by Mastewal Dessalew
The housing problem in Urban centers in Ethiopia is the result of decades long failed policies and practices. One of the key factors is land ownership right. The Ethiopian constitution states land belongs to the nations and nationalities of Ethiopia; but something that belongs to all belongs to no one and in such circumstances the powerful is always at the better position to grab beyond its fair share. This open to interpretation land ownership right also gave the ruling party and its officials, the most powerful entity in the country, to do whatever they like in giving and taking away land from citizens. Besides this, the ruling party that has utter control in every aspect of the people’s life has used land as a tool to tighten its grip on power. This is why the late prime minister said in 2005 (1997 ዓም) election campaign “in Ethiopia land will be privatized only on the grave of the EPRDF”. Until the country sets its land ownership right right, the vested interest of the ruling party and its leadership will continue to ruin the life of many poor urbanites and farmers. It is also doubtful even having the proper land ownership right in the constitution will work in the absence of the rule of law.
The land administration system and institute of the country is one of the institutions worst hit by corruption. As a person who had worked in the municipality of one of the largest urban centers in the country for more than 3 years, I have personally witnessed how corrupt officials illegally evict poor people from their land by force and sale it to rich people at cheap price. How many of you know that the lakefront area of Tana in Bahir Dar where some of the luxury hotels and resorts in the country are constructed were sold for only less than Birr 400 per meter square in 2006/07 while areas in economically less viable locations were sold more than ten times the stated amount at the same time? I also personally witnessed a Sudanese Company named “Ashraf” that has leased 174, 000 meter square land (equivalent of the land required to construct houses for 1,200 households) from Bahir Dar city repeatedly failed to pay its lease by giving a pretext “one of our employees stole the money”, not only once, it was three or four times. The company could not also create the promised jobs. It erected fence on the land and didn’t build the factory it proposed to get the land. But no official was willing to take legal action against them. You can guess why. The situation in Addis Ababa and other urban centers is worse; should I mention the swath of land in front of the municipality of Addis Ababa sold to Mohammed Al Amoudi and fenced almost for 2 decades without anything done on it?
The widening economic disparity between the rich and the poor with the lack of clear policy from the government on how to address the housing demand of the fast growing population is also another factor. Few people are getting richer and could afford skyrocketing prices, for example in 2014 in Addis Ababa a plot of land was sold at Birr 307,000 (USD 15,500- the then exchange rate) per meter square. According to the World Bank the then per capita income of the country was only USD 573. On the other hand, inflation and low income have made the life of the majority so difficult let alone to afford such inflated prices but to pay for their basic day to day necessities. The government claimed its “low cost” condominium housing project could address the housing demand of the poor but even the real price of one bedroom condominium is more than the average lifelong income of the majority including bachelor degree holders . Of course public sector inefficiency and corruption have contributed in raising the construction cost of the houses and then the soaring of its prices; to know the extent of the corruption remember the 4 story 89 condominium blocks reported as constructed to the parliament about a month ago while not physically built in the stated site. The houses constructed by real estate companies target the super rich and the diaspora not average citizens in the country.
Amidst such dire situation, getting a roof over their head is unattainable for many low and middle income families and that is why many people resort to “squatting” on “public land”. Actually it is not fair to say them squatters while their ability to get home is hindered by failed policies, economic disparities and even illegal evictions from their original settlement. Unless the government designed a policy and housing standards that allows people to get land and construct their own house based on their capacity, the gap between the demand and supply of housing in the country will keep widening. This is centuries old practice in the country and you could not stop it all of a sudden without having effective alternative policy. Otherwise, if the current trend continues, it will be a time bomb that could create chaos that could dismantle the political establishment itself. Don’t forget the main question that mobilized many people in the 1974 revolution was “Land to the tiller!”