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The establishment of the Jibuti-Addis Ababa railway, its foreign inspiration and funding, and the rapid expansion of Addis Ababa’s Armenian, European and Indian communities
almost inevitably raised far-reaching questions about foreign ownership of land in Ethiopia.
Land in traditional Ethiopia was made available by the monarch in return for service of one kind or another in time of peace or war. A number of Greeks, Armenians and even a few Europeans can be traced who obtained land on this basis. However few sales of land took place – either to foreigners or to Ethiopians
Historically foreigners in Ethiopia exercised land ownership on exactly the same terms as nationals. No differences between the two communities were made. A foreigner and a national would thus for example be taxed in exactly the same way for an identical plot of land.
Many Europeans, in Post-Bourgeois capitalist times, nevertheless insisted that the adoption in Ethiopia of the then European law be to their advantage for it would enable them to obtain land without having recourse to the rulers of the country – and would enable them to dispose of their landed property at will.
This was the time, we should recall, dear reader, when the British and French Governments were competing for influence in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden region – and to do so sought to support their nationals there. To that end the two European powers persuaded the Ethiopian rulers to sign treaties facilitating the trade and property rights of their compatriots. An Anglo-Shawan Treaty of 7 June 1840 thus declared that “with a view to the promotion of reciprocal intercourse between the respective subjects of the two nations, no hindrance or molestation shall be offered to British travellers, whether residing within the territories of Shoa or visiting beyond”. Article 6 of the subsequent Franco-Ethiopian Treaty of 6 November 1843 went further. It specifically granted French nationals resident in Shawa the right to purchase houses and land, and “guaranteed” them in such possessions.
The position of foreigners’ access to land was duly defined by British Consul Walter Plowden, who informed the Foreign Office, on 9 July 1854, that “”strangers of any nation or creed”, as he put it, “are freely permitted to settle in Abyssinia , and to purchase land or houses”.
A number of foreigners meanwhile continued to receive land grants from Ethiopian rulers.
Ethiopian land grants, however were always made, in a sense, “at the pleasure of the monarch”, and therefore tended to lack the security of tenure which characterised land transactions in capitalist Europe.
The significance of this difference came into greater focus after the founding of Addis Ababa, when Emperor Menilek, concerned by the shortage of timber and fire-wood, began, as we have seen in an earlier article in this series, to envisage moving his capital from Addis Ababa to Addis Alam or some other settlement to the west. Foreigners found themselves unable to dispose of their landed property. The report of the French Duchesne-Fournet Mission of 1901-2 declared:
“property such as we understand it in Europe, does not yet exist for Europeans in Abyssinia. In Addis Ababa those who occupy lands, built or not, have received them more or less temporarily from the Emperor”.
Elaborating, the report added that “a sale, loan, or gift of land to a foreigner will never be permitted without formal sanction of the Sovereign”.
The French writer Hugues Le Roux, a great admirer of Ethiopia, was at around this time given a piece of land by Menilek [Menelik et nous, 1902] but, wishing to hold it on fixed tenure, proposed to purchase it for whatever sum the monarch thought fit. Menilek, however, he tells us, expressed surprise, saying, “Why do you want to buy what I want to give you?”.
Le Roux replied:
“In order to close the mouths of those who say, ‘In Ethiopia one cannot purchase land or own it completely in such a way as to be able to bequeath it to one’s heir’.”
Menilek, commenting on this, observed that the persons who said this were “desirous of injuring the country”, and added: “They have only to open the Fetha Nagast [the traditional Ethiopic Laws of the Kingdom] to find chapters in our code which clearly define the conditions of the right to property. Obviously lands which form part of the crown domain cannot be sold. They are the property of the Emperor… But as far as all other land not part of the imperial domains are concerned they belong to those who possess them… Their owners can sell them not only to an Abyssinian but also to a foreigner”.
But, after a moment’s reflection, Menilek added:
“Tell me; When an Englishman wishes to buy land in France does he do it according to the English law or the French?”.
“The French, of course”, Le Roux replied.
“And when”, the Emperor continued, “a person, whether a Frenchman or a foreigner, obtains a piece of land does his ownership of it exempt him from taxation?”, whereupon Menilek concluded:
“It is thus the same here as in Europe. A foreigner owns land here in accordance with Abyssinian law…Here you will have to pay this tax in the same way as you would have to pay the tax in your own country or in whatever country anyone obtained a piece of land”.
At this point, Le Roux added, Menilek knitted his eyebrows, and remarked, as it to himself, “And if it were otherwise? “The foreigner who purchased land in my country would become king of what he acquired”.
Notwithstanding such caution on the part of the victor of the battle of Adwa the number of foreigners in the country towards the end of Menilek’s reign was rapidly escalating. Maurice De Coppet in his introduction to Gabre Sellase’s French translation of Menilek’s Chronicle observes that by the end of the Menilek period “many properties” in Addis Ababa were owned by Europeans and Armenians, who had either purchased them or more often received them as gifts from the Emperor.
With the opening of the Railway Age, increasing European diplomatic pressure was exercised to facilitate the foreign purchase of land in Ethiopia. The high point came on 10 January 1908 when Menilek agreed to a Franco-Ethiopian Treaty sponsored by the French envoy M. Klobukowski, by whose name it is known.
Article II of this Agreement was revolutionary in that it granted subjects of the two countries the right to own property in each others’ country. There was however one not unimportant qualifying clause stating that this right was “subject to the laws of the country”.
Though at first legally applicable only to citizens of France, the privilege of foreign land ownership was almost immediately extended, in a no less revolutionary manner, for it was assumed by the Ethiopian Government to apply to all Europeans, irrespective of actual nationality.
Only a few weeks later, on 30 January 1908, Menilek granted his second Railway Concession. It was drafted in accordance with the newly defined status of foreigners.
However, the sale of land to Europeans was prohibited in 1910, during the politically critical reign of Lij Iyasu.
This prohibition was in turn qualified by an Addis Ababa Municipal Order of 1932, Article IV which stated that “no land shall be leased for a period exceeding thirty years, though it shall be possible to renew such a contract with permission from the Government”.
Article V was also relevant. It declared: “Foreigners who grow agricultural products on leased land shall be subject to the normal tithe and income tax and may not export such products without prior permission; the goods shall be subject to normal Ethiopian customs regulations”.
Article VII: “A foreigner cannot refuse to allow water for irrigation to pass through his land: he shall, however, be entitled to compensation for any damage caused by such water”.
(to be continued)