Historical aspects of landgrab in Ethiopia with political game linked to land tenure of successive regimes (1889 – 2018)

Historical aspects of landgrab in Ethiopia with political game linked to land tenure of successive regimes (1889 – 2018)

Malkamuu Jaatee, May 2019


“If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday, because the present is the living sum total of the whole past ~Pearl &Thomas”


Land is the most essential natural resource with relation to climate, environment, agricultural field, forest, mineral, mountain, lake, stream, sea, and animal. The value of land is measured by anything on the ground (buildings, fences, crops, trees, and water); above the ground (air and space rights); and under the ground (mineral content) down to the center of the Earth5. It is governed with land tenure designed by a community or a nation (country) to sustain coexistence between people and land. Governance of land is directly linked to political power, military capacity, socioeconomic prosperity, cultural identity and ecological harmony of a nation/country. The right to own and manage land is susceptible to imperial politics. Because powerful governments are both economically and politically interested in control of everything on, in, and above the land everywhere beyond their territories, either illegally or legally crossing the border, to grab land of indigenous people. Land grabbing is the seizing of land by a state or organization, especially illegally or unfairly with military power10. It is recently defined as a large-scale land acquisition of foreign or domestic investors via purchase or lease9.

Dispossession of land ownership right is implemented violently or systematically. It is not a new phenomenon in human history. It reappeared in different forms at several places during different time with development of territorial war and imperial politics. It is tracing back through centuries of human history in the North, South, East and West and encompassing many episodes and innumerable examples, including pre-colonial land seizures associated with territorial wars, European enclosures in the North, and dispossession of native peoples in Americas and Australasia30. It is the continuation of uprooting and displacing the indigenous people since the eras of ancient Babylonians and Persians empires via the Roman expansion and European colonialism to the 21st century globalization. In many regions of the global South, land was first grabbed by pre-colonial rulers in territorial wars with each other, then by colonial governments and increasingly by foreign or domestic corporations31.

Although past instances of large-scale land acquisitions are different in their social contexts and applications from one another in both time and place, they share common basic features: the acquisitions were detrimental to previous rights holders and users of the land, who were dispossessed of their land and livelihoods21. Damage to the livelihoods in the long-term, resulted disappearance of human communities traditionally identified with the ancestral land. Because land grabs or acquisitions/concessions are done: (1) in violation of human rights; (2) not based on free, prior and informed consent of the land users; (3) conducted in disregard of social, economic and environmental impacts; (4) not based on transparent contracts that specify clear and binding commitments about activities, employment and benefits sharing, and; (5) not based on effective democratic planning, independent oversight and meaningful participation15. Thus, dispossession of land ownership right is resulted in displacement of indigenous communities and disappearance of their identities over time via extinction of their language, culture, and history connected to the land. When a language is lost the knowledge, culture, history, and connection to the land will be automatically lost2.

Land grabbing appeared in Ethiopia during establishment of several small kingdoms and expansion of different forms of governments via territorial war between kings or tribal chiefs. This article focusses on endgames of land grabbing politics in Ethiopia based on historical aspects of land tenure of the last three regimes (1889 – 2018), because land ownership right of indigenous people has been harshly violated with unfolded episodes of directly and indirectly executed genocides via instrumentalization of modern military power. Territorial expansion of imperial state of Abyssinia from North to South Ethiopia has resulted in dispossession of landowner ship rights of indigenous people mainly with power of gun acquired during European governments rush for landgrab in Africa at the end of 19th century. Different types of oppressive land tenures were emerged with similar goal, i.e. violation of traditional land use rights, during the three consecutive regimes of Ethiopia. Land tenure policies of the imperial, military, and Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) regimes are reviewed to analyse conflict generated via human rights violation practiced during land grabbing and how it brought end of political game of each regime.

  1. Land tenure before territorial war in Africa and Ethiopia

Land tenure is customarily or legally defined relationship among people, as individuals or groups, with respect to land use. It is an institution of land ownership governance that the rules invented by societies are regulating behavior i.e., it regulates how property rights to land are to be allocated within societies12. The right to access land has been governed by customary law in Africa before territorial war and colonization by European states. The tenure was traditionally practiced based on communal principles. Customary land use rights of Africa frequently have to do with the rights of individuals to plots of land and with rights to land held collectively19. Africans were linked to their land through their membership to groups (family, clan, or ethnic) and it was their group standing that gave them access to land. They were consequently concerned to maintain their linkage within the groups that connect them to other persons or groups in order to secure their natural rights of land ownership. Customary principle of land use right was also practiced in Ethiopia before territorial war and expansion of Abyssinian state.

