Tuesday, September 21

The Creation of a Nation of Serfs

Herein is the tragic true story of how tens of millions of Ethiopians were transformed into a nation of eternally poor serfs and how the same set of selfish political interests kept them that way.

A serf is
1) A member of the lowest feudal class, attached to the land owned by a lord and required to perform labor in return for certain legal or customary rights.
2) An agricultural laborer under various similar systems, especially in 18th- and 19th-century Russia and eastern Europe.
3)A person in bondage or servitude.

The issue of land reform has been a constant and contentious issue for Ethiopians throughout her modern history. Obviously, the varying degrees of posession that the ruled and the rulers have had of the land defines the Ethiopian experience.

Most economic activity and indeed the continuity of national life has come from the blood, sweat and tears of peasants whose daily life is little removed from their ancestors of millennia past. The effects of a near constant state of war from of a seemingly endless list of invaders and from regular internecine warfare have worsened this tragedy.

Through all of this the culture has often thrived and always survived as generations waited patiently for providence to finally give them a break. Part of the title of this blog comes from the title of a powerful 1975 film by Haile Gerima called Harvest 3,000 Years set in rural Ethiopia and described as
the story of a peasant family´s struggle on the farm of a wealthy feudal landowner. The film´s pace and visual style is geared to the rhythms of daily life, providing a sensitive portrayal of the details and dramas of everyday reality. The drama is set in motion by the teen-age son and daughter who contest traditional social roles, the tyrannical behavior of the landowner and the visionary and revolutionary deeds of the local ´madman´.
The revolution came and it may as well have been planned by a madman for all the good it did. The former Emperor's tardy policy towards the land issue partially brought about the much heralded 1974 revolution that immediately devolved into a coup by a murderous Marxist-Leninist junta. The messianic vision of that revolution's nightmare reality still dominates Ethiopian political thought and policy. At three thousand years and counting, Ethiopians are still waiting for that nod from providence that will have them expect more than survival.

In Ethiopia since that time no peasant farmer has been allowed to own land, to have any confidence of a long term stay on any land or even the right to leave the land as he sees fit. This has had predictably tragic consequences.

Far from being a liberation, the mindless overthrow of the tired old order made things far worse by transforming all Ethiopians into eternal serfs of whatever clique happens to control the government. That ruling clique thus becomes the sole owners of every square meter of land and the masters of every soul in the country.

What was the situation before 1974?

The popular historical conception of land ownership in Ethiopia is one of feudalism. However, this was not universal as this excellent summary of the land reform issue shows. Basically
the tenure system can be understood in a rudimentary way if one examines it in the context of the basic distinction between landownership patterns in the north and those in the south.

Historically, Ethiopia was divided into the northern highlands, which constituted the core of the old Christian kingdom, and the southern highlands, most of which were brought under imperial rule by conquest.
In the north the Rist communal system of "hereditary, inalienable, and inviolable" land rights predominated and most peasants were in some way invested in it.

The northern Gult system was based upon land grants from the Emperor or other rulers whereby the labor of peasants constituted a base of salary for appointees. This system was officially outlawed after 1966.

Other northern tenure systems included samon, mengist and maderia land. Samon land (10-20% of the total) and was owned by the Church. Mengist land (12% of the total)was owned by the government itself while maderia land was given to lesser officials and veterans in lieu of pensions or salaries. Absentee landlords were rare in the north and landlessness was rare but a system more recognizable as feudal predominated in the south
In the southern provinces, however, few farmers owned the land on which they worked. Southern landownership patterns developed as a result of land measurement and land grants following the Ethiopian conquest of the region in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

After conquest, officials divided southern land equally among the state, the church, and the indigenous population. Warlords who administered the occupied regions received the state's share. They, in turn, redistributed part of their share to their officers and soldiers. The government distributed the church's share among the church hierarchy in the same manner.

