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The Ethiopian Path to "Development" – Land Grabbing, Displacement and Internal Migration | East Africa |

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The Ethiopian Path to "Development" – Land Grabbing, Displacement and Internal Migration

Asebe Regassa

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Development has been one of the major goals of successive Ethiopian governments. However, it has paved the way for large-scale land grabbing which dispossesses and displaces rural farmers and pastoralists and forces them to seek jobs in agribusiness-enterprises and urban areas.

A child looks after cattle near Tis Isat at the Blue Nile. 84 percent of Ethiopia's population lives in rural areas and highly depends on agricultural activities for income and subsistence. (© picture-alliance, Sergi Reboredo)

Ethiopian development policy has taken a modernist approach that goes back to the expansionist empire-building project in the late 19th century. It goes along with narratives of transforming pastoralism into an agrarian system, shifting smallholder agriculture into commercial plantation farming, villagization (resettlement of people into designated villages), urbanization, and – in the post-1991 period – transforming peri-urban agricultural lands into building plots, industrial zones and floriculture plantations run by big companies. Over the last three decades, successive governments sought to develop Ethiopia through commercial agriculture, the expansion of industries and mega-development projects such as hydroelectric dams that have led to the displacement of thousands of people, land dispossession, and environmental pollution (e.g. in the cases of mining, flower farming, and tanner industries). As a consequence, land grabbing (the partly illegitimate appropriation of large-scale lands by corporate investors) became a major field of conflict in Ethiopia. Land grabbing both in the country’s pastoralist lowlands as well as agrarian highlands leads to a severe disruption of local communities’ livelihoods, which in turn is triggering migration and environmental destruction. This article provides a concise analysis of Ethiopia’s development and modernization path with an emphasis on land grabbing and resource appropriation that has led to displacement and internal migration. It also gives insights into the situation of (internal) migrants and the problems they face.

Development through Dispossession: Ethiopia’s Top-down Development Model

Since the mid-19th century, successive Ethiopian rulers and governments have sought to foster Ethiopia’s development by emulating development models from more developed states – an approach which Christopher Clapham described as "politics of development emulation". Despite differences in their political ideologies, successive regimes showed commonalities in terms of land policies, dispossession of peasants and pastoralists, and narratives of modernization. For instance, in the 1960s emperor Haile Selassie launched massive commercial farming in Awash Valley by granting concessions to foreign investors. The successive socialist military regime under Mengistu Haile Mariam continued on a similar path and pursued a nation-wide villagization program in the 1970s and 1980s. Likewise, the regime of the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF ) – despite its Marxist ideology – pursued a development policy that meant a shift of the 1960s/70s motto of "land to the tiller" to "land to investors" by dispossessing smallholder farmers and pastoralists and leasing out large tracts of land to foreign and domestic investors. Since 1991, millions of hectares of arable land in lowlands as well as highlands have been leased out to investors for the cultivation of cash crops and cereals, real estate development, flower farms and ranching, resulting in the displacement of local communities. The EPRDF regime’s "developmental state"-model that granted the state uncontested power over development interventions and land appropriation without local community participation eventually made the state one of the major land grabbers – i.e. the state expropriates land from farmers and pastoralists and leases it out to foreign and domestic investors. Since 84 percent of Ethiopia's population lives in rural areas and highly depends on agricultural activities for income and subsistence, land grabbing has severe consequences for the livelihoods of large segments of the country's population.

Peasant dispossession has been legitimated by legal frameworks and through the narrative of development across different regimes. For example, over the last two decades, millions of peasants in the administrative regions of Oromia, the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples' Region (SNNPR), Gambella, Benishangul-Gumuz and Afar lost their land due to the expansion of floriculture, industrial zones, urban areas (particularly the unregulated expansion of Addis Ababa) development and agribusiness projects. This development gained speed when in 2005 the ruling party officially adopted the so-called developmental state political economy that enhanced strong state intervention in development programs. This is reflected in the 2005 Land Expropriation Proclamation (Proclamation No. 455/2005) that gave power to the government to expropriate land when it is deemed needed for "public purposes". But the proclamation fails to define the scope of public interest and consultation procedures before the decision for expropriation is made. Similarly, another proclamation (Proclamation No. 456/2005) provided the government with unlimited power to transfer communal land to private ownership (cf. Article 5.3, and 5.4a). This framework enabled a decade of dispossessions, culminating in the 2014 "Master Plan" which was disclosed by Ethiopia's federal government and the Addis Ababa city administration and proposed to annex towns and rural villages in the region of Oromia within a radius of 100 kilometers around the capital. The plan led to Oromia-wide protest because it was considered as state-orchestrated land grabbing. The protests spread to other regions and eventually led to the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn, whereupon the reform-oriented Abiy Ahmed was appointed Prime Minister in 2018. However, so far this has not led to meaningful changes in terms of local communities' participation in decisions affecting property rights, including their consultation in decisions over land privatization or leasing out land to investors.

