News analysis

Gloves are off

When he responded to question in parliament on July 1, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed expressed forthright views on what constitutes a coup d’etat, the federalism debate, and the willingness of his government to intervene if regional statehood campaigning is judged unconstitutional. These are selected translated remarks.

 

MP: We all remember that a horrendous and heinous assassination was made in our country last Saturday of higher officials from the Amhara regional state and the country’s higher military officers.  This assassination has targeted individuals who were behind the change that we have witnessed in our country and had been the ones who were diligently working to realize it. Their assassination has put our people in deep sorrow and sadness. After the incident happened the government announced that it was a coup d’état. Honorable prime minister, what are the points convincing enough to say it was a coup d’état? Is it possible to conduct a coup d’état at the regional level?

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed: In connection with what happened recently people are confused with constitution, government, and constitutional system. When we say constitution we mean the federal and regional governments constitutions. The regional constitutions are all in all promulgated compatibly with the federal constitution. When we say government it includes the federal government and the regional governments, including the lower echelons.  When we say constitutional system it mean FDRE (Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia) FDRE does not mean the government of Addis Ababa. As it is stipulated in the constitution article 50/1, FDRE is the combination of both the federal and regional governments.

When there is no Benishangul there is no FDRE government. When we say FDRE it doesn’t mean that it is the federal government with its seat in Addis Ababa, rather it means the combination of the regional governments which have their seats in Asossa, Bahir Dar, Mekele and so on. That is what we call FDRE government. Any attack in any place is an attack on the FDRE government. When Asossa is attacked it mean the FDRE is attacked. When Addis Ababa is attacked it mean the government in Asossa is attacked. There is no such point that an attack on the FDRE should be only in Addis Ababa. Any attack in any part of the federal system is an attack on the FDRE.

Second attempting to take power without the constitutional mandate of article 9/3 is unconstitutional. So, such an attempt to attack the FDRE government is unconstitutional. When somebody is killing officials, and trying to control about five institutions, boldly massacring his brothers and announcing that he took measure on them thinking that he controlled the media, some dare to say ‘why this is called a coup d’état?’ and even tell us not to say that. If their plan was different let those who plan and masterminded it tell us then. What we know is it is unconstitutional. If you say how you do say it a coup?  it is similar with what happen in the 1953 and 1981 coup attempts, which were foiled.

As far as the information we got so far the coup attempt was planned in three places. They send huge force to Benishangul in the area called Jijim Park on the same day. We all know what they have done in Bahir Dar and in Addis Ababa the same. Those who say don’t call it a coup are the ones who try to beguile us to believe the coup after we perish. Among the people whom we caught in Benishangul there are forces who received training as a death squad to assassinate and in Oromia in a similar fashion.

Any attack in any place is an attack on the FDRE

By the way a significant number of soldiers who came to the palace some months back and released in pardon after receiving advice were also involved in this one. They recruited and used these ones too, and tell us it is not a coup. Some say that a coup in the region is not logical and rational. If they are rational they didn’t attempt a coup on the regional government in the first place. It is impossible in the present reality of Ethiopia. This is insanity. It is impossible unless it is massacring each other. Even it is impossible at the federal level for the rational mind. Once you become irrational you can’t implement but you don’t choose a place to start.

So, the point is not about regional or federal. Let this be, how come a rational mind kill Ambachew Mekonnen? History will disclose what Ambachew Mekonnen has paid for Amhara. A mind which killed Ambachew could not be rational. Even if it thinks it can make a coup at Kebele or Woreda Level. How come a rational mind kill Seare Mekonnen? He is the one who sacrificed himself for the unity of Ethiopia. They tell us why this is labeled as a coup, because most of their plan was foiled. By any standard It is unconstitutional and a coup d’état.

MP: It is clear that the constitution of a country is a covenant for all the people of the country and hence the citizens needs to obey it and be ruled by it. Until the constitution is changed or is revised following legal procedures all citizens should abide by it for it is the supreme law of the land. However, given the current reality we are witnessing two parallel ideas challenging our constitution. On one side there are people who say that this constitution should not be revised and they frequently claim that touching the constitution would disintegrate the country, while on the other hand there are groups who claim that the constitution is not inclusive in its current reality and needs to be revised. They also blame federalism as a cause of all problems. So what is the government’s take on these two parallel views?