Officials divided the rest between the traditional leaders (balabats) and the indigenous people. Thus, the loss of two-thirds of the land to the new landlords and the church made many local people tenants (gebbars). Tenancy in the southern provinces ranged between 65 and 80 percent of the holdings, and tenant payments to landowners averaged as high as 50 percent of the produce.
There were some attempts by the Imperial government to improve the lot of farmers. Here some projects in the South are described.
In 1971 the Ministry of Agriculture introduced the Minimum Package Program (MPP) to bring about economic and social changes. The MPP included credit for the purchase of items such as fertilizers, improved seeds, and pesticides; innovative extension services; the establishment of cooperatives; and the provision of infrastructure, mainly water supply and all-weather roads.

Although the MPPs improved the agricultural productivity of farmers, particularly in the project areas, there were many problems associated with discrimination against small farmers (because of a restrictive credit system that favored big landowners) and tenant eviction.

Imperial government policy permitting investors to import fertilizers, pesticides, tractors and combines, and (until 1973) fuel free of import duties encouraged the rapid expansion of large-scale commercial farming. As a result, agriculture continued to grow, albeit below the population growth rate.
In the most basic interests of justice and national development the land tenure systems had to be changed. However, Marxist-Leninist junta, the Dergue, (scroll down to the end of Chapter 1 for sections on the Mengistu regime and Ethiopia in crisis) proclaimed a sweeping nationalization of all land in 1975 that had disastrous consequences in the near and short term. The raw deal of no ownership of any kind handed to all Ethiopians at that time is still honored by the current government.

How could a country opt for serfdom?

The Emperor's Clothes (no link available) is a memoir by Gaitachew Bekele. This valuable book chronicles the author's service from his days as a teenage resistance fighter against the Italian occupation through to the revolution of 1974.

Near the end of his service he was part of a land reform committee that included Cabinet Ministers and some members of the Dergue (the communist junta that took power in 1974). His observations are revealing.
It was interesting that those educated in the West held the most radical views, favoring the nationalization of land and the reorganization of agriculture along collective lines. Those who had been trained in the East and had been given the opportunity of studying collective agriculture firsthand knew it had one important failing - despite all its apparent attractions, it did not work.
After much debate the committee finally decided against a communist style communal system but the Dergue insisted on a minority report from the radical members which they pushed through. The Dergue was scrambling around for a way to justify its rule beyond the fact that it controlled the Army and had a willingness to use lethal force. They found that justification in the catechism of Marxist-Leninism that was romanticized in the ivory towers of a West that utterly rejected it in practice.

Because Communism had such a natural jealousy towards any other form of thought it could guarantee dictatorial power while justifying it as effectively as a Medieval lord tortured his people with a sense of divine right. Power was the only issue involved. By the 1970s it was certainly clear to the Eastern bloc educated Ethiopians and to any casual observer that Communism was a failure at providing any human rights or prosperity. It was only successful if it was judged by its ability to give absolute power to a tiny ruling clique.

The results of Communist land policies were so predictably disastrous that even the advice of the 'fraternal socialist countries' the Soviet Union and Cuba was for the Dergue to go slow on nationalization according to Ethiopia: the United States and the Soviet Union (no link available). Even that advice was ignored and in March of 1975 all land was nationalized. Ato Gaitachew goes on to say
The result of the Derg's [sic] decision was the most savage and prolonged famine in Ethiopian history.
The sheer idiocy of those radical policies is on exhibit in this July 1976 interview from African Development Magazine (no link available) with the then 'Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Land Reform and Settlement'

The interviewer asks about the new Peasant Associations and Collective Farms
Do you think a "kulak" class will emerge within the associations and take control of them?
The communist bureaucrat answers
The question of a kulak class is a problem, but I believe that adequate precautions can be taken to deal with this. The appearance of wealthy peasants will depend upon land not being redistributed within the peasant associations and their consciousness not being raised by a programme of political education ... So we hope that such redistribution will provide for a redistribution of power that will ensure a kulak class does not emerge.
How did kulaks ever hurt anybody? After all they are nothing but farmers slightly more prosperous than their neighbors. The jealous gods of revolution can't tolerate any form of human advancement that it outside of party control.

