As the Supreme Court held their third meeting ever last week, the justices sounded a clear note of alarm. Proclaiming the supremacy of the law, they announced that the independence and competence of the judiciary system of the nation have been at risk in recent times.
The Plenum was held on December 30, 2018, at Friendship Hotel in Addis Abeba. The justices issued a four-page statement boldly admitting the nation's loss of confidence in the judicial system and the non-independence and incompetence of the system. The statement calls for the retention of judicial independence and fairness and asserts the supremacy of the rule of law.
The justices also unanimously voted on an 11-point declaration announcing that judicial freedom and impartiality are central to the justice system and that the judges themselves should lead the way in judicial reform.
During the meeting, the assembly admitted that the justices were unable to exercise judicial freedom as a result of interference by the executive branch of the government, especially in cases where the state is the litigant.
"The long-standing problems in the justice system forced Ethiopians to lose their faith in the justice system," said Maeza Ashenafi, president of the Federal Supreme Court. "The assembly will work to address grievances of citizens and restore trust in the system."
Judges should not only free themselves from government influence but from civil society organisations and interest groups, and work to realise speedy and fair trials by improving the competence of judges, the declaration stated.
"Members of the assembly believe that curriculum and policy for judicial training should be changed," Solomon Ejegu, communication affairs director of the Federal Supreme Court, told Fortune. "It was also agreed that economic and institutional empowerment of judges is very important to realising judicial independence."
The Plenum, established in 1996, raised its concern over lawlessness in various regional states of the country, asserting that citizens should refrain not only from engaging in mob justice but also from spreading messages and activities that could lead to violence.
One of the major points of the declaration was the relationship between regional and federal supreme courts. Lack of execution by regional courts of decisions passed by federal judges as well as rendering inconsistent decisions by federal courts were raised as significant lags on the efficiency and fairness of the system.
The Plenum consists of the president, vice-president and judges of the Federal Supreme Court, as well as presidents of the Federal High Court, the Federal First Instance Court and the regional Supreme Courts.
It has the duty of deliberating on problems encountered in the administration of justice and to work out remedies, perform functions to make the judiciary efficient and strong and to examine and approve directives and decisions for this purpose.
Though it was mandated to meet annually, it had only met three times since its establishment. The first one was held in 2016 and the second in 2017.
There is skepticism about the promises and fears that said changes would remain on paper, according to Fasil Sileshi, a legal consultant and practicing lawyer, who also believes that the justice system needs a complete overhaul to institutionalise the reforms.
Experts on judicial matters though find the declarations themselves to be ground breaking.
"The declaration goes a long way in empowering and affirming judges their judicial power and independence," Getachew Assefa (PhD), lecturer on constitutional law at Addis Abeba University's School of Law and Governance for the past 15 years, says. "I am optimistic about the upcoming changes."