Why Ethiopia Needs a Land Reform Program

Daniel Teferra*

A paper presented at Ethiopia Forum: Challenges and Prospects for a Constitutional Democracy in Ethiopia, Symposium and Panel Discussion, at African Studies Center, Michigan State University, East Lansing Michigan, March 23-24, 2019.

In Ethiopia, historically, the disparity in land ownership is a major problem that has kept a vast majority of the population in poverty and deprivation for so long.  The land problem is not only an economic problem, it is also a social and a political problem.  To the people of Ethiopia, ownership of land is more than a source of wealth and economic security.  It is also a source of political power and social justice. In countries like Ethiopia, “people see in the ownership of land a kind of job security and assurance that whatever happens, they will at least have food and shelter.  Through land ownership they hope for status in their communities, the right to act and speak freely, the opportunity to see their children are given education, and the right to share in control over government.”[1]

Hence, the question of land ownership is the greatest challenge of a transition to democracy in Ethiopia. There can be no transition to a democracy in Ethiopia unless the land problem is resolved, and the society is equalized.  A fair and just solution to the problem demands a genuine land reform program that will distribute land equitably to the people.  Unfortunately, the various governments of Ethiopia have all failed to achieve this.

This paper will first discuss briefly the land problem in Ethiopia and examine the perspectives of the various governments regarding land reform.  Secondly, the paper will discuss the land reform experiences of advanced societies and the lessons to be learned from these successful experiences.  Finally, the paper will analyze possibilities for a genuine land reform program and agricultural transformation in Ethiopia given the country’s famine vulnerability and overreliance on American food aid.

Historically, the land problem in Ethiopia comprises three parts: The first part was the collapse of the rist (ancestral land) system in the north.  With rapid population growth, rist had long been subdivided into uneconomic holdings.  Consequently, more and more people became landless and destitute. The second part was the high rate of land tenancy in the south, where 46 percent of the peasantry lived as sharecroppers.  At the same time, 33.3 percent of the land was owned by absentee landlords.[2] The third was the migratory herding system, which has been the source of internecine conflicts between cultivators and herders.  As more land was put under cultivation, areas previously available for grazing had diminished, confining growing human and cattle populations to smaller and smaller areas.

In 1961, a separate ministry of land reform was created by the government to study the land problem in Ethiopia.  Thus, a draft legislation was proposed by a committee to reform agricultural tenancy. The legislation was not intended to abolish the onerous land tenancy, especially in the south. “It was merely a minor legislation to limit the maximum share payable by a tenant as rent and the prohibition of personal services as part of the tenancy arrangement. Despite the mildness of the draft, it was not enacted by Parliament,”[3] which was dominated by the landowning class.

Upon taking state power in 1975, the military officers issued rural and urban land proclamations.  For example, Proclamation No. 31 of 1975 abolished with a stroke of a pen all private land ownership from the largest to the smallest holdings without compensation.  “All rist land in the north as well as freehold areas of the south and west, used for cultivation or grazing, was declared the collective property of the Ethiopian people.”[4]

The peasantry was guaranteed possessory (use) rights over the land it presently worked. Only tenants without possessory rights in other land were granted rights over land they presently worked as tenants. “Thus, any person who personally cultivated the land was allotted up to 10 hectares of land.  The Proclamation prohibited the hiring of labor as well as the sale, exchange, mortgaging or leasing of possessory rights.”[5]   

The Proclamation did not alter the free communal pasture system. Instead, it strengthened the old migratory practice by giving herders possessory right over land they customarily used for grazing.  “In the past, grazing lands belonged to the state, a position, pastoralists never accepted.  The government was given a responsibility to improving grazing areas, digging wells and settling migratory pastoralist for farming purposes.”[6]

The military rulers issued another far-reaching Proclamation No. 47 of 1975 to “nationalize” all urban land without compensation.  According to the Proclamation, a household was not allowed to own more than a single house for dwelling.  A household was allowed possessory right over 500 square meters of land. The Proclamation allowed urban tenants to claim “extra” houses or land. The government reserved the right to withdraw possessory rights, not utilized within a specified period. Furthermore, the government reserved the right to withdraw use rights, and required holders of use rights to pay rent.[7]

