Putting an end to inconsistent practices

The EPRDF-led government of Ethiopia has been criticized for being prone to inconsistencies when making administrative decisions during its twenty-five-year rule. Its propensity to apply different criteria to settle similar issues have engendered widespread public disgruntlement over the years.

Recently the demolition of settlements deemed to have been illegally built in a locality called Wore Genu in Woreda 12 of the Bole District of Addis Ababa had got under way. The demolition crew of the Woreda razed down scores of houses erected by squatters in a part of the city which the city administration says is one of the areas worst affected by land invasion. Tens of thousands of settlers who put up homes on land over which they do not have legal possession rights were left homeless on account of the measures taken by the city administration.

No sooner had the demolition started when it was announced that vast swathes of land illegally occupied in Addis Ababa in the wake of the 2005 post-election violence were legalized. The instability that arose then between the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), which swept all parliamentary and city council seats of Addis Ababa, paved the way for the seizing of numerous plots of land without government approval. Land grabbing was particularly rampant from 2004 through to 2006. The city administration said the decision to legalize illegal landholdings was prompted by the substantial number of squatters and settlements as well as the adverse social and economic impacts that demolishing the settlements would entail. Accordingly, it issued land holding certificate to settlers who built homes on land they were not entitled to from 1996 to May 2006. 

Article 25 of the constitution provides that all persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. It goes on to stipulate that the law shall guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection without discrimination on grounds of race, nation, nationality, or other social origin, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, property, birth or other status.

As a guiding principle constraining the government from exceeding its powers the rule of law affords citizens to lead a predictable life by arming them with knowledge of what is permissible and what is not under the laws of the land. If, however, laws are enacted or implemented arbitrarily, the ensuing consequences for the country and its people are bound to be dire.

The illegal settlements demolished in Woregenu were built over three years ago. The squatters erected fully functional homes on the land they occupied. It is quite inexplicable then why regulators at the city administration and district levels turned a blind eye to the construction of these homes even though it fully knew that they were destined to be demolished. The fact that state-owned entities provided water and power services to the settlers and built access roads for them evidently emboldened them. It also created the impression that their landholding would be regularized down the line. Here we would like to emphasize that we are not sanctioning land invasion; we are just pointing out that the settlers were encouraged by the inaction or otherwise of the city government. This is symptomatic of serious gaps in the enforcement of the law. Had the government acted immediately the moment the first squatters began to engage in illegal construction, the wastage of the considerable resources that went into construction works as well as the injuries inflicted on the settlers when protesting the demolition could have been avoided.

The government needs to take the long-term view and be proactive; it has to stop its propensity to react to problems after the fact and rush to put out the fire. In other words it is incumbent upon it to nip problems in the bud before they get out of control and cause untold damage.

The city administration’s inconsistency when it comes to enforcing the law is borne out by the recent voiding of some 250 title deeds. Prompted by the failure of developers to begin construction on time, the measure, albeit belated, is commendable. The government is duty-bound to take firm action against investors who leave idle the land they should have put to its intended use. This said, the city administration has been reluctant to take measures against investors who, for years, have not developed vast plots of land they are obliged to. Such incongruity inevitably not only engenders grievance but also erodes the principle of equality before the law. Unless the government sees to it that it uniformly enforces the laws it enacts all the time, its fairness and commitment to the rule of law will be questioned.