Land ownership: An enduring headache for Ethiopia
Ethiopia never seems to catch a break when it comes to land and land related problems throughout its political and economic history. Land has been the maker and breaker of Ethiopian politics beginning from the time of Emperor Haileselassie I to the toppling of the Derg, from the protests across the country for consecutive three years since 2016 leading to the division within EPRDF to the resignation of PM Hailemariam Dessalegn and the coming to power of Abiy Ahmed (PhD). But, not at once has the nation been devoid of protests and upraises related to land to this point in time. History tells us that land has been the selling point of political ideals in the country, not to mention it has resulted in the downfall or at least being a serious problem for governments including the incumbent.
Recent developments in the country are telling, in this regard. Two weeks ago, hundreds of houses in LegeTafo town of the special zone of the Oromia Regional State, in the outskirts of the city, most of which were built more than a decade ago on plots procured from farmers with somewhat questionable legality were turned into dust. Although they have received utility services and their village associations were legally recognized by the local administration, the residents had to see their houses demolished since the entire settlements was deemed “illegal” after living in that locality for years and investing hundreds of thousands of birr on their properties.
“We were contributing our shares for the deployment of utility services and development of infrastructure in our locality. We were hopping that the land that we bought from farmers would eventually be legalized one day as this was the practice so far,” says Getachew Eyase, a former residence whose house was torn down along with thousand others.
He bought his 500 meter square plot from a farmer for 170,000 birr, which he himself admits it is much cheaper than the market price. But, through time, he had invested more than 700,000 in building his house and fulfilling other facilities.
The city of Addis Ababa has also displaced many as the government, the sole owner of land in the country, wanted the land for “other priority development investments”.
All these measures, apart from having disrupted the social makeup of the society, have been causes for the political instability of the country.
This also calls for a recent condominium houses lottery draw which tried to transfer houses built on the outskirts of Addis Ababa in surrounding Oromia Special Zone of the Oromia regional state until being halted by political forces in the regional government of Oromia. The basic issue there appears to be former residents of the now condominium site who apparently were relocated to make way for the housing project and have their rights violated in the process; the City Administration of Addis Ababa, albeit after outcry from activities, eventually decided those farmers and theirs descendants should get priority in accessing the housing units ready for transfer. But, not satisfied by this, the youth in Oromia region staged protested opposing the idea of transferring any housing built on lands taken from farmers with small compensation.
But the country has been only giving quick fix solutions for such incidents rather than opting for the long-term lasting solution, experts in the field attest.
A prominent expert and researcher in land and legal right to land in the country, an Assistant Professor of Law at the Hawassa University and the author of the book Transfer of Land Rights in Ethiopia: Towards Sustainable Policy Framework, Daniel Behailu (PhD), says that if land issues are not carefully and properly handled, they will without doubt stop the current ongoing change and reform in the country which itself he says was a result of land related questions.
“The main problem lies in the fact that the country is not willing to think well. It is still following the communist way of doing things. The government is the owner of the land and because of the shallow nature of this government ownership, it had developed the power to give land to anyone deemed deserving and forbidding others who do not deserve it,” Daniel says. “This has created a big scar and distaste in the country.”
Indicating that apart from the urban areas, there are informal land grabs in almost every part of the country including pastoral areas and agricultural lands, Daniel says that such practices which are not recognized under any legal provision have proven to be deadly, as is the case with the 2016 Oromia protest relating to the Addis Ababa and Surrounding Oromia Towns Integrated Masterplan.
Similarly, in an article on Economic Focus, a bulletin of the Ethiopian Economic Association, published in 1999, entitled Revisiting the Land Issue: Options for Change, Dessalegn Rahmato analyses the land issues in Ethiopia as having more meaning than being economic resource.
“Land is not solely an economic resource, and tenure cannot ignore social and political relationships. Land legislation has often been used to promote a specific political agenda, or to benefit the dominant forces in society, many of which often reside outside the farming world. The question of the state and issues of governance are therefore important elements in the debate,” states the article.
