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Media, Participation and Constitution-Making in Ethiopia

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 September 2014


The role of communications in facilitating public participation in constitution-making is often neglected and misunderstood, particularly in post-war state-building when mass media may be weak. In the early 1990s, Ethiopia's ruling party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), drafted one of Africa's most ambitious constitutions, allowing for ethnic federalism, decentralization and democratic reforms. The constitution has been highly controversial and many of its aspirations remain unrealized. This article explores how the EPRDF sought to use the media to explain and encourage acceptance of the constitution. It offers a framework for analysis that is relevant for countries beyond Ethiopia by examining: the role of media policies in providing domestic and international legitimacy for constitutions; the ways in which media can provide a space for non-violent political conflict or negotiation, where elites can navigate political struggles and debate ideology; and the use of media to implement the constitution's most ambitious goals.

Research Article
Copyright © SOAS, University of London 2014 

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1 See, for example: Samuels, KPost-conflict peace-building and constitution-making” (2007–08) 6 Chicago Journal of International Law 663Google Scholar; Widner, JConstitution writing in post-conflict settings: An overview”(2007–08) 49 William and Mary Law Review 1513Google Scholar; Horowitz, DConciliatory institutions and constitutional processes in post-conflict states” (2007–08) 49 William and Mary Law Review 1213Google Scholar; L Brahimi “Statebuilding in crisis and post-conflict countries” (paper presented at the seventh Global Forum on Reinventing Government, Vienna, 26–29 June 2007), available at: <> (last accessed 20 May 2013).

2 Derg means “committee” in Amharic and refers to the Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police and Territorial Army, or the military dictatorship that was led by Mengistu Haile Mariam.

3 Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia Summary and Statistical Report of the 2007 Population and Housing Census (2008, Central Statistical Agency) at 66.

4 Art 2 of the Transitional Period Charter of Ethiopia (1991) states: “The rights of nations, nationalities, peoples to self-determination is [sic] affirmed. To this end, each nation, nationality and people is guaranteed the right to: (a) preserve its identity and have it respected, promote its culture and history and use and develop its language; (b) administer its own affairs within its own defined territory and effectively participate in the central government on the basis of freedom and fair and proper representation; (c) exercise its right to self-determination of independence, when the concerned nation / nationality and people is convinced that the above rights are denied, abridged or abrogated.”

5 Art 39 of the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (1995) states: “The right to self-determination, including secession of every Nation, Nationality and People shall come into effect: (a) when a demand for secession has been approved by two-thirds majority of the members of the Legislative Council of the Nation, Nationality or People concerned; (b) when the Federal Government has organised a referendum which must take place within three years from the time it received the concerned council's decision for secession; (c) when the demand for secession is supported by majority vote in the referendum; (d) when the Federal Government will have transferred its powers to the council of the Nation, Nationality or People who has voted to secede; and (e) when the division of assets is effected in a manner prescribed by law.”

6 Between Tewodros and Menelik another emperor, Yohannes IV, reigned over Ethiopia, but he spent most of his reign protecting the empire from foreign incursions.

7 Haile Selassie ruled Ethiopia between 1916 and 1974, first with the title of regent and later as emperor. His reign was interrupted between 1936 and 1941 by the Italian occupation, during which he found refuge in Bath, UK.

8 Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia Summary and Statistical Report, above at note 3 at 8.

9 Constitution of Ethiopia (1994), art 39, sec 3.

10 The cities of Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa were also granted administrative status.

11 The Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, art 39, para 5 (1994).

12 The kebele maintained the form of the village councils created by the Derg.

13 This de-legitimizing or dismantling of local political organizations has also proved to be a common strategy in the government's approach towards civil society. Prominent organizations that often had significant support and expressed reasonable criticism towards the government have been dismantled through the arrest of their leaders, threats towards members of their staff, or financial and / or infrastructural sabotage. Even when the organizations were not dismantled entirely, the EPRDF would establish in its place a group with a similar, if not identical, name. The new group would be closely tied to the government but attempt to act as a “stand in”, in a process that, at least at the beginning, often confused donor and aid organizations as well as the population. Some of the most prominent targets have been the Ethiopian Free Press Journalist Association, The Ethiopian Teachers Association and the Ethiopian Human Rights Council. See interview with Iginio Gagliardone (23 May 2006), on file with the author.

14 Gudina, MContradictory interpretations of Ethiopian history: The need for a new consensus” in Turton, D (ed) Ethnic Federalism: The Ethiopian Experience in Comparative Perspective (2006, James Currey) 119Google Scholar.

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16 The All-Amhara People's Organization (AAPO) is one of the most vocal and active organizations agitating against the right of “self-determination” and was deeply angered with the secession of Eritrea, accusing the EPRDF of dismantling the country. Despite invitations from the EPRDF, the AAPO declined to participate in the transitional government, the drafting of the constitution or any elections, arguing that the constitutional process was undemocratic and dominated by the TPLF.

17 The four member parties of the EPRDF were the Oromo People's Democratic Organization, the Amhara National Democratic Movement, the Southern Ethiopian People's Democratic Front and the TPLF. The affiliates were the Afar People's Democratic Organization in Afar region, the Somali People's Democratic Front in Somali, the Gambella People's Democratic Front in Gambella, the Benishangul-Gumuz Peoples Democratic Unity Front in Benishangul-Gumuz and the Harari National League in Harari. Officially they are independent, but they were created by the EPRDF and have strong links with it.

