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Ethiopia: Government Institutions in Dispute over Right of Foreigners to Practice Law in Ethiopia

(Apr. 26, 2011) It was reported on April 23, 2011, that two Ethiopian government institutions are in disagreement over whether foreign attorneys of Ethiopian origin should be allowed to practice law in Ethiopia. (Eden Sahle, Should Diaspora Members Be Allowed to Practice Law?,11: 573 ADDIS FORTUNE (Apr. 24, 2011).) The Ministry of Justice (MOJ), the institution authorized by law to license attorneys, takes the position that Ethiopian citizenship is a condition for practicing law in the country. (Licensing and Registration of Advocates Practicing Before Federal Courts Proc. No. 199-2000 (LRAPFC), Ethiopian Law Network (last visited Apr. 25, 2011).) Thus far, the MOJ is said to have rejected about ten applicants for not meeting the citizenship requirement. (Sahle, supra.) However, there is not a single provision in the LRAPFC expressly prohibiting foreigners from obtaining licenses to practice in Ethiopia.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), which together with the Authority for Security, Immigration and Refugee Affairs is in charge of issuing a special status to foreigners of Ethiopian origin, a status that allows qualifying individuals to enjoy most of the rights otherwise restricted to Ethiopian citizens, disagrees. Ethiopia does not allow dual citizenship. The 1930 Nationality Law (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), REFWORLD website (last visited Apr. 25, 2011)), which was repealed in 2003, prohibited it. The Citizenship Law currently in force, the Nationality Proclamation No. 378/2003 (UNHCR, REFWORLD website (last visited Apr. 25, 2011)) also prohibits dual citizenship.

However, Ethiopia has, as of February 2002, by law, created a special status to allow most Ethiopians who have relinquished their Ethiopian citizenship by acquiring another citizenship to enjoy most of the rights associated with citizenship in Ethiopia. (Proclamation No. 270/2002 Providing Foreign Nationals of Ethiopian Origin with Certain Rights to Be Exercised in Their Country of Origin Proclamation, FEDERAL NEGARIT GAZETA 1710-1714 (Feb. 5, 2002), Ethiopian Diaspora website.) Some of the rights (which are otherwise only available to citizens) accessible to individuals who qualify for this special status are:

· They do not need an entry visa to visit;

· They do not need a work permit to be employed;

· They qualify for participation in pension schemes;

· They may own immovable property;

· They are considered domestic investors, which allows them to invest in any sector without restrictions; and

· They are exempted from other restrictions imposed on foreigners. (Id. art. 5.)

The only express exceptions to these rights that come with the special status are voting or competing for political office and seeking employment with “National Defence, Security, Foreign Affairs and other similar political establishments.” (Id.) The MFA takes the position that practicing law in Ethiopia falls within the bounds of the privileges afforded to foreigners of Ethiopian origin.

The issue may eventually have to be brought before the Federal High Courts. Licenses to practice law are issued by the Minister of Justice on the recommendation of the License Evaluating Committee, which is composed of two representatives from the MOJ, two representatives from the Advocates' Association, and one representative from the Federal Courts. (LRAPFC, arts. 20 & 26, supra.) A decision of the Minister may be appealed to the Federal High Court only if that decision has an error of law. (Id. art. 29.) If the Court finds a mistake in law, it is required to remand the matter to the Minister, who in turn is obligated to “review the case on the basis of decision of the court.” (Id.)