Is Ethiopia in Constitutional Crisis?
By Alemayehu G. Mariam
In an interview I gave to the Voice of America Amharic program last week, I was asked to comment on the nature of constitutional succession in the event of death, disability, resignation, illness, incapacity or removal from power of the prime minster (PM) in Ethiopia. The answer I gave seems to have surprised, shocked, dismayed and appalled many. The Ethiopian Constitution makes no provisions for the orderly transfer of power in the event of a vacancy in the PM’s office. Simply stated, there is no constitutional process for succession of executive power in Ethiopia!
The issue of succession has become critical in light of the prolonged and mysterious absence of the current holder of PM’s office and the garbled official explanation for his complete disappearance from public view. Some Ethiopian opposition leaders have apparently argued for the installation of the deputy prime mister (DPM) as a constitutional successor to the PM or at least serve as acting PM until the final health status of the current holder of the PM’s office is established. Their argument is neither textually nor inferentially supported by any reasonable reading of the relevant provisions of the Ethiopian Constitution.
The office of the DPM is mentioned 4 times in the Ethiopian Constitution, three of which occur in Art. 75; and once in Article 76 in which the DPM is mentioned as a member of the Council of Ministers. Article 75 defines the totality of powers, duties and roles of the DPM:
1. The Deputy Prime Minister shall: (a) perform the duties assigned to him by the Prime Minister; (b) represent the Prime Minister in his absence. 2. The Deputy Prime Minister is accountable to the Prime Minister.
Under Article 75, the DPM is a political creature of the PM’s making, and not an actual constitutional officer with prescribed duties and functions. Unlike the PM (art. 73), the DPM is not “elected”, rather s/he is a mere political appointee who is selected by the PM. Whatever powers the DPM has comes directly and exclusively from the PM, and not the Constitution. The DPM “performs duties assigned by the prime minister” and has no independent or residual statutory or constitutional duties or powers. The PM directs the activities, functions and roles of the DPM as the PM sees fit. The DPM can be dismissed or replaced by the PM at any time. In short, the DPM’s office is in reality an empty constitutional shell — a make-believe office — devoid of any constitutional or statutory responsibilities.
It is important to examine the constitutional nature of the DPM’s office more closely to understand the enormity of the constitutional crisis facing Ethiopia today regardless of whether the current holder of the PM’s office returns to office. The DPM is constitutionally designated as the “representative” of the PM. The term “representative” in Article 75 does not have the same meaning as the term “representative” in the “Council of Representatives” whose members are “elected for a term of five years” with full authority to “represent” their constituencies (Article 58). The DPM as the PM’s “representative” is not a “PM in waiting or in the wings”. The DPM could stand in or appear on behalf of the PM as directed and assigned, or possibly “represent” the PM as an agent or proxy if specifically authorized. But the DPM has no independent constitutional powers to “represent” the PM or perform the PM’s duties and responsibilities as the PM’s “representative”.
To be sure, there is no textual basis in Article 75 or in any other part of the Constitution to infer that the DPM can exercise any of the PM’s powers under Article 74. For instance, the DPM has no constitutional authority to function as “the head of government, chairman of the Council of Ministers and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces” under any circumstances. Nor does s/he have the power to act as “acting prime minster” or perform in any other similar capacity in the event of a vacancy in the PM’s office or in the absence of the PM. The DPM does not have the constitutional power or authority to “direct, coordinate and represent the Council of Ministers,” or to “appoint all high government officials.” The DPM cannot “perform other duties assigned to him by this Constitution and other laws” because neither the Constitution nor other “laws” give the DPM any “duties” whatsoever to perform. Whatever the DPM does, s/he does at the direction, supervision and pleasure of the PM. Practically speaking, the DPM is the PM’s “gofer” (errand runner) and factotutm (handy person), and not a true constitutional officer.
Analysis of Articles 72-75 (“Executive Power”) demonstrates that the DPM’s office was structurally designed as a shadow, symbolic or make-believe office with the manifest aim of giving the public impression that there is a deputy PM who could take over in the event of a vacancy in the PM’s office in the same sense as a vice president would succeed a president. It is an office created with constitutional smoke and mirrors with the intention of creating the illusion of a constitutional plan of executive succession without actually creating one. Article 75 could be an amazing constitutional sleight of hand or an egregious omission in constitutional design!
Is Ethiopia in Constitutional Crisis?
It is manifest that Ethiopia is now facing not only a leadership and power vacuum but also a monumental constitutional crises in the absence of a constitutional plan or procedure for succession. A constitution without a clear plan of succession is an invitation to political chaos, conflict and instability. In the United States, the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 (which supersedes other prior succession Acts) establishes the line of succession to the powers and duties of the office of President of the United States in the event that neither a President nor Vice President is able to “discharge the powers and duties of the office.” The Twenty-fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution establishes procedures for filling a vacancy in the office of the Vice President and responding to Presidential disability.
