His power indisputable’ (Revised 1955). In spite of the law-making function with which the Ethiopian Parliament was entnisted, the 1955 Constitution reconfirmed the absolute power of the Emperor in all areas of state power.

In addition to consolidating the power of the Emperor, the 1955 Constitution aimed at building a nation-state by fortifying the national unity of Ethiopia. In this respect, Article 2 provided that all Ethiopian subjects, living within the empire and abroad, constituted the ‘united people of Ethiopia’ P’A’f rhTKI '/dh be’ânidinetye’îtiyop’iya hizib new) (Imperial Government 1965EC/1972 [1955]). The Constitution also adopted the Ethiopian national flag (Art. 124), declared Amharic as the official language of the empire (Art. 125) and proclaimed the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as the ‘Established Church of the Empire’ (Art. 126) (Revised 1955). These provisions made explicit what was implicit in the 1931 Constitution, namely the ambition of the imperial government to consolidate the Ethiopian Empire as an ethnolinguistic nation-state through the policies of assimilation (i.e. Amharization) and centralization. Indeed, the chief instalment that the imperial government deployed for unifying Ethiopia’s ethnically diverse peoples (ethnic groups) was the assimilation (Amharization) of the elites of the country’s different ethnic (or regional) groups. In return for a variety of economic and political concessions and privileges, these elites were expected to adopt the culture and language of the politically dominant Anillaras and function as intermediaries between the state and their respective ethnic groups (Clapham 1988: 195).

The state policy of assimilation (Amharization) reached new, unprecedented heights after the restoration of the Emperor, following the wartime occupation of the countiy by Italy from 1936 to 1941. The first law that the Emperor promulgated immediately after the liberation of Ethiopia was Decree 1 of 1942. This decree dramatically deepened the centralization of the state (Markakis 1974: 290; Perham 1969: 348). As part and parcel of the state policy of assimilation, since 1941, the Amharic language had been used as a leading medium of instruction in elementary schools. Obviously, Amharic also continued in its traditional function of the official language of the government, state administration and army (Markakis 2003: 12-13). What is more, the imperial government prohibited publishing in the languages of Oromo and Tigrinya (Markakis 2003; Tubiana 1983). It was a reaction to the Italian occupation administration’s efforts to increase the use of Ethiopia’s other languages (including Arabic), for the sake of downgrading Amharic (Bowen 1976: 322).

Haile Selassie’s project of building a highly centralized state faced numerous challenges. The most daunting was posed by the political marginalization and economic exploitation of the highly multiethnic south, which had been conquered only half a century earlier. Other problems, up north in the old imperial core, ranged from peasant rebellions in Tigray, Bale and Gojam to students’ protests (Andargachew 1993). In addition, the undoing of the Federation of Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1962 led to a secessionist war in Eritrea, to which Eritrean historians refer as the War of Eritrean Independence. Apart from these burning issues, the imperial government was faced with the increasingly militant opposition staged by university students (Bahru 1991: 220). Their concerted and increasingly more vocal protests and opposition activities earned them the sobriquet of the Ethiopian Student Movement (ESM, Ph.Tf’Á'T +£nl¿5pye’îtiyop’iya temarïwoch nik’inak’e). It was never formalized as an organization. Nevertheless, during the late imperial period, the ESM left a bigger imprint on Ethiopian politics and society than any parties or organizations of this time. The ESM passed through several stages of radicalization before it reached a climax in the late 1960s (Bahru 1991: 222; Balsvik2005: 71-78).

During the initial stage of their activism, the students’ concerns were parochial in character and focused largely on campus issues (Kiflu Tadesse 1993: 35). However, in the late 1950s, students became more assertive and began raising political issues. If the Emperor thought that like the Japanizers of the 1930s, the students would support his modernizing (i.e. Westernizing) policies, he was proven mistaken. For instance, the students demonstrated in support of the abortive coup d'état staged against the Emperor in December 1960. Soon afterward, the ESM vociferously criticized the massively inequitable distribution of land. In this respect, beginning in 1965, the students demonstrated under banners brandishing the Soviet-style (marxist-leninist) slogan ‘land to the tiller.’ Their main demand was to end the system of tenancy, which de facto reduced peasants to the status of serfs on their lords' fields (Kiflu Tadesse 1993: 39), especially in the southern and eastern territories conquered by Ethiopia at the turn of the 20th century (Triulzi 1983: 120).

The end of the 1960s was marked by the further radicalization of the ESM and the adoption of the leftist (Soviet-style) ideology of marxismleninism among the students. Both the Emperor and the ESM stood for Western-style modernization but of different types, which the Cold War had made into presumably irreconcilable opposites. Indeed, during this period, marxism-leninism emerged as the uncontested guiding sociopolitical ideology among the students, while the imperial regime stuck to capitalism and paid lip service to democracy and liberalism, as practiced in Western Europe and North America. The problem was that with time, practically each sociopolitical grouping claiming to be progressive embraced marxism-leninism. In their eyes, this ideology provided a coherent conceptual framework and legitimation for activism, which promised to bring modernizing change and benefits to everyone in all nooks of the country. Marxism-leninism appeared to be an apt answer to late imperial Ethiopia’s burning problems. Many saw this ideology as the ‘diagnosis of the malaise of Ethiopian society and the prescription for its remedy’ (Bahru Zewde 2003: 3).

