Online Legal Resources

A to Z is a collection of resources for Ethiopian's legal profession, students, academics and the public. These links have been collected so that users with an interest in the law and Ethiopia may be able to access the Ethiopian legal information they require more quickly. The site is organized simply into an alphabetical list of law subjects. This link is a very helpful source for students who want to study online as teaching materials written by different university teachers under the sponsorship of Justice and Legal System Research Institute are included in the list. Moreover, Training materials prepared by different Proffessionals under the sponsorship of Federal Justice Organs Professionals Training Centerare also in our list. 



Scope and Definition

“Lease” under the FDRE lease proclamation 272/2003 has been define as “lease-hold system in which use right of urban land is transferred or held contractually (Art. 2(1). The 1960 Ethiopian civil code under article 2896 on its part defines lease as follows:


 The lease of an immovable is a contract whereby one of the parties, the lessor, undertakes to ensure to the other party, the lessee, the use and enjoyment of an immovable, for a specified time and for a consideration fixed in kind or otherwise.


Hence the concept of the word “lease” which is employed in the above laws is one similar to what is coined in the common law as “Leased fee” which means an ownership interest held by a landlord with the rights of use and occupancy transferred by the lease to others. The rights of the lessor (the leased fee owner) and the lessee are specified by contract terms contained within the lease. And “leasehold” means the interest held by the lessee (the tenant or renter) through a lease transferring the rights of use and occupancy for a stated term under certain conditions.


Here the definition and scope of lease provided in the proclamation is different from the scope of the term defined in continental legal system. A typical definition of lease is one given by Planiol which states lease as: “A contract whereby one person engages himself to furnish to another person the temporary enjoyment of a thing for a price proportional to the time.”


The similarity one can find in all the above definitions is that firstly, lease right emanates from contractual agreements. Secondly, the right transferred to the lessee (tenant) is the use and occupancy of the property. Thirdly this interest is transferred for consideration- that the lessee must pay in the form of rent. And fourthly, in both systems lease right provides only personal rights to the lessee, not real rights for the lease right generally may not be sold or mortgaged. The basic difference one can observe from the definitions however Planiol’s definition of lease can encompass movable and immovable, for the word “thing” can connote both movable and immovable. In the common law as well as under the Lease proclamation no. 272/2003 leases are applied to real property or land. A systematic search and analysis of the civil code also shows that the code follows the common law approach.


Additional Reading

On the definition and scope of the term “lease” K.W. Ryan in his book An Introduction to the Civil Law, The law book co. of Australasia Pty Ltd, 1962, pp. 98 provides the following:


In Art. 1709 C.C.(in France), a lease is defined as a contract by which one party undertakes to let another to have the benefit of a thing for a certain time in exchange for a certain price which the other undertakes to pay him. The German definition is more restrictive. Art. 535 B.G.B. provides that by a lease the lessor is bound to allow the lessee the use of the leased thing during the term of the lease, and the lessee is bound to pay the lessor the agreed rent. It will be seen that a German lease (Miete) gives the lessee only the use of the thing. An agreement granting him the use of the thing and the enjoyment of its fruits is termed a Pacht, and is separately regulated in the B.G.B. The distinction between a   Miete and a Pacht, between a lease according the bare use of property and one according the enjoyment of its fruits and profits is of Germanic origin. A further matter which appears from both definitions is that the term “lease” is used for agreements relating to the temporal use of movable as well as immovable property. This is in accord with the Roman, in which the object of locatio conduction rei could be property of any kind. The Civil law of letting is at the same time the law of hiring. Nevertheless, in both French and German law the distinction between a lease of immovables and the hiring of movables is far from unknown and it has been accentuated in the post-war emergency legislation.


Use and purpose of lease

Lease is another means of land holing system. Lease may be of private or public one. For both the state and private individuals lease is a means of income for it is also another form of land market. The income from land lease has significant part in the over all GDP of a country in general and in the real estate transaction income in particular. In the absence of an effective land taxation system, one of the means by which local governments increase revenues is through public land leasing. There is evidence that land leasing has been happening on a large scale. Some countries secure a particular place for lease purpose. For example, the city of Sydney, in Australia, is a good example. In Sydney the only means of land acquisition is lease.  They call is ground lease for the state or municipality, as the case may be, transfer the ground land by way of lease. In other words, to collect rent from transfer of land by way of lease, states may reserve particular land for this purpose. On the other side of the coin, lease is a means of acquisition of land. In industry and agriculture lease is preferable since the business may not be long lasting. Some times it is easy, if not cheaper, to get land by way of lease rather than purchasing. Eve the procedure, for example in Ethiopia, is shorter and easier than land grant for land lease policy is more responsive to demand of land supply. From private lease point of view, those who could not afford to buy land from the land lords had the only choice of leasing land.


Lease of Houses/Tenancy


This is a place where we shall discuss about lease of housing. The housing that we are talking about may be residential or commercial. In countries where the real property market is flourished these are very common systems of conveying one’s house to another renter. Yet for public purpose and social welfare reasons most counties in the western world regulate the ceiling of rent that should be paid for a residential house. In Ethiopia, there are two systems of rental: private and public. The government owns a lot of urban houses after it nationalized them using Proc. 47/1975, a proclamation to provide for the ownership of urban land and extra houses. The Rental Agency administers these houses. It puts a regulated and mostly fixed rate of rent for its tenants. On the other hand, private owners of residential and commercial houses are at liberty to put the market price for rent. This is a contract that is totally controlled by the civil code. In this section a discussion will be made based on the civil code tenancy provisions (2896-3018).



General principles


Lease of immovable is a contract (Art. 2896) and hence the general rues of Contract in general (Arts. 1675-2026) may be applied whenever necessary, especially concerning formation and effect of contract, as indicated under Art. 1677. A combined reading of articles 1723 and 2898 reveals that a lease contract needs not to be made in writing. More over, articles 1571 and 2899 strengthen this fact by dictating that lease agreements made for more than five years and do not enter into registry may not affect third parties. Article 2946 stipulates that the municipality may prepare a model contract form for the lease of houses with in its jurisdiction. Yet it is not mandatory for the parties to follow it. It seems, the option is left to the contracting parties.


Lease provides an interest to the lessee, which may not be affected by any encumbrance made on the property or transfer of the property itself. Unless otherwise expressly agreed between the lessor and the lessee, a contract of lease may be set up against a third party who acquires the ownership or usufruct of the immovable given on lease after the delivery of the immovable to the lessee (art. 2932). The only exception is in case of expropriation where the state may take away the property for reasons of public benefits.


Concerning the duration of the lease agreement, the contract may be made for determinate or indeterminate period of time. In any case it may not be fixed for more than 60 years and any contract mad for more than 60 years shall deemed to have been made for 60 years (Art.2927).


Obligations of Lessor

Delivery of property and warranty of peaceful enjoyment


The lease imposes on the lessor various obligations all of which spring from a single principle: the lessor is bound to procure for the lessee the enjoyment of the premises for the duration of the lease. This principle is embodied in our civil code under articles 2900 (Delivery) and 2911(peaceful enjoyment of immovable). The lessor shall deliver the lessee the immovable given on lease and its accessories, in a state to serve for the use for which it is intended in terms of the contract or according to its nature (Art. 2900). The lessor has also the obligation to deliver the house in good condition or free of defect. As per article 2904(1) “where at the time of delivery, the thing has defects of such nature that its normal use is appreciably diminished, the lessee may demand the rescission of the contract.” Besides to the rescission of the contract, the lessor may also be subject to liability of payment of damages as envisaged under articles 2905-06. However, if the defect was apparent, means if the defect on which the lessee’s claim is based is apparent or where he knew or should have known of the defect on the making of the contract, he may not revoke the cancellation of contract and or payment of damages. Read article 2907. In other words, the lessee must first look in to the house and ensure whether it is suitable and ok. An exception to the apparent rule is provided in the next article 2908(1) which states: “Where the thing is in such a state as to constitute a serious danger to the life or health of the lessee or of those who reside with him or of his employees, the lessee may require the rescission of the contract even in a case of an apparent defect or of a defect of which the lessee knew at the time of the contract.” And sub article (2) emphasizes: “Any stipulation to the contrary shall be of no effect.”


Note: is a cracking on the wall which is visible apparent? What about a licking roof? Or noisy neighborhood? What about a wall that sends electric vibrations and currents?


Comment: generally speaking the lessor has the duty to inform all about the defects, if any. If one looks to what the lessee justifiably can anticipate, the responsibility of the lessor would be very far reaching. As a limitation of this responsibility, there is the duty of examination for the lessee.


It can be point out that in the extent that one might speak of a duty to inform, this is not as general as regarding the examination of duty for the lessee. It can therefore not be claimed that the lessor is obliged to inform the lessee of every default to his knowledge in order to escape responsibility. The lessor is especially responsible for defects which cannot be found through normal examination.


Art. 2911. The lessor shall warrant to the lessee the peaceful enjoyment of the immovable during the currency of the lease.


Peaceful enjoyment of the leased house is the main interest of the lessee. Our civil code (under articles 2912-2915) provides rules which guarantee this enjoyment. First point is that the lessor must refrain from any personal act which would interfere with the lessee’s enjoyment of the property. For example, the law provides that the lessor may not make alterations in the house without the consent of the lessee (art.2912) since it disturbs his peaceful enjoyment. Another one is that the lessor warrants that the lessee will not be disturbed by third parties who have legitimate claims on the leased property. This concept is envisaged under article 2913. The general point made in this article is that third party claimant of the leased property should made their claims against the lessor not the lessee. The lessee shall be entitled to reduction of rent in case of molestation by such party.


On the other hand, the lessee is not warranted for illegitimate claims and molestations made by a third party. In such a case the lessee may take action in his own name against such third parties (Art. 2914(2)). The third point is that the lessor shall pay the burdens and taxes charging the immovable (Art. 2915).


Note: which of the following is warranted by the lessor

  • A third party brings a possessory action against the lessee/tenant.

  • A neighborhood hooligans disturbing the lessee

  • A third party brings an action against the lessee for tort based damages which is caused by the fall of a brick from a fence.




A house let needs a periodic repair and maintenance for its enjoyment and habitability. The lessor shall maintain the immovable in good condition and make therein during the currency of the lease such repairs as are necessary and are not repairs incumbent upon the lessee (2916). Basically, the duty to repair a house leased may be determined by the contract of lease. Hence, based on the contractual agreements both the lessor and the lessee are duty bound to repair the house (Read Arts. 2916, 2919, 2953). In the absence of such a clause in their contract, however, the code comes up with a solution under article 2954.


Art. 2954. - 2. Which repairs are incumbent upon lessee.

1) The repairs which in the contract of lease are placed at the charge of the lessee shall be deemed to be repairs incumbent upon him.

(2) Unless otherwise agreed, repairs necessary to the doors, windows, floorboards, tiling, taps and water drains shall be deemed to he repairs incumbent upon the lessee.

(3) The works of cleaning and maintenance which become necessary by the enjoyment of the thing shall also he deemed to be repairs incumbent upon the lessee.

Art. 2955. - Old age or force majeure.

(1) No repairs which are deemed to be incumbent upon the lessee shall be at the charge of the lessee where they are occasioned only by old age or force majeure.

(2) The contract of lease may derogate such rule by an express stipulation


When the type of repair is at the charge of the lessor and because of their urgent nature cannot be repaired without delay by the lessor, the lessee may repair them at his cost and may retain the cost from the rent (read art. 2920).


Obligations of the Lessee


Necessary Care

The lessee can do nothing which diminishes the usefulness or agreeableness of the premise let. To emphasize this point the code under article 2921 underlines two things, first that the lessee should use the property with “care” and for the “purpose” it is intended to be used. Secondly, the lessee may not make alterations in the immovable or its mode of exploitation that would extend beyond the period of lease. In particular, the lessee is duty bound to furnish the house in a way that suits its nature and purpose (read art. 2949).


Another point worth mentioning here is the duty of concern for neighbors. The lessee shall have the consideration which is due to the other persons who dwell in the house a part of which has been given to him or lease (art. 2948(1)). So this applies to co-tenants who share same building or premises. But, what about neighbors? The general rules on ownership under property laws may be applied here mutatis mutandis, and one provision of such nature is article 1225 which forbids abuse of ownership in a way that causes nuisance or damage to neighbors. This may happen by sending smoke, soot, unpleasant smell, noise or vibration in excess of good neighborhood.

Examples: Comment

  • A lessee who leased a residential house used it for a grocery

  • A lessee above two story apartment uses firewood to cook his food. The apartment was not including traditional

  • A lessee emits high volume sounds from his tape recorder during party hours of mid night.


Payment of Rent


A lease is made generally for consideration and receiving rent is an important benefit to the lessor. Hence payment of rent is second important obligation of the lessee. The time and amount of rent shall b decided by the free agreement of the parties in their agreements (Arts. 2923, 2950). As we try to mention above the ceiling of rent in many countries today is fixed and control for economic, social and moral reasons. Our code simply adopts the principle of freedom of contract and allows the parties to decide about the amount.

What are the pros and cons of controlling rent ceilings?


Additional Reading

Most countries in Europe have controlled the ceiling of rent of urban residential houses. This is in an attempt to control the unreasonable high prices of lease prices and also to ensure the right to housing. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognizes the right of all individuals to an adequate standards of living, including adequate food, clothing, and housing (Article 11). General comment 4 stresses that “housing” includes adequate privacy, space, security, lighting, and basic infrastructure-all at a reasonable cost. Ratifying parties are required to report their housing policies and their success in meeting housing needs every four years. Should affordable housing be a basic right that every society assures its citizens? Following are related excerpts of such nature.