The military rulers did not eliminate land tenancy as such.  By expropriating all rural and urban land, they created state ownership of land.  Thus, the possessory rights they allowed the people amounted to a tenant arrangement system, in which the state played the role of the landlord. Then in 1991, the EPRDF government converted possessory rights into a thirty-year lease system. However, the lease system did not change land tenancy.  It was a land use certificate, not an ownership title.  Such a system was first introduced in post-1991 Russia where the individual had possessory rights, but the land was still held by the local government.[8]

In Ethiopia, the land use certificate was issued only to “natives” of a kilil (ethnic reservation).  Others classified as “settlers” were not accorded possessory rights. They were forcibly evicted from their villages and towns. This has resulted in ethnic killings, displacement and landlessness of the poor.  In a recent press conference, the Prime Minister admitted that the number of people who had been displaced before he took office a year ago amounted to 1.5 million.  Another 1.1 million people were displaced while he was in office.  The government’s own commission put the total number of displaced people at 3 million, which is more than the population of Lesotho. Those who needed immediate food assistance due to displacements numbered 8.3 million.  Unfortunately, the Prime Minister is not addressing the problem at its source.  The people are fighting over land. Therefore, the problem cannot be resolved without a land reform program.

The government’s native-settler classification, in the first place, is a discriminatory practice, which violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).[9]  It is also antithetical to the fundamental principle of a land reform program.  A land reform program serves two important purposes.  First, it will equalize the society by distributing equitably the predominant asset of early development. This will eliminate a landowning class or government land monopoly so that social power and wealth will not be limited only to the few who possess a military might.  Second, land reform will provide the individual the independence and security of an owner to invest in agricultural transformation and economic development.

For instance, Western Europe achieved agricultural breakthrough by breaking up a communal land into private farms.[10]  Land began to be used more efficiently as a result.  By rotating crops, all the fields could be cultivated, rather than some land lying fallow as had been the practice for several centuries. Private ownership of land allowed enterprising individuals more scope and opportunities for permanent farming and independent experiments.  These changes in agriculture improved productivity to feed a growing population and thereby eliminate the threat of famine for the first time.

The United States showed a remarkable increase in agricultural productivity thanks largely to the Homestead Act of 1862, which created numerous, privately owned family-farm units (160 acres or 65 hectares each) from large landed estates and reserves of unused land. The government made land purchases feasible by making credit sources available.  The homesteader was required to build a home and make improvements and farm the land before he/she owned it out right.  The Homestead Act of 1862 was a strong democratizing measure because it provided the poor the economic base for an upward mobility[11] although it did not work as well for blacks because of racial discrimination.

In Japan, a land reform program lay at the foundation of the country’s agricultural improvement and recovery after World War II.  The American Occupation at the time was helpful for the success of the reform.  The Occupation used its power to enforce the law, which was against the interest of wealthy and powerful landlords.  Consequently, Japan peacefully carried out a land reform program that abolished landlordism and created owner farmers.[12]  Under Japan’s 1946 land reform program, wealthy landlords were given a reasonable price to sell their land to the government. The government then sold the land on credit to the peasants at an affordable price, giving the priority to tenants who had been farming the land.  The peasants were given adequate time to pay their mortgage, and no interest was charged.

In the Southeast Asian countries of South Korea and Taiwan, a land reform program played a crucial role in their rapid industrialization process. The U. S. involvement was instrumental in the success of the reform programs in these countries.[13] In the early 1960s, America invested heavily in land reform and economic development in Taiwan and South Korea.  The two countries were considered frontline states against the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia.

In South Korea’s tenant purchase program, the farmer was given up to fifteen years to pay, and no interest was charged. The farmers embraced the program because they believed that paying for the land would make their ownership more secure. In Taiwan, the U. S. provided about 85 percent of the money needed for the land reform program.  Under the reform program, Taiwan sold public land to tenant farmers at affordable prices. The government severely restricted the size of individual holdings, forcing landlords to sell most of their land to the government.  The land was then redistributed to the peasants. The government won the support of the peasants with its land reform program. Private ownership of land motivated the peasantry. Productivity and rural income increased. The increase in agricultural productivity stimulated the expansion of labor-intensive, small and medium-sized manufacturing firms, thereby providing growth in employment opportunities.

Ethiopia can draw useful lessons from the successful experiences of these countries.  For example, the Southeast Asian countries, unlike Ethiopia, did not engage in a violent land expropriation policy.  Instead, they paid compensations to the landlords and transferred land ownership to the peasantry by arranging an affordable land purchase program. Such a program will be useful for Ethiopia in order to transfer land from the government to the people and address past grievances and injustices thereby restoring faith in the new system.

