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Beyond the symptoms: Why we cannot overlook the land tenure system in Ethiopia

Joining the pieces

According to the internal displacement monitoring committee (IDMC)1 ,about 1,391,000 Ethiopians were internally displaced due to conflict, between January and June 2018.The international property rights index(IPRI: 2018) ranked Ethiopia 106th out of 125 with a score of 4.42 in a 0-10 scale. She took the 18th place in Africa (Rwanda scored 6.56 and came out 1st in Africa, and 32nd in the world) 2. A recent report by the World Bank3 regarding the “ease of doing business”, put Ethiopia 159th out of 190 countries.
Through all the above three reports runs a shared theme, the extent to which countries ensure business confidence and protect property rights. In this piece I will single out the land property right and its contribution to the existing problems in Ethiopia. Then, I will shed some light on the possible “way outs”. Given the role of land in any society’s life and the particular agrarian nature of the Ethiopian Economy, a closer examination on how land is being employed is paramount importance. I believe that the land ownership question is at the heart of the recent political uprising as it was in the late 1960s and early 70s.
“Land to the tiller” marched the students of the late 60s and early 70s. The very same people came to power in 1991 and a ratified a constitution that maintained the socialist land policy of the Dergue and denied the tiller full ownership of a piece of land, ultimately making themselves the new land lords. The negative effects of this decision are haunting the Ethiopian society up to this very moment in different parts of the country. Be it in displacement (remember the millions), low agricultural productivity, conflict, corruption, poor land management, to name a few. However, no discussion is going on, no measures are being taken, and no lasting remedy is being put in place to tackle this critical issue of our day.
In the past, there were hot debates on Article 40(3) of the current constitution which states “The right to ownership of rural and urban land …is exclusively vested in the State and in the peoples of Ethiopia… Land shall not be subject to sale or to other means of exchange “. This has received wide spread criticism from home and beyond. A research report by EEA (2002) says “Major features of the existing land tenure system such as declining farm size, tenure insecurity, and subsistence farming practices, are identified as part of the causes of the poor performance of the agricultural sector”. Similarly, the UN (2014) reported that”… (in Ethiopia) land tenure appears to be insecure due to the limited transferability of land rights; the state still has the ultimate rights to land and exercises the power to do whatever local or national authorities want at any time.”
On the other hand, the ruling party, EPRDF has had two lines of argument: one is the “fair distribution of land” and “historical justice”. Does this match with the reality on the ground? Aren’t the farmers and urban dwellers subjected to the new bureaucratic landlords “the hour and the day “of whose coming “no one knows”? Why do we still import food items despite having a vast fertile land?
The good norm and the facts
Both temporal and spatial experiences are crystal clear when it comes to the critical role of individual property (a secured one) to overall development. This revelation dates back to the time of Adam Smith (in his Wealth of nations) Human beings are driven by incentives-self-interest. Out of this incentives comes economic (market) consciousness which in turn gives rise to efficiency and productivity. The freer the individual to decide with all the resources she/he has, the better the productivity and the bigger the size of national cake. In their far famed 2012 book “Why Nations Fail”, Acemoglu and Robinson argue that “… leaders of African nations that have languished over the last half century under insecure property rights and economic institutions, impoverishing much of their populations”. Indeed, there is a strong correlation between secure property rights and over all development. Nordic countries are at the very top of the IPRI ranking as they are in every holistic measure of progress. And those at the bottom are the ones which sideline the individual citizens from owning property, and those with weak property right enforcement.
Given, the status quo, the rural land registration in Ethiopia has been praised for increasing land tenure security. But, of course, what can be completely cured should not be subjected to a non-stop painkiller. We have a long way to go. And we should start it now.
The wrong way and the bitter fruits
All the highly advanced economies (say group seven) have strong private property enforcement (including land ownership). That helped them own the lion’s share of the global GDP. Is Ethiopia afraid of its potential success? What if she follows suit? Let the Ethiopian state be busy with the matters of its own. The land ownership will be best economized left to the individual citizens for the reasons I enumerate below
According to enormous research findings at different countries in different times, state ownership of land is associated with low productivity, poor land management, weak environmental conservation, insecure land tenure. Ethiopia is not different. Belay Kassa (2004) noted that “…because of the fact that land constitutionally belongs to the state, farmers are rather sceptical to invest in long-term land improvement practices (such as tree planting, construction of anti-erosion barriers, building of ditches and furrows)”.
Moreover, as EPRDF itself confirmed in many press releases, its appointees were found to have been engaged in a grave land related corruptions. As Lord Acton once said it “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The state monopoly over land ownership is most likely to be abused either for political gain, economic benefit or for both.
Another natural consequence of insecure land tenure is conflict. Lack of a clearly defined land ownership can become a source of horizontals and vertical conflict (at times communities quarrel with communities, and at other times municipalities and other administrative ranks come in to direct confrontation with citizens.
The exit (from the problem, and of course, of this article).
Properly redesigning and clear definition of as which part of the land belongs to private citizens, communities, and the public (state) and installing strong enforcement mechanisms will avert the aforementioned bitter fruits of insecure land tenure. This will nurture rapid development in the agricultural sector which in turn will vitalize the expansion of agro industries and the overall economy.
Given our recent experiences and lessons from abroad, lasting peace and sustained development will be realized only when individual citizens are free to play their roles- including fully owning a piece of land.

By Etsubdink Sileshi

The writer can be reached at


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