Reflections on the Rule of Law and Ethiopia’s Transition to Democratic Rule (Part I)

By Alemayehu G. Mariam

What a difference a year makes?

The rule of law crushed to earth for 27 years rose up in Ethiopia in 2018.

If someone would have told me in the first week of 2018 that I would be writing in earnest about the rule of law in the first week of 2019, I would have rolled my eyes with disdain.

Very few believed 2018 would be the end of TPLF thug-rule in Ethiopia.

But the writing was on the wall for all to see.

In February 2013, I predicted, “Meles and his worshipers have profoundly troubled the Ethiopian house and they shall inherit the wind!”

By 2015, I was certain the TPLF thug-rule game was over and done.

In March of that year, I wrote:

I believe the T-TPLF leaders know with absolute certainty that they are sitting on a powder keg.  As I have written previously, the T-TPLF has built its castles in the sand. The only question is whether those castles will be swept up by a tidal wave of deep public discontent or blown away by the tornadic wind of the people’s fury. In either case, the T-TPLF will be vacuumed and deposited in the dustbin of history.

In December 2015, I wrote a commentary entitled, The “End of the Story” for the T-TPLF in Ethiopia.

The TPLF laughed at me and said, “Al Mariam is ignorant of the underlying factors of TPLF’s staying power and predicts state collapse on every small and big occasion.”

In 2018, a tidal wave of civil disobedience and resistance led by Ethiopia’s Cheetahs (young people) finally put TPLF thug-rule in the trash bin of history.

Who’s laughing now, TPLF?

Today, a handful of thugtators are holed up in self-imposed garrison prisons hoping to evade the long arm of the law.

They pipe dream of the day they can return to power as they try to wreak havoc throughout the country.

They will return to power when hell freezes over and the Devil goes ice skating.

But the transition from thug-rule to the rule of law has always been a critical concern for me. I articulated that concern in my April 2012 commentary.

Now, we must move from concern to action and transform 27-years of thug-rule into civilized rule of law.

As I reflect on 2018 and all of the changes that have taken place, I recall the opening words of Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

There were two Ethiopias in 2018.

In the first quarter of 2018, we saw the worst of times in Ethiopia.

We were sweltering under the rule of a small group of predatory thugs and everyone was convinced Ethiopia was going to hell (civil war) in hand basket.

In the second half of 2018, we began to see the first sunlight of the best of times in Ethiopia and the final sunset on thug-rule.

We learned what it means to live under the rule of law.

We even saw the motley crew of senile old fools  invited to to enter the country with dignity only to find these boneheads talking trash about how they can take over power through terrorism.

These buffoons declared, “Damn the rule of law. We will take power by the rule of AK47s.”

But no ignorant old fools, unreformed terrorists and young empty barrels who think they can “capture power in 24 hours” will be able to turn the tide of rule of law, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia.

But they have the right to pipe dream, indulge in delusions of grandeur.

For me, 2019 shall be the “Year of the Rule of Law in Ethiopia” as 2018 was the “Year of Ethiopiawinet”.

On the newly established website of the Office of the Prime Minster of Ethiopia, the  rule of law is announced as Job #1.

Over the past nine months, H.E. Prime Minster Dr. Abiy Ahmed has demonstrated, to the wonderment of the world, his unwavering commitment to the rule of law in words and in action.

He has emptied the country’s prisons of all political prisoners who had been held illegally for years.

For the first time since 2004, there are NO journalists in prison in Ethiopia.

Practically every day, in one form or another, PM Abiy has been preaching the gospel of the rule of law in Ethiopia.

Under PM Abiy’s leadership, the “Government of Ethiopia is undertaking a comprehensive reform program with a strong commitment to uphold rule of law and build a robust democratic system.”

The notorious anti-terrorism and civil society proclamations are currently under complete revision “ to ensure respect for fundamental rights, rule of law and democracy.”

I join PM Abiy in his efforts to institutionalize the rule of law in Ethiopia, and call on all Ethiopians to join in this monumental effort by engaging in informed exchange of views, ideas and opinions.

Many Ethiopians have asked me, “What is the rule of law? What does it mean?”

I ask myself if I should start by expounding on Corpus Juris Civilis, “without doubt the most important and influential collection of secular legal materials that the world has ever known”?

Perhaps the Magna Carta Libertatum? The U.S. Constitution? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

Blackstone’s Commentaries?

Are these “too Western” for Ethiopians?