PM Abiy:  Regarding the constitution, there are those who say the constitution should not be touched and those who say the constitution doesn’t serve their interest. Constitution is a covenant between the people and the state. Constitution is an anchor for a country and its people.  When changes happen in between, it [constitution] makes the changes legal and institutional. This is its aim. There is an article in our constitution which provides the revision of the constitution whenever it is necessary to do so. Those who says the constitution doesn’t serve my interest while enjoying the constitution, for instance participating in the election and exercising the rights and freedoms the constitution provides them, and those who say the constitution should not be touched are both standing at the extreme end points.

Because the constitution stipulates that the constitution can be revised based on the discussion and consensus of the people whenever it is necessary. Therefore, those who are saying the constitution should not be touched could not be the sole defender of the constitution by ignoring the article in our constitution which allows the revision of the constitution when necessary. On the other hand it is impossible for those who say the constitution doesn’t represent me while enjoying the rights the constitution provides them. One who does not accept the constitution could not be involved in the election, because it is the constitution which provides the election rights. One who does not accept the constitution could not raise the issue of press freedom, because it is the constitution which provides that right.

This constitution has come with huge sacrifice and bloodshed. It is a constitution which bestowed us huge success. There is no problem to discuss on the constitution after accepting it. It needs to balance both views. There is no problem to say the constitution should be revised on this or that article should be changed. The problem with both views is that both are not entertaining it as a suggestion, rather they take their views as a firm stand.  The problem is having a final decision on their views. Constitution is not a kebele paper. It is a document of all Ethiopians. Every citizen should discuss on it. The one who wants the constitution to be revised or changed should be able to sell his idea to the public in a convincing way, not to the people of his own kebele, but to all Ethiopian people. He needs to convince other citizens too.

This indicates additional demand for federalism

The constitution cannot be changed with scaremongering. But we have no problem of revising or changing some articles in the constitution if the majority are convinced on it. We can discuss on it and revise it to make it compatible with the changing time and conditions. Raising question doesn’t mean that the constitution can be changed. The constitution itself has proved the right to raise question and we have to allow this for those who are raising questions on it. If the question is proper and convincing we can accept it and nullify it with the vote of the majority if it is not.

Therefore, it is not necessary to be stunned when such ideas are raised and it is not necessary to raise those ideas with a firm stand.  It is impossible to have a constitution which satisfies everyone in Ethiopia. Democracy entertains different ideas, it does not serve the triumph of a single idea. It should not be expected to have a common idea. But we have to create a platform where our diversified views can be entertained. So, concerning the constitution, it is better to come in to the middle ground than standing at the extreme end points. It needs to present the questions in a legal way.

Federalism by theory is a government system which mitigates major conflicts and manages minor ones. Those who blame that federalism is the mother of all problems, are they arguing that the system before federalism has no problem? We didn’t start with a jump from unitary to federal system.  We come to this with huge sacrifices and many loses of life following the demands of the people for self-rule. Those who blame the current federalism are the ones who couldn’t understand the reality of our country in the past.

Second, there are those who want to make Ethiopia a laboratory. In the last 100 years we have changed from the monarchy to the military and then to federalism. Now we are saying federalism is not a proper system and should be abandoned. By doing this we are always keeping the government system in the laboratory. But we are not able to nurture the way it benefits people. This country should not be a laboratory. It is better to improve and update the existing system.

We don’t have to forget that federalism was created to give answers to the complicated demands of self-rule. When we take the current reality the demand for federalism is much higher than the demand for its abandonment. Every area is demanding for self-rule. This indicates additional demand for federalism, not the abandoning of federalism. So, the views on federalism and the reality on the ground are completely different. The interest in expanding federalism is high. When we look deep into the questions we witness that the demand for federalism is wider than abandoning it. Ethiopia’s federalism is a holding together federalism, not a coming together. It is a federalism which holds nations and nationalities together through self-rule. It is better to understand it this way. The idea of abandoning federalism and starting to look back is like planting a seed which would not sprout and bear a fruit.

In terms of returning home IDPs, we’ve done an amazing job

MP: We have been witnessing conflicts and displacements in different regions and parts of our country due to different reasons. This year there was conflict in the western part of the country in neighboring woredas between Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz regional states. The conflict has caused serious damage on human life and property, people were evicted from their home and the main roads are being closed hitherto. Both official and public transportation are in halt.