Note the absurd set of assumptions shared by both the interviewer and bureaucrat that a system in which everyone is equally destitute is desireable and that anyone who improves their lot is a threat. Stalin sums up this idea in this statement
We have gone over from a policy of limiting the exploiting tendencies of the kulak to a policy of liquidating the kulak as a class.
The frankly murderous intent of Stalin is not far removed from that of several criminally deluded generations of world 'intellectuals', bureaucrats and so called visionary ideological leaders whose essentially corrupt vision of man destroyed tens of millions of lives. If this was the standard fare offered by a magazine titled African Development, no one should be suprised by the current state of most African economies.

So what happened?

There was a ban on all hiring of labor for farming, peasants could only sell through the new government Agricultural Marketing Corportation at a fixed low price and many peasants were forced into failing collective farms. In the north the policy was immediately a failure. In the south some families were initially better off but very quickly their prospects were driven sharply back by the lack of freedom and security.

Overall there was a sustained fall in per capita food production.
Government attempts to implement land reform also created problems related to land fragmentation, insecurity of tenure, and shortages of farm inputs and tools. Peasant associations often were periodically compelled to redistribute land to accommodate young families or new households moving into their area. The process meant not only smaller farms but also the fragmentation of holdings, which were often scattered into small plots to give families land of comparable quality.

The second problem related to security of tenure, which was threatened by increasing pressure to redistribute land and to collectivize farms. Many peasants were reluctant to improve their land because they were afraid that they would not receive adequate compensation for upgrades. The third problem developed as a result of the military government's failure to provide farmers with basic items like seeds, oxen, and fertilizer.
In this report (scroll down to the end of Chapter 1 to Ethiopia in crisis) we can see what resulted. In 1984 and the years after the West fed those who survived the one million plus death toll but it must be emphasized that government policy caused the famine. Poor people suffer drought but only the utterly disenfanchised suffer famine. The government hampered aid deliveries to rebel held areas, charged aid organizations exhorbitant port fees for grain shipments and indeed had already taken away much of the seed holdings of peasants in the form of taxes so that there could be little recovery even when rains returned.

That year the Dergue spent millions importing Johnny Walker whiskey to celebrate the tenth anniversary of their taking power while dependent on American aid to feed their people. (Saddam imported the same whiskey for his Republican Guards using siphoned oil for food money).

How about right now?

Today the country remains in the grip of cyclical famines and unworkable schemes. Every year millions are kept alive by the West. According to this 2003 article from the World Press Review
Ethiopia is what development experts call “chronically food insecure.” For a nation that relies on rain-fed agriculture and Iron Age agricultural techniques, drought means famine. When the rains fail, so does the harvest. The immediate cause of the latest disaster is drought. The ruling party maintains that “the delay of the main rains of between one and one-and-a-half months magnified the effects of the drought,” wrote The Reporter (Dec. 25). But, countered the Addis Tribune (Dec. 20), drought would not have turned into a food crisis if not for the “neurotic bunch of incompetent oligarchs” in the administration, who “failed to make any prudent revision of their failed policies” and “stone age practices.”

Many people are working on small amounts of exhausted land. They plant maize and sorghum, high-yield crops that depend on rain. Lack of roads makes it hard for them to get their crops to market, and they are burdened with taxes on the land they lease from the state. Opposition parties blame the government for faulty policies on land ownership, lack of forest planting, and not encouraging farmers to use better yields of seed and better ways of farming.
In Ethiopia’s Struggle over Land Reform the World Press Review elaborates
Since 1984’s much-photographed famine, Ethiopia has experienced more than seven famines—with far less world attention. However, successive governments have quietly tried different ways to improve agricultural output in a bid to resolve the root problem. Still, the latest drought in 2003 left 13.2 million people in need of food aid.

Although regular rains are crucial to crops—as only 1 percent of the land is irrigated—drought is not the only cause of famine in Ethiopia. Other causes include the practice of intensive cultivation, deforestation, soil erosion, and a wood-fuel crisis, says a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report published in November 2003.

Add to that the potentially divisive and contentious issue of land—and you have a complex range of reasons for hunger in Ethiopia. However, many experts say population is not the main problem—rather, it is the absence of coherent policies to tackle poverty, which currently affects 82 percent of the population, who live on less than a dollar a day.

