Restructuring the justice system always demands an open mind

The incessant experimentation the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has been undertaking over the past 25 years has led to the commission of a series of mistakes that cost the nation dear. A proclamation which re-organized the executive organs of the federal government was enacted at the beginning of October last year when the Prime Minister appointed his cabinet. A new draft bill re-organizing justice sector organs was tabled last week barely six months after the law came into force. Over 20 pieces of legislation have been passed in the past 25 years with the aim of strengthening and re-organizing federal executive organs. The justice sector, in particular, leads in the number of re-organizations it has undergone. This is a result of lack of open-mindedness.

What is the problem? Does the country lack the necessary experts, experiences that are anchored in its unique conditions or friends willing to lend a supporting hand?  It certainly has an abundance of legal professionals. However, it is difficult to come by with someone who speaks his mind, tables valuable ideas and generally engages in a constructive dialogue owing to a pervasive atmosphere of fear and aversion to listen to each other. The level of polarization is such that it renders it practically impossible to move forward the nation-building process. Hence, caution needs to be exercised to assure that the re-organization of the justice sector does not undermine the very foundation it is built on. This can be accomplished mainly by displaying the willingness to be receptive to diverse opinions.

The government has said on several occasions that some of the laws it enacts draw on the experience of different countries and stakeholders are involved in the drafting process. But it hastens to amend or jettison them when the laws turn out to be unworkable or cause havoc. The draft bill re-organizing justice sector organs is said to have adapted best practices from five countries. Has the relevance of the experience of these countries in terms of the objective reality in Ethiopia been properly assessed?Was there an effort to look more to promising African countries than Western nations? Why are local professionals with a proven track record prevented from contributing their share in the authoring of laws?  How can the nation-building endeavor succeed without facilitating a public dialogue forum? Several questions can be raised.

Re-organizing the executive branch of the government three times in a span of less than a year points to flaws on the part of decision-makers. When it comes to the criminal justice system and law enforcement agencies, it is not the issue of whether the Attorney General or the Ministry of Justice should be the lead institution that matters most; rather it is to ensure that the government’s law enforcement obligation is entrusted, in full compliance with the dictates of the constitution, to a well-organized and well-staffed agency. The establishment or dissolution of a government organ is not a matter of importance to the public; it is the creation of a system which has limits on its power and is accountable to the people. An institution which is accountable to no-one and does not heed public opinion is detrimental to the nation-building exercise. If this exercise is to bear fruit we need to be willing to listen to each other. 

Unless the act of enacting a law is undertaken in a manner which respects the rule of law, the proponents of “the end justifies the means” adage are bound to have a heyday. How come the draft proclamation establishing the Federal Attorney General, which was referred to Parliament after it was vetted by the Council of Ministers, lead to complete disagreement between various government entities? This is indicative of a breakdown in communication and the absence of coordination. That is why it is important to take time in order to deliberate thoroughly on the opinions or grievances voiced by executive organs which have contrasting takes on the draft legislation. The draft ought to be evaluated from different factors, including, inter alia, the history of the country, the demands of the public, and the strengths and shortcomings of the institutions concerned. The concerns expressed during the first public hearing on the draft in relation to the vastness and complexity of the investigation powers given to the Federal Police as well as whether the Attorney General possesses the specialized skills required to deal with corruption and tax offences should be given due consideration.

At a time when even small businesses engage a consultant to conduct a feasibility study prior to embarking on a project, it is quite troubling that a bill tabled for parliamentary approval is drafted without the input of experts and stakeholders that would have made it more viable. But all is not lost as another round of hearings will be held on the draft before it is adopted, providing the opportunity for the incorporation of useful proposals raised during the deliberation. Such proposals should not be dismissed summarily.The dire consequences for the country of drafting legislations hastily that are devoid of the invaluable contribution of experts have been all too clear for everyone. This is borne out not only by the plethora of re-organization the justice system has gone through, but also the findings of a study submitted to Parliament revealing the existence of four executive agencies in the agriculture sector whose responsibilities are not defined by an act of Parliament or regulations issued by the Council of Ministers. Such gross dereliction of duty and waste of resources is proof of the inability to listen to each other and work in close cooperation. These failings should be rectified if the initiative under way to restructure the justice system is to deliver the expected outcome.