Table of Contents.....Next Section.....Prev SectionEthiopia: Social System ~a HREF="/et_00_00.html#et_02_05"

Social System

Rural areas, which contain an estimated 89 percent of the population, make up most of the country; it is the urban centers, however, that generate most of the country's political, administrative, cultural, and commercial activities. The towns and cities are also home to a variety of people forced to live on the margins of society by the Mengistu regime--absentee landlords whose rural lands and urban property had been confiscated by the state, as well as erstwhile activists who had aspired to genuine democratic reforms and had seen their hopes dashed.

Prior to the 1974 revolution, most Ethiopians conducted their daily lives in accordance with norms peculiar to each community or region. Ethnic groups characterized by common features of social organization and values were, on closer examination, actually quite diverse. As important as local structures were, the societies they characterized were not autonomous. Those that came closest to self-sufficiency were the eastern nomads. In the inaccessible and inhospitable areas inhabited by these groups, representatives of the central government were scarce. Elsewhere, each community was bound to a region and through it to the imperial center by layers of social and political strata. Binding these strata together even tighter was a complex system of land rights.

Modifications introduced after World War II, particularly with respect to land rights, had little effect on the essential characteristics of the social order. The regime that took power in 1974 attempted to replace the old rural order with a new one based on the principle that land should be distributed equitably. Even though most rural areas supported the government's efforts to bring about such a change, the ultimate shape of the social and economic order remained uncertain as the 1990s began.

Ethiopia: Rural Society ~a HREF="/et_00_00.html#et_02_05"

Rural Society

Peasant from Bale. Courtsey United Nations (John Issac)

Grandmother carrying child in Borana. Courtsey United Nations (Ray Witlin)

Political scientist John Markakis has observed, "The social structure of traditional Amhara-Tigray society [represented] the classic trinity of noble, priest, and peasant. These groups [were] distinguished not only through the division of labor, distinct social status, and a clear awareness of such distinctions expressed and justified in ideological terms, but also through differences in their relationships to the only means of production: land." In the northern highlands, land was usually held by the kin group, the state, and the church and, through each of these, by individuals. Private ownership in the Western sense came later and was abolished in 1975.

Anthropologist Allan Hoben is considered to have made the most thorough analysis of Amhara land tenure and its relation to social structure. According to his findings, the cognatic descent group (see Glossary), comprising men and women believed to be descended from a common ancestor through both males and females, ultimately held a block of land. As in cognatic descent systems elsewhere, men and women could belong to several such landholding groups. The descent group and each of its segments had a representative who looked after its collective interests. This agent, the respected elders, and politically influential members of the group or its segments acted in disputes over rights to land. The land was called rist (see Glossary) land, and the rights held or claimed in it were rist rights. An Amhara had claims not to a specific piece of land but to a portion of it administered by the descent group or a segment of this group. The person holding such rights was called ristegna. In principle, rist rights guaranteed security of tenure. Litigation over such rights was common, however. Most northern highland peasants held at least some rist land, but some members of pariah groups and others were tenants.

Peasants were subject to claims for taxes and labor from those above them, including the church. The common term for peasant, derived from the word for tribute, was gebbar. Taxes and fees were comprehensive, multiple, and burdensome. In addition, the peasant had to provide labor to a hierarchy of officials for a variety of tasks. It was only after World War II that administrative and fiscal reforms ended many of these exactions.

The state exercised another set of rights over land, including land held in rist. The emperor was the ultimate and often immediate arbiter of such rights, called gult (see Glossary) rights, and the recipient was called gultegna. There was considerable variation in the content and duration of the gult rights bestowed on any person.

Gult rights were the typical form of compensation for an official until the government instituted salaries in the period after World War II. Many gult grants were for life, or were hereditary, and did not depend on the performance of official duties. The grants served to bind members of noble families and the local gentry to the emperor.

The emperor also granted hereditary possession (rist gult) of state land to members of the higher nobility or the royal family. Peasants on such land became tenants of the grantee and paid rent in addition to the usual taxes and fees. Lieutenants who shared in the tribute represented the absentee landlords.

Those who benefited from the allocation of gult rights included members of the royal family (masafint, or princes), the nobility (makuannent), the local gentry, low-level administrators, and persons with local influence. Until the twentieth century, the chief duties of the makuannent were administrative and military. Membership in the makuannent was not fixed, and local gentry who proved able and loyal often assumed higher office and were elevated to the nobility. It was possible for a commoner to become a noble and for the son of a noble--even one with a hereditary title--to lose status and wealth unless he demonstrated military or other capabilities. Although there was a gap in living standards between peasant and noble, cultural differences were not profound. Consequently, the Amhara and Tigray lacked the notion of a hereditary class of nobles. Although it is possible to divide the Amhara and Tigray populations of the late nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries in terms of rank, social status, power, and wealth, those who fell into various categories did not necessarily constitute distinct strata.