Development-Migration Nexus in Ethiopia

Poorly planned development programs often lead to social crisis and cause displacement, environmental degradation and conflict. In this regard, for the local population top-down development strategies that are planned, implemented and managed without active participation of the local population become a liability rather than an asset. They produce landlessness and therefore disrupt livelihoods of rural agrarian and pastoral communities who are forced to leave rural areas in search for possibilities of existence elsewhere.

Displacement and migration in and from Ethiopia is historically associated with conflict, natural disaster, famine, and state-led persecution. More recently, it is triggered by worsening economic situations in rural areas related to landlessness as a result of land grabbing – all these factors made Ethiopia become one of the countries in the Horn of Africa with the highest number of internal and international migrants.

Over the last fifteen years, internal migration patterns shifted from rural-rural to rural-urban and urban-urban migration. According to a study published by the World Bank, between 2000 and 2005 the major part (about 40 percent) of internal migration took place within a rural context whereas rural-urban migration was less relevant, representing about 25 percent during that period. This picture changed in subsequent years: While rural to rural migration decreased to 23 percent in 2008-2014, rural-urban migration soared to about 34 percent in 2008-2013. The capital Addis Ababa receives the highest share of internal migrants (46 percent), followed by Dire Dawa city as well as Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella and Harari regions.

The shift in migration patterns in Ethiopia coincides with the proliferation of land grabbing in the country following the 2007/8 global energy and food crisis, and the government’s 2005 adoption of the “developmental state model”. As life in rural areas became increasingly difficult due to land grabbing and the lack of necessary social infrastructures as well as due to increased persecution of the youth for their political perspectives , urban centers have increasingly become places of destination where economic opportunities seem to be better and which provide possibilities to hide from the state security apparatus. While Dire Dawa and Harar attract internal migrants for being business hubs, migration to Benishangul-Gumuz and Gambella regions deserves further explanation. Although both regions have become centers of land grabbing over the last fifteen years, they attract rising numbers of internal migrants in search for wage labor in agribusiness enterprises which are often set up on land plots that have been taken away from peasant and pastoral communities to be leased out to investors.

Internal migrants are faced with difficulties related to legality. In Ethiopia, when people change their place of residence, they are required to get a new identity card indicating their new place of residence. That ID card is a requirement for employment in the new place of residence as well as for accessing state services, open bank accounts, joining associations and renting apartments. However, many internal migrants have problems getting a new identity card either because they cannot obtain a leave letter from the administration in their hometowns due to bureaucratic hurdles, or because urban government officials are reluctant to provide them with the ID card in an effort to discourage people from rural-urban migration. Furthermore, some domestic employers require internal migrants "to find someone who serves as a guarantor for the worker in case of misconduct, property damage or theft". Many migrants have difficulties to meet this requirement. Even migrants who change their place of residence within a region are often initially considered "illegal" and can have difficulties to find work – even if they speak the same language and belong to the same ethnic group as the natives.

As Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual country with strong regional differences, internal migrants may have difficulties communicating with the local population in their new places of residence and adapting to the local culture. People from rural areas may also find it difficult to adapt to an urban setting. Internal migrants are often viewed with suspicion and considered to be potential criminals. They are often confronted with sexual harassment and labor exploitation. Especially young migrants run the risk to be drawn into inter-group violence by manipulative political actors.

