Case Study: Ethiopia

The Role of Local Courts in China's Engagement with Ethiopia

Dr Miriam Driessen


This case study examines the evolving role of state courts in solving disputes between Chinese and local actors in Ethiopia - a key Belt and Road country. Field research was carried out in 2020 in three regions: Tigray, Amhara and the capital Addis Ababa, and analysis of the data is on-going.

In such disputes, litigants include, on the Chinese side, construction and manufacturing companies and Chinese nationals, and on the Ethiopian side, subcontractors, suppliers, vehicle rentals, landlords, government bodies and Ethiopian individuals. Interviews were held with legal professionals including judges, lawyers, prosecutors, and court support staff, and lay Chinese and Ethiopian disputants, and archival material was analysed for various courts at all levels of jurisdiction, from the first instance courts to Ethiopia’s federal supreme court. The full spectrum of court cases, from labour disputes to contractual issues, and from tort cases to family cases, was considered.

Although originally looking at the range of dispute resolution processes, including negotiation, conciliation, mediation, and arbitration, it became clear early on that adjudication is the most common approach used by disputants in Chinese-Ethiopian interactions. Indeed, the main finding of this case study is that the state courts are now playing a pivotal role in solving conflicts between Ethiopian and Chinese actors. The question is why?

The most important reason is that state courts, backed by the police, can force Chinese litigants to attend court and enforce their rulings. Court decisions are binding. While the attitude of Chinese litigants was initially marked by avoidance, as they demanded legal immunity in return for their contribution to development, their learning curve has been steep and many have reluctantly come to comply with court orders and regulations.

It is also the case that Chinese actors are not interested in solving disputes in other ways, unless there is some benefit to them. At the one end, commercial arbitration is often expensive, and at the other end, customary ways of dispute settlement are ineffective. As outsiders, the Chinese do not respect the Ethiopian community elders who traditionally act as conciliators and mediators, neither are they sensitive to the social punishments of stigma and gossip. Ethiopian plaintiffs realised early on that their traditional ways of settling disputes would not work when dealing with Chinese actors.

Hence the courts are central to facilitating, mediating and adjudicating Chinese-Ethiopian interactions and the disputes that arise from them. They also assume an important communicative function, as they bring the two parties together who usually, due to language and cultural barriers as well as conflicting interests and stakes, communicate very little. The courts ensure Chinese company managers to listen to Ethiopian parties, and in the process, force Chinese management to respect the law and the rights of the Ethiopian party, whether they are a labourer, a peasant whose land has been damaged by construction work, a manager of a subcontractor, or a local official.

This case study is revealing the central importance and value of state courts in the resolution, and in some cases avoidance, of disputes between Chinese and local actors in Ethiopia. While more complex disputes, especially those in which the financial and political stakes are high, may be solved through diplomatic negotiation and international arbitration, this study is probing the reasons why day-to-day disputes between Chinese and local Ethiopian actors tend to be settled in district, provincial, and national-level state courts, and how these courts are playing a pivotal role in building trust between the two parties.