Ethiopian History and Politics
By way of introducing these series of posts on Ethiopia, I must state at the outset that they are offered not as definitive versions of what took place historically, but more in the spirit of an open notebook. When there are errors in fact or in interpretation, I humbly invite the Ethiopian comrades of the Marxism list to point them out.
There are many reasons why it is important to deepen our understanding of Ethiopian history and politics. To start off with, since it is of vital importance for Marxism to be truly internationalist, I would hope that comrades from advanced industrialized countries on the list make a continuing effort to learn about countries like Ethiopia, because effective solidarity can only be built on the basis of solid understanding.
While Ethiopia might not have the advanced technology or industrial prowess of the United States or Great Britain, it *does* have a strategic role in geopolitical terms. Its geographical location on the Horn of Africa has forced it willy-nilly to be part of the world-system's periodic great struggles, from Christianity versus Islam, to capitalism versus communism. I would argue that in light of this, it is absolutely incumbent upon us to understand conflicts in Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia in these terms, since they have drawn together religious and geopolitical conflicts in the guise of apparently "senseless" civil wars.
Another important reason to study Ethiopia is that it was the site of a powerful revolution in 1975 that was hijacked by the Derg. Just as American Trotskyists have intense feelings about how their hopes were dashed by a bureaucratic monster, so might Ethiopian Marxists. It is a credit to these comrades that they have not given up hope on socialism. I suppose one of the reasons that battle-scarred victims of American Trotskyism and the Ethiopian revolution have not given up hope in socialism is that the alternative seems so wretched. In an earlier generation, it was much easier to believe in the superiority of democratic capitalism, as 1950s prosperity led the NY intellectuals to take jobs with the State Department. Nowadays, it is only jackals like David Horowitz or Eugene Genovese who try to promote similar myths.
As was also pointed out in a Foreign Affairs article that I posted to the list, Ethiopia today is in an alliance with other African states to try to carve out a new economic and political reality after decades of wasteful civil war and economic decline. Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and Uganda's Museveni are two of the main architects of this new policy and it would be important to understand the political realities that inform their decisions, including the historical past.
Finally, Ethiopia's history which culminates in the 1975 revolution poses some very critical issues in Marxist theory, which revolve around the role of feudalism. Ethiopia is one of the few countries in the world that had something resembling an authentic feudal system at the time of what appeared to be an embryonic socialist revolution. Although Trotsky wrote about combined and uneven development in the context of the theory of the permanent revolution, he was writing more about a situation in which feudal and capitalist property relations stood side-by-side. Ethiopia is somewhat different. It attempted to move directly from feudalism to socialism and the question of whether this led to its miseries under the Derg must be addressed.
Ethiopia has the distinction of being the only great African nation that was organized around Christianity, although of a highly distinct character. It must be understood that the world's great religions have emerged out of commercial and financial exigencies. Just as Protestantism was catapulted into existence through the power of peasant rebellions in Great Britain and Germany, at an earlier time divisions between Islam and Christianity had more to do with trade routes and commercial opportunity rather than soul-searching.
Furthermore, the religious component of the modern day Ethiopian state shares with Israel mythological foundations in the Old Testament, as distinct to the New Testament foundations of both Protestant and Catholic states. The modern day Ethiopian state began to emerge in the 15th century under the rubric of the Solomonic dynasties. Its foundational myths have much more charm for me than the territorial aggrandizing myths of the Zionist state, since they are based on Eros rather than war.
In the Old Testament, the Queen of Sheba visits King Solomon in order to soak up some of his wisdom:
"When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relation to the name of the LORD, she came to test him with hard questions. Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan--with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones--she came to Solomon and talked with him about all that she had on her mind. Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was too hard for the king to explain to her." (I Kings)
In the Ethiopian version, Solomon seduces her and she becomes impregnated with Menelik I, the legendary founder of the Ethiopian state. Since the Ethiopians become so enamored with Jewish wisdom in the presence of Solomon, they decide to steal the Ark of the Covenant to bring it back with them. Jehovah tells the Ethiopians that the larceny was okay with him. So it's okay with me as well. In the PBS documentary on Africa, the boorish Skip Gates keeps pressing modern day Ethiopians to show him their holy relics like a tv talk show host asking guests to show the audience their tattoos.
