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Ethiopia’s 1974 (G.C.) historic revolution seriously tackled the country’s age old formidable problems, amongst which, land was not the least! In regards to land, the revolution resolved to consider it as one of the major public commons, if not the main one. ‘Land belongs to the people and the state is its sole administrator’, declared the sentiment of the revolution. At the time, the state was presumed to remain ‘socialist’ at the core. By any measure, Ethiopia’s land reform was radical to the root. Its unambiguous and sweeping declaration is what started the transformation process from a ‘feudal empire’ to a more egalitarian order, in earnest. To this day, the specter of Ethiopia’s land reform still sends shudders across many African countries that have yet to resolve their lopsided land tenure system. Be that as it may, what is the state of play here in Ethiopia?
As Ethiopia’s stride towards market led economic activities progressed, the need for new policy measures and mechanisms to facilitate the non-administrative allocation of land or marketization, became a pressing need. This initiative is what gave birth to Ethiopia’s land lease policy! Activities of the land lease policy started out by venturing into the world of open bidding, closed bidding, negotiated arrangements, etc processes the state bureaucracy was ill equipped to handle. Sadly enough the consequences of this incapacity ushered all sorts of systemic abuse, hitherto unknown in Ethiopia’s not so short history of government bureaucracy! As a result, grand scale corruption became one of the institutional features of the land lease policy. In addition, the policy of dispensing land freely, literally (as a result of land credit, incentives, largesse, etc) solidified the philosophy of ‘rent seeking’ across the breadth and depth of Ethiopia’s economic activities.
Yesterday while working in one of our research centers, a Kebele Pub House, which sometimes doubles as the neighborhood rumor mill, we heard a story that is revealing. There is this official in Oromia who has managed to secure 46 plots of land in the various towns under the names of relatives and cronies. The fellow, we are told, is now in agony because he can’t recall where the last six plots are located and under whose name they have been registered! The official finally resolved to set up a shell company to sell/manage his land holding and promptly quit his low paying but highly rewarding occupation! Since there is no known fiefdom with such extensive land holding in post-revolutionary Ethiopia, we considered calling him our ‘Duke of Westminster!’ Soon Kebele common sense prevailed and he was anointed, the ‘Duke of Oromia’ by our regular pubbies. It is obvious we have other Dukes roaming around all over the country; the Dukes of Addis, the Dukes of SNNPR, etc, etc. Welcome back to the era of the Dukes (Yemesafint Zemen!)
What is also ironical is; it is those who benefited the most from the old system of land allocation (by administrative fiat) that are now crying the loudest against the new initiative that is trying to rein in the current abusive system! Many of these people were given their prime plots by the former government (to build their residences) because of their direct or indirect contribution to the demise of the feudal system. Today and unfortunately, these former ‘revolutionaries’ have been afflicted by the market fever and are drooling to cash on their holdings, compliment of the prevailing market economy. As Ethiopia’s zombified intelligentsia or ‘belly thinkers’ as we affectionately call them, recede further down into backwardness, (compliment of useless learning in the world’s prestigious universities) it is the racketeers/wheelers and dealers that have taken it onto themselves the elaboration/illumination of complex policy issues, like that of the land lease policy! In the absence of sustained enlightened discourse/debate in the country, it is these characters and their various mouthpieces that have become the dominant public opinion makers of the nation!
Even in countries where the market reigns supreme, there are various legislations in place to control/ temper the excessive greed of the market from completely undermining collective social existence. For example in the US, the complex legislations that have been enacted throughout the years, in regards to federal tax laws alone, number over 70,000 pages. See Reich’s article on page 50. No one in her right mind thinks it is the peddlers and meddlers (of used car salesmen’s caliber) who are in a position to explain these tax laws to a pedestrian on the street. Why should it be so different in Ethiopia? Regulations will get more complicated as the market becomes more sophisticated and this applies not only to the land lease policy, but to all regulations governing the market. If this is not to our liking, then we better consider a different economic system other than the market!
Take heed from those who have seen it all. When the anger of the human mass reaches its boiling temperature, it only takes one piece of legislation to undo what has been done throughout the years. Our greedy businesspeople and their psychopathic godfathers (who are now the unacknowledged ‘role models’ of our youth), must realize that hiding from the public eye, especially after stealing a twenty story building, a whole district, a bank, etc, will not be easy going anymore (think North Africa, etc). We believe Ethiopia’s recent history of sacrifice, particularly in regards to the land issue, must be recalled and respected fully, lest we end up chanting the old slogans once again: “Down with Feudalism! Down with Bureaucratic Capitalism! Land to the User!” Good Day!