The Rise of Feudalism in Ethiopia

The formation of the Ethiopian state is owed to countless historical and political trajectories. The established narrative, though, is that modern Ethiopian state was formed during the reign of Emperor Menelik II. This is because the modern Ethiopian state was expanded through conquest during his era, especially to the Southern and South Western parts of Ethiopia. Nonetheless, the ancient territory of Ethiopia was by far, even greater than during Menelik II’s era, and present day Ethiopia (after the secession of Eritrea) is smaller than before. The territory of Ethiopia changes from time to time, and what we know as Ethiopia today has contested territorial and political narratives. Territorial and political contestations, which are largely the narratives of the Ethiopian history, still impacts the nation building process.

There is no doubt that despite the long history of Ethiopia, the formal state structure and modern bureaucracy is a relatively recent phenomenon. The process of neutral state formation in Ethiopia has been fragile and shaky, and thus the Ethiopian nation building process has been greatly compromised, from a monarchical and feudal state, to a socialist state, and to what is now constitutionally speaking, a republic.

Feudalism, which used to define the societal structure of Europe in the medieval period, was the predominant social, political and economic order of Ethiopia for many years. In a feudal system, society was structured according wealth, especially land holdings, where landlords own large amounts of land. As a result, it created landlord-tenant relations, which later developed into master and servant relations.

Religion and land were the two dominant instruments for the continuation of the centuries-old hierarchical relations of the people. Similar to medieval Europe, in Ethiopia, land has been used as an instrument of subjugation for centuries. The established status quo was that landlords, while adding little effort or labour to the economy, used to take all the fruits of the land and give only a fraction of it to the tenants. In Ethiopian, feudalism was institutionalized and it continued until the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie I in 1974. Thus, the established state of Ethiopia as Christian, monarchical and feudal system was successfully abolished once but not for all.

The Dergue officially declared Ethiopia as a socialist state based on the Marxist-Leninist ideology, under the leadership of workers, peasants, the petty bourgeoisie, and all anti-feudal and anti-imperialist forces. The Dergue introduced land reform which was one of the main agendas of the 1960s student movement “Land to the Tiller’. The Dergue adopted a radical approach and issued a Land Reform Proclamation of March 1975, which nationalized all rural land and abolished tenancy.

In July 1975, all urban land, rentable houses, and apartments were also nationalized. The move, for some, put an end to the anachronistic land owner-tenant relations that had been installed in a lot of southern areas during the era of Menelik II and continued under Haile Selassie I. However, the move was taken with little preparation and met with opposition in many areas, especially Gojam, Welo, and Tigray.

On top of this, the combined effects of famine and insurgency put the nation’s economy into a state of collapse. The primary government response to the drought and famine was the decision to uproot large numbers of peasants who lived in the affected areas in the north and to resettle them in the southern parts of the country. In 1985 and 1986, about 600,000 people were moved, many forcibly, from their home villages and farms by the military and transported to various regions in the south under the “villagization” or resettlement policy.

Subsequent to the downfall of the Dergue regime in 1991, land continued as public property. It is worth mentioning here that in the Northern Ethiopia, land was redistributed in the liberated areas, which later got legal approval through regulations issued during the transitional period.

Post-1991, land has become a fundamental right and freedom of all Ethiopian people. As of 1995, land issues became a constitutional matter, one of the fundamental features of which was the public ownership of land and other natural resources. Land is the collective right of the Ethiopian People as a whole and the mandate to regulate land is of the federal government which has the mandate to ‘enact laws for utilization and conservation of land and other natural resources, as provided under Article 51(5) of the Constitution of Ethiopia. In short, land is a public property and cannot be sold and subject to any other form of exchange.

In the Ethiopian Constitution, regions only have the power to administer land based on specific laws of the federal government. But what exactly administration means is disputed. It is imperative to mention here, that urban land distribution was made based on specific regional land size. However, despite the old feudal land holding system in urban areas, the new system did not follow similar steps in the rural areas. It was only the Dergue that nationalized urban land in excess of the permitted size. Many of the lands expropriated were later returned to the owners after the fall of the Dergue regime. As a result, the land holding system, free of lease unless transferred to third party, dominated the land system in urban areas. Those who already held land were fully protected without even the duty to pay land fee.

Moreover, the federal constitution, as per its Article40 (1), states ‘Ethiopian peasants have the …protection against eviction from their possession’ In the same section, however, the constitution makes it clear by stating that ‘the right to ownership of rural and urban land….is exclusively vested in the state and peoples of Ethiopia’. Consistent with the slogan ‘Land to the Tiller’, the Constitution creates separate rights of land for urban and rural people. Ethiopian peasants have the right to obtain land free of charge and are protected against eviction. Likewise, Ethiopian pastoralists have the right to obtain free land for grazing. On the other hand, urban dwellers have parallel right to use rights under the Constitution. This shows that the constitutional makers partially responded to the land question: peasants and pastoralist but not urban dwellers. This created a new normal: the rise of feudalism in Ethiopia. It ever remains the most contested provision of the constitution and the political order.

The rural land system created its own institutions for implementation, and the urban land lease holding system was enacted. Additional regulations governed the details of the two land holding systems. The most contested issue of the rural-urban land matrix is the rapid urbanization process where rural lands are transferred to urban land system with very little compensation schemes.

As a result, rural land users become landless. And through time, they become servants of the landlords who bought the land at a very low rate. It is mainly because of the current state of poverty and level of information that many peasants did not know the price of their land would appreciate to this level.

In the urban land system-through a lease process, land is subject to auction-a kind of free market willing seller (the government) and willing buyer (the rich). The paradox is the rich (many are rent seekers) can compete and there is no limit under the lease law for residential purposes.

The current lease system has created three scenarios. The first, it might have benefited the rich to rechanneling the accumulated money most of which might be illicit. Second, as the price skyrocketed, it has become a source of wealth for the government which in many cases is not properly accounted for. Third, it helped increase land market prices due to the unhealthy completion elsewhere. While land is constitutionally the collective property of all, in practice, it is not the right of all. In practice, land is sold openly and rights transfers authorized by government offices. The existing system has created the haves and has not.

As a new normal, the rich can buy land and rent it to the poor which has created landlord-tenant relationship in Ethiopia. Renters do not have the right to protection against the constant rising of house rental prices either. Rental contracts are rarely regulated in Ethiopia. Presently, many urban people live in poor urban conditions. While cities are growing, the lives of rural people near cities are of great concern. From a policy point of view, sound policy reformulation that addresses the needs of the ‘development’ displaced people is required.

In conclusion, in the present state of Ethiopia, a new feudalism is on the rise. This new normal can be attributed to many factors but the misguided policy of urban land system is the major one. This will continue to adversely affect the overall transformation process of the country unless it is addressed timely. This requires ethical business undertakings, sufficient compensation for displaced people, and a fundamental change in the urban land holding system and equitable distribution of national wealth.

6th Year . June 16 2018 . No.62

Mekonnen Fisseha

Who served as a Regional Researcher at International Law and Policy Institute, is an assistant Professor of Law at Mekelle University. He can be reached at

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