John Sprankling, Raymond Coletta and M.C. Mirow, (2006) Global Issues in Property Law, American casebook series, Thomvson West. Pp61-63






Understanding the Ethiopian land tenure system is important to student of land law for it gives students general historical and factual ideas about the land holding system in the country. The Ethiopian land tenure system is also the concern of history, sociology, agriculture, and economics and as a result different writers from all these disciplines have written a lot of materials. In here we shall briefly discuss the types of land holding system in three broad historical periods and the content of the laws used for such systems: before the 1974 revolution, during the Derg Era, and the present system. The pre-evolution period is treated in one section because the land tenure system was basically the same for long period. Only the coming of the revolution fundamentally changed the millennia based land holding system.



After finishing the study of this chapter, you will able to:

  • Understand the concepts of Rist and Gult two tenure concepts of the pre 1974 era

  • Know the land tenure system before the revolution

  • Comprehend the implication of the revolutionary time land tenure laws

  • Appreciate the stand of the FDRE constitution regarding the land holding system


Before the 1974 Revolution

Northern Ethiopia


Ethiopia was governed by kings and emperors for over two thousand years. The land holding system was generally a customary one in that there are no written laws which govern the holding system. A historical review of the land holding system of the feudalistic Ethiopia reveals that all land was owned by the king. Other private people, family or the church derived their claim to the land from imperial land grants, otherwise known a gults. Hence, land was predominantly owned or possessed by a few landlords, the Church, and sometimes individuals, especially in the north.


Based on historical and political factors, the land tenure system in the northern and southern parts of the country were different. In the north, from time immemorial land had been owned based on a lineage system. This land once entered in to the hand of individuals by way of grant, or inheritance etc continues to remain within the family. This was called rist. It signified the usufructuary rights enjoyed under the kinship system. All land so held was considered to be held by hereditary right, because the holder was ipso facto a descendant of the ancestral first holder. In the north, thanks to this kind of land-holding system, a peasant could claim a plot of land as long as he could trace his descent. Hence, individual’s rights over rist-land holding were decided essentially on the bases of his or her membership to the lineage. These rights, as described by Markakis, “were inherent and hereditary, which could neither be abridged nor abrogated under different pretexts, such as absence of an individual from the locality.” The same social customs prohibited an individual from alienating or selling the land. The holder of the rist land, called ristgna, had unchallengeable control, use and inheritance rights over his or her possession. When a person died, his/her land was divided equally among all his/her children regardless of sex or birth order. Some argue that the use-right was secured in the sense that political authorities, including the Emperor, or landlords were refrained from interventions. As a result, “there was less tenure insecurity or fear of being evicted from the rist land.”


As discussed above gult lands were lands derived by imperial grants and unlike rist lands, which were not subject to sale and exchange, gult lands were sold and donated freely. Donald Crummey, in his book, Land and Society in the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia, has recorded the sale, inheritance, and donation of gult land especially during the Gonderian period of the 16th and 17th century of Ethiopia.


The land grant condition reached its apex during the twentieth century. During Menelik’s period, the emperor had been giving a vast amount of gult land to the ruling elite as a reward for loyal service to the régime, and to religious institutions as endowments. The individual or institution that held such land had the right to collect taxes from those who farmed it, and also exercised judicial and administrative authority over those who lived on it. Thus, a single estate of gult land, comprising perhaps one or two square miles, often included within its boundaries strip-fields, held as rist by scores (50-150) of farmers.


Southern Ethiopia

The pattern of land allocation in the southern territories incorporated into the empire by Emperor Menelik II, differed in important ways from the pattern in the north. The gult system was introduced in the southern part of the country in the 19th century, following Menelik’s expansion to the region. From the 1870’s under Menelik to the 1970’s under Haileselassie, the crown alienated land which was occupied by local tribes in common. It was distributed to members of the imperial family, the clergy, members of the nobility, Menelik’s generals, soldiers, and local agents of the state. Unlike the condition in the north, here most of the land was occupied not by peasants, but by the people of the upper ruling class. These people, by means of land grants, became absolute land owners. This kind of land ownership system was called gult. Peasants on such land became tenants (gabar) of the grantee and paid rent in addition to the usual taxes and fees. As explained by J:M Cohen: “those who received government land grant need not farm it themselves but could rent it under quite profitable arrangements to tenant farmers or lease it out to large-scale mechanized producers.” After the Second World War and the expulsion of the Italian forces from Ethiopia, Emperor Haileselassie also continued this process. According to one study conducted by Gebru Mersha and, of the nearly 5 million hectares allotted after 1941, only a few thousands reached the landless and the unemployed. 


In the south, land measurement and property registration for tax purposes was introduced. This promoted private ownership and land sale. In northern Ethiopia, traditional land tenure had had a communal character, with peasants enjoying only usufructuary rights over the land rist land. In the southern part, especially, in the twentieth century, the steady process of privatization set in, with its implication of sale and mortgage. Some land lords even forced their peasants to buy the land. The historian Bahiru Zewde observes:


The privatization process had a number of consequences. At the conceptual level, it was attended with changes in the connotation of some important terms. Rist, in origin of the usufructuary rights enjoyed under the kinship system, now denoted absolute private property. Likewise, the term gabar lost its exploitive associations and assumed the more respectable connotation of taxpayer. Absolute private ownership rights to land above all entailed unrestricted freedom to dispose of it, most significantly through sale.


This process was not without negative impact to the indigenous society, however. The renowned sociologist and expert on Ethiopian tenure system, Markakis, has concluded that the effects of the land grants and alienation were “eviction of a large number of peasants, the spread of tenancy, and emergence of absentee landlordism.” Generally speaking, private tenure was recognized as the most dominant system during the final days of the Imperial regime, affecting some 60 percent of peasants and 65 percent of the country’s population. Under this system, land was sold and exchanged; however, given that all the land was originally state property and that private holders had no absolute rights, this was different from the general concept of a freehold system. Serious land concentration, exploitative tenancy and insecurity have characterized the private tenure system.


Additional Reading on the institutions of gult and rist

The concepts of the institutions of gult and rist are too complex as they are differently applied in different part of the country. Even scholars give different pictures as described in the following. Additional reading is hereby provided from Habtamu Mengistie(2004) Lord, Zega and Peasant: A study of property and agrarian relations in Rural Eastern Gojam. Forum for Social Studies, Addis Ababa University, pp.7-10.


The nature of rest and gult rights are fully encompassed by the definition that Hoben gives to the terms in his widely read book (Land Tenure among the Amhara of Ethiopia: The dynamics of the cognatic descent, Chicago/London, 1973). Hoben writes that gult rights entail “fief-holding rights” whereas rest rights confer “land-use rights.” He adds that “[i]n its most general sense, rist refers to the right a person has to a share of the land first held by any of his or her ancestors in any line of descent.” According to Hoben, rest refers to the theoretically inalienable and inheritable land right of peasants. The peasant had the right to claim rest land through both the paternal and maternal lines. The individual rest holder could have only a usufractary title because the ultimate title to the land lays in the “descent corporation” or the lineage. This evokes the view that under such system of land tenure no right of alienation by individuals could exist. This implies that the rest system of land holding has a communal character because of the undifferentiated complex of rights. What all this means is that many individuals could have concurrent and miscellaneous rights over piece of land.


For Hoben , gult confers material advantages to and forms the basis of political power for the elite. It also plays a useful role in the administration of land and the people occupying it. The bundle of rights which the state transfers to the balägult could include adjudication, governship, and the right to collect tribute. Taddese Tamirat also shares essentially the same view with Hoben as regards the role of gult in the administration of the country and adds that it was equally significant in military mobilization. The bälägult simply enjoyed the right to tribute in the form of part of the annual produce from the land. However, they could not claim tributes as owners. Hoben writes that both rest and gult rights extended over the same land they complemented each other as such: “it is of fundamental importance to remember that rist and gult are not different types of land but distinct and complementary types of land rights.” Thus the exact scope of right of bälägult and resängä is some what blurred or overlapping. These assertions by Hoben regarding the nature of rights of rest and gult have almost attained the status of the basic principles and have become “established” points of departure for analysis of class relationships and the land tenure system. Some difference of detail notwithstanding, this view shared by a number of scholars, including Donald Crummey.


Crummey argues that in regions where the rist system predominated, gult was the tribute right exercised by the non-farming elite, and that the bälaägult, in his capacity as pure tax and tribute collector, had absolutely nothing to do with the production process and with the land. He asserts, like Hoben, that the ristägnä had mastery over the means of production and enjoyed absolute autonomy of production.…Without abandoning the view that gult was essentially a tribute right Crummey  further argues that tribute rights had acquired a character of property, being transferred by sale or otherwise without necessarily involving the state. In other words, the individuals at the receiving end of the buying an the selling process could accumulate tribute rights over large amounts of property. Tribute rights were thus exchanged, negotiated, fought over, etc. The selling and buying of tribute rights over land (i.e gult) provides additional evidence to the argument that gult was given and taken away only by the kings was incorrect, and that the gult holders exercised the right of transfer without necessarily obtaining permission or sanction of the kings.


Defining and delimiting the meanings and scope of gult and rist rights,  Merid (Merid Wolde Aregay. “Land Tenure and Agriculture Productivity, 1500-1855”, Proceedings of the Third Annual Seminar of the Development of History. Addis Ababa, 1986) writes that gult “has never been a form of land tenure”; it was, he says, only “a system of defraying remuneration for services out of taxes and tributes which could have been collected in kind. Gult rights only conferred partial usufruct rights.” He goes on to state that even rist rights did not allow “absolute ownership rights on the individual. It has done so on the lineage or descent group only.” According to Merid, though the individual members of the descent group enjoyed perpetuity of tenure they could not have an absolute interest in an allotted portion of the descent property in land. The justification for the inalienability of rist land, according to Merid, was the desire to preserve it for the needs of the present and unborn individuals in the line of descent; in his words rist could not be alienated “because it belonged to the living and the yet unborn.” One could, of course, give out his or her land on terms of tenancy. Merid adds a few other points to his description of the rist system: one is that membership in rist owning group could be obtained or acquired only through birth. The second is that there was no big private or individual ownership of land because of the workings of rist system of land. Because of the rist system big holdings of landed property soon melted away. The third point is that the most important and overriding interest of the village community and the lineage was to achieve solidarity. He writes in this connection that “throughout history community solidarity and the rist system have been reinforced and preserving each other. Individualism would have no place in the society.” The rist system also created conditions for excessive litigation and invariably acrimonious relationships among members of the descent groups.


At this point it will be apposite to mention the work of a scholar who represents a dissenting opinion on some of the issues from the established scholarship. Shiferaw Bekele, in a work that surveys the literature on land tenure (Shiferaw Bekele. “The Evolution of Land Tenure in the Imperial Era”, Shiferaw Bekele (ed.) An Economic History of Modern Ethiopia 1941-74. Dakar: Codesria, 1995 ), has convincingly showed the inadequacy of existing interpretations of the principle of land holding. For Shiferaw, gult implies more than merely administrative control over land. He argues that scholars have all too often confused gult holdings as simply administrators by claiming the gult entails a right over tribute. In actual fact, when it was granting that gult the state was transferring land to the full ownership of the grantee. It thus involves a propritory right in land. He points out that although there are difference in certain peculiar details from place to place, there was a large measure of commonality in the basic principles and concepts pertaining to land ownership in Ethiopia. This was so particularly from the Gondärine period through early twentieth century Ethiopia. Shiferaw concludes that “…in the Gonderine era, what was granted was the land rather than tribute only.” Unlike many scholars, he argues that the land so given by way of gult did not remain in the property of the original cultivators or ristägnä. There was no concurrent right of a miscellaneous character over land since it was individually or privately owned and the right of the bälägult and risrägnä were very clearly differentiated.


By way of summary, it can be said that although there were different practices in the country the basic point is that gult was a grant of land to individuals and the church for some service rendered to the king. The gult land usually encompasses of large area of land and balagult prefers to put tenants on the land, through time become restägnä. The gultägnä on the other hand has the right to be an administrator, tax collector and adjudicator over the people in his gult land. Rist system is on the other hand a system which may be acquired either by royal grant to individual person and the land continues to be cultivated by is descents, or  by being ristägnä or tenant in some bälägult’s land and continue to benefit on the land.


Urban Land Tenure


Modern urbanization in Ethiopia started with establishment of the capital of Addis Ababa, a third most important capital city in Ethiopia after Axum and Gonder, during the Minelik era. The earliest settlements in the city developed haphazardly around the king’s palace and the residences of his generals and other dignitaries. The emperor granted large tracts of land to the nobility, important personalities of the state, the church, and foreign legations. This land holding system was perpetuated for long time, and as a result, although most land areas in urban areas were private property, most of it was owned by few landlords. As stipulated in the proclamation 47/1975, at that time extensive area of urban land and numerous houses were in the hands of an insignificant number of individual land lords, aristocrats, and high government officials.


The land mark legislation that recognizes private ownership of urban land was decreed in 1907 with 32 articles. The decree allowed Ethiopians and foreigners to purchase and own private land. However, government was allowed to take back the land holding for public interest purpose against payment of compensation.


During the reign of Haileselassie, private ownership of urban land was reemphasized by the subsequent Constitutions of the 1931 and 1955 as well as the 1960 civil code. All recognize the private ownership right of land in urban areas. Up to the coming of the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution land lords in different urban areas invest much in the development of housing for rental. 


