The Autobiography of Emperor Haile Sellassie I
About Our setting up a Constitution
In former times, when kings ruled the people according to their own will, be it in Europe, Asia, or Africa, there used to be a good deal of upheaval and divergence between the kings and the people as well as members of the royal family. The history of the governance of many countries demonstrates this.
In our country, in Ethiopia, it used to be done likewise. We had, therefore, been contemplating the promulgation of a constitution for Our reign, to bequeath to Our heirs a form of rule that is based on law and to bring Our people into partnership in the work of government; in fact, while We were still Crown Prince and Regent Plenipotentiary of the Ethiopian realm, We had told Queen Zawditu that it would be of great benefit to the government and the people if a constitution were established. But some of the great nobles, to whose advantage it was to rule the country without a constitution, had pretended that it would diminish the dignity and authority of Queen Zawditu if a constitution were set up. For this reason Our plan had remained unfulfilled.
At that time, although We were Regent Plenipotentiary, there were complex circumstances involved. Before tackling any major affairs, I used to inform H.M. Empress Zawditu. If she accepted the matter I arranged for it to be carried out at once. Yet if she did not approve, I did not wish to upset her and do things by force (insisting that I was Regent Plenipotentiary) but rather to convince her by repeatedly reverting to the matter. This arose from the consideration that it was necessary to be careful lest disturbances or bloodshed should occur in the country. Hence I patiently delayed the establishment of a constitution. But after the death of Queen Zawditu on 24th Magabit 1922 (2nd April 1930) We inherited crown and throne by due process of law and, therefore, decided to set up the constitution We had planned earlier on during Our regency. Hence We examined the constitutions of various countries and chose people who possessed experience and knowledge of foreign countries, as well as those versed in the customs and early history of each province inside the country, and commanded them to select and extract, from the constitutions of foreign countries, what was appropriate for the Ethiopian people—and then to submit recommendations to Us.
When these had been set down in writing and had been presented, We examined them and then gave orders to the following persons to make a joint study and to submit them prepared for signature:
From among the nobles:
From among ministers:
From among officials:
These men who had been instructed to investigate the matter and then to present it ready for signature had remained disunited in their views and had, therefore, spent a great deal of time arguing in Our presence. Ras Emru, alone among the nobles, had shared the opinion of the ministers and officials, while the remaining four nobles were united among themselves in a rather different view.
The opinion of the nobles was that Ethiopia, having been divided into various large provinces, each should be given as hereditary property to the nobles passing on from generation to generation; that their descendants should not be disinherited, unless it were proved against them that they had committed some serious criminal act against the Emperor or the government; that the provincial landowners within their domain, having the region they hold recognized as their hereditary property, should continue to pay taxes to the nobles and remain subservient to them. In general this connotes a feudal form of government.
But the opinion of the ministers and officials was as follows: If Ethiopia, divided into its respective large provinces, were given as hereditary property to the nobles and landowners, passing on from generation to generation, and if it were claimed that appointments were limited to their descendants, how was there to be a rising generation in the future? If a man has studied and given service and yet does not obtain office or an administrative appointment, how can he say ‘Ethiopia is my country’? Therefore, let the present nobles and landowners, unless some wrong-doing is proved against them, stay on in their office of governor only; but if they are dismissed for some misdemeanour or die, then let any Ethiopian who possesses the knowledge and ability be appointed to their governorship, for [exclusive] succession within the family is not a proper procedure. But if their sons are found to be like other men in knowledge and in service, then let the Emperor in his wisdom appoint them to their fathers’ governorship or other post of rank; yet it does not appear to us proper for it to be laid down in the constitution that their governorship should pass from father to son as hereditary property.
When the nobles saw that the ministers and officials did not accept the opinion they had submitted, they put forward, as an alternative, the following plan under which it would be laid down in the constitution that some districts only, out of the many within their governorships, would pass on as hereditary. But the ministers and officials refused to accept this view and remained steadfast in their earlier opinion.
When We heard that the men whom We had selected for this task remained divided in their opinions, We arranged that both sides should submit their proposals, together with supporting evidence, in writing. After We had examined the matter, We decided as follows: The Emperor may assign hereditary land-rights and land held as a fief either to nobles or to other servants of the realm. A paragraph to this effect is to be written into the constitution and in future things are to be arranged as required, having regard to their services; but, so We explained to the nobles, it was no longer proper that, since We were aware that feudal rule had ceased in the world, We should now once again re-affirm it, either having it laid down in the constitution or governing without a constitution. Once matters had been clarified, they were to be written down and prepared for signature.
Afterwards We arranged for nobles and ministers, army commanders and provincial governors, chiefs, bishops and savants, for all to assemble at an important ceremony. Then the constitution which had been prepared for signature was read out to them and all affirmed their view with one voice: ‘We like it; let it be set up.'