The Southeast Asian countries forged ahead of Ethiopia because they were, most importantly, able to implement a land reform program and eliminate landlordism peacefully. For instance, in the early 1960s, Ethiopia’s per capita income was close to South Korea’s and Taiwan’s per capita incomes. By 2014 South Korea’s and Taiwan’s incomes were 51.2% and 80.0% of the U. S.’  income respectively while Ethiopia’s per capita income dropped below 1% (see Table 1).

Table 1

Per Capita Income Comparison as % of U.S. Income

U.S. A., Ethiopia, South Korea & Taiwan

Country     1961 % 2014   %
U.S.A. $3,242.00 100 $54,630.00 100.0
Ethiopia $76.00 2.3 $447.00 0.8
South Korea $106.00 3.3 $27,971.00 51.2
Taiwan $116.00 3.5 $43,599.00 80.0

Source: This table is based on information gathered from Higgins, Economic              Development, 1968, Economic Indicators and Wikipedia.

Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world.  It has taken long as a subsistence economy, susceptible to famine during bad years due to inadequate surplus.[14] The government, on the other hand, has been touting a double-digit economic growth rate.  But the economy is producing buildings with borrowed money and imported materials when what is needed is food.

Ethiopia is a food deficit country.  This means Ethiopia imports more food than it exports and lacks adequate foreign currency to purchase food on the international market. For example, from 2002 to 2011, the average annual food deficit of Ethiopia was 1.2 million metric tons (see figure 1).  As a result, Ethiopia cannot survive without outside assistance in bad years.  For instance, in order to fight famine vulnerability, the United States Food for Peace (FFP) program has been providing emergency food assistance to Ethiopia through western NGO’s and TPLF’s Relief Society of Tigray (REST).  Presently, about one million people in Tigray rely on a food for work program for their survival. Ethiopia’s dependence on American food aid has significantly increased since the 1990s (see figure 2).  American food aid may have helped Ethiopia to ward off famine, but it has also deprived the government of the motivation to implement a land reform program and exploit the country’s agricultural potential.

Figure 1

The EPRDF government has not shown any interest in implementing a land reform program.  In fact, the government and its apologists use false arguments against implementing a land reform program. For instance, they argue that private ownership of land will bring back the old landlordism. They argue that land reform is a non-issue because China has improved its agricultural sector under state ownership of land.[15] However, government land monopoly does not eliminate landlordism.[16] China’s family responsibility system in the rural areas is a form of tenant arrangement between the family and the State.[17]

In highlighting the social cost of a government land monopoly, Winston Churchill once said, “Land monopoly is a perpetual monopoly.  It is a mother of all monopolies.  Where land monopoly prevails, the greater is the injury to society the greater the reward to the monopolist.  The State would be blameworthy if it were not to endeavor to reform the law and correct the practice. Land is a necessity of human existence, which is the original source of all wealth.  It differs from all other forms of property.”[18]

It needs to be mentioned that the United States cannot continue to foot the bill for Ethiopia’s food deficit forever because of budgetary limitations.  America cannot stay in the Horn of Africa indefinitely and the strategic alliance with the EPRDF government could one day come to an end. Natural stresses, such as climatic cycles, are problematic in Ethiopia.  Consequently, famine is sure to strike again unless the government embarks on a land reform program and transform Ethiopia’s age-old subsistence agriculture and feed its growing population.

The focus of this conference is on a transition to a constitutional democracy in Ethiopia. The phrase “transition to a democracy” is often mentioned by politicians and academics mainly out of self-interest. It seems there is a glimmer of hope for a forward movement under the current leadership in Ethiopia.  However, emphasizing elections, the government has ignored the urgent need for a land reform program.

Transition to a democracy is not a matter of conducting elections.  It involves more importantly changing the existing property relation in a fundamental way to uplift the poor and equalize the society through a genuine land reform program.  For example, the now industrialized countries laid the foundation for a transition to a democratic, middle class society because they were able to turn land over to the peasantry.

Figure 2   

Thus, the question of freedom and democratic transition in Ethiopia cannot be resolved without implementing a land reform program that can end state monopoly and transfer land into private hands.  Unfortunately, the possibilities for a land reform program in Ethiopia are limited or nonexistent. Therefore, the pressure for reform may have to come from the outside.  For example, the impetus for a land reform in Japan came with the post-WWII American Occupation.  In addition, land reform would not have been possible in South Korea and Taiwan without American push and assistance.

