In Ethiopia’s justice sector, Tamiru Wondmagegnehu is a colossal figure. He has been working for fifty years and has witnessed four regimes in addition to becoming a walking library. He has a master’s degree in legal studies and international law.
He started out as a judge under the imperial regime and eventually worked his way up to become the vice president of the Supreme Court, Special Court, and High Court under the socialist Derg regime. However, he was detained along with three other Supreme Court justices when the EPRDF seized power.
Following his release from prison, he founded the Tameru Wondm Agegnehu Law Office, which rose to prominence in the nation. Ashenafi Endale Of The Reporter sat with Tamiru to talk about Ethiopia’s legal system.
The Reporter: What similarities and differences can you find between the legal system, the institutional makeup of the judiciary, and its operations under the imperial rule, the socialist Derg, the EPRDF, and the current administration?
Tamiru Wondmagegnehu: The Ethiopian legal system can be divided into four periods: before 1900, between 1900 and 1941, between 1941 and 1974, and since 1974.
Since Derg, we have been ruled by autocrats akin to the French Revolution. Under these regimes, the courts have been altering their characteristics and duties.
Ethiopia’s triumph at Adwa falls under the first category because it is known around the world and has received attention. Four diplomatic consulates started operating right away in Ethiopia. Ethiopia became the only nation of color to be acknowledged under international law.
Following the 1648 Westphalia treaty, Europe came to the conclusion that there was no other nation state than Europe and decided to establish a European nation state. Therefore, only European nation-states were subject to international law before 1900.
According to international law, Muslims and Blacks in particular were not eligible. That is why Europe began its colonization of the western hemisphere, including its policy of rushing to conquer Africa.
No international law imposed sanctions on Europe. They consequently run ferociously to satisfy their need for resources and markets. Ethiopia was the only African nation at the time to have created its own state boundary.
In circulars he sent to England, Germany, France, and Italy, Emperor Menelik described and mapped Ethiopia’s active boundaries. Ethiopia did not draw its border with other African governments, but rather with European invaders. At the period, as to this day, Ethiopia was surrounded by European colonial governments.
What modifications were made to the foundational rules of justice by the regimes?
Fetha Negest, a 500-year-old written code of justice in Ethiopia, was created under Zerayacob’s rule. However, the zufan chilot (the king’s court) was the only institution at the top until 1900. All the officials of the kings judge matters according to their ranks.
Foreigners began to enter Ethiopia after 1900, and Fetha Negest was no longer useful for adjusting to modern rules. The first cabinet was founded in 1900 by emperor Menelik.
The emperor was under pressure from the foreigners, particularly the French ambassador, to create a consular court. Foreign judges were therefore permitted to sit as judges alongside Ethiopian justices after 1900. The consulate court operated from 1900 until 1941.
Emperor Haileselasie I disliked the consulate court system when he returned from exile in 1941. Thus, in 1941, he issued the Negarit Gazette’s founding proclamation for the first time. The second Negarit, which announced the development of a modern legal system in Ethiopia, was released that same year.
Haileselasie gave the order for English professionals to set up police and court institutions in Ethiopia, which were established at the supreme, upper, Awraja, and woreda levels.
The head of the Supreme Court was a foreigner. Experts received their education elsewhere. However, all of the judges on the supreme and higher courts were foreigners. This persisted up until 1965, when Niguse Fithawok, the first Ethiopian, assumed the presidency of the Supreme Court.
The final judge during the emperor’s reign was Hailessilase. After the emperor was deposed, there was a void. Thus, in 1987, the cassation bench was formally constituted.
I served as one of the justices on the cassation bench during the Derg administration.
Derg didn’t interfere with the system of civil courts. However, the government formed the military court system in addition to the already-existing civil court system. It never presented its cases before a civilian court; instead, it either executes its victims immediately or takes them to a military court.
Judges were therefore shielded from political interference.
The judges were fully removed when the EPRDF came to power. It stocked the legal system with cadres and individuals who could advance EPRDF interests. This persisted up until the 2018 inauguration of the present administration. There are several things that the present administration is working to fix.
What aspect of Ethiopia’s legal system is most lacking?
The practice of law is not based on reason but rather on experience. Justice must be acrobatic, just like life. Every judge gains knowledge from the rulings of earlier judges. Of course, some claim that this only applies to “common law” and not “civil law.”
