Ethiopia: Country Profile on Land Practices

Country : Ethiopia

Area :1,104,300km2 (426,373 sq. mi)

Population: 114,963,588

A landlocked country at the horn of Africa, Ethiopia is one of the larger countries in Africa and the second-most populous. Ethiopia is one of two countries in Africa that were never colonized excluding the Italian occupation of the 1930s and ’40s. The country has a complex history of land tenure and reform from the days of imperial rule, (characterized by landlord-tenant relationship & privatization) to the modern age (State-owned land). As an agrarian state, the land has been a major factor of production and source of livelihood in the country.

Ethiopia has a long history of state intervention in land tenure relations and thoughts over land tenure policy are an incessant issue of the contest and thus it has been a long contentious subject. This article will attempt to discuss the nature of tenure in Ethiopia during the Imperial era, Derg regime and post 1991 when the country became a democracy.

Imperial Rule and Land Policy.

During the Imperial regime, the tenure system was noted as exploitative. The land was concentrated on the hands of absentee landlords deeming land tenure unjust. Security was very insecure and arbitrary evictions posed serious threats to farmers.

Different regions in Ethiopia had different tenure systems. The northern part of the empire was more feudal while the southern was private. This was after the conquest of the south during the latter half of the 19th century by Emperor Menelik II.

The Imperial era accommodated one of the most complex land tenure systems in Africa. The different types were;

RIST – Corporate ownership, – Regarded as a genuine Abyssinian collective land tenure system, it is a variant of communal land tenure in Ethiopia. Based on the descent, it granted usufruct rights (temporary right to use and derive income or benefit from someone else’s property) to descendants of the previous owner. Both male and female descendants were entitled to a share of land and guaranteed rights. It granted the rural people access to land through its distributive role.  Due to difficulty in tracing the ancestral landowners, there was competitive bargaining of land. Representatives of the corporation handled claims who consulted other members of the family/kinship. It provided general tenure security but limited property rights. It prohibited the introduction of mechanization while the insecure property rights limited intensive development and investment. The increasing population was forced to till on increasingly diminishing plots with declining productivity due to continuous use over centuries.

GULT – Grant land, the system was superimposed on the racist system. It required rist holding farmers to pay tribute in taxes, kind of labour to their landlords. This was the gult right. Gult holders were aristocrats in the north whilst the southern periphery civil servants and military personnel of the imperial regime had received gult rights as compensation for services offered. Institutions like The Orthodox Church were granted gult right. It was characterized as a right to land and the manpower on it. According to some scholars, gult right was not inheritable. The right could be withdrawn at any moment since formal land ownership was vested in on the state.

 GEBBAR – Private/Freehold, – Two processes brought the emergence of private property in Imperial Ethiopia. The first is the return of Emperor Haile Selassie from exile in 1942. The land was used to rewarded to select individuals such as soldiers and victims of the Italian occupation.

The second was a tax reform in 1941. Landlords who had paid their land taxes could own the land. Gebbar was used to describe private property during the Imperial period. The land whose tax hadn’t been paid to the government was converted to government land. This included that of the Orthodox Church. Farmers now paid tribute to the government directly.

The tax reform increased tenure security in particular for rist holders in the north who had paid their taxes while improving the conditions of the taxpaying people the south.

However, many who lived under the gust tribute system lost their lands as many had registered formally as taxpayers thereby depriving the farmers under them of their right to the land. These farmers thus became tenants who practised sharecropping in which their landlords could demand up to half of their harvest for them to retain usage rights to the land. They suffered burdensome tributes and services given to these authorities.

Power imbalances between landlords and rural characterized land tenures during the Imperial regime. The land policy was an instrument for divide and rule. These emperors reserved the right to grant and withdraw land rights at all levels which kept the nobility personally obliged to the crown.

During the 1940s and ’50s, in response to the changing economic and political needs, the imperial government passed several legislations. It was not only to consolidate its political power but also to partly improve the condition of the farmers and increase agricultural productivity. This bore little fruit. The 1960 putsch and the subsequent student unrest that gave leeway to the possibility of reversing the system. Under these circumstances, the emperor made a speech on November 2, 1961, addressing his parliament about the need for land reform. He stated that the fundamental obstacle to the realization of agricultural potential had been tenure insecurity. He added that farmers who toiled the land must enjoy its benefits.

