Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed: “We are building a constitutional democracy”

Translation of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s remarks on 7 May

Dear citizens of Ethiopia,

The most noticeable demand of the people in the history of modern Ethiopia is the desire for building a modern governing system or democratic system. The demand for building such a system came through past times and finally got to this time. It is clear that one of the inevitable methods of building the system that the nation demands is the next election. This is the reason why the election was eagerly expected by everyone. Based on the entrenched demand from political parties and elite groups, the government understood the importance of the election and took major action toward the fulfilment of the election since then.

 However, due to the outbreak COVID-19 pandemic, the electoral board decided to hold back and refer the situation of the next election to the parliament and councils at different levels. Therefore, the deferment of the election was inexorable. An event such as the general election postponed is taking place not only in Ethiopia but also in other countries across the world due to the outbreak of COVID-19. 

However, the decision to undertake the election process using postal service by the Polish government was severely reprimanded. The European Commission, opposition parties, and others demand postponement of the election. Apart from political elections, major global events like the Olympics hosted by Japan were also postponed. The interruption of the Olympic games took place in history since 1896 during the first and the second world wars. The current status of coronavirus implies the same condition. A multibillion-dollar world exposition hosted by Dubai is postponed for one year.

 Since the announcement of the electoral board’s inability to undertake the election, the government conducted an in-depth analysis of the situation by hiring a team of highly reputable legal experts to see the existence of other alternatives. Three independent groups formed and the analysis for other alternatives was conducted. The report indicates the approach used was based on a careful look at the constitution, other laws, international laws, and agreements.

Eventually, the three groups brought their ideas and analysis together and discussion was conducted. Based on the report from the experts, different alternatives to extend the time of the election was presented and discussed with stakeholders. The parliament passed the alternative for the constitutional interpretation to be inspected by the committee for constitutional affairs. The requirement for such kinds of alternatives is an obvious method that is used in other countries to implement constitutional practices. For instance, the French constitutional council examined issues related to the constitution directed by the parliament. Hence, the same thing was done by our parliament.

As a result of the announcement from the electoral board’s inability to undertake the 6th national general election due to COVID-19 outbreak, alternative constitutional methods to extend the election period was officially announced to the public. Since the announcement of the alternative to the public, it has attracted the attention of many people and also arguments. Different parts of the communities, reputable people have forwarded their ideas on this issue. 

The ideas and comments forwarded can be classified into three types:

  1. Those who believe that the issue needs constitutional remedy but suggest other solution than conventional interpretation
  1. Those who believe that constitutional interpretation would be the better alternative.
  1. Those who believe that a transitional government that includes opposition parties should be formed.

There are some people such as legal experts who believe that the election period could be extended through declaring a state of emergency. Legal experts suggest these options to grant the contemporary government amnesty to continue until the next election. Other political parties believe that the constitutional amendment would be the best solution. As a part of its commitment toward democracy and transparent participation in politics, the government chooses not to pursue forcing a state of emergency or constitutional amendment as a solution to the current issue. We would like to extend our gratitude to those who seek constitutional options and solutions to the problems for their constructive inputs, criticisms and suggestions. Such rational and legal dialogues and debates make an enormous contribution to building democracy in Ethiopia. But, if ideas are used for encouraging outrage and spillage of blood, they will create tyrants. 

To come back to the second point, there are many contributors and legal and experts who believe that the situation needs constitutional interpretation. We understand, from the discussion we had with political parties and We different civic societies, that this alternative is acceptable by many political parties. This alternative is considered as a better option not only because it is suitable for   the current problem but also because of its contribution developing constitutional practice in Ethiopia. The constitution of South Africa, which is as old as our constitution, is developed through constitutional interpretation and now one of the most cited constitutions in the world.  “The ten years old Kenyan constitution, being developed through constitutional interpretation, is becoming a subject of research and constitutional study. 

This opportunity will open a new chapter for us to develop our constitution and constitutional practice through interpretation. Countries like Germany, India, U.S.A., Colombia, and Canada are considered at the forefront of constitutionalism because they resolve many constitutional shortcomings and develop their constitutional jurisprudence through interpretation.

On the third point, the other option suggested is the formation of a transitional government. Proponents of this option allege, inter alia, that the current problem is a constitutional crisis, that the constitution does not have solutions, that there is no constitutional ground to postpone the election, and that there is no constitutional ground and relevant provision for constitutional interpretation to give a solution for the current constitutional crisis. Moreover, the proponents contend that constitutional interpretation and amendments will be implemented by the House of Federation (HoF), an organ dominated by the Prosperity Party.