How about the Kibra Negest?

Perhaps the “living customary laws” of Africa?

None of them will do.

People want simple, straightforward answers.

To those who ask, “What does rule of law mean in Ethiopia?”, I ask them to think about their lives under thug-rule over the past 27 years.

What is thug-rule?

When an innocent citizen is jailed, tortured and left to rot because that citizen proclaimed his/her Ethiopiawinet, that is thug-rule.

When a citizen is denied the equal protection of the laws because of his ethnic affiliation, that is thug rule.

When a citizen is denied job, educational and business opportunities because s/he does not have the right ethnic credentials, that is thug-rule.

When a nation’s treasury is looted for the benefit of the few in power and their cronies, that is thug-rule.

When a nation of proud people who have defended their freedom for thousands of years are subjected to a life of humiliation, subjugation and subordination under the rule of a Mafia-style gang of bush thugs, that is thug rule.

By the way, the English word “thug” comes from the Hindi word “thag” which means “con man”.

In India “Thugees”, well-organized criminal gangs, robbed and murdered unsuspecting travelers over a century ago.

In 1991, a small cabal of arrogant and ignorant thugees came out of the bush and imposed the “rule of the bush” (law of the jungle) on Ethiopia and began a campaign of killing, looting and plundering.

That is why I coined a new English word to describe the TPLF as a “thugtatorship”.

To those Ethiopians who ask me, “What is the rule of law?”, I simply tell them to compare their lives over the past nine months to the previous 27.

That’s it!

Why I am a stickler for the rule of law…

Philosophers and scholars have argued for millennia whether some “people are born evil”.

Are those who commit atrocities, torture innocents, inflict unspeakable suffering and  horror on their fellow human beings and bankrupt the public treasury “born evil”?

Is there a mutant “evil gene” that turns ordinary humans into conscienceless monsters?

I don’t know, but I believe I was born with the “rule of law gene”.

The expression of that gene in me compels me to stand up for the underdog, always.

In my 2014 New Year’s Resolution, I made a full confession:

It is part of my core belief that I must care for the welfare of others less fortunate than myself. That is the major reason I decided to become a lawyer after I had achieved my principal academic objective. I am always for the underdog. It could be the homeless veteran at a freeway exit asking for spare change or the throngs of young people I have never met in Ethiopia who are unjustly imprisoned merely because they spoke their minds or expressed their opinions in a publication. I guess I was born that way. That is why I never get discouraged even if others believe my efforts are ultimately in vain.

In 2016, I wondered out loud if there is something wrong with me because I am so committed to the rule of law and protecting the underdog, the weak, the defenseless, the helpless, the powerless.

Shakespeare wrote in the Twelfth Night, ‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.’ I wonder if Shakespeare considered whether some people are also born doomed to always defend the  underdogs, condemned to bark and yap truth to the Uber-dogs.

Now, I am too old to change and learn new tricks.

I still root for the underdog. Could it be because I can relate to them on a visceral level?

The difference between me and those who do not believe in the rule of law can be expressed simply as follows.

They believe in the principle, “Might makes right.”

I believe in the principle, “Right makes might,” just like Abraham Lincoln expressed it in his Cooper Union Address in 1860 defending the role of the federal government in eliminating slavery. “LET US HAVE FAITH THAT RIGHT MAKES MIGHT, AND IN THAT FAITH, LET US, TO THE END, DARE TO DO OUR DUTY AS WE UNDERSTAND IT.”

For the last 13 years, I have dared to do my duty for Ethiopia as I understand it; and I shall stand with and by Abiy Ahmed, without flinching or wavering, as he toils day and night to usher in and institutionalize the rule of law in Ethiopia. 

The aim of the series on the rule of law

The aim of the planned series of commentaries is to share my reflections on the rule of law and Ethiopia’s democratic transition.

Of course, I have previously written extensively on the rule of law in Ethiopia and the United States.

In 2019, I aim to energetically promote and defend the principle of rule of law in Ethiopia in a variety of ways.


First, I consider myself a public intellectual in the mold of  Edward Said: “The intellectual is an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public, in public.”

Second, as a practitioner and teacher of American constitutional law and someone who has taken the time to study Ethiopian constitutional, criminal and civil laws  over one-half century, I believe I can offer some informed views and opinions on Ethiopia’s constitutional future.

Third, I believe fresh and creative ideas on Ethiopia’s transition from the rule of a small group of thugs to the rule of law is very much needed.