According to the article, the main problems of land tenure in the country, which are also shared by Daniel, are lack of tenure security, lack of legitimate institutions to ensure the rights of landholders, discriminatory practices in land distribution and discouragement of the mobility of the rural land population.
For Daniel, the major mechanism to solve the problem is to focus on land administration, which can be better learned from China and other African countries. As he observes, the main source of the problem is directly linked to land policy and lack of institutional establishment for land management and administration.
“There is no institution that works on issues related to land at the federal level. We can even say that land administration has not been started in Ethiopia, yet. In other countries, 50 to 60 percent of civil servants are reoccupied in land related institutions; but not in Ethiopia. This has narrowed down job opportunities and exacerbated property ownership-related issues for Ethiopians,” says Daniel.
Therefore, he recommends a land administration system to be built on four pillars: tenure, valuation, development and use. This will ensure property rights, give proper price to land, bring proper investments and designates proper usages to land.
For instance, he says that places like Gelan, which are prime agricultural lands, would not have been availed for housing construction, creating all the mess the country is going through, had Ethiopia invested on proper land usage mechanisms.
“When Prime Minister Abiy’s government was established, I expected at least for a land commission to be included in the government if not for a ministry,” Daniel says. He is more of in support of having a commission for land as this collection of experts will be able to put a framework for the management of the land in the country.
On the other hand, the ethnic based organization of the federal government is another source of land problem in the country, according to Daniel.
Another expert who requested anonymity also agrees with this assessment. Land is administered by regional governments and hence, as regional governments are organized in ethnic lines, the land in their region is believed to be solely designated for them which do not have to be transferred by any means to people of other ethnicity.
“Regions administer land and it is attached to identity. There is a perception that they are going to be snatched whenever ‘outsiders’ come,” the expert observes. “The issue is much complicated than it seems; we have to see deeper into the way the federalism is organized to the extent of discussing the continuation of the federal system the country follows.”
The expert who talked to The Reporter anonymously says that, he feels that PM Abiy Ahmed’s stance of Pan Ethiopianism and the regional governments’ stance, especially manifested by statements from the Oromia regional state, are divergent and there might be some forces, who are standing in contrast to his goals. The Pan Ethiopian idea which the PM is the proponent of, however, is the only way to solve the country’s land problems, he argues.
As land is owned by the government, land cannot be sold or held as collateral for bank loans. But it is only lack of formal market; there is informal land market in the country, observes Daniel. So far, there have been informal settlements which were through time formalized setting the precedent that informal land grabs will one day or another be formalized. And the source of this all mess is the policy, asserts Daniel.
He, therefore, believes that land should be made transferable through sale as this will give land its proper value and the government should be a regulator.
But, the main argument from the government is that land ownership will be abused by neoliberal forces as it is both economic and political tool. Land also is used as a source of income for the government which transfers, gives and expropriates land at its own will.
This according to Daniel is a lame argument in that, the government could get much better income through property tax and the private sector is much able to quickly drive the economy than the government.
“If land issues are solved, the political problems of the country would eventually be solved for once and for all,” he observes. And, expansion of urbanization will not be something feared but rather longed for as it increases land prices. Farmers will also have security of ownership as they can get access to finance for further expansion of businesses and investments.
But, if the government opts for a separate establishment for land, there might not be enough number of experts to be at the disposal of the government, which Daniel also believes. As the country has also been under communist rule and that lingered for more than 45 years, there might be shortage of enough experts. But, there are enough which can be brought into play for beginning the task. Nevertheless, this cannot be done overnight, he believes.
If the government wants to do the same, there are many donors ready to lend it a hand.
To this support, USAID’s paper titled “Ethiopian Land Policy Administration Assessment” done in 2004 points out that there is a list of potential scope of support it can provide for Ethiopia. These are supports to develop guidelines for the assessment of property rights, examine pastoralist land rights, develop guidelines for property rights for resettled persons, support dispute resolution processes, assist with the development of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, legislation and/or regulations for dispute settlement, support training of the judiciary for property rights dispute settlement and support monitoring and evaluation of changing land use rights.
“They say land cannot be sold and transferred, but what is on the ground is the opposite. Hence, the government has to rethink its policy,” Daniel advises.