Cherry-Picking Loyalty

December 28 , 2019
By Tibebu Bekele ( Tibebu Bekele (, who is interested in constructive dialogue and civil engagement. )

Even if every high-ranking office holder takes an oath requiring them to pledge allegiance and loyalty to the Ethiopian constitution and many politicians profess to that same loyalty, constitutionalism remains an idea with many loud fans but few practitioners, writes Tibebu Bekele.

Every high-ranking officeholder takes an oath of office which, among other things, requires them to pledge allegiance and loyalty to the Ethiopian Constitution. Not only officeholders but many politicians profess to that same loyalty. Even some whose political programme includes a plan to change the Constitution still affirm their loyalty to it.

In fact, in Ethiopia now we are seeing a new tug of war between parties who all claim to be fighting to preserve the Constitution. Different but opposing groups all claiming themselves to be the last great hope for the Constitution is a bit confusing for the general public. How is the public to decide who is in fact truly loyal to the Constitution?

I guess the starting point would have to be agreeing on the definition of what it means to be loyal to constitutional government. Loyalty denotes faithfulness, commitment and responsibility to a cause or principle. Therefore, when a person or a movement claims loyalty to a constitution, they are saying they will conduct themselves according to the principles of constitutionalism.

Constitutionalism is the idea that government should only have legally limited powers to carry out its duties, and that its authority or legitimacy depends on its observing these limitations. This idea often associated with John Locke and popularized by the American Revolution has many loud fans but few practitioners.

That should not be surprising, since it goes against the natural instincts of human beings. The natural instinct of the human being is an insatiable lust for power. Nobody wants to be limited in their exercise of power if they can get away with it. That is why most framers of constitutions around the world make sure to include articles written as clearly as possible limiting the powers of officeholders. Because without them, there is no doubt there will not be limited government.

The responsibility of citizens then is to see and evaluate the claims of different groups against their record when it comes to observing the limitations to power that are clearly enumerated in the constitution itself.

For example, the Ethiopian Constitution unambiguously states that, “It is prohibited to assume state power in any manner other than that provided under the Constitution.” Therefore, any person, group or political party that employs unconstitutional means like insurrections and riots is only giving lip service to constitutionalism.

Another clear article is the right to life. Every person has the right to life, and no person may be deprived of life except as punishment passed by a court of law. Therefore, a group or political entity that has a history of unlawfully eliminating political opponents in extrajudicial killings can hardly be said to be an adherent of constitutionalism.

The Ethiopian Constitution clearly states that everyone has the right to protection against bodily harm. And yet most movements in the country now or in the past have supporters that are quick to physically beat up anyone they perceive to have an opposing view.

Everyone is supposed to have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Yet few are that tolerant in this country today. Everyone is supposed to have the right to hold opinions without interference. Not only that but also the right to express them. “This right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any media of his choice.”

One would be hard pressed to find anyone that truly believes in these articles let alone practices them on the ground. Most of the fight and competition regarding the Constitution is superficial and limited to form and structure. It is not about content. Almost all political movements in Ethiopia may pay lip service to the Constitution. But hardly any of them actually practice it either in their internal party politics or in their relationships with other political entities. Constitutionalism is a demanding principle. It is all or nothing. One can not cherry-pick loyalty to hand-picked articles.

PUBLISHED ON Dec 28,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 1026]

Tibebu Bekele (, who is interested in constructive dialogue and civil engagement.

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