Article 60 of Ghana’s Constitution also provides clear provisions on presidential succession: “(6) Whenever the President dies, resigns or is removed from office, the Vice-President shall assume office as President for the unexpired term of office of the President… (8) Whenever the President is absent from Ghana or is for any other reason unable to perform the functions of his office, the Vice-President shall perform the function of the President until the President returns or is able to perform…” Even North Korea has a plan of succession though the process is a dynastic family affair in which power is passed from grandfather to son to grandson as we have witnessed recently.
Why is there no plan or clear statement or language on succession of executive power in the Ethiopian Constitution? I noted above that the particular design of the office of the DPM could be an amazing constitutional sleight of hand or an egregious omission and irremediable defect in constitutional design. If the drafters of the 1995 Ethiopian Constitution never anticipated, imagined, calculated or believed the person who becomes PM of Ethiopia will ever be removed from office by any means and for any reason and thus designed the DPM’s office as it is, then their omission could be regarded as a grossly negligent act of incompetence for which they should collectively suffer public condemnation and castigation. But it is unlikely that the DPM’s office was designed with such obvious oversight or inadvertence. It is not an act of omission; it is an act of commission.
A reasonable analysis of Article 75 suggests that the drafters intentionally and with great foresight designed the DPM’s office the way they did (toothless, powerless, duty-less) out of an abundance of caution to guard against any potential future loss of the PM’s office (and with it control of the state, armed forces, economy, etc.,) from the hands of those elements who have had a chokehold on the office for the past 21 years. Given the ethnically tangled nature of Ethiopian politics, the individuals who controlled the drafting of the Constitution understood that the PM’s and DPM’s office could not be in the hands of members of the same ethnic group. That is to say, if the PM is a member of one ethnic group, the deputy prime ministership must necessarily be given to a person from another ethnic group to maintain the illusion of power sharing and play a clever political balancing game. If there is a real possibility of succession under this “power sharing” arrangement, the outcome could be potentially catastrophic to the power brokers controlling the PM’s office in the remote and unlikely event the PM is unable to discharge his/her duties and must leave office.
Under Article 75, the DPM could prove to be a Frankensteinian creation of the PM capable of destroying its own creator. If the DPM succeeds the PM, then the power brokers and structure that supported the PM could collapse with the supporters of the DPM as PM gaining power. As a result, there is high likelihood that the power brokers and supporters of the PM who vacated office could potentially lose power and influence and be marginalized under the new PM. However, the power brokers and supporters of the PM who vacated office could still maintain their power and influence by installing a DPM from one of the minority ethnic groups in the country. By making such an appointment, the PM and supporters effectively create the illusion that members of the country’s ethnic minorities are gaining recognition, power and status hitherto unavailable or denied to them while immunizing themselves from the criticisms of other major ethnic group contenders who may be making claims to the DPM’s office.
The appointment of a DPM from a minority group ensures that power remains in the hands of the power brokers and supporters of the PM whether the PM stays in office or vacates for any reason. The only way a DPM from an ethnic minority could survive politically as a PM is with the support of those who supported the PM who vacated office. The DPM as PM simply will not have a sufficient support base in the party structure, bureaucracy, military, civic society, economic structure, etc. to be able to act independently. The DPM as PM could only survive as a mere puppet in the hands of the power brokers and supporters of the PM who vacated office.
Facing such a daunting constitutional dilemma, the power brokers and supporters of the current holder of the PM’s office will have no viable option but to ram through by unconstitutional means the installation of the holder of the DPM as PM. If such was the design, Article 75 could be regarded as a masterful stroke of political genius unrivalled in modern African constitutional history. The downside is that given the manifest constitutional problems of succession, other power contenders are unlikely to accept such an outcome which is patently unconstitutional and undemocratic. They may insist on a new election for a PM within a reasonable period of time if it comes to pass that the current holder of the PM’s office could no longer perform the duties of that office.
To dodge this enormous constitutional dilemma and avoid an election for a new PM at any cost, the power brokers and supporters of the holder of the PM’s office could create various distractions and diversions. It is very likely that they could fabricate an emergency (internal by claiming insurrection or external by triggering conflict) and declare martial law. They could engage in dilatory tactics by refusing to make firm and clear announcements on the status of the current holder of the PM’s office. They could seek the intervention or mediation of outside powers to help resolve the crisis by proposing a short-term transitional solution until a permanent solution is found either by constitutional amendment or new elections. They are likely to use the “constitutional court” under Article 83 to obtain an interpretation of Article 75 which is manifestly contrary to the plain meaning of the constitutional text. No doubt, they will have many tricks up their sleeves to get themselves out of the constitutional jam, buy time and cling to power.
The smart move for the power brokers and supporters of the holder of the PM’s office now would be to take this fantastic opportunity and offer an olive branch to the opposition and invite them to a dialogue on power sharing and other matters. There is no shame, defeat or harm in making a peace offering to the opposition. It has been done in Kenya and even Zimbabwe. It was done in South Africa under the most difficult of circumstances. It has been tried with different outcomes in Burundi, Guinea, Madagascar and the Ivory Coast.
