unnamedI am celebrating the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta Libertatum or the Great Charter of English Liberties. 

Whoa! Hold it! I understand your question! 

Why is a guy born in Africa (Ethiopia) now living in America  celebrating  a document written by a bunch of disgruntled and rebellious English barons quarrelling with a feudal monarch over taxes and restoration of their feudal privileges in Medieval England 800 years ago?

No, I do not like feudalism or monarchies.  I grew up in feudal Ethiopia. I saw wretchedness, decadence and decay. The first government I ever knew was a monarchy. A swift stroke of the socialist sickle put that monarchy to eternal rest. For me, feudalism and monarchies are quaint anachronisms. I recall reading Karl Marx describing feudalism as the cradle of capitalism. In 1974, the impetuous and feckless junior officers in the Ethiopian military thought they could make a beeline to socialism from feudalism on the wings of martial law.

I am certainly not celebrating the Magna Carta because King John was a philosopher king.  John was the consummate scoundrel. He was treacherous, traitorous,  greedy and cruel. John was the kind of royal villain  who “can smile as he murdered”. They said, “Hell itself is defiled by the fouler presence of King John.”

John was a vindictive tyrant. He arrested, detained and jailed his subjects at will. He exacted outrageous taxes to fill his coffers, sate his greed and wage war so he could enrich himself even more. His “scutage” tax (payment by a feudal landowner to be excused military service  or provide a knight for military service) on the barons and “amercements” (fines) were elaborate extortion schemes.

John was so greedy that he dispossessed his subjects of their land, horses, carts, corn and wood without legal process. He used the Royal Forests as a major source of revenue and made it the citadel of corruption in his reign. He literally sold justice.  Since the royal system of justice had complete jurisdiction over all matters in the kingdom, litigants were required to pay the monarch fees. Depending on the state of  his cash flow at a particular moment, John would regularly sell legal rights and privileges to the highest bidder. John surrounded himself with mercenary thugs who fought his wars. He meddled in the affairs of religion. He was a power hungry power monger.

If my description of King John sounds like the average African dictator or thugtator of the 21st Century, the similarities are not that far-fetched. Today, from one end of Africa to the other, African dictators arrest, jail, harass and intimidate their opposition at will. African dictators use their kangaroo courts to persecute their opponents, subvert justice and even sell it to the highest bidder out in the open.  They dispossess their poorest citizens of their ancestral lands and hand it over to foreign “investors” literally for pennies. They massacre their citizens who oppose them without raising arms.  They jail, torture and exile their political opposition.  They steal hundreds of millions of dollars from their people every year and fatten their foreign bank accounts. They meddle in religion and promote communal strife to cling to power.  They are warmongers  visiting death and destruction on their people. They commit crimes against humanity and genocide. At least two African “heads of state” have been indicted by the Prosecutor for the International Criminal Court.  Like King John, African dictators “can smile as they murder” but they can also murder as they smile. ‘Tis true, Hell itself is defiled by the fouler presence of African dictators and thugtators.

Why am I celebrating the English Magna Carta?

To answer my own question, I have to go back some fifty years when I was a teenager in Ethiopia. I was a bookish type. I was very fortunate to have access to the great works of world literature and philosophy. I was quite familiar with the American litterati of the 1960s. I also read popular works of fiction in Amharic.

I was most fascinated by the law. From a very young age, I was exposed to the world of litigation. I tagged along to observe court proceedings in the high courts in Addis Ababa and other courts in outlying areas. I remember vividly the legal scribes sitting under makeshift kiosks on the side streets outside the court compounds cranking  out pleadings in exquisite Amharic penmanship with a Bic ballpoint pen. I enjoyed listening to silver-tongued lawyers and discerning judges talking and arguing points of law, particularly procedure, and not just in the courtroom.  The eloquence of diction, cogency of arguments and spellbinding  oratory of some of the lawyers and the razor sharp questions and incisive wit of the judges back then left a lifelong impression on me. They were great role models for me.

I read the Ethiopian Penal and Civil Codes in Amharic in bits and pieces, especially after listening to the lawyers and judges arguing about them. I especially liked criminal and civil procedure (sine sirat). The civil procedure code (Fitha Beher) was less than 245 pages bound in a small volume. The criminal procedure code was a mere 69 pages appended to the penal code. Neither was hard reading at all.

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