Ethiopia adopts a system of “eclectic law.” This indicates that the principles were taken from several legal systems. Ethiopia’s legal system, however, is a little unclear.
On the one hand, we have the civil law cassation bench. However, a cassation bench’s ruling becomes law, and all courts below the bench must follow the sentence. The model is now comparable to common law.
The Ethiopian justice system has been disrupted by this difference in legal systems. Continuity refers to the use of prior judgments as standards for upcoming cases. Continuity is crucial.
Continuity provides predictability and confidence, two important advantages. Your win-loss ratio must be accurately known before you file a lawsuit. All of the stepping stone articles are already familiar to you. The courts would be unable to accomplish their jobs if every case required an interpretation of the law. A predictable life cannot be ensured by a judicial system like this.
In both the United States and Europe, attorneys provide clients with percentages indicating their odds of winning and losing. Ethiopia is the only nation without consistently applied laws. The main flaw in Ethiopia’s justice system is this.
The court systems and Ethiopian Bar Association must cooperate on this.
The Ethiopian justice system’s organizational structure is the second significant shortcoming. Ethiopia’s legal system was totally centralized, like one sun, one sky above everyone, prior to the EPRDF.
Ethiopia was divided by the EPRDF into nine different states, and that number is currently rising. There was discussion about how to reorganize the legal system after the EPRDF came to power and Kifle Wodajo was selected the leader of a group of specialists.
Some contend that, like prior governments, the justice system must be centralized. But the head of the Indian Supreme Court, Bagwati, present to offer advice, contended that Ethiopia cannot afford a decentralized court system. Others, however, believe that since the EPRDF formed a federal government, it must be decentralized.
Finally, the regional states and nine distinct court systems with nine supreme courts were approved by Parliament.
Ethiopia became the second nation after the US to implement a decentralized judicial system.
Under the US Supreme Court, there are 52 supreme courts. Because of this, America is the nation with the most lawyers. It is a new jurisdiction every time you enter a US state, thus the lawyers have to learn numerous laws in one nation.
The American federal structure is imitated by many countries, including Germany, but not its legal system. A decentralized court system was rejected by Nigeria, India, and many other federal governments because it was too expensive.
A decentralized court system appears advantageous at first glance. However, it is also expensive in terms of resources, both human and governmental. All we can do is hope and pray that Ethiopian leaders will be able to change this and unify the legal system.
How can the two main bottlenecks be eliminated at this time?
The constitution ties everything together. Ethiopia’s judicial system, however, can be centralized despite the fact that the structure is a federal one. India and Nigeria are two prime examples.
Currently, if a lawyer in Ethiopia wants to practice in many regional states, he must obtain a license from each of the regional states. However, if Ethiopia’s justice system is centralized, all of the regional states use the same article. A single license allows a lawyer to practice law across the entire nation.
In comparison to a federation, Ethiopia’s legal system is more like a confederation of states. Such a system is unique to the US, and only they can afford it.
Ethiopia is a small nation when compared to the size of America. Therefore, a decentralized justice system is not needed. It is incredibly difficult to reform and modernize Ethiopia’s judicial system. There may still be ineffective judicial systems in remote areas of the nation even after creating a centralized one.
How can the present border disputes with neighboring nations be resolved given that Ethiopia’s boundary was shaped by colonial powers?
England, France, and Italy all had boundary accords with Emperor Menelik. However, agreement does not imply demarcation. Ethiopia naturally agreed with England but not with Sudan. The current issue with Sudan stems from this.
The Prime Minister of Sudan, Alnimeri, and Haileselasie got along well. Just before the emperor was ousted in 1972, they were about to start demarcating the border. I hope Sudan and Ethiopia will start the delineation process right away.
Emperor Yohannes pleaded with England in the 1870s for assistance in keeping Masawa under control. Even though Yohannes assisted them in rescuing English troops in Sudan who were being surrounded by Mahdists, England refused. Meles Zenawi voluntarily gave over Assab a century later.
This is a huge contradiction.
But the situation with Sudan is becoming increasingly complicated.
As long as the 1972 agreement is in force, it can be resolved. The issue is that the borderlands’ value has increased recently. Ethiopia’s biggest issue is the absence of a succession plan whenever a new regime takes power.
