In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Creating a Constitution for Eritrea
  • Bereket Habte Selassie (bio)

In May 1991, Eritrea achieved victory in its 30-year armed struggle against domination by Ethiopia. With the end of Ethiopian military occupation that spring, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) created a provisional government pending formal independence, which came two years later. The delay came at the insistence of the EPLF leadership, which wanted to hold an internationally observed referendum. The leadership was confident that the people would freely choose independence and thus show a hitherto skeptical or indifferent world that the independence struggle had full popular backing.

The result of the referendum of 23–25 April 1993 fully justified this confidence. In voting certified as fair by a UN observer mission, a 99.8 percent majority opted for full independence. Soon after, Eritrea became a UN member. Then there began a transition that culminated on 23 May 1997, when the Constituent Assembly ratified a new Constitution. This act capped three years of intense public debate and consultation, much of it overseen by the 50-member Constitutional Commission that was appointed, with myself as chairman, in March 1994. [End Page 164]

A law enacted soon after the gaining of military victory charged the government with the responsibility of “preparing and laying the foundation for a democratic system of government,” and called on the National Assembly (the transitional parliament) to create a constitutional commission “comprising experts and other citizens of proven ability to make a contribution to the process of constitution making . . . [by] drafting a constitution and organizing popular participation in such a process.”

Among the other laws that the government passed in order to display its commitment to democracy and constitutional rule, one of the most important provided for the establishment of regional governments. Moreover, the EPLF party congress that in February 1994 renamed the movement the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) also adopted a National Charter that clearly and precisely expressed a commitment to democratic and constitutional ideals. The Constitutional Commission used this Charter as a benchmark of consensus and hence a point of departure for national debate on the constitution.

The work of the Commission was guided by a ten-member Executive Committee (drawn from the larger membership), also under my chairmanship. Commission members represented a cross-section of Eritrean society, including 21 women, the majority of whom had been liberation fighters. Each of Eritrea’s nine ethnic groups was represented, as were the business and professional communities. The Commission’s mandate was to run for three years, and its work was divided into a logistical phase (which occupied the rest of 1994), followed by three substantive phases. The law called for the draft produced by the Commission to be subjected to parliamentary approval, after which there would be further public debate on the approved draft. In the second phase, the Commission would prepare a final draft, taking into account public opinion where deemed necessary. In the third phase, this last draft was then to go to parliament and, through it, finally, to a Constituent Assembly representing the nation at large.

The Eritrean Experience

After setting up offices, raising money, and holding introductory seminars, the Commission began its substantive operations by compiling a list of 23 questions, the most important of which may be summarized as follows:

  1. 1. What lessons, if any, do historical experiences offer?

  2. 2. Do such experiences yield helpful models or guidelines?

  3. 3. Is it desirable, or practicable, to use models: are they transferable like some technology?

  4. 4. What are the values and goals that a nation needs most [End Page 165] emphatically to promote and protect? Should these be incorporated in the constitution, and if so, how?

  5. 5. What form of government would be best suited for Eritrea?

  6. 6. What degree of centralization should there be?

  7. 7. Should there be an official language, or languages? If so, which ones should be chosen, and why?

There were also some more specific questions, pertaining to such technicalities as the length of the document and the degree of detail needed in the section on human rights. The Commission reached a consensus at the outset that it should not rely on any ready-made...