The left-leaning and pro-Soviet radicalization of the students took on a new dimension at the turn of the 1970s, when they decided it was high time to pay more attention to the issue of ethnic relations in Ethiopia. In November 1969, Wallelign Mekonnen (TAA^ ri'}') walelign mekonin 1945-1972) published the seminal article ‘On the Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia" (P'flrk.C'F 'T'f'k Ah.d'ffA’f yebihêroch t’iyak’è be’îtiyop’iyd) in the bilingual (English-Amharic) student magazine, Struggle/^'lA tagel (Balsvik 2007: 33-34). In his text, Wallelign Mekonnen challenged the idea of Ethiopian national unity: ‘Ethiopia was not yet a nation but an Amhara-ruled collection of a dozen nationalities, each with their own language, ways of dressing, history, social organization and territorial entity’ (Makon-nen in Balsvik 2005: 276-277). He saw Ethiopia as a ‘prison of nations’5 - that is, of ethnolinguistically defined nations (Praeg 2006: 69) - and failed to consider the possibility of a civic (state-wide) Ethiopian nation (Yared Tibebu 2019). In the spirit of the then observed worldwide popularity of the

Soviet Union’s ideology of marxism-leninism, Wallelign Mekonnen’s piece was a rallying call for challenging ‘Great Amharic chauvinism’ and introducing the policy of ‘indigenization’ (korenizatsiia). In other words, it was to be a proactive policy of ‘affirmative action’ for Ethiopia’s non-Amhara ethnic groups. The impetus of Wallelign Mekonnen’s diagnosis and plan for changing Ethiopia’s ethnic relations was so immense that the Soviet-Derg had no choice but to at least pay some lip service to it. But only the EPRDF, after 1991, was able to make Wallelign Mekonnen’s ideas into the ideological and administrative basis of contemporary Ethiopia’s statehood, which is thus steeped in ethnolinguistic (ethnoterritorial) federalism.

People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, 1987-1991 (Dorrbecker 2019)

Figure 1.1 People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, 1987-1991 (Dorrbecker 2019)

Meanwhile, the Emperor’s rale was threatened by the political opposition stemming from different groups, be they connected to leftist ideologies (predominantly marxism-leninism) or the country’s non-Amhara ethnic groups (nationalities). For the sake of improving the deteriorating situation, in 1974, the imperial government attempted to undertake a constitutional reform. To this end, the Higher Constitutional Congress (hÇ+^o-

TO0!, kefitenyaw hige menigisitawtguba'e) presented a Draft Constitution. The Draft Constitution included many innovations. Above all, this document envisaged the establishment of a constitutional monarchy (Art. 60). In addition, the concept of (ethnic) nation (bihèr) was introduced to Ethiopian politics and legislation. To this end, in Article 1, the Draft Constitution named the country as the (bihêre îtiyop’iya ‘Ethiopian [ethnic] nation’). Article 4 provided that ‘the official language of the Ethiopian government is Amharic’ (VKTCA'f T°7/Uj:F ^ifl? 70 ye’Ttiyop’iya menigisit medebenya k’wanik’wa

ämarinya new). But in a major departure from the 1955 Constitution, Article 45 stated that all Ethiopian negedoch (literally ‘tribes,’ i.e. ‘ethnic groups’), which could be reasonably transformed into viable 709’ gosawochi,6 (literally ‘ethnic groups and clans,’ i.e. ‘nationalities’) have the right to enjoy the state’s protection, alongside the right to develop and cultivate their languages and cultures. In addition, Chapter 2 of the Draft Constitution listed a long list of other rights inspired by the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 (Higher 1974 [1966EC]). The Draft Constitution of 1974 was never promulgated, because the imperial government was overthr own in the course of the Ethiopian Revolution in September 1974. Subsequently, the marxist-leninist (communist) junta seized power in the country. Later, it came to be known as the Soviet-Derg (£C°? derg, literally ‘committee’) (cf Halliday and Molyneux 1981; Harsch 1978).


  • 1 The term Meiji in such collocations as the Meiji Constitution or the Meiji Restoration is eponymous in its character, because it was the name of Emperor Meiji, whose political power was restored in 1868. Japan’s first constitution, promulgated in 1889, is formally titled the Constitution of the Empire of Japan (Jz U '?t'r Dai-Nippon Teikoku Kenpö) (The Constitution 1889).
  • 2 Prussia’s 1850 Constitution was formally titled the Constitution for the State of Prussia (Verfassung jur den Preußischen Staat) (Preußische Verfassung 2019).
  • 3 The Japanese term shogun is the conventional abbreviated form of the title Sei-i

Taishögun ‘Commander-in-Chief of the Expeditionary Force

Against the Barbarians’) (Khan 1997: 86).

4 In Japanese, the term emperor is Ten 'no ‘Heavenly Sovereign.’

  • 5 Originally, during the Great War, Entente press and information coordinators came up with the politically pejorative phrase ‘prison (house) of nation’ for the sake of employing it in propaganda aimed against Austria-Hungary (Johnson 2011: 170).
  • 6 Nowadays, JO gosa (‘clan’) also means ‘ethnicity’ in Amharic; compare with the Austro-Hungarian term Volksstamm, which originally meant ‘tribe’ but which came to mean ‘nationality.’
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