Version classiqueVersion mobile

Grass-roots Justice in Ethiopia

Alula Pankhurst
Getachew Assefa

Regional Case Studies

3. Customary Dispute Resolution in Beni-Shangul Gumuz with Emphasis on Shinasha Society

Bayisa Besie et Lemessa Demie

Texte intégral

Profile of the Region

1Benishangul Gumuz Regional State is one of the four states in Ethiopia referred to as ‘emerging states’. The region is located in the northwestern part of the country bordering Amhara region in the north, Oromia in the east, Gambella in the south and Sudan in the west. The region is divided into three administrative zones namely Assosa, Metekel and Kamashi. The region has 20 Weredas. According to the census of 1994 the population of the region was estimated to be 544,549, which is 0.84 percent of the national total. The indigenous people of the region are the Shinasha, Berta, Gumuz, Mao and Komo. There are also migrant people such as Oromo, Amhara, Agew. The Shinasha are the smallest of the ethnic groups with a population of about 32,000; they are generally Christians.

Customary dispute resolution in the region

Mao and Komo

  • 122 Interview with Jiratta Wetesso, Assosa, 27/03/2004.

2Disputes within the Mao society are resolved by nine elders who are recruited from different clans. The religious leader of the Mao is known as Qallu122 who is highly respected because he is considered as a source of peace and wellbeing. There is a division of labour in the process of disputes resolution. Three elders including the Qallu function as kind of court presided by the Qallu. Five elders are executors of the verdict and one is a kind of investigator and informant.

3Similarly, the Komo society solve disputes through selected elders. When major problems, like murder, occur the case is referred to eighteen elders. However, more minor disputes are considered by nine elders.

4Decisions made by elders in the Mao society vary from case to case. If the crime committed is fairly minor the offender might be beaten in front of the gathered community. However, if the crime is very serious, such as homicide, but it happened accidentally the elders might decide that the offender should be penalized by giving a virgin girl to the family of the deceased as compensation. Whereas in cases of intentional homicide the offender will be killed by one of the relatives of the deceased person using a similar weapon, at the same place and in an identical situation.

  • 123 Jiratta Wetesso, Traditional Dispute Resolution Methods in Mao and Komo, Amharic, Unpublished, p. 3

5When a murder happened in Komo society the elders consult the relatives of the deceased person about whether they deserve compensation in the form of a person or the death of the person who committed the murder. When the first option was selected by the relatives of the deceased person they are given compensation of a person of the same gender having similar characteristics to the deceased. When the latter option is chosen the offender is killed in a similar place, manner and situation to that of the homicide. For instance, if a person killed another person by one bullet he in turn would be shot by one bullet but, if he did not die a second shot would not be fired. Minor disputes within the Komo society were solved by giving compensation in the form of material things like salt bars.123 However, most of the informants said that many of these traditional practices within Mao and Komo society are not operative at the present.


  • 124 Interview with Ibrahim Mohammed Serage, Assosa, 26/03/2004.

6The majority of the Berta are Muslims. Disputes within Berta society are solved according to the Qoran. Disputes are resolved through elders and elders’ dispute resolution in Berta society is called Shiyabe.124 Three categories of people can be selected to resolve disputes in Berta society 1) Clan leaders, 2) Sheikhs because of their knowledge of the Qoran and 3) younger men who are experienced or able in litigation. In the past Berta society relied exclusively on elders. A person who refused to accept the decisions of the elders was considered evil. Consequently, refusal in Berta society was very rare, but when it happened the individual would be ostracised and stigmatised until such time as he or she complied with the decision.

  • 125 Interview with Al-Hassen Al-Mamune, Assosa, 27/03/2004.

7Murder within the Berta society was very rare. However, when it happened it would be resolve by the elders. The relatives of the offender were expected to bring an ox or goat and sugar for the reconciliation ceremony. The elders reconciled the two groups by slaughtering the ox or goat and having the victim’s family make an oath not to seek revenge. A kind of crime investigation or fact-finding called al-berik is used in Berta society. This method is usually used to discover a thief.125


  • 126 Interview with Terfa Mengesha, Assosa, 26/03/2004.

