Legal Pluralism, Sharia Courts and Constitutional Issues in Ethiopia

Author:Mohammed Abdo
Position:PhD Candidate, Human Rights Centre, Public Law Department, Faculty of Law
Pages:72-104
SUMMARY

State laws employ different approaches in addressing the effect of pluralistic normative ordering in a multicultural setting. A legal regime may resort to the uniform application of state laws and reject religious and customary norms, or may recognize and allow the application of the norms and practices of identity groups as long as they are in conformity with constitutional and human rights... (see full summary)

 
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LEGAL PLURALISM, SHARIA COURTS, AND
CONSTITUTIONAL ISSUES IN ETHIOPIA
Mohammed Abdo
Abstract
State laws employ different approaches in addressing the effect of pluralistic
normative ordering in a multicultural setting. A legal regime may resort to the
uniform application of state laws and reject religious and customary norms, or
may recognize and allow the application of the norms and practices of identity
groups as long as they are in conformity with constitutional and human rights
standards. Another option is to adopt a hands-off approach whereby the norms
and practices of cultural and/or religious groups are permitted to operate and
are not necessarily required to meet constitutional and human rights standards.
Against the backdrop of the notion of legal pluralism adopted by the FDRE
Constitution, this article examines whether final decisions rendered by sharia
courts in Ethiopia are required to meet constitutional standards (such as the
supremacy clause, gender equality and non-discrimination). Based on the
analysis of the relevant provisions of the law and literature, it is argued that
decisions of sharia courts (whose jurisdiction is not compulsory, but based on
the consent of litigating parties) seem to be exempted from constitutional
standards even where they may be in conflict with state laws.
Key words:
Legal pluralism, sharia courts, constitutional standards, a hand-off approach,
Ethiopia.
_____________
Introduction
The 1995 Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) Constitution
recognizes the ethno-linguistic and religious diversity in the country. It does so,
inter alia, by giving recognition to the settlement of disputes by customary and
The article is a substantially revised version of my paper titled “Legal Pluralism vs
Human Rights Issues: Sharia Courts and Human Rights Concerns in the Light of the
Federal Constitution of Ethiopia”, which was presented at the Seminar “The
Contribution of Non-western Law to the Development of International Human Rights
Law’, held on 13- 14 September 2010, Brussels, Belgium. I would like to extend my
thanks to Ato Elias Nour for his comments. I also would like to thank the two
anonymous reviewers and an editor of the Journal who anonymously gave comments
on the article.
PhD Candidate, Human Rights Centre, Public Law Department, Faculty of Law,
Ghent University, Belgium (Academic staff member, Institute of Federalism and
Legal Studies, ECSC, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia). E-mail:
<mohammed.mohammedabdo@UGent.be >; < mohammedza@yahoo.com>
LEGAL PLURALISM, SHARIA COURTS AND CONSTITUTIONAL ISSUES IN ETHIOPIA 73
religious systems on matters affecting the personal status of individuals. The
plurality of sources of normative ordering sanctioned by the Constitution opens
room for the potential discord between non-state (i.e. customary and religious)
laws and state laws (including the Constitution and international human rights
treaties ratified by Ethiopia). A case in point relates to matters that fall within
the jurisdiction of sharia courts. Such cases are to be resolved by Islamic law,
which has normative and conceptual differences with state laws regarding the
rights of women in general and their treatment in, among others, divorce,
inheritance, and sharing of estate upon divorce. Decisions rendered by sharia
courts using Islamic law could conflict, in general, with human rights norms,
and can also, in particular, be inconsistent with rules on gender equality and
other rules espoused by the Constitution.
This article examines mechanisms, if any, adopted by the FDRE Constitution
to manage the potential clash of state laws with Islamic law and the decisions of
sharia courts. It also examines whether final judgments pronounced by sharia
courts are required to be compatible with constitutional standards (such as the
supremacy clause and human rights provisions). As a prelude to this discussion,
