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Analyzing the 'NATIONAL LEGAL UNIFICATION' core feature of Ethiopian Civil Code

Codification has often been the means of realizing unification within a particular country and Weiss identified national legal unification as a core feature of continental European codification. Codification often served to attain legal and political unity with previously heterogeneous legal sources. This was particularly true in the nineteenth century, when codification became linked to the emergence of modem nation-states.

Weiss explained that the technical legal unification by means of codification often came hand in hand with political unification. Nevertheless, codification was not limited only to one unique combination of political and social factor. According to Weiss codification flourished in different combination of political and social conditions including, the enlightened absolutism of the eighteenth century (Prussia), the nationalistic liberalism of the nineteenth century (Germany), and the socialist or democratic pluralist societies of the twentieth century (the Netherlands). Although codification is not necessarily supportive of only one political idea and exclusively devoted to the idea of a nation state, codification often unifies different pre-existing laws and by so doing it may also promote political unity.


As far as the Ethiopian civil code is concerned, the primary and ultimate goal of the code was to bring a legal unification in Ethiopia and unlike other core features of codification the element of national legal unification was unique to the code. During Emperor Hailesellasie regime, the major source of rules governing social relations were found in customs and traditions of the various tribal, ethnic and religious groupings. Historically, the diversity of national laws, like the diversity of local customs, within a single country is undesirable for reasons of soundness, general value and the supremacy of the law. The same holds true for Ethiopia where the existence of different source of laws was seen as an obstacle to the development and national unity of the country. During Emperor Haile Sellassie, allowing various sources of customary and religious laws was regarded as undermining the nation-building effort. The Emperor had a strong ambition to bring these various sources of laws together and wishes the country to develop into a modern state. The effort of modernizing the country and building a nation state was inspired earlier by a political factor. Emperor Haile Sellassie took a number of political initiatives which expressed his ambition to replace the traditional, decentralized governance structure with modern centralized state machinery. One of the most important policy initiatives was the introduction of the country’s first written constitution in 1931. This constitution was presumably the first step in the centralization process which was necessary for both national unity and modernization. The aim of reducing the fragmentation of power and to centralize all powers with the emperor could already be inferred from article 1 of the constitution that stated: ‘The territory of Ethiopia, in its entirety, is from one end to the other, subject to the Government of his Majesty the Emperor.’ Another constitutional provision that conferred ultimate power to the emperor could be inferred from article 6: ‘In the Ethiopian Empire supreme power rests in the hands of the emperor.’ The emperor’s policy of centralization was more accelerated with short duration (1936-1941) of Italian invasion and infringement of Ethiopian national sovereignty. The invasion of Italian troops and their defeat helped the Emperor to claim and argue the Ethiopian lost territories as a result of wars and migrations as a main tool to bring political centralization. To this end, the 1931 constitution of Ethiopia was amended by the 1955 constitution which strengthened the instrument of centralization and greater unification of Ethiopia’s diverse people. Thus, the 1931 and 1955 constitutions were designed to implement the state policy of political centralization as well as legal unification. With these constitutions the power of the central government was fully consolidated and with such consolidation the need to govern citizens with uniform laws increased and at the same time, more and more activities were brought under the orbit of the written law. This political factor played a great role in the inception of the idea of the codification of the laws of Ethiopia. In keeping with the general post-war attitude and as a part of the reform process, Ethiopia commissioned the preparation of a series of new codes. Major enactments between 1957 and 1965 including a group of highly complex codes – civil code, Civil Procedure code, Penal Code, Criminal Procedure Code, Commercial Code and Maritime Code – were introduced and  considered essential in order to create the conditions necessary for the modernization of the society and develop modern economy. Therefore, the centralization policy of Haile Sellassie was accompanied by attempts to develop a nation state in Ethiopia based on the European models of codification. Various existing legal sources were, therefore, abandoned in favor of imported civil code, which provided a single legal system for each and every person. The basic policy stand of the Hailesellasie regime was to bring about legal unification via a general codification of laws in line with the civil law tradition. Legal unification through western style codes was aimed at facilitating the intended political unification, assimilation and integration of the various groups in Ethiopia. As examined in detail earlier, the introduction of the civil code threatened with either extinction or some degree of absorption of various sources of laws. Since then codification in Ethiopia has been viewed in such a light or has represented for some an instrument of legal nationalism. It is probable true to say that the codification of the civil law came to be looked upon, more in light of its political significance. However, as discussed earlier, this unique feature of the code has been disregarded especially with the introduction of federal form of government which allows multiple legal sources.

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Thursday, 25 July 2024