In 2009, Kenya formed a “grand coalition government” among bitter political enemies. They were able to write a new constitution which was approved by an overwhelming 67 percent of Kenyans in 2011. In 2008, President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai signed a power-sharing deal. Last week, Zimbabwe Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai pushed for approval of a draft constitution prepared by the Select Committee of Parliament on the New Constitution (COPAC). Both countries have a long way to go on the road to full democratization but they are certainly on the right track. The only sensible way out of this constitutional predicament is to follow Nelson Mandela’s prescription: “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” It’s the perfect time now for all to bury the hatchet, shake hands and get their shoulders to the grindstone and build a new Ethiopia.
Constitutional Transition From Dictatorship to Democracy
The DPM issue is only the tip of the iceberg of the enormous constitutional crises to face Ethiopia. Those of us in the business of constitutional law and analysis have known of the structural flaw in the design of the DPM’s office, the expansive nature of executive power as well as numerous other flaws in the current Constitution for a long time. Truth be told, our characterization of the current holder of the PM’s office as “dictator” over the years was not mere rhetorical flair but an accurate and precise description based on a careful and penetrating analysis of the Ethiopian Constitution and the way power is concentrated in one office and one person.
A dictator is a person “who has absolute power or authority.” That is what the 1995 Ethiopian Constitution created in Articles 72-75. Article 74 created a PM whose powers are total, unbridled and unlimited and without any plan of succession. The PM and his hand-selected Council of Ministers are the “highest executive authority” in the country. The “Prime Minister” is the “head of government, chairman of the Council of Ministers and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.” The PM is only nominally accountable to the Council of Deputies and the judiciary. S/he is not accountable to the Council of Ministers. In fact, the PM has total and absolute dominance over these institutions. The PM has the power to “dissolve the Council [of Representatives] before the expiry of its term so as to conduct new elections”, dismiss or replace any member of the Council of Ministers at will and nominate and dismiss judges. Under the Constitution, the PM is accountable to no one. The PM’s word is the constitution and the law. The PM is an absolute constitutional dictator though that sounds oxymoronic!
The Life and Death of African Dictators
All dictators believe they can live forever. But only the evil they have done during their lifetimes lives forever. Sitting in the saddle of power, African dictators fear no one, not the people or even God. They have convinced themselves they are heroes and “gods” in their own right. They try to project the image of invincibility and immortality. But they are neither; they are mere mortals. They get sick, they suffer pain and they die like the people they oppressed, jailed, tortured and killed. They hold their people in total contempt and treat them like dumb children. They try to convince their people that they are healthy when they are sick and alive when they are dead.
In the past 7 years, the story we hear in Ethiopia today has been told many times in Africa. In 2005, President Gnassingbé Eyadéma of Togo, at the time Africa’s longest-ruling dictator, died of a “heart attack” as he was being rushed to Europe for treatment. Though he had heart and other serious health problems for years, those facts were hidden from the public until it was suddenly announced that he had passed away. In 2009, Gabon’s long reigning dictator, Omar Bongo Ondimba, died in a hospital in Spain. Government officials in Gabon had long denied he was sick or had any serious health problems. But Bongo had cancer. In 2009, President Umaru Yar’Adua of Nigeria reportedly left the country for what was described as “routine medical check up” in Saudi Arabia. After months of prolonged absence, he returned to Nigeria and died of lung cancer. Earlier this year, President Malam Bacai Sanhá of Guinea-Bissau died at a Paris hospital from what was officially described as “advanced diabetes” and a hemoglobin problem (possibly leukemia). Sanha denied that he had health problems and said his situation “was not as serious as people want to make out”. President Bingu wa Mutharika of Malawi also died earlier this year from what was described officially as a heart attack after being transported to South Africa in a comatose state.
In all of these cases, the serious health issues were underplayed by the leaders themselves and their officials. They often blamed the cynical opposition for exaggerating news and information of their health condition. The officials in Ethiopia have a constitutional duty under Article 12 to perform their responsibilities “in a manner which is open and transparent to the public”. That transparency includes the duty to divulge full information to the public on the prolonged absence of the holder of the office of PM.
The life and death of President John Atta Mills of Ghana last week stands in stark contrast to the other African dictators. For the past several months, the Ghanaian public was aware that President Mills was having serious health problems. He was making few public appearances and had retreated from public view, leaving his vice president, John Dramani Mahama, to attend public functions. Though he won the presidency by a razor-thin margin in 2009, Mills soon gained the love, respect and appreciation of his people. In its online editorial, The Nation, Nigeria’s top circulation publication observed: “The open affection Ghanaians showed President Mills and the Ghana Parliament’s fidelity to constitutional provisions are areas Nigeria can learn from. President Mills respected his office and honoured his people by working hard for them. Little wonder, the people reciprocated by treating him as a rare hero in death.” Africa needs rare heroes. The alternative for Africa’s villains has been prophesied by Gandhi long ago: “There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall — think of it, ALWAYS.”
There is a way out of the constitutional crises and dead end Ethiopian is facing today. Nelson Mandela paved that two way road in South Africa and called it “Forgiveness and Goodness.” We should all prepare ourselves and the people to travel that two-way road. It is time for national dialogue!