the article highlights the background of Islam in Ethiopia. It further discusses a
brief history of the sharia courts in Ethiopia, the jurisdiction of sharia courts
their structure and administration, and their place in the legal system. Moreover,
two cases decided by sharia courts are reviewed with a view to shedding some
light on the exercise of their jurisdiction and on their relationship with courts of
law and the House of Federation (HoF) which is empowered to interpret the
Constitution.
Although sharia courts are set up both at the federal and regional levels and
in the units of the Ethiopian federation, the focus here is on the Federal Sharia
Courts. The discussion on the issues raised is based on the analysis of the
relevant provisions of the FDRE Constitution and laws related to the jurisdiction
of sharia courts. These laws include the Proclamation to Consolidate Federal
Courts of Sharia (Proclamation No. 188/1999) which is alternatively referred to
as the 1999 Sharia Courts Proclamation in this article, the Civil Code, the
Federal Courts Establishment Proclamation, and the laws relating to the power
of the House of Federation. This is further informed by the relevant literature
referred to in this article.
I argue in favour of a hands-off approach which enables final substantive
decisions on matters affecting personal status to fall within the purview of sharia
courts by placing them outside state laws. To put it differently, state laws should
not regulate final decisions of sharia courts, and in effect, final decisions
rendered by sharia courts should not be expected to meet standards of state laws
as long as the procedural requirements to institute a case before sharia courts
74 MIZAN LAW REVIEW Vol. 5 No.1, Spring 2011
(which require the consent of the litigating parties to be adjudicated in a sharia
court) are fulfilled.
1. Background of Islam in Ethiopia
Islam arrived early in Ethiopia soon after the advent of the message of Prophet
Muhammad. Ethiopia is the first country that accepted Islam after Arabia and
this happened following the taking refuge in Ethiopia of some of the followers
of the Prophet owing to the persecution they suffered at the hands of the then
powerful tribe of Mecca, Qureysh, to which the Prophet belonged. The
Ethiopian king offered kind treatment and is eventually believed to have been
converted to Islam, after considering the message they were persecuted for. As
a result of the hospitality offered to the followers who sought safe haven and
protection in the country, the Prophet ordered Muslims in general and his
followers to respect and protect Ethiopians and not to engage in fighting with
Ethiopians except in self-defense. This is found in the statement of the Prophet:
leave the Ethiopians alone as long as they leave you alone’, and this edict is
well-known by Muslims throughout the world and Ethiopia.
During the following centuries, a limited immigration mainly from the Arab
territories increased the number of Muslims in coastal areas around Ethiopia,1 in
the present day Somalia and Eritrea. This enabled Islam to penetrate into these
areas peacefully and Islamic norms took root gradually. The presence of Islam
in the area created discontent in the dominant Christian kingdoms in Ethiopia,
which considered Islam a threat. A significant conflict occurred in the 16th
century during the campaign led by the Muslim leader Ahmed Ibn Ibrahim,
commonly called Ahmed Gragn, who was from the currently eastern part of the
country. His aspiration was to weed out Christianity, end the leadership of
kings who claim to have blood ties to King Solomon, and replace it with Islamic
traditions.2 Ahmed Gragn’s campaign dethroned the Christian regime and
established his own rule, under the banner of Islam, in the central part of the
country for about 15 years and Ethiopia nearly became a Muslim state.3
1 Hussein Ahmed (2000), Islam in Nineteenth Century Wallo, Ethiopia, Revival, Reform
and Reaction, Brill, Pp. 30-35; see also Horn of Africa: The Region and Its History
<http://www.law.emory.edu/ifl/region/hornofafrica.html>
(Accessed on 25 March 2011).
2 Jon Abbink (1998), “An Historical-Anthropological Approach to Islam in Ethiopia:
Issues of Identity and Politics”, Journal of African Cultural Studies, Volume II, No. 2,
p. 114.
3 John Miles (2004), Customary and Islamic Law and Its Development in Africa, Legal
Brief Africa, African Development Bank, p. 136; See also Jan Abbinik (1999),
“Ethiopian Islam and the Challenge of Diversity” ISIM Newsletter, Vol. 4, p. 24. The

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