Urban land lease legislation: the prime minister’s new front against urban dwellers By Keffyalew Gebremedhin

February 9th, 2012 Print Print Email Email

This time, it is so naked, but not because of the usual TPLF/EPRDF recklessness. The controversies arising from the new urban land proclamation, be it for their substances, intentions and the manner they have been railroaded into parliament, have pitted the regime’s powerful figures and their agents against the millions!

This might have not been a fight the Meles regime would have wanted to pick now. It only burst on its face willy-nilly, as it tried to get the draft legislation stealthily approved through the backdoor on the second day when parliament members returned from holiday around mid-October, i.e., without reference to a relevant main committee. Of course, the MPs were back physically then, but not mentally.

Get me right. In stating this I do not mean to give the impression that discussions in parliament have been helpful to date in advancing the interests of the people against any unwanted legislations that habitually are shoved down their throats. No way, it cannot happen, since 99.6 percent of MPs are beholden to the ruling party for their survival.

Consequently, in stage-managed legislation in parliament what the ruling party tried to avoid was alerting citizens that, as co-owners of lands with the state, they were being deprived of their property rights, with no public consultations or discussions.

On this matter, in its editorial of 23 October, Addis Fortune eloquently captured the essence of what I am struggling to say. It observes:

Critics are proved right. Little debate prevails in the EPRDF dominated parliament than protocol. It all runs dry. Party loyalty overshadows reasoned representation and interest based deliberation remains a pipe dream. Legislations are serving to put governmental intent into laws.

How such behavior has been reflecting badly on government credibility and ‘its’ parliament requires no further discussion, since it adds little to what has already been known.

Why fear discussion within parliament?

Nevertheless, the approach of the regime on urban land lease legislation has shocked Ethiopians throughout the country, according to tidbits of news filtering out of the country. It would be an understatement to say that Ethiopians are enraged. That is why they now are bracing for a showdown, the defiance of which has already been registered since last November/December.

It is something that signals people have had enough of the overreach by an arrogant regime that neither has a sense of proportion nor limits. If what is gleaned from the various pretentious discussions over the fait accompli legislation between citizens and officials, conducted under the aegis of Mayor Kuma Demeksa of Addis Abeba and Urban Development and Construction Minister Mekuria Haile, is correct, the fearless resistance of people from all walks of life and age groups conveys the sense that Ethiopians are resolved to defend their rights.

Irrespective of its outcome, in looking back this incident time would come when it would be considered a watershed moment that a gentle and tolerant people have served unmistakable notice to an arrogant state power that lacks the wisdom to realize that there is limit to everything.

Even in this situation, the danger now is that this would only add up to the smoldering undercurrents of dissatisfactions and anger — indicators of the collision course the country has been on internally on account of the deepening poverty, insurmountable cost of living, rising inequality, and privileges proffered on the few on ethnic basis and undue exploitation of the country’s agricultural resources by a few investors on the basis of unequal benefits.

Certainly, in a country where consultations are scarce between policy-makers and citizens, this negative development has been the product of the gulf that exists between aspirations of the people and a regime obsessed with its uninterrupted stay in power. Therefore, whatever the regime does, there is little trust and confidence in a situation that each side is bidding for the best moment to show what it wants.

When the TPLF–led EPRDF officials could not stand the heat of public anger, Urban Development and Construction Minister Mekuria Haile chose the usual route of the regime: blaming others for the confusion. Thus, he accused the media of not “not providing clear and correct information”, “popularizing the proclamation [because of which] wrong interpretation and complaints about the proclamation have been raised”. Of course, the media isnot or cannot be in a position in that country to defend itself when used as scapegoat for the confusion the officials themselves created. They have to take it lying down!

As it happens, the regime has seized its moment through this land lease legislation to completely stifle any public reaction or uprising. This is because there is only one correct view in Ethiopia and only one truth — the regime’s!

Consequently, in a revolt of the first kind this has caused now on one hand this has evolved into a situation where the people have taken offense by the actions of a government are no longer willing to watch it passively. They strongly feel that they have been held down this long by a regime as determined to make sure that either everyone dances to its tune or face the consequences. In responding now negatively, though calmly and legally, people are showing that they can no longer put up with this behavior.