The Ethiopian government portrays internal migration – particularly rural-urban migration – as barrier to development. The government’s rhetoric of agriculture-led industrialization policy promotes containing the productive force within rural areas. It also portrays rural-urban migration as spoiler of socio-economic conditions in urban areas by exacerbating unemployment, crime, and poverty, and increasing costs of life. One reason for this rhetoric may be the fact that wage labor of internal migrants has become the backbone of agribusiness development in rural areas because large plantations depend on cheap labor. Internal migrants are often employed under precarious conditions. On e.g. on floriculture farms, for example, they face health risks due to their unprotected exposure to toxic chemicals.

Displacement induced by development projects such as the expansion of commercial agriculture is interlinked with other forms of displacement that force Ethiopians to leave their homes. Conflicts and natural disasters are two main reasons for internal displacement. In some cases, conflicts are the result of development policies and erupt from disputes over land and access to resources. Likewise, natural disasters may be a consequence of development strategies that speed up environmental degradation e.g. due to the massive expansion of commercial agriculture. At the end of 2019, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) registered 1.7 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Ethiopia. A year earlier there were even more than three million internally displaced persons, many of whom, however, returned to their hometowns as part of repatriation programs of the Ethiopian government. In 2019, the country ranked number nine among the countries with the highest number of IDPs worldwide. Although Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed promised to undertake economic reforms, improve youth employment, vowed to fight corruption and to ensure peace and stability, the country is currently descending to a critical political and economic crisis. Given these developments, internal displacement and migration will likely continue on a high level.

Quellen / Literatur

Abbink, Jan. (2011) “‘Land to the Foreigners’: Economic, Legal, and Socio-cultural Aspects of New Land Acquisition Schemes in Ethiopia”, Journal of Contemporary African Studies 29 (4): 513–535.

Adamnesh, Atnafu et al. (2014) “Poverty, Youth and Rural-Urban Migration in Ethiopia”, Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium, Working Paper 17.

Adugna, Girmachew (2019) "Migration patterns and emigrants’ transnational activities: comparative findings from two migrant origin areas in Ethiopia", Comparative Migration Studies, Externer Link: (accessed: 29-9-2020).

Bundervoet, Tom (2018) Internal Migration in Ethiopia: Evidence from a Qualitative and Quantitative Research Study, Washington, D.C., World Bank.

Clapham, Christopher (2006) Ethiopian Development: The Politics of Emulation, Commonwealth & Comparative Politics 44 (1): 108–118.

Lilley, Kesley (2017) “Ethiopia’s Crackdown on Dissent Leaves Youth with Dangerous Options”, World Politics Review, Externer Link: (accessed: 20-8-2020).

Markakis, John (2011) Ethiopia: The last two frontiers. Oxford, James Currey.

Maru, Mehari Taddele (2017) Causes, Dynamics, and Consequences of Internal Displacement in Ethiopia, SWP Working Paper, Berlin.

Rahmato, Dessalegn (2012) "The perils of development from above: land deals in Ethiopia", African Identities 12(1): 26-44.

Tegegne, Atsede Desta / Penker, Marianne (2016) "Determinants of rural out-migration in Ethiopia: Who stays and who goes?", Demographic Research 35: 1011-1044.

Zenawi, Meles (2006) African Development: Dead Ends and New Beginnings (unpublished monograph).



  1. Clapham (2006).

  2. Villagization programs were launched in Ethiopia in the 1980s. They pursued the resettlement of agrarian and pastoralist communities to designated villages, and aimed at land reform.

  3. The Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) came to power in 1991 by ousting the military regime and stayed in power until 2019 when the current prime minister Abiy Ahmed dissolved the EPRDF to make way for a new political party: the 'Prosperity Party' (PP).

  4. Abbink (2011).

  5. Tegegne/Penker (2016).

  6. Zenawi (2006).

  7. Adugna (2019).

  8. Bundervoet (2018).

  9. Bundervoet (2018).

  10. Lilley (2017).

  11. Bundervoet (2018).

  12. Adamnesh, Atnafu et al. (2014).

  13. This is a result of the author's own field research from November 2019 to April 2020 in the framework of which he conducted interviews with young internal migrants in Legetafo town in the province of Oromia (on the outskirts of Addis Ababa).

  14. Maru (2017).


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Dr. Asebe Regassa is a senior researcher at the Political Geography Unit, University of Zürich (Switzerland). He served as Research Director at Dilla University, Ethiopia, where he worked as Associate Professor in Development Studies. He holds a PhD in Development Studies from Bayreuth University, Germany.