Jan
02

Land to the Tiller

One of Ethiopia's most radical policy changes in the modern era was land reform, which nullified tenure agreements and redistributed land (changing much of rural Ethiopia from large land holders with farmers as tenants / sharecroppers to farmers as landowners). Ann Oosthuizen (whose connection to this issue or interviewee is not explained) published an interview with Zegeye Asfaw in "Land to the Tiller: An Interview with Zegeye Asfaw" (2020), who was one of the leading figures of this radical land reform as then Minister of Land Reform. The interviews were conducted in 2012. Although titled as "an interview" the majority of the book (Zegeye's story) is not structured as an interview and organized chronologically. Readers do not know how much editing or synthesizing took place. Although potentially less readable, the transcript form would have been a more transparent way of capturing the stories as Zegeye actually presented them (and the questions asked of him). The book is a fascinating first-hand glimpse into histories and issues that is, despite being short (130 pages), well worth reading.

One note for the ages: "...they haven't told you the real reason why they want you to appear before the Derg commission of enquiry. The whole point revolves around why you had to say "public ownership" instead of "government ownership". At the time when we framed the land reform bill there were two recognised forms of ownership; private ownership and government ownership. The entire pastoralist area was regarded as being under government ownership over which the government gave different concessions. We used the term public ownership because we wanted to prevent the government from confiscating land in order to hand out concessions - to friends and businesses and so on. So we had to re-phrase our defense and explain why we used the term public ownership. Of course, later when the Derg wrote its constitution, they changed the term 'public ownership' to 'government ownership'. I don't know whether we could have saved peasants from eviction by using the term 'public ownership'." (p. 50) 

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Apr
18

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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Jun
06

Agrarian Reform in Ethiopia

Dessalegn Rahmato is the leading scholar of land issues in Ethiopia, a subject he has been researching for decades. He has published a large number of works, including The Peasant and the State (2008). One of his earlier books, Agrarian Reform in Ethiopia (1985) covers the land reform of 1975, when Ethiopia made the most significant change to land tenure in its history. The book briefly covers the land tenure system before the reform, details the reform itself, and the peasant associations that were created and critical to the implementation of the reform. This is an excellent resource for anyone interested in the history of land tenure in Ethiopia, and a particularly rich resource on the land reform of 1975.

Dessalegn Rahmato opens the book with the following: "In content and implementation, Ethiopia's agrarian reform can be considered as a thorough and radical one. It accomplished its purpose, namely the elimination of landlordism, quite speedily - a remarkable achievement considering that at the time the reform was promulgated the new government had not yet firmly established its presence in the countryside. The reform is undoubtedly the most important and the most far-reaching social measure of the Provisional Military Government of Ethiopia, and its impact on the fabric of rural society is far more profound than any of the reforms carried out since the overthrow of the absolute monarchy. In brief, it provides for the distribution of land to peasant households, and abolishes peasant dependence on the landlord, along with the landlord himself. All rural land is under 'public ownership', and tenancy and the hiring of labour have been done away with." (p. 9)

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