Haileselassie came to an accord and was about to draw the line with Sudan. Sadly, Derg surpassed Hailesselasie. Derg, however, started over after stumbling everything the emperor had begun.
No Ethiopian administration adds on the successes of the preceding administration. Whether it be with the legal system, politics, development, or anything else, this is the root of practically all of Ethiopia’s problems.
Others have suggested Ethiopia may be able to reach the Red Sea via Ras Dumera, a thin free line that runs between Eritrea and Djibouti border.
Africa is home to fourteen landlocked nations. There is no other nation, however, that is as big, and as populous, as Ethiopia. The thirteen African nations that were already landlocked begged the UN to intervene before Ethiopia became landlocked.
Aid couldn’t get to these landlocked African nations. Even when a machine is replaced by a different brand, spare parts still come in. Because perishable goods take longer to reach the landlocked countries, importing them was unimaginable.
In order to negotiate between the African states, the UN tasked Yusuf Ahmed, at the time Ethiopia’s transport minister. This occurred under the Derg, shortly after which Ethiopia became a landlocked country.
A Kenyan academic once stated that Africa shouldn’t have more than 20 ports-accessible nations. He claimed that because even tiny governments are permitted to be countries, landlocked nations are created, dividing Africa into 55 countries.
However, the AU is introducing a very efficient procedure to grant all African nations access to ports. This will become a reality once the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is completely operational.
Of course, until Ethiopia uses them, the ports in Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia, and other countries on the horn of Africa stay inactive. Masawa Port was undoubtedly a crucial tactic in WWII, acting as a stepping stone for the allied troops’ advance into Eastern Europe.
Currently, Ethiopia is attempting to enter Berbera port, which is positive.
Haileselasie made every effort to integrate Eritrea into Ethiopia in order to get access to the port. Assab port is obviously useless if there is a blockade of any type at the Suez Canal or Babel Mandab. Ethiopia is better off using Berbera port. There is nothing anyone can do because Berbera is the gateway to the ocean.
How can Ethiopia’s efforts to secure ports be impacted by Somaliland’s de facto status and lack of recognition?
The issues in the Horn of Africa can only be solved by peace. The horn has a sizable population. The chaos persists if this force is not used to development. Countries in the Horn of Africa must work together for the benefit of all.
The fewer jobs we produce, the more unstable we become.
Why do young people join OLF-shene, TPLF, or other armed organizations when they could get a respectable job, a home, a car, and vacation packages? Everyone wants to see equal development because they want to see their own country prosper.
Progress can lead to peace.
Due to the absence of an independent African state at the time, Haileselasie was banished to England. For that matter, there was no state.
Many people agree that Africa’s instability stems from the distribution of the same ethnic groups among its various states. Can African countries redraw the borders that colonial forces drew and reestablish nation states?
Ethiopia was at the vanguard of African decolonization in 1963, when the Organization of African Unity was established in Cairo. The main issue when the UN decided to decolonize was how to recognize and define the borders of African states. War was imminent amongst Africans if they had to trace frontiers back in time.
The UN and OAU ultimately opted to keep things as they were. In other words, borders and states begin at the location of the colonial boundary.
Each nation in Africa has territorial claims. We can’t, however, go back in time and fix it.
Ethiopia once ruled a sizable region, including the modern-day nation of Yemen, during the administration of King Kaleb in the fourth century. But we can’t claim it now.
The answer is that by uniting Africa through the AfCFTA, the AU’s economic integration agenda can eliminate the need for political frontiers.
Of course, Ethiopia is the nation that will be most negatively impacted by the status quo. The Congo, a sizable nation abundant in natural resources, was about to become landlocked. However, they were able to enter the Atlantic Ocean by Kabinda that was incredibly small. By the way, Congo provided the uranium for the bomb dropped on Japan.
A little opening between Djibouti and the Eritrean border allowed Ethiopia to reach the Red Sea. However, nobody is willing.
A serious hunger broke out during the Derg, and Nordic nations wanted to send aid cargoes. However, there was no way for the supplies to reach Ethiopia. Nobody would have protested if the Derg had taken one of the ports in the Horn of Africa at the time by force.
Ethiopia’s survival will depend on how its ports are handled in the current context of rising import volumes and growing population. It will either receive a peaceful response or a harsh one. Ethiopia must have a port, if only to use the congested route between Eritrea and the port of Djibouti.
