Most of the world countries' constitutions begin with the phrase "We the People…"; the constitution of Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) begins with "We, the Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples of Ethiopia…" This is not accidental. The constitution is deliberately framed this way so that the government look at the people of Ethiopia in the eyes of the collection of groups, but no collection of individuals. But, if you think this makes the Ethiopian constitution the worst, you are wrong. Constitutions of regional states in Ethiopia are actually the worst manifestation of its intent. The Harari state, its constitution, and the administrative methodologies are good examples of how the FDRE’s constitutional philosophy is manifested in regional constituencies.
The Harari Regional State seems to be a gift to the Harari people. Sidama, Wolayita, and other ethnic groups with millions of population size have no chance of becoming regional states, while members of the Harari ethnic group, which has a few tens of thousands of people, have become a state. (I would like to point out that I refer to the region as a state with ownership of specific ethnic groups because that is the spirit of their constitutions.)
The history of Harar is often overlooked as the history of Ethiopia follows the path of power in the Christian kingdom. Harar has more to say about the relationship of Islam and Ethiopia than Nejashi, the Abyssinian king who welcomed the first Islamic pilgrimage where followers of Mohammed fled from the persecution of the ruling Quraysh tribe of Mecca in the 7th century. Harar is a world heritage city that has existed for over a thousand years. Before the conquest of Menelik II, Harar has a continuous rule at least 72 named successive Sultanates. The people who are associated with Harar’s ancient civilization ('the natives') are the Harari ethnics. The Harari ethnics are people with a rich history and cultural heritage. However, in today's Ethiopia, they are a minority.
During the Census in 2007, there were only 15,863 members of the Harari ethnic group out of a population of more than 183,000 in Harari; they make up only 9 percent of the region's population. (There was a total of 31,722 Harari ethnic members at the time, including those live out of the region; half of them live outside Harari). More than 103,000 Oromos and more than 41,000 Amhara ethnic members live in the region. But the region belonged only to the Harari people, both spiritually and legally. Members of the ethnic group may be the president of the region. The regional state has two chambers, and only members of the Harari ethnic group can be members of one of them, Harari National Council. It is not also necessary to be a resident of the region to be a member of the National Council. Members of the Harari ethnic group living out of the region are allowed by the state constitution to vote and be elected to the Council.
Article 50/2 of the Harari Constitution states:
"The members of the National Council of the Harari are elected from among the Harari ethnic groups living in the region and outside of the region." (my translation)
By the way, the Harari people living out of the region have the right to vote and to be elected wherever they live. This way, they may be able to become members of two distinct administrative districts at the same time. The next article, 51/2, states that the People’s Representatives Council (the other chamber) has no significant power other than to approve the president nominated by the National Council. In this way, being born into the Harari ethnic group is the only way to become president of the region. What makes democracy the best of all systems is that it does not close the door on the opportunity of any citizen or resident of the country from becoming president. In a democracy, citizenship or permanent residence is a more important element than ethnicity. This makes the Harari region a test of Ethiopia's ethnic federalism and its compatibility with democracy.
The Oligarchy of the Harari
What is the administrative category of the Harari region? In his book ‘Politics’, Aristotle mentions six political categories. Like his teacher Plato, Aristotle was not a fan of democracy. Plato (as he argued in his book ‘Republic’) believes it is a 'philosopher who has to be king, or the king has to become a philosopher’ (philosopher-king) to establish working order. In the same philosophy, Aristotle categorized three kinds of empires based on their contribution to a common interest.
First, there is monarchy (one-man leadership for the common good), second, aristocracy (the leadership of a few for the common good), and third, polity (majority leadership for the common good). However, when all three forms of government degenerate or corrupt, the monarchy will be a tyranny (one man's leadership for personal interest), the aristocracy will be an oligarchy (the rule of the few for their own benefits), and polity will be a democracy. For Aristotle, democracy is the rule of many for their own benefits; a corrupted version of the rule of majority for the common good.
Democracy is not the best system in the world. As Winston Churchill pointed out, ‘it is the best of those who have been tried’. But we can debate it is multiple times better than oligarchy. Democracy, as many say, do not actually bring majority rule. That’s an overstatement. It is rather a system where majority consent is usually granted. In any case, it is the most widely accepted, and constitutionally granted system for Ethiopia. However, by any standard, the administration in Harari regional government is not a democracy, but an oligarchy.
Protection of the Minority Groups
Harari people are rich in history and culture. There is a real concern that ethnic minorities like Harari and others may be oppressed and/or assimilated by other dominant cultures and civilizations. However, it would be unfair to establish a system that would reverse the democratic process in order to preserve the identity, history, and heritage of the Harari people. So how can one solve this dilemma?
Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious or Linguistic Minorities, adopted by General Assembly Resolution 47/135 of 18 December 1992, reaffirms in its Article 1/1 that:
“States shall protect the existence and the national or ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic identity of minorities within their respective territories and shall encourage conditions for the promotion of that identity.”
Article 1/2 reads:
“States shall adopt appropriate legislative and other measures to achieve those ends.”
These articles show that it is the responsibility of governments to protect the rights of minorities. But does these justify undermining rule with majority consent? No.
