Ethiopia

The Politics of Development

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.

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