What’s the justice system up to?
One of the major criticisms leveled against the justice system in Ethiopia is its lack of credibility in the eyes of the public. The distrust is by and large attributed to the non-existence of impartiality and transparency within the system. Many speak bitterly of the injustices perpetrated in the system and say that they would prefer not to turn to the courts unless they absolutely have to. Indeed one of the areas the government has openly acknowledged to be a source of public discontent is the justice system. The litany of grievances aired during the recent celebration of the Justice Week is further proof of the extent of the problem? Isn’t it high time therefore to enquire what’s with the justice system?
In a constitutional order the justice system is obliged to perform its duties independently and within its purview yet in a manner which respects the powers of the legislative and the executive branches of the government. If it is to carry out its functions free from executive interference it should be able to have the necessary human resource, budget, the latest technology and an environment which allows judges, prosecutors, attorneys and other support staff to discharge their duties in compliance with the ethical standards of their respective professions. Should the justice system enable citizens to have faith in the rule of lawso that they go about their daily business, ensures the equal treatment of everyone who wishes to have recourse to the law and sees to it that no one is above the law it would earn the trust and respect of the public at large. If the police, prosecutors, judges and prison officials are guided by the constitution, the laws setting out their powers and duties as well as their conscience the justice system is bound to be healthy. Unfortunately, the reality on the ground is quite opposite leading to a raft of knotty problems that are difficult to overcome.
A report the Federal Auditor General submitted to Parliament a fortnight ago revealed the prevalence of financial mismanagement in several government agencies in the 2015/2016financial year including, among others, unreconcilation of billions of birr, cash shortfall running into millions, non-compliance /with financial rules issued by the Council of Ministers, unlawful procurement, and failure to collect billions in tax. Though the institution had presented similar findingsfor a decade now, the reluctance to bring the offenders to justice has exacerbated the wastageof the nation’s resources. The report is said to have been forwarded to the Federal Attorney General. Nonetheless no visible measure has been taken despite the announcement that an immediate investigation would be launched into the institutions identified by the report. Although reportsare rife that dozens have been arrested the concerned body has not confirmed or denied them to date. Such opacity has not only rendered the public ignorant of what is going on in the country, but also deepens its mistrust of the government.
Yet another areaover which the justice system is excoriated is the fact that it is unabashedly in the pocket of the ruling party. Article 78 of the constitution establishes an independent judiciary. Article 79 goes on to provide that judicial powers, both at Federal and State levels, arevested in the courts, that courts of any level shall be free from any interference of influence of anygovernmental body, government official or from any other source and that judges shall exercise their functions in full independence and shall be directed solely by the law. Frankly speaking though does the spirit and the letter of the constitution seem count for something? If they did investigators and prosecutors who act with zeal in respect of certain politically sensitive matters should have lost sleep over the Auditor General’s report and other egregious crimes. One of the problem areasthat was raised at a national workshop during the Justice Week is that elements that have become fiefs unto themselves within the justice system (the police, prosecution office, courts and prisons) are culpable of acts of gross mismanagement that are inciting the public to violence. What does this mean? Doesn’t it constitute an utter disregard for the rule of law?
The blatant interference that jeopardizes the independence of the judiciary and law enforcement organs has led to a pervasive miscarriage of justice. From the investigation up to the sentencing stage the whole gamut of the administration of criminal justiceis characterized by grave misdeeds that have resulted in individuals who ought to be indicted evading prosecution and the innocent being subjected to unspeakable ordeals. Inasmuch as there are professionals in the justice sector who do their jobs responsibly there also abound thosewho pour cold water over the good work the former put in. The vast majority of the people have lost faith in the rule of law owing to the virtual absence of good governance in the country. The perception would have been entirely different had the wrongdoersbeen dealt with. Law-abiding victimized by the miscarriage of justice are compelled to turn to crime because of the abject failure of the justice system. Any public official that flouts the principles of transparency and accountability with a view to subvert the course of justice must be roundly condemned and held answerable to the fullest extent of the law.The consequences of turning a blind eye to the commission of a crime through the abuse of legitimate power are dire.
Special attention needs to be accorded to the country’s law-making process in order to transform the justice system and thereby guarantee respect for the rule of law.There is a world of difference between the rule of law and rule by law. If quality assurance is not given to the drafting of laws those with untowardmotives may well exploit loopholes in a mannerthat harms the masses. If the justice system operates in an environment beset by secrecy and unaccountability the national interest will be seriously imperiled. The justice system is in bad need of leaders possessing the requisite skills, experience and moral compass if it’s not to be hijacked by incompetent and corrupt elements that do not care an iota regarding the venting of bitter grievance over frequent instances of injustice.The shortcomings from which the system is suffering can no longer be swept under the carpet. In fact what is required of its leadership is to come completely clean. Complaints like “The police torture suspects during investigation; prosecutors are wont to throw the innocent in prison by pressing frivolous charges; judges are putting justice on the auction block and selling it to the highest bidder; prison officials routinely violate the rights of inmates” cannot be countenanced any more. Isn’t it sad to hear of such grievances at this time and age?Who stands to benefit when citizens are unable to go about their daily business normally on account of distrust in the justice system? How can democracy take root in this backdrop? All citizens troubled by this state of affairs should raise their voice high. Until then the justice system must clarify what it is up to.