On the other, their indifference to the voices of the people the officials who run the country hardly see themselves and their role being serving the interests of the people. This has now emerged as yet another evidence of their mode of governance with contractual terms that reflects only their own interests, not the people’s.

What could be Meles’s motive in coming with the land lease legislation now?

More troubling, however, to the future of the country is the fact that at every stage the regime has hardly shown interest that it values national consensus as indispensable tool of good governance, national development and social cohesion. This has left many wondering why it should always prefer controversies and heavy-handedness as its chosen governance strategies.

For instance, this urban land lease legislation has been on the political plate for a while. In his March 2011 press conference to Ethiopian journalists, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi stated that the existing urban land legislation “does open the way for transfer of lease right which could lead then into the speculation in urban land. The intention of the law was not to encourage speculation in terms of urban land ownership.”

As far as he is concerned, therefore, “There are two actors; on the one hand the private sector developers who were effectively engaged in grabbing the land that does not belong to them in any legal sense and misusing the land lease rights that they were given for personal profits and speculation and there were government officials who facilitated such activities or at least turn a blind eye while such activities were taking place.”

If that is the situation, then is it not appropriate that one should ask him why punish the entire society by going against the grain, i.e., the legislations that have been in place since 1975 and have evolved practices and customs in the course of nearly two generation, which entitles them important place as the laws?

In that press conference, the prime minister indicated that as at the beginning of 2011 there have been a few critical issues that have deprived him of nights sleep. From his perspective, these situations have been described as having serious implications in “determine[ing] stability and progress in Ethiopia.” These situations are:

(a) meeting the financial requirements for the implementation of the growth and transformation plan (GTP),
(b) whether there is capacity in the country for the implementation projects,
(c) combatting inflation over the medium-and long-term, and,
(d) ending speculation on land and land grabbing.

These in turn give rise to the question whether the land legislation is driven by the state’s need to raise more revenues. It also gives credence to the insight of those analysts that long ago recognized that the actions of the Ethiopian state are consistently motivated by its desire to squeeze more money from citizens, including the abuses by the tax administration; I state this without denying that the tax base in Ethiopia is one of the narrowest in the world. However, for the first time early this month, at the height of the hues and cries of taxpayers the director of the office openly admitted before parliament about the existence of misuse of its powers, for which, as usual, the blame was thrown at rent-seekers in his office.

There are others that believe that this land lease legislation is driven by the regime’s success in rural areas, where it has ensured its control of the rural populace. Throughout these years, the rural population ‘has been kept loyal’ under the fear of losing their lands or not getting farm inputs, if they did not vote for or cooperate with the ruling party.

Those who see it from this angle are convinced that political extortion has been the regime’s modus operandi all along outside urban areas across the different aspects of Ethiopian lives. We heard on the eve of the 2010 election reporting by foreign journalists and researchers of the reach of this shameful practice even the ranks of aid receiving hungry people afflicted by man-made and natural disasters.

Now in the wake of the Arab Spring, those analysts say, the regime is in need of silencing suspected pockets of resistance to its power. They strongly believe that that it is the reason why it has turned its attention to urban dwellers. In order to achieve these objectives, under the guise of fighting corruption and speculation on land it has brought its “proven” control mechanism to the cities. Since then, this legislation Damocles Sword has been suspended on the heads of urban residents that from day one have shown distrust of the TPLF-led EPRDF. Their choice now is to lie down and take it as it comes or suffer the consequences of not cooperating with the regime.

There is no doubt that the manner it has gone about this is unbecoming of a state and statesmen. Mind boggling is the extent to which the regime becomes political insensitivity when it thought it was smart in what it has been doing. Unfortunately, it has only presented itself as legal illiterate and politically amateurish.

When would governance become transparent in Ethiopia?

If we assume for a momentthat laws govern Ethiopia, one thing they also constantly hammer, why should the reality be any different from that as regards the motive and the manner this legislation walked in? As far as I could tell, the reality is that neither are the 1975 proclamations of the military regime rejected after the TPLF seized power. Nor has the constitution in force in any manner changed the provisions of those laws that affirm land is public property in Ethiopia. Under the TPLF-led EPRDF regime, the meaning of ‘public property’ has been increasingly rendered to emphasize the place of the state, as if it is intended to mean exclusively state ownership. In fact, in Article 40 of the constitution launched and approved by this regime, citizens also have as much right as co-owners, as discussed above.