When the Declaration was passed, its intention is protecting minorities from marginalization by hegemonic groups. Harari has that risk; Abdullah Sherif, in his article published on Ethiopia-Insight, "Harari without Hararis", wrote:
“the issue of who gets to govern over Harar might be philosophical arguments about true democracy and equitability for some communities. For Hararis, it is an existential matter. ”.
The author's response to the dilemma, however, does not take into account the injustices of minority rule over a majority. Harari ethnics may have a strong historical contribution to the historical city of Harar, but in no way the current members of the group deserve superior entitlement over other legal residents of the region. Legacy rewards are not compatible to a democratic system.
The Tale of Two Constitutions
Although the member states of Ethiopia were created by the central government itself, it is important to assume that the power source of the federal government is the member states. However, as long as the member states are living under the shelter of unity, they must also be abided by the FDRE’s constitution. Article 9 of Harari’s constitution, accordingly, recognizes the supremacy of the constitution of the FDRE. In comparison to regional constitutions, FDRE’s constitution is liberal. On the contrary, Harari’s constitution falls short from recognizing universally respected rights such as ‘universal suffrage’.
The Harari constitution violates the equal rights of its residents. While the Harari people are given the right to vote and be elected for the Harari National Council whether they are permanent residents of the regional state or not, non-Harari ethnics will never vote or be elected to the Council. This Council has the highest authority in the region. The constitution states that only the Harari ethnics can decide on the right to the secession of the regional state.
According to Article 49 of Harari’s constitution, the region has two chambers: The Peoples' Representatives and the Harari National Council. This is unusual for other regional states in Ethiopia. Many federal systems, including Ethiopia, have two (bicameral) councils, which balances their common and individual administrative interests. For example, in the House of Peoples' Representatives in FDRE are elected from each election districts. The House of Federation, on the other hand, gets its members from representation by regional governments (technically representing each nationalities). The Harari National Council, on the other hand, was established to provide special political privilege to the Harari ethnic members. If we are forced to put these in parallel, the National Council may resemble the House of Federation; however, other ethnic groups are not represented at the National Council of Harari.
The right to vote and to be elected by all citizens is one of the most important aspects of democracy. The majority give consent to their representatives or single citizens get consent of the majority to represent the whole only when universal suffrage enacted. Universal Suffrage not only ensures the right to equality but also helps the government to resemble its citizens.
Article 38 of the Harari State Constitution provides for the right to vote and to be elected in line with international conventions; it does not allow discrimination of anyone on the basis of race, gender, national origin, ethnicity, or other backgrounds. However, Article 50 denies the same right of non-Harari ethnics to vote members of the National Council and gives the Council the most important roles in the government; the right to nominate the president of the state and to secede from the federation is vested in the Council (Article 39/5/a of the Harari State Constitution). "Once the request for secession is approved by a two-thirds vote in the Harari National Council," the federal government must hold a referendum within three years. Ninety percent of the region's population has no say in such a fundamental decision. The regional council of peoples representatives, too, has no authority in regard to secession.
Let’s assume Harari secedes from Ethiopia; it would never seem to be possible for 90 percent of the population to be ruled by 9 percent of its population in the new sovereign-to-be. Our times do not allow any sovereign state to discriminate against its citizens based on ethnicity.
Although the Peoples' Representatives Council in Harari is, in principle, constituted by all Harari residents, its seats are actually divided between the Oromia ruling party (OPDO or ODP or PP) and the Harari National League parties. They call this quota system "fifty-fifty." This seems something that can easily be resolved through democratic elections.
Democracy and Federalism
Nationalities and cultures that have a large number of speakers and are historically, culturally, and/or economically dominant or privileged have the potential of assimilating others. Minority groups must be protected. Harari ethnic members have a serious risk of being assimilated. But the region also needs a government that has the consent of the majority.
The late prime minister of Ethiopia Meles Zenawi argued that 'democracy is not optional for Ethiopia'. He also often argued Ethiopia cannot exist without the federalism. However, democracy certainly contradicts Harari's administrative principles. Furthermore, the thought in Harari’s administration is rooted in the philosophy of the ethnic federalism, i.e. nativism and natives’ privilege over other legal and permanent residents. If the Harari’s did not have a state created for them, the offer the ethnic federalism would have for them is a status of “special zone” or “special woreda”.
“Special Zone” or “Special Woreda” alternatives as a means of minority protection somewhat work for people living in rural settlements with little mix with other ethnic groups. The Harari, on the other hand, are urban dwellers; they are always expected to live in harmony with others. The government they form should always be inclusive and representative of the people who live in the same territory. This makes the dilemma even complex.
Democracy has ‘Affirmative Actions’ as a means of protection of minority groups. The best way to ensure the survival issue of Harari ethnics as a collective and exercise democracy is ensuring affirmative actions in form of promoting and preserving the language and culture of Harari people; not making their elites governors of the regional states. The current system doesn’t require majority consent for leadership, it clashes with universal and constitutional rights. Even though the constitutional provisions of Harari, its administration and, philosophical argument for it are all reflections of FDRE’s constitutional framework, it just doesn’t work in a democratic framework.
[This story is published in Amharic on today's issue of the weekly Feteh Magazine.]