The Prevalence of Moral, Legal Culpability in Ethiopia

Nov 27 , 2018
By Belay Abera

Not long ago, I came across something that should have been strange but all too common in Ethiopia. Around the main square of a town outside Addis Abeba at midday, a friend and I came up against two young boys embroiled in an intense fight with each other.

It was a gory sight to behold. But as the boys kept trying to knock the life out of each other, people gathered around them. Some dejectedly watched, others acted as if they have seen it all before and a few applauded. My friend and I considered breaking up the fight, but in a town that we were new to, we did not think this was wise. And neither were we able to contact the authorities in time to help end the brawl.

The fight soon ended after both were too tired and hurt to continue. One of the kids lost a tooth and was left with skin lacerations, facial swelling and bleeding. But it was the other kid that had the worst of it. Nobody tried to mediate between the boys or stop the violence, report to the police or call for help.

The violence could have been worse with grave consequences. Everyone that looks on during such situations is morally, if not legally, culpable. Most are merely trying to avoid being injured or becoming a witness. Cultural considerations also factor in. Few consider a street fight that leaves either side bloodied a matter for the authorities to get involved in, but something that can be worked out through networks in the neighbourhood.

But people that find themselves in these situations are culpable to the crime committed. They should report to the police, mediate between the parties or try to get help. If this had been the case, those boys would have walked off with their full teeth intact. Unfortunately, there are awareness, cultural and societal factors that guarantee that such situations are not handled appropriately.

Culpable crime is a crime of selfishness. Ignorance of such a crime is a factor, but in most cases, it is people being afraid of having to give witness, too busy to take the time to report the violence.

This is evident in the many harrowing stories of nocturnal traffic accidents, where they are not reported until daytime, not because no one was witness to it, but because passersby did not want to entangle themselves in legal processes. One can also notice variations of this in many people’s reluctance to get themselves involved in crimes of pickpocketing, especially of mobile phones and home burglaries.

Of course, the records of law enforcement bodies and the courts help in dissuading citizens. The speed and efficiency with which either of these institutions works and the unfortunate instances of abuse of power are not exactly incentivising for a passerby to get involved.

But of course that is not an efficient enough excuse not to respect the law, and citizens should be able to contribute their part to the betterment of this country just as much as they expect the government to do its part.

To control the crime, there should be a range of intervention activities to increase awareness within the community on the issue of culpable crime. This is not just through civics courses in schools and colleges but also through the use of mainstream media such as TV and radio.

Giving attention to culpable crime is very important for a developing country like Ethiopia. It helps crime prevention by formalising the process of reconciliation and information gathering. As in other crimes, the government should start to give unwavering attention to the growing legal issues of this manner.

Making the judicial and law enforcement bodies of the government efficient will also go a long way in making the authorities approachable to the public. There are moral questions to witnessing a crime and failing to report it, but smoothing out the relationship between the government and citizens should make it easier to do what is right.

PUBLISHED ON Nov 27,2018 [ VOL 19 , NO 970]

Belay Abera is a public health professional and researcher. He can be reached at

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