Early on in Hailie Selassie’s time as ruler of Ethiopia, he introduced the country’s first constitution, which allowed for a bicameral, or two-house, ruling body on July 16, 1931. The constitution kept noble houses in power, but established democratic rule in a nation that had yet to embrace such a philosophy.
The 1931 Constitution of Ethiopia served as the nation’s first modern document of its sort, which was crafted to replace the ancient Christian legal code known as the Fetha Negest. The former law had been in place since the Middle Ages, created by Coptic Egyptian writer Abul Fada’il Ibn al-‘Assal.
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The new constitution was announced with an impressive ceremony, and it was also the first time an absolute ruler of a nation moved to share power with others over the land they governed.
This fact was noted in the 1936 translation of the Ethiopian constitution in a preface written by William Stern.
As written in Selassie’s biography, the Emperor initially wanted Empress Zawditu (pictured) to bring forth the constitution, but it was frowned upon by other noble families as an affront to her rule. When Selassie’s reign began, however, he assigned a group to draft the constitution. There were some European influences in drafting the document, but it was largely written with the help of Ethiopian scholars Tekle Hawariat Tekle Mariyam and Gedamu Woldegiorgis.
Ethiopia’s constitution was crafted similar to the Meiji Constitution of Japan, a country which held sway with some Ethiopians as a mix of Western and Eastern cultures. The document itself wasn’t necessarily complex, as it contained 55 articles over seven chapters. It also affirmed Selassie’s status as Emperor and only allowed ascension to the throne to be reserved to his family’s bloodline.
The document also gave all power to the monarchy, including the military and local government structures. According to historians, the constitution was basically a legal move to replace province rulers with representatives loyal to Selassie in name and deed and still gave the Emperor power to elect leaders. In essence, it wasn’t a true democratic process.
The Emperor hoped that the constitution would inspire a national solidarity, but it seemingly created tensions. Other dynastic families took umbrage with the law’s rule that only Selassie’s family line could rise to the throne. Even the Emperor’s cousin was reportedly taken aback by the rule.
The constitution lasted until 1955, during Selassie’s 25th year as Emperor, and a new constitution was introduced. Replete with American and Western influences, including assistance from three American scholars, the new constitution attempted to bring nationalism to the forefront but was largely lost on the populace, where literacy and understanding of the laws by the less educated was hindered.
Emperor Selassie was eventually ousted from power in September 1974 in a violent coup after years of tension in the country between the government and low-ranking members of the military.
This article was first published on Face2Face Africa on July 16, 2014.