The most interesting thing about all these legends is that they reflect the importance of Ethiopia in North African trade going back through the millennia. If the Queen of Sheba actually traveled to Solomon's Kingdom, it was probably to barter goods rather than sop up wisdom. From the biblical era to the time of the emergence of the Solomonic dynasties in the 15th century, Europe enjoyed no particular advantage over the rest of the world and was merely one of a series of regional commercial centers that interacted with other commercial centers through well-established trade routes. It was only 1492 and the subsequent looting of the New World that allowed Europe to leapfrog over every other regional center and consequently destroy their economic viability as well.
During the heyday of the Solomonic dynasties, Ethiopia's economy was connected to the regional network organized around the Red Sea and the Nile valley. Within Ethiopia, slaves and gold were exchanged for coffee. The market for Ethiopian beans grew considerably in the final quarter of the 17th century, as Yemen, a major trading partner, sought increasing amounts to satisfy the habit in Europe. Ethiopia, like 20th century Colombia, thus enjoyed a modicum of commercial success as it helped a gloomy Protestant population with jolts to its central nervous system.
The Ethiopian empire emerged in a fashion quite similar to comparable empires throughout the world which were also based on feudalism. In every instance, one band develops superior war-making skills and conquers less-endowed bands. In the New World, the Aztecs and Incas were the best known empires while the Mughals and various Chinese dynasties developed in the same fashion. Economically, these feudal kingdoms or empires were based on what John Haldon calls the tributary mode of production, more about which presently.
In the case of Ethiopia, the Amharic-speaking and Christian peoples of the northern highlands became the dominant band or nationality. Like the Aztecs and Incas, they were constantly battling to bring unruly subject peoples under control--alas, a pattern that did not disappear after the country was "liberated" by the Derg.
One of the better-known imperial subjects, besides the Eritreans, were the Oromo based in the south, a Cushitic-speaking pastoralist people. Their pastoral economy led to a loosely structured, egalitarian society led by officials who were elected by village councils. When competition increased for grazing land in the south, the Oromos retreated to the eastern plateaus of Ethiopia where they were constantly beset by the emperor's troops. During the 17th century, they managed to consolidate territory under their control and held the central government at bay. According to Ethiopian monk and historian Bahrey, their success was related to the elan of the socially homogenous Oromo warriors, who took advantage of weaknesses in the feudal hierarchies of their enemy, which lacked the internal resolve to mobilize its resources completely. One must wonder if Ethiopia's difficulties today in Eritrea and with other "lesser nationalities" is to some degree related to earlier cultural and social patterns. Isn't it possible that the revolutions that cleansed Ethiopia of both Haile Selassie and the Derg retain certain of the feudal structures of the past, including chauvinism toward lower-rank peoples?
A word must be said about my brethren, the Ethiopian Jews. Although we know them today as the bedraggled Falashas who were stampeded out of Ethiopia only to face open discrimination in Israel, there is ample evidence that some played the role of esteemed "Court Jews" in a manner found in European feudal kingdoms and principalities. Known as the Beta Israel, they were concentrated in Gonder, the geographical stronghold of Ethiopia's imperial dynasties. Since they were by definition outside the Christian power structure, they were often recruited into the imperial guard and used in particularly delicate or confidential situations. Both as technicians in fields regarded as marginal by the Christians (stonecutting, paint making, interior design) and as soldiers, they became an important component of Gonderine society.
In Marx's day, it was commonplace to view feudalism as a particularly European phenomenon. Since Marx was a product of his age, it is understandable that he would express some of its limitations as well as simultaneously transcending them. One of the key weaknesses in his approach to non-European economic development was his reliance on the theory of the Asiatic mode of production, which viewed non-European societies as fundamentally lacking in the internal structures that would make capitalism an eventual possibility.
