Urban land lease legislation: the prime minister’s new front against urban dwellers

8 Feb

By Keffyalew Gebremedhin

This time, it is so naked, but not because of the usual TPLF/EPRDF recklessness. The controversies arising from the new urban land proclamation, be it for their substances, intentions and the manner they have been railroaded into parliament, have pitted the regime’s powerful figures and their agents against the millions!

This might have not been a fight the Meles regime would have wanted to pick now. It only burst on its face willy-nilly, as it tried to get the draft legislation stealthily approved through the backdoor on the second day when parliament members returned from holiday around mid-October, i.e., without reference to a relevant main committee. Of course, the MPs were back physically then, but not mentally.

Get me right. In stating this I do not mean to give the impression that discussions in parliament have been helpful to date in advancing the interests of the people against any unwanted legislations that habitually are shoved down their throats. No way, it cannot happen, since 99.6 percent of MPs are beholden to the ruling party for their survival.

Consequently, in stage-managed legislation in parliament what the ruling party tried to avoid was alerting citizens that, as co-owners of lands with the state, they were being deprived of their property rights, with no public consultations or discussions.

On this matter, in its editorial of 23 October, Addis Fortune eloquently captured the essence of what I am struggling to say. It observes:

    Critics are proved right. Little debate prevails in the EPRDF dominated parliament than protocol. It all runs dry. Party loyalty overshadows reasoned representation and interest based deliberation remains a pipe dream. Legislations are serving to put governmental intent into laws.

How such behavior has been reflecting badly on government credibility and ‘its’ parliament requires no further discussion, since it adds little to what has already been known.

Why fear discussion within parliament?

Nevertheless, the approach of the regime on urban land lease legislation has shocked Ethiopians throughout the country, according to tidbits of news filtering out of the country. It would be an understatement to say that Ethiopians are enraged. That is why they now are bracing for a showdown, the defiance of which has already been registered since last November/December.

Communal unit in Bole Summit, Addis Ababa. © UN-HABITAT / Katherine Hegab

It is something that signals people have had enough of the overreach by an arrogant regime that neither has a sense of proportion nor limits. If what is gleaned from the various pretentious discussions over the fait accompli legislation between citizens and officials, conducted under the aegis of Mayor Kuma Demeksa of Addis Abeba and Urban Development and Construction Minister Mekuria Haile, is correct, the fearless resistance of people from all walks of life and age groups conveys the sense that Ethiopians are resolved to defend their rights.

Irrespective of its outcome, in looking back this incident time would come when it would be considered a watershed moment that a gentle and tolerant people have served unmistakable notice to an arrogant state power that lacks the wisdom to realize that there is limit to everything.

Even in this situation, the danger now is that this would only add up to the smoldering undercurrents of dissatisfactions and anger — indicators of the collision course the country has been on internally on account of the deepening poverty, insurmountable cost of living, rising inequality, and privileges proffered on the few on ethnic basis and undue exploitation of the country’s agricultural resources by a few investors on the basis of unequal benefits.

Certainly, in a country where consultations are scarce between policy-makers and citizens, this negative development has been the product of the gulf that exists between aspirations of the people and a regime obsessed with its uninterrupted stay in power. Therefore, whatever the regime does, there is little trust and confidence in a situation that each side is bidding for the best moment to show what it wants.

When the TPLF–led EPRDF officials could not stand the heat of public anger, Urban Development and Construction Minister Mekuria Haile chose the usual route of the regime: blaming others for the confusion. Thus, he accused the media of not “not providing clear and correct information”, “popularizing the proclamation [because of which] wrong interpretation and complaints about the proclamation have been raised”. Of course, the media isnot or cannot be in a position in that country to defend itself when used as scapegoat for the confusion the officials themselves created. They have to take it lying down!

As it happens, the regime has seized its moment through this land lease legislation to completely stifle any public reaction or uprising. This is because there is only one correct view in Ethiopia and only one truth — the regime’s!

Consequently, in a revolt of the first kind this has caused now on one hand this has evolved into a situation where the people have taken offense by the actions of a government are no longer willing to watch it passively. They strongly feel that they have been held down this long by a regime as determined to make sure that either everyone dances to its tune or face the consequences. In responding now negatively, though calmly and legally, people are showing that they can no longer put up with this behavior.

On the other, their indifference to the voices of the people the officials who run the country hardly see themselves and their role being serving the interests of the people. This has now emerged as yet another evidence of their mode of governance with contractual terms that reflects only their own interests, not the people’s.

What could be Meles’s motive in coming with the land lease legislation now?

More troubling, however, to the future of the country is the fact that at every stage the regime has hardly shown interest that it values national consensus as indispensable tool of good governance, national development and social cohesion. This has left many wondering why it should always prefer controversies and heavy-handedness as its chosen governance strategies.

For instance, this urban land lease legislation has been on the political plate for a while. In his March 2011 press conference to Ethiopian journalists, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi stated that the existing urban land legislation “does open the way for transfer of lease right which could lead then into the speculation in urban land. The intention of the law was not to encourage speculation in terms of urban land ownership.”

As far as he is concerned, therefore, “There are two actors; on the one hand the private sector developers who were effectively engaged in grabbing the land that does not belong to them in any legal sense and misusing the land lease rights that they were given for personal profits and speculation and there were government officials who facilitated such activities or at least turn a blind eye while such activities were taking place.”

If that is the situation, then is it not appropriate that one should ask him why punish the entire society by going against the grain, i.e., the legislations that have been in place since 1975 and have evolved practices and customs in the course of nearly two generation, which entitles them important place as the laws?