In ancient Africa, land was mostly conceived of as an unbounded resource to be used; not as a commodity to be measured, plotted, subdivided, leased, pawned or sold4. For example according to Congolese native law, individual land ownership does not exist; there is only collective ownership: the land belongs to the clan, a community made up of family groups consisting of all the descendants living and dead of a common ancestor and all the generations to come19. African traditional concept of land tenure was existed in Ethiopia for centuries before development of feudal system. Nigerian chief defines traditional land ownership as land belongs to a vast family of which many are dead, few are living, and countless members are still unborn7. All members of rural communities of Africa should possess full rights to access the land to sustain agricultural production, because the livelihoods of several millions of rural Africans directly depend on land.

Most of the African people had a ritual relationship to land, and it was undifferentiated between land for agricultural and other purposes, hence the land use was the concern of the dead, the living, and the unborn generations19. Naturally evolved institute of collective land tenure was exercised particularly in Ethiopia and generally in Africa for centuries before implementation of land grabbing policy by domestic territorial war and expansion of European colonial powers. Whatever the range of regional variations on the ground, customary land tenure was run on two basic principles: (1st) each citizen has the right of direct access to the resources of the territory controlled by the political unit to which he/she belonged and (2nd) recognizing an individual’s right to anything he/she had created, whether this be a pot, a homestead, or a plot of land, and such a right could be inherited according to the regular rules of inheritance of private property7.

  1. Land tenure in Ethiopia after territorial expansion of Abyssinian state

Expansion of Abyssinian state territory from North to South Ethiopia resulted in replacement of traditional land ownership rights in Oromia and Southern regions with extractive type of land tenure. Three consecutive land tenures were emerged during successive regimes (imperial, military, and TPLF) as described in the following table17.

Land use rightsRist & Gebar land tenures of the Imperial regime (1889 – 1974)State land tenure of the

Military regime (1974 – 1991)

Public and investment land tenures of the TPLF regime (1991 – 2018)
OwnershipEmperorMilitary committee (Derg)TPLF
ManagementKings and aristocratsProvincial and local committees of peasant associationsRegional and local agents of the TPLF
SanctionKings and aristocratsProvincial and local committees of peasant associationsRegional and local agents of the TPLF
Full accessibilityPeasants of Northern EthiopiaMembers of peasant associationsPeasants of Tigray and Amhara regions
Limited accessibilityTenants of Oromia and Southern EthiopiaPeasants of Oromia and Southern Ethiopia
  1. 1. Rist and Gebar land tenures of imperial regime and end of its political game (1889 – 1974)

Land tenure during 1889 – 1974 was generally classified as Rist (communal) and Gebar (freehold or private). It was commonly distinguished as Rist, Gebar, Gult (grant), Samon (church), and Maderia / Mengist (state)8. The Rist land tenure was traditionally practiced in North Ethiopia for centuries. Despite regional variations, most peasants in the Central and Northern highlands had substantial inheritable rights of land ownership25. However, Gebar land tenure was introduced in Oromia and Southern Ethiopia after expansion of Abyssinian state territory. Contrary to the situation in the North where communal (Rist) system where no one was entitled to own land privately or to sell the land; in the South emerged state, private, and church forms of tenure along confiscation and sales of land16. In the South, all the land belonged to the emperor of Abyssinia. The emperor allocated land rights to those he appointed to office and to his soldiers. The rights allocated by emperor to his agents and subjects were more extensive than the rights prevailing in the North and treated most of the indigenous peoples as tenants, with far fewer rights than Abyssinian peasants in the North Ethiopia25.