That article also clearly reiterates its recognition of “the right to the ownership of private property.” Moreover, it provides for:

The right to ownership of rural and urban land, as well as of all natural resources, is exclusively vested in the State and in the peoples of Ethiopia. Land is a common property of the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia and shall not be subject to sale or to other means of exchange.
This does not in any way suggest that the search for solutions to the problems of speculation on land should end up with expropriation of the co-owners’ share, as the secret approval process the new legislation went through seems to suggest. It is in black and white with video recordings that already in his March 2011 press conference the prime minister has indicated, “So, we will take steps to clarify those specific provisions in the law to make sure they don’t open a flag [flood?] gate for speculation in urban land.”

If the search for solution to the problems of corruption is real indeed, then could it not have been easier and successful outcome guaranteed if government chose to act in concert and with the people behind it? This is not the way the regime seems to want it, when considered from the point of view of its desire to go behind the back of the people, instead of accommodating their interests and rights to own private properties. Of course, by all indications that is not a strong forte of this unique, aggressive and muscular developmental state that is being envisioned for Ethiopia.

Perhaps what remains now is to see if the above speculations that the are claimed to be the driving force behind this legislation. Did they want to kill two birds with one stone? That is to say: (a) raise more funds for the programs and projects it plans to implement within the framework of the GTP; and, (b) use the land lease legislation as a leash to control the urban population, as has the regime done to the rural population.

Incidentally, at that same March 2011 press conference that took place when the Arab Spring has become one of the primary agendas of the international community — for both good and ill — a journalist asked Ato Meles Zenawi about his “overall assessment of the unfolding situations in North Africa and Middle East”. His response:

The political changes in North Africa are very interesting. As I said I don’t think anyone of these events has come to a final conclusion. Libya is obviously in turmoil and nobody knows how this going to end. Tunisia and Egypt have completed the first phase of the revolution peacefully. So far, one part of the political establishment has displaced the other part of the political establishment that has, as we know is not a definition of revolution. These things have not yet to come to a halt. These are the ongoing processes and nobody can pretend to know where this is going to end.

Has the prime minister then been fortifying his firewall in good time and realistic manner? If time could be called as reliable witness, after all, this legislation was already given flesh and blood in early 2011.


  1. Nevermindwhoiam
    | #1

    Insecurity of tenure is what landlords use to keep tenants in check and under control. Under a lease system, the state is only co-owner. However, the state in this case is so powerful and above the law, and the individual so puny that it has got the whip hand and can evict the leaseholder at will and is therefore virtually the landlord.

    This among other measures including bond buying and other semi-coerced donations serves to siphon resources from the poor and not so poor upwards, and the cash cow is periodically bled into the international banks, leaving the infrastructure that in itself is a means to further make the cash cow produce more. Real development under such conditions is a pipe dream. A new label needs to be coined ‘the rent seeking state’. A state that arrogates to itself all the rent seeking potential of its citizens is a jealous, vindictive and all controlling one, unable to share either power, or resources with its citizenry. But it does share power as well as resources with outside metropolitan powers. The ethnic coloring to all this is just a distraction, a red herring to what is essentially primitive accumulation by a layer of the noveau riche. This very thin layer unlike all previous Ethiopian elites is fabulously rich and is tied organically to the global power and money elite through money transfers, mineral rights and land sales. It is neo-colonialism by any other name just very cleverly and deceptively disguised.

    A case in point, Colonialist Italy, built good roads in Ethiopia. These were built with military transport in mind. They were also to be used to transfer whatever, crops, minerals and other produce back to Italy as well as bring Italian colonists to settle in Ethiopia. Roads and other infrastructure by themselves are development neutral, it depends on what they are used for, to siphon off resources or to use them for the public good.

    The author of this article is a serious and objective writer and is not motivated by the petty jealousy of the left-out elites who do not question the very premise of the system but complain loudly to the Metro-poly of the unfairness of it all. They beseech the metro-poly to treat them better often citing their ethnicity and how large, populous and deserving it is. They aim to capture the rent seeking state currently in the hands of the TPLF or divide it and do the same in their own putative ethnic republic.

