The 1987 Constitution
City Hall, Addis Ababa. Courtesy Thomas Ofcansky
The primary task facing the WPE following its formation in 1984 was to devise the new national constitution that would inaugurate the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE). In March 1986, a 343-member Constitutional Commission was formed to draft a new constitution based on the principles of scientific socialism. Eventually, the 122 full and alternate members of the WPE Central Committee who had been appointed to its membership dominated the commission.
The Constitutional Commission had its origins in the Institute for the Study of Ethiopian Nationalities, which the Derg had established in March 1983 to find solutions to problems resulting from Ethiopia’s extreme ethnic diversity. The institute was staffed mostly by academics from Addis Ababa University, who continued to serve as advisers to the Constitutional Commission. The commission’s diverse membership included religious leaders, artists, writers, doctors, academics, athletes, workers, and former nobility. There was also an attempt by those who chose appointees to the commission to make sure that all major ethnic nationalities had representation in the body.
For about six months, the commission debated the details of the new constitution. In June 1986, it issued a 120-article draft document. The government printed and distributed 1 million copies to kebeles and peasant associations throughout the country. During the next two months, the draft was discussed at about 25,000 locations. The regime used this method of discussion to legitimize the constitution-making process and to test the mood of the populace. In some cases, people attended constitutional discussion sessions only after pressure from local WPE cadres, but in other cases attendance was voluntary. Where popular interest was apparent, it centered on issues such as taxes, the role of religion, marriage, the organization of elections, and citizenship rights and obligations. By far the most controversial draft provision was the one that outlawed polygamy, which caused a furor among Muslims. Few questions were raised about the document’s failure to address the nationalities problem and the right to selfdetermination . According to government officials, the citizenry submitted more than 500,000 suggested revisions. In August the commission reconvened to consider proposed amendments. In all, the commission accepted ninety-five amendments to the original draft. Most of the changes, however, were cosmetic.
The referendum on the constitution was held on February 1, 1987, and Mengistu announced the results three weeks later. He reported that 96 percent of the 14 million people eligible to participate (adults eighteen years of age and older) actually voted. Eighty-one percent of the electorate endorsed the constitution, while 18 percent opposed it (1 percent of the ballots were invalid). Although this was the first election in Ethiopia’s history based on universal suffrage, the presence of communist cadres throughout the country ensured that the constitution would be adopted. In Tigray and Eritrea, however, the regime held referenda only in urban centers because much of these territories was controlled by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, respectively (see Political Dynamics, this ch.). In other places, such as parts of Welo and Gonder regions, the vote took place amid heightened security measures.
The constitution officially took effect on February 22, 1987, when the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia was proclaimed, although it was not until September that the new government was fully in place and the PMAC formally abolished (see The People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, ch. 1). The document, which established the normative foundations of the republic, consisted of seventeen chapters and 119 articles. The preamble traced Ethiopia’s origins back to antiquity, proclaimed the historical heroism of its people, praised the country’s substantial natural and human resources, and pledged to continue the struggle against imperialism, poverty, and hunger. The government’s primary concern was proclaimed to be the country’s development through the implementation of the Program for the National Democratic Revolution (PNDR). In the process, it was assumed that the material and technical bases necessary for establishing socialism would be created.
The constitution attempted to situate Ethiopia in the context of the worldwide movement of so-called “progressive states” and made no direct reference to Africa. Critics claim that the constitution was no more than an abridged version of the 1977 Soviet constitution, with the exception that strong powers were assigned to the newly created office of the president. A second difference between the Ethiopian and Soviet constitutions is that the former declared the country to be a unitary state rather than a union of republics. It was reported that the problem of nationalities was hotly debated in the Constitutional Commission, as well as in the WPE Central Committee, but the regime would not abandon its desire to create a single multiethnic state rather than a federation.