I read Dr. Teshome Abebe’s piece and the response to his article by Dr. Tsegaye Tegenu (Zehabesha: 12/23/16). I will first offer my brief comments on the respective conclusions of these two writers, and then share my understanding of the real issue of land in Ethiopia.
Dr. Teshome Abebe asserts that “changing completely the current system of land rights is a daunting task, with a huge chance of going horribly wrong and a definite period of societal upheaval.”
Dr. Teshome Abebe goes on to say that solutions should be found instead “within the current societal ownership structure, buttressed by democratic imperatives that lead to a system of reforms to distribute and manage land in Ethiopia.”
It is not clear what Dr. Teshome Abebe meant by “current societal ownership structure.” In Ethiopia, land is owned by the State, not by the society (if at all there is such a thing as a societal ownership).
The government in Ethiopia leases out land use-rights. It also retains the power to withdraw use-rights at will. Given all these then the question of land in Ethiopia is not a simple problem of how to distribute a scarce resource: market versus government.
Dr. Tsegaye Tegenu, on the other hand, states that “land ownership and land use policies do not function as designed in the absence of a meritocracy bureaucracy and a legal system which defines rules of securing property rights and obligations of the public and private sectors.”
Dr. Tsegaye Tegenu’s conclusion too may have to be checked against Ethiopia’s reality. As stated above, in Ethiopia, all land is owned by the State. Therefore, talking in isolation about landownership and land use policies or a legal system of property rights does not make much sense.
Dr. Tsegaye Tegenu gives us an array of land studies in Ethiopia. These are useful works, but they are micro-level investigations. Consequently, they cannot give us the bigger picture of the land question in Ethiopia.
The question of land in Ethiopia is not just an economic issue. It is also a political and social issue.
For example, in the 1960s, most of the intellectual community in Ethiopia cried loudly the motto of “Land to the Tiller.” But land was not turned over to the peasantry upon the overthrown of the imperial system. The situation is still the same forty-two years later.
Embracing a Marxian doctrine, which is known to be scientifically erroneous and anti-freedom, the intellectual community then (and even now) pushed for a State ownership of land; not private ownership.
Presently, Ethiopia may not have traditional, landed nobility. But the peasantry is still not free because land, its only means of livelihood, is controlled totally by the State.
Therefore, the real issue of land in Ethiopia today is whether peasants should own the land they work and be free from government control or continue to live as tenants of the State still lacking the pride and security of an owner.
*Emeritus Professor of Economics at FSU.