Judicial Reform Pursuits in Ethiopia, 2002-2015: Steady Concrete Achievements - versus - Promise Fatigue

Author:Elias N. Stebek
Position:Elias N. Stebek (LL.B, LL.M, PhD), Associate Professor, St. Mary's University, School of Graduate Studies.
Judicial Reform Pursuits in Ethiopia,
Steady Concrete Achievements - versus - Promise Fatigue
Elias N. Stebek
Judicial reform constitutes a sub-program within the Justice System Reform
Program (JSRP) which is underway in Ethiopia since 2002. Its targets have
been consistently articulated in the 2005 Comprehensive Justice System
Reform Program, the First Growth and Transformation Plan and various
strategic plans. However, the outcome and impact as, inter alia, manifested in
public trust and confidence seem to be declining. The core problems in the
Ethiopian justice system (including the judiciary) that were identified in the
2005 Comprehensive Justice System Reform Program were (a) gaps in
accessibility and responsiveness to the needs of the poor, (b) inadequacy of
“serious steps to tackle corruption, abuse of power and political interference in
the administration of justice,” and (c) inadequate funding which “aggravates
most deficiencies of the administration of justice”. As these problems still
persist, I argue that future judicial reform pursuits require a new path which
facilitates court-level and institution-level reform through grassroots
empowerment including enhanced independence and resource allocation.
Subject to justice sector reform harmonization, there should be an independent
judicial reform which is not conflated with other components of justice sector
reform. It is also argued that justice sector reform should not be subsumed
under the Good Governance Reform Cluster which should rather be limited to
macro-level harmonization of reform pursuits. In the absence of such measures,
the various targets, aspirations and pledges for judicial reform may eventually
end up in promise fatigue and regression.
Key terms
Judicial reform, judiciary, judicial independence, rule of law, GTP, Ethiopia
DOI http://dx.doi.org/10.4314/mlr.v9i2.1
Elias N. Stebek (LL.B, LL.M, PhD), Associate Professor, St. Mary’s University, School of
Graduate Studies. I thank the anony mous assessors for their comments and feedback.
Most sections of the earlier version of this article were part of an unpublished research
paper titled “Assessment of Ethiopia’s Justice Sector Reform Components in GTP I and
Draft GTP II” (preliminary version: dated 30 November 2015) which was submitted to
Ethiopian Lawyers Association (ELA). I thank ELA for the opportunity, and I also thank
the Civil Society Fund II Programme of the European Union (EU CSF II) for financing the
research including the Panel Discussion conducted on December 11, 2015.
216 MIZAN LAW REVIEW, Vol. 9, No.2 December 2015
Development pursuits envisage a predictable, coherent, efficient, effective and
accessible justice system which, inter alia, ensures contract enforcement,
(clearly defined, secure and easily transferable) property rights, access to justice
and a normative and institutional setting in the context of good governance. The
justice system is constituted of a legal and judicial system which are inter-
related and whose performance and effectiveness are inter-dependent. “An
efficient legal and judicial system which delivers quick and quality justice
reinforces the confidence of people in the rule of law, facilitates investment and
production of wealth, enables better distributive justice, promotes basic human
rights and enhances accountability and democratic governance”.1
The 2005 Baseline Study Report of Ethiopia’s Ministry of Capacity Building,
i.e. the Comprehensive Justice System Reform Program (CJSRP) 2 states four
core components and a fifth crosscutting component of comprehensive Justice
Sector Reform. They are (a) lawmaking and revision; (b) the judiciary; (c) law
enforcement which includes prosecutors, the police and the penitentiary system;
(d) legal education and research; and (e) information flow within and outside the
justice system.
This article is an overview of post-2002 reform pursuits in one of the
components of the justice system, i.e., the judiciary. The first section highlights
the political and economic factors that influence judicial empowerment.
Sections 2 and 3 assesses the judicial reform pursuits since 2002 which are
embodied in JSRP, in Ethiopia’s Growth and Transformation Plans and in the
strategic plan of federal courts for the GTP II period. The fourth section
compares the projects under the judicial reform sub-program that was underway
during the GTP I period with the projects that relate to the judiciary in the
strategic plan of the Good Governance Reform Cluster for the GTP II period.
Section 5 briefly indicates the independence of the judiciary in a democratic
developmental state, followed by the sixth section which highlights current
public perception and trust in the judiciary. The article can inspire further
research on specific themes related with judicial reform.
1 Report and Recommendations of the Wor king Group for Department of Justice for the
12th Five-Year Plan (2012-2017), Department of Justice, Ministry of Law and Justice,
Government of India, September 2011.
2 Ministry of Capacity Building, Justice System Reform Program Office (2005),
Comprehensive Justice System Reform Program Baseline Study Report, February 2005.
Judicial Reform Pursuits in Ethiopia, 2002-2015 217
1. Factors toward Judicial Empowerment
1.1 External-driven –versus- largely domestic judicial reform
The law and development projects and pursuits of the 1960s primarily focused
on legal education and the modernization of laws toward social engineering.
They were meant to facilitate the ‘modernization’ of developing countries
through the path undergone by the Global North. The subsequent thinking since
the 1980s has espoused wider perspectives such as rule of law reform, judicial
reform and governance. As reforms that relate to rule of law including judicial
reform envisage political will and the necessary domestic factors for their
realization, most of the pledges and declarations expressed in developing
countries do not match up with real achievements.
As Santos observes, the USAlD identifies four generations of law
programmes which prevailed since the early 1960s. “The first generation
focused on legal education and law reform; the second, on basic needs legal aid;
the third, on court reform”.3 The fourth generation “is the most ambitious and
political in the Agency's terms because it encompasses all the concerns of the
three previous generations of programmes and broadens their scope while
including them in the design and implementation of country democracy
Santos recalls that “the semi-peripheral countries of Europe, Portugal and
Spain lived under an authoritarian regime for four decades” during which “the
judicial system was either reduced to an appendage of the government –in
politically sensitive areas such as political crimes and labour disputes– or kept a
low-profile independence and remained utterly isolated from society”.5
Although the democratic transition of these countries in the 1970s brought about
“large institutional changes in the judicial system”, it “took a decade for the
courts to vindicate a more active role in society”.6 Santos notes that the nature
and outcomes of judicial reform in the semi-peripheral countries in Europe was
different from the judicial reform outcomes in the “semi-peripheral countries of
Central and Eastern Europe” after their democratic transitions in the late 1980s.7
The reform of courts in Southern Europe was mainly domestic, which
reintegrates the judicial system with “the legal culture and the democratic
3 Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2002). Toward a New Legal Common Sense: Law,
Globalization, and Emancipation, Cambridge University Press, p. 326 (citing USAID
1994, p. 18).
4 Ibid.
5 Id., p. 320.
6 Id. p, 321.
7 Id., pp. 321 ff.

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