Wednesday, June 12, 2024
Interview“An outcome of dysfunction”: Where is land policy reform going?

“An outcome of dysfunction”: Where is land policy reform going?

Ethiopia’s scattered and convoluted land administration laws and procedures have long been a touchy subject and an Achilles’ heel to economic development. It is a tangled system that sees both the federal government and regional administrations in charge of administering land, while executive bodies such as the Ministry of Agriculture also hold considerable weight in land use policy.

The complex distribution of responsibility and the blurry jurisdictions that come with it are often cause for inefficient land use and disputes.

Although the federal government launched efforts to unify the land administration system more than a decade ago, there has been very little progress. It has been half a century since the country last saw sweeping land reforms, and experts say it is high time for a new round of changes.

Fanta Dejen is a state minister for Urban and Infrastructure Development spearheading the government’s efforts to realize land reforms and reorganize the scattered land management systems.

With a background in land administration and environmental law, Fanta has led a career in rural land administration, working as an administrator at both Zonal and Woreda levels before joining the Ministry of Urban and Infrastructure Development (MoUID) six years ago.

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Last week, the State Minister attended a forum organized by the Ethiopian Land Administration Professionals Association (ELAPA), where experts presented a study titled “Recommendations for Institutional Arrangement Reform in Ethiopia’s Land Management.”

The Reporter’s Ashenafi Endale conversed with Fanta for an update on the progress in land administration reform and the challenges that lie ahead. EXCERPTS:

How do you evaluate the study compiled by ELAPA? Is the government going to adopt the recommendations or is it waiting for further details?

The study goes in tandem with the government’s efforts for institutional land management reform; it is a very good initiative. But, the way forward needs to be more specific. Should we establish [an office for] land administration at the federal level as a ministry, commission, authority, or agency? The study must specify its recommendations.

The policy makers want a ready-made recommendation. Hence, ELAPA’s study must go further and incorporate the way forward. A clear roadmap is required, that outlines the land institutional reform process. The study also needs to specify which land related legislation needs to be amended. The study must be finalized, and forward with complete recommendations on how the government can proceed with the reform.

Why has the government failed to resolve the land problem, fundamentally? Do you think the land problems in Ethiopia can be resolved with piecemeal measures?

There are several land-related problems in Ethiopia. These are very deep and complicated issues. The government is not denying the problems.

There are a lot of conflicts of interests surrounding land, mainly because land is the source of wealth. There is a conflict of interest between the current and next generation. There is conflict between environmentalists and proponents of development, and between the private and public sectors.

Ethiopia is one of the countries registering rapid urbanization. Ten years ago, there were less than 1,000 towns and cities in Ethiopia. According to our assessment last year, there are 2,500 towns and cities. Of these, only 275 cities and towns fulfill city administration status. The remainder are only eligible for municipality status. Urbanization is growing at 4.5 percent.

This huge growth requires a large amount of land. Ethiopia has no clear procedures or arrangements on how to manage both rural and urban land. This is a big problem.

Urban areas generate the largest portion of Ethiopia’s GDP. Globally, urban areas generate over 70 percent of revenues. In Ethiopia, cities and towns are generating between 55 percent and 58 percent of GDP. Urbanization is growing fast in Ethiopia because the population is seeking a more comfortable lifestyle, and because the labor market landscape is also changing.

As urbanization grows, and incorporates rural lands, the conflicts between urban and rural are also growing.

How can we solve these problems? We must create a unified institution that governs both urban and rural land seamlessly. Other countries have very good land management institutional arrangements. But there are some challenges when it comes to Ethiopia.

ELAPA’s study disclosed that huge land potential is being wasted in Ethiopia. The study discovered the government is losing significant revenue from land transactions because land-related transactions are typically conducted under the table. The study also suggests that the lack of an organized land evaluation system is contributing to a distorted and informal property market. Some regional towns are losing 150 million birr or more in tax revenues annually. Has your Ministry or another government office conducted an assessment on how much revenue the government is losing from land-related transactions? If so, what is the estimate?

It is true that municipalities and city administrations are losing huge revenues from land-related transactions. But since the 2018 political change, we have been doing a lot of groundwork to address the land problems. The government is working on a wide range of reform areas regarding land, creating an efficient and unified land management system that is free from corruption.

Why are the rural and urban land administration systems in Ethiopia separate? What are the challenges this separation is posing?

ELAPA’s diagnosis indicated misalignment and land governance gaps are created because of the difference between rural and urban land management systems. Urban areas are expanding and engulfing portions of rural land. Under such circumstances, rural communities view the urban with suspicion. Brokers, corrupt officials and intermediaries abuse land [administration systems], especially when rural land is integrated into urban expansions. These are some of ELAPA’s legitimate findings.

The government needs to address these issues and we are working on it. Land belongs to the people of Ethiopia, so we must create a system that enables equitable access to land.

If both the federal and regional governments want to create a unified institutional arrangement for seamless land management, what is hindering such a move?

Basically, the federal government has no land. It is the regional governments that administer the land. Meaning, it is the regional governments who are directly involved with land management. The federal government can only introduce the laws, and it is the regional governments that implement those laws.

Regional governments have the right to design their own land management systems, so the federal government cannot force them [to implement policy], but it can assist in the initiatives regional states are taking regarding institutional unification. Oromia is making good progress. We can help other regions to follow suit.

The land management institutional unification will go bottom-up, from regional states to the federal level, instead of top-down. Oromia’s case is a good start. The role of the federal government is only in laying the framework.

Do you think the constitution should be amended to reform the existing land management institutional arrangement?

Of course, there are issues that must be addressed in the land-related provisions in the constitution. But that will be done through time; not in a hurry. There are more pressing issues regarding the constitution and the land issues also will be reviewed alongside.

The constitution is an umbrella of laws. Until an amendment, we can reform land management systems within the available room.

Land management and the property market are growing beyond the government’s regulatory capacity. Urban land, particularly, is in the hands of brokers and corrupt officials. What are the factors that make land administration difficult for the government?

This is an outcome of dysfunction at the lower levels of local government. It is not an indication of government failure. There are gaps at lower levels, where the land service functions occur. The federal government has no direct functional involvement.

The government has laid down a system to govern land equitable, but lower-level government offices are exploiting loopholes in that system. Brokers and officials are working behind the scenes. This is sabotage. The government is working hard to sever the holds of these saboteurs. The government recently took measures against nearly 400 officials involved in land-related corruption.

We do not believe these problems are occurring because of policy defects. Rather, they are attributable to individuals who are abusing the land management systems.

 What is the way forward now? Is there a clear roadmap for land reform?

The Association has taken the first key step. The next step is bringing together all the federal institutions responsible for land administration. Following discussions, we will lay down a roadmap and proceed with implementing a new system that will enable all citizens to benefit from just land management. Our priority is to create a new institutional and legislative arrangement through which Ethiopia’s land is equitably utilized by all citizens.

Does the federal government know which towns and cities are properly administering land?

We would have to identify them because there are so many towns and cities. The land management system also needs to be digitized. Other countries have deployed sophisticated technologies to manage land. It is not easy. Even in Addis Ababa, land registration is not yet finalized.

Has the government decided on land management institutional unification at the federal level? Will it be a ministry, commission, authority or agency?

We will conduct discussions with all stakeholder land institutions to make the final decision.

Which countries are you drawing lessons from for the intended land management reform in Ethiopia?

For instance, I have studied Rwanda’s land management system. I also visited Uganda and Kenya a month ago. I have observed especially Kenya’s land administration, cadaster, land services, good governance  and how they address housing supply problems.

The only applicable lesson we can draw from Kenya is its housing supply system. The rest of it is not a good fit for Ethiopia. Land is privatized in Kenya. There is no government involvement in land issues. Landowners register their land autonomously or through associations.

But in Ethiopia, land is completely under the government’s grip. The government controls everything related to land. In Ethiopia, land is more of a political instrument, and not economically interpreted. The problem is complicated and cannot be resolved at once.

Since the 2018 political change, senior government officials have discussed the land issues, and decided reform is necessary. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) has instructed that we need to privatize urban land, at least. But to resolve land-related issues, we must start by working on the fundamentals.

Ethiopia’s land management system is deeply rooted in the constitution, and there are problems that require a constitutional solution. The constitution states land belongs to the people and state of Ethiopia. Thus, land cannot be bought or sold. This needs to be revisited in light of the reform policies.

We are hoping that these institutional concerns will be addressed through the National Dialogue initiative. Issues that need amendment in the constitution must be amended under the National Dialogue.

There are two opposing stances regarding the constitution. Some argue it should not be altered. Others argue it should be torn apart. The government has to take the middle road, and amend what needs to be amended.

We believe land will be one of the central issues the upcoming National Dialogue will address via constitutional amendment.

There has been a lot of effort made in a bid to unify the land administration system.So far, land is administered by different institutions like the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Urban and Infrastructure Development, and Ministry of Planning and Development.

Regional states, in turn, have their own land administration arrangements. They are also facing problems because they are forced to report to different federal institutions. This scattered land administration [system] critically needs unification. If the institutional arrangement is unified at federal level, it will be simple to unify at regional levels.

There has been a lot of work done to resolve the institutional arrangement over the last two years, but it got stuck at some point. Because those problems are deep, sophisticated and have been there for so long, it is difficult to solve at once.

Thus, instead of starting the unification from the federal level, we decided to start it from regional states. So far, Oromia Regional State has showcased good progress.

All regional states administer land in tandem with other sectors. In some regions, land and natural resources are managed under one bureau. In their regions, it is land and mining; or land and environment, or another arrangement.

Oromia recently established a Land Administration Bureau. The Amhara region is also initiating a similar unification, but it has not been implemented yet. It is only on paper thus far. Other regions have been unable to do the same due to issues related to conflicts and instability. The federal government firmly believes that the land management institutional arrangement must be unified both at the federal and regional levels.

Land administration [policies and procedures] also vary between regions. Land administration in Oromia, for example, is completely different from Amhara or elsewhere. This must all be unified and made seamless.

ELAPA’s study also needs to incorporate the challenges regional states are facing when they attempt to unify their respective land management systems under one institution.

We have to adopt a scientific land management institutional arrangement that fits Ethiopia’s federalism. For instance, the US has a federalist system. Formerly independent states came together and formed the USA. They aggregated. But, Ethiopia’s federalism is by devolution. Federalism created by devolution presents several complications.

Thus, Ethiopia needs a unique land management institutional arrangement. Under this unique system, regional states in Ethiopia can have their own separate land management system. But they must be similar in fundamental land management principles. This way, we can have a unified institution at the national level, with slightly varying characteristics across regions. Otherwise, the problems will persist.

A team of representatives from the ministries of Agriculture, Urban Development, Planning, and Justice, as well as experts from ELAPA and stakeholder institutions, must be formed to prepare the institutional reform. We must sit down and discuss the way forward first. We have to address how Ethiopia’s new policy reform ambitions and land legislation can be harmonized.

Ethiopia has no land use policy. Preparation of a land use policy was initiated during the tenure of PM Hailemariam Desalegn. But the project office established under the Office of the Prime Minister at the time did not finalize its work. Are there any updates on this endeavor?

The land use policy initiative is still active. It is now under the Ministry of Planning and Development.

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