The Ethiopian government also has to improve diplomatic connections with the surrounding nations so that they will consent to us establishing our own port.
Do you believe that Ethiopia’s conflict and ongoing instability are a result of the country’s power structure?
Ethiopia’s primary issue is underdevelopment as a result of missing out on the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the Agrarian Revolution, and the Technical Productivity Periods of the middle Ages.
According to Gibbon, who lived two hundred years ago, “the Ethiopians slumbered for over a thousand years, oblivious of the world by which they were forgotten.”
Of course, since we remained closed, we were not colonized. The mountains of Ethiopia were impenetrable to any force. Due in part to the progress that colonizers sparked, several African nations outperformed us.
Ethiopia nevertheless continues to be rich in resources and treasures. The only nation in Africa with a written past and its own alphabet is Ethiopia. 80 percent of Ethiopia’s bibles were completed and authored in the sixth century. At the time, the western bible was still in its infancy.
Additionally, Ethiopia was crucial in the spread of Islam and Christianity. Ethiopia was the destination of the first Hijira, not to Meca and Medina.
Unfortunately, because we were isolated for a millennium in between, Ethiopia’s civilization did not maintain its early impetus. We woke up when the world is already way ahead of us. We were still plowing the ground with oxen and yolk when Ethiopia awoke once more.
Youth in rural communities no longer have access to land for farming as a result of the land policy. Therefore, everyone is moving to the cities. Not only are Ethiopian towns crowded, but the proportion of farmers is out of proportion to the country’s growing consumerism.
Unemployment is widespread. There is a shortage of farmland. Ethiopia’s current issue stems from this. For the first time, PM Abiy Ahmed is attempting to spread large-scale agriculture to lowland areas in addition to the rain-based, often small-scale farming in highland areas.
What do you think of the administrations ongoing judicial system reform?
We voluntarily submitted to Ethiopia’s complicated legal system. One institution cannot bring about justice system reform. Huge amounts of public resources are being used by the decentralized justice system.
Ethiopia cannot support a decentralized judiciary when dozens of regional entities each have their own legal framework. This has to be combined.
Abiy recently complained to the parliament about how corrupt the legal system and police are. A few judges have been furious. It is well known that some judges accept bribes. Even judges of the top court experience this.
It is incorrect to hold the PM responsible in a legal system as tainted as Ethiopia’s. Though it is a challenging undertaking, we must find solutions to fix the issue rather than pointing the finger at one another.
The Court has the most authority in any nation that wants to advance. The future of the nation, business, and daily life depend on the Court.
What big setback do you believe has occurred since PM Abiy came into power? Was the transition peaceful?
We must research the causes of our ups and downs. Ethiopia has not done a very good job at nation-building. There are distinct state borders in Europe. However, the societies are very interconnected and quite similar. They are similar in terms of culture, languages, and universities. But the Ethiopian society has been segregated from one another, living in separate cultural enclaves.
Social media is currently dividing our society even more and pitting everyone against one another. Nobody is accepting accountability. We have much work to do in order to build a civilized society.
Ethiopia’s unemployment and unrest don’t surprise me because I am aware of our incapacity to provide quality labor and excellent jobs.
Five years ago, nation-building and good governance were the social movement’s top demands. Today, the issue has expanded to include the state’s continued existence. The student movement during Haileselasie began with a “class struggle” and concluded with ethnic politics in a similar manner. Why do political groups in Ethiopia consistently fail to achieve their goals?
Due to the students’ limited exposure to other ideas and the “class struggles” popularity in Cold War-era politics, the students’ movement adopted it. However, the class battle diminished and gave way to an ethnic conflict, which Meles Zenawi pursued.
Many Ethiopian academics today, particularly those in the diaspora, believe that ethno-nationalism poses a threat to the state’s very survival.
This indicates that the nation-building process in the country has been derailed by ethnic identity politics, which is having an impact on both the nation-building process and the state’s very existence.
Nationalism is not necessary for Ethiopia. The United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, and even Italy are examples of nation states. The US, however, is not a nation-state. Europeans make up half of the American population.
One hundred years ago, Ethiopia became a nation-state. However, due to a number of criteria not being met, Ethiopia was unable to become a nation-state.