The Civil Code


The civil code was introduced in 1960, and enshrined the prevailing pattern of an almost unlimited exploitation of land by the owners (Art.1205). It attempts to regulate under articles 1489 and the following “agricultural communities”-presumably rist, desa, and nomadic tenures-and agrarian tenancies, but made few changes in the traditional arrangements, and was largely ignored. In other words, although the code in principle recognizes private ownership of farm lands, the government had not taken practical measures to attain this goal, such as reforming the land holding system so that poor tenant farmers should get their own private land. It is said that there had been strong resistance for land reform from the landed parliament members. The provisions dealing with tenancies relied upon a freedom of contract which, given gross inequalities in property inequalities in property distribution and bargaining position, could only be exercised by landlords. If the parties were aware of these provisions and if they wanted them to govern their relationship, feudal or patron-client tenure relations could have continued under the guise of neutral facilitative law. Under article 2991 of the code, for example, the large maximum for rents paid in kind was three-fourths of the crop, while the traditional rental was half. Besides to the civil code there were attempts by the government to legislate laws regarding the rural lands.


Paul Brietzke, in his article, Land Reform in Revolutionary Ethiopia, concludes: “traditional tenures remained largely unaffected by the laws enacted, with great fanfare, from 1944 to 1974. Government investment in land reform, in terms of monetary and legal resources, were minimal, and legal maneuvers, far from promoting rural change, seemed to solidify further peasant suspicions of government intentions. As a result, rural people continued to rely on traditional land laws.”


During the Derg Regime


In 1975, the military council, Derg, comprised of representatives of the different armed forces in the country, became successful in ousting the Imperial regime from power. As mentioned above the Emperor was criticized for the failure to implement a land reform. The Derg hence come with the slogan “land to the tiller”. Following its assumption of power, the Derg had undertaken fundamental changes to the Ethiopian socio-economic and political arrangements. Among the many radical measures, the land reform proclamation of February 1975 was said to be the predominant one. Cited as Proclamation No. 31 of 1975, it was a proclamation providing for the “public ownership of rural lands” and generated a great deal of support for the regime, especially from the peasantry population. This is because the land had in essence been given to the tiller. All tenants or hired labourers had acquired possessory rights over the land they tilled. At one stroke, the law abolished all forms of landlordism and tenant-ship, and thereby liberated tenants from any kind of serfdom or payments of rent or debt to the previous land owner (article 6(3)).


This proclamation transferred all land privately owned by landlords, peasants, organizations, the church, and so on to public ownership and prohibited all forms of private ownership henceforth. Large scale farms operated by private individuals or organizations had been either distributed to peasants or transferred to the ownership of the state (art.7). The law also denied any form of compensation for the land and any forests and tree-crops thereon, while providing that fair compensation should be paid for movable properties and permanent works on the land.(Art.3) It should be noted that peasants had only usufruct rights over the land. The law specifically prohibited transfer of land by way of sale, exchange, succession, mortgage, antichresis, lease or otherwise, except that inheritance was possible for one’s spouse, minor children and sometimes children who had attained majority.(Article 5)


Since the fundamental tenet of the proclamation was the equalization of land holdings among the rural peasants and “transformed rural Ethiopia into a society of self-labouring peasants,” it was stated that each farming family should be allotted with 10 hectares of land and any kind of hired labour should be prohibited, except under few circumstances. For example, Article 4 (5) of the proclamation states that this rule did not apply to a woman with no other adequate means of livelihood or where the holder dies, is sick, or old, to the wife or the husband or to his or her children who have not attained majority.


In June, of the same year, the government enacted a new law for the nationalization of urban land and extra rentable houses (proclamation No. 41/75). Accordingly, all urban lands and extra houses of the wealthy urban dwellers were confiscated without any compensation. By extra houses are meant all those dwelling units on which an owner had drawn some amount of rental income prior to the date on which the proclamation was issued regardless of size or amount of monthly rent. The proclamation placed under kebele administration all those units that were rented for 100 Birr or less per month and gave the custody of all those units that had monthly rent of more than 100 Birr to the Agency for the Administration of Rental Housing (AARH).

The policy objectives of the proclamation were mainly two:

    1. to provide the broad urban dweller with credit facilities and urban lands for the construction of dwelling and business houses

    2. to appropriately allocate disproportionately held wealth and income as well as the inequitable provision of services among other dwellers.

Concerning urban land, as stated above, the proclamation put all land in the hand of the state. No urban land was to be transferred by sale, antichresis, mortgage, succession, or otherwise (Art. 4(1).) a person requiring land for the purpose of building a dwelling house was to be granted free of charge up to 500m2  in accordance with the directive of the ministry of public works and Housing (Art. 5(1).) 


The proclamation also allowed ownership of only a single dwelling house (Art. 11(1).)  the transfer of private houses by succession, sale and barter was permitted (Art. 12(1).) All extra houses became government property and no person, family and organization was allowed to obtain income from urban land or house (Art. 20(1).) 



The general picture was that the previous landlord was replaced by the state, the latter with even much power to intervene. In urban areas the law prohibited further private investments in housing investments which resulted in acute shortage of houses in urban areas. Concerning rural land, even though at first the land reform was successful, series land distributions and erroneous state policies led to the insecurity of holdings, and thereby gave little incentive for the peasant to invest in his holdings. Some argue that the redistribution of land was neither remarkable compared to the land distribution in Latin America, nor was it equitable. Dessalegn Rahmato, on his part, concluded that the end product of the land reform was that it failed where it succeeded. As a result, the history of Ethiopia during the Derg regime has been partly recorded as a history of growing rural poverty, food shortages, famine, and escalated rural insurgency and civil war.


2.3 Existing Property System

2.3.1 Land Policy

The present government came to power after it ousted the previous military government in May, 1991. It was hoped that it would introduce some major changes in the land holding system. When the present constitution came into the picture in 1995, however, it was confirmed that no major changes were to be made to the previous land tenure system. There are no fundamental differences between the legal framework of the Derg and the present government on rural land issues. In practical terms, there are more similarities in land administration between the two regimes than differences.


Even though the new government adopted a free market economic policy, it has decided to maintain all rural and urban land under public ownership. According to the 1995 Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) Constitution, all urban and rural land is the property of the state and the Ethiopian people. As one writer (Gebresellasie) says: “by inserting the land policy in the constitution, the current government has effectively eliminated the possibility of flexible application of policy.” The argument forwarded by the ruling party for the continuation of land as public/state property rests solely on the issue of security. In particular, it has been said that private ownership of rural land would lead to massive eviction or migration of the farming population, as poor farmers are forced to sell their plots to unscrupulous urban speculators, particularly during periods of hardship. Some studies show otherwise, however. The economist Berhanu Nega and conclude that farmers would not sell their land wholly or partially if given the right to own their plots. Another study, conducted by the World Bank, reveals that most farmers would rather rent their land during stressful periods compared with any other alternative, such as selling it. In other words, in addition to all the other benefits of rental markets suggested in the literature, the availability of formal land rental markets will serve as a caution to enable farmers to withstand unfavorable circumstances by temporarily renting their land rather than selling it.


The usual argument against the state/public ownership of land is an opposite argument to the argument given by the state, which is lack of security. Government critics on land policy argue that absence of tenure security for land users provides little or no incentive to improve land productivity through investment in long-term land improvement measures. It may aggravate land degradation through soil mining and problems of common resource use. The fear of the critics and supporters of private ownership of land is, among other things, that government may use land as political weapon by giving and taking it away as the case may be. However, supporters of the public ownership of land reject such fears as groundless; on the contrary claim that government provides more security as is now taken by regional governments. A good example is the land registration and certification processes which are being conducted in Tigray, Amhara, Oromiya, and the Southern regions which enable farmers to have a land certificate for their holdings. This gives protection and security to the holder.


Land Legislations


1. Constitution


Article 40 of the Federal Constitution, which relates to “Right to Property,” provides:


The right to ownership of rural and urban land, as well as of all natural resources, is exclusively vested in the State and in the peoples of Ethiopia. Land is a common property of the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia and shall not be subject to sale or to other means of exchange. (Sub-Article 3).


Regarding its means of acquisition, sub-article 4 states that Ethiopian peasants have right to obtain land without payment and the protection against eviction from their possession. Likewise, concerning the pastoralists of the lowland areas, sub-article 5 declares that Ethiopian pastoralists have the right to free land for grazing and cultivation as well as the right not to be displaced from their possession. The Constitution has also shown the way to acquire land by private individuals. Sub-article 6 of the same provision stipulates:


Without prejudice to the right of Ethiopian Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples to the ownership of land, government shall ensure the right of private investors to the use of land on the basis of payment arrangements established by law.


Other important provisions concerning the security and rights of land-holders are provided under sub-articles 7 and 8 of the same provision. Sub-article 7 declares that every Ethiopian shall have the full right to the immovable property he builds and to the permanent improvements he brings about on the land by his labour or capital. This right shall include the right to alienate, to bequeath, and, where the right of use expires, to remove his property, transfer his title, or claim compensation for it. The right to land is also secured in that the state has the duty to pay compensation during expropriation. Sub-article 8, which is related to expropriation, states:


Without prejudice to the right to private property, the government may expropriate private property for public purposes subject to payment in advance of compensation commensurate to the value of the property.

The power to enact laws for the utilization and conservation of land and other natural resources in the country is exclusively given to the Federal Government (Art. 51(5) of the Constitution)  Regional governments have the duty to administer land and other natural resources according to federal laws.(Art. 52(2)(d))of the Constitution). The first law of this nature was enacted in July of 1997 and was titled “Rural Land Administration Proclamation, No. 89/1997.” This law has, however, been repealed and replaced by the more recent Proclamation No. 456/2005, otherwise known as ‘‘Rural Land Administration and Land Use Proclamation’’. Likewise, based on such Federal Rural Land Use Proclamations Regional states (Tigray, Amhara, Oromia, and SNNPR) ensue to adopt similar rural land laws.


2. FDRE Proclamation NO. 456/2005


As stated above, this law is entitled as “Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia Rural Land Administration and Land Use Proclamation.” It was adopted in July, 2005. It replaces its predecessor, Proclamation No. 89/1997. The scope of application of this law is throughout the country, as envisaged under Article 4 of the proclamation. Regional governments are given the power to enact rural land administration and land use laws, which consists of the detailed provisions necessary to implement this proclamation. (Article 17(1))

Reemphasizing Article 40 of the Federal Constitution, the proclamation states: “peasant farmers/pastoralists engaged in agriculture for a living shall be given rural land free of charge.”(Art.5(1)(a). Any person who is a family member of a peasant farmer, semi pastoralist or pastoralist having the right to use rural land may obtain rural land from his family by donation, inheritance or from the competent authority.(Art.5(2)). Thus, the means of acquisition of rural land is either through family inheritance or donation, or through government provision. Since land is owned by the State and the people, peasants’ title to the land is only of a usufractury nature. In the proclamation this kind of use-right is termed as ‘‘holding-right’’. Article 2(4) defines ‘‘holding right’’ in the following manner:

The right of any peasant farmer or semi-pastoralist and pastoralist to use rural land for purpose of agriculture and natural resources development, lease and bequeath to members of his family or other lawful heirs, and includes the right to acquire property produced on his land thereon by his labour or capital and to sale, exchange and bequeath same.

Hence, the law permits holders to use, lease, and bequeath (transfer to family members by way of inheritance or donation) their holding rights. Similarly, Article 8 of the same proclamation which deals with “transfer of rural land use rights” stipulates in detail the possibilities of leasing holding rights in part to investors, or jointly develop the land with investors. Surprisingly Article 8 (4) says that an investor who has leased rural land may present his use right as collateral. So, if there is someone who is willing to lend money to the investor securing his use right emanating from the lease agreement, then it is possible to hold it as mortgage collateral. The law does not, however, yet allow mortgage of the land by the holder of the right himself or by a fellow farmer who rented the land. The same also applies to sale of such land. One more limitation is that transfer of holding-rights, by way of inheritance or donation, is only applicable to family members. A family member is identified here in a different manner from that of the Federal Family Code. The proclamation defines a “family member” as “any person who permanently lives with the holder of holding rights sharing the livelihood of the later.” (Art. 2(5)). Thus, unlike the Family Codes, in which blood and marital ties are important elements to identify a family member, under the Federal Rural Land Proclamation, living under same roof and sharing the same livelihood with the holder of the right are sufficient conditions. As a result, a hired labourer who has been living for years with the farmer or a maid servant, who likewise lives with the family, may be eligible to inherit the holding rights.

Another important provision of the proclamation related to property rights is Article 7 that deals with the duration of use right. According to article 7 (1), “the rural land use right of peasant farmers, semi-pastoralists and pastoralists shall have no time limit.” This reminds us of the freehold land system of the United Kingdom where all land is symbolically owned by the Crown and the later grants rights to individuals. The essence of the freehold estate in the UK is that it defines the length of time for which the right to the land will last. The two forms of freehold estates existing today are the “life estate” and the “fee simple”. A life estate gives a right to the land for the life of the holder; whereas, a fee simple is a right capable of lasting indefinitely and which will pass on death of the holder by will or through intestacy.