18 Markakis, JFederalism and Constitutionalism in the Horn of Africa (2007, InterAfrica Group)Google Scholar at 49, as quoted in Abebe, AFrom the ‘TPLF Constitution’ to the ‘Constitution of the people of Ethiopia’: Constitutionalism and proposals for constitutional reform” in Mobondenyi, M and Ojienda, T (eds) Constitutionalism and Democratic Governance in Africa” (2013, Pretoria University Law Press)Google Scholar 51 at 55.

19 Ibid.

20 Negasso Gidada later served as the president of Ethiopia before leaving the EPRDF. He currently serves as head of the leading opposition party, the Unity for Justice and Democracy Party.

21 Interview with Negasso Gidada (4 January 2012) on file with the author.

22 This is not surprising as Devra Moehler put forward a similar argument about public participation among Ugandans in the constitution-making process in 1995. Her findings, drawing on a large survey sample, suggested that those who were active in the process were no more supportive of the constitution than those who stayed at home. As the constitution is difficult for citizens to evaluate, she argues that they relied on the elite to shape their opinions: Moehler, DParticipation and support for the constitution in Uganda” (2006) 44/2Journal of Modern African Studies 275CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 Ragassa, TThe making and legitimacy of the Ethiopian Constitution: Towards bridging the gap between constitutional design and constitutional practice23/1 (2010) Afrika Focus 85Google Scholar at 102.

24 As quoted in (22 December 1994) Press Digest at 4.

25 These views were expressed in the draft publication by M Zenawi “ African development: Dead ends and new beginnings”, available at: <> (last accessed 17 July 2014).

26 Interview with Bereket Simon (24 June 2008), on file with the author.

27 Tellingly, Minister Dima Noggo Sarbo argued: “Today the mass media in America is a … very powerful institution. It makes and unmakes leaders, and has tremendous influence on public opinion as well as the government. Its becoming so powerful has to however be worrying, for any powerful institution has reasons to protect its power and corporate interests, from others. In the end freedom must be jealously protected and guarded from the powerful. There is the saying that ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Hence if the press itself becomes too powerful, it may also abuse its power. For now and in our case, this danger does not exist. Ours is a struggle to implement principles which are taken for granted in many parts of the world”: D Noggo “Keynote speech” (seminar on the role of the press in a democratic society, Addis Ababa, 1992) at 10.

28 Ibid.

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32 N Stremlau “The press and the political restructuring”, above at note 30.

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34 Council of Alternative Forces for Peace and Democracy in Ethiopia “Press release” (1994).

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36 This was the main political party under the Derg and many of the journalists working for the government media had to belong to it.

37 “Ato Meles Zenawi replies to questions by reporters” (7 June 1991) The Ethiopian Herald at 5.

38 Interview with Ahmed Hassen (13 June 2008), on file with the author.

39 Ibid.

40 Zenawi “African development”, above at note 25 at 12.

41 Id at 14.

42 While the system of land tenure has experienced dramatic changes in the past several decades, there was little change from Derg policies to the EPRDF. Similar to the Derg, the present government still maintains a statist system that is characterized by the following: land is held by the government on behalf of the people, resulting, in effect, in state ownership of land; each household has only usage rights over the land in its possession; land cannot be sold, mortgaged or transferred to others on a long-term basis (although a household may now lease the land to others on a short-term basis, which was not allowed during the Derg); and, in order to ensure rights of use over land, the land user has to reside in a rural kebele, so a household cannot have access to land in more than one kebele. See D Rahamato “Land tenure in Ethiopia: From the imperial period to the present” in T Olika, Y Arsano and O Aadlan (eds) “Towards a research agenda in the framework of DPSIR-NIHR research programme (1998–2003)” (Graduate School of Addis Ababa University, Department of Political Science and International Relations, Addis Ababa University, research paper, 2000). This policy was entrenched in the constitution.

43 Interview with Bereket Simon, above at note 26.

44 For extensive research on Woredanet and Schoolnet, see Gagliardone, IThe socialization of ICTs in Ethiopia: Re-shaping technology for nation-building” (2009) 1/4International Journal of Sociotechnology and Knowledge Development 13CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

45 Woredas are the regional governments that were created by the ERPDF in an effort to implement ethnic federalism.

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47 Gagliardone, IVirtual enclaves or global networks? The role of information and communication technologies in development cooperation” (2005) 3/3PsychNology Journal 228.Google Scholar

48 For an analysis of the 2005 elections, see Abbink, JDiscomfiture of democracy? The 2005 election crisis in Ethiopia and its aftermath” (2006) 105 African Affairs 173CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

49 Aalen, L and Tronvoll, KThe end of democracy? Curtailing political and civil rights in Ethiopia” (2009) 36 Review of African Political Economy 193CrossRefGoogle Scholar at 203.

50 Interview with Bereket Simon, above at note 24.

51 Lefort, RPowers – mengist – and peasants in rural Ethiopia: The May 2005 elections” (2007) 45 The Journal of Modern African Studies 253CrossRefGoogle Scholar at 265.

52 Ibid.

53 Id at 264–65.

54 M Brown “Icelanders turn in first draft of crowdsourced constitution” (1 August 2011) Wired, available at: <> (last accessed 20 May 2013).

55 M Sifry “Meanwhile, back in Tunisia, they're drafting a constitution on PiratePad” (9 March 2011) Tech President, available at: <> (last accessed 20 May 2013).

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