Fourth, I have a moral obligation to respond to PM Abiy’s call to Diaspora Ethiopians to be fully involved in the making of the New Ethiopia.

In furtherance of the Ethiopian public interest, I plan to provide throughout the year public education on the “rule of law” using a variety of media.

I doing so, I aim to accomplish a number of objectives: 1) provide a broader understanding of the subject to the Ethiopian public, 2) challenge prevailing conceptions of  “Ethiopian constitutionalism” (an exercise in futility given the indisputable fact that Ethiopia’s “constitution” has been trashed by the very people who wrote it,  3) present alternative constitutional arguments and designs to replace the current “constitution” written by and for a small group of power hungry thugs and criminals against humanity,  and 4) provoke intellectual debate and promote cross-fertilization of constitutional ideas .

I hope 2019 will be different and there will be a great many learned men and women who will join the debate and discussion on the rule of law in Ethiopia.

I hope that is not a pipe dream on my part.

Since June 2010, I have been asking, “Where have the Ethiopian intellectuals gone?”

I still don’t know because I don’t see many of them engaging the issues of the day. They seem to be watching on the sidelines as stunned spectators.

If they go AWOL as they have in the past, it does not matter to me.

I learned long ago that “it is easy to stand with the crowd. It takes courage to stand alone.”

It is better to stand alone that to stand with people without backbone, integrity, courage, audacity, endurance, tenacity, grit, strength of character and an indomitable will.

As we begin a brand-new chapter – better yet, as we begin to write a new book about the New Ethiopia under the rule of law, we need Ethiopians with the courage of their convictions to stand up and be counted.

Stand up and be counted on the side of the rule of law.

In launching my series on the rule of law, I hope to attract a core group of open-minded, informed, dispassionate, courageous Ethiopians with unwavering  dedication to the institutionalization of the rule of law in Ethiopia.

I am sure there will be those who will laugh at me, “Here he goes again. Dreaming the impossible.”

The fact of the matter is that I have never believed in dreaming the possible, only the impossible.

When they said it is impossible to end thug-rule in Ethiopia without the power of the sword, I declared in 2006, we shall become victorious by the power of the word.

It took 13 long years for me, but I am blessed to see the victory of the word over the sword in Ethiopia.

Abiy Ahmed won the hearts and minds of the Ethiopian people with the power of his words, without once raising the sword.

That is what the rule of law is all about.

The power of the word supreme over the power of the sword.

As Dr. King said, “That old law about ‘an eye for an eye’ leaves everybody blind.

If Ethiopians choose the sword over the word, we will have a nation of blind people.

If we do not learn from our history of the past several decades, we shall be doomed to repeat it.

We must open our eyes and look at reach other through the lens of the rule of law.

When we have just and fair laws, there will be no bloodshed, no need for revenge, retribution and reprisals, no collective punishment and no guilt by association.

Only redress for wrongs under the rule of law.

With the rule of law ascendant, I know Ethiopia’s best days are just around the corner.

I made that announcement in December 2013 when I reassured Ethiopia’s youth to “be optimistic and determined in creating their Beloved Ethiopian Community because Ethiopia’s best days are yet to come.”

“I’d give the Devil benefit of law…”

I have often been criticized for defending the rights of those with whom I not only disagree but despise.

When I defended Meles Zenawi’s right to speak at Columbia University in September 2010, I was roundly criticized.

They said, “How could you defend the ‘monster’ who had denied millions of Ethiopians the right to speak?” Some even called me a “sellout”.

I insisted I was not defending a “monster” but the universal principle of free expression.

My defense was simple, “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”

My position is no different now.

Today, I defend the rights of those individuals who are currently in custody on a variety of human rights and corruption charges.

Many think these suspects are the “devil incarnate”. I have even been urged to write condemnatory commentaries and whip up negative public sentiments against them.

I will never do that.

To those who wish to criticize me for defending “the devil incarnates” and not speaking publicly against them, I will them what I told those who criticized me when I defended Meles Zenawi’s right to freely express himself.

If you don’t believe in a fair trial – rule of law — for those you despise, then you do not believe in fair trial at all.

As far as I am concerned, those in custody today are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

A fair trial is the litmus test for any conception of the rule of law.

Someone more eloquent than I has said it all.

“I’d give the devil the benefit of law…”

I invite you to watch this 3-minute dramatic video of a historical figure I admire and try to emulate speaking on the rule of law.