From duration point of view, the Ethiopian land holding system is similar to the fee simple, in that both rights are given for an indefinite period of time. The fee simple continues notwithstanding the death of the grantee (holder of right), and notwithstanding the absence of a will, as there are rules that enable the property to pass intestate to the nearest relative. If there are no relatives within the prescribed classes, then the property will go to the Crown. Likewise, Proclamation No. 456/2005 gives a perpetual right to the right holder. Upon his/her death, the right will transfer to heirs by law, who are family members. Here one difference between the two is that in the case of fee simple the grantee/holder can transfer/inherit it by will to whomsoever he wishes it to have. But in the Ethiopian case, inheritance or donation is possible only to family members. It seems testate (inheritance by leaving a will) is void if the beneficiary is not a family member.

If the “holders are deceased and have no heirs or are gone for settlement or left the locality on their own wish….the land shall be distributed to peasants…who have no land and who have land shortage” (Art. 9(1). Under both systems, if there is no legitimate heir, the land will devolve back to the state. See also article 852 of the civil code 


3. Lease Proclamation No. 272/2002


The other kind of land holding system, which prevails in urban areas of the country, is the lease system. For the last 18 years, leases have been in place as the cardinal landholding system for the transfer of urban land to users, to the extent possible and in accordance with Master Plans. Pursuant to Article 4 of the Lease proclamation, an urban land can be permitted to be held by lease:


  1. In conformity with plan guidelines where such a plan exists, or, where it does not exist, in conformity with the law which Region or City government makes, as the case maybe, and

  2. On auction or through negotiation; or

  3. According to the decision of Region or City government.


The main point is that unlike rural farmers and pastoralists, urban dwellers are not entitled to get land for free. In reality and when municipalities have regulations, under exceptional circumstances, however, when people organize and create an association for the development of residential housing, and when the city municipality considers it as an incentive for the development and expansion of urban areas, land may be granted for free. Moreover, in small towns where the lease law is not operational land may be given free of charge. 


Based on the urban development and type or sector of development, the law provides different time limits for the contract of a lease. Hence, for example, the law sets for any town a maximum ceiling period of time of:


  1. up to 99 years for: housing (personal and leasable), scientific, technological study and research facilities, government offices, non-profit- making philanthropist organizations, and religious institutions;

  2. up to 15 years for urban agriculture;

  3. as per government agreement, for diplomatic missions and international organizations.


For the city of Addis Ababa, 60 and 50 years have been set for industry and commerce, respectively. In other cities and towns, not designated as of the grade of Addis Ababa, 80 and 70 years are stipulated for the above mentioned activities, respectively (Art. 6(1). This holding right, emanating from the lease agreement, may be terminated because of termination of contractual period or because of the need to appropriate the land for public interest, among other reasons.




The Ethiopian tenure or land holding system as classified in the three historical period is generally shows the policies of the different regimes. The feudalistic Ethiopia was controlled by feudal lords and the land holding system was basically arranged in such away that benefits the feudal lords, not the peasant or urban dwellers. During the imperial eras the notion of private ownership of land was in principle introduced, but was not really enforced for traditional tenure system was more dominant one.  The motto of the Revolution “land to the tiller” was practically applied during the Derg era. And yet the proclamations have taken away the hope of private ownership of land for once and for all. Hence, farmers were given only the use right. The FDRE constitution and following land laws broaden this use right and allowed those rights of inheritance, lease, and donation which were prohibited by the Derg proclamation. The common element of both the Derg and FDRE land policies is however important one which denies individual people from owning and there by having the sole right of exchanging and selling land.


Additional readings

Although the most basic form of property consists of rights in land, some nations do not recognize this form of property. Ethiopia is one of these nations. In the following an attempt is made to show relevant provisions of the states of Vietnam and Saudi Arabia.


Civil Code of Vietnam

Article 205: The land, mountains and forests, rivers and lakes, water resources under ground, resources from the sea, continental shelf and airspace, and the capital and property invested by the State in enterprises and facilities in the branches and fields of economy, culture, social welfare, science, technology, foreign affairs, and national defence and security, and other property stipulated by law to be of the State, come under ownership of the entire people…


Article 221: Legitimate  income, savings, residential houses, means of daily life, means of production, capital, fruit, and other legitimate properties of an individual are privately owned properties.


Basic Law of Government, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Article 14: All God’s bestowed wealth, be it under the ground, on the surface or in national territorial waters, in the land or maritime domain under the state’s control, are the property of the state as defined by law….



Additional Reading on debate of the State vs. Private ownership of land

Economists, politicians and social scientists provide arguments pro and against the current state ownership of land. Defenders of private ownership of land argue that it promotes individual liberty, political stability, and economic prosperity. Following is an exemplary and summarized analysis taken from the writing of the publication of the Ethiopian Economic Association /Ethiopian Economic Policy Research Institute (EEA/EEPRI), Land Tenure and Agricultural Development in Ethiopia, 2002. pp. 28-29.


The current debate on land tenure and policy

Despite the constitutional provision that security vested the ownership of land to the state, rural land policy in Ethiopia has remained to be one of the sources of disagreement and focus of debate among politicians, academics, and other concerned parties. This is not surprising given the agrarian nature of the Ethiopian economy and the role of land in the social and political history of the country.


In an assessment of the land policy debate in present day Ethiopia Yigremew Adal shows that there is an unfortunate focus on ownership issues and a dichotomy of views on state versus private ownership. The government and the ruling party advocate state ownership of land while experts and scholars in the field, western economic advisors, international organizations such as the World Bank, and opposition political parties favour private ownership. However, despite some attempts there has not been a thorough and systematic study of the patterns, diversity and rationale of alternative views on land tenure.


The main plank of the view advocating state ownership is that private land ownership will lead to concentration of land in the hands of few people who have the ability to buy resulting in the eviction of the poor peasants and thus aggravating landless potentially leading to massive rural-urban migration of people left without any alternative means of livelihood. The empirical validity of this claim is one of the issues that the rural household survey has to address.


Critics of the current land holding system and those that advocate some kind of free hold largely base their arguments on a set of hypothesis about the behaviour of economic agents and the familiar property rights argument partially backed by some empirical results from Ethiopia and other lands. Since most of the arguments are variations in the same, they can be summarized using the more coherent formulation in Borrows and the Roth directly:


  1. Individualization of land tenure (leased and freehold ownership) increases tenure security of the landholders, thereby reducing economic costs of litigation over land disputes.

  2. Individualization increases investment by increasing tenure security and reducing transaction costs. Higher tenure security increases expected investment returns, thereby increasing the demand for capital (including credit) for fixed-place investment. The supply price of credit decreases because the cost of lending is reduced by improved credit worthiness of projects, and higher collateral value. Both supply and demand effects increase investment.

  3.  Individualization will cause a land market to emerge. Land will be transferred to those who are able to extract a higher value of product from the land as users that are more productive bid land away from less productive users.


Others based their arguments against the present land tenure system from the property rights perspectives. Some of the arguments include:


  1. Current rights are not completely specified, so that they cannot serve as a perfect system of information about the rights that accompany ownership.

  2. All or some of the current rights are not exclusive, so that all rewards and penalties resulting from an action do not accrue directly on the person/s empowered to take action.

  3. current rights are not freely transferable, so that rights failed to gravitate to their highest value use, and

  4. Some or all of the current rights are not enforceable and completely enforced.



We have seen the types of legislations that are widely related to land and buildings in one or another way. In the section to come, an attempt will be made to explain the major issues, problems and matters that are addresses under the wider subject.  The major object of Land Law-real property- and appurtenances thereto will be further defined.




Having read this part of the chapter, the student can:

  • Point out and define the central subject of land law-real property.

  • Mention the main subject matters of Land Law.

  • Define fixtures in the context of the Civil Code.


Main Questions of Land Law

Land is also being regulated through the Civil Code and firstly evolves round questions regarding private law, i.e. the relationship between private legal subjects. Since the subject is related to an object, a main question is therefore how this object is being defined.  As we have just seen, these questions are being answered through Title VI, Chapter 1 of the Civil Code and are therefore very important for the application and understanding of all subjects covered in the course. It is a question of deciding what a property unit is and what fixtures that are attached to this object, the real property.


Another main question consists of the provisions regarding transfer of property which are especially to be found in Title XVIII of the Civil Code. In order to create a valid purchase of a property unit, a few formalities must be acknowledged, i.e. a written contract containing certain minimum information. The rights and the duties of both the seller and buyer are also being regulated. Since a purchase of property often is an economically significant transaction for the parties, disputes often occur, i.e. the seller’s responsibility for defaults in the object. The rules regarding sale of real property are also applicable, with some adjustments, regarding exchange and donation/gift of real property.


Yet another important part of Land Law concerns mortgage and antichrisis and is being regulated in Title XVIII, Chapter 4 of the Civil Code. Property units must be said to be the most important objects of credit, not only in Ethiopia, but also in other countries. The system regarding mortgage enables the property owner to pledge the property while still being able to use it.


Another important area is the grant of rights of user and servitude/easements. The Civil Code contains rules of how to create such rights, as well as what rights and obligations that oblige the parties. The provisions on usufruct and servitude are to be found in Title VIII, Chapters 2 and 3, respectively, of the Civil Code. Maybe the most important right of user is lease of houses/ tenancy, and the provisions are mainly forcing to the lessees/ tenants advantage. These provisions are to be found in Title XVIII, Chapter 2 of the Civil Code. These rules can be said to function as social security for the lessee, and regard what demands the tenant can make regarding the achievement that the landlord is providing and consequently the payment that the lessor/landlord is entitled to.


A wider version of lease is also an important part of Land Law and will be seen in light of rural land lease and urban lease having regard to the provisions of both the Civil Code and special provisions.


Yet another important area of Land Law is the rules regarding the protection against claims from third parties. This protection is in many cases depending on that a registration has been made in the land registration authorities. The Land register is to be kept by a competent body and is an official register containing information on real properties such as who the owner is and the area of the property. These rules also apply regarding the purchasers relation to different right holders. It can also be a question of a protection from other possessions of the property at the same time as a third party is protected from losses due to entering into agreements with some one other than the owner of the property.


The Object of Land Law 


  1. Introduction


Land Law evolves round several different questions all dealing with real property, i.e. the subject Land Law concerns this specific object-the real property. A fundamental question whilst studying the subject is therefore to establish the meaning of real property. Real property is divided into property units and belonging to these property units are intrinsic elements and accessories (fixtures). Title VI, Chapter 1 establishes what is to be regarded as real property.


What is to be included in the term real property is also of importance for what objects that are subject to regulation in the Civil Code but also matters for other rules concerning Land Law. However, the importance of the delimitation is greater than that. Since the term personal property is not expressly regulated in the law, but is determined negatively (meaning that what is not real property according to the Civil Code is personal property) the term real property is of significance here too.


The historical starting point concerning the division between real and private property is explained by some objects being movable and others being immovable. One therefore historically spoke of res mobiles and res immobiles. This fundamental difference created a need for a detailed legislation that differed from one another depending on the type of object.  A simple example of this consists of the different rules concerning the transfer of goods purchased.


As will be clear in the subsequent sections, this division based on the mobility criterion is the fundamental of the rules, but there are departures to these rules. For example, such things as refrigerators, washing machines and keys are not immovables in that sense but the law treats them as being so. If one were to state a main rule behind the legislation of today, one might say that the rules do divide the objects between movable and immovable, but that the closer division is being made on the basis of whether there is purpose connection or not.


The term real property and its extent govern the solution of a potential dispute in different situations. For example, one situation concerns what is to be a fixture to the real property and therefore should be included in a sale, unless the parties have agreed otherwise or reversely what should not be included and therefore be regulated outside of the rules regarding real estate. This is the same function that the rules on fixtures have when mortgaging real property.


Another situation may concern when two or more owners want to divide the real property amongst them and the problems related to ownership arise. The aim is to separate the land from the fixtures. In this situation, the division that the parties have agreed upon can be failed in a later dispute where claims on the property are being made by a third party or when one of the parties no longer is satisfied with the division.


1. Real Property

Dear student please note that the term “real property” is not used in our Civil Code and as a result not commonly used in Ethiopia. In some countries the term is defined to mean land. For example, Chap 1 Section 1 of the Land Code of Sweden establishes that “real property is land. This is divided into property units….” Further, under the Swedish Land Code, buildings and other similar structures are considered to be part of the land unit.


However, our law provides firstly that “All goods are movables or immovable” (Art. 1126 of the Civil Code) and then provides that “Lands and buildings shall be deemed to be immovables” (Art. 1130 of the Civil Code).  Dear student, what do you understand from this definition? It appears that land and buildings are treated as separate objects under our law. In other words, buildings do not seem to be part of the land units (unless, in fact, they are considered as intrinsic elements of the land.) Land and buildings stand on their own and treated legally as such.



Now of the two approaches, i.e. the Swedish approach which defines building as part of the land unit, and the Ethiopian approach which defines building as separate object from a land unit, which one is better in solving potential disputes and for understanding? Do you recall what we said under section 1.2.3? Explain and give examples to show the problems.


What then would real property involve under our Civil Code? Obviously, under our law real property, the object of Land Law, would mean both land and buildings! As we noted earlier, in this material, we are not always going to mention the words “Land” and “Buildings” together for the interest of place; rather what is mentioned of “Land” may, mutatis mutandis, apply to “Buildings”.


2. Fixtures (Intrinsic Elements and Accessories)


The rules concerning fixtures are to be found in Title VI, Chapter 1 of the Civil Code. Our law does not use the word fixture; instead it uses the words “Intrinsic elements” and “Accessories”.


Art. 1131. Intrinsic elements of goods 1. Principle

Unless otherwise provided, rights on, or dealings relating to, goods shall apply to all intrinsic elements thereof.


