Hailu Baheru, a 67-year old resident
of Yeka District, was one of those guys whose
interest in politicking is close to zero. Hardly
could he visit a weredas meeting hall whenever
officials wanted residents to discuss issues that
they think the public needs to talk about.
Two weeks ago, all this was
different. He made a rare appearance at the Wereda
11 Office, on Desse Road, to participate in a public
discussion called by officials in the Wereda.
Attended by very apprehensive residents, officials
were keen to let residents talk about the recently
revised urban land lease law.
The meeting was held on the
afternoon of January 15, 2012. Hailu was one of
close to 30 residents congregating in a meeting hall
built on shallow blocks, with a modest size able to
accommodate twice the size that came that day. The
attendance was far too low, compared to the 31,514
residents in the Wereda.
Many of the residents were
chitchatting, with evidently little interest to
listen to each other. Neither were they very keen to
listen to officials, who were pressing more on the
need to develop the city and how the lease law could
be instrumental in achieving developmental goals.
They seemed to have little desire to talk about the
particular provisions that many of the residents
wanted to know more about: the fate of historical
Hailu could not make heads or tails
of the revised law. Neither could he find any local
or city official to explain to him what the law
means for him and whether or not it has any impact
on his holdings.
“I do not think that the law is
unclear only to us,” Hailu said in frustration. “It
is also not clear to officials who deviate from
questions on the provision, explaining about
The meeting in wereda 11 was one of
such types of experiences. Officials in almost all
of the 116 weredas across the 10 districts of the
capital have had similar face-offs with angry and
puzzled residents over the most contentious piece of
legislation to meet strong resistance from several
members of the public.
Perhaps, like many residents, little
does Hailu understand the contents of this law, but
his concerns grew after he heard people talk about
what will allegedly deprive him and his family of
the right to own property. He inherited a 400sqm
plot from his parents, in an area near Kotebe
Teachers Training College. He longed to do the same
to his four children.
“I never intended to sell my
property or anything else,” he told Fortune. “I do
not understand why my holdings should be put under a
lease to begin with.”
Nonetheless, he heard from people
that the revised law will eventually subject him to
exorbitant lease charges, even when he passes his
most treasured asset onto his children.
Although it has a buffer provision
(Article 5) of five years, safeguarding historical
holdings from inclusion in the lease regime as long
as the property is not transferred other than
through inheritance, the bill explicitly says, “All
holdings ought to be included in the lease regime
within five years.”
Indeed, this will be carried out
after a study is conducted by the Ministry of Urban
Development & Construction (MUDC) and policy
recommendations are presented to the Council of
Ministers, the revised law says. In the meantime,
though, all requests of land transfers other than
inheritance will be subjected to the lease regime,
even before the Council issues the directives for
Many find it strangely ironic to see
the administration of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in
a rush to legislate such an intensely sensitive
issue for at least 346,664 residents with historical
landholding rights, without even meeting the minimum
standards of lawmaking.
Three months ago, Mekuria Haile,
minister of MUDC, presented a bill to Parliament,
urging MPs to pass a revised draft law to govern the
holdings of urban land through lease. Comprising of
five chapters and incorporating 37 provisions, the
bill was made into a law with a single opposition
vote from Girma Seifu, an opposition party MP.
However, to the shock of many,
including those in the system, the process was
devoid of Parliamentary debate, without any hearings
offered to the public.
Mekuria insisted on an immediate
vote on the bill, without letting the standing
committee in Parliament take the case up for further
The bill had evolved from the work
of a task force of 60 under the Ministry, which
comprised of members from all of the regional
states, including the two federally chartered cities
of Dire Dawa and Addis Abeba. Comprised of experts
from the Ministry, city administration, and Ministry
of Justice (MoJ), members of the task force had
surveyed the laws of Asian countries as China,
Vietnam, South Korea, and Taiwan in an attempt to
gain experience in how to manage land the lease
regime before crafting the bill behind closed doors.
If there is anything in common among
all of the countries that members of the task force
visited, they only give use rights to landholders,
putting land possession in the state’s grip.
The task force, mandated to
investigate the land situation in the country, due
to the self declared political determination of the
administration to root out the political economy of
rent seeking in the system, reported their findings
on land prices being speculated by landholders and
brokers who had transferred plots to third parties.
They also reported the rampant illicit valuation of
plots by landholders, and presented their findings
to the Minister.
The task force, along with its legal
experts, prepared a policy, which the lease law was
based on. Nonetheless, the revised urban land lease
proclamation did not see the legal drafting
procedures such as being tabled for debate among
experts and scrutiny by members of the public.
It was not even reviewed by drafters
at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), a federal agency
whose responsibilities include checking whether any
law to be decreed is in conformity with existing
laws and the supreme law of the land, the
Constitution. Staffed with six drafters, it is
expected to respond with feedback within 18 days of
the submission of a bill by its authors.
Although the Ministry sent the bill
to the Justice Ministry, drafters were not able to
comment on the bill, owing to the piles of bills
that needed review, according to drafters at the MoJ.
