Ethiopia: Rural Society

Posted: February 25, 2008 in History
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Rural Society

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).

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