    The British newspapers in the 19th Century against an invasion of Afghanistan, wrote ‘Afghanistan is not worth the bones of a single British Grenadier”. In the same way a struggle to elevate another ethnicity or divide the country further to suit certain narrow layers is not worth the bones of a single Ethiopian patriot.

  2. nevermindwhoiam
    | #2

    Insecurity of tenure is what landlords use to keep tenants in check and under control. Although under a lease system, the state is only co owner, the state in this case is so powerful and above the law, the individual so puny and powerless that it has got the whip hand and can evict the leaseholder at will and is therefore virtually the landlord. This does not apply to the transnational corporations who are not so puny or powerless.

    In fact a new term, ‘the rent seeking state’ needs to be coined to describe this phenomenonen. A state so jealous and controlling that it is unwilling to share any power, resources or rent seeking potential with its citizenry.

    The author is a serious writer who writes objectively, and he is a rarity in Ethiopian discourse.

    I say to him, be careful, you have touched a nerve.

    ‘Bolshevism minus Marxism = Fascism’ Uri Avnery, Israeli Writer and Politician.

  3. Dawi
    | #3

    [[..Perhaps what remains now...Did they want to kill two birds with one stone? That is to say: (a) raise more funds for the programs and projects it plans to implement within the framework of the GTP; and, (b) use the land lease legislation as a leash to control the urban population, as has the regime done to the rural population..]]

    As we know the government seems to be unable to put hands on the cash of gained speculative deals. So the hustlers are becoming multi-millionaires. If the government can tap the speculative deal to itself and use it to do the GTP it will be fine and dandy. I will say more power to them if they can do that instead of waiting until the bubble bursts like in the US and Obama can’t do much except nickles & dimes here and there to help the swindled by charlatan speculators/bankers.

    It is a known fact that speculation is the nature or evils of Capitalism. This week in the US a $25 billion settlement was announced in which big banks pay up for a portion of their bad deeds in the home foreclosure crisis. Considering one in five American citizens homes is underwater, a total of $700 billion in negative equity the $25 billion settlement is peanuts.

    So the State of Meles Dictatorship by trying to terminate/slow down the get-rich-quick real estate developers and at the same time cutting short his own officials who receive kickbacks in land deals before it is too late is a good start.

    Now, listening to Meles speak the other day on those that hold non-lease properties and how they can transfer etc. and the land is still owned by the state but, they only own the walls and foundation? it seems he skiped the capital gains issue altogether and that is worrisome. If they can sell their property with fair capital gains tax, things will be fine. Otherwise it is an appropriation by the state to take away capital gains all together that citizens made considering they owned their property for decades.

    However, if the government are going to look at all properties and how they were acquired/developed and if they were built by speculators in the last 10-15 years imposing a much higher capital gains tax on those will be fair IMO. So differentiating the old holders of single family house & the new flipers is a task but a fair thing to do. Otherwise (b) as Keffyalew put it, Meles using it as the leash is the right name for the new legislation.

  4. Idris
    | #4

    What is your message? Regarding the evolving change in North Africa and Middle east, your closing words sounded alarmist and by extension advising us to refrain from challenge TPLF because we may also end up in the same unpredictable situation. In Tunisia, Ben Ali was overthrown – there should be no regret in that. In Egypt, Mubarack was removed – there should be no regret in that. So also there must be no regret in what happened in Libya and the rest of the Arab world. The people in the arab world are freer today. Democracy and economic growth are not achieved overnight in post-dictator societies! Post-dictatorship is not clean. To remove all the ills of Ethiopia, the mother of all ills must be removed and that is Mr Melese Zenawi. The person who is currently running state terrorism over Ethiopians.

  5. Dawi
    | #5

    If say the government is going to take away all the potential appreciated value of all homes of citizens hitherto – what is going to happen then? Well as most houses Ethiopians own are minimally leveraged there won’t be crises as in the US to say the least.