“We were surprised to see that the
law passed without our review,” a legal drafter at
the MoJ, who wished to remain anonymous, told
Inevitably, this has invariably led
to the ever-increasing gap between the lease law and
other laws, according to legal experts. The revised
proclamation is now seen to be violating succession
For instance, the model directive
that is being designed by the Ministry prohibits
people from transferring their user rights over
plots through wills, which legal experts criticise
as against the right of individuals to give property
to others, either through expressly written wills or
“Putting a six-month deadline on the
grace period for construction projects from the day
of lease is inappropriate, for there are unforeseen
incidents,” a drafter said.
A bill that had slipped through the
watchful eyes of drafters at the MoJ faced a similar
fate in the legislative grilling period, this time,
though, through the deliberate demands of Minister
MPs were handed out copies of the
bill in the late afternoon on October 11, 2011, a
few minutes before they were to attend a dinner
hosted by President Girma W. Giorgis, who addressed
the joint assembly of the two houses during his
Girma, an MP representing the
opposition party Medrek, read the 22-page bill
through the night, determined to lambast it the
following day when the floor opened for debate.
There was little he could do except register his
lone vote, while the bill passed with an
overwhelming majority in its favour, including one
from the independent candidate in Parliament,
Ashebir W. Giorgis (MD) who declined to comment.
The law which has dominated the city
debate long after being passed by Parliament remains
a shock to some and a source of confusion for many.
Thus, residents across the city are echoing dismay
on the law.
“I cannot make sense of what they
said at the meeting,” an 80-year old resident of
Kirkos District said.
The cynicism has reached such a
height that a lot more jokes have surfaced in town
than series deliberations. One includes two popular
local soccer teams playing a match without letting
the ball touch the ground. Their fans are furious
and demand an explanation for the awful game from
their respective coaches.
“We cannot let the ball touch the
ground, for we cannot afford the lease price,” the
For a country that has a long
history of political battles over the ownership of
land, the revised law is seen as the height of the
state’s incursion into the rights of individuals to
own property and not lose it without due process.
The revised law on the lease regime is popularly
seen doing exactly that.
If there is any contention over
whether authorities are confused, the law is not
clear even for employees of the Ministry and the
city administration. Officials from both
institutions have begun, belatedly, to explain the
law to their subordinates, in closed meetings.
Although too late to change public
perception, both Mekuria and Kuma Demeksa, mayor of
Addis Abeba, have admitted their wrongs in dodging
public debates and consultations with interested
However, the lease proclamation has
been deliberately kept away from the public in an
attempt to avoid speculative lease right transfers
at higher prices, without the state taking its cut,
legal experts speculate.
Officials at the Ministry reject
“The taskforce had surveys to
determine public opinion before they submitted their
findings,” Desalegn Ambaw, state minister for the
MUDC, argued. “Thus, we did not think that there was
a need to repeat that.”
However, officials who have taken a
public relations bruising and battering seem to have
learned a lesson from the previous failings. Not
only have they engaged the public over legislation
that has already been passed, they have been
proactive over the past week in opening public
forums to discuss what they describe as “model
It is a piece of draft directive
hoped to redress many of the controversial
provisions in the revised law, although the public
But, residents like Hailu, who have
never participated in debates in policymaking and
drafting laws, are determined to fight for changes
in the law, which they claim has affected their
interest with its vague provisions. Although the
modality of incorporating their plots into the lease
system is yet to be determined by the Council of
Ministers, after Mekuria’s Ministry submits the
model regulation, they do not want to accept
anything less than the status quo.
For most participants of these
meetings, including Hailu, who retired from an
accounting job at a government office, land is their
largest asset and source of income. He is still in
search of answers after attending several chaotic
meetings, including one held on Wednesday, January
25, at the city municipality, which mostly left
officials bowled over.
Such meetings will help gather
feedback from both experts and the public which is
to be considered in the model regulation, officials
at the Ministry hope. They pledge to send the
document to all regional states as well as Addis
Abeba and Dire Dawa for consideration.
Girma of Medrek and Hailu look
forward to amendments, while officials tussle over
the legitimacy of the law.
In October 2011, immediately after
the ratification of the law, the Ethiopian
Democratic Party (EDP) issued a critical statement,
arguing that it deprives individuals of the right to
own property, thereby urging the government to
change the proclamation.
“The law, which does not harm the
public’s interest, will not be amended,” Desalegn
Nonetheless, a few hopefuls recall
preceding practices where a fiercely resentful
public demonstrated that the door for amendments is
The Addis Abeba Charter, which was
passed in 2003 without following the legal drafting
procedure, was amended within a year after it met
intense opposition from the public. Likewise, the
anticorruption proclamation which had categorically
denied defendants the right to bail was amended
after the public’s cynical perception of the law,
leaving consent on bail to the discretion of judges.
The labour law is another case where
public resentment compelled the administration to
change gears. It used to deny employees severance
payments when they resign from their jobs but was
amended with new provisions granting the right to be
paid with severance payments after at least five
years of service, even if employees resign of their
own free will.
“If Parliament has reached a
consensus, they can amend the law overnight, since
they have an unconstrained hold on this,” Assefa
Fisaha (PhD), constitutional law instructor at Addis
Abeba University, told Fortune.