Ethiopia: No dearth of land but a political debacle

September 3, 2018 Africa , Opinion , OPINION/NEWS

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Alem Hailu G/Kristos



It cannot be gainsaid that the land tenure issue across the globe and across the ages has been atop the economic and political debates. What were the trends in Ethiopia during the past three regimes? How does government ownership of land open room for political corruption? Why do people say the issue must be fine-tuned with environmental concerns and that it has to address population boom? What are the best options Ethiopia should embrace further down the road? This journalist approached experts with diverging and overlapping outlooks:


A veteran Journalist, Abebe W/Giorgis, said that if land is owned by a government, citizens will be stripped of a sense of ownership which could result in the degradation of land, strangulation of entrepreneurship naturally coupled with creativity and stagnation of production. Since such a move runs counter to the tide of population growth, starvation will be imminent.


“A government is an entity that signs a contractual agreement to administer a country for a limited time enjoying a go-ahead by the people. Thus, there is no reason why it owns land. If it loses public trust, it is supposed to leave the stage when its tenure phases out. He posed the question: “How could a long-lasting resource be owned by a short-lived government?”


Against the liberal ideology, governments, especially those that embrace socialism or revolutionary democracy, want to own land to extend their life spans subjugating people, who turn out to be economically feeble and hence objects of blackmail.


It was by proclamation Derg owned land. But mindful of the advantage owning land affords it, The Ethiopian People Revolutionary Front (EPRDF) constitutionalized the issues to tighten its grip of power and get the economic upper hand. As a face lift, it is giving user-license to farmers. That doesn’t work, Abebe argued.


He noted, beset by the anxiety “If somehow we tried to bump up production, the government could take our land!” farmers will abstain from exertions that could boost yields. If they go to towns for some time, say for two years, their user-licenses would be revoked to coerce them to stay confined in their locality—to remain farmers in a way that could create extra pressure on farming land in a nation that comprises close to 80 per cent farmers. This way, to be hired as laborers in industries, they could not go to towns letting their land.


On the other hand, citizens who have skills, bent, capital and technological skills could not enjoy the right to develop land going beyond their ethnic boundaries. This discourages the possible intermingling of ethnic groups. The problems that are being witnessed rocking some corners of the country are partly connected with this problem.


Stripped of the transaction of value of land, farmers could not borrow money to develop their land. They have no option other than heavily relying on a rain-fed agriculture that could not keep them immune from starvation in June though they may get better yields in December when prices, due to excess supplies, are on the decline. As farmers do not own modern granary, they could not tackle the challenge.


Besides, land ownership by the government, especially in towns, swings doors open for corrupt practices and blackmailing citizens into the fold of a given political party. Most of Addis’ concrete jungles, which were born into life in a very short period of time, substantiate this fact. In ethnicity-charged politics members of the ethnic group in power could grab much of the land. In extreme cases, under the guise of development, the ousting of already settled ethnic groups by others may surface, which some politicians call ethnic cleansing. Say for instance if ethnic group X that took the grip of power displaces Y & Z ethnic groups from their abode in the aforementioned way, the act could be nothing other than ethnic cleansing.


Costantinos Berehe is professor of public policy, he noted the issue of land ownership came to the political discourse of the country when Derg confiscated rural and urban lands for what it enunciated equitable distribution of land among Ethiopian people. Government’s ownership of land therefore went without saying. But this had a host of problems.


On the other hand, there is an argument that land has to privately be owned so that farmers could put a permanent asset on their lands. With a sense of ownership farmers will be incentivized to plant trees, practice agroforestry and enhance productivity. Hence there is a call for rectifying public land ownership by creating a land-lease system like the ones started in Amhara State, though a question mark hangs over its success.


Land ownership is a controversial issue, it has dynamic trajectories; a serious study is called for. A land use system has to be there. About 40 per cent of the country’s land should comprise forest.


Regarding socialism and revolutionary democracy that espouse state-owned economy, I do not believe there are governments that deliberately impoverish their people. That is a Machiavellian gesture, he said.


He added, there are cases small holding farmers proved successful, according to the FAO. Unlike large farmers they do not destroy the environment. They ensure sustainability.


Contrariwise, big farmers with massive production could help cope with population explosion. We have to opt for the middle ground, he added.


Abebe said that without sense of ownership both options could not be that successful. As to Costantinos in principle, corruption is defined as an element of the state. There is a saying that government ownership of resources is almost tantamount to corruption. Here, it is possible to take the Democratic Republic of Congo blessed with natural resources, but a nation that is wallowing in the quagmire of poverty.


When the government owns land, political corruption might crop up. To win political elites and others to its fold the ruling party may use it. The exorbitant land price say in Merkato— could tempt officials to allow the greasing of their palms with oil creating a bureaucratic labyrinth. Demolishing people’s residential houses could be taken as a fad.


Besides the exorbitant land-lease prices creating pressure on consumers, the majority, as investors, show a bent to immediately cover expenses they outlayed.


As a way forward, there is a need to use a master plan for urban land development rather than focusing on benefits to investors. Governments must enjoy returns in the form of tax, while citizens stand a chance of employment.


During the emperor regime and its predecessors, land was granted to big people who played a role in the spheres of security and the expansion of frontiers. They did try to revamp the agriculture sector bringing into play sugar factories like Awash and Shewa. State farms were there too. The land tenure system was not like the one seen in apartheid. Though the yields from 1/3 of the land were for respective landlords, they were spending the money in endless boons they threw to invite all including the tenants.


At that time 10 hectares of land was allowed to private investors. Derg discarded this embracing the Soviet System. It dismantled social fabrics of considerateness. It even barred room for the 10 hectares land allowed for private development of land.


There is no much difference in EPRDF’s land lease policy. But to redeem the complaint that farmers will be restrained from putting a permanent asset on their land, a lease policy is introduced. Yet farmers could not even use it for collateral purposes. Even micro finance institutions shun the land as they are uncertain to collect their money if the farmers prove bankrupt.


Public country-specific studies have to be conducted. There are pastoral and agro-pastoral areas that have to be taken into account. Study must be conducted based on indigenous systems, cultural norms, pastoral and agro-pastoral ways of life. Region-and-site-specific studies have to be conducted. There is no land problem in the country but a political problem. Citizens must be able to develop land anywhere within the confine of the nation.


In areas where land degradation is manifest due to over tilling—Tigray and Amhara— left fallow, lands must be allowed to resuscitate.


Parallel to this, reinforcing the service sector is necessary. The universities, colleges and vocational schools that mushroomed in the country could play a great role toward this end.


Abebe stressed that if the country is due to leap from an agriculture-driven to industry-driven economy and pass through social transformation the task force must shift from farming to no-farming tasks. To this effect the current land policy must undergo revision. Otherwise the country’s ambition to meet middle income countries will be a pipe dream.





Alem Hailu G/Kristos

A published poet, novelist, editor, translator of masterpieces, literary critic, playwright and journalist from Ethiopia. M.A holder in literature, Addis Ababa University.

Looking for a traditional publisher of a collection of poems. My novel: ‘Hope from the debris of hopelessness’.

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