From the Political Frontier to the Legal Frontier
July 15, 2007

Recently, Ethiopia’s parliament is reported to have approved the country’s 2007-2008 budget. The process comes every year, and this approval isn’t special in that sense. However, what makes this approval unique in the country’s attempts at following a multiparty political course is that the budget was approved with no vote against it. Arguably, Ethiopia’s current parliament is the most diverse in terms of multiparty representation. Therefore, a unanimous decision in such diversely multiparty parliament about such a big budget by the country’s standard is unprecedented in Ethiopia.

Perhaps, we can fairly argue that this is a meaningful signal that shows a political breakthrough in the country’s history in general and since the start of the nearly half a century old Ethiopian Student Movement in particular. In both cases, an expectation of unanimity on anything without any external pressure would be a rare political commodity, if it ever existed at all. One would hope that all parties concerned would build upon such understanding and show a farsighted political direction to the people, the country, and the embattled region. Perhaps, because of such rare found agreement on certain issues, it may be time for them to drop the blanket ruling party and opposition party labels and adopt names reflective of their ideologies so that the people may not get confused at the suggestion by their names that one group always rules and the other camp always opposes.

If the mentioned decision is any sign of improvement in Ethiopia’s political frontier, it hasn’t come about easily. Suffice to say here that much sacrifice has been paid for this by various and diverse parties. If this is something to build upon, and we can’t see why not, a guarantee for what has been built and what will be built must be in place. Here is where the legal frontier comes into picture.

A close observation of Ethiopia’s justice system reveals an acute lack of a properly functioning system in the legal frontier. As the next year’s budget was being deliberated upon in Ethiopia’s parliament, the leadership of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), one of the main alternative parties that won many seats in Ethiopia’s 2005 legislative elections, was being tried. This leadership is reportedly not defending the cases against it because it is often reported that it doesn’t recognize the court, and considers the trial politically motivated. The court is reported to have passed guilty verdict on their case, which could potentially lead to the death penalty. On the other hand, there have been rumors that the accused have asked for pardon from the government, and there are expectations that the accused would be pardoned and released.

Most reasonable people feel that there needs to be reconciliation between the government and the accused. Such understanding between the various parties would only make the upcoming Ethiopian Millennium celebration symbolism even more. What the coming days would unfold remain to be seen. However, there are many already who are clearly stating that Ethiopia’s justice system is far from being an independent institution.

Seye Abraha, a former top leadership of the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF), and Ethiopia’s former defense minister who has been in jail for about six years, indicated that the government he helped creating ended up victimizing him and his immediate family members because of the lack of an independent justice system. Birtukan Mideksa, a former judge who oversaw Seye’s case early on and reportedly ruled to release him on bail, became a member and the Vice President of the CUD. As a leadership member of this party, she was taken to the same jail place as Seye from where he was released last week.

It is clear that the Ethiopian legal frontier is the area that needed more focus in the past and still needs a lot more in the future. Perhaps, it is about time the political parties and activists focus on the legal system in Ethiopia and discuss about how to make it a properly functioning justice system. One would only hope that some day, the Ethiopian parliament would appoint the leaders of the justice system in Ethiopia through a unanimous vote, or something close to it. If they have done it on the money, why can’t they do it on the law? That will happen when there are independent thinkers in the positions of legal profession in Ethiopia and when the political representatives start to trust the independently thinking legal professionals than their sense of insecurity on matters pertaining to law.