A group of Ethiopian economists says there is a direct link between famines and the land-tenure system. Lacking the security that comes with land ownership, farmers will not invest in improving fertility, or plant trees, or build terraces to stop soil erosion. The problem, the independent Ethiopian Economic Association (EEA) adds, is that the current civilian government, by making land a constitutional subject, will not brook any discussion on state ownership of land.

An EEA study shows that 46 percent of farmers prefer the existing land- tenure system, while 32 percent want land to be privatized. Almost 85 percent of Ethiopia’s 69 million people live in rural areas.
It is hard to believe these numbers to any degree. There is no history of political freedom or of opinion in Ethiopia. Any peasant who has never heard of opinion surveys and is approached by a foreigner or offical of any kind with such exquisitely sensitive questions would consider his own interests in terms of family, freedom and land security before criticizing the government in any way.

Indeed, according to "An Analysis of the New Consitution and the Process of Its Adoption" from the Journal of Northeast African Studies Volume 3, number 2 1996 (no link available) citizen participation in staged 'voluntary' mass discussions about the Constitution was coerced by the government with threats of cessation of "sales of sugar, edible oils, soap and salt at kebele* shops - an especially effective inducement in the countryside". This is a situation reminiscent of the 'company stores' that West Virginia coal miners and the former slaveowner-landlord's ledger books that Southern sharecroppers depended on to survive. Neither company stores nor kebeles are conducive environments for free and democratic expression.

*Kebeles are local government organizations, like peasant associations, that were the main instruments of state terror under the Dergue regime. Today they remain the main point of contact that people have with the government in the form of the collection of local taxes as well as the registration of houses, residents, births, deaths, marriages, identification cards and all important evaluations of political reliability and loyalty to the government.

A look at Human Rights reports from Human Rights Watch, the U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Amnesty International and the Ethiopian Human Rights Council makes it abundantly clear that the methods of government coercion extends very far beyond the power of kebeles.

Back to the World Press Review
Dessalegn Rahmato, general manager of the independent research institute Forum for Social Studies, says the government wants to hold on to the current system to keep control over rural populations, but warns against privatization, which, he says, donors are pushing as the only alternative to government ownership.

“We can’t just jump onto this privatization bandwagon,” he adds, citing Kenya, which tried privatization and which he says “is now in a mess,” and Latin America, where “the big boys own most of the land and there are many poor landless.”
Authorities such as Hernando de Soto would vigorously dispute this point about free title to land and its importance to numerous developed and developing economies worldwide. In de Soto's words
“Agrarian reform is a process by means of which government assigns lands to the peasants...Until you have universal, well-protected, clear, and transferable private property rights, you cannot have a market economy.

If you take a walk through the countryside, from Indonesia to Peru, and you walk by field after field--in each field a different dog is going to bark at you. Even dogs know what private property is all about. The only one who does not know it is the government."
Rahmato's point of view is quite interesting because it meshes with those of some critics of de Soto who feel that his formula does not take into account local cultural conditions. It seems that Rahmato is advocating a at least a partial return to a 'rist' type of tenure system that was prevalent in northern Ethiopia before the disastrous land nationalization of 1975.
Rahmato believes there is a third way—combining community ownership with private ownership, which would allow communities to manage the land and buy plots if farmers decide to sell. Farmers could still sell their plots freely and use their land as an asset for bank loans.

It’s a radical idea, but with little debate over land, the chances of farmers and other ordinary Ethiopians discussing it with government and donor representatives are slim at the moment.
Whatever remedies are discussed any would be preferable to the current situation which is entirely inspired by Marxist-Leninism and exists to secure the rulers position very far above the ruled. Properly managed agricultural and land policies could easily see Ethiopia become a large scale food exporter.
Ethiopia has great agricultural potential because of its vast areas of fertile land, diverse climate, generally adequate rainfall, and large labor pool. Despite this potential, however, Ethiopian agriculture has remained underdeveloped.
The West, particularly the United States, continues to aid the Ethiopian people while their own government has essentially abidcated responsiblity for their food security beyond reporting famines to CNN, the BBC and the United Nations.

The creation and maintenance of a nation of serfs in the pursuit of power is a tragedy and crime for which no end is in sight. Ethiopian state feudalism is alive and well today.

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