Throughout human history, private property has been a subject of debates. In some societies and communities, private property has become a foundation of democracy and freedom. In some others, strict control over property and severe limitations imposed on property ownership and rights created a framework for reducing inequality and eliminating socio-economic disparities. In either case, private property and the right to own property raise not only economic but also moral dilemmas. A person who owns a piece of property becomes a mighty member of society, in contrast to those who have nothing in possession and, for this reason, no motivation or incentive to defend their rights. This is particularly relevant to land ownership, because even a tiny piece of land provides a sense of empowerment, confidence, and optimism about future status and well-being. This is why people all over the world keep struggling to change the situation and enforce the right to private land ownership.
At the beginning of 2016, global media were filled with reports of the land ownership protests in Ethiopia. Some protestors were killed in an organized campaign against the expansion of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, beyond its borders and onto farmland. That expansion was a good reason for Ethiopians to unite around one of their core political goals – protecting the rights of farmers and enforcing the right to private land ownership, Tim Worstall writes. Land issues have come to the forefront of the political and social agenda in Ethiopia, where protests over land disputes have become common. “An important flashpoint for the protests and a significant grievance concerned questions of land and territory under ethnic federalism,” Tom Lavers states. No less problematic are the issues facing farmers who invest considerable physical and financial resources in the land, which they are not allowed to own. It is possible to say that the problem of land ownership in Ethiopia encompasses many different controversies – legal, historical, cultural, ethnic, and political. Above everything, it is a problem of moral aptitude, because private property is an inalienable human right and a distinctive feature of a free society.
Ethiopia currently is a country where private land ownership is a dream rather than reality. Using plain language, the state is the only legitimate owner of land in the country. Worstall describes it as feudalism. Labels aside, the Ethiopian state by keeping land in its hands, it successfully tied rural communities and farmers to its most valuable resources. This serfdom has its origin with major land reform and nationalization in March 1975. Despite a change in the political climate in 1991, the state never gave up its right to own the land. Today’s Ethiopians have the right to use the land on which they live, but they have no right to own it.
Indeed, it does not mean that Ethiopian citizens do not have any land rights. Under the current law, Ethiopians can lease a piece of land for up to 99 years. Regional Governments assume responsibility for redistributing land among land rights holders. Here, “redistributing” is the key word, since anyone who is not an owner can lose his or her land despite the “strongest” guarantees provided by state government. Tenure insecurity is one of the most significant problems facing Ethiopians. This is also one of the key reasons why thousands of them joined land protests in 2014-2016 – farmers living in the outskirts of Addis Ababa could not be confident that they would not lose their lands as the city sought to expand its territory, Worstall explains. The moral status of people who work on the land but have no right to own it is violated.
Without a well-defined policy of land ownership in Ethiopia, its citizens cannot enjoy the benefits of freedom, equality, and justice. One might think that these words sound too pathetic. Yet, there is nothing superficial in the fact that private property is an inalienable human right, Hanoch Dagan and Avihay Dorfman state. According to Dagan and Dorfman, the right to own property is a distinctive feature of any civilized society. It is also a means for people and countries to be part of this civilized world. In this sense, Ethiopia should reconsider its approaches to land ownership, since it does not fit in the global understanding of human rights. A country like Ethiopia can never attain to its ideal of freedom, equity, and democracy without empowering its citizens to own the land on which they live and work. Ethiopian authorities fear that private land ownership will make farmers and rural residents vulnerable to manipulations; many of them may want to sell their property, getting nothing in return. Not only this reasoning is totally false and misleading but also the political elites have no moral authority to pass this unfounded judgment over the Ethiopian farmers. Historical records are replete with the fact that Ethiopian farmers valued nothing more than owning their private land and paying tributes/tax that guarantee this very ownership (“ገበሬ የሚበላው ቢያጣ የሚገብረው አያጣም”). That is precisely why they preferred leasing mechanisms (ወለድ አግድ፤ ገምጦ ወጥ) over and above an outright selling that completely transferred the land ownership. In reality, farmers need the freedom to decide what best suits their interests. Ethiopia should strengthen the rights of its citizens, respect their sound and rational decision-making ability, and empower them to make such decisions about their property. By recognizing the citizens’ right to own land, Ethiopia can finally join the global society that welcomes equality, justice, and freedom of choice.
Overall, land ownership is an area of controversy. In Ethiopia, the state is the sole owner of the land. Farmers and other citizens do not have any confidence about the future of the land on which they live and work. Lease agreements and other land use options do not offer any substantial guarantees. If at all the Ethiopian farmers need protection, it is against the political power elites who are unabashedly willing to impose their misguided moral and ethical worldview over them. The role of the state should not be the owning of land but the protection of the legal, democratic and an inalienable human right of its citizens. The policy to put land ownership under the control of the state stems- not from a completely altruistic motive but from the desire of the state and its political elite to establish effective political control over Ethiopian citizens, the vast majority of whom have stakes in land ownership in one way or another. A right to own land is a feature of a free society. Whether Ethiopia can turn the page and empower its citizens to become landowners is a big question. It is also a good test for the moral integrity of Ethiopian authorities and their willingness to follow a path toward human rights, equality, and justice.
Ed.’s Note: Samuel Alemu, Esq. is a partner at the ILBSG, LLP. His friend, Dr. Abebe Fisseha (PharmD, and PhD.) contributed to this article. Samuel is admitted to the bar associations of New York State, United States Tax Court, and the United States Court of International Trade. Samuel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.