Land Reform – Privatization!”

by Belay Gesesse

“Meles has dismissed calls by opposition parties and economists for land ownership to be privatized, saying this would encourage farmers to sell their land and flock to overpopulated cities.” Reuters: Ethiopia told: Change farming… 21/01/2003 13:47 - (SA)

The issue of land privatization in Ethiopia is one of the many hurdles one needs to overcome in order to tackle poverty and hunger. And there is no question that it is a very crucial hurdle one needs to resolve. It cannot be ignored or responded to in the kind off-the-cuff or wise-crack remark as was done by Prime Minister Meles.

This quote above indeed, reveals a depth of blindness in the present leadership as to the Ethiopian people and their attachment to land. Since when are Ethiopians know to “sell their land and flock to the overpopulated cities?” This assertion by the Prime Minister is untenable. Whoever is advising the Prime Minster on the issue, cannot be a native Ethiopian, or one who knows our long history.

It might be possible to find a few who might indeed, sell their land and migrate to the cities, but these are the rare minority, and cannot be taken as if they represented the masses. In fact, this author has never heard of this practice by farmers anywhere in the width and breath of Ethiopia. Coming to live in cities is something hated and despised by most Ethiopian peasants. Even when they send their children to cities for education, most farmers want them to come back to the land.

People flock to the “overpopulated cities” only when they become poor and destitute, and have abandoned all hope of getting their next meal. Flocking to the cities is a final and desperate option. This should have become abundantly clear to the present leadership from observing the farmers in their own native land of Tigray, where people have often gone to Humera, Om-Hagger, Wolkait, or the South, and many other places during times of drought and famine, only to return to their own land after one, two, or more years, when favorable times come back.

In Wollo too, the recent history of Dejazmatch Gobena could have been a lesson. In the last days of Haileslassie, this feudal landlord had dispossessed many farmers from their lands to the Northeast of Dessie, and started wide expanses of mechanized farms in order to grow cotton, soybeans, and other crops, only to meet his own sad end at the hands of these dispossessed farmers. Since when did Ethiopian farmers sell their land and flock to “overpopulated cities?” There is no precedence nor is there any evidence to support such claim.

One can also cite scores of incidents during the era of the Derg, when farmers in many parts of the South spontaneously rose up to reclaim their land, very often, exacting swift justice on many unfortunate landlords. It was also the same with the “sefera” of the Derg, where many farmers returned to their ‘poorer’ lands in Northern Showa, in Wello, and Tigray, than remain in the ‘fertile’ South, even when land was given them free by the then government. There is no shred of evidence, historic data, or statistics to support the assertion that farmers would “sell their land and flock to overpopulated cities”?

Who does not understand the meaning of the common proverb, “Babat ristena bemist yelem waza…”? (There is no joke when it comes to one’s inherited land and one’s wife…) The Ethiopian peasant would shed his own blood to protect it, and has no qualms in spilling blood, when it comes to holding on, and defending his land. One, who does not understand this fact, has no understanding of the Ethiopian character or spirit. Is the Prime Minister throwing this allegation and an undigested statement without much thought? Or has the present life in Addis and in a palace rendered him to go out of touch with the people? This sounds to us like: “Why don’t they eat cakes?”

For how long will the present land-policy continue to be defended? One sign of a good leadership is in admitting failed policies and in making changes. “Tehadsso” should not be only to replace former bureaucrats and government officials with new people, but in changing the way things are done. Unless the new bureaucracy is equipped with new tools, it will do just as bad a job as those before it. It is the system that needs to be renewed. But our people are not fooled. They always said: “Distu bilewawet wetu aytafitem…” Food does not taste any better by changing it into a different pot. It is the same stale food.

Land being a “limited resource” cannot be sold or bought, but must remain in the hands of the government, so states the Constitution. One can get land only on lease from the government for 99 years, after which time, one will need to renew the lease, or the government can reclaim it and refund for whatever “improvements” the owner had built or put on it. This is not much different from the ‘Communist’ stand that has already proved a disaster in the Soviet Union and in many other Communist countries.

This melody is something the present leadership keeps harping on as an old melody from its Communist days, where it used to advocate Ethiopia’s advancement into Communism in the cast-mold of Invar Hoja’s Albania. It is clear that either these failed policies will have to change, - and very soon, or the present leadership will have to go.