Ethiopia: Broken Contract, Broken Faith, Broken Country


Alemayehu G. Mariam

Over the past week, Meles Zenawi has been waxing eloquent on contract and leasehold law. Asked by a local journalist whether the winds of change blowing in North Africa could make a detour to Ethiopia, he said that was impossible because he and his party have a five-year “contract” with the Ethiopian people. He explained[1],

When the people gave us a five year contract, it was based on the understanding that if the EPDRF party [Zenawi’s party] does not perform the contract to expectations it would be kicked out of power. No need for hassles. The people can judge by withholding their ballots and chase EPDRF out of power. EPDRF knows it and the people know it too. Therefore, in a situation where the people have this kind of power and have given consent to a government which has been in power for 10 months, they can wait [until the end of the five-year contract] and remove it by denying their ballots. There is no reason or logic why they would change it by other means. That is why a change similar to that in North Africa cannot happen in Ethiopia.

It is not clear what Zenawi means in his repeated use of the word “contract” to describe the relationship between the people of Ethiopia and his party, and how that “contract” became an ironclad deal for five years. The terms of the “contract” and the circumstances that constitute breach are also unclear. But the word  “contract” has special significance for those in the legal profession and students of political theory.

Legal Contract?

In the civil laws of all modern societies, a contract is a legally enforceable agreement between two or more parties with mutual obligations. There are all sorts of contracts, and certain ones have no validity in law.  For instance, there are “unconscionable contracts” in which one party imposes terms on the other party by duress (such as use of physical threats, economic pressure, misleading information, etc.), undue influence (one party takes unfair advantage of the weaknesses of the other party) or  “unconscionable bargaining” (the party in a superior bargaining position denies the subordinate party realistic opportunities to negotiate beneficial terms  leaving that party the option of only acquiescing to the deal).  A contract based on an “illusory promise” is invalid because one party has the sole option to live up to the terms of the contract or to avoid the obligations at will. If Zenawi does indeed have a legal “contract” with the people, it must be of the “unconscionable” variety.

A Social Contract?

Perhaps Zenawi is referring to a “social contract” with the Ethiopian people. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the philosophical anchor of the French Revolution theorized about a “social contract” in which individuals gave up their natural liberty to ensure their self-preservation in civil society. Rousseau penned the memorable phrase, “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.” The “chains” were put on man by other men who seek domination.  Rousseau’s solution to the problem of “man in chains” was to create a community of people who establish a state that expresses their sovereign “general will” by passing laws that benefit them. Rousseau believed that government has a tendency to usurp the power of the people and supported the right of the people to alter their form of government and replace their leaders at will. The question is whether the Ethiopian people are in “chains” or “free” in their “contract” with Zenawi.

John Locke, the philosophical anchor of the American Revolution, also theorized about a “social contract”. He argued that individuals collectively formed society in mutual consent to protect each other’s life, liberty and property by establishing government. He believed the “just powers” of government derive from the consent of the governed. He wrote, “Freedom of men under government is to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power vested in it; a liberty to follow my own will in all things, when the rule prescribes not, and not to be subject to the inconstant, unknown, arbitrary will of another man.”  Locke’s basic argument is that people entered into a “social contract” to live under the rule of law (that is by application and respect for constitutional principles and legislation passed by the people’s representatives) and avoid the rule of a tyrant. Locke’s “social contract” is revocable at any time by the withdrawal of popular  consent. The question is whether Zenawi’s vaunted “contract” with the Ethiopian people is based on the “rule of law” or the “arbitrary will of a man”?

Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher and champion of absolutism (dictatorship) also proposed a “social contract” theory. He argued that in the state of nature (before government was established), life was “nasty, brutish, and short”.  To end the “war of all against all” in the state of nature, humans entered into a “contract” and gave up their “unlimited natural freedoms” in exchange for a political community and civil society that maximized their self-preservation and personal security. Hobbes believed that a powerful and supreme sovereign (a monarch) was needed to enforce the “social contract”.  Unlike Locke who believed in the rule of law, Hobbes believed in rule by prerogative (arbitrary rule by one individual who is accountable to no one) in which a monarch would exercise supreme authority to ensure the safety and security of individuals in civil society. Having personally experienced the English Civil War, he came to believe that the burdens of the most oppressive government are “scarce sensible, in respect of the miseries, and horrible calamities, that accompany a Civil War”. In other words, having an absolute dictator is better than risking civil war. Louis XIV of France was probably echoing Hobbes when he told parliamentarians challenging his personal decrees,  “L’État, c’est moi.” (The state, it is me). More recently, Moamar Gadhafi and his sons have been pleading to extend their 42-year “contract” on the Libyan people indefinitely by claiming: “The tribes are all armed, there are forces from the Libyan army and the eastern region is armed. The situation is very dangerous. From the perspective of a civil war, the leader must play a very, very big role in calming Libya and convincing people to sit together. If something happened to the leader, who would be in control? A civil war would start.” Perhaps Zenawi is referring to a Hobbsean-type of social contract?

This idea of a “contract” with the people is nothing new. After winning the 1994 elections, Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives claimed to have concluded a “Contract With America” (CWA) aimed at “restoring the bonds of trust between the people and their elected representatives.”  They said they would bring an “end of government that is too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public’s money.” They promised to eliminate deficit spending and reduce fraud, waste and abuse in government. Over the following decade, “Big Government” continued to grow bigger under the CWA. Republicans went on a spending spree incurring the biggest annual increases in spending over the preceding 40 years. They got entangled in a number of spectacular corruption cases and lobbying scandals.  The three “engineers” of the 1994 “Republican Revolution” publicly broke their “bonds with the people”. In 1998, following Republican losses in the mid-term elections and paying a fine of $300,000 for ethics violations, Newt Gingrich resigned both his Speakership and his congressional seat. Dick Armey served as House majority leader before retiring in 2002. He dumped the Contract With America, joined the DLA Piper lobbying firm and snagged a contract “for a minimum of $50,000 a month” with the Zenawi regime. Tom Delay, another member of the CWA team took over from Armey but was forced to resign in 2005 after he was charged with criminal money laundering. He was convicted in 2010 and sentenced to three years in prison.

Leaseholds and Land Grabs

Zenawi also offered extended legal analysis of the  “land grab” problem in Addis Ababa. The question raised by a young reporter was whether developers who held leaseholds in urban land in the capital could freely transfer their interest in the open commercial real estate market regardless of any improvements (buildings) on the land. Zenawi made the bewildering claim that “developers were grabbing land that does not belong to them in any legal sense and misusing the land lease rights they were given for personal profit and speculation.” He said such transfers were fueling “land speculation” in  the capital with “government officials facilitating such activities or turning a blind eye” to them. He said the “intention” of the law “was to transfer use rights for those who can use it better” but that “the law was open to interpretation.” He proceeded to make the following astonishing statement:

The reason why we have not taken anyone to court on that basis is simply because it is open to interpretation.  The political mistake is that it was open to be interpretation and therefore strictly speaking such acts may not have been illegal. They may not have been wise, but they may not be illegal. So those who made those unwise decisions, but they cannot be held accountable simply because the law provides for such interpretation. And so we will be taking steps to clarify those specific provisions in the law to make sure they did not open the floodgates for speculation in urban land. All of those, with the exception of one businessman have admitted they made very serious mistakes, offered to correct the mistakes and asked for administrative penalties rather than taking them to court. It does not serve our development interest to lock up so many businessmen since they admitted their mistakes, mend their ways and pay hefty fines. All government officials involved will be taken to court.

