When it assumed power in 1974, the Derg only slightly reordered the imperial regime's pattern of administrative organization at the national level. By contrast, the new regime saw existing local administration as anathema to the objectives of socialist construction, and its reform efforts were initially more evident on the local level than in the central bureaucracy.
Immediately after assuming power, the Derg reorganized Ethiopia's fourteen provincial administrations and replaced all serving governors general. The fourteen provinces (teklay ghizats) were relabeled regions (kifle hagers) and were divided into 102 subregions (awrajas) and 556 districts (weredas). (By 1981 the number of administrative divisions had increased to sixteen with the addition of Addis Ababa and Aseb.) The restructuring was a major step toward dismantling feudal privilege. Moreover, all new appointees were either military men or university-educated individuals who were considered progressives.
The main charge of these new administrators initially was to promote development, and the maintenance of law and order was considered only of secondary importance. Despite the commitment to rural development and to the staffing of regional administrative positions with young, dynamic, educated people, not much could be done to accelerate the process of change. Field bureaucrats had few resources to work with, their staffs were small, and their budgets were committed almost exclusively to salaries. By the mid-1980s, the relief and rehabilitation contributions of foreign private voluntary organizations in some cases made more resources available at the local level than did the regional administrations.
After having concentrated on a gradual transformation of the state's administrative structure, with the promulgation of the 1987 constitution the Mengistu regime prepared for a further reorganization of regional administration. Hence, at its inaugural session, the National Shengo enacted a government plan for the administrative reorganization of regional government. As a result, twenty-five administrative regions and five autonomous regions were created (see fig. 1; fig. 2). The autonomous regions consisted of Eritrea (broken further into three subregions in the north, west, and south), Aseb, Tigray, Dire Dawa, and Ogaden. The change promised to alter significantly Ethiopia's traditional pattern of administrative organization.
If the plan were to be fully implemented, this reorganization would have required a dramatic expansion in the government and party bureaucracy. Relatively new institutions, like regional planning bodies, would have been eliminated and replaced with new planning agencies in the various regions. Some observers suggested that this plan was initially endorsed to pursue a Soviet-style approach to the nationalities problem. They argued that the regime was trying to organize regional administration along ethnic lines. Consequently, this reform had little positive effect on enhancing the regime's legitimacy and in fact limited its control over the general population.
The primary organs of state power at the regional level were regional shengos. These bodies were responsible mainly for implementing the central government's laws and decisions. Regional shengos could draft their own budgets and development plans, but these had to be approved by the National Shengo. Regional shengos also possessed some latitude in devising and enforcing local laws and regulations and in electing local judges. By the summer of 1989, however, regional shengos had been elected in only eleven of the twenty-five newly designated administrative regions and in only three of the five regions designated as "autonomous."
Peasant association meeting. Courtsey Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (F. Botts)
During its thirteen-year existence (1974 to 1987), the Derg worked to spread administrative reform down to the lowest echelons of regional administration. To this end, it took several important steps in 1975.
With its Land Reform Proclamation in March 1975, the Derg abolished the lowest level of rural administration, the balabat (see Glossary), and called for the formation of peasant associations that would be responsible for the implementation and enforcement of the land reform measures. Later in the year, the Derg issued Proclamation No. 71, which gave peasant associations legal status and authorized them to create "conditions facilitating the complete destruction of the feudal order." It also empowered the associations' executive committees to draft internal regulations that would, in theory, devolve more power to local communities. These associations were to be guided initially by students in the Development Through Cooperation Campaign (commonly referred to as zemecha--see Glossary), who were expected to teach peasants about the revolution's goals. Students were also supposed to help local communities plan and implement development programs in their areas.
Initially, it was not clear how much power, authority, or autonomy the regime intended to devolve to local institutions. Consequently, state agents often came into conflict with local organizations under the guidance of students who were often more radical and politically astute than government functionaries. By 1976, to bring local communities under tighter central control, the Derg introduced laws spelling out the rights and obligations of peasant associations and kebeles.
To the extent that peasant associations maintained some of their initial autonomy, they did so almost exclusively with regard to local issues. On national issues, the regime, through the party and other agencies, manipulated peasant associations to suit its purposes. After 1978, for example, production cadres and political cadres of the National Revolutionary Development Campaign (and later the WPE) played important roles in motivating peasant production and in political indoctrination. State control of local associations was also a natural by-product of the villagization and resettlement programs of the mid- to late 1980s (see The Politics of Development, this ch.; Government Rural Programs, ch. 3).
By 1990 there were more than 20,000 peasant associations throughout the country. They represented the lowest level of government administration and, in collaboration with the local WPE office, were responsible for processing and interpreting national policies, maintaining law and order, and planning and implementing certain local development policies. State control grew further in 1975 when the Derg promoted the formation of the All-Ethiopia Peasants' Association (AEPA), a national association having district offices responsible for overseeing the activities of local associations. Before the WPE's formation, AEPA district representatives exercised supervisory powers over the associations under their jurisdiction. The management of elections, investigations into allegations of mismanagement, changes to association boundaries, and organization of political meetings all came under the purview of the AEPA district representative. However, by 1989 WPE cadres were active in monitoring and providing guidance to local peasant associations.
In July 1975, the Derg issued Proclamation No. 47, which established kebeles, or urban dwellers' associations, in Addis Ababa and five other urban centers. Organized similarly to peasant associations, Addis Ababa's 291 kebeles possessed neighborhood constituencies ranging from 3,000 to 12,000 residents each. Like the peasant associations in the countryside, the kebeles were initially responsible only for the collection of rent, the establishment of local judicial tribunals, and the provision of basic health, education, and other social services in their neighborhoods. Kebele powers were expanded in late 1976 to include the collection of local taxes and the registration of houses, residents, births, deaths, and marriages.
During the height of the Red Terror (see Glossary), kebeles were responsible for ensuring neighborhood defense. Neighborhood defense squads patrolled their communities day and night and sometimes operated outside the control of the central authorities. Many brutal excesses were attributed to kebele defense squads between 1976 and 1978, but they were more closely monitored thereafter (see Political Struggles Within the Government, ch. 1; People's Protection Brigades, ch. 5).
In April 1981, the Derg issued Proclamation No. 25, which provided kebeles with extended powers and a more elaborate administrative structure. According to this new structure, the general assembly, composed of all kebele residents, was empowered to elect a policy committee, which in turn was authorized to appoint the executive committee, the revolution defense committee, and the judicial tribunal. At the time of this proclamation, there were 1,260 kebeles in 315 towns.
The government estimated national kebele membership in the late 1980s at 4.4 million. The All-Ethiopia Urban Dwellers' Association (AEUDA) linked kebeles throughout the country. This organization's bureaucracy extended, in layers that paralleled the central bureaucracy, down to the neighborhood level. However, as in the countryside, the WPE had become the most important political institution, capable of overriding decisions taken by kebeles as well as by peasant associations.
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