Dynamics of Identity Formation and Legal Pluralism: the Case of Customary, State and Religious Dispute Resolutions among the Siltie People, Southern Ethiopia


Dr. Kairedin Adera

Research Area:


Ethiopia is the home for over eighty ethnic groups with diverse socio-cultural settings. This entails not only a remarkable diversity of cultures, but also a diversity of normative orders and juridical institutions, formal and informal (customary ones). Since 1991, Ethiopia has embarked upon a unique political experiment known as “ethnic federalism”. The new 1995 constitution grants specific rights to ethnic groups, including the establishment of ethno-juridical orders. As pervasive across different cultural groups in Ethiopia, legal pluralism, which is manifested through co-existence of customary, state and religious dispute settlement institutions, is also evident among the Siltie. The injection of and the orientation at global legal norms into the local Siltie has further diversified the legal norms in the area. The nature of the interactions and interfaces among the customary, religious and state institutions, the local people’s perspective on why a disputant chooses one or another dispute settlement institution (forum shopping), and the dynamics of the dispute settlement institutions over time have not been explored by the previous studies. The dissertation is thus intended to fill these intellectual voids in the area. It is assumed that the ethno-federal context in contemporary Ethiopia is a particular rich field of exploration. The research adopts both a diachronic as well as synchronic perspectives to explore the plural legal settings in Ethiopia in general and among the Siltie in particular. It investigates how legal pluralism developed historically and has been operating in the post 1991 ethnic federalism in the country.  There also are plural legal and institutional settings installed in the area which have been employed by the local community to settle its disputes. They have been discussed broadly under two categories:-formal that includes the state and Sharia, and informal, customary systems. These plural settings did cooperate and coexist as the theory of legal pluralism expounds (Griffiths, 1986,2002; Merry 1988; Benda-Beckmann et al. 1997). They, however, work rather in competing and at times contradictory ways. The thesis argues that against the constitution’s status as the ultimate source of law, various forms of law, notably customary law functions and considers all forms of conflicts including grave crimes like homicide at the grassroots level in the study area. The dissertation also argues that the informal dispute settlements are more effective and are playing a paramount role for providing justice at the grassroots level due to the fact that they are closer to the society and relevant for everyday lives of the local community than state and Sharia courts in the study area.