Zenawi’s analysis is remarkable for its manifest misconstruction of the urban land proclamation and non-sequitur (fallacious argument) explanation. First, the transfer of leasehold interest by developers in the open commercial market is a perfectly legal activity and can in no way be characterized as “land grabbing” or “land speculation.” Article 13 of Proclamation No. 272/2002 (A Proclamation to Provide for the Reenactment of Lease Holding of Urban Land) provides: “Any lease-hold possessor may transfer, or undertake a surety on, his right of lease-hold; and he may also use it as a capital contribution to the amount of the lease payment he has made.” The are no express or implied limitations in the Proclamation on the transfer of leasehold rights by anyone who has “lease-hold title” as defined in Article 9 (i.e. “any person, to whom lease-hold of urban land is permitted through auction or negotiation, after he has signed a contract of lease with the body permitting the land or the appropriate body.” Article 6 (1) (b) (1) provides that Addis Ababa’s urban land may be leased for “upto 60 years for industry” and “upto 50 years for commerce and other” activities. There is no textual basis in the Proclamation that limits the transfer of urban leasehold interests by a lawful title holder or renders such an  interest invalid because the title holder has found a way to generate personal profit from it.

Second, the penalty for violation of the terms of a leasehold is termination and forfeiture (give up the land) as set forth in Article 15: “The lease-hold of urban land shall be terminated where the lease-hold possessor has failed to use the land for the prescribed activity or service within the period of time set.”  It is not a crime to violate a “contract of lease”, yet Zenawi says “it does not serve our development interest to lock up so many businessmen since they admitted their mistakes”. Zenawi has no legal authority to “lock up” any businessmen for “mistakes” allegedly committed in the exercise of their contractual rights. All he can legally do is repossess the leased land following a contested court trial and seek compensation for damages, if any. To threaten businessmen to pay “hefty fines” or face “lock up” is plain extortion.

Third, Zenawi says the “law is open to interpretation.” The relevant parts of the Proclamation are plainly written and present no ambiguity which require interpretation. But if there is a dispute over the meaning or application of a particular law or provision, it is up to the courts to make authoritative determination on what the law means. Simply stated, whether the Proclamation allows commercial transfer of leasehold interests is purely a question of law (not fact) to be decided impartially by a judge; it is not a question to be decided by executive fiat in which one person becomes the policeman, judge, jury and executioner. For Zenawi to issue authoritative legal interpretation and dispositive declarations on what he concedes to be ambiguous questions of leasehold law is not only a travesty of justice but also an unconstitutional usurpation of judicial power. (Apparently, “one businessman” has chosen to try his luck in court by refusing to pay “hefty fines”. Best of luck!)  Anyone who doubts the complete absence of the rule of law in Ethiopia and entertains the fantasy that there is an independent judiciary can take hard lessons from this example.

Fourth, Zenawi says “developers were grabbing land that does not belong to them in any legal sense and misusing the land lease rights they were given for personal profit and speculation.” It hard to make sense of this statement. Nonetheless, businessmen, including developers, are in business to make profit, as much profit as they could. Few businessmen and women are in business for charity, and even fewer would remain in business if they did not make a fair profit. A leasehold is a valuable asset in its own right and can be traded for profit as a physical asset, a fact fully acknowledged in Articles 13, 4 and 5 of the Proclamation.  What must be understood is the fact that legitimate developers buy land, acquire leaseholds, finance real estate deals and build projects at great risk and expense. They often take extraordinary risks in arranging financing, obtaining loans and securing necessary regulatory approvals. More often than not, they are at the “mercy” of architects, city planners, engineers, surveyors, inspectors, contractors, brokers and building materials suppliers. It is unfair and mean-spirited to paint them with a broad brush as “land grabbers” and “land speculators” who are no better than gangsters and street criminals that deserve to be “locked up.”

Real Land Grabs and Land Speculation

On the other hand, the phrases “land grabbing” and “land speculation” are perfectly applicable to other land transactions that have been taking place throughout Ethiopia over the past several years. For instance, handing over 1.8 million hectares of farmland, “equaling nearly 40 percent the total area of the principal grain-growing state of Punjab, India” to Indian “investors” for 70 years is a prime example of “land grabbing.” Turning over 250,000 hectares of land to the Saudi Star Agriculture Development Company for decades is another excellent example of “land speculation”. Selling hundreds of thousands of hectares of land in Gambella for $1 a year “lease” is a land giveaway fest of epic proportions. Doing 815 huge land deals with foreign “investors” over a three year period without transparency, institutional mechanisms for accountability, environmental impact analysis and the forced removal of local resident from ancestral lands is not only land grabbing and land speculation, it is also a gross violation of human rights. Truth be told, it is not just urban land and it is not just farmland but the whole of Ethiopia’s land that is on the chopping block!