Recently, following the conflict happened in Beneshangu-Gumuz, Metekel Zone, Dangura Woreda, a disaster which has never been seen in any part of our country has happened to Gumuz people who were living in the Amhara region, Awi Zone, Jawi Woreda causing heavy toll on the life of Gumuz children and women and heavy loss of property. The conflict is going on still. Even if the government is working to maintain the rule of law, I ask the honorable prime minister to brief us on what needs to be done to rebuild trust among the people, to bring peace and stability. It a guiding principle of the country. 

PM Abiy: Concerning Benishangul-Gumuz, there were conflicts both with the Oromia and Amhara regions. With regard to the people displaced from Benishangul during the conflict with Oromia the region has now resettled all the displaced people. The relation with Oromia has now improved very much. We are working to solve those issues and maintaining the rule of law. So far we have detained many people suspected of being involved in the conflict and displacement. In terms of returning the displaced people back to their home, we have done an amazing job. The Ministry of Peace has also accomplished amazing success in returning more than two million people in a short period of time, among which 1.1 million are those who were displaced after the reform. We have also met and discussed with different sectors of the society. We also established a commission for this issue to bring a lasting solution. In general, we are working to solve the issue by maintaining the rule of law and through reconciliation.

MP:  Honorable prime minister, I am not exaggerating if I say that the freedom our people acquired to express themselves and the right of being heard by the government were much better than ever in the history of our country following the change that came at the national level. It is expected from the citizens or groups to use it in a proper and right way. It is also expected from the government to maintain the rule of law. According to article 46/2 of our constitution, regions would be established on the basis of, linguistic, identity, population distribution, and will of the people.

Currently, people are raising regional and zonal administrations, especially in the Southern Nation Nationalities and Peoples Regional State. Nations and nationalities are demanding the right of statehood, taking the advantage of the current change in our country and exercising the right on the article 47/2 which provides the right to nations and nationalities to establish their own regional state any time they want to do so. So pursuant of this article around 10 nations and nationalities in the south have raised the demand of statehood and already approved it by their respective councils and send it to the concerned body. I need you to brief us on this what the federal government is doing to provide a lasting solution to these complicated demands.        

PM Abiy: Concerning the demands for the statehood status in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR), it is a constitutional right to become a regional state. It is the right of any nation and nationalities to demand for statehood and implement it through the legal procedures. We cannot say they could not raise such demand, because it is their constitutional right. And this demand of constitutional right can only get answers through the constitution. Trying to get this answer through anarchy would not bring a lasting solution. They need to wait for constitutional answer for their constitutional demand. When a given area demands self-rule it is the National Electoral Board who implements this issue. As you all know we have established a new electoral board which is still not standing on its two feet. So, the urgency to declare region amid this is only a mere interest. Regarding the demands for regional statehood in the SNNPR, the government has accepted it with considerations.

The fate will be what happened in Somali Region

The ruling party of the region has also accepted the demand and is scrutinizing the demands. I would like to take this opportunity to call up on the people who have presented their demand for statehood in the region to patiently wait until the ruling party of the region announces its decisions and the National Electoral Board also finalizes its preparations. If any attempt is made without the process and the constitutional procedures, the fate will be what happened in Somali Region. There is no government who compromise on the unity of Ethiopia. It needs caution. We have accepted [the question] and you need to wait for answer patiently.  Everything should follow the legal process and we also give answers through legal procedures. Now we have exhausted our patience. If one tries to implement the demands through mass and mob activities, we will address it the way we used to.

MP: Along the change and reform agenda that has been going on in our country, especially after you came to the leadership position, a major change has come in terms of diplomacy. Accordingly the effort that our country is exerting to bring a sustainable peace in the Horn of Africa is increasing and benefiting our people. Taking this as it is, honorable prime minister, brief us if the instable situation in Sudan would affect our internal peace. Also brief us on the geopolitical condition in the Horn, the Gulf, the Red Sea and our diplomatic relations with Egypt. In general, what works are being done to conform our foreign policy to the outside world?

PM Abiy Ahmed: With regard to the Sudan issue, it is an internal issue of our sisterly Sudanese people. Their internal issue is mainly the concern of the Sudanese themselves. However, their condition would bring either a good or bad omen on us. When there is peace and development in the Sudan it would benefit us and whenever a problem happened in the Sudan it would affect as in similar manner.  We want to play our role in helping our sisterly neighbors to have peace and development. In addition to this, what I want all Ethiopians to understand is that Sudan has shown us kindness in many ways when we faced problem in the past. During the Italian invasion Sudan was a country where our people flee in to live in as their own country.

