Ethiopia: Urban Society

Posted: February 25, 2008 in History
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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 capitalintensive 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 lowerlevel 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 grassroots WPE organization.

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