Nevertheless, in Ethiopia for some three thousand years, since the days of Menelik I, the customary method of rule was not a king who governed by a constitution, having set up a parliament, but an emperor who governed by his own authority alone. Some men who were Our particular friends did not understand the matter and therefore they advised me with sincerity as follows: How can you, by your own action, hand over to the people your authority of government? Please cause this to be stopped. When I explained things to them to the best of my ability, they accepted the argument. When the 9th day of Hamle 1923 (= 16th July 1931) was fixed as the date for the signing of the Constitution and the promulgation of the decree, We gave orders to Our Minister of the Pen to inform the senior officials, and to Our Foreign Minister to notify the foreign diplomats.
Foreign diplomats arrived with great pomp at 4 o’clock (= 10 a.m.) on the appointed day and stood by their seats according to their rank. We then made the following speech explaining the reason why We had thought it right to establish a Constitution.
‘We were thinking that it was not enough for Us to thank Our Lord with words alone for the trust We had received from God to guard Ethiopia and for granting Us this high rank of Emperor, nor was it sufficient to appease him with minor deeds and with what was of benefit to Ourselves only; although We were striving to set up a constitution that was of benefit extending to everybody, enduring for ever and being transmitted from generation to generation, this was still not enough to repay the Lord’s favour; because We wished to reveal to you Our intention of entrusting to God the fulfilment of the task We had begun, We have assembled you here at this hour in a great gathering.
Nobody will fail to appreciate that law is the greatest benefit to every man. It is from the equity of law that honour and advantage arise; it is from the deficiency of law that distress and damage result; it is through failure to set up law that violence and injury grow.
While God, being above every creature, would not find it difficult to issue orders by His word alone, yet His instituting law is because He knew that law should be the supreme ruler of the whole world.
He who merits being called just among men, in whatever sphere it might be, is the person who strives and endeavours, by the knowledge given to him, to benefit the majority (even though not all mankind as a whole) when pursuing his principal aims.
Although for a number of reasons Our plan had been delayed in its execution, Our entire endeavour, which We had initiated a long time ago, had been to set up a framework of law for the state. Therefore, Our idea which We pursued steadfastly and which We formulated for Ethiopia and Our beloved people is to declare to you now, first, Our granting a constitution to the Ethiopian people and, secondly, Our wish to follow this law meticulously and to maintain it.
In this constitution which We are giving to the Ethiopian people, the principal ideas formulated in it are the following:
(1) It is to bring about that, Ethiopia being one family undivided by sections, the people shall live in unity controlled by one law and governed by one Emperor, and that this power of unity shall be safeguarded by the interests which bind them permanently together, and, while the interests of the individual shall not be abandoned, the strength of the united community shall be paramount. Without sacrificing the benefits due to individuals or oneself, one is not to seek divisive private interests.
(2) The law, in its function of conferring advantage or punishment, shall be equitable without showing favour to whomever it may be.
(3) By virtue of the fact that in past times the people of Ethiopia remained cut off from other countries and were, therefore, unable to secure the advantages which the great civilizations of today confer, as well as by virtue of adhering to their own age-old civilization, the Kings of Ethiopia, being like good fathers to the people, continued carrying on their work of administration.
But now, since Our people has progressively advanced, in whatever sphere, to a higher level of civilization, time has permitted Us to establish a constitution and to bring the people into partnership in Our toil, so as to accomplish the heavy task of government with which earlier kings have had to struggle on their own.
It is necessary that at the present time the Ethiopian people should join in all the work of government. We have, therefore, set up two chambers of Parliament, so that all persons suitably qualified for this task should become participants in the work.
The counsellors who tender advice in these chambers shall come from each province, being chosen by the Emperor’s authority, until the people are able to hold elections on the basis of education and knowledge. The advice, to be decided by majority voting, will come into force when it has been approved by the Emperor.
(4) Once advice has been tendered by Parliament and been approved by the Emperor, it is the responsibility of ministers to apply it to the whole of Ethiopia and to carry on the affairs of the government and the people.
(5) Lest disturbances should break out and cause harm to Ethiopia, it has been determined by law that the Ethiopian imperial dignity shall not at any time secede from the dynasty in respect of which it has been written into this constitution.
(6) The need for law arises so that any condition of life, as it is being improved, shall be on a well-ordered and trustworthy basis, for it is knowledge that ameliorates and moderates everything. So that the administration of Ethiopia in whatever sphere shall be led towards knowledge, it is right that we should always seek the selective acceptance of all knowledge in its various kinds.
(7) This constitution which We have established is not just idle fiction or discordant with the country’s customs, for it closely approaches that of the civilized and educated nations; in its preparation We had the help and ideas of Our nobles and Our officials and of other Ethiopian subjects whom We had chosen for their relevant knowledge.
Man makes a beginning, but it is God alone who has the power to accomplish things; We place Our trust in God that He may grant Us to bring into effect this constitution which We have set up.
Your Excellencies, foreign envoys and consuls, We thank you for having come to share Our joy and to honour with us this fortunate day on which We have established and signed the constitution.’
When We had finished this speech, Our Minister of the Pen read out the following text of the proclamation:
Subsequently, the constitution which had been prepared in writing was presented, and after We had signed it first, then, beginning with Our heir to the throne, the bishops and princes, ministers and notables and officials, all appended their signatures to it. The foreign diplomatic envoys signed for the sake of a memento, writing their names in a specially prepared register.
Electronic edition created and published online by members of the
February 4, 2017