Art. 1132.  2. Definition

  1. Anything which by custom is regarded as forming part of a thing shall be deemed to be an intrinsic element thereof.

  2. Anything which is materially united to a thing and cannot be detached there from without destroying or damaging such thing shall be deemed to be an intrinsic element thereof.


Art. 1133. 3. Trees and Crops

  1. Trees and crops shall be an intrinsic element of the land until they are separated there from.

  2. They shall be deemed to be distinct corporeal chattels where they are subject to contracts made for their separation from the land or implying such separation.


Art. 1134. 4. Rights of third parties

  1. A thing which becomes an intrinsic element of a movable or immovable shall cease to constitute a distinct thing.

  2. All the rights which third parties previously had on such thing shall be extinguished.

  3. Nothing shall affect the right of such third parties to make claims based on liability for damages or unlawful enrichment.


What can you observe from the reading of the above provisions?


First and foremost, we should understand that the provisions equally apply to both movable goods and immovable goods. Thus, any dealing relating to an immovable property be it land or house applies to the intrinsic element thereof, unless there is agreement to the contrary.



  • A sells a house to B, then the sale contract covers the house and any intrinsic part of it.

  • X, a farmer, leases a 5 hectare agricultural land to Y, the lease applies both to the land and any intrinsic element of same.

  • C, a lessor/landlord, gives his 200 sq.m house to D, a tenant for a term of 3 years. The agreement applies to the house and any intrinsic element thereof.


But what is the meaning of an intrinsic element of a good? There are two ways whereby we can identify an intrinsic element of an immovable property.  The first determining factor is custom. If a custom of certain people considers a thing as forming part of another thing, then that thing is an intrinsic element of the other. For example, if according to custom of Gojam, a stone is part of the land unit on which it is situated, then the stone is an intrinsic element of the land. A farmer who leases that land will transfer it together with all stones on that land. Secondly, a thing which is materially united to another thing and as a result cannot be separated there from without causing damage to it is said to be an intrinsic element of the thing. This is true irrespective of the custom of the area in which the thing is located.


A thing which was distinct before may by some act become an intrinsic element of another thing. Then the thing shall cease to constitute a distinct thing. At the same time, all the rights which third parties previously had on such thing shall be extinguished although they are still entitled for compensation. 


Trees and crops are always intrinsic elements of the land unit on which they stand. But when they are separated from it, they are no more part of the land unit. In that case, they will constitute a distinct corporeal chattel, i.e. personal property. In addition, if a transaction is made with respect to the trees or crops regarding or implying their separation from the land, they shall be deemed to be distinct corporeal chattels.


Are buildings intrinsic elements of the land unit on which the stand according to our law? Why? Why not?


  Art. 1135. Accessories 1. Principle


In doubtful cases, rights on, or dealings relating to, things shall apply to the accessories thereof.


Art. 1136.  2. Definition

Anything which the possessor or owner of a thing has permanently destined for the use of such thing shall be deemed to be an accessory thereof.


Art. 1137. 3. Temporary separation from the thing


No accessory shall lose its character of accessory where it is temporarily detached from the thing to which it is destined.


Art. 1138. 4. Rights of third parties

  1. The rights which third parties may have on a thing shall not be affected by such thing being destined to the use of a movable or immovable.

  2. Such rights may not be set up against a third party in good faith unless they are embodied in a written document dated prior to the thing having been so destined.


What can you observe from the reading of the above provisions?


Once again, we should understand that the provisions equally apply to both movable goods and immovable goods. Thus, any dealing relating to an immovable property be it land or house applies to the accessory thereof, unless there is an un doubtful situation having effect to the contrary. We can imagine that such an un doubtful situation excluding the accessory from the application of the dealing relating to an immovable occurs when there is agreement to that effect.



  • A sells a house to B, then the sale contract covers the house and any accessory thereof.

  • X, a farmer, leases a 5 hectare agricultural land to Y, the lease applies both to the land and any accessory thereof.

  • C, a lessor/landlord, gives his 200 sq.m house to D, a tenant for a term of 3 years. The agreement applies to the house and any accessory thereof.


But what is the meaning of an accessory of a real property? An accessory of an immovable property is a thing which the possessor or owner of the property has permanently destined for the use of the property. Therefore, there are two criteria whereby we can determine whether or not a thing is an accessory of a real property. One is that the thing, i.e. the accessory must have been placed or put to the use of the real property by the possessor or owner of the property.  This can be referred to as “owner connection”. If any other person other than an owner or possessor places the thing, it cannot be considered as an accessory, but a personal property. The second important criterion is that the thing must have been placed to the immovable for permanent use of the immovable. This can be referred to as “purpose connection”. Hence both the owner connection and the purpose connection must exist together for us to treat a thing as an accessory of an immovable property. Any temporary separation of a thing from the property to which it is destined does not end its nature as accessory. This, however, does not mean that the owner is prevented from putting an end to the character of accessory of such thing.  With out affecting the rights of third parties in good faith, the owner can do so with the intention of permanently ending the accessory character of the thing.


The accessory can be physical or legal. For example, a permanent partition, lift, handrail, water pipe, heating, lighting, power plug and other such like instrument, central heating boiler, heating radiators, heater, tiled stove, inner window, awning, fire extinguisher, civil defence material and key are accessories to a building and are physical fixtures. On the other hand, a building or other facility constructed outside the property unit intended for permanent use in the exercise of a servitude/ easement in favour of the property unit but does not belong to the property unit where it is situated is an accessory to the property unit. And this is a legal accessory or legal fixture.


Assume that a previously distinct thing now becomes an accessory to a real property. Assume further that a third party had a right on the thing. What will happen to such right when the thing is converted into an accessory? In such case, the rights of third parties shall not be affected if two conditions are fulfilled. First, the owner must be in good faith whilst putting the thing as accessory. Second, the rights of the third party must have been embodied in a written document dated prior to the thing having become an accessory.


Can you please give one example for each above conditions?

Is there distinction between intrinsic elements and accessories regarding rights of third parties? Compare Art.1134 and Art. 1138 of the Civil Code.



Recently, Land Law has started to be treated as a separate specific subject of law. It consists of rules regarding real property, i.e. land and buildings. Real property, land, is divided into property units. Real property concerns itself with rights in rem, or relating to land.


In Ethiopia, immovable property, i.e. lands and buildings together constitute real property. This approach under our law is different from the other approach that defines land as real property. An example for the latter approach is the Swedish law.  Land Law deals with the rights and restrictions related to immovable property. Specifically, it deals with such matters as transfer of property, land registration and cadastre, lease, and mortgage. Legislations on immovable property cover land administration especially land register and cadastre, planning and building, environment, forestry, and cultural heritage.





In the previous section, we have tried to define land and other immovbles both from a wider and local context. We have defined real property. In this section, we are going to see the different types of laws under the regime of ‘Land Law’. Land Law should some how have some understandable, if not watertight legislative limits and should not be conceived as a boundless subject. Hence, we shall see the fundamental laws which we believe are to be addresses by the subject.




After going through this section, one would be able to:

  • Appreciate the practical importance of a comprehensive legislation on immovable properties.

  • Describe many of the existing laws in Ethiopia which regulate various aspects of immovable or real property.

  • Explain the nature and meaning of each of these legislations. 


 Code on Immovable Property: Land Law in Prospect


Presently Ethiopian general immovable property legislation is found in different titles and parts of the Civil code. For example, the definition for immovable property is found in Title VI, some rights in rem, i.e. real property such as usufruct, servitude, in Title VIII, public domain, expropriation, association of land owners, and town planning in Title IX, register of immovable property in Title X, and contracts relating to immovable properties such as sale, lease and mortgage in XVIII of the Civil Code.


Do you think such arrangement is simple and workable?


Today, legal practitioners in Ethiopia actually find it difficult to apply the legal provisions in the Civil Code. In fact, it is not unusual to find a judge who even is not well aware of the meaning and existence of some provisions such as those on town planning and registration. No doubt, lack of adequate curriculum addressing real property has been one major factor for this. However, the location of those economically significant laws at different parts and contexts in the Civil Code is even more important contributing factor for the problem.


Starting from the careful conceptual analysis, real property or immovable property, on which quite much of our life is dependent especially in our agrarian society, must be dealt with comprehensively, covering all subjects of importance about the subject. Even a slight confusion in this regard means a lot in terms of the implication in the economy and life. Because, in the absence of simple and complete legislation, land administration in Ethiopia at all levels will simply be impossible thus curtailing the effort towards sustainable economic development.


Therefore, the collection of all titles of the Civil Code dealing with immovable property and restructuring them in a comprehensive, simple, and logical order is a decisive measure which the present condition of the country seeks a lot. Quite many countries in the world are following this trend with many visible fruits of development and prosperity. For example, in Sweden, many matters relating to real property are regulated in a single legislation called “Land code”.


Some of the advantages of having a systematically arranged legislation on immovable are:

  • Immovable properties will get the degree of attention needed taking into account their importance to the economy.

  • Practitioners and others involved in the subject will find it easy to apply in any dealing with real properties.

  • Immovable legislation will start to contribute, as it must, vibrantly to our growth while it will stop to be an “untouchable zone”.

  • Immovable will be efficiently managed or administered thereby bringing the highly sought sustainable development.

  • It will create a favourable condition to create other legislation while capitalizing on history and culture.

Nowadays, there are some moves toward a related direction. The Environmental Protection, Land Administration and Use Authority (EPLAUA) in the Amhara National Regional State has recently initiated a single, comprehensive legislation on Rural Land Administration. It is just a matter of time what the result of this initiative will be. Again, the use of such legislation is of an irreplaceable importance.


Real Property Registration Legislation


One critical area of Land Law that requires an active legal regime is registration of real property. Cadastre and land register are two important systems of effective administration of immovable properties. The problem is that in Ethiopia such laws generally do not exist or if they exist, they are rendered inapplicable. As we shall see in great detail, the Civil Code provisions on the registration of real properties are not activated and the recent rural land registration laws are not only inadequate but also have started to be applied only in few parts of the country (Amhara, Tigray and Oromia) in varying degrees. In fact, the start by itself is quite encouraging.  In addition, laws on property formation measures such as partition, subdivision, and reallotment which are necessary preconditions to undertake cadastre and registration have not been put in place yet.


Planning and Building Legislation


The Civil Code has one chapter (Chapter 4) under Title IX dealing with town  planning areas. Let us see the most basic among these provisions.


Art. 1535. - Creation of area.

( 1) Town-planning areas may be created by Imperial Decree with a view to promoting the development of towns in an economically sound manner.

(2) The Decree shall fix in a precise manner the limits of the area.


Art. 1536. - Plan.

(1) The municipality shall draw up a plan relating to each town-planning area.

(2) The plan and any amendment thereto shall be of no effect unless approved by Imperial Decree and published in the Negarit Gazeta.


Art. 1537. - Contents of plan.

(1) The plan shall, where necessary, divide each area into sub-areas.

(2) It shall fix in a general manner the restrictions and servitudes which it may be necessary to impose on the rights of the owners within each sub-area.


Art. 1538. - Carrying out of plan.

(1) In carrying out the plan, the municipality may impose the necessary restrictions on the rights of the owners within the area.

(2) It may in particular impose servitudes not to build, rights of way or servitudes relating to municipal sewers and pipes.

(3) It may, where necessary, use expropriation proceedings.


Art. 1539. - Compensation.

(1) The owners whose rights are restricted or whose land is expropriated shall be entitled to compensation.

(2) Such compensation shall be fixed by appraisement arbitration committee in accordance with the provisions of Chapter 1 of this

Title (Art. 1473.1476).


Art. 1540. - Building permit.

No person may construct a building within a town-planning area unless he has given notice of his intention to build and been granted a building permit in accordance with regulations.


What do we understand from the reading of the above provisions?


The rules envisage the establishment of town planning, town plan, building permit and compensation during expropriation. Almost all of these and other matters in this part/chapter of the Civil Code are regulated in sounder manner under the recent laws which we shall subsequently discuss. Hence it appears that Chapter 4 of the Code is impliedly repealed by the newer legislations.


The present basic law on urban planning is the Urban Planning Proclamation No. 574/2008, adopted at national level and repealing the Preparation and Implementation of Urban Plans Proclamation No. 315/1987. As usual, this law gives the states powers and duties to implement it which is commonly accomplished by adopting a similar legislation.


The reasons compelling the adoption of this law are:


  • The need to regulate the proliferation of unplanned urban centres by sound and visionary urban plans.

  • The need to bring about an integrated and balanced national, regional and local development.

  • The need to take into account the existing federal structure of government and the central role of urban centres in urban plan preparation and implementation, and

  • The need to create a favourable condition for public and private stakeholders to fully participate in the process of urban plan initiation, preparation and implementation on the basis of national standards.



And the objectives of the law are establishing a legal framework in order to promote planned and well developed urban centres; and regulating and facilitating development activities in urban centres and thereby enhance economic development of the country.


According to this important law, any process of urban plan initiation and preparation shall follow ten principles which are:

  1. Conformity with hierarchy of plans,

  2. Sharing the national vision and standards as well as capable of being implemented,

  3. Consideration of inter-urban and urban linkages,

  4. Delineation of spatial frame for urban centres in view of efficient land utilization,

  5. Ensuring the satisfaction of the needs of society through public participation, transparency and accountability,

  6. Promotion of balanced and mixed population distribution,

  7. Safeguarding the community and environment,

  8. Preservation and restoration of historical and cultural heritages,

  9. Balancing public and private interests, and

  10. Ensuring sustainable development.


Based on the national and regional development strategies and schemes three hierarchy of plans shall be considered. These are national urban development scheme, regional urban development plan, and urban plans. Further, the law recognizes two types of urban plans. They are city wide structure plan and local development plan.


According to Art. 9, a structure plan is defined as a legally binding plan along with its explanatory texts formulated and drawn at the level of an entire urban boundary that sets out the basic requirements regarding physical development the fulfilment of which could produce a coherent urban development in social, economic and spatial spheres. Any structure plan shall indicate at least the following:

  1. the magnitude and direction of growth of the urban centre,

  2. principal land use classes,

  3. housing development,

  4. the layout and organization of major physical and social infrastructure,

  5. urban development intervention areas of the urban centre,

  6. environmental aspects, and

  7. industry zone


According to Art. 11, a local development plan is a legally binding plan depicting medium term, phased and integrated urban upgrading, renewal and expansion activities of an urban area with the view to facilitating the implementation of the structure plan by focusing on strategic areas. Any local development plan shall state, as may be appropriate:

  1. zoning of use type, building height and density,

  2. local streets and layout of basic infrastructure,

  3. organization of transport system,

  4. housing typology and neighbourhood organization,

  5. urban renewal, upgrading and reallocation of intervention areas, and

  6. green areas, open spaces, water bodies and places that might be utilized for common benefits, and

  7. any other locally relevant planning issues.


Other principles include compensation, development permit and the right to land information. According to Art.27, any developer desiring to commence a development activity in an urban centre shall apply for a development permit. As per Art.21, any urban landholder whose land holding is dispossessed as a result of implementation of urban plans shall be paid compensation pursuant to the relevant laws. Lastly, by virtue of Art.35, any interested party is entitled to have information as to the development of a plot of land in the jurisdiction of an urban centre.


The other laws are related to buildings. Specially, condominiums are recent phenomenon in Ethiopia and a law was issued at national level called Condominium Proclamation No. 370/2003. The objectives of this proclamation are:


  • to implement other alternatives of urban land use in addition to plots basis urban land use.

  • to narrow the imbalance between demand and supply of housing.

  • maintain beauty of the urban areas

  • to improve land use and supply of houses, and

  • to create favourable conditions to private developers and co-operatives.  


The proclamation regulates such matters as registration of condominium, unit ownership, sale and lease of a unit, unit owners association, and amalgamation of association, common elements, and common expenses. It also repeals the Civil Code provisions on ownership of stories and suites of a building under Title VIII, Chapter 1, Section 2, and paragraph 2, Arts. 1281-1308 on a condominium governed under the same law.


Regional states have the power to issue and implement condominium legislations of the same nature. For example, the ANRS has issued in 2006 a law called the Amhara National Regional State Condominium Ownership Determination Proclamation No.141/2006.


Environmental, Forestry, and Cultural Heritage Legislations



Environmental legislations are available both at federal and regional level. At present, at the federal or national level, there are three proclamations dealing with the environment. These are the Environmental Protection Organs Establishment Proclamation No. 295/2002, the Environmental Pollution Control Proclamation No.300/2002, and the Environmental Impact Assessment Proclamation No. 299/2002.


The first proclamation assigns responsibilities to separate organizations for environmental development and management activities with the view to establish a system that fosters coordinated but differentiated responsibilities among environmental protection agencies at federal and regional levels. This proclamation re-establishes the federal environmental protection authority. Article 3 reads as follows:


  1. Establishment

1) The Authority is hereby re-established as an autonomous public institution of the Federal Government.

2) The Authority shall be accountable to the Prime Minister.


By virtue of Art. 5, the authority has the objective of formulating policies, strategies, laws and standards, which foster social and economic development in a manner that enhances the welfare of humans and the safety of the environment sustainable. Toward this end, it shall spearhead in ensuring the effectiveness of the process of their implementation.


This law empowers regional states to establish or designate an independent regional environmental agency that shall be responsible for;

  1. coordinating the formulation, implementation, review and revision of regional conservation strategies,

  2. environmental monitoring, protection and regulation, and

  3. ensuring the implementation of federal environmental standards


The major legislation is the Environmental Pollution Control Proclamation No. 300/2002. This law has been adopted to protect the environment, to safeguard human health and wellbeing, to maintain the biota and the aesthetic value of nature, and to eliminate or mitigate pollution as an undesirable consequence. More specifically, the law addresses control of pollution, management of hazardous waste, chemical and radioactive substance, and management of municipal waste.


The Environmental Impact Assessment Proclamation No. 299/2002 is the third legislation of importance to us. The main objectives of this legislation are:

 -to help predict and manage the environmental effects which a developmental activity entails.

-to provide an effective means of harmonizing and integrating environmental, economic, cultural, and social considerations into a decision making process in a manner that promotes sustainable development.

-to foster the implementation of the environmental rights and objectives enshrined in the constitution, and

-to bring about administrative transparency and accountability, and involve the public in planning and decision making.


This law regulates such matters as considerations to determine impact, environmental impact study report, public participation in environmental impact study report, and others.



Normally, in the Civil Code, trees are intrinsic elements of the land on which they stand and, as a result, are immovable properties. Historically, there were a number of legislations on forests. These include the State Forest Proclamation No.225/1965, Private Forest Conservation Proc. No.226/1965, and Putative Forest Proclamation No.227/1965.  At present, all these laws are repealed. The main legislations which regulate forest conservation, development and utilization are the Convention on Biological Diversity, 1994, to which Ethiopia is a party, the Forestry Conservation, Development and Utilization proclamation No.94/1994 and the Trade of Saw Logs and Veneer Logs Regulation No. 351/1968.


Under the major legislation, Proc. No.94/1994, there are three types of forests, namely, state forests, regional forests, and private forests. As per Art. 2(6) of the proclamation, “state forest” is,


 “a forest which is to be demarcated by a regulation to be issued by the Council of Ministers upon the recommendation of the Ministry of Agriculture and that are given special consideration so as to protect the genetic resources, or conserved to keep the ecosystem with a programme that covers more than one region.”


According to Art.2(7), regional forests are “forests designated by the official Gazette of each region as being so which are not either a state or private forest, and found within a specific region or developed by the said region. They are owned by the regional states in the same context as state forests.


Private forests are forests developed by any private person, peasant association or associations organized by private individuals. The owners of private forests are required to develop forests in a sound manner, and replace trees made use of in different ways, just to mention few duties as per Art. 6(2). Related to private ownership of forests are community forests. This is a type of forest ownership by peasant associations or associations organized by private individuals. It includes planting community woodlots, agro-forestry, planting for catchments protection, windbreaks, shelter belts and road side plantation.


Cultural Heritage/Antiquity

According to Art. 2(a) of proclamation No.229/1966 and Export of Antiquities regulation of 1969, Art.3, antiquity includes the totality of cultural objects that are products of human activity originating prior to 1850 E.C. and objects of historical and archaeological interest dating from before 1850 E.C. that bear witness to the history and tradition of the country and is people. Accordingly, the following categories of objects may be considered as antiquities:

-Works of craft-such as tools, poetry, crosses, inscriptions, coins, weapons, jewellery, etc.

-Items of artistic interest-planting and drawings, produced entirely by human hand on any support and in any unilateral original prints and posters , and photographs, original artistic assemble, ages and montages in any material, works of statutory art and sculpture, etc.

-Manuscripts and incunabula-codes, books, documents or publication of special interest.

-Items of numismatic (medals and coins) and philatelic interest.

-Archives including textual records, map and other cartographic materials, sound recordings and machine recordable records,

-Ancient palaces, religious buildings such as ancient churches, monasteries, mosques, castles, obelisks, etc.

-Products of archaeological excavations conducted on land, underground, in the sea bed including the sites of such exploration and excavations.

-Places associated with historical events such as battle fields.

-Items resulting from the dismemberment of historical monuments,

-Materials of anthropological, pathological and ethnological interest, etc.




The theory that property exists as a natural right has had long and widespread acceptance. Many of the legal philosophers of Germany were expositors of this theory. As they expressed it the personal right of man, as determined by nature, is to possess a sphere of action sufficient to supply him with the means of support. This physical sphere should, therefore, be guaranteed to everyone, conditioned, however, upon his cultivating it by his own labor. Thus all should labor and all should also have wherewith to labor. The right to possession is a direct right, inalienable, antecedent to all law, and instituted for the general good. This theory is one application of the approach that all activity of the human race is the planned product of divine wisdom or of some unavoidable and immutable nature of things.


Laveleye in the twenty-seventh chapter of his book on Primitive Property (1878) gives the following exposition and refutation of four of the theories advanced concerning the origin of property.


Occupation Theory

''Roman jurists and most modern ones have considered occupancy of things without an owner as the principal title conferring property. Quod enim nullius est id, ratione naturali, occupanti conceditur, says the Digest. This theory can be easily maintained, so long as it only has to do with movables which can be actually seized and detained, like game taken in the chase, or goods found; but it encounters insurmountable difficulties when we attempt to apply it to the soil. In the first place, history shows that the earth is never regarded by men as res nullius. The hunting ground of hunting tribes, or the pastures of pastoral nations, are always recognized as the collective domain of the tribe; and this collective possession continues, even after agriculture has begun to fertilize the soil. Unoccupied land has therefore never been regarded as without an owner. Everywhere, in former times as in our own, it was considered as belonging to the commune or the State, so that there was no room, in former times any more than in our own, for acquisition by occupancy.

''Most of the partisans of this theory do allow a sort of primitive community, communion bororum primaeva. But they add, that in order to obtain individual ownership of things which they took possession of, all men tacitly agreed to renounce, each for himself, this undivided right over the common domain. If it is the historic origin of property, that they seek to explain in this way, history knows of no such agreement. If it is meant as a theoretical and logical origin, in this case they lapse into the theory of contract, which we shall examine further on.

''M. Thiers, in his work De la Propriete, borrows the idea of Cicero, who, comparing the world to a theatre, asserts that every one makes the place he occupies his own: Theatrum cum commune sit, recte tamen dici potest ejus eum locum quem quisque occupavit. The example goes against the theory which he is endeavouring to establish; for, in the first place, the spectator is only in possession of his place, and his possession merely gives him a temporary right and not the perpetual ownership; and, secondly, he occupies but one place. Hence no one could at best make his own more than the portion of the soil which he actually retains and can cultivate. M. Renouard, in his excellent work, Du Droit industriel, recognizes this: 'Of strict natural right, the occupation of land present serious difficulty in execution. It only gives a right over the soil actually held in possession.' Without this limit, in fact, a single man might, by some manifest sign of his intention, occupy a whole province.

''Occupation is a fact resulting from chance or force. There are three of us on an island large enough to support us all, if we have each an equal part; if, by superior activity, I occupy two-thirds of it, is one of the others to die of hunger, or else become my slave? In this case the instinct of justice has always commanded an equal partition. Hence we do conceive of a right of acquisition, anterior and superior to the simple fact of apprehension, which it is called upon to limit and regulate ...


Labour Theory

''The second theory of property would make labour its basis, This is the one adopted by economists, because, since Adam Smith, they have attributed to labour the production of wealth. Locke was the first to expound this system clearly, in his Second Treatise on Civil Government, Briefly, this is a summary of what he says on the subject:-

''God gave the soil to mankind at large, but as no one enjoys either the soil or that which it produces unless he be owner, individuals must be allowed the use, to the exclusion of all others.

''Everyone has an exclusive right over his own person. The labour of his body and the work of his hands therefore are likewise his property. No one can have a greater right than he to that which he has acquired, especially if there remains a sufficiency of similar objects for others. My labour, withdrawing objects from the state of community makes them mine. But the right of acquisition must be limited by reason and equity. 'If one exceeds the bounds of moderation and takes more than he has need of, he undoubtedly takes what belongs to others.'

''The limit indicated by Locke is, for moveable things, the amount which we may take without allowing them to spoil. For land, the limit is the amount which we can cultivate ourselves, and the condition that there be left as much for others as they require. 'The measure of property,' he says, 'nature has well set by the extent of man's labour and the conveniences of life; no man's labour could subdue, or appropriate all; nor could his enjoyment consume more than a small part; so that it was impossible for any man, this way, to encroach upon the right of another, or acquire to himself a property, to the prejudice of his neighbor, who would still have room for as good and as large a possession. This measure, we see, confines every man's possession to a very moderate proportion, and such as he might appropriate to himself, without injury to anybody.'

''So according to Locke the great principle is this: 'Every one ought to have as much property as is necessary for his support.'

''The necessity of private property results 'from the conditions of human life, which require labour and some material on which it may be exercised.'

''As Locke admits, on the one hand an equality of right in all men, and on the other hand the necessity for every man to have a certain portion of material, on which to live by his labour, it follows that he recognizes a natural right of property in every one.

''This theory is certainly more plausible than that of occupation. As M. Roder very justly remarks in his work, Die Grundzuge des Naturrechts, § 79, labour establishes between man and the objects which he has transformed a far closer connexion than mere occupation, whether symbolical or even actual. Labour creates value; accordingly it seems just that he who has given birth to it, should also enjoy it. Moreover, as no one can legitimately retain more than that which he can cultivate, there is a limit which prevents usurpation. But no legislation ever allowed that labour or specification was alone a sufficient title to establish property. He who is not already owner of the land or the material transformed, acquires nothing by his labour but a right to compensation or to remove the buildings and plantations set upon another man's land. Kant had already remarked that the cultivation of the soil was not sufficient to confer the ownership. 'If labour alone,' says M. Renouard (Du Droit industriel, p. 269), 'conferred a legitimate ownership, logic would demand that so much of the material produced, as exceeds the remuneration of such labour, should be regarded as not duly acquired.'

''Nay more: according to this theory the owner would manifestly have no right to full value of land let to a tenant. The tenant would become co-proprietor in proportion as the land was improved by his labour; and, at the end of a certain number of years, the proprietor would entirely lose all right of ownership. In any case, he could never raise the rent; for to do so, would be to appropriate the profits of another's labour, which would obviously be robbery.

''If labour were the only legitimate source of property, it would follow that a society, in which so many labourers live in poverty and so many idlers in opulence, is contrary to all right and a violation of the true foundation of property.

''The theory so impudently adopted by most economists, and even by M. Thiers in his book, De la Proprie'te', would therefore be a condemnation of all our modern organization. Jurists have violently opposed the theory. The summary of their objections may be found in M. Warnkoenig's work, Doctrina juris philosophica, p. 121, and in the Naturrecht of Ahrens. If labour is the source of property, why should the Institutes and the Code civil have said nothing of it? It may be said that labour ought to be the source of all property, but this principle would be condemnatory of the existing organization of society.

Social Contract

''In order to explain why men abandoned the primitive community, it has been asserted to have been in consequence of a convention, and thus property would be the product of a contract. This theory has even less to sustain it than the preceding.

''In the first place, when we seek to derive a right from a fact, we are bound to establish the reality of that fact, otherwise the right has no foundation. Now, if we go back to the historic origin of property, we find no trace of such a contract. Moreover, this convention, which we should to seek in the night of past ages, cannot bind existing generations, and consequently cannot serve as the basis of property at the present time. Convention cannot create a general right, for it itself has no value, except so far as it is conformable to justice. If property is legitimate and necessary, it must be maintained; but a decision taken by our remote ancestors will not entitle it to respect.

''Kant holds that specification creates a provisional ownership, which only becomes final by the consent of all the members of the society. Kant does not maintain that this consent was a historic fact: he speaks of it as a juristic necessity, or a fact the justice of which commands respect. But the moment we introduce the idea of justice, we are demanding of the general principles of law the sanction of human institutions, and to what purpose is it then to invoke a convention which has never occurred? It is enough to show that property is conformable to right.

''Without having recourse to abstract notions of justice or to the obscurities of historic origins, many writers of very different shades have maintained that property is the creature of law.

'' 'Banish governments,' says Bossuet, 'and the earth and all its fruits are as much the common property of all mankind as the air and the light. According to this primitive natural right, no one has an exclusive right to anything, but everything is a prey for all. In a regulated government, no individual may occupy anything. ... Hence arises the right of property, and, generally speaking, every right must spring from public authority.'

''Montesquieu uses nearly the same language as Bossuet: 'As men have renounced their natural independence to live under political laws, they have also renounced the natural community of goods to live under civil laws. The former laws give them liberty, the latter property.'

''Mirabeau said, in the tribune of the Constituent Assembly, 'Private property is goods acquired by virtue of the law. The law alone constitutes property, because the public will alone can effect the renunciation of all and give a common title, a guarantee for individual enjoyment.' Tronchet, one of the jurists who contributed most to the formation of the Code civil, also said: 'It is only the establishment of society and conventional laws that are the true source of the right of property.' Touillier, in his commentary on the Droit civil francais, admits the same principle. 'Property,' according, to Robespierre, 'is the right of every citizen to enjoy the portion of goods guaranteed to him by law.' In his Treatise on Legislation, Bentham says: 'For the enjoyment of that which I regard as mine, I can only count on the promises of the law which guarantees it to me. Property and the law were born together, and will perish together. Before law, there was no property; banish law, and all property ceases.' Destutt de Tracy expresses the same opinion; and more recently, M. Laboulaye in his Histoire de la propri'et'e en Occident, formulates it with great exactness: 'Detention of the soil is a fact for which force alone can compel respect, until society takes up the cause of the holder. The laws not only protect property, they give birth to it. ... The right of property is not natural but social.' It is certain, in fact, as M. Maynz remarks, that 'the three legislations (Roman, German and Slavonic) which now divide Europe, derive from the State exclusively the absolute power over goods which we designate by the word property or ownership.'

''If Mr. Laboulaye and other authors of his opinion only intended to speak of a state of fact, they are right. If I have gathered fruits or occupied a spot of land, my right hand at first, and subsequently the power of the state, guarantee me the enjoyment thereof. But what is it that my strong hand or the power of the state ought to guarantee to me? What are the proper limits of mine and thine? is the question we have to determine. The law creates property, we are told; but what is this law, and who establishes it? The right of property has assumed the most diverse forms: which one must the legislator sanction in the cause of justice and the general interest?

''To frame a law regulating property, we must necessarily know what this right of property should be. Hence the notion of property must precede the law which regulates it.

''Formerly the master was recognized as owner of his slave; was this legitimate property, and did the law, which sanctioned it, create a true right? No: things are just or unjust, institutions are good or bad, before a law declares them as such, exactly as two and two make four even before the fact be formulated. The relations of things do not depend on human will. Men may make good laws and bad laws, sanction right or violate it, right exists none the less. Unless every law is maintained to be just, we must allow that law does not create right. On the contrary, it is because we have an idea of justice superior to laws and conventions, that we can assert these laws or conventions to be just or unjust.''


''A relatively modern theory takes the position that property arose because of its utility. 'Who would care to save and renounce immediate enjoyment, if he could not reckon on further enjoyment? 'Landed property,' said Mill, 'if legitimate, must rest on some other justification than the right of the labourer to what he has created by his labour. The land is not of man's creation; and for a person to appropriate to himself a mere gift of nature not made to him in particular, but which belonged as much to all others until he took possession of it, is prima facie an injustice to all the rest. ... The private appropriation of land has been deemed to be beneficial to those who do not, as well as to those who do, obtain a share. And in what manner beneficial? Let us take particular note of this. Beneficial, because the strongest interest which the community and the human race have in the land is that it should yield the largest amount of food, and other necessary or useful things required by the community. Now though the land itself is not the work of human beings, its produce is; and to obtain enough of that produce somebody must exert much labour, and in order that this labour may be supported, must expend a considerable amount of the savings of previous labours. Now we have been taught by experience that the great majority of mankind will work much harder, and make much greater pecuniary sacrifices, for themselves and their immediate descendants than for the public. In order, therefore to give the greatest encouragement to production, it has been thought right that individuals should have an exclusive property in land, so that they may have the most possible to gain by making the land as productive as they can, and may be in no danger of being hindered from doing so by the interference of any one else. This is the reason usually assigned for allowing the land to be private property, and it is the best reason that can be given.' ''


If property originated in considerations of general utility, it is quite understandable that its incidents from time to time should deserve constant reexamination as to their continued conformity to new wants and the new circumstances of a changing society.


Whether this pragmatic theory of the origin of property is true or untrue is not too important for our purposes. It is important, however, to believe, and to act as if we believed, that private property must find its justification solely in its social contribution.


Anti Property Argument

Marx is not the only one to have warned of problems in private property rights (at least as defined and awarded in western societies). Henry Gorge, Plato, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and many early Christian philosophers also cautioned of property. Private property, it has been argued, inevitably creates a growing inequality of wealth which is morally unjustifiable and leads to social instability. Private property, it also has been urged, undermines good moral character. Recent scholars have argued that what some see as the advantages of private property can be disadvantages to others. In response to the argument that private property increases “the psychic good of certainty,” for example some argue that “to enhance certainty for one person is to impair certainty for another.” These arguments have led some to reject private property entirely and others to urge limitations on property rights.


Land: Significance and Ownership

1.4.1 General concept

As we mentioned earlier, land is a surface of the earth that includes the fixtures on it such as buildings, fence, tree plants, and improvement to the land etc. Land provides the foundation for the social and economic activities of people. It is both a tangible physical commodity and a source of wealth. Because land is essential to life and society, it is important to many disciplines, including law, economics, sociology, and geography. Each of these disciplines may employ some what different concept of real property.


Within the vast domain of law, issues such as the ownership and the use of land are considered. In economics, land is regarded as one of the four agents of production, along with labour, capital, and entrepreneurial coordination. Land provides many of the natural elements that contribute to a nation’s wealth. Sociology focuses in the dual nature of land as resource to be shared by all people; and as a commodity that can be owned, traded, and used by individuals. Geography focuses on describing the physical elements of land and the activities of the people who use it.


Lawyers, economists, sociologists, and geographers have a common understanding of the attributes of land:

  • Each parcel of land is unique in its location and composition

  • Land is physically immobile

  • Land is durable

  • The supply of land is finite

  • Land is useful to people


The scope of right to land


Cujus est solum, ejus est usque ad coelum

He who is proprietor of land is proprietor also of every thing on it. All buildings, all natural fruits, and everything above as well as below the surface, belong to the owner of the land. This Latin maxim was also reaffirmed by the English judge Lord Coke when he said cujus est solum ejus est usque ad coelum ad inferno, the owner of the surface of the real estate has property rights in the air above the surface and in soil below. Hence using this medieval time concept of land some writers give definitions such as the following:


 Land…includes not only the ground, or soil, but everything that is attached to the earth, whether by course of nature, as are trees and herbage, or by the hands of man, as are houses and other buildings. It includes not only the surface of the earth but every thing under it and over it. Thus in legal theory, the surface of the earth is just a part of an inverted pyramid having its tip, at the center of the earth, extending outward through the surface at the boundary lines of the tract, and continuing on upward to the heavens.


The ancient dictum of Lord Coke, which gave the owner of the surface the rights ad coelum (literally, to heavens), was utterly long before the development of air travel. Change in technology and travel have raised a number of legal questions concerning the scope of real estate ownership, rendering the ancient concept of unrestricted ownership to the heavens depths unduly simplistic. Modern society limited this right for different reasons that not only in relation to aviations but also for the reason that the state wants to control natural resources below the ground.


Different Forms Ownership of Land

Conventionally speaking, the ownership of land may be classified generally in to three major and two minor categories: private, communal and public on the one hand, and joint and community ownership on the other. In the following a brief discussion is made about the nature of such ownership rights.


Private Ownership

This is the kind of land totally owned by private individuals. It belongs absolutely to an individual and as such the law provides an absolute protection against any intervention on such right by any other party. In principle individuals have an absolute right of use, exclusion, and disposition of their property. However, in reality private ownership right is not an absolute one for the state and the public using the law may limit such right. Private ownership of land is well known and developed concept and system in most countries. The Ethiopian Civil Code under article 1205 describes private ownership as the widest right man can exercise over his property. Today only few countries, most of which were part of the former USSR socialist republic and other former socialist and communist countries, including Ethiopia, prohibited private ownership of land. The present Ethiopian constitution basically prohibits the private ownership of land. According to the FDRE constitution Article 40(3) the right to ownership of rural and urban land as well as of all natural resources is exclusively vested in the state and the people.


Communal Ownership

Communal ownership of land refers to such property of land commonly owned by a community of a certain village or locality. In most cases common grazing lands, water wells, irrigation lands or river systems, common use forestry and mountains, fishing lakes etc are categorized under this system. There are many such kinds of arrangements in many part of the world. The village or the community need to have some regulation to control the use of the common property. In some systems the state intervenes to make laws and regulations for the community. In Ethiopia, although such kind of system is envisaged in more general way in the constitution, Federal and regional land laws provide specific rules for the protection of community land such as grazing and irrigation lands. In reality there are many cases of irrigation and grazing lands commonly owned by villagers or particular people of the village.


Proclamation 456/2006, a proclamation that is provided for the Rural Land Administration and Land Use, defines “communal holding” under article 2(12) as "communal holding" means rural land which is given by the government to local residents for common grazing, forestry and other social services.


State/Public Ownership

This type of property constitutes all lands which are not owned by individual person/s or the community. In most countries, mountains, public highways, public halls, parks, trans-boundary Rivers and forest lands, lakes etc are owned and administered by the state. It must be noted that in western countries lakes, mountains and forestland can be owned by private people. The common similarity all countries show on the other hand is that public highways and trans-boundary Rivers are owned by the state. In Ethiopia, as stated above the state and the people together own these properties, and it seems the public in general or the state itself are also prohibited the absolute power of disposition of land in Ethiopia, sale.


The Federal Land Administration and Land Use Proclamation identifies under article 2(13) “forestlands, wild life protected areas, state farms, mining lands, lakes, rivers and other rural lands,” as state holding lands.


The civil code under articles 1444 and following tries to identity the kinds of real properties classified as state or public domain or properties. Although it is no more relevant for the current system of law, it may help students to understand the kind of real properties which can be owned by the state elsewhere.


Art. 1445. - Public domain. - 1. Principle.

Property belonging to the State or other administrative bodies shall be deemed to form part of the public domain where:

(a) it is directly placed or left at the disposal of the public; or

(b) it is destined to a public service and is, by its nature or by reason of adjustments, principally or exclusively adapted to the particular purpose of the public service concerned.

Art. 1446. - 2. Immovables.

The following property, if owned by the State or other administrative bodies, shall be deemed to form part of the public domain:

(a) roads and streets, canals and railways; and

(b) seashores, port installations and lighthouse; and

(c) buildings specially adapted for public services such as fortifications and churches.



Joint Ownership

In some systems it is a type of ownership of land by two or more persons in which each owns undivided interest in the whole. This kind of system, based on the kind of rules adopted by each and every country, may include starting from simple joint ownership of plot of land by two people up to ownership rights of hundreds of people in condominiums. In Ethiopia, the principle of joint ownership right is governed by the civil code or other land related recent laws as the case may be. Under the civil code (articles 1257 ff.) it is stated that joint ownership right may be determined by agreement of the parties. In the absence of such agreement the law presumes equal right to the thing. The right can also be freely exchanged, subject to the limitation of pre-emption, however. As a special case, a joint wall of two real properties is considered as a joint property in the code. In condominium or other such related buildings, common walls, roofs, parking lots, stairs and corridors are jointly owned and administered by the users of the building or their association.


 Common Ownership

Property owned in common by husband and wife each having an undivided one-half interest by reason of their marital status. Common property in the FDRE Family law is the category of property within the marriage other than private property of one of the spouses. The nature of common property is that it can not be divisible and each of the spouses has equal right to the whole property. Hence the law demands joint consent and agreement for the sale, exchange, mortgage or donation of common property. In today’s Ethiopia husband and wife commonly possesses urban and rural land. Especially in rural areas, during divorce the farm land is being equally divided between the man and the woman.


Additional Reading


The concept of ownership is basically understood in the continental system as an absolute one while in the USA it is conceived as bundle of rights. In the following additional reading attached to elaborate more. Students are advised to read the whole article.

John Henry Merryman

Ownership and Estate (variations on Theme by Lawson)

48 Tul. L. Rev. 916, 918, 924-25, 927-28 (1974)


…Productive comparative study of the land law in civil and common law jurisdictions is difficult-perhaps impossible-without some understanding of a fundamental difference that can be summarized by saying that the former is a law of ownership and the latter is one of estate. While it is probably true that a few lawyers in either system know that there is a difference and that it is important, few have gone much beyond this general impression. In this essay, I attempt to provide something more substantial by discussing the differences between ownership and estate in the two systems and, more specifically, in the land law of Italy and that of a more or less typical common law jurisdiction in the United States. Italian property law is not exactly like that of any other civil law nation, but it probably comes as close to a "typical" civil law property system as any other and closer than most. Much of what is said here is accordingly applicable to the land law in other West European nations and throughout Latin America.


…Ownership is, as concepts go, a very powerful one, and those who employ it pay its price. The land law of Italy and other civil law nations, based firmly on Roman law, is a law of individual ownership. It is part of the tyranny of the concept of ownership that it strongly resists fragmentation. To say that I own a thing is to imply that you do not, for if it is yours how can it be mine?' Such thinking thus tends to eliminate all intermediate possibilities between ownership and non-ownership. Consequently, when it becomes desirable to equate power over land with more than one person it seems preferable to do so by a device which, at least apparently, avoids dividing ownership. In every transaction ownership must be transferred in toto or not at all.


This, although simplified, gives some of the flavor of ownership in the Italian land law. Although its non-legal composition may vary from time to time with social and economic change, legal ownership remains exclusive, single, and indivisible. Only one person can own the same thing at the same time. But, since the requirements of society are such that power over land must frequently be divided between individuals, it becomes necessary to rationalize the dictates of theory and the requirements of practice.


The inconsistency between ownership and fragmentation can, of course, be exaggerated. Even in the civil law, land can be "owned" simultaneously by two or more persons in comune, a form of co-ownership much like our tenancy in common. But a functional division between beneficial and security title, or between legal and equitable title, or a temporal division into present and future estates, simply does not exist. Ownership is, in theory, indivisible in function and time.


The contrast with English theory is remarkable. In England, ownership resided in the king, and the distribution and retention of lands throughout the kingdom was carried out according to the theory of tenure. Those who actually occupied and used the great mass of English land were not owners of it but holders of derivative rights from the king or from the king’s tenants, and hence English land was concerned not with ownership and the rights and duties of owners but with tenure and the rights and duties of tenants. The concept of ownership simply did not come to into play.


This basic difference between Romanic ownership and the Anglo-American "estate" or "interest" in land can be illustrated by a simple metaphor. Romanic ownership can be thought of as a box, with the word "ownership" written on it. Whoever has the box is the "owner." In the case of complete, unencumbered ownership, the box contains certain rights, including that of use and occupancy, that to the fruits or income, and the power of alienation. The owner can, however, open the box and remove one or more such rights and transfer them to others. But, as long as he keeps the box, he still has the ownership, even if the box is empty. The contrast with the Anglo-American law of property is simple. There is no box. There are merely various sets of legal interests. One who has the fee simple absolute has the largest possible bundle of such sets of legal interests. When he conveys one or more of them to another person, a part of his bundle is gone.


This basic difference has several possible theoretical consequences. First, tenure seems to be a more flexible concept than ownership. Consequently, it might be expected that the number and variety of institutionalized interests in land will be greater in tenure than in an ownership property system. In short, improvisation is likely to be inhibited by the theory of ownership and encouraged by that of tenure.


The much greater variety of permissible future interests (vested and contingent remainders, executor interests, powers of appointment, reversions, rights of entry, possibilities of reverter) in the common law than in the civil law (where they really do not exist) supports this prediction. It is further supported by the existence of the trust and the concept of separate legal and equitable interests and by the distinction between security interests and beneficial interests in and, both found in the common law but not in the civil law.






The word ‘property’ has many dimensions and people are not usually capable of defining it without difficulty. As it is an underlying word for ‘Land Law’ we shall under this section attempt to define it and other affiliate terms such as real property, real estate and immovable property.



Having read this section, the readers would be able to:

  • Define property.
  • Identify the meaning and nature of several related but at times confusing words (property, real property, real estate), and
  • Define these terms in the context of Ethiopian ‘Land Law’.


1.2.1 The Concept of Property


The meaning of the term property varies, depending upon the context in which the word is used. In one sense, property means things-real or personal/movable, corporeal/immovable or incorporeal, and visible or invisible. But the word is also used to describe characteristics; a desk, for example, has unique properties of color, shape, and surface. In legal sense, property describes the relationship between people and things- that is, the right of a person to possess, use, or own things.


A wider definition of property as conceived in modern and even in medieval society, is fairly described by Hallowelln as a ''complex system of recognized rights and duties with reference to the control of valuable objects ... linked with basic economic processes ... validated by traditional beliefs, attitudes and values and sanctioned in custom and law.'' Four factors in this definition are variables. The persons who have property can differ in their social roles and status. The relationships which are the constituent rights, powers, privileges, and immunities of property can vary almost indefinitely. The objects as to which property is recognized can differ from the songs and magical formulas of a primitive people, to the land, corporate shares, or copyrights of today. The sanctions can vary from the belief that disease will lay low an offender to the highly complex machinery of law courts and sheriffs.


More specific definition of the legal meaning of property was given by the English jurist Sir William Blackstone as “the free use, enjoyment, and disposal of all his acquisition, without any control or diminution, save only by the laws of the land.” Black’s law dictionary added an important element to the above definition: an exchange value, or the ability to sell property is a critical factor for a thing to be a property. Concerning the importance of property in human life, Blackstone also observes: “there is nothing which so generally strikes the imagination, and engages the affection of mankind, as the right of property; or the sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe.”


In Blackstone’s definition, the concept of general property under the common law does not differ substantially from its meaning under Roman law: “property in its nature is an unrestricted and exclusive right. Hence, it comprises in itself the right to dispose of substance of the thing in every legal way, to possess it, to use it, and to exclude every other person from interfering with it.” To be specific in Roman law, property was defined as follows: ius utendi et abutendi re sua, quatenus iuris ratio patitur, 'the right to use and abuse a thing, within the limits of the law' (Justinian, Code 4, 35, 21). The French Code Napoleon of 1804 in a similar manner defines ownership of property under article 544 as: the right to enjoy and dispose of property in the most absolute manner, provided that one does no use it in a manner prohibited by law or regulation.” Similarly, the 1960 Ethiopian civil code defines ownership right as follows:


Art. 1204.- Definition.


(1) Ownership is the widest right that may be had on a corporeal thing.

(2) Such right may neither be divided nor restricted except in accordance with the law.

Art. 1205. - Scope of right.

(1) Without prejudice to such restrictions as are prescribed by law, the owner may use his property and exploit it as he thinks fit.

(2) He may dispose of his property for consideration or gratuitously, inter vivos or mortis causa


In all cases whether during ancient times or in its modern conception, except for those personal chattels, the use and ownership of property (especially land) is limited by law for different land use purposes such as environmental, health, public good, town plan etc. See the details in the next chapters.


1.2.2 Property, Ownership, and the metaphor of Bundle of rights


One can see the definition given for property as confused with ownership. But what is ownership? Bryn Perrins in his book, Introduction to Land Law, defines property simply as “ownership.” The word is derived from the Latin proprius, meaning one’s own. My property is that which is my own, that which belongs to me. In its archaic means property signifies the corpus itself. But in the modern understanding of the concept property is law of ownership of the corpus and associated rights.


Hence ownership is a concept, an idea or the figment of the imagination. Leaving the jurisprudential hunt for final definition of the word it suffices at this point to define it as “right to assert that something is one’s own, and that it is a right which, in principle, may be asserted against all comers.” It is however important to explore briefly the content of the concept of ownership. In former times ownership was regarded as trinity of rights, described by Latin as utendi, fruendi, abutendi- a right of using, which implies exclusive use and excluding others from using it; enjoying the fruits, such as collecting fruits, rents, bank interests etc; and thirdly abusing, which signifies the destruction or in its constructive sense transferring the thing by way of sale, donation or inheritance.


Modern common law western treatises on property defined ownership as bundle of rights. This concept compares land ownership to bundle of sticks. Each stick in the bundle represents a separate right or interest inherent in the ownership. These individual rights can be separated from the bundle by sale, lease, mortgage, donation, or another means of transfer. The complete bundle of rights includes the following:

  • The right to sell an interest
  • The right to lease an interest and to occupy the property
  • The right to mortgage an interest
  • The right to give an interest away
  • The right to do none or all of these things


The Anglo-American concept of ownership, fee simple ownership, is equivalent to the ownership of the complete bundle of sticks. Each right has its own value and the owner can separately use or apply one right while leaving the others as they are.


1.2.3 Major Concepts: Real Property, Real Estate, and Immovable


According to Black’s Law Dictionary, Real estate means land and anything permanently affixed to the land, such as buildings, fences, and those things attached to the buildings, such as light fixtures, plumbing and heating fixtures, or other such terms which would be personal property if not attached. The term is generally synonymous with real property.


Under the same dictionary, the term real property is defined as land, and generally whatever is erected or growing upon or affixed to the land. Also rights issuing out of, annexed to, and exercisable within or about land.


Property law, in systems derived from English common law, is divided into personal and real property. Real property concerns itself with rights in rem, or relating to land. Personal property concerns itself with rights in personam, or relating to chattels. In the civil law system, there is a division between movable and immovable property. Movable property roughly corresponds to personal property, while immovable property corresponds to real estate or real property, and the associated rights and obligations thereon. Hence, the difference in terminology has no basic difference in the types of property. In Ethiopia, the properties of land and any fixture to land are termed as immovable which are otherwise understood in England or the United States as real estate or real property. The writers may use these terms in this material to describe land interchangeably whenever necessary.


Land: in the law of real property, the term land is including the surface of the earth, the land beneath the surface to the center of the earth, and the air above. The term also includes property permanently affixed to the soil, such as water collected in wells, houses, and fences. The ownership of land may be classified according to the various types of interests raised from each and respective legal system.


What constitutes real property in Ethiopia?


Please read the following provisions carefully:


Art.: 1126. Various kinds of goods

All goods are movable or immovable.


Art. 1l30. Immovables

 Lands and buildings shall be deemed to be immovables.


Please also read the following provision from the Swedish Land Code.


Chapter 1,Section 1.Real property is land. This is divided into property units…..


Chapter 2, section 1. A property unit includes a building, conduit, fence and other facility constructed in or above ground for permanent use, standing trees and other vegetation, natural manure….


What do you understand from the reading of the above provisions?

In Ethiopia, lands and buildings together constitute an immovable property. In other words, lands and buildings are what immovables are in our law. We have already mentioned that in the Civil Law from which much of our civil law is said to have been derived, immovable property, i.e. land is real property. This is true of the Swedish law. It follows that contextually, in Ethiopia immovable property is real property, and as immovable is land and buildings, it follows that land and buildings are real property. In short, in Ethiopia, real property is both land and buildings, and not only land.


Therefore, in Civil Law and Sweden, real property is only land; building is simply part of the real property, i.e. land. Whereas in Ethiopia real property is land and buildings, as can be derived from Art.1130 of the Civil Code, building is not defined through land, i.e. building does not seem to be part of land unit.


This kind of approach under our law seems to bear problems of interpretation and application. For example, what constitutes a real property unit in Ethiopia? Does building include the land on which it is constructed? If so to what extent-only the part on which the building stands or some more part? On what basis do we decide this? Assume Kinde constructs a house on the land owned/possessed by Degu, is the house a real property/immovable in this case? Further assume Degu disposes of this plot of land to Semahegn, to whom does the building belong now-Kinde, Degu, or Semahegn?


It is not easy to solve such issues under our law given the definition for immovable/ real property as constituting both land and buildings independently. But such and other questions are easily solved under the definition given for real property/immovable in Civil Law countries such as Sweden.


Be that as it may, for the sake of consistency to our law, throughout this teaching material, when the term real property or real estate or immovable is used, it refers to land, or buildings, separately or both land and buildings. In other words, the term is not used to refer only to land and then buildings indirectly as it is the case, for example, in Sweden.