When a large number of our youths fled the Red terror and White Terror, Sudan is the country who shoulder the burden. During the 1984/85 famine when many people flew from Tigray and Wollo areas it was Sudan who shouldered it. The Sudanese are so kind and they love Ethiopia. We have to see their problem as our own and help them. Second, whenever the Sudanese encounter a problem, we are their first choice and hence it is inevitable for us to bear their burden. Therefore, it is necessary to follow the situation in the Sudan closely in a friendly sprit.

Concerning Egypt our relationship is improving from time to time and it needs to strengthen it.

Our foreign policy is oriented on neighborhood relations. We are working together with our neighbors considering their peace and development as our own. We have a very good relationship with all our neighbors. If we encounter a problem all our neighbors, Eritrea, Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya, Sudan and South Sudan are ready to help us with air force and ground force. They see our suffering as their own and we have to strengthen this and take our friendly relationships to a further level.

In connection with this, when we look our geopolitics, it is very complex geopolitics. It connects three continents: Africa, Asia and Europe.  With the connection of the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea through the Suez Canal the geopolitical demand of this area has been increasing. Because almost 40 percent of the three continents’ economy moves through the Suez Canal. It is an area which many countries have an interest in it. Now the area becomes the playing field of the big clubs. So, we don’t want to be a bystanders and we are also preparing to establish a naval force.

Query or correction? Email us

Main photo: Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaking in parliament on July 1; submitted

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished. 

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About the author

Negash Haile

Negash is a history graduate from Addis Ababa University. He worked for Reuters from 2016-17 and now does freelance translation work for foreign correspondents based in Addis Ababa.

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5 Comments

  • Well said! Impressive signs of an African leader. We need that for the continent to prosper especially the part the PM talks of Ethiopia’s relations to Sudan.

  • 1. You narrate the story of what had happened on the 22nd of June as if you were a first-hand wittiness. Not only that, you made yourself the attorney, the judge, and the jury. At least put forward your idea as an assumption for the moment if you want to be impartial, professional and believable by the wider public! The amazing thing is we can see the likes of your character in our current so-called constitution itself and the institutions built around it. To support my point, one can look at article 62 of the current constitution which gives the power of interpreting itself (i.e. the law) to the house of the Federation (i.e. an equivalent of the upper house in a sane bi-cameral parliamentary system). This house also has a somewhat concealed legislative power which is manifested through its ability to vote on many crucial policy and law amendment issues. This shows the violation of one of the core principles in a democratic system which is the separation of power. Therefore, the house of federation needs to give up it’s Judicial role to the proper impartial and professional body and focus on being a good part of the legislative contributing towards shared-rule related policy creation. By the same token, you should focus on being a good journalist and leave the judicial system to handle the suspects and the story. For people reading this please find and read this research paper on the main issues with the current house of federation in ethiopia: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17531055.2015.1082713

    2. Everybody knows and agrees on the need for devolution of power in any system. Call it federalism or whatever the main idea is the proper devolution of power. Now the problem with our current federal and political system as a whole is running ethnic territories (now with their own constitution that disregards minorities and use group rights to infringe on individual rights) along with formal ethnic politics. This political approach is going quickly moving towards a dead end and a zero-sum game. For more on this please read page 16 of the following document: https://www.ethiopia-insight.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Huntington-A-Peasant-Based-Dominant-Party-Democracy.pdf
    And relating to my first point fixing article 62 of the current constitution and establishing solid Judicial system (impartial, independent and professional) would weed out any inconsistencies within the constitution itself and also with the regional constitutions eliminating individual right infringements and fixing the root cause of the IDP problem! As a side product, it will also put you out of your current rumor management business and set you on a right path of professional journalism, us the people towards our own endeavor and the country to prosperity!

    • I don’t understand who this comment is directed at? Negash translated Abiy’s speech for Ethiopia Insight. Can you please clarify. Thanks

  • Dr. Abiy’s government should oversee translations into English of all official documents. Otherwise, communiques and questions in parliament will be distorted (as the present one was) and fodder for those engaged in dis-information.