8Among the Gumuz elders have been involved in dispute resolution. The elders’ councils are considered very effective. The elders usually set fines to be paid by the offenders. The elders’ decisions are accepted unconditionally, are strictly enforced and their decisions are considered binding126 There was also an institution known as Gafia, based on the magico-religious authority of a ‘witch doctor’ who was the protector of the society’s wellbeing. The Gafia, who could be male or female, was often consulted and his or her words were much respected.

  • 127 Tsega Edalew, Traditional Conflict Resolution Through Cultural Tolerance in Metekel.

9Murder was common, and killers were especially admired and highly respected in the community, which initiated killings against non-Gumuz. However, today this practice is highly reduced. From the time of Oromo settlement in the region, a traditional system of bond friendship called Michu ‘friendship’ was established, and has been instrumental in establishinging cultural and social tolerance and reconciliation between the Gumuz and the highlanders (Shinasha, Oromo, Agew and Amhara.127

CDR mechanisms in Shinasha society

General background

  • 128 Ibid.
  • 129 Informants: Alboro, Feyessa, Admassu.
  • 130 Addisu Ademe, History and Culture of Shinasha Society 1992, in Amharic, unpublished, p. 12.

10The Shinasha are found in Metekel zone, mainly in four weredas namely Bullen, Dibati, Wambara and Dangur. Shinasha are sometimes called Bora or Boro. Other ethnic groups call them Shinasha, Dangabo and Shinicho.128 They are known for their traditional medicine. Shinashas speak an Omotic language which belongs to the north Omotic cluster which consists of a number of sub-groups including North Gonga to which the Shinasha belong. According to Shinasha informants their language is divided into two: Taribora (lowland Shinasha) and Gayibora (highland Shinasha).129 There are five large ‘tribal’ groups in Shinasha, namely, Dowo, Anifo, Enoro, Endibo, and Sinicho. These groups are sub-divided into 60-70 smaller clans.130 The Shinasha have a myth of origin according to which their original homeland was the Biblical Canaan. They are said to have left their country in search of pasture and fertile lands and thus moved to Ethiopia. Through northwest Ethiopia, they reached Shewa where they settled, and again due to demographic factors they were forced to move into Gojjam and adjacent territories south of the Abbay River. They claim their forefather to be one Shao, who begot Ashino, Assibo, Boro and Gongo. These descendants of Shao are said to have divided Gojjam among themselves with Ashina taking Shinasha, Assibo taking Assi, Boro occupying Bure and Gonga settling in Gwangua. Later some of these groups moved further west reaching as far as Guba which they called Dogro.

Traditional Dispute resolution institutions in Shinasha

  • 131 Informants: Alboro, Flatie, Ejegu, Fasil Ethal, 22, 23, 24/03, 2004, Metekel.

11Shinasha primarily use cultural and traditional mechanisms to resolve disputes among themselves. They have a well established traditional court-like system known as Nemo131 This system has four hierarchical structures. These are:

12Burra: This is conducted by one elder. When the disputant(s) is dissatisfied with the decisions of the Burra they are allowed to make an appeal to the Nemma.

13Nemma: This is composed of two elders. Nemma has the power to ratify or denounce or amend decisions made by the Burra. If either of the disputants is still dissatisfied after the decisions of the Nemma they may bring the case to the Terra/Tsera.

14Terra/Tsera: This is composed of three elders. They examine the decisions made by the Burra and Nemma and speak to each of the disputants separately before making their decision. Dissatified disputants can still appeal to the Falla.

15Falla: This is the final or highest ‘judicial’ organ in Shinasha. A single person from the ‘tribal’ clan, called Nihinaa or Qolla, holds the position of Falla. When considering a dispute, the Nihinaa or Qolla is assisted by two neutral persons who are not decision makers. The Falla is responsible for examining the decisions made by the Burra, Nemma and Terra/Tsera. The decision made by the Falla is final and binding. The Falla is the only court which handles homicide cases and cases of sexual intercourse between relatives. When a person refuses to accept the final decision of the elders they will be subjected to Tsala (ostracism or stigmatisation). This includes the following:

  • The roof of the house m which the person lives will be uncovered by the society in order to penalize him by sunshine and rainfall.