The theory associated Oriental despotism in river-valley civilizations from Egypt to China. Since artificial irrigation is a necessity in such societies, it generated the need for vast state apparatuses that owned the land and created workforces to build and maintain them. To his credit, Marx only put forward such a theory on a tentative basis, while Engels openly rejected it finally. It is based on the false notion that Asia and Africa are arid. This, of course, begs the question whether environment in itself can be a satisfactory explanation for the evolution of social and economic systems.
Samir Amin was the first Marxist thinker to systematically critique the Asiatic Mode of Production theory and put forward the alternative of a "tributary" mode. Feudalism, in Amin's view, is seen as one variant on this mode. John Haldon, in "The State and the Tributary Mode of Production", suggests that the most logical definition of this mode is one that centers on the extraction of surpluses from the direct producers either in the form of tax or rent through "extra-economic" means. In other words, the state itself is the appropriator. Haldon cites this passage from Vol. 3 of Capital in order to establish the Marxist credentials of such an approach:
"It is furthermore evident that in all forms in which the direct laborer remains the 'possessor' of the means of production and labor conditions necessary for the production of his own means of subsistence, the property relationship must simultaneously appear as a direct relationship of lordship and servitude, so that the direct producer is not free; a lack of freedom which may be reduced from serfdom with enforced labor TO A MERE TRIBUTARY RELATIONSHIP." (Haldon's emphasis)
This certainly epitomizes the Ethiopian economy from the time of the advent of the Solomonic dynasties to the modern era. Describing about the general situation in 19th century Ethiopia, Harold Marcus writes:
"In the countryside, most individuals could claim but not own land, and one's holdings depended on personal position, age, influence, soil fertility, competing claims, and the political situation. If the guild (fief) holder could contrive a genealogy adequate to acquire land on the basis of descent, then some might lose part of their best plots. Moreover, fief holders themselves had no security of office in the face of the ever-changing politics of province and palace. Neither peasant nor patrician was willing, therefore, to invest in or otherwise improve the land. Indeed, during the age of princes, Ethiopian feudal lords were unlikely to spark innovation, commission art and architecture, or build with an eye to posterity."
It would be a mistake to think that this state of affairs could go on forever. Every country that remained feudal by the 19th century found that outside capitalist forces would create internal contradictions that would shake these regimes. In a nutshell, facing increased hostility and territorial ambitions from Europe, Ethiopia was forced to create a modern army and transportation system to help deploy it. The costs associated with such "improvements" could only come from increased "tribute" from the serfs. So the Ethiopian peasantry was caught in a vise between imperialism and the needs of its own possessing classes, which were inimical to capitalism. As imperialism sought a foothold, the emperor mobilized the people and the national treasure to withstand it.
In rare contradistinction to the rest of Africa, Ethiopia withstood colonization. At the battle of Adwa in 1895, the emperor Menelik handed Italy a major defeat. The colonists were victims of their own racist mythology, who could not believe that the "savage" Africans were battle-worthy. The defeat of the white man created a situation of "cognitive dissonance" that could only be assuaged by convincing himself that the Ethiopians were not really black! They wrote that the Ethiopians were really Caucasians whose skin was darkened by exposure to the equatorial sun. Marcus writes, "Whereas previously Ethiopians shared sloth, ignorance, and degradation with their African brothers, they suddenly became energetic, enlightened and progressive. The Orthodox church, often reviled by visiting white clerics as debased and corrupt, now was seen as a proper vehicle of the Holy Spirit and the true keeper of Ethiopia's national spirit."
Unfortunately, Menelik's victory was only pyrrhic, since it effectively sealed Ethiopia's status as a feudal society in a century where such a status could neither deliver economic stability, even one defined in terms of bondage, nor resist the continuing encroachments of the world capitalist system. Haile Selassie's misbegotten while heroic efforts to contend with these forces will be the subject of my next post.
It is no small irony that while Haile Selassie was becoming an icon of resistance to racism and imperialism to Africans in the Diaspora, he was simultaneously imposing a regime of national chauvinism on peoples who had become captive to the Amharic crown and rifle.