    The present owners will not sell their houses because they won’t capture capital gains if the state is appropriating the profit. Yes, they can still rent it or live in it but will feel cheated because they can not get out of it say if they desired to retire and move by the lake Tana/Awasa etc. and live happily ever after. And from here on residential houses will not be considered a retirement nest egg but just a place to have a roof over the head.

    Development will still continue in housing even in a more accelerated speed unlike the US because there is shortage of housing in Ethiopia. Folks won’t have existing houses available for sale because of the legislation therefore, everyone is going to be forced to build or buy Condos the government builds.

    So in a way the Dictatorship is killing two birds in one stone even if they appropriate capital gains from citizens of the urban house owners making some people angry.

    A policy of taking away of the means of financial resources has been done in the past when they took properties of some opposition figures like Dr. Berhanu’s so they may think that is one way to cripple dissent however as winning the mind is more powerful than punishing individuals pocket book, in the long run it will be counter productive and stifles citizens that think freely.

    That being said however for the time being, if government does do a good job in the (class war) explaining the population that few privileged house owners and some speculators are the only ones who lose not the majority house less, they may get the needed milege of blind support for now. That will keep/push the “Arab spring” some what away by “fortifying his firewall” for the time being.

    I think taking the businesses of rental housing from the legal owners and giving it to those who actually do the business on a day to day bases a couple of months ago supposedly has gained them some blind support from the less to do as well. The right thing to do though would have been to raise the rent since that is what they wanted to do any way and avoid the conflicts created now. That way you don’t lose anybodies support and don’t punish the creative capitalists. What is to the government whether one sub leases business rentals or not as long you charge market rent for buildings. Let folks do what ever they want and pay the rent but bureaucrats like in the Derg time like appropriation of somebody else’s hard earned money and give it to? Well….

    All in all, Developmental States survive because they keep the majority supporting them by keeping them happy and busy doing something, if not the Dictatorship will be overthrown however, doing the right kind of development without appropriating citizens earned resources is what will make the country succeed.

  6. ጉረኞች
    | #6

    “So the hustlers are becoming multi-millionaires. If the government can tap the speculative deal to itself and use it to do the GTP it will be fine and dandy.”
    You know it as well as we do the hustlers are above the law as they are government officials and those gujiles who are looking after TPLF endowment. The law is exclusively applicable on the poor innocent citizens of Ethiopia. Since you are the beneficiary of the system, it seems that you sometime forget the reality.

  7. Dawi
    | #7

    Dear ጉረኞች :

    [[...You know it as well as we do the hustlers are above the law as they are government officials and those gujiles who are looking after TPLF endowment. The law is exclusively applicable on the poor innocent citizens of Ethiopia. Since you are....]]

    I am thinking the endowment is following the money with the new directive of manufacturing – I assume, to do mineral exploration & sugar factories etc. I didn’t know they were into flipping real estate. You may have more info on that. But, I have heard of some diaspora from US who have made a killing in real estate in Addis by speculation.

    As far as the small single family house owners are concerned the jury is out. When the law is finally implemented we will see if they get ripped off of their home appreciation.

    They can do it as they did to the business owners who rented government properties and sub leased some all part of the rental. The sad thing is we already know appropriation or nationalization of people’s property is counter productive.

    So for this government doing the same thing a second time when it hasn’t worked the first is indeed just foolish.

  8. weygud
    | #8

    I think it is the whole neoliberalism thing. Get as much money and amass as much money to be part of the Global powers of the world. Ethiopia is being experimented by global powers and Meles/TPLF. Nothing good will come of it. The goal is the keep aboslute control that what ever an citizen wants of its basic rights food, shelter, etc will be under the control of the top. That is why pyramids came from during Egyptial empire where, the top tip of the pyramid is where the absolute elitists are where they will declare themselves they are the gods. Underneath of the pyramids are servants who will sustain and feed the the gods and in return they get the left over.

  9. Saw it coming
    | #9

    This is what happens in a one party parliament. Basically, Mellese Zaniwe writes the laws(using his rubber stamp parliament,) and excutes the laws. If anyone has the courage to challenge, the laws are interpreted by his own judges(who are his party members and afraid of him to death.) Democracy Melesse Style!
    Ethiopians will rise and tear down tplf domination; it’s just that they have not hit that climax yet.

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