In the American Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, inspired by Locke, wrote that when government breaks its contract and faith with the people, the people have the right to terminate the contract at will and reinstitute government that earns their consent and deserves  their trust: “That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends [life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness], it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.” The only contract that cannot be broken is one concluded with Mephistopheles.


[1] Translation from Amharic.


9 thoughts on “Ethiopia: Broken Contract, Broken Faith, Broken Country

  1. tezibt on

    Exellent and to the point article. Prof. Al is learning to get his point across with out the extra stuff. Keep it this way and don’t make it long. Not all habeshas are fast readers or tolerant of an endless article. Write for the lay man and not for professors or students.

  2. Demissie on

    One thing that I would like to say keep up the good work Prof Alemayheu. As Ethiopia people knows that Melse regime plays game to hold his power longer. Melse talk about contract for five years, Imagine who give him the contract, he did not get any contract from the people of Ethiopia. We all known that Melse trying to stay in power by all means he could, the election was fake to convince foreign countries. The election was really fake because he did not get voice from the people of Ethiopia. To be honest the regime want to stay as long as they can. By False development that they talk about day in day out in the media. Everything controlled by the goverment so what is democracy? Frankly, democracy does not exit in Ethiopia, just fake democracy.If the regime really likes Ethiopia people, we don’t see people are dying in the hospitall with lack of treatment, lack of materials, high unemployement and high food prices. Indeed, developement is not define by empty bulidings.

  3. Tenes on

    I have been following all this motivational articles pop here and there. I think it is clear to say we have plenty of people with suggestion on how to bring this power hunger despot and his cronies to their knees. It saddens me to say this, but I feel like this golden opportunity is going to pass us by us while we are scheming!

  4. Melkamu Niqodimos on

    I thoroughly enjoy reading Professor Alemayehu’s articles. Thanks ER.

  5. Hmm…Amazing!

    Good content but bad title. No one has any contract with the hedonist self serving tplf.

    The contract he is talking about is about his one sided imposed unilateral contract from his office where he has robbed 99.6% of the Ethiopian voices in order to use it for further political and economic robberies. The 2010 robbery was also a follow up of the the highway robbery of the 2005 election which means Wayane ALWAYS wins with the barrel of guns and the divide and destroy policy.

    But one must stay optimist and fight to the finish for democracy and justice for all.

    The young Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Yemenis,etc. who were out on the streets in large numbers sustainably sacrificing their lives, livings as well as body damages and chased away/chasing away the overwhelming established power just with empty hands are optimists who believe in changing their fate and the fate of the country but NOT pessimists mewing from the dark corners.

    Our chance full Ethiopian youngsters of this 21st century and the era of the new technological,telecommunication and social net working generation need necessarily be positive and optimist, willing and proactive as well as taking the lead and transform the dictatorial backward society in to a vibrant democratic just society of welfare and well-being for all. And that project is absolutely possible beyond doubt, now more than ever before in history. Araat Nettib.

    Absolutely I don’t personally believe in Doomsday and end of the world pessimistic predictions because of the fact that all of those previous “End of the world and doomsday predictions were totally proven wrong.

    “A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties.” ~Harry Truman

    Optimism is a matter of mental habit. One can learn the habit of optimism and thereby greatly enhance own chances of achieving success. Or one can drive oneself in to the dark corner of pessimism and failure. Optimism is one of the most important traits of a pleasing and transforming personality.But it is a result of traits- a good sense of humor hopefulness,the ability to overcome fear and tear, small doses of daily contentment,a positive mental attitude, flexibility, thinking outside the box,enthusiasm, faith and decisiveness, among others.