Click on this link:






  1. Response to Alemariam :
    At the first place I used to read your articles for couple of years because my account has connected by a friend of mine just for good.

    I just respect to any human dignity without any discrimination for he/she is rich/ poor, gender, race, political pressure, religion, etc. The same is true, I do respect to Professor Alemayoh Gebermariam.

    But I do strongly condemn his acts and wrong views with what is doing under what so conditions, all his reflections towards the proud and peace loving people of Tigray. Bear in mind, I am not defending for T.P.L.F. because it has its own strong cyber how to resettle it.

    One can have different attitudes and perceptions towards something because we perceive the real world differently. Someone from elsewhere can negate individual’s views or outlooks but not the general public; otherwise he/she must be deteriorated/damaged minded or narrow sphincter.

    I knew he is a good preacher. He is megalomaniac suffering with ideal gap and ferocity betrayed to the Tigreans with none of their faults interpreting from his inner mentality to subjugate them which is accursed way of deal that is not forthright in this existing world unless doomsday is on hand to those day dreamers such as Alemayoh.

    He exerts his maximum effort to humiliate and attack by all rounded tactics and techniques, be it politically, economically, socially, military, culturally, values of the people and any other psychological make ups terrorizing Tigreans with whatsoever force and energy he endowed to the non-stopping efforts of Tigreans history and reputation to null and tarnish the people of Tigray in general.

    Alemayoh is hiding himself elsewhere most probably in the USA used to conspiracy to the innocent people of Ethiopia in general the youth in particular backfire on them for none fault of them for his rent seeking , dead and spoiled ideology that get rid off from its emerged zone.

    He saw bad seed on the ground spoiled the mentality of Ethiopian youth (on his word cheetah) and he is harvesting his return from every corner of the country innocent people are dying everywhere for none of their fault and displaced more than 3 million inhabitants domestically in Ethiopian history. Not only that, but also rule of law has deteriorated, Universities, high schools have been shutdown, financial institutions are looted by gangsters. What evil thought he deserve!

    This is Alemayoh’s badass political philosophy full of confusion, for himself and the entire innocent general public and the youth in particular which is absolutely dirty game.
    “Good to be around to see the present “(ምቕናይ )”
    One should have to clean his/her finger before he/she pointing it to others ,if not one should have to be very clear the remaining fingers will pointing back to the pointer.

    Above all Alemayoh is post monger and opportunist. He is good just for boasting, using hatred machinegun, releasing arrogance and ignorance statements, ridiculous, out-smarted, discriminator, fascinating demagogue discipline, he just know rule of law in theory not practically, he is a man with more than four personalities, refused his Ethiopian identity, one can write a lot.

    We know his dream to the Tigray people from the beginning is, just wiped out of the face of the earth. A citizen with first degree here in Ethiopia is better than you carry the PhD you hold with ill minded.
    To your surprise, before your ancestors being existed, the proud and peace loving people of Tigray (our ancestors) built Ethiopia from the scratch believed strategically our communal outstanding enemy is poverty and its allies.

    Tigreans were/are full of wisdom’s mixed with philosophers (ZERAYACOB), astronomers, engineers, architectures, historians, anthropologists, economists, Theological virtues, (Kudos Yared) geographers advanced military technicians who fought for their independence at various battle fields with various aggressors to restore Ethiopian sovereignty from any odds. We paid an ultimate value, not worth of money, material, gold or diamond but lives.

    Our founding fathers starting from Suhul Michale, Degeat Woldeslassie, Degeat Sebagadis Woldu, Emperor Tederos whose father is from Tigray and his respected Mom is from Quemant, Emperor Yohannes 4th, The mighty general Alula AbaNega, Bashay Awalom, General Hayelom, the late PM Meles Zenawi, and so many among others to mention gave their ultimate lives for their beautiful nation fought with various domestic/foreign invaders at different sites of the country.

    The peace loving Agazian-Sabian (ancient Tigreans) did tangible efforts on ground such as Gulumekeda palace, Yiha Da’amat palace, Axum kingdom, Gheralta covenant, Michael Amba, Mariam qorqor, few to mention as fresh print evidences. Modern Education has started at Gundagundo and Gol’aa very close to Adigrat city by “Dekike Estifanos “committed Theologies and Philosophy before your fraudulent Minyilih showa tale.

    Minyilihshowa has exercised double edged sward functions on his era to Ethiopia. He does organized troops from here and there so as to be safe his neck from Italian butchers.