In that press conference, the prime minister indicated that as at the beginning of 2011 there have been a few critical issues that have deprived him of nights sleep. From his perspective, these situations have been described as having serious implications in “determine[ing] stability and progress in Ethiopia.” These situations are:

    (a) meeting the financial requirements for the implementation of the growth and transformation plan (GTP),
    (b) whether there is capacity in the country for the implementation projects,
    (c) combatting inflation over the medium-and long-term, and,
    (d) ending speculation on land and land grabbing.

Finished condominiums in Mikililand Mikililand, Addis Ababa © UN-HABITAT / Katherine Hegab

These in turn give rise to the question whether the land legislation is driven by the state’s need to raise more revenues. It also gives credence to the insight of those analysts that long ago recognized that the actions of the Ethiopian state are consistently motivated by its desire to squeeze more money from citizens, including the abuses by the tax administration; I state this without denying that the tax base in Ethiopia is one of the narrowest in the world. However, for the first time early this month, at the height of the hues and cries of taxpayers the director of the office openly admitted before parliament about the existence of misuse of its powers, for which, as usual, the blame was thrown at rent-seekers in his office.

There are others that believe that this land lease legislation is driven by the regime’s success in rural areas, where it has ensured its control of the rural populace. Throughout these years, the rural population ‘has been kept loyal’ under the fear of losing their lands or not getting farm inputs, if they did not vote for or cooperate with the ruling party.

Those who see it from this angle are convinced that political extortion has been the regime’s modus operandi all along outside urban areas across the different aspects of Ethiopian lives. We heard on the eve of the 2010 election reporting by foreign journalists and researchers of the reach of this shameful practice even the ranks of aid receiving hungry people afflicted by man-made and natural disasters.

Now in the wake of the Arab Spring, those analysts say, the regime is in need of silencing suspected pockets of resistance to its power. They strongly believe that that it is the reason why it has turned its attention to urban dwellers. In order to achieve these objectives, under the guise of fighting corruption and speculation on land it has brought its “proven” control mechanism to the cities. Since then, this legislation Damocles Sword has been suspended on the heads of urban residents that from day one have shown distrust of the TPLF-led EPRDF. Their choice now is to lie down and take it as it comes or suffer the consequences of not cooperating with the regime.

There is no doubt that the manner it has gone about this is unbecoming of a state and statesmen. Mind boggling is the extent to which the regime becomes political insensitivity when it thought it was smart in what it has been doing. Unfortunately, it has only presented itself as legal illiterate and politically amateurish.

When would governance become transparent in Ethiopia?

If we assume for a momentthat laws govern Ethiopia, one thing they also constantly hammer, why should the reality be any different from that as regards the motive and the manner this legislation walked in? As far as I could tell, the reality is that neither are the 1975 proclamations of the military regime rejected after the TPLF seized power. Nor has the constitution in force in any manner changed the provisions of those laws that affirm land is public property in Ethiopia. Under the TPLF-led EPRDF regime, the meaning of ‘public property’ has been increasingly rendered to emphasize the place of the state, as if it is intended to mean exclusively state ownership. In fact, in Article 40 of the constitution launched and approved by this regime, citizens also have as much right as co-owners, as discussed above.

That article also clearly reiterates its recognition of “the right to the ownership of private property.” Moreover, it provides for:

    The right to ownership of rural and urban land, as well as of all natural resources, is exclusively vested in the State and in the peoples of Ethiopia. Land is a common property of the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia and shall not be subject to sale or to other means of exchange.

This does not in any way suggest that the search for solutions to the problems of speculation on land should end up with expropriation of the co-owners’ share, as the secret approval process the new legislation went through seems to suggest. It is in black and white with video recordings that already in his March 2011 press conference the prime minister has indicated, “So, we will take steps to clarify those specific provisions in the law to make sure they don’t open a flag [flood?] gate for speculation in urban land.”

If the search for solution to the problems of corruption is real indeed, then could it not have been easier and successful outcome guaranteed if government chose to act in concert and with the people behind it? This is not the way the regime seems to want it, when considered from the point of view of its desire to go behind the back of the people, instead of accommodating their interests and rights to own private properties. Of course, by all indications that is not a strong forte of this unique, aggressive and muscular developmental state that is being envisioned for Ethiopia.

Perhaps what remains now is to see if the above speculations that the are claimed to be the driving force behind this legislation. Did they want to kill two birds with one stone? That is to say: (a) raise more funds for the programs and projects it plans to implement within the framework of the GTP; and, (b) use the land lease legislation as a leash to control the urban population, as has the regime done to the rural population.

Incidentally, at that same March 2011 press conference that took place when the Arab Spring has become one of the primary agendas of the international community — for both good and ill — a journalist asked Ato Meles Zenawi about his “overall assessment of the unfolding situations in North Africa and Middle East”. His response:

    The political changes in North Africa are very interesting. As I said I don’t think anyone of these events has come to a final conclusion. Libya is obviously in turmoil and nobody knows how this going to end. Tunisia and Egypt have completed the first phase of the revolution peacefully. So far, one part of the political establishment has displaced the other part of the political establishment that has, as we know is not a definition of revolution. These things have not yet to come to a halt. These are the ongoing processes and nobody can pretend to know where this is going to end.

Has the prime minister then been fortifying his firewall in good time and realistic manner? If time could be called as reliable witness, after all, this legislation was already given flesh and blood in early 2011.

*The original has been edited and updated with additional material.


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