By Daniel Teferra (PhD)*

A capitalist state depends on freedom, science, technology and commerce for its prosperity.  The Ethiopian state is a non-capitalist state.  It relies mainly on controlling land and the peasantry for its survival.  The land question in Ethiopia, therefore, is as old as the country.

A Newsweek reporter once asked Emperor Haile Selassie when he was going to implement a land reform program.  The Emperor responded in English, “Not now. Later.” At the time, 55% of the rural population ached a living as sharecroppers paying thirty to fifty percent of their crops in rent.  Forty six percent of these tenants were landless.  Only 9% owned the land they worked.

Once when Germame Neway, an enlightened governor of Wolayita in the late 1950s, began to give land to landless peasants, the Wolayita nobility felt threatened and complained to the Emperor.  Germame Neway was summoned to the Palace and the Emperor asked him why he distributed land at his own will.  Germame replied, “Your Majesty, it is because I am the Governor.”  Germame Neway was then transferred to Jijiga, where most of the inhabitants lived as migratory herders and land distribution was not necessary.

While he was in Jigjiga, Germame Neway plotted a coup against the Emperor in cooperation with his older brother, General Mengistu Neway, and his close circle of friends.  Although the Coup failed, it created a political awareness in the country that supported land and other reforms.

Thus, a ministry of land reform was born to study Ethiopia’s archaic land tenure systems and make recommendations.  However, the Parliament, dominated by the aristocracy and big landowners, blocked repeatedly the passage of land reform bills.

None of the studies produced by the Ministry of Land Reform and other organizations, such as, the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia was heeded in the land policy of Mengistu Hailemariam which completely abolished private ownership of land and made the state the sole proprietor of all land.  Thereafter the peasantry and those who wanted to farm using their own labor were accorded use right only, but not private ownership.  As a result, the opportunity to free land and the peasantry from state control was lost once and for all.  Hence, In 1991, upon taking state power, Meles Zenawi simply applied the same use right policy of Mengistu Hailemariam, overlaid by a lease system that further strengthened the government,  giving it an unlimited power to take back a use right it grants or entirely  terminate a lease if it so chooses.

To the Ethiopian peasantry, ownership of land is more than a source of wealth and economic security.  It is a source of political power and social justice.  The peasantry sees in the ownership of land a kind of job security and assurance that whatever happens, it will at least have food and shelter.  Through land ownership the peasantry hopes for status in its communities, the right to act and speak freely, the opportunity to see its children given education, and the right to share in control over its government.

Property is the foundation for individual rights. In Ethiopia, the issues of individual freedom, human rights and democracy are all tied to the land question.  As long as land remains under state control, the Ethiopian peasantry cannot be free to prosper and influence government to be responsive to its needs. Thus, the first task of the next government should be to implement a genuine land reform program that can create a private ownership of land, enforced by law, so that human life will be improved and democratized and social power and wealth will not be limited only to those who possess a military might.

*Professor of Economics, Emeritus at Ferris State University, presently at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.