    At the battle of Adwa all Ethiopians united did their best in general the Oromo warriors such as Balcha Aba Nebso and other respected armies but the major turning point has achieved by the leadership of General Alula AbaNega , Raesi Mengesha Youhannes and Bashay Awalom from Tigray. That is the hard fact.

    On the other hand, your Minyilhshowa was sold people and land such that of Bahri Negasi the then currently named Eritrea to Italy; Djibouti to France, Somalia to France, Italy, and Britain. The Somalia brothers have divided into two as the fate of their brothers the Tigreans. It is Emperor Miniyilhshowa who sold Akelleguzay for 5 million, Sera’aye, for 7 million and Kunama for 2 Million Lire Italia plus he got in return military armaments from Italy.

    Had it been rejected by Etege Tsehaytu whom by her mother is from Enderta, Tigray, and the stiff resistance of our heroes and heroines fathers of Tigray, he was bargained to sale even the whole Tigray to Italy. Because his mentality was just the expansion of the then NEUTRAL SHOWA and he cruelly dismantled the Tigreans and still suffering from timing bomb causalities that had made historical mistake on his era.

    The great and gallant people of Tigray are going through very difficult and trying times. Throughout history, Tigray and its courageous patriotic people have gone through a lot of unbelievable tragedies, massacres, wars, famine, brutal and devious rule by different regimes threat of genocide and all kinds of wicked schemes and atrocities. We are eye witnesses to some of the above mentioned historical facts and we know the rest through history, both written and oral.
    The people of Tigray overcome and even conquered almost all their misfortunes or calamities (one after another) in their long continuous history of astounding civilization, valor, and unyielding fight against tyranny and epoch journeys.

    From the man-made and natural famines to brutal military pillage , rape and massacre by troops of the central government, the magnanimous and ever enduring people of Tigray overcomes and even masters or defeats their enemies both humans and natural and we all are eye witnesses to this story of survival and chivalry with few historical parallels in human history. There are very few people or nations who overcome their tragic history or misfortune like the people of Tigray and this is not an opinion or view point or political statement but a historical fact and truth to those who are willing to learn and humble enough to appreciate historical facts.

    What kind of people survive and flourish after losing millions to war, drought, battle after battle, carnage , plunder, deliberate degradation policies and wanton killings and ceaseless enmities and racism for lack of a good word ? The answer is just Tigray and its people. I am not saying that it is only the Tigreans in the whole world who overcomes and endures, in the face of great tragic events and adversities. There are people, nations and nationalities in the world; but not too many, who persist, carry on, conquer and win against forces of destruction and annihilation.

    No one in their right mind can accuse the people of Tigray for Cowardice and timidity. Even their ardent enemies admit that. Several of the rabid hyenas howling all over the social media and on the ground are former captured prisoners (some are captured and released twice or three times by the TPLF) who are even alive today because of the TPLF’s and the people of Tigray’s amazing culture of forgiveness, compassion and civility rarely seen among conquering African rebel groups.

    Ironically, those low life spiteful elements who reside in the western democracies, where tolerance and respect for other’s culture, ethnicity and religion is not only guaranteed by law and constitution, they are also the beneficiaries of such advanced culture and norm where it enables them to peacefully co exist with others, work, pursue their endeavors and get citizenship and all its entitlements.
    Hiding behind computers and using the social media and other forums they spew very ugly venom of hate, rage and xenophobic ideas everywhere.

    So in these extremely difficult and ever changing times, the people of Tigray have only one and one choice! That is to steadfastly fight and be on guard at all times from these blood thirsty elements of darkness, regress, civil discord, and confusion like that of Alemayoh. Just like their fathers Grandfathers and great grandfathers, brothers and sisters the youth of Tigray have a historic duty and responsibility to defend and ensure the survival of their glorious land and defeat these satanic forces of mayhem and destruction.

    (The (6%) as per your description) to Tigreans are few and are overmatched at this time, but we will not only survive but we will emerge triumphant not because we are unique or any other magic, but because our cause and fights are just and principles!”
    “Crucially, we are thankful to all those who said no to us. It is because of them we Tigreans did it ourselves “
    Finally, Irrespective, Whatever hatred and propagandist machine you discourse, we are on our strong hold position for equality, democracy, respect without discrimination of ethnicity, religious, gender, political outlook—etc. His almighty created us to do history. Tigreans are people of their word.

    May Almighty God be with the great people of Tigray! AMEN!


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