  • The wife and children of the refusing person will not be allowed to socialize/communicate with the neighbors and the society in their daily life.

  • The person will be prohibited from participating in the traditional collaborative system of agriculture, Debbo.

  • 132 Informants: Belachew, Aja, Eyassu, Bery and Hailu, 22, 23, 24/03/2004.

16If the refusing person migrates to other areas to live, delegates will be sent to the area by the elders to inform the elders of that area about the disobedience. So the person will be obliged to return to his original place and ask the elders for mercy. The person is expected to ask forgiveness by holding a bone in his mouth and saying to the elders ‘I will be subject to you like a dog.’ After this, elders will give mercy to him and he will again be allowed to socialize with community and the roof of his house will be (covered) and returned to its initial place. He is expected to endure the penalties and pay the compensation decided by elders.132

17A case which was entertained by the Tserra in 2003 at Bullen illustrates how the practice works:

  • 133 Initials are used to protect the privacy of those involved in or interested in the dispute.

Mr. GA caught his wife committing adultery with EW.133 In the emotion of the moment he immediately picked up his gun and killed both of them. Then, he went to the police and reported the case denying that he was the killer. The police investigated the deaths and arrested GA. He was sent to jail and held in remand for about one year while the police completed their investigation. Finally, he was released from the jail by the court since there was no evidence to prove his guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

However, after he had been released he went to Ato Feyisa Bedonki the Nihinaa and told him the truth. Then, the Nihinaa gave GA an adjournment and sent letters inviting two other elders from the Indibo and Inoro clans to participate in resolving the conflict. He also requested the relatives of both of the deceased to participate. The dispute was dealt with according to the customary practice. After considering the facts of the case thoroughly, GA was sent into exile for six months. After completing this period of exile he returned to the community.

  • 134 Informants: Alboro, Flatie, Ejegu, Fasil Ethal, 22, 23, 24/03/2004.

18In making this decision the values and norms in that specific society were considered. Adultery is seriously condemned. Therefore, the period of exile was not for the purpose of punishing GA, but rather to reconcile him and his relatives with the relatives of the deceased.134

Types of Disputes and Mechanisms for Their Resolution

Property and money claims

  • 135 These persons are called Iqessa.
  • 136 Informants: Wodesha, Filate, Assosa and Diboti, 20/03/2004.

19When a person loans his goods, materials or money to someone on some conditions for instance to be returned at an agreed time, then, the failure to respect the agreement may result in conflicts. In Shinasha such disputes are settled by elders. The disputants agree on a person to resolve the dispute. The Shinasha believe that those who have sworn an oath do not lie. Consequently, if the debtor denies the claim, he will be sent, at the complainant’s expense, to a group of elders temporarily organized for such purpose or to a person capable of doing so called iqessa, at the expense of the plaintiff,135 for the purpose of solemnly affirming his denial. On the other hand, if he admits the existence of the debt, but is unable to pay, his nearest blood relatives will be asked to settle the debt and they try to recover the amount from him after discharging the debt. In Shinasha society, the debt is guaranteed (is transferable) by the mere fact of kinship. The relatives decide the amount to be borne by each of them in the family assembly taking into account their financial condition and the degree of kinship.136 If the disputants are dissatisfied, the interested party can take his/her case to one of the traditional forums discussed earlier.

Disputes arising from inheritance

  • 137 Ibid.