    You can fight pessimism through complete belief in two of the most basic truths of the science of success: (1) “Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, the mind can achieve.” (2) “Every adversity and defeat carries the seed of an equivalent benefit, if we are ingenious enough to find it.”

    Instead of worrying about the bad things that might befall you, spend a few minutes every day enumerating the pleasant events that will happen tomorrow, next week, next month, next year!

    By thinking about them, you will find yourself laying plans to make them happen!

    Then you are getting the habit of optimism. Remember that no great leader or successful man was ever a pessimist. What could such a leader promise his followers but despair and defeat? …

    Remember that like attracts like in human relations, no matter what the rule may be in the physical world.

    An optimist tends to congregate with optimists, just as success attracts more success. But the pessimist breeds worries and trouble without speaking a word or performing an act, because his negative mental attitude serves as a perfect magnet for them.

    Optimism is, in itself, a kind of success. For it means you have a healthy, peaceful and contented mind. An exceedingly wealthy man can be a failure physically, if his constant pessimism has brought him a case of ulcers. Optimism isn’t a state of mind in which you throw judgment to the winds of starry-eyed belief that future events will take care of themselves.

    “Pessimism leads to weakness, optimism to power.” ~William James

    Such an attitude is only for fools. It is, however, a firm belief that you can make things come out right by thinking ahead and deciding on a course of action based on sound judgment. … Learn to meet the future head on. Analyze it. Weigh the factors with clear judgment. Then decide upon your course of action to make things turn out the way you want them. You’ll find that the future holds nothing that you ever need fear.

    “A pessimist is somebody who complains about the noise when opportunity knocks.”~Oscar Wild stated. :)

  6. There is a medieval metaphorical painting where Christ is confronted by Satan in the form of a raven, an owl, hybrid creation (human face/beastly body), a leopard, a hyena…. Mr. Zenawi’l s outrageous behavior – his lies, deceptions, robberies, mockery, enmity – persistent and criminal provocations puts him squarely as the Satanic figure confronting a country. There is no one figure in Ethiopia’s history who embodied our traditional enemies namely, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Medians, Rome etc., than the current ruler. On personal level, he has been known to symbolize the hyena, the wolf and has been upgraded from viper to an ape in the latest traditional poetic tinbit. Who said satan does not thrive against….

  7. alemsky@msn.com on

    Contract? which one, when? ha!ha!. Who told melese zenawi the prominant John Locke’s phrase of use” social contract”when he was asserting power belongs to people and only the people give their power to the state to govern or adminstrate on conditional contract based on the wish of the owners, that only the people have it.Which means when the peopl say enough is enough it ends at that point.

    But, in zenawi’s case he knows that Ethiopians never ever engaged under in any contract nor consented to be governed or served by melese.

    So where is Locke’s ”social contract” established in the first place? He can not fool my learned friends unless he fool himself.

    Even if all Ethiopians may not be philosophers and scientists, they do not require all that to understand their universal rights and duties too, so you better wait for your God fixed time. When death delayes it does not mean never. Watch out!!

  8. Makelawi Torture on

    What Contract? Meles must be talking about the hostage and blackmail contact he is chocking Ethiopians with. In a country where only Meles has the right to speech and all others are intended to be silenced, in a country where Meles kills 200 children with bullet in their heads, in a country where Meles and his cohorts have businesses controlled with people saying “Alasera Allun”, in a country where there is no justice and people are saying “Hig Yetale”, is this liar with his diminishing time talking about Contract? What contract?

    I cannot say it better or more eloquently than the hero Al Mariam. We are chained and there is no liberty. The simmering anger and frustration and poverty would explode and Meles knows that even the ground he is standing on is slipping under his feet. There is no stopping when your Qene comes! You can fight, but you cannot win – Meles.

  9. Amare101 on

    An excellent article. Al Mariam is a man of integrity. I have the highest regard for this man. Elias, thank you for your dedication to the cause.

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