In the absence of an independent body, the outcome from the HoF will not be acceptable and legitimate. In addition, members of the HoF are not elected representatives of the people, as the houses dominated by PP came through a fraudulent election. Therefore, the current government was illegitimate from the beginning and it will not have any legal legitimacy and international recognition starting from September 2020. Those comments and suggestions are very important for discussion and later would yield a better solution.

The options presented above need be carefully analysed and investigated. The claim that says the constitution does not have a solution to this problem misses an important fact. While many legal experts and professionals are suggesting the existence of constitutional solutions for the current problem, it is lay persons with no constitutional knowledge and expertise who are disregarding this and advocating for extra-constitutional options. Their approach only shows their wish, not the reality. They complicate the issue in such a way that there is no legal solution for the crisis. And then, they present themselves as the only medicine and solution.

When they claim that there is no legal solution for the problem, they are saying that they don’t need a legal solution. They are saying that the law does not give us the shortcut to take political potions. It is known that any constitution contains vast and saturated ideas. There are fundamental principles based on which the constitution and its provisions are formed.  Constitution and constitutionalism are two interrelated ideas but they contain different purposes. The constitution is the written part but constitutionalism is a system. A constitutional solution comes from the two. Constitution interpretation is the process through which we can find constitutional solutions for a given problem.  

For instance, the constitution of South Africa contains nothing about the death penalty. The constitutional interpretation provided a solution for this kind of issue. The presidential term in office to be elected for the second time is directly indicated in the constitution of Colombia. The constitutional interpretation provided solutions to these kinds of issues. The constitution of the United States of America does not say anything about healthcare such as Obamacare and even it doesn’t clearly state about the responsible body for constitutional interpretation matters. However, those issues had been solved via constitutional interpretations.

In the current argument that there is no constitutional ground and relevant provision for constitutional interpretation seemed to answer in advance what ought to be answered by the responsible organ. First, to decide whether we have something that needs interpretation should be left to the professionals. The decision on whether this issue needs interpretation or not is legally the responsibility of the Council of Constitutional Inquiry (CCI). It is the CCI that should answer this question. Second, experts and professionals are indicating the existence of provisions that need constitutional interpretation. The experience of other countries also shows that constitutional interpretation is the best solution for the problem that we are facing. Third, the confusion itself and the debate as to the need for constitutional interpretation shows that interpretation is important. Instead of bargaining and engaging in endless power demands, constitutional and institutional solution is the best approach toward the sustainable system.

Fourth, the claim that there is not an article that needs to be interpreted is expected from a person who either intentionally denies the reality or faces severe lack of knowledge about the issue. If someone tries to understand and properly investigate the matter, it is going to be apparent that interpretation is a solution for this matter.

The other argument is about PP dominance in the organ empowered to interpret and amend the constitution. The CCI plays a significant role in constitutional interpretation, and is an independent body led by professionals. The constitution likens the CCI to judicial bodies in some ways and the CCI is a quasi-judicial body recognized by the constitution. It is also clear that the House of Federation is not led by a PP. Therefore, it is not proper to say that the constitutional interpretation process will be controlled by a single party.

The CCI, a neutral organ led by the president and the vice president of the Supreme Court, submits its recommendation to the HoF. Even though our system of interpreting the constitution is very limited, we can be better tomorrow by abiding by the current constitution. Without respecting the current institutions, constitutionalism will never flourish. For instance, the black Americans accepted the constitution with its limitation and continued to struggle for the written by proposing their right up to the Supreme Court and that brought about prominent outcomes.

The wise way to sustain change is to continue to develop the existing institutions. One of the indications for the application of constitutionalism is to assert an issue against the ruling body or government using an existing system that is responsible for resolving constitutional matters. The attempt to self-interpret or to misuse the constitution results in chaos and creates conditions against democracy. Respecting the constitution and gradually developing some shortcomings in the institution is the duty of each one of us.

Another argument is about the legitimacy of the ruling party and government. The claim about the last election being a fraud and the parliament is not legally elected and therefore, it is accepted from the beginning. Some people and groups argue that the current government will be considered illegitimate starting from September. This claim should be responded to in legal terms. Without debating about the 2007 EC election, the current government is indeed a legitimate government capable of enacting laws, developing fiscal policies, and representing the country in international issues and signing an agreement on behalf of the country.

