Courts that duly exercise the powers vested in them and properly discharge the obligations entrusted to them as well safeguard the rights of citizens and the guarantors of the rule of law. If they fail to carry out what they have been mandated to do, however, the public will lose confidence in the constitutional order in place and the national and public interest will be endangered. Needless to say we are not of the opinion that there are no courts or judges in Ethiopia that are not guided solely by the constitution and the law and that deserve our appreciation. Generally speaking, though, our courts are not discharging their duties as they should; they are not properly upholding the law.
As a nation we find ourselves in a state which compels us to call for courts to be subject to a major overhaul. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find a court which delivers the justice that the public seeks. The major flaws characterizing our courts can be classified under four major categories. The first is corruption. Of all institutions it is courts that need to be squeaky clean. If they are to contribute their share in combating corruption by putting behind bars those found complicit in this cancerous practice, they have to be above any and all reproach in this regard. But unfortunately they are mired deep in corruption and consequently have ironically become themselves sources of grave miscarriages of justice. Consequently, the very foundation on which the rule of law and democracy are laid could very well be shaken to the core without a concerted intervention on the part of all stakeholders.
The second is weak capacity. The judiciary in Ethiopia is seriously hobbled by lack of capacity. Even if courts are not afflicted by such ethical misconducts as accepting bribes and being influenced by malicious motives and even if they desire to act with honesty and integrity, this shortcoming is thwarting them from executing their duties ably. Dispensing justice is a responsibility that demands possession of competence of the highest caliber; it is not something every Tom, Dick and Harry can do. The widespread miscarriage of justice owing to the dearth of seasoned and capable judges has induced a hemorrhaging of public confidence in the judiciary that will take it quite a while to regain.
The third area where courts have been found wanting is the questionable state of their independence. The principle of separation of power between the three branches of government and the non-interference of one in the domain of the others is an accepted norm in all democracies as well as under the Ethiopian constitution. The reality in Ethiopia though is far from this. The executive routinely meddles, both overtly and subtly, in the affairs of the judiciary with intent to secure decisions that are in its favor or harass political adversaries. This unwarranted interference and intimidation of courts and judges, which has been long-running, is undermining the judiciary’s independence and deterring it from exercising its authority with confidence. After all, a timid court cannot be the bulwark of justice. It should be noted here that it’s not only the executive that exerts an undue influence on courts; some individuals are also perpetrating acts that undermine the neutrality of courts.
The fourth category is the inaction of key decision makers on addressing the challenges besetting the judiciary. There is no problem that cannot be surmounted if the desire and the political will exist. Therefore, there is no earthly reason why the problems stifling the courts in Ethiopia cannot be overcome. What is needed to do is to take ruthless measures those guilty of committing misconducts, to enhance the capacity of courts as well as to put a stop to meddling and to punish those who try to arm-twist the judiciary into doing their bidding. Of course, all this needs to be done by the book and by the legally authorized authorities. If the leaders of Parliament, the executive and the judiciary were all to do their share and provide a strong leadership, our courts would be spared from all these problems. Sadly, with the exception of nascent attempts intended to ensure their independence these institutions are not taking the required bold steps, exacerbating the problems further. This deplorable state of affairs is prompting many to ask if and when the courts would be able to fulfill the public’s yearning for justice in the true sense of the word. Hence, it is incumbent up on the responsible government institutions to take the appropriate corrective measures posthaste. In short it is high time for all concerned, but particularly more so for the legislature and the executive, to undertake a rigorous reform aimed at ridding Ethiopian courts of corruption and other ethical misconducts, enhancing their capacity as well as assuring their independence from any and all acts of interference. The sooner the better!