20When a father is near to death, he gathers all his descendants for blessings and makes a will. In the absence of the will, that is, if he dies without making his will, the elders in the family distribute his property. The farmland, the gun, the spear and the shield will be given to the eldest son. Oromo and Gumuz in Metekel zone share the same culture in this respect. The remaining property will be equally divided among the remaining family members. However, the property is not distributed and the will is not executed until the widow dies or marries another person. Then, if a dispute arises on the execution of the will, or partition of the estate, a claim can be made before the assembly of the deceased’s clan. The assembly is chaired by the eldest member of the clan. The decision of the assembly is final and breaking it may result in isolation from family membership.137

Marriage Disputes

21Marriage related disputes usually arise due to the abduction of a girl. There are five forms of marriage in Shinasha society. These are: 1) Widhaa: The most common form of marriage made with the consent of bride and bridegroom and their families; 2) Tsitsa: Marriage entered into by the consent of only the bride and bridegroom; 3) Juaa (Ourgessa): This is the fastest way of concluding a marriage with an engaged (betrothed) girl. It happens when the girl’s family unduly extends the date of the marriage beyond a reasonable time against the wishes of the prospective bridegroom. 4) Natta: Marriage made by inheritance, and 5) Biqaa (Butta): Abduction of a girl, is said to occur due to an extended marriage date by the family of an engaged girl, suspicion that another person is trying to take (marry) her, or if the girl or her parents refuse the marriage.

22Biqaa is considered to be a normal means of concluding a marriage in the society. However, a forcible biqaa that is, an abduction of a girl when there is a clear refusal to marry, often results in inter-group conflicts. If the abduction is consensual (less serious) the family of the man will send respected elders to her family and the dispute will be resolved through them. The abductor will be required to pay a great deal of money as a penalty and bridewealth and will be forced to cover part of the cost of the wedding, which should occur in the near future. Forcible abductions are not so easily resolved. A reconciliation process will be initiated, not by the disputants, but by people from other clans, who first go to the family of the abducted girl and request them in the name of Eiqaa (God) to accept an apology and reconciliation. After they secure their consent, they will do the same with the parents of the abductor. Then, both sets of parents will select elders of their choice. Usually each selects no less than seven, the eldest of whom will be the chairperson. The compensation awarded will be more severe than if the abduction is consensual. However, in the end, the amount which is paid will be returned to the bride and bridegroom in the form of marriage donations.

Homicide and Incest

23The common method of resolving homicides is termed Sherra. It is the exile of the killer to a place where neither his relatives nor the relatives of the deceased may see him. The process of sending into exile is called Sher-damea. The case will be initiated by the offender. Accompanied by his/her father or near relative s/he will go to the ‘local chief’ called Nihinaa who presides over the Yalta. They assemble, usually on Sundays and wait to receive criminals ‘as their guests’. When a murderer approaches the Nihinaa he will tell them unequivocally how, why, and when he committed the crime. After hearing him, the Nihinaa will send a summons, usually oral, to both families, to appear before them on a set date. Since the Nihinaa are seen as ‘the fathers of Shinasha’, their summons is respected unconditionally.

24On the appointed day, the Nihinaa, supported by elders outside the group, will conduct a ceremony to reconcile the two families. The murderer does not participate and is not seen at the ceremony. The family of the murderer brings an ox which is slaughtered. The two families shake hands immersed in the blood of the ox and victim’s family makes an oath not take revenge. This is followed by a ceremony condemning (damning) the murderer by saying Ginas key ‘Let you be pierced by a spear’, Shikas key ‘let you be pierced by a knife’, Teshas key ‘Let the gun kill you’, Neametwoke neshdokaya ‘Let every evil not miss you’. Then a period of exile is determined. The exile can be from six months up to seven years depending on the circumstances of the crime. Blood compensation worth up to 2000 birr will also be ordered. The offender collects this compensation by begging from anyone he finds on the road, or going to the home of any one and begging by telling the story. He will hold a gourd full of blood with which he shakes the hands of those from whom he begs. Once the period of exile is complete the offender returns to the community. He will send elders through the Nihinaas to the family of the deceased. Then, both families and the elders appear before the Nihinaas and a blessing ceremony is conducted. From this time onwards, everything is resolved and the offender rejoins the community to lead his usual life.

