During the 1980s, the government attempted to consolidate the revolution both structurally and ideologically. When it assumed power in 1974, the Derg pledged immediate attention to the social injustices that had been perpetrated by the imperial regime. In the revolution's earliest stages, the Derg's commitment to this pledge was manifested in particular by policies such as the nationalization of rural and urban property. The first year and a half of the new order could be described as a "phase of redistribution." In the name of the "people," the "toiling masses," and the "oppressed tillers of the soil," the government confiscated property previously owned by the nobility and other persons of wealth and redistributed it to peasants, tenants, and renters.
Peasants and workers expected that the new order would bring about a fundamental change in their circumstances, and to a certain extent this did happen. They also expected to be involved in determining their own fate; this, however, did not occur. The Derg quickly declared its own preeminent role as the vanguard of the revolution, causing concern among urban workers that their role was being minimized. When labor tried to become more instrumental in the changes that were beginning to take place, the government suppressed the workers' movement. The Derg condemned the Confederation of Ethiopian Labor Unions (CELU) as reactionary and disbanded it in late 1975. In its place, in 1977 the regime created the All-Ethiopia Trade Union (AETU), a confederation of 1,700 unions whose rank and file numbered more than 300,000 in 1984 (see Labor Unions, ch. 3). The regime thus co-opted the labor movement, and after 1976 the government seemed free to devise its own social development strategy without much input from the groups that would be most affected.
The Derg tried to develop a social policy strategy to enhance its power and legitimacy. To this end, the government achieved progress in fields such as education and health care. In 1979, for example, Ethiopia launched a massive rural literacy campaign; the government also established hundreds of health stations to provide minimal health care to the citizenry. However, it proved unable to effect dramatic improvements in the quality of life among broad segments of the population. In part, this was because Ethiopia had long been one of the world's poorest countries. At the same time, two additional factors greatly affected the performance of the Mengistu regime: the interaction of natural catastrophes and civil unrest, and misguided development policies such as resettlement and villagization.
Relief camp in Kwiha, near Mekele, 1985. Courtsey International Committee of the Red Cross (D. Gignoux)
The Derg's limited ability to lead development and to respond to crises was dramatically demonstrated by the government's reliance on foreign famine relief between 1984 and 1989. By 1983 armed conflict between the government and opposition movements in the north had combined with drought to contribute to mass starvation in Eritrea, Tigray, and Welo. Meanwhile, drought alone was having a devastating impact on an additional nine regions. This natural disaster far exceeded the drought of 1973-74, which had contributed to the demise of the Haile Selassie regime. By early 1985, some 7.7 million people were suffering from drought and food shortages. Of that number, 2.5 million were at immediate risk of starving. More than 300,000 died in 1984 alone, more than twice the number that died in the drought a decade before. Before the worst was over, 1 million Ethiopians had died from drought and famine in the 1980s (see Refugees, Drought, and Famine, ch. 2).
As it had in the past, in the mid-1980s the international community responded generously to Ethiopia's tragedy once the dimensions of the crisis became understood. Bilateral, multilateral, and private donations of food and other relief supplies poured into the country by late 1984. Contributions ranged from food to transport trucks, antibiotics, well- drilling equipment, and technical assistance. Fund raising by spontaneously created volunteer organizations in the West, such as USA for Africa, BandAid, and numerous church and humanitarian groups, was instrumental to the provision of substantial nongovernment famine relief. Most of the money and supplies sent to Ethiopia, however, were provided by Western governments, in particular those of Britain, Canada, Italy, the Scandinavian countries, and the United States. Ethiopia's Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC), at the time headed by an Ethiopian official named Dawit Wolde Giorgis, coordinated delivery of this assistance. Although Mengistu and other members of the Derg were nervous about the prospect of so many Westerners flooding into the country and having access to areas where the regime was not popular, Dawit apparently was able to develop enough trust in the international aid community to bring the catastrophe under control by late 1986 (Dawit later defected to the United States).
By 1987 the physical impact of this massive influx of aid over such a short time was noticeable not only in the abatement of famine but also in what seemed to be the permanent establishment of local offices by various donor agencies. Although many foreign relief workers had returned home by 1987, some relief agencies remained to attempt to begin the rehabilitation and development processes. These would have been difficult tasks under the best of circumstances, but in the context of a regime pursuing a specific political agenda in spite of the unprecedented humanitarian imperatives involved in the situation, those agencies that remained had difficulty engaging in effective rehabilitation and development. In the countryside, the WPE often closely regulated the activities of foreign and local nongovernment agencies. At one point in the spring of 1989, the WPE forbade the International Committee of the Red Cross to operate in areas most severely ravaged by war. Before the year was out, drought and war again threatened the lives of more than 7 million people.
Despite drought and famine of unprecedented proportions in modern Ethiopian history, the Derg persisted on its controversial political course. If the famine had a positive side for the government, it was that the flood of famine relief assistance during the period of party construction and constitution-making allowed the regime to devote more of its budget to suppression of the rebellions in Eritrea and Tigray. However, by late 1989 drought, famine, and war, combined with so-called "aid fatigue" among many donors, forced the regime to take desperate measures. The government reinstated national conscription, required workers to give one month's salary to aid in combating famine and war, and halved the development budget as funds were diverted to defense.
The Derg's policies appear to have been driven more by political imperatives than by perceived economic objectives. A case in point was the controversial policy of resettling the victims of the drought and famine outside their home areas. At the height of the drought and famine in 1984, the regime set in motion a resettlement policy that was initially designed to relocate 1.5 million people from areas in the north most severely affected by drought to areas in the west and south that had experienced adequate rainfall. By 1988, despite the resettlement program's obvious failure, President Mengistu repeatedly asserted that the program would continue. He estimated that eventually 7 million of Ethiopia's approximately 48 million people would be resettled. The government claimed that it was carrying out the program for humanitarian reasons, contending that it would remove the people from exhausted and unproductive land and place them in settlements with rich agricultural potential. In addition, the government argued that the new settlements would greatly facilitate its efforts to provide social services.
Initially, settlers were chosen from feeding centers in Welo, Tigray, and northern Shewa and transported by trucks, buses, and cargo aircraft to resettlement sites in Kefa, Gojam, Gonder, Welega, and Ilubabor. The government was poorly prepared for the operation, and the first settlers experienced tremendous hardships in alien, underdeveloped, and disease-infested areas. Some peasants moved voluntarily, but many more were forced to move. Many of those forcibly resettled were able to escape. Some fled into Sudan or Somalia, and others took shelter in refugee camps or walked thousands of miles to reenter their native regions. Still others joined opposition groups dedicated to overthrowing the regime. Those who remained in resettled areas were often resented by the local residents, many of whom had been impressed into building community infrastructure and donating materials.
Some critics rejected the government's argument that resettlement was driven by humanitarian considerations. Instead, they contended that the government's motives were political. The policy led to a depopulation of areas that harbored groups that militarily opposed the regime, such as the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).
Critics within the international community charged that the Ethiopian government's resettlement program served as an obstacle to dealing more effectively with the problems of drought and famine relief. Moving victims to settlements far from their home areas merely made them inordinately dependent on the government. In addition, they claimed that fundamental human rights were sacrificed in the name of political expediency.
Regardless of the real motive for the resettlement policy, its net effect was to increase government control over large segments of society. In each resettlement site, WPE cadres carried out political education and attempted to stimulate the population to be more productive. The government insisted that it was not trying to enforce collectivized agricultural production but rather was trying to encourage more efficient activities. However, in actual practice, cadres pressured peasants to form collectives. The main value of this policy for the regime seems to have been the political control it promised.
Further evidence of the Ethiopian government's desire to enhance its control over the citizenry was its villagization program. The idea of clustering villages was introduced in the Land Reform Proclamation of 1975; however, there was no immediate effort to implement such a policy on a large scale. The first area to become the object of serious government efforts was Bale, following the onset of the Ogaden War of 1977-78 (see The Somali, ch. 5). At that time, ethnic Somali and Oromo living in Bale were forced by the Ethiopian government into strategically clustered villages. The official objective of the move was to provide social services more efficiently and to stimulate voluntary self- help among villagers. By 1983 there were 519 villagized communities ranging in population from 300 to 7,000.
The government did not introduce a comprehensive villagization plan until 1985. In January of that year, the villagization process began in earnest in Harerge, and by May there were some 2,000 villagized communities there. That summer, the process was begun in Shewa and Arsi, and in 1986 small-scale villagization efforts were begun in Gojam, Welega, Kefa, Sidamo, and Ilubabor. The National Villagization Coordinating Committee of the Ministry of Agriculture, in collaboration with the WPE, organized and managed the project. By March 1987, it was estimated that there were as many as 10,000 villagized communities throughout the country. The long-term goal of the program was the movement of 33 million rural residents-- approximately two-thirds of the nation's population--into villagized settlements by 1994. By late 1989, however, only about 13 million peasants had been villagized.
The WPE introduced guidelines for site selection, village layout, and related matters. At the regional level, a committee planned, coordinated, and monitored the program through a network of subcommittees (planning and programming; site selection and surveying; material procurement, transportation, and logistics; construction; propaganda and training; monitoring and evaluation; and security). This structure was replicated in successive administrative layers down to the peasant associations--the level with ultimate responsibility for implementation.
In some regions of the country, the decision to villagize was a voluntary one, but in others the process was compulsory. In either case, peasants were required to dismantle their homes and, where possible, transport the housing materials to the new village site. Campaigners were usually brought in by the party and government to help the people physically reconstruct their communities.
Like resettlement, villagization generally caused a good deal of social disruption. Families usually were required to move from their traditional locations, close to their customary farming plots, into clustered villages where the land to be cultivated often was on fragmented plots far from the homestead.
The villagization program was most successful in the central highlands and southern lowlands, regions such as central Shewa, Arsi, and highland Harerge that were firmly under government control. Government efforts to villagize parts of western Shewa, the Harerge lowlands, and Gojam met with resistance. In the case of Gojam and western Shewa, this resistance in large measure was attributed to the fact that the TPLF and the Ethiopian People's Democratic Movement (EPDM) were most active in those regions. The Harerge lowlands were populated by ethnic Somali who were not as cooperative with the government as were the highlanders, who tended to be Oromo.
But not all Oromo peasants readily supported the villagization program. Many fled from new villages in Harerge after 1986, taking refuge in camps in Somalia. By June 1986, an estimated 50,000 such refugees had fled resettlement, mainly for political reasons. Some refugees complained that they were forced to abandon their traditional patterns of cultivation and to move into villages where they had to farm collectively and to participate in "food for work" programs. Private humanitarian agencies and bilateral and multilateral development agencies were apparently aware of alleged, as well as real, violations of human rights associated with the villagization program. Nonetheless, by early 1987 many seem to have turned a blind eye to such incidents and to have concentrated on the humanitarian dimensions of their work.
On purely technical grounds, villagization, like resettlement, seemed to make sense. The official goal was to improve the access of rural residents to social services and to strengthen the ability of rural communities to defend themselves. Another motive, however, seemed to be the conversion of villagized communities into producers' cooperatives or collectives, as well as into centers for military recruitment.
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