Ethiopia in the Wake of Political Reforms

Following years of protests, unrest and instability Abiy Ahmed became the Prime Minister of Ethiopia in 2018. After a year of optimism and positivity, the challenges put increasing pressure on a fragile transition. It was around this time that a group of scholars met to take stock of the situation and develop the ideas of what would become the book Ethiopia in the Wake of Political Reforms (2020), edited by Melaku Geboye Desta, Dereje Feyissa Dori and Mamo Esmelealem Mihretu. The collection, published by Tsehai, brings together a wide range of leading scholars, who contributed works on politics, economics, governance, foreign affairs and security. This is a 600+ page collection, beyond summary here. It is well worth picking up. 

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Globalization and Seed Sovereignty

Walshe's "Globalisation and seed sovereignty in sub-Saharan Africa" (2019) explores some of the contestations and contradictions that exist between globalization and sovereignty (Ch 1), sovereignty in a globalized world (Ch 2), and seed sovereignty (Ch 3). The book provides two country case studies on Kenya (Ch 4) and Ethiopia (Ch 5), exploring their respective laws / regulations / proclamations regarding seed (their content, drafting, influences, implications), and then a case study of local seed use / change from the Oromia region in Ethiopia (Ch 6). Walshe's book is a useful reference, particularly the two chapters on that analyze the laws / regulations / proclamations.

The conclusion makes some bold claims about this research (a publication drawing on doctoral work), such as "this book provides the first in-depth study of new Kenyan and Ethiopian seed laws for the first time and also provides the first local study of seed sovereignty in Ethiopia" (p. 237). Lots of firsts being claimed. One example of an Ethiopian researcher whose knowledge and contributions could be better recognized - of many - is Fassil Gebeyehu Yelemtu's doctoral study "The social life of seeds" (2014). Dr. Fassil is now with the African Biodiversity Network (who was interviewed, but whose work was not cited or recognized). 

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A Social History of Land Reform in Ethiopia

Siegfried Pausewang (1937-2012) was one of the leading European scholars of Ethiopia, with contributions made over decades. His engagement in Ethiopia began in the late 1960s, as a professor at the then Haile Selassie University (now Addis Ababa University). This post covers "Peasants, Land and Society: A Social History of Land Reform in Ethiopia" (1983), and also include Options for Rural Development (1990) and The Challenge of Democracy from Below (2002). Notes:

On research neutrality: "Critics may object that such an approach is wide open to subjectivity and renders the analysis both inexact and uncontrollable. This is correct, in a way. Realistically I can base my report only on my own experience, which includes, of course, my perception of the experience of others. In addition, my work is admittedly subjective in its perspective. For I deliberately tried to understand social developments from a particular point of view, i.e. to identify their significance for peasants and to analyze their influence on the well-being of those individuals and groups who bear the heaviest burden within a society. My research, let me be clear, is not intended to be neutral, but rather to be a tool in finding ways to improve life conditions for the under-privileged. Neutrality, to my mind, is unattainable. Research is always interference, whether intentional or not, if not on the side of the underprivileged, then in the interest of the status quo." (emphasis original, p. 3)

External dependence: "The upheaval of traditional Ethiopian societies by Menelik's conquests supports a thesis by a group of scholars that major historical changes in Ethiopia were caused, or at least catalyzed, by changes in trade routes and their control (Cooper et al, 1975; 10-20). While trade provided Menelik with the weapons for conquest, his policies of centralization following conquest in turn provided further scope for trade. In this climate of dependency, no longer could it be said, as in the past, that 'products and practices of long-distance trade were separate from the internal systems [of Ethiopia]'; the difference proved crucial." (p. 45)

Internal dependence: "as long as the nobility, with the emperor on top, depended on local support, their ability to exploit peasants was limited by this very dependence. Menelik's army, however, was quite self-sufficient and could therefore exploit peasants with impunity." (p. 45)

Agricultural systems: "By evicting tenant-peasants, a landlord could dispose of this entire property as he pleased. Modern machinery made it possible to engage in single-crop cultivation over vast areas, producing large quantities of export products. Cash wages paid to a few full-time skilled personnel and a batch of seasonal workers were negligible compared to the increase in production and profit. Thus, though machinery requires considerable capital investment, commercial mechanized agriculture could be highly profitable for the landlord prepared to do away entirely with peasant farming... The high profitability of mechanized farming could, under the given social conditions in Ethiopia, only be reaped by sacrificing the peasant majority." (p. 53-54)

On discrimination and colonization: "When my interpreter, who is Oromo, asked how they could distinguish a Galla from other visitors, they unanimously agreed that the Galla could be easily identified by their savage behaviour and wild appearance. Asked further what would happen if an urbanized and educated Oromo were to come, they replied that such a phenomenon was beyond the capacity of 'those savage people'." (p. 133)

Biases in development: "...the government continued to establish settlement projects in the region and to commission roads and other infrastructure necessary for commercial agriculture. Often, such infrastructure was built by foreign volunteers, who, not having sufficient understanding of the dynamics of power in rural Ethiopia communities, became unwitting tools for the promotion of the landlord class' definition of development." (p. 139)

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Zara Yacob: Rationality of the Human Heart

Zara Yacob was an Ethiopian philosopher, a rationalist thinking who wrote nearly a hundred years before Descartes. Claude Sumner has written extensively about Zara Yacob, devoting a career to Ethiopian philosophy and penning many books. Kiros says "Sumner is right when he contended that Zara Yacob along with Descartes was a founder of modern philosophy" (p. 17). Tedros Kiros explains, elaborates and expands upon the work of Zara Yacob in "Zara Yacob: Rationality of the Human Heart" (2005). For those unfamiliar with Zara Yacob, it is a good starting point. It is not a translation of Zara Yacob, for readers interested in engaging with the original work, Claude Sumner's translations offer more complete renderings. A few notes:

"Zara Yacob's notions of human nature are arrestingly modern. He, like Machiavelli before him, is a shrewd observer of human behavior. He is critical, sufficiently suspicious, and cautiously optimistic. He does not unnecessarily expect much from us humans. Nor does he damn us, like Hobbes before him that we are nasty and brutish. He has a balanced view of our capacities." (p. 26)

"Those who subjected the Jew to the torture chamber, and those who consciously enslaved and colonized others chose to do so. They chose wickedness to enrich themselves. Some will mistakenly think that these were classic cases of ignorance moving people to choose evil. I disagree. I think instead that these are powerful cases that prove Zara Yacob's thesis that choosing wicked things produces wicked human beings with wicked characters that easily lead them to choose wickedness over and over again." (p. 66)

"Throughout the Treatise we hear Zara Yacob bitterly complaining about the Frang as constantly and relentlessly harassing Ethiopian priests to convert to Catholicism, to renounce their primitive ways, to rebaptize by force if necessary. There are shocking statements of rebuke, ridicule, and utter disrespect of Ethiopian customs. The Ethiopian ways of eating, of worship, of seeing, are all indiscriminately condemned." (p. 99)

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