The pattern of land allocation in the southern territories incorporated into the empire by Menelik II differed in important ways from the pattern in the north. Moreover, the consequences of allocation and the administrative regime imposed by Menelik II and Haile Selassie varied, depending on the way in which particular ethnic groups or regions became subject to Ethiopian rule, on the nature of the preexisting sociopolitical structure, and on the territory's economic appeal.

Supposedly, the government divided conquered land in the south on the one-third (siso) principle, by which two-thirds went to the state and the remainder to the indigenous population. In fact, the proportion of the land taken by the state ranged from virtually none to more than two-thirds. In areas such as Jima, which had capitulated to Menelik II without resistance, the state took no occupied land, although it later took over unoccupied land and granted much of it to leading imperial officials. Other northerners, attracted by the coffee-growing potential of the Jima area, bought land in that region. In areas inhabited by nomads, all the land was state land, little was granted, and the pastoralists used it as before.

The government allocated state-held land to a variety of claimants. The emperor retained a substantial portion of the most fertile land. Churches also received large amounts of land in the south as northern governors implemented the imperial policy of establishing Orthodox Christian churches in conquered territory and as northern clergy came in numbers to serve them. Each church received samon grants, according to which the church held the rights to tribute in perpetuity, and the tribute from those working the land went solely to the support of the church (or local monastery). No part of it went through the secular hierarchy to the emperor. The nobility, including the leaders of Menelik's conquering armies (many of whom became governors in the south), received rist gult rights over large areas occupied by peasants. Rist gult holders, secure in their rights, allocated land rights of various kinds to kinsmen and retainers. The government granted rist gult rights over smaller parcels of land to officials at any level for loyal service. Remaining land was divided between the indigenous population and traditional leaders (balabats--see Glossary), who acquired some of the best land. People who had been on the land thus became tenants (gebbars).

Peasants from the north went south as soldiers and settlers. If the soldiers and their heirs continued to perform military or other service, they received land that remained in the family. If they arrived as settlers, the government gave them small parcels of land or allowed them to buy land from the state at low cost. Such land, unencumbered by the residual rights of a kin group but requiring the payment of state taxes, was thus held in an arrangement much like that applied to freehold land. Generally, settlers were armed and were expected to support local officials with force.

Most of the southern population consisted of indigenous peoples, largely deprived of the rights they had held under local systems. They, like Amhara and Tigray peasants, were called gebbars, but they held no rist land and therefore had little security of tenure. The situation of the southern gebbars depended on the rights granted by the state over the land on which they lived. Those working land granted to a minor official paid tribute through him. If the land reverted to state control, the gebbar became a tributary of the state. As salaries for officials became the rule after World War II, the land that formerly served as compensation in lieu of salary was granted in permanent possession (in effect, became freehold land) to those holding contingent rights or to others. In these circumstances, the gebbars became tenants.

The basis of southern social stratification was, as in the north, the allocation of political office and rights in land by the emperor. The method of allocating rights in land and of appointing government officials in the south gave rise to a structure of status, power, and wealth that differed from the arrangement in the north and from the earlier forms of sociopolitical organization in the area. Those appointed as government officials in the south were northerners--mainly Amhara, Tigray, and educated Oromo--virtually all of whom were Orthodox Christians who spoke Amharic. This meant that social stratification coincided with ethnicity. However, the path to social mobility and higher status, as in the north, was education and migration to urban areas.

In 1966, under growing domestic pressure for land reform, the imperial government abolished rist gult in the north and south and siso gult in the south. Under the new system, the gultegna and the gebbar paid taxes to the state. In effect, this established rights of private ownership. The abolition of rist gult left the northern Amhara and Tigray peasant a rist holder, still dependent on the cognatic descent group to verify his rights to rist land. But at least he was formally freed of obligations to the gult holder.

Typically, the landholders and many northern provincial officials came from families with at least several generations of status, wealth, and power in the province-- situations they owed not to Menelik II or to Haile Selassie but to earlier emperors or to great provincial lords. These nobles had some claim to the peasants' loyalty, inasmuch as all belonged to the same ethnic group and shared the same values. Peasants often saw attacks on the northern nobility as challenges to the entire system of which they were a part, including their right to rist land.

