The empire strikes back: an Ethiopian opposition finds old enemy

By Buri Waddesso

June 10, 2012 (opride) – After convening in the Canadian town of Ottawa, a new diaspora-based Ethiopian opposition outfit, Ethiopian National Transitional Council (Hizbawi Shengo), issued a Draft Transitional Constitution. The gist of the document can be gleaned from the first item in the preamble: “Determined to live in unity and freedom, and to erase the effects of ethnic division and tribalist policies and practices.”

Two things are notable. One, that the erasure of “ethnic division” is more paramount than guaranteeing freedom. Two, that Ethiopia’s primary political enemy is ethnicity, not dictatorship.

The draft charter goes on to detail exactly how the constitution’s supreme objective, erasing ethnic divisions, is to be achieved. Two instruments are chosen to do the herculean job. One, the restructuring of governance. Gone will be the regional states as we know them; Oromia, Amhara, Tigray, South, Somali, Afar, Beni-Shangul-Gumuz, and Gambella, etc, and in comes the old regional structure that reminds the Teklay Gizat. “The federal system shall be based upon geographic and historical realities and the separation of powers, and not upon ethnicity, nationality, or religion (article 4). Two, language policy. Amharic would be the only “official” medium of communication displacing other vernaculars from the halls of the National Assembly, public schools, the courts, and official conferences (article 9).

One of the ostensible values of the charter is equality before the law. It did not occur to the drafters of the charter how a Sidama, a Walaita, and a Kaficho — who would be forced to speak to a judge through a translator — and an Amhara, who would charm the court, thanks to his fluency in his mother tongue, would be deemed to have enjoyed equality under the proposed setup. Too focused on defeating the enemy, it escaped the “steering committee” to visualize how an Oromo, and a Somali elder elected by the people to represent them in the National Assembly would equally participate in the political life of the country – when they would be barred from presenting the petitions, grievances, aspirations, and concerns of their constituents to this supreme legislative bodyin a language they are most comfortable speaking.

Ethiopians have a vivid image of such an equality etched in their individual and collective memory. The distinction between citizens and subjects has been in force since the state came into being. Before the fall of the Dergue, the Amhara were presumed full citizens and Tigreans a bit shy. The rest were subjects (if in doubt read the imperial constitution of 1931) – “all the natives of Ethiopia, subjects of the empire, form together the Ethiopian Empire.” Learning to speak Amharic and converting to Christianity opened up a few doors, while the high glass ceiling remained shut out to them.

–Full Text Story Opride.com