How Ethiopia managed land reform


A SIGNIFICANT proportion of the world’s poor depend on agriculture.
Thus, the access of low income rural households to adequate land is crucial in sustaining their livelihoods.
It makes the distribution of land in rural areas an important issue for poverty alleviation.
Many countries have undertaken land reform programmes to improve the access of households to land as well as decrease inequality in rural areas.
Ethiopia is one of the countries that undertook land reform as part of a larger radical socio-political and economic revolution.
In September 1974, Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in a military coup that brought an end to an old dynasty that claimed to descend from the biblical King Solomon.
The overthrow of the emperor was followed by a series of measures that changed the political and economic landscape of the country from a ‘feudal’ system towards ‘socialism’.
Among the many radical measures, the land reform proclamation of February 1975 nationalised all rural land.
The homogeneous and age-old land tenure of the imperial period was replaced by a system whereby all land was owned by the state.
Land was then given to farmers on usufruct (right to use) basis and large-scale commercial farms were turned into state farms.
Peasant Associations (PAs) were set up on approximately 800 hectares (apiece) to allocate land to farmers living in their jurisdiction according to family size.
The allocation of land by the PAs included not only the initial distribution after the land reform proclamation, but further distributions and re-distributions of land were carried out at various intervals.
After their establishment, the PAs effectively functioned as local governments, radically transforming the political administration of rural areas from that of the imperial regime dominated by the nobility.
The sweeping nature of the land reform and other economic measures after the revolution of 1974 left many politicians and researchers questioning whether the distribution of land in rural Ethiopia was equitable or whether it was more equitable than other African countries with private and traditional forms of land ownership.
Prior to the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution, Ethiopia had a complex land tenure system.
Historically, Ethiopia was divided into the northern highlands, which constituted the core of the old Christian kingdom, and the southern highlands, most of which were brought under imperial rule by conquest.
This north-south distinction was reflected in land tenure differences.
The major form of ownership in the northern regions was a type of communal system known as ‘rist’.
It was hereditary, inalienable and inviolable.
No user of any piece of land could sell his or her share outside the family or mortgage or bequeath his or her share as a gift, as the land belonged, not to the individual, but to the descent group.
According to rist system, all descendants (both male and female) of an individual founder were entitled to a share and individuals had the right to use (usufruct right) a plot of family land.
Most peasants in the northern highlands held at least some rist land, but there were some members belonging to minority ethnic groups who were tenant farmers.
In general, absentee landlordism in the north was rare while landless tenants were few.
‘Gult’ was the other major form of tenure whereby land ownership right was acquired from the monarch or from provincial rulers who were empowered to make land grants. Gult owners collected tribute from the peasantry until 1966 (when gult rights were abolished in principle). They exacted labour service as payment in kind from the peasants.
Only in the 20th Century, the Government instituted salaries; until then gult rights were the typical form of compensation.
Other forms of tenure included mengist, maderia and samon which was land granted to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church by the Government in perpetuity.
Traditionally, the church had claimed about one-third of Ethiopia’s land; however, actual ownership probably never reached this figure.
Estimates of church holdings range from 10-20 percent of the country’s cultivated land.
Peasants who worked on church land paid tribute to the church (or monastery), rather than to the emperor.
Mengist and maderia were large state-owned tracts of agricultural land.
Mengist land was registered as government property while maderia land was granted mainly to government officials, war veterans and other patriots in lieu of a pension or salary. Although maderia land was granted for life, the state possessed a reversionary right over all land grants; this form of tenure comprised about 12 percent of the country’s agricultural land.
Following the Second World War, maderia land tenure became more common as Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia used it to reward the arbegnoch (patriots) who had fought against the Italian occupiers of East Africa.
In Wollo Province, there were an estimated 111 types of land tenure.
The existence of so many land tenure systems, coupled with the lack of reliable data, made it difficult to give a comprehensive assessment of landownership in Ethiopia.
Few farmers in the southern provinces owned the land on which they worked, where landownership patterns developed as a result of land measurement and land grants following the Ethiopian conquest of the region in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
After the conquest, officials divided southern land equally among the state, the church and the indigenous population. Warlords who administered the occupied regions received the state’s share.
In turn, they redistributed part of their share to their officers and soldiers.
The church’s share was distributed among the church hierarchy and the Government in the same manner.
Officials divided the rest between the traditional leaders (balabats) and the indigenous people.
Thus, the loss of two-thirds of the land to the new landlords and the church made many local people tenants (gebbars).
Tenancy in the southern provinces ranged between 65-80 perecnt of the holdings and tenant payments to landowners averaged as high as 50 percent of the produce.
In the lowland periphery and the Great Rift Valley areas that were inhabited by pastoralists, the traditional practice of transhumance, nomadic farming and the allocation of pastoral land was according to tribal custom, which remained undisturbed until after the Second World War.
The pastoral social structure was based on a kinship system with strong interclan connections; grazing and water rights are regulated by custom.
Dr Michelina Rudo Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant lecturer and specialist hospitality interior decorator. She is a published author in her field.
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