The Rist land tenure was a kind of corporate ownership system based on descent that granted the rights to appropriate the return from the land, i.e., all male and female descendants of an individual founder or occupier were entitled to a share land14.Other form of Rist was known as Gult. The Rist-Gult holders were largely aristocratic group with the rights to land and manpower of the peasants. The peasants living on the Gult land were required to pay tribute and taxes in cash, kind, or labor to the landlords8 & 3. It was the main tool to sustain territorial expansion of Abyssinian state in Oromia and Southern Ethiopia. The Rist Gult rights of land ownership were initially granted only to the royal family and provincial nobles of Abyssinia, however it became the rule in the regions of the newly conquered South26.Thus civil and military agents (servants) of the imperial regime in the South Ethiopia had received Rist Gult rights of land ownership as a salary or a compensation for services1. Gult rights were also vested to the state religion, the Orthodox Church, in particular20.

The Gebbar land tenure was established in the Central Ethiopia, before it was transferred to the conquered South. It was characterized by tribute-paying peasants who were controlled by Gult lords or local elites. The rural communities of South Ethiopia suffered from burdensome tributes and services delivered to the local authorities13. After the return of emperor Haile Selassie from exile in 1941 the land for which tax had been paid to the government was defined as property of the taxpayers or the land lords8. In addition, freehold land tenure was granted to selected individuals such as soldiers and civilian victims of the Italian occupation. Landlords had registered formally as taxpayers and thereby totally limited the land accessibility rights of peasants26. Thus, many peasants had depended on new class of taxpaying owners of land under the tribute system imposed on them. They reduced to the level of tenants or slavery. The landlords exploited the tenants via mandatory sharecropping, labor services, and gifts.  Sharecropping system was a harsh oppressive system that the tenants were forced to deliver a large share of up to half of the produce to the landlords to maintain the right to use the land for subsistence production8.

Resistance against land grabbing started during territorial expansion of Abyssinian state. Among several rebellions in South, the battles of Anolee and Calanqoo were painted tangible historical footprint of crimes against humanity. Erratic resistance of peasants against oppressive land governance policy of the imperial regime continued for more than half a century. It was developed into a political movement known as peasant uprising during the mid of 20th century. The uprisings were the 1940s Weyyane movement of Wallo and Tigray, the 1950s protest in Hararge and Gojjam, and the 1960s rebellion of Bale peasants. They were transformed to organization since 1960s. Establishment of civic organization like Afran Qalloo, Mecha-Tulema, and student associations, etc. initiated transformation of peasant movement to revolution. Slogan of the revolution was voiced as “The Land for the tillers!”. Finally, the struggle of oppressed people of Ethiopia gained momentum and it developed as socialist revolution in early 1970s. The socialist revolution of Ethiopia resulted the end of centuries old imperial politics of Abyssinia with its harsh land tenure policies. It has successfully abolished any forms of land tenures practiced under imperial regime.

  1. 2. State land tenure of military regime and end of its political game (1974 – 1991)

Leaders of socialist revolution of Ethiopia convinced the military administrative council to overcome historical injustice related to land tenure by eliminating exploitative imperial agrarian policies. The military council and leaders of the socialist revolution rearticulated land tenure as egalitarianism to provide each farm family with equal access to land according to their needs. The popular slogan during 1970s political movement, “land to the tiller!” was effectively implemented through land tenure reform26. Thus, the military administrative council announced an agrarian reform program known as public (state) ownership of rural land (proclamation 31/1975) in 1975. The proclamation declared that all rural land to be property of the state without compensation to previous right holders and prohibited all tenancy relations (Article 3 & article 4.5). The plot of land per family was restricted to a maximum of 10 hectares and the use of hired agricultural labor was prohibited (Article 5).

The reform was introduced uniform land tenure system. It abolished the difference in agrarian relations existed in the North and South. The changes were more radical for tenants in the South than for Rist right holders in the North8. Winners of the reform were landless, wage laborers, tenants, and poor people of Ethiopia. The losers were the Gult, the Rist Gult, and the Gebbar holders. The military regime effectively abolished the remains of traditional institutions of Rist and Gult, and it took over the power of controlling distribution and access to land through peasant associations (PAs)26. The regime brought major changes of organizational structures and institutions to implement agrarian socialism through collectivization of small-scale farms and the establishment of state farms. It has intensified collectivization program towards the end of 1970s with the promotion of Agricultural Producer Cooperatives (APC) and the establishment of large-scale state farms8. The APC were formed by members of PAs by pooling their land, draught animals, and farm implements together.