The lyrics to Bob Marley's "War", which is probably the most politically conscious song in the entire reggae repertory, come from Haile Selassie's famous League of Nations speech:
"Until the philosophy which holds one race
Superior and another inferior
Is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned
Everywhere is war, me say war
"That until there is no longer first class
And second class citizens of any nation
Until the colour of a man's skin
Is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes
Me say war"
Reggae is linked to Rastafarianism, the Jamaican religious cult honoring Ras (Lord) Tafari--Selassie's name prior to becoming emperor. The Rastas believed that repatriation to Africa--Zion--would be made possible by Selassie's rebirth in glory. They say, "Selassie cyaan dead", he is living still. They regard themselves, and all blacks living in the Western Hemisphere, as living in slavery.
While Christian mysticism and potent marijuana might explain Rastafarian beliefs, there is little explanation for W.E.B. DuBois's misunderstanding of the nature of the Abyssinian imperial state.
"Ethiopia then is a state socialism under an Emperor with almost absolute power. He is a conscientious man. But what will follow his rule? A capitalist private profit regime or an increasingly democratic socialism; or some form of Communism?" ("The Giant Stirs", 1955)
Unfortunately, the Ethiopian state had nothing to do with socialism, but rather more closely approximated what Perry Anderson dubbed the "absolutist states" of the 16th and 17th century in Europe. This probably was the only option, outside of a socialism linked to the USSR, open to an Ethiopian ruler in the beginning of the 20th century when the country was still gripped by feudal relations. I first made this point a week or so ago and was pleased to discover that Ethiopian Marxist scholar Gebru Tareke makes the identical point in "Ethiopia: Power and Protest".
Haile Selassie's goal was to rein in the aristocracy, while creating a central state and bureaucracy dedicated to "modernization." It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that the feudal lords were subjected to some kind of Jacobin reign of terror under the Emperor. It continued to collaborate with the central state, while continuing to extract tribute from local peasants, especially in the newly assimilated territories of the Tigre and Omoro peoples. Almost to the last days of its reign, the absolutist state struggled for domination in rural areas against powerful hereditary authorities, who often used the peasants as pawns against the oppressive bureaucracy and state, which seemed only interested in taxing them to death. It is one of the contradictory aspects of modern Ethiopian politics that the resistance to Selassie's dictatorship often took place under somewhat dubious circumstances. Islam, Somalian irredentism, deference to local aristocrats, banditry, etc. gave shape to peasant rebellions. In the absence of a strong Marxist movement in Ethiopia, it is pretty much excluded that the peasant movement would have not exhibited such characteristics. But rather than fretting over this, it is useful to remind ourselves of what Lenin said about the Irish rebellion:
"To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie without all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc.--to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, 'We are for socialism', and another, somewhere else and says, 'We are for imperialism', and that will be a social revolution! Only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic view would vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a 'putsch'."
The other important thing to understand about the system that Selassie and his immediate predecessors put together is its imperial nature. While we tend to identify the term imperialism with modern capitalism, it would be a mistake not to describe the emergence of the modern Ethiopian state in similar terms. Like the Czarist empire, it was a semi-feudal collection of oppressed nationalities that felt no loyalty to the central state. Moreover, 65 percent of the territory of the Ethiopian empire was acquired during the "scramble for Africa" in the 19th century. Ethiopian rulers benefited from diplomatic and commercial contacts with these colonizing Europeans even as they simultaneously struggled with them to safeguard their independence, or even competed with them for new lands to conquer in Northeast Africa. To a poor non-Amharic peasant, it mattered little whether the oppressor was Italian or Abyssinian. The Abyssinian might have been less racist, but the whiplash felt just as cruel.
The modern Ethiopian state paired a bureaucratic monarchy and local noblemen, who often quarreled with each other, against a deeply oppressed peasantry who did not consider themselves Ethiopians at all and who usually spoke different languages and worshipped different deities. The absolutist state did differ from its European cousins in important respects, however. Tareke points out that the main difference was that Ethiopia was built on a social base that was far less homogeneous than the European states it attempted to emulate:
"The Ethiopian state-society that emerged at the turn of this century from the confluence of endogenous and exogenous forces was qualitatively different from its predecessors, in terms both of its territorial size and of its ethnocultural makeup. It contained a myriad of diverse national and religious groups with economies, polities, ideologies, and kinship systems that radically differed from each other. Levineís