As you very well know, the Eritrean traditional laws in general and Ftih Mehari (Mensa’s traditional laws) in particular had been practiced in Eritrea way before the Europeans set their foot in the region. Despite the fact that they were illiterate, our forefathers were evidently advanced and forward thinking in the way they formulated their laws and put them into practice. I am fascinated by the way they reached decisions through shared and participatory governance and consensus. It was a system that encouraged broad participation which should be emulated.
Ftih Mehari’ s laws, just like any other Eritrean traditional laws, were handed down verbally from generation to generation until Carl G.Roden, a Swedish missionary, compiled them in Tigre in a book format which was published in 1913. The book was translated into Italian; widely circulated in Europe and became sociologists’ sensation. Incidentally, I have made an observation that Ftih Mehari’s articles have some striking similarities with some Western or American laws. So, the question is who copied whom? According to several indicators described below, there is compelling evidence that Westerners have copied our forefathers’ ingenuity in formulating portions of their modern laws.
Taking communication and literacy barriers of that era into consideration, one can safely conclude that there is no way our forefathers could have copied the Westerners. Our ancestors’, especially Mehari’s, innate knowledge and capacity of traditional laws were astounding. I learnt from other relevant readings that Mehari, the chief architect of the laws, was profoundly well- versed in law and, as a result, he produced collections of considerable merit. Ftih Mehari has a total of 83 articles. Below is a short rough translation of Ftih Mehari sample articles translation, randomly selected, that I have drafted to share with you some of the similarities.
Ftih Mehari Article 22: A father may make a proposal to apportion, while living (Living Trust), a portion of his wealth or property to anyone he desires by designating beneficiaries. As he nears to death due to sickness or old age, he summons his first born son to apprise him about his wishes of distributing or allocating part of his property (land or cattle) to the beneficiaries. The beneficiaries could be his children and/or other relatives. Nevertheless, his first born son’s consent is essential in order for the designation to move forward. If the son assents to the proposal, the father calls witnesses to reaffirm his Will. This process constitutes a contractual obligation between the father and the son. Only then his “Will” becomes valid, binding and enforceable. During the process, the father discloses all his outstanding debts as well as money or assets owed to him. Upon his death, his family honors the expressed verbal contract to make the agreed upon distribution of wealth as well as paying all debt obligations.
The American Version: Estate Planning is the process of anticipating and arranging, during person’s live, for the disposal of their assets. It is also referred to as Living Trust or Will because people can assign beneficiaries while they are alive. Advanced medical directives and durable power of attorney may also be established during this time to give authority to the trustee or administrators to make important medical decisions when and if the trustor is incapacitated. This process also eliminates any uncertainties of administrating the estate in the future.
Ftih Mehari Article 26: Orphanage: Orphans have the choice to stay with foster parents or with relatives of the deceased parent/s. This was a result of an amendment that made during Kentebay Bimnet’s reign. Before the amendment, orphans were raised by an uncle (from the father’s side), if the mother was to be re-married. The purpose of this amendment was to not let the children be raised by a step-father.
The American Version: States have rigid and strict laws regarding foster parenting and adoption laws.
Ftih Mehari Article 49: The community (Adi) has a blanket power or authority to take pieces and bits of lands surrounding a road for a public use. The road is called “Gebey 40” in Tigre, meaning Highway 40. The names implies that the road belongs to the community (Adi) at large and thereby it should be maintained by collective efforts of the community.
The American Version: Eminent Domain. The State or national government has the power or authority to take private properties for public use such as highways, schools and/or parks by compensating owners with fair market value. In other words, land is given up for the common and greater good.
Ftih Mehari Article 57: A purchase of land: A purchase of land requires three witnesses in order to be legally binding. However, the buyer shall have three (3) days or 72 hours to regret the transaction and has the option of cancelling the purchase if he/she wishes to do. This is considered to be a cooling off period for the buyer to withdraw from the commitment without repercussions or ramifications.
A purchase of mule, horse, bull, jewelry and clothings does not have a cooling off period because they have to be tested or fitted before purchase. Once the transaction is consummated, the items cannot be returned; no cooling off period.
American Version: Purchase of land or home: The purchase of land or home (mortgage) has to be notarized in order to be legally binding. The law gives the buyer 3 days or 72 hours to cancel the contract. Again, this is considered a cooling off period for the buyer to back out of the contract without penalties. In other words, the buyer has three (3) days to cool off.
A purchase of vehicles: Once a contract is signed, the sale is consummated and the vehicle is driven out of the lot, a purchase of vehicles does NOT allow cooling off period. Usually, car salesmen encourage buyers to test drive a vehicle before they commit themselves to a purchase. There is a saying, “Buying a car without a thorough test drive is like getting married before your first date.”