By contrast, whether or not they were descended from the older nobility, southern landholders were more dependent on the central government for their status and power. They were confronted with an ethnically different peasantry and lacked a base in the culture and society of the locality in which they held land.

In 1975 the revolution succeeded in eliminating the nobility and landlord classes. Those individual group members who avoided being killed, exiled, or politically isolated were able to do so because they had in some way already modified or surrendered their rights and privileges.

Land reform affected huge numbers of people throughout Ethiopia. However, there were regional differences in its execution. Peasant associations carried out land redistribution in the south, motivated not only by economic need but also by their antipathy toward the landlords. In the north, the government preserved rist tenure, and the peasant associations concerned themselves mainly with litigation over rist rights. Moreover, northern peasants were not driven by the ethnic and class hatred characteristic of southern peasants.

The 1975 Peasant Associations Organization and Consolidation Proclamation granted local self-government to peasant associations. Subsequently, peasant associations established judicial tribunals to deal with certain criminal and civil cases, including those involving violations of association regulations. Armed units, known as peasant defense squads, enforced decisions. Additionally, peasant associations had economic powers, including the right to establish service cooperatives as a prelude to collective ownership (although there was little peasant enthusiasm for the latter). The revolutionary government also established a hierarchy of administrative and development committees in districts, regions, and subregions to coordinate the work of the bodies at each administrative level. The Workers' Party of Ethiopia (WPE) later supplemented the work of these committees. Only a few officials spoke for peasants at the district and subregional levels, and rarely, if at all, were peasants represented in regional organizations, where civilians and military members of the central government were in control (see Peasant Associations, ch. 4).

Ethiopia: Urban Society ~a HREF="/et_00_00.html#et_02_05"

Urban Society

After World War II, towns, commerce, and bureaucracy gradually became more significant in Ethiopia. Except for Addis Ababa and some Red Sea ports, towns were small, and urbanization had proceeded more slowly than in many other African countries. City and town life had not been a feature of Ethiopian society, and trade was not a full-time occupation for Ethiopians except for itinerant Muslims and Arabized peoples on the Red Sea coast. Manufacturing had arrived only recently, and the role of Ethiopians, except as unskilled laborers, was minimal. Ownership and management, with relatively few exceptions, were in the hands of foreigners.

Most Ethiopians who entered into occupations not associated with the land or with traditional methods of administration worked for the central government, which had expanded to bring Ethiopia under the emperor's control, to provide essential services, and to generate economic development. During the 1940s, Ethiopia's few educated persons, who usually came from families of the nobility and gentry, joined the government.

Beginning in the 1950s, relatively younger Ethiopians with higher education developed hopes and expectations for democratic institutions. Still small in number, perhaps 7,000 to 8,000 by 1970, they were more ethnically varied in origin than the older educated group, although Amhara and Tigray were still represented disproportionately (as they were even among secondary school graduates). These would-be reformers were frequently frustrated by the older ways of the senior officials, who were dependent on Haile Selassie and beholden to him. Nevertheless, sustained opposition to the regime did not occur, largely because even middle- and lower-level government employees were better off than the peasants, small traders, and some of the gentry.

Small traders and craftsmen, below educated government workers in income and status, had little influence on the government, which tended to encourage larger-scale capital- intensive ventures typically requiring foreign investment and management. Although an increasing number of Christians were involved in commercial activities, small traders remained largely a Muslim group. Skilled craftsmen who were not of the traditional pariah groups often belonged to small ethnic groups, such as the weavers (often called Dorze) of Gamo Gofa.

At the bottom of the urban social scale were workers of varied ethnic origins, generally unskilled in a labor market crowded with unskilled workers ready to replace them. Neither government policy, the weak labor unions, nor the condition of the labor market gave them social or political leverage. By the late 1960s, inflation and a lack of jobs for university and secondary school graduates intensified disgruntlement. Urban-based agitation by students, labor, and the military eventually toppled the imperial regime.

Those who had served in senior positions in the imperial government and the military establishment were dismissed, imprisoned, executed, or they fled the country. The survivors of the old social structure were younger persons in government service: bureaucrats, teachers, and technicians. Some benefited from the nationalization of private enterprises and expansion of the government apparatus, filling posts held by senior officials or foreign specialists before the revolution. But this group was excluded from power, and some became militant opponents of the new regime's radical policies.

The position of the middle class--traders and artisans-- varied. Generally, the status of Muslim traders rose after the new regime disestablished the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. As economic conditions worsened and consumer goods became scarce, however, traders became scapegoats and subject to violent attacks.