The military regime successfully captured the peasantry into a system of state control through PA and APC. It followed the typical model of land governance policy of communist regimes. The single most important feature of socialist revolution of Ethiopia was the mass organization in the rural areas, regardless of the weak economic performance of collectivization of private properties of rural communities6. However, the revolutionary land tenure policy replaced the functions of landlords during imperial regime as overlords collecting tributes via a system controlled by the state. Thus, the PAs and APCs played the central role that they became effectively a tool of the military regime to control and govern the rural peoples of Ethiopia8. Even though the regime has successfully abolished oppressive land tenures of Abyssinian imperial regime it became the absolute owner of the land. It has also simplified the struggle for land ownership right as a politics of class struggle between landlord and tenant. Negative reaction of the military regime to the national movement of oppressed peoples resulted the end of its strategy to establish Abyssinian socialist empire with covert of territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ethiopian state.

The national liberation movement and resistance against land grabbing were interlinked, because national identities (language, culture, and history) of people connected to the land. Both the imperial and military regimes have been used state apparatus to replace the identities of oppressed peoples of Ethiopia with Abyssinian language, culture, and history. However, the ambition of the regime to maintain territorial expansion of Abyssinia by rule of war was limited with development of national liberation movement to the level of organizing fronts. The National liberation struggle of oppressed peoples of Ethiopia was articulated as self-determination politics of North in 1960s and that of the South in 1970s. It resulted establishment of prominent organizations, mainly the Eritrean People Liberation Front (EPLF), the TPLF, and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) as the vanguards of self-determination right of peoples. The armed struggle under leadership of the EPLF, TPLF, and OLF.resulted end of the 17 years political game of military regime with formation of Eritrean provisional government and Ethiopian transitional government in 1991. Provisional government of Eritrea worked effectively in favour of independence. The transitional government of Ethiopia designed federal states based on ethnic identity as the uncompromisable solution to national liberation struggle rooted in resistance against territorial expansion of Abyssinian state and land grabbing politics.

  1. 3. Public and investment land tenures of TPLF regime and end of its political game (1991 – 2018)

The transitional government of Ethiopia announced, in its declaration on economic policy in November 1991, the continuation of the land policy of the military regime29. However, the TPLF regime has redesigned the land tenure to protect its military, economic and political dominance. Modern form of Rist and Gebar land tenures policy was successfully established as Public and Investment tenures. The regime manipulated constitution to impose unfair land tenure policy in Oromia and Southern regions of Ethiopia. The constitution of federal democratic republic of Ethiopia in 1995 approved and confirmed the state ownership of the land11. The right to ownership of rural and urban lands and natural resources is exclusively vested in the state and the peoples of Ethiopia (FDRE 1995, article 40). The article stipulated that the land shall not be subject to sale or other means of exchange and any transfer of land is prohibited. It further stated that the right of Ethiopian peasants to access land without payment for grazing and agricultural purposes and the right to be protected against eviction from the possessions (FDRE 1995, article 40: sections 3, 4, 5). However, the regime became the owner of the land that the rights of individuals and communities were ‘holding (use) rights. It articulated systematically unfair land tenure in Oromia and Southern regions.

The 1975 proclamation prohibited the lease of land and the hiring of labor and concealed the maximum land size per individual to 10 hectares; however the 1995 constitution and the subsequent proclamation in 1997 provided some specifications that the regime systematically rearticulated land tenure to establish rural land and labor markets to emerge in South territories. Public (Rist) land tenure was constitutionally applicable to rural communities of North Ethiopia and Investment (State or Private) land tenure constitutionally imposed on rural communities of Oromia and Southern regions. The federal rural land administration proclamation transfers the authority of land administration, including rights to distribute land, to the regional governments and vests them with the power over the assignment of holding rights and the execution of distribution of holdings (constitution of the FDRE, proclamation No. 89/1997 article 2.6). The right to access land in Northern regions depends on status of residence in kebele (the local administration)8. Fair system introduced in the North to certify land ownership right to increase tenure security. Inheritance rights are specified, and, in some case, it extends beyond the core family8. However, the land use right is restricted in Oromia and Southern regions that it has been opened for large scale land grabbing.