Many academics, particularly those from Addis Ababa University, continue to vehemently inform the media that Ethiopia needs to become a nation-state.
Talking about nation states now is a farce. Instead of a nation state, Ethiopia needs to be a patriotic state. Everyone in their own ethnic group is patriotic. Every Ethiopian, including Oromo, Kembata, Amhara, and everyone else is a patriot. That is what the United States is.
Everybody is present in America, including Latinos, Chinese, Indians, French, and Blacks. However, they never give up on the United States, which is their nation. Although they are patriotic states, they are not nation-states. To advance a patriotic state, we must work together.
In Gojam, there is no such thing as a pure Amhara. Every ethnic group has ancestors from different ethnic groups. Only our names reflect our racial origins.
Ethno-nationalists and ethio-nationalists swing back and forth in Ethiopia’s politics all the time. This constantly sparks conflict and a struggle for dominance. How can we transform it into a nation of patriots?
The constitution may impose restrictions on it. It can be written into the constitution if everyone agrees to it. Otherwise, Ethiopia will experience civil conflicts and revolutions.
Many people concur that the majority of Ethiopia’s issues can be resolved if the present constitution is altered. Do you agree?
It should be altered, in my opinion. Both educated and uneducated individuals are condemning PM Abiy for sticking with the current constitution. The constitution is frequently compared to an Ark. If the public does not believe in the law, it is just a piece of paper.
Therefore, if a carefully considered constitution is substituted, Ethiopia’s issues can be resolved.
Human rights advocates and even government representatives claim Ethiopia’s judicial system, especially the court system, is unprepared to handle cases involving human rights violations. They advise Ethiopia to start accepting the jurisdiction of extra-national judicial systems as a result. This means that Ethiopia must recognize the authority of regional and international tribunals over any violations of human rights.
Does doing so undermine Ethiopia’s sovereignty?
Only when the executive, judicial, and legislative branches operate in accordance with the check and balance principle can Ethiopia’s justice system be said to be in operation.
Judges are only answerable to the law. Because I criticized the Derg’s military court system, I was removed from my court position. Since 1948, Ethiopia has fully embraced the rule of law. Judges must, however, exercise their authority.
Courts have full authority to resolve any dispute, with the exception of arbitration disputes. Ethiopian courts have the authority to adjudicate matters involving violations of human rights, particularly at the high courts and Supreme Court.
The establishment of a different type of court system in Ethiopia must be spelled out in the constitution. For human rights matters, we can set up special benches, but we cannot establish a separate court or division.
The UN human rights commission is currently requesting entry to the country in order to examine human rights abuses that occurred during the Tigray war. The agreements and treaties were approved by Ethiopia. What would happen if Ethiopia resisted?
We have observed that the west consciously wants to harm Ethiopia in numerous instances. Since the founding of the League of Nations, this has been the case. Sanctions are being imposed on Ethiopia.
Mussolini would not have been able to attack Ethiopia if only the US had imposed gasoline sanctions on Italy. Because the US continued to supply fuel to Italy at the time, Mussolini resumed the invasion.
Ethiopia was brought up thirteen times in UN Security Council discussions last year.
International law thus serves as a vehicle for both justice and abuse.
The US regularly uses the UN to impose sanctions on nations it wants to destroy.
Never should Ethiopia yield to outside pressure.
Ethiopia has ratified a number of international human rights accords and conventions. By the way, Theodore Roosevelt’s wife was the one who first proposed the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
It forbids the use of cruel or inhumane punishment. Ethiopia had a death penalty at the time. The emperor delayed ratifying the UDHR rather than repealing the death penalty law. Ethiopia, however, is the first country in Africa to sign the deal.
Politics is at play right now, not just a general worry about human rights abuses. Before authorizing foreign investigators and acknowledging their jurisdiction, it is imperative to exhaust all domestic options. Extra-national venues may be taken into consideration if there is no statute allowing human rights victims to appear in court or if the court is unable to uphold the law.
America commits to defending democracy. Democracy is the majority’s way of ruling. Therefore, by simply agreeing, the majority can flip the truth on its head.
Can the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court call the executive to inquire of him or her? How are checks and balances made?
The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court lacks any judicial or executive authority. The president only serves as the court’s speaker. The president only responds when asked.
By the way, a judge on the Supreme Court is distinct from a judge in a lower court.