Notwithstanding allusions to the proletariat's revolutionary role, the urban working class--mainly in Addis Ababa and its environs--gained neither status nor power. The military government replaced the Confederation of Ethiopian Labor Unions (CELU) with the All-Ethiopia Trade Union (AETU) when the CELU leadership started opposing the direction of the revolution. The AETU focused its activities on supporting the government policy of emphasizing production rather than on advancing worker rights. The AETU--unlike the CELU--was a hierarchy rather than a confederation; unions at the base accepted policy decisions made at higher levels. In the next few years, the government had difficulty enforcing this policy. Deteriorating economic conditions caused strikes and demonstrations. In addition, violence often broke out between workers and government officials (see Labor Unions, ch. 3).

The urban equivalents of the peasant associations were the kebeles (see Kebeles, ch. 4). Initially, mid- and lower- level bureaucrats were elected to posts in these associations, but the military government soon purged them for opposing the revolutionary regime. New laws excluded from elective office for one year those who had owned rental property and members of their households. Thus, not only were the wealthy excluded from participation, but also many middle-class investors who had built and rented low-cost housing and who were far from rich were excluded as well. This exclusion also deprived many students and other young people of a role in the kebeles. Those who worked full time away from the neighborhood tended to be unwilling to take on kebele positions. Partly by default and partly with the PMAC's encouragement, elections in 1976 filled kebeles posts with (in the words of John Markakis and Nega Ayele) "persons of dubious character, indeterminate occupation, busybodies and opportunists of all sorts . . . . Militia units [attached to the urban associations] charged with local security mustered the perennially unemployed, the shiftless and hangers-on, young toughs and delinquents, who were instantly transformed into revolutionary proletarian fighters." These individuals perpetrated crimes against people they disliked or disagreed with.

The kebeles engaged in some of the revolution's most brutal bloodletting. Increasing criticism eventually forced the regime to restrain them. After the populace recognized the PMAC's permanence, more people participated in kebele administration. By 1990 the kebeles were part of the grass- roots WPE organization.

Ethiopia: The Role of Women ~a HREF="/et_00_00.html#et_02_05"

The Role of Women

There have been few studies concerning women in Ethiopia, but many observers have commented on the physical hardship that Ethiopian women experience throughout their lives. Such hardship involves carrying loads over long distances, grinding corn manually, working in the homestead, raising children, and cooking. Ethiopian women traditionally have suffered sociocultural and economic discrimination and have had fewer opportunities than men for personal growth, education, and employment. Even the civil code affirmed the woman's inferior position, and such rights as ownership of property and inheritance varied from one ethnic group to another.

As in other traditional societies, a woman's worth is measured in terms of her role as a mother and wife. Over 85 percent of Ethiopian women reside in rural areas, where peasant families are engaged primarily in subsistence agriculture. Rural women are integrated into the rural economy, which is basically labor intensive and which exacts a heavy physical toll on all, including children. The revolution had little impact on the lives of rural women. Land reform did not change their subordinate status, which was based on deep-rooted traditional values and beliefs. An improvement in economic conditions would improve the standard of living of women, but real change would require a transformation of the attitudes of governments and men regarding women.

There have been some changes for women in urban areas, where education, health care, and employment outside the home have become more available. Although a few women with higher education have found professional employment, most hold low-paying jobs. About 40 percent of employed women in urban areas worked in the service sector, mainly in hotels, restaurants, and bars, according to a 1976 government survey. Employment in production and related areas (such as textiles and food processing) accounted for 25 percent of the female work force, followed by sales, which accounted for about 11 percent. The survey also showed that women factory workers in Addis Ababa earned about a quarter of the wages men earned for the same type of work. These differences existed despite a 1975 proclamation stipulating equal pay for equal work for men and women.

Following the revolution, women made some gains in economic and political areas. The Revolutionary Ethiopia Women's Association (REWA), which claimed a membership of over 5 million, took an active part in educating women. It encouraged the creation of women's organizations in factories, local associations, and in the civil service. Some women participated in local organizations and in peasant associations and kebeles. However, the role of women was limited at the national level. In 1984, for example, the government selected only one woman as a full member of the Central Committee of the WPE. Of the 2,000 delegates who attended the WPE's inaugural congress in 1984, only 6 percent were women.

On a more positive note, the Mengistu regime could claim success in increasing literacy among women (see Literacy, this ch.). The enrollment of women in primary and secondary schools increased from about 32 percent in 1974/75 to 39 percent in 1985/86, although the rate of enrollment of urban women far exceeded the rate for rural women.

Table of Contents.....Next Section.....Prev Section