Touted as a model abroad, Ethiopia’s rural land registration raises serious questions at home

Thursday, 6 December 2018 22:41 GMT

Men wait for a bus on the outskirts of the town of Woliso, Oromia region, Ethiopia, October 22, 2018. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

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Government and aid agencies are trying to regularize land rights through registration but do rural people benefit?

Mekonnen Firew Ayano is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for African Studies at Harvard University

Since the late 1990s, Ethiopia has been implementing a national rural land registration program, the largest such legal reform in the world in recent times. Financed largely by the World Bank, USAID, and other international development agencies, the programme was designed to record land and landholders in the east African country.

The government and international development agencies believe that the programme has promoted land markets and protected the land rights of rural dwellers, especially those of women and vulnerable communities.

DAI Global and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), for instance, report that the programme has spurred agricultural investment and land markets, such as mortgages, allowing rural dwellers to access financial lending. The World Bank reports that having documentary certificates has benefited women and vulnerable social groups, including those who cannot read and write.

Such reports have been presented as evidence to refute widespread doubts and scepticism informed by the failure of previous rural titling initiatives in rural settings across Africa.

At home in Ethiopia, however, the programme has raised serious legal and social questions.

Evidence presented in my recent article, rural land registration in Ethiopia: myth and realities, shows that the registration has not protected the land rights of rural dwellers, who face massive land appropriations and dispossession by governmental and private actors. It has actually facilitated the appropriations by simplifying local land tenures that are complex from the standpoint of outsiders.

In the absence of well-regulated markets in land, records and certificates are not particularly helpful for rural dwellers, especially for those who lack resources to assert their rights. 

While registration has formalized land governance, the scarcity of professional legal services and literacy in Ethiopia have made the formal system more complex and costlier for many people in the rural areas.

Donors and government officials overestimate the importance of formal titles and underestimate the role of political power and resources in enabling people to claim land rights.

Asserting one’s land rights in the formal process requires considerable resources and political power, neither of which is meaningfully provided by the land registration programme.

A recent report shows, for instance, that local officials took farmlands in the surrounding areas of Addis Ababa for a real estate development by deceiving the rural dwellers into signing a document forcing them to forfeit their land. The officials presented the document as an “attendance” list for a meeting while it was actually a consent form to forgo their land for a nominal compensation.

Land registration in Ethiopia has also raised serious constitutional issues. Since 2014, the House of Federation (HoF), the country’s constitutional review body, has invalidated land certificates in more than two dozen disputes, declaring the sale and market exchanges of land illegal. Its decisions are based on Article 40.3 of the Constitution of 1995, which declares that:

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.

The disputes decided by the House of Federation show that the land registration programme has contributed to worsening land rights of rural dwellers.

About 80 percent of the cases presented to the House have concerned land, and most of the petitioners have been rural dwellers dispossessed by other people who used registration to establish a claim to their land.  

One decision, for example, responded to a petition by an elderly couple who “donated” their farmland to the respondent because they were too physically weak to work the land. The donation was a reciprocal arrangement customarily practiced in their locale. In such an arrangement the donors expect the recipient to reciprocate by supporting them. But the respondent withheld the support once he had acquired a certificate of title through the registration programme. The HoF declared that the arrangement flouted the constitutional rule banning the sale and market exchanges of land.

Government and international development agencies are trying to regularize land rights through registration because they believe that local land tenures hinder economic and social development. But regularizing local land tenures through registration is harder than it may seem.

Ethiopia's efforts in this area have raised serious legal and social questions, contributing to conflicts over land in the country rather than decreasing them.

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