Land use right of rural communities of North Ethiopia is constitutionally protected by regional governments of Amhara and Tigray. However the TPLF regime successfully formulated three restrictions at its regional government of Oromia (RGO): (1) Article 6.4 granted the expropriation right to the regime if the land is required for more important public uses; (2) if land users fail to use their land in every production season (except in the case of restoring fertility) the land use rights can be terminated (article 3.5); and (3) article 22.1 granted the regime to expropriate rain-fed land after three years and irrigated land after two years if  land users fail to cultivate the land28. The right to land was exclusively vested in vassal state of the regime, the RGO. It granted holding, leasing, and inheritance rights to users; and it also opened the possibility for the government, being owner of the rural land, to change communal holdings to private holdings for investment (the rural land administration and land use proclamation No.456/2005). Though ethnic equality was legally recognized, in practice, emergent regions have been politically marginalized and permitted less autonomy, partly due to the federal development strategy, which required central control of local land resources and changes in livelihoods22. Thus, land use rights of rural communities of Oromia and Southern regions have been constitutionally violated. In these regions, total land transferred to investors between 2011 & 2016 increased from 0.5 to 7 million hectares 23, 24, & 27. The regime attempted by any means to maintain oligarchic system but finally its game ended.

Victims of land grabbing have not been kept quit, though. silent eradication of the indigenous communities was executed by the oligarchic regime via crimes against humanity. Development of resistances against the unfair land tenure policy and multidimensional human rights violation practices of the regime resulted the decay of a quarter of century long (1991 – 2018) antidemocratic system of governance characterized by inciting ethnic conflicts, unlimited economic exploitation, rampant corruption and extreme poverty. Erratic protest of Oromo students across schools, colleges, and universities for a decade was developed to the level of Oromo youth (Qerroo) movement (OYM) in 2005. Establishment of clandestine organization in 2012 effectively coordinated the OYM activities that it transformed the movement successfully to the level of popular uprisings18. Since 2014, the movement was consequently transformed to peaceful protest of all oppressed people of Ethiopia almost across all federal regions of Ethiopia except Tigray region where the last expansionist Abyssinian regime originated. Thus, the popular uprisings of Oromo, Sidama, Amahara, Konso, Gurage, and others brought the end of political game of the regime with resignation of its puppet prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, on 15th of February 2018.

Summary and conclusion

Large-scale land-grabbing started in Ethiopia with territorial expansion of Abyssinian state during the era of European colonial powers scramble for landgrab in Africa (1881 – 1914). Centralization of land governance politics of successive regime of Ethiopia was manifested through the following five levels of land use rights: ownership, management, sanction, full accessibility right, and limited use right. Land tenure politics of the imperial (1889 – 1974), the military junta (1974 – 1991) and the oligarchic TPLF (1991 – 2018) regimes have been generally sharing similar political goal, i.e. manipulation of land use policies to maintain dictatorial governance system. However, these three successive regimes were disappeared via positive development of popular uprisings against land grabbing. Their exploitive structures dismantled through coordination of national liberation struggle of Oromo people in specific and the oppressed people of Ethiopia in general.

Resistance against oppressive land governance policies of the imperial, the military junta, and the oligarchic regimes gave birth to organizational leadership of political movement in Ethiopia. The struggle gained progressive momentum over time and it appeared with three consecutive political games: socialist revolution of the 1970s, ethnic federalism of the 1990s, and movement for reconciling unitary & multi nationalism since 2018. Neither the socialist revolution nor the ethnic federalism of Ethiopia brought peace and sustainable development, because land ownership right was simplified as the class struggle between landlord and tenant during feudal system and business deal between dictatorial government and investors during capitalist economic development. However, the answer to question of land ownership right is far beyond political economy

Struggle against landgrab is the struggle for survival. Both micro and macro scales of land grabbing end result is displacement of indigenous communities and disappearance of their identities over time, because land is not only a fixed asset essential for agricultural production to support livelihoods, but it is the foundation of identities (language, culture, and history) of people living on the land. Dispossession of land use right without consultation of traditional owners, and forcefully displacing them, in the long-term result the extinction of human communities traditionally identified with ancestral land. Therefore, one and half a century long struggle of Oromo and Southern Ethiopia people against landgrab is the struggle for survival. Though the past three consecutive regimes have been intentionally distorted the struggle they were finally defeated by verdict of the people. It seems the game is at its final stage for great change to come to realize new Ethiopia where union of confederal states emerges after unprecedented disasters rooted in the landgrab have been claimed millions of human lives during the last 150 years.

“A generation which ignores history has no past and no future ~Robert Heinlein.”


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