PP is a widely accepted political party with enormous numbers of members across the country. PP is a political party that is responsible for everything including managing COVID-19 threat and continues to govern the country until the next election period. The politicians which are challenging the legitimacy of the PP are parties that are limited to certain localities and they should realise that PP has much better legal, moral, and political legitimacy than they could claim. The fact the question of legitimacy is raised when the elections have been postponed [by the election board and not when they elections were supposed to be in August is self-contradicting.

 The last but not easily bypassed is the formation of a transitional government. The claim is unconstitutional. There is no short path for claiming power without an election. Being a political party cannot guarantee power. The constitution promulgates that the only path to power is through the election. An interest to spring into power against constitutional proclamation leads to failure in building a democratic system. By the way, by which legal or moral framework do unelected political parties come together to become a government? Which legal framework grants government power to any political parties without the will of the people? Can’t we wait until the legal time of the election? Is it not better to wait for a couple of months rather than risking the stability of the country for the sake of power-sharing? 

There are numerous civil society leaders, religious leaders, and political leaders who participated in social, political, and economical issues of the country. An attempt to neglect the role of those elements will question their claim of the legitimacy of the current government. The formation of transitional governments took place in some countries with a system of military rule or following a dynastic kind of government system, in order to establish a democratic system and formulate a constitution. For instance, to end the rulership of apartheid, the government of the South Africa established a transitional government consisted of white and all parties until the power transferred to elected ANC. Countries such as Poland and Portugal went through the process of transitional government formation to achieve the same goal.

Therefore, the experiences from South Africa, Latin America, and Western Europe indicate this the way power is transferred from a non-democratic system like a military system to a democratic system. We should properly understand the situation in Ethiopia this time is reforming the system, not revolution. We are not trying to completely change the constitutional system. The ruling party is also reformed and has got fresh momentum to gain popularity and clearly is one of the parties favoured by the majority for winning the next election. Therefore, the claim for the formation of the transitional government is not constitutional and it is also a bad option for the country. Especially during the situation where there is the potential threat posed from COVID-19 and other challenges looming over the sovereignty of the country, an interest to engage in endless power-sharing demand is blatant indifference and irresponsibility. Not only illegal but also dangerous.

We are building a constitutional democracy. That means we are trying to establish the rule of law. The demand to get power through illegal ways or by trying to undertake illegal elections is unacceptable. Those attempts violate not only the constitution but also other legal frameworks and international laws. The African Charter for democracy, election, and governance prohibits individuals or any political party attempts to establish government power without legal election and convicts such parties and individuals.

In enumerating the powers of the federal government, the FDRE Constitution mentioned protecting and defending the constitution as the first and most important power of the government. This duty to defend the constitution is non-negotiable and we are ready to take any necessary measure to discharge our constitutional responsibility.   Unconstitutional attempts to undertake illegal elections will result in harm to the country and the people. Therefore, the government will be forced to take any measures to assure the safety of the people and the country.

Political forces who seek power are advised to make their political discussions and debate in a way that it would not affect mothers and the youth. The youth should not die, mothers should not cry, homes should not be destroyed, and people should not be displaced to bring politicians to power. Ethiopian cannot assume such harm anymore. During these decisive moments in which the threat posed by COVID-19 and the sovereignty of the country are endangered, demands to overtake or claim the right to come to power illegally by riot and disturbances will not be endured. We want to let them know that we are well prepared for this by any means necessary.

Even if the proposed solutions are not fully satisfying all of us equally, the government believes that the process could pave the way for us through which we can solve the problems that would befall us in the future also. And it shouldn’t be done in a way which is unconstitutional and illegal that leaves the country without a government, but in a way that makes the coming election fast and convenient. It should be done in a way it wouldn’t spoil our chance and potential to fight COVID-19. And in a way which wouldn’t give the democratic rights of the mass to the minority. That is why we believe that constitutional interpretation resolves the challenge we face in a better way than the other proposed alternatives.

While I disclose to all the people of Ethiopia that the government is working to solve the issue using discussion, negotiation, knowledge, and wisdom, I also call upon the people to cautiously and closely follow the situation.

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Editor’s note: Amharic to English translation is not an exact science. If any readers have suggested corrections or improvements to this transcript, please make them in the comment section below.

This translation was funded by a group of foreign journalists based in Ethiopia.

Main photo: Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed; 1 August 2019; Office of the Prime Minister

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