Land to the Tillers, If They Choose It

February 29 , 2020.

Few issues in Ethiopia command as much controversy as does land; if any other contestant is in this league, it can only be the question of nationalities, an obsession of the student movement since the 1950s. It was why one of the drafters of both constitutions in 1987 and 1995, Fasil Nahom (PhD), a lawyer and scholar, believed that public ownership offers the less destabilising route in managing the issue of land.

It was more a result of the political questions it poses instead of the economic implications of any ownership system.

Fasil's conviction appears to have come from seeing land as an inter-generational matter belonging to one’s parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. It continues to pass on to one’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“Beyond that, land is also seen as the common property of the extended family, the clan, the tribe,” Fasil wrote in his instructive book, "Constitution for a Nation of Nations: The Ethiopian Prospect," published in 1997. "Land touches sensitive chords in a traditional society that is particularly subsistence-agriculture based.”

This was a consequence of a society that historically has seen - not without reason, given the traditional nature of the economy - land as the primary source of capital formulation and oftentimes the sole means of not just generating wealth but also ensuring survival. Unlike the Western experience, land could not be considered a mere commodity that could be left to the forces of the market.

Such was the overarching political argument that the drafters of the current constitution saw fit to include a provision declaring that land is the common property of the “nations, nationalities and peoples” of Ethiopia. But that was then.

Today, when the sociopolitical and economic environment finds itself in rapid transformation, the land tenure system is facing a challenge. Once again. In part, this is why the incumbent, which has been trying to distinguish itself from the leftist economic and political policy of the past three decades, has recently started to fiddle with public ownership of land. It falls short of having to muster the courage to pronounce and publicly articulate its position on the land policy of its choice. Its programme remains mute on the most crucial instruments of capital formation in an economy as underdeveloped and subsistent as Ethiopia's.

Nonetheless, the Ministry of Agriculture sent a bill to the Council of Ministers hoping to see its endorsement for letting farmers be able to use their land as collateral to access commercial loans, with maturity periods no longer than a decade. It is an application that has actually been in practice at least in one regional state of the country for the past few years.

This is on top of initiatives for sharecropping and renting of agricultural land. What remains to be tried in a land tenure system that does not allow private ownership is the transfer of land on grounds other than inheritance.

Such initiatives are aimed at addressing the emerging socioeconomic changes in the country. Demography is one issue. There are more people now that do not have the economic and emotional value that is attached to land that Fasil was wary of.

The urban population in the mid-1970s, when the junior officers with a taste for leftist dogma nationalised all land, stood below 10pc. It has been rapidly exploding ever since the 1990s, having reached around 21pc by last year. It is expected to reach 38pc by 2050 with a population that does not derive its livelihood from agricultural produces it mainly through the service sector.

This is also not to mention that land fragmentation is leading to the dispossession of land, despite current laws aimed to achieve the contrary objective. Arable land has increased by 50pc over the past two decades, according to the JRC Science for Policy Report by the European Commission. But arable land per person has actually decreased from 0.17ha down to 0.15ha. The culprit has been population growth.

It has also been the case that productivity in the agricultural sector and the lot of farmers has not improved to the degree that has been promised. Despite massive state intervention and international finance to aid the sector - including fertiliser provision and almost non-existent income taxes for farmers - success has been only far and apart. Yield has commendably increased from 1.4tn a hectare to more than double, but it has been far from meeting demand, especially in times of drought. Currently, only 20pc of the wheat produced goes into the market. Farmers and their families consume most of the rest.

Such challenges are reason enough to assume that the current tenure system may buckle under the weight of a rapidly transforming economic reality.

It does not mean that switching to private ownership of land will address the problems though. Requiring a constitutional amendment, it would inevitably increase the rate of urbanisation and landlessness, leading to a dramatic increase in unemployment. The current system may also seem to be deeply unfair in locking two-thirds of the labour force into a single sector, prohibiting the commoditisation of a major resource at their hands.

But there is also a case to be made that, without marketable skills, their entry into other areas of the economy will not be as rapid as there exits from the agricultural sector.

The least predictable impact would be to the sociopolitical status quo given how public ownership of land has served to stem internal migration. A rapid reshaping of the demographic makeup will create social pressure that will negatively affect the political situation.

Fortunately, there are predictable factors that can serve as foundations for more politically agreeable and economically productive policymaking.

As the primary source of capital accumulation in Ethiopia, land should be flexible to the demands of the market forces. This does not necessarily have to involve the privatisation of land. But there could be a constitutional amendment to allow regions and city councils to choose the type of land ownership rights they prefer.

Taking the question of land out of the Constitution would need to be preceded by the proper registration and certification of rural land possession. It is a job that has been undertaken in at least four regional states of the country, with financial support from multiple countries and international organisations. A land-use policy, tailored to ensure maximum return from agricultural land, and a justice system dedicated to protecting financially less literate farmers and environmental rights are critical as well.

It will also help the government in its policy formulations to have the political question of land made to the public through a referendum. The issue of land is too powerfully divisive for it to be determined by a political force propelled to power through one election cycle.

Successive leftist regimes have had the Marxian suspicion that the bourgeoisie would take advantage of it, dispossessing the poor from its only source of subsistence. True to the Leninist maxim that the "revolutionary vanguard" is tasked with safeguarding the revolutionary ideal, they believed they knew what was best for the majority and thus never put the vote to the public.

A political and economic liberalisation would thus need to consider what the views of the majority are on a topic of such controversy. It would otherwise be a continuation of the political elite making decisions on behalf of society. Almost half a century has gone by, and society has had the opportunity to undergo fundamental changes to its understanding of the particular values attached to land.

The outcome may surprise everyone.

PUBLISHED ON Feb 29,2020 [ VOL 20 , NO 1035]

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