25Similarly, the Nihinaas are also involved in the resolution of disputes that arise when someone commits sexual intercourse with a relative. In these cases, both parties will be exiled; however, the length of the exile is generally not as long and the condemnation less serious than in cases of homicide.

Evaluation of CDR in Shinasha society. Absence of a right to appeal

26Very serious disputes or conflicts are resolved by the traditional means in this society. However, there is no chance to revise the decisions rendered by the Nihinaas, who have absolute jurisdiction on matters like homicide, except refusal and going to the formal counts. But, refusal would result in another social consequence i.e. ostratization and isolatation from the community.

Lack of supportive and strengthening measures from the government

27The ways of resolving and mitigating some disputes may result in human rights violations, for example the abduction of girls to force a marriage.

Weak methods of investigation

28A major means of ‘proof’ in the practice in the Shinasha society is swearing an oath. Generally, no evidence or witnesses are produced. Rather it is usual to ask the accused or the defendant to prove his or her innocence by swearing an oath. This violates the presumption of guilt and may provide an opportunity for those who feel no moral obligation to escape liability.


29The traditional method of conflict resolution in Shinasha society plays a valuable role in the socio-economic relations by maintaining stability and good community relations in the society. In our view these traditional practices should be supported and encouraged. However, in order for them to continue to operate and to thrive they must be modernized. This could be facilitated by informing the community and its decision makers about the benefits and necessity of respecting the basic principles of human rights and the Constitution. More has also to be done to raise awareness about methods of solving conflicts taking into account the customary approaches within the society.

List of Informants



Social Status


Date of Interview


Terfa Mengesha

Justice Bureau head




Al-Hassen Al Mamun

Wereda justice office head.




Ebrahim Sirage

Information Bureau head




Nasissa Wubete

Population participation and organization Bureau head




Habitamu Degefe

Police office head




Atom Dej. Mustofa

Labour and social affairs office head




Jirata Wetesso

Disaster prevention office head




Wereku Baro

Youths, sports and cultures office head




Wodisha Habtie

Legal Advisor




Alboro Debaba





Feyessa Bedonkey





Ademasu Gessese





Bessie Desta





Demele Beyene





Chinkaro Eano





Shibabaw Tarekegn

Wereda chairman




Yehualla Abebe

Wereda capacity building head




Filate Jirata





Fasil Tewachew





Aja Bedezo





Belachew Birru





Birhanu Argata




Egigu Abay





Eyassu Goga





Bery Endeshaw





Hailu Zegeye





Addisu Ademe

Expert in education office

Gelegel Beles



Habtamu Tafere

Wereda V/chairman




122 Interview with Jiratta Wetesso, Assosa, 27/03/2004.

123 Jiratta Wetesso, Traditional Dispute Resolution Methods in Mao and Komo, Amharic, Unpublished, p. 3.

124 Interview with Ibrahim Mohammed Serage, Assosa, 26/03/2004.

125 Interview with Al-Hassen Al-Mamune, Assosa, 27/03/2004.

126 Interview with Terfa Mengesha, Assosa, 26/03/2004.

127 Tsega Edalew, Traditional Conflict Resolution Through Cultural Tolerance in Metekel.

128 Ibid.

129 Informants: Alboro, Feyessa, Admassu.

130 Addisu Ademe, History and Culture of Shinasha Society 1992, in Amharic, unpublished, p. 12.

131 Informants: Alboro, Flatie, Ejegu, Fasil Ethal, 22, 23, 24/03, 2004, Metekel.

132 Informants: Belachew, Aja, Eyassu, Bery and Hailu, 22, 23, 24/03/2004.

133 Initials are used to protect the privacy of those involved in or interested in the dispute.

134 Informants: Alboro, Flatie, Ejegu, Fasil Ethal, 22, 23, 24/03/2004.

135 These persons are called Iqessa.

136 Informants: Wodesha, Filate, Assosa and Diboti, 20/03/2004.

137 Ibid.

© Centre français des études éthiopiennes, 2008

Conditions d’utilisation :


Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search