Thus, if America really wants to help Ethiopia as well as protect its interests in the Horn of Africa, giving food aid is not the answer. The U. S. should leverage its food aid to free land from a government monopoly. This requires urging the Ethiopian government to implement a genuine land reform program so that the country can empower the poor and be self-sufficient in food.  This will not be realized, however, unless there is a united voice in the U. S.  by Ethiopian Americans and friends of Ethiopia for what is right in Ethiopia.  This voice should be a legal and legislative advocate and represent more effectively before the U. S. Congress and the Executive Branch the pressing need for a genuine land reform program in Ethiopia.

[1] See Raymond Penn, Understanding the Pressures for Land Reform, Land Tenure Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Reprint Series, No. 7, 1962.

[2] Refer to Ministry of Land Reform and Administration, quoted in Commercial Bank of Ethiopia, Market Report, January-February 1974.

[3] See Harrison C. Dunning, Land Reform in Ethiopia: A Case Study in Non-Development, Land Tenure Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, LTC Reprint No. 97, 1970, pp. 280-281.

[4] For analyses of the 1975 Proclamation, refer to John M. Cohen & Peter H. Koehn, Rural and Urban Land Reform in Ethiopia, Land Tenure Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, LTC Reprint No. 135, April 1978, pp. 5-6.

[5] Ibid., p. 7.

[6] Ibid., p. 8.

[7] Ibid., pp. 27-28.

[8]Refer to Stephen K. Wegren, Land Reform in Russia, Institutional Design and Behavioral Responses, Yale University, 2009, pp. 216-230.

[9] For example, Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.  Article 2. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.  Article 3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.  Article 13. Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.

[10] Refer to Perry, et.al., Western Civilization, New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1981, pp. 538-539.

[11] See Raymond Penn, Understanding the Pressures for Land Reform, Land Tenure Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Reprint Series, No. 7, 1962.

[12] For information regarding land reform programs in Japan and Southeast Asian countries, refer to Grabowski, Self and Shields, Economic Development A Regional, Institutional, and Historical Approach, Second Edition, New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2013, pp. 59-93.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Regarding famine vulnerability of a subsistence economy, see Daniel Teferra, Subsistence Production Behavior and Famine in Ethiopia, in Northeast African Studies, Volume 9, Number 2, 1987, pp. 23-41.

[15] At a conference in Addis Ababa, a high-ranking university official at one time gave China as an example to challenge my position for land privatization in Ethiopia.

[16] The assertion by Dessalegn Rahmato that “Ethiopia’s agrarian reform accomplished its purpose, namely the elimination of landlordism” is misleading. See Dessalegn Rahmato, Agrarian Reform in Ethiopia, Trenton, N. J.:  The Red Sea Press, 1985. P. 9.

[17] Refer to H. Stephen Gardner, Comparative Economic Systems, New York: The Dryden Press, 1988, pp. 378-379.

[18] See Winston Churchill on Land Monopoly, Speech made to the House of Commons on May 4, 1909.

For Further Readings

Churchill, Winston. Speech made to the House of Commons on May 4, 1909.

Cohen and Koehn. Rural and Urban Land Reform in Ethiopia, Land Tenure Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, LTC Reprint No. 135, April 1978.

Commercial Bank of Ethiopia, Market Report, January-February 1974.

Dunning, Harrison C. Land Reform in Ethiopia: A Case Study in Non=Development, Land Tenure Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, LTC Reprint No. 97, 1970.

Gardner, Stephen H.  Comparative Economic Systems, New York: The Dryden Press, 1988.

Grabowski, Self and Shields. Economic Development: A Regional, Institutional and Historical Approach, Second Edition, New York: Sharpe, Inc. 2013.

Penn, Raymond. Understanding the Pressures for Land Reform, Land Tenure Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Reprint No. 7, 1962.

Perry, et.al, Western Civilization, New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1981.

Rahmato, Dessalegn. Agrarian Reform in Ethiopia, Trenton, N. J.: The Red Sea Press, 1985.

Teferra, Daniel. Subsistence Production Behavior, in Northeast African Studies, Volume 9, Number 2, 1987, pp. 23-41.

United Nations. Universal Declarations of Human Rights (1948).

Wegren, Stephen K. Land Reform in Russia: Institutional Design and Behavioral Responses, Yale University, 2009.

*Professor Emeritus of Economics at Ferris State University, still active at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater; teferrad@uww.edu