Decades of Ill-advised Land Policies

Ethiopia does not suffer from a lack of weak economic policies. A consistent and persisting feeble policy is in land administration that denies ownership of land to the citizenry, writes AMBESSAW ASSEGUED(

The aristocratic household of Dejazmatch Ayalew Sebsebe, who owns a great expanse of feudal land tenure and urban properties that stretch from Bale Goba in the south to Ankober in the north, is the natural target of the Dergue’s decree to abolish land and property ownership.

All the possessions of the family are snatched away by the government except for a single residence in one of the most coveted neighbourhoods of Addis Abeba.

The story begins almost half a century ago when the Dergue, the military junta that dethrones Haile Selassie, decrees the abolishment of private land ownership and confiscates all private properties away from the citizenry.

With that decree and the clever, but cunningly deceitful slogan of “land to the tiller,” Ethiopians enter the age of dispossession of the land that lays underneath their feet.

Some two decades later, after rebel armies push out the military junta, they too reaffirm that land belongs to the government.

With this declaration, any hope of property claims by former landowners is extinguished. What follows is an Ethiopian inheritance saga, where the squabble among siblings and relatives reaches a scorching boil.

Dejazmatch Ayalew’s nine children all live in the diaspora. And like all the others of that desperate generation, they see opportunities with the new government in Addis Abeba and covet to return to Ethiopia.

But only one of them, a daughter, returns from America and takes up residence at the old family home where the Dejazmatch’s widow still lives. The daughter moves into the home with her two children and a husband in tow.

The old widow lives with her daughter’s family for a few years and dies without a proper will. The daughter takes control of the house and household, dismisses long-serving retainers and leases the villa and compound to French expats before returning to the United States.

An inheritance squabble ensues between the siblings. Meanwhile, the daughter collects rent in hard currency and ignores all demands to share the income or divide the house with her siblings. Eventually, the siblings file a civil lawsuit against the daughter, which ends up in the High Court at Ledeta.

The lawsuit wallows in the courts for years until an order is finally issued to have the court itself divide the property among the siblings.

There are many other stories of diaspora siblings waging inheritance battles from abroad, and a whole new breed of businesses that facilitate the fighting have sprouted.

There are the lawyers, notary agents, document handlers, paralegals, document carriers, and not to mention the many friends and family members that are corralled into shuttling money, messages and files back and forth from abroad to Addis Abeba and many other points.

This inheritance saga may have still arisen whether the Dergueconfiscated private properties or not. The misfortune is that after the proclamation of land to the tiller, the peasants in the countryside got hold of a piece of land to till but not to own. The city dwellers, meanwhile, witness the slow descent of their neighbourhoods into decaying slums of government tenements.

The new leadership that takes over the Dergueand assumes the reins of power faces a nation roiled in the uncertainty and confusion of land ownership. But they fail to put in place effective land policies, proper institutional safeguards or checks and balances to address the issue to the satisfaction of the citizens.

Without much pause and in quick succession, the entire populace of the nation is effectively dispossessed by declarations and proclamations that assert land belongs to the government. Ethiopians are expelled from land ownership and made lease-holders and renters, and these government decisions turn the entire country into one large tenement.

The promise of the slogan “land to the tiller” proves to be illusionary, as most slogans are because the tiller can be removed from his land at any time by a simple document signed by an official.

Urbanites have not fared much better either, as has been shown by the wholesale destruction of historic neighbourhoods to allow the construction of hotels, high rises and roads.

The merit of disowning Dejazmatch Ayalew from ownership of large tracks of land and properties is a moral conundrum. What happens to the property once it falls into the hands of the government is an existential dilemma for the people of the country.

The logic that government can, without due process, remove citizens from their homes and lands; calculate and determine, entirely on its own, the value of compensation it pays for loss of property and livelihood; and then turn around and lease the same property for several times more than what it pays in compensation to the inhabitants is troublesome indeed.

Perhaps, we can learn from Emperor Menelik’s policy of Balehebet Erga, a proclamation he issues when he established new territories. Essentially, it orders everyone to stay put within the status quo, a method of creating stability and confidence among the population.

The government can withdraw from land ownership by simply declaring Balehebet Ergaand turning Qebele tenements into private ownership. Similarly, rural land can be given to the farmers who are actively engaged in cultivating it. That might be the logical way to create wealth in Ethiopia.

By Ambessaw Assegued  (

Published on Aug 25,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 956]



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