The emperor appointed a land reform committee. The committee later transformed into a Land Reform and Development Authority. In 1966 it changed, into the Ministry of Land Reform and Administration. This was an attempt at land reform which would later fail. For a brief moment tenancy legislation was seriously considered and debated in parliament. Members were divided into conservative (landowners) and reformist groups. The conservative group insisted on resisting change and won the debate due to their superiority in number. It is said influential large landowners forced the emperor to pass the order to the Minister of Land Reform. This was to ensure he stopped his work for reforms.

By 1974, the subject of land reform had become a popular subject among progressive groups. Rural farmers revolts intensified the subject. This put pressure on the government which tried to speed up reforms which the progressives viewed as outdated. Emperor Haile Selassie was officially deposed on September 12th 1974 and monarchical rule brought to an end.


To mount a revolution against the Imperial regime issues surrounding tenure security in the country were used as a vehicle. Slogans like “Land to the tiller” gained traction

On 4th of March 1975, the Provisional Military Administrative Council (Derg Council) released Proclamation No. 31/1975 titled; Proclamation to Provide for Public Ownership of Rural Land. It decreed that: All rural land be the property of the state, without compensation of previous rights holder and prohibited tenancy arrangements. Legal basis for the distribution of usufruct rights to large numbers of rural families who’d been under tenancies was provided. Transfer of rights was either through sale, mortgage or lease. Bequeathal to a spouse or children occurred upon right holders’ death. Plot size had a celling restriction of 10 hectares per family.

The council justified the reform on two principles; 1. Historical justice – Overcoming exploitative nature of the Imperial regime. 2. Justice as egalitarianism – Providing each family with equal access to cultivation land according to their needs.

The state took over distribution of land from the rist and gult systems. and formed Peasant Associations for all farmers. The leaders of the associations took land from the former landlords and distributed it equally among the farmers

The land reform resulted in a relatively equitable land distribution by eliminating landlordism and landlessness. Unfortunately, it failed to fulfil the objective of peasant prosperity and ensuring an abundant food supply for the fast-growing population. The 1975 Land Reform Proclamation set forth the land policy that Ethiopian citizens would fall under for the following twenty years.


After the fall of the Derg regime, Ethiopia People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front assumed power. The transitional government in November 1991 announced the continuation of the Derg regime land policy. The 1995 constitution approved and confirmed state ownership of land. It exclusively vested on the state and the peoples of Ethiopia the right to ownership of rural land and urban land, as well as of all-natural resources. The land is a common property of the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia.”

It also states that Ethiopian people have the right to obtain land without payment. Further, it provides legal protection against eviction from their possession. Concerning the pastoralists of the lowland areas, it dictates that Ethiopian pastoralists have the right to free land for grazing and cultivation. They have rights against displacement. Later reiterated by Proclamation 456/2005 which added that persons above of 18 years may claim land for agricultural activities. Additionally, women who want to engage in agriculture shall also have the right to get and use land.

People are not entitled to private ownership of land but are guaranteed full rights to the immovable property they build and to permanent improvements they make on the land. These rights include the right to alienate and to bequeath. Where the right of use expires, then right to remove their property, transfer their title or claim compensation for it. Moreover, the constitution guarantees people against arbitrary eviction by the state. The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) constitution also says the government may expropriate private property for a public purpose. Expropriation is subject to the payment in advance of compensation commensurate to the value of the property.

Legislation on land administration had to mirror the state’s view on land. This was permitted by the Rural Land Administration Proclamation No.87/1997 later replaced by Proclamation 456/2005.

The quest for state control over rural land exhibits a long continuity in Ethiopian history. Thus there’s been a long-standing debate on the land tenure policy of Ethiopia between the pro-state and pro-private ownership. The latter, believing that the problem of land tenure security emanates from government interference and land fragmentation due to re-distribution.  The tensions in the country came to a high in 2016. Mass street protests which spread to the streets of Addis Ababa, saw dozens shot by security forces while demanding for land reforms. The protesters, hoping to persuade the government to change the land policy. Opposition leader Merera Gudina warned it could lead to civil war. Till date, this is still a controversial subject.

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