Fasil A. Zewdie This is a refereed article

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Law, Social Justice & Global Development
(An Electronic Law Journal)

Right to Self Determination and Land Rights in Ethiopia: Analysis of the Adequacy of the Legal Framework to Address Dispossession

Fasil A. Zewdie

This is a refereed article published on: 31st July 2013

Citation: Zewdie, F. A, ‘Right to Self Determination and Land Rights in Ethiopia: Analysis of the Adequacy of the Legal Framework to Address Dispossession’, 2013(1) Law, Social Justice & Global Development Journal (LGD).


I am deeply indebted to my supervisor, Dr. George Meszaros, for his invaluable guidance.


The right to self determination of nations, nationalities and peoples has been the cornerstone of the Ethiopian federal state structure for the last two decades and is seen as an instrument for addressing the political, economic and social domination the majority of the people suffered for centuries. In turn, control over land and other natural resources is the core of this right. This research is an attempt to examine the content of the right to self determination under the Ethiopian constitution and test its adequacy to restore collective ownership and control of land and natural resources to the peoples who have been dispossessed of their land and resources by the wars of expansion of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It argues that the constitution fails to incorporate clear and adequate guarantees on the ownership of and control of land by nations, nationalities and peoples and neglects the economic aspect of self determination. It further argues that the laws that are intended to implement land tenure are based on the assumption that the government is the sole owner of land. It concludes that the laws, including the constitution, are serving as instruments to perpetuate and legalise the dispossession rather than redress it.


Ethiopia, right to self determination, economic self determination, ownership of land and natural resources.



Ethiopia has been home to dozens of various peoples with different ethnic, religious and social identities. However, the great majority of these peoples have lived under internal ethnic, political, social and economic subjugation for centuries. Modern Ethiopia is seen by many as the product of the gradual expansion of the old Abyssinia- that consisted mainly of the high land regions of central and northern parts of the country, i.e., shewa, Gojam, Gonder and Tigray including parts present day Eretria- which had started in the 13th century and culminated with the annexation of the eastern, southern and south-western regions of the current Ethiopia (Donham D. 1986: p3, 251; Zewde B. 2007: p7).

Similar to other Africans who were colonized by European forces, the conquered peoples in these parts of the country lost, totally or partially, their local/ indigenous institutions and their land and other resources; were forced to adopt an external language and religion and were enslaved… the only difference was that they suffered these misfortunes at the hands of their fellow Africans. However, contrary to their African counterparts, the plight of these peoples did not receive the attention of the international and regional anti-colonial movements; and they did not get the moral and political support other colonised peoples received. The paradox of the late 19th century Ethiopia under Menelik II was that it was both the symbol of African resistance to European colonialism while at the same time it colonised and enslaved fellow Africans.

The expansion/colonization had significant economic and social consequences for peoples in these parts of the country; first and for most, the expansion led to abolition or the suppression of local land tenure systems (Jembere A. 2012: p128,129, 130) and the superimposition of an external, Abyssinian land tenure system that both led to the dispossession of local peoples of their land and other resources and the introduction of the exploitative political and administrative structures, i.e., the ‘gebbar-gult’ system.

In the settled and cultivated parts of the newly incorporated regions, a ‘gebbar’ system was introduced (Zewde B. 2007: p94, Donham D. 1986: p41). Upon completion of the conquest, the emperor granted his main war generals- the pioneers- and some of the local/indigenous leaders called the ‘balabats,’ who served as the intermediaries between the local people and the centre, a ‘gult’ right/land- a fief power to collect tributes from peasant farmers- ‘gebbars’- living in the region or district under his domain. Accordingly, Ras Woldegiorgis was given the Kafa region which he conquered and colonized; Dejach Tessema was given Ilubabor; Dejach Demisse was given Wollega Arjo and Horro, and Ras Mekonnen was given Hararghe (Zewde B. 2007: p96), to mention few examples.

The Amharic for the verb ‘to colonise’ is ‘qiny madreg’, ‘maqnat’ that means to discover, to control and make it better and usable … Thus, the head of the army that led the conquest was normally given the ‘gult’ power over that region, while the lower ranking officers and the rank and file are given, according to their hierarchy, a power of tribute over a certain district, county or over a number of households (a foot soldier for example had a tribute collection power over five families (Zewde B. 2007: p96).

Though local people had the right to hold and use land, either collectively or individually, and the ‘gult’ holder’s right was limited to the collection tributes and labour services, some ‘gult’ holders forced their ‘gebbars’ to buy their own lands. For instance, the governor of Arsi Ras Birru Woldegeorgis required that every ‘gebbar’ pay 30 Maria Teresa Dollars for an acre of land and those who did not afford were reduced to being tenants on their own land and could be removed any time (Zewde B. 2007: p98).

Furthermore, ‘gult’ holders gradually extended their powers beyond tribute collection and corvee labour to direct rights over land, i.e., ‘rist’, the fact that ‘gult holders’ /governors also had judicial power gave them the opportunity to amass land previously held by locals (Donham D. 1986: p9,11; Zewde B. 2008: p105).

However, it is true that the centre spared some of the regions from the ‘gult-gebbar’ system and the placement of their land under the lordship of northern war lord, for example regions in the west and the south west that have submitted peacefully such as Jimma, Leqa Neqamt, Leqa Qellam, Assosa, Benishangul, Afar (Awsa) and Gubba (Metekel), instead they were required to pay a fixed amount of tax annually to the emperor and were allowed to maintain their internal autonomy and institutions(Garretson 1986: p199). The Islamic kingdom of Jimma was further able to obtain a guarantee from the emperor that no church would be built in its territory and no Muslim would be forced to convert (Garretson 1986: p199).

Another consequence of the expansion/colonization was the introduction of a categorization of land known as ‘unsettled’ or ‘uncultivated’ or ‘unused’, that refers to all land ‘not used’ in the sense of a settled agriculture common in the northern part of the country and over which no particular person could show an individual or family right… such as communal land used for grazing cattle, forest areas used for hunting, collecting wild fruits, medicine and wood… and the whole land in the pastoral and semi pastoral lowland areas (Donham D. 1986: p41).

This classification is followed by a sweeping declaration that all ‘unsettled’ land falls within the domain of the king, which he could grant as ‘gult’ to his generals, who would then settle their soldiers and followers as payment for their military services; to the church, and people serving the state in other capacities such as judges and tax collectors in lieu of wages; or it was measured and sold to settlers from the north or used directly for the production of grains, keeping horses, mules and cattle for palace use (Zewde B. 2007: p198-99). Furthermore, local chiefs /leaders that served as instruments in the administration of the local people would also receive a share of land that has been declared the king’s land.

This appropriation of large areas of ‘unused’ ‘uncultivated’ and ‘vacant’ land also led to the introduction of land measurement called ‘qalad’ and sale of land that laid the foundation for individual ownership of land and the suppression of local communal land rights (Zewde B. 2007: p97). In some places, such as Wollega and Arsi, land measurement affected even land already ‘settled’ and ‘cultivated’, and local people were required to buy their own land or face tenancy (Zewde B. 2007: p97).

The other effect of the expansion/colonization was that it led to the settlement of large number of people from the north or Abyssinia in the areas newly incorporated, thereby giving the dispossession of the local people a permanent effect, while on the other hand, it relieved the overcrowding and land scarcity in the north (Zewde B. 2007: p94). It also led to the imposition of the Amharic language as the official working language of the newly constituted administrative organs and the promotion of Orthodox Christianity as the official religion of the empire, though not as vigorously promoted as the former (Donham D. 1986: p11).

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