Ftih Mehari Article 59: The purchase of land or cattle requires a surety bond or guarantor to protect the buyer or consumer from fraud. The guarantor or the bondsman should be a relative of the seller. If the cattle sold is not in a healthy condition, dies consequently and the seller cannot be found or refuses to return the money to the buyer, the buyer can go after the guarantor or bondsman of the sale. Any loan that has a life span of more than a year requires a guarantor.
The American Version: In lending agreements, collateral is a borrower’s pledge of a specific property to a lender to secure the repayment of a loan. Secured lending is required for mortgages.
Ftih Mehari Article 69: Rendering Justice: Efforts are made to settle all disputes and grievances out of court through witnesses, arbitration and/or oath before they go through court proceedings. For example, marriage disagreements or conflicts could be managed or contained by separating the husband and wife for a brief period of time known as “beki” to allow them to cool off and come back to their senses. The next step is to assign the case to the most sagacious and able people who have the capacity and patience to resolve the conflict. This is a prudential way of strategizing to move from conflict management to conflict resolution. It makes a perfect sense to first contain or manage the conflict before you attempt to resolve it because not all conflict are resolvable.
American Version: Settlement of Court Cases: Court cases may be settled out of court through arbitration and/or mediation with a mutual agreement of both disputing parties.
Courts order injunctions or restraining orders to put the conflict under control. In other cases, they suggest separations to cool off the situation before they proceed with divorce proceedings.
Ftih Mehari Article 71: Animal abuse/cruelty and borrowing: Animal abuse is punishable by law under any circumstances. Also, a horse, mule, donkey or bull can be borrowed for a short and specified period of time for transportation or plowing the field. If the animal dies within the contracted time, the borrower is not required to compensate the lender. However, if the borrower keeps the animal more than what the contract allows for and the animal dies while in the possession of the borrower, the borrower must compensate the lender with a fair market value.
American Version: The Humane Society prohibits the cruelty, abuse and neglect of animals and violators are punishable by law.
Ftih Mehari Article 82: Arson– If a house is burned down by a work of an arson and results in a loss of life, the arsonist shall be given a death penalty. But, if the loss is only property damage, the arsonist shall be obligated to pay 120 cows to the owner of the house.
The American Version: The act of deliberately or intentionally setting fires into buildings or vehicles in the intent to cause damage is a criminal act and punishable by law.
Other practiced tradition: A person/s can pass through others property without permission to get access to his land.
American Version: Easement (right of way): An easement is a non-possessory of use and/or entry onto the real property of anther without possessing. Example: A Utility company can go to your backyard to check meter readings or fix electricity pole or going fishing by trespassing other’s property.
Other practiced tradition: People whose properties lie adjacent to waterway have the right to divert/use water. Good example: Sheib, Ansaba River, Gash River, Chomarat, Gebena and other localities.
American Version: Riparian Rights- A system for allocating water among those who possess land along its path.
Other practiced tradition: If a person defects or seeks refuge to the Mensa land from other parts of Eritrea, Kentebay Adi/ the community leader convenes the Adi/community to look into the matter. He or she shall be interrogated according to the local laws. If the defection was due to a dispute with his locality, the Adi/Baito or the villagers’ conference tries to reconcile him with his locality/Adi before they extradite him. If they can’t reach to an agreement and they are convinced that the asylum seeker’s life is in danger or jeopardy, the Kentebay asks the Baito to find him a sponsor for a year. The sponsor looks after him, providing him with food and shelter for a year. After a year, his case will be reassessed. If he has shown good citizenship during the year, he will be allowed to stay in the Adi. In other words, he will be given a residence permit and land to toil until he becomes economically self- sufficient. Thereafter, every year, the settler gives abusinti tesmi (a liter or so of butter) to his sponsor as a way of his gratification.
American Version: Giving asylum to refugees and issuing them green cards after a year and eventually citizenship if they demonstrate good citizenship.
Finally, Ftih Mehari concludes its articles with article # 83 which addresses an Amendment clause. Only five articles had been amended up to the time the original book was published in 1913. These five amendments were made during Kenteby Bimnet’s reign. This slow and gradual process of amending laws validates the notion that bylaws or constitution is NOT a living document that can be amended frequently at a whim of individuals. It requires absolute consensus ad idem and meeting of the minds.
American laws: Almost all bylaws conclude with Amendment article and requires an overwhelming majority to go through the ratification process.
I hope this brief translation will instigate talking points to a new level and instill the desire to explore ways to take a daunting task of translating the entire book of “ Dgim Kilie Mensa and Ftih Mehari” into English so that our youth will have a better and complete understanding of the history and ingenuity of our forefathers.