Wednesday, June 19, 2024
In DepthFifty years on: what have Ethiopia’s political revolutions achieved?

Fifty years on: what have Ethiopia’s political revolutions achieved?

 Half a century has passed since history registered Ethiopia’s first modern revolution, fuelled by students’ chanting of ‘land to the tiller’ as a quest for nationalistic and societal demands that had been brewing since the 1960s ultimately ended in an ideological shift from imperialism to socialism.

The country has since played host to a number of political u-turns, the most recent of which took place in April 2018.

Nonetheless, the key factors that had driven the upheavals, including issues relating to land ownership, ethnic nationalism, and identity politics, still linger. The persistence of these questions has bitterly tested Ethiopia’s efforts at nation building, and at times even threatened to undo what progress has been made. The chains of violent conflict and extreme social and political polarization witnessed over the last several years are just one example of the dangers posed by the unanswered questions.

Today, fifty years into the story, it is worth asking why these problems continue to pose threats to the state each time there occurs a political hiccup. If genuine political changes and revolutions have really taken place, then why has so little been answered?

Scholars have no consensus on whether there really has been a revolution in Ethiopia, and whether there has been successful political change in the country’s recent history. This was the topic of a recent academic debate organized at Addis Ababa University’s Sidist Kilo campus, which was also the epicenter of the student movements that ultimately set off the chain of political and social upheavals that have taken place over the last five decades.

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The differing opinions expressed by the scholars involved in the debate speaks volumes about how divergent Ethiopian academics and historians are regarding the country’s political changes.

The half-day seminar held at the University on May 9, 2024, focused on the economic, societal, and political impacts of the February 1974 revolution. Participants took the stage to put a spotlight on the issues that ignited the uprising all those years ago but remain unresolved and unanswered with a persistent chokehold on the country.

Land ownership, the effects of ethnic politics, and the democratic and human rights issues were the fundamental points of discussion among the speakers at the seminar.

“More than anyone else in modern Ethiopian history, Emperor Haile Selassie I had the opportunity to effect change,” said Zegeye Asfaw, head of the National Dialogue Commission. He was describing a wasted opportunity to realize land reforms without stoking popular uprising.

Zegeye used to serve in the former Ministry of Land Ownership and Administration, helped devise the famous Derg regime reform legislation – Meret Larashu – and participated in the articulation of proclamations tied to the EPRDF transitional government constitution draft. He argues the state’s failure to approve several attempts at land reform played a major role in the end of the monarchy.

These included a series of proposed laws that would set a ceiling on the amount of land that could be held by a single individual, set progressive taxation that would impose higher taxes on landowners in hopes of gradually forcing them to sell portions of their properties to farmers, and legislation that would regulate the relationship between landowners and tenants.

“The first two drafts were shut down by the Emperor’s loyalists, both legislations were hidden in the dark with tight protection to ensure that they would never get leaked,” said Zegeye.

The Commissioner says the draft proclamation that outlined the relationship between tenants and landowners was the first and only reform legislation that was ever allowed to see the light of day at the time.

The draft, put forward by Fitawrari Abebe Gebre, then minister of Land Ownership and Administration, and one of his peers was presented to the Council of Ministers, the cabinet of Prime Minister Aklilu Habtewold, and then to members of Parliament.

Zegeye relates that Parliament’s response to the legislation was split into two camps. One side viewed the draft as degrading to tenants, arguing it treats them as little better than slaves. Others likened the ties between landowners and tenants as those of a family, and opposed their formalization via legislation.

Despite the initial opposition, the draft eventually gained Parliament’s near total support and was slated to be tabled to senators before it was intercepted by the imperial palace’s old guard.

“The experts and nobles invited the minister that was working on the legislation, and he was told that what he aspired for with the draft was a system of confusion,” said Zegeye. “The nobles in the palace discussed and presented the minister with an extensive elaboration on why the draft was unnecessary, and the legislation and all reform plans during the Emperor’s reign were shut down forever.”

Little changed during the short tenure of Prime Minister Endalkachew Mekonnen, except for the formation of the Derg committee on his orders. The committee quickly became the torch bearer of the 1974 revolution, implementing the land reform legislation months after it was shot down by the nobility.

Fifty years on: what have Ethiopia’s political revolutions achieved? | The Reporter | #1 Latest Ethiopian News Today

Derg’s land reform of ‘Land to the Tiller’ nationalized rural land without compensation, abolished tenancy, forbade the hiring of wage labor on private farms, ordered all commercial farms to remain under state control, and granted each peasant family so-called ‘possession rights’ to a plot of land not to exceed ten hectares.

However, Zegeye observes the issue of land ownership was far from settled as it quickly became the central topic of debate for all political entities and armed struggle groups in the country.

Despite these groups supporting the Derg’s legislation, the succeeding EPRDF government approved an amendment in the 1995 constitution that virtually reversed the Derg’s policies and virtually reverted ownership of land to the government.

Those in attendance during Thursday’s seminar asked the panelists whether or not they believed that the question of land ownership rights, the central issue of the 1974 revolution, had returned to square one.

“From the seed of the revolution, the land to the tiller proclamation, we’ve returned to the point where the wealthy are amassing as much property as they like. What’s your point of view on this?” asked one participant.

Zegeye replied with an affirmation that the rural land ownership proclamation, which posits that land can neither be sold nor exchanged, is still effective, ensuring that people still hold authority over their property and shielding them from fraud and monopoly. However, the Commissioner conceded that corruption has festered.

“The widespread corruption prevailing in property ownership is correlated with the corruption plaguing the country,” said Zegeye.

He said corruption is no longer hidden from the public eye, taking place out in the open.

“It’s very disheartening that there is no power that is able to do something about it,” said Zegeye.

The legislative mishaps included in the EPRDF era constitution are often cited as a contributing factor to the rampant lack of protection of land ownership rights. Experts argue that clauses included in a draft during the transitional government era of the early 1990s sought to protect landowners from even government interference.

“In the first draft presented by experts, it was stipulated that while property is under the eminent domain of the state, in the case of extreme necessity and for the ends of public utility, the government may use, alienate or even destroy the property of private citizens, but only after attaining a ruling from a court of law on the necessity and the subject of adequate compensation,” said Zegeye. “This clause did not make it into the approved 1995 constitution.”

Scholars view the absence of this clause as the main reason behind the public’s weakened ability to legally oppose or prevent the state from appropriating property, with arguments over insufficient compensation often landing on deaf ears.

In recent years, discussions and operations surrounding both rural and urban land ownership have become increasingly politicized. The subject is seen both in correlation with politics, as the constitution permits regional state administrations to have the final say over plots within their jurisdictions, while at the same time the need for stable growth of the country’s economy depends heavily on the presence of an effective land policy.

The constitution states that land is a common property of the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia, which complicates project proposals and implementation for the government.

One such instance is with the Ministry of Irrigation and Lowlands, which at the end of March 2024 announced that it was preparing a 25-year national irrigation policy which could entail the privatization of state agricultural projects such as irrigation dams as officials work towards the liberalization of food production in the country.

Hizkyas Dufera (Eng.), a senior advisor at the Ministry, had previously told The Reporter that efforts to realize the policy are obfuscated by legislation revolving around land ownership. Laws granting ownership to regional administrations are a complex issue pushing the Ministry to focus on infrastructure and refurbishing existing irrigation schemes.

Zegeye argues that reinstatement of the disregarded constitutional clause that empowers the public and hands courts power over property decisions is more necessary than ever. He observes that a lack of centralization in land administration plays a major role in intensifying corruption.

“Even in the case of one regional state, there are multiple departments involved,” said the Commissioner. “If we can manage to create one centralized property management system, there won’t be an opening for every other low-level official to abuse the public.”

The issues are prevalent in Addis Ababa as well, where reports of property sales without spousal approval and other due diligence are rampant.

Zegeye cautions that issues pertaining to property and property rights should be viewed with the same importance attached to other economic policy matters.

“Whether it is to effectively implement the existing property legislation or to stop the unlawful evictions, creating a centralized land administration system offers immense benefits,” he said.

The Commissioner stated that property-related corruption has reached such alarming levels that even the idea of dismantling it is cause for fear and concern. He called for Addis Ababa University to organize a general dialogue on the problem.

“Unless the university does this, I think our country will be damaged to the point of no return,” said Zegeye.

Aside from economic and developmental matters pertaining to and arising from the revolution, the scholars gathered at the seminar also delved into the ethnic politics that simmered beneath the class politics that drove the upheavals fifty years ago.

Bahru Zewdie, professor emeritus of history at AAU, observes that the evolution of ethnic politics began during the revolution and matured through the armed struggle that eventually gave rise to the EPRDF.

He argues that ethnic-based struggle had always been a fundamental issue that was further advanced partly as a result of the weakening of multi-ethnic political parties like that of MEISON and EPRP.

“There is no question the ethnic question was a basic one, but the solution and directions that emanated from it had major flaws,” said the Professor.

Beginnings that failed to consider Ethiopia’s societal history, interactions, and geopolitics, a rigid stance that claimed that the perceived changes ought to include the right to self-determination, including the right to secession, were also listed as part of the deficiencies that marred the outcome of the revolution.

Others include the persistence of ethnic-based political struggle, the inability to provide a clear definition of who the terminology of nations, nationalities, or peoples is meant to actually represent, and the unchecked acceptance of so-called liberation fronts without a clear idea of whether they fully represent the interests of the public and the people they claim to be fighting for, and the tendency towards armed struggle before exhausting peaceful resolutions.

Dima Negewo (PhD), veteran politician and current member of Parliament, observes that Derg’s success in squashing urban struggle and protests as well as divisions within EPRP – most of its members being from urban areas – have served to embolden ethnic-based struggle groups.

“These groups could speak the farmers’ language, move how they move and narrate what they want to hear,” said Dima. “Meanwhile, the urban struggle was put down by Derg to the point where the only choice the youth had was to get killed, imprisoned, or join armed resistance groups.”

The damage inflicted during the Derg regime has lasting consequences today.

Dima argues that separation between state and government, and government and party must have clear demarcation if the goal is not to repeat history and move forward. A tendency to view power as absolute and not something up for sharing is another area that needs immediate correction, according to the MP.

Aregawi Berhe (PhD), a founder of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) who returned to Ethiopia in 2018 after more than three decades in exile, argues that the birth of multiple ethnic-based groups was instigated by a failure on the part of the student movement of the 60s and 70s to formulate organized governance systems to take over following the revolution.

“The ethnic political groups were created based on friendships and proximity, with this and the lack of a free and stable political culture, they were forced into armed struggles,” said Aregawi.

He observes there were close to no efforts made to eke out differences and hold dialogue before everything began inching towards armed conflict. Aregawi also sees that the tendency towards violence persists, and argues that only national consensus can bring an end to the dilemma.

Disagreement and the lack of consensus among elites is also reflected on the wider public, causing the deterioration of social fabric via the extreme narratives that have taken hold in recent years.

The federal government hopes to settle these issues through national dialogue and transitional justice initiatives that are in the process of implementation following two years of devastating violence in northern Ethiopia. Time will tell if the strategy pays off.

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