Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Name under Ethiopian Law

(Source: Ethiopian Law of Persons:  Notes and Materials

Elias N. Stebek)


Names have the purpose of identifying individual physical persons.  They are among the attributes of physical personality.  The Constitution of the Federal Democratic Ethiopia considers name as the right of every child.  Article 36/1(b) of the Constitution provides that “Every child has the right to a name and nationality.” The particular laws that deal with name of physical persons are Articles 32 to 46 and Articles 3358 to 3360 of the Civil Code.


a) Principle:

According to Article 32, every individual has a family name, one or more first names and a patronymic; and they are written in that order in administrative documents.  


b) Current practice: 

Family names indicate members of a common male-line descent, thereby reducing identity of names. However, family names haven’t yet been introduced decades after the promulgation of the Civil Code.  Certain laws are meant to induce prospective changes in custom.  However, the role of law in social engineering requires pragmatism and synchrony with objective realities.  The provisions of the Civil Code on family name haven’t been able to alter the Ethiopian tradition of using first names followed by the father’s first name (patronymic), a practice that is apparently susceptible to identity of names particularly in view of the current trend of population growth. 


The attempt of the Civil Code to introduce family names in the Ethiopian context seems to have failed to take the Ethiopian reality into account.  An entirely foreign element has been transplanted without regard to the Ethiopian reality.  The introduction of family name was indeed ahead of its time in the 1960 s, but the increasingly growing problems in identity of names require mechanisms such as family names.   


There can be certain unique names in our lineage that might not even have meanings, owing to words that are no more in use.  Such names of our ancestors can be ideal family names. Despite the shortcomings of the Civil Code in its attempt to introduce an entirely alien concept of family names far ahead of its time, we now need to solve the apparent problems inherent in using first name, patronymic, grandfather’s first name etc, because the list is bound to be longer in the decades to come.


Usage of family names was originally a Roman tradition and Ancient Greeks, for instance, used to be designated by a single name.  In the Ethiopian context, the various traditions in the designation of names can be synthesized in the introduction of mechanisms that would reduce identity of names. Lack of efforts to publicize the concept of family name is apparent.  And, the desire to attach one’s first name to a child’s name is indeed pervasive, although the name attached as patronymic inevitably disappears from most records after a single generation.  


About a decade ago, the common practice was using the first name followed by patronymic; and in our relations with foreign institutions, the patronymic was usually considered as the person’s family name (surname).  Due to the growing identity of names, the grandfather’s first name is currently being supplemented in certain administrative documents. As a result, many foreign institutions face difficulties in recording what they consider as surname.  


c) Family name:

      A person born after the promulgation of the Civil Code of 1960 takes the father’s family name.  If the father doesn’t have a family name, the child shall take his father’s first name (patronymic) as his family name.  (Articles 33/1, 36, 3359/2)   

      A child whose father is unknown or a disowned child (33/2) shall have the family name of his mother. The same rule applies where paternity of the child is judicially declared (33/3).

      The manner as to how a person’s family name is determined is stipulated in Articles 3358 to 3360, according to which the patronymic, i.e. - the first name of the father (or the patronymic of a senior male ascendant) is taken as family name.

      Family names of married women and adopted children are determined pursuant to Articles 40 and 41 respectively.


d) Choice of first names  

According to Articles 34 and 35 of the Civil Code, first name is chosen by the father, or, in his default, by the family of the father.  This clearly reflects the traditional male supremacy in one of its absurdly extremist manifestations.  The mother of the child has been put on the third rank in choosing the name of the child ranking after the father and the family of the father, while she deserves an equal status in this regard.


It is only additional first names (Article 34/2) that are chosen by the mother, or, in her default, by the family of the mother. 

e) Forbidden first names (Art. 38)

A person cannot have the first name of the father, mother, brother or sister.


f) Patronymic (Article 36):

      The usual first name of the father is a person’s patronymic.

      First name and family name will be used (without patronymic) where father is unknown, or where patronymic and family name are identical.


g) Change of names:

      Change of family name may be authorized by court (42) where it is applied for good cause and if such change is not prejudicial to third persons.

      Change of first name (43) can be authorized by court upon application.  Unlike change of family name, the condition of good cause or another restriction has not been attached to change of first names.


h) Abuse of name  

The fulfillment of the cumulative elements embodied under Article 45   constitutes abuse of name.  These elements are:

      using one’s own name

      in the exercise of occupational or professional activity

      with the object or effect of causing prejudice

      by harmful confusion  to the credit or reputation 

      of a third person.


i) Usurpation of name:

A person may resist the usurpation of his name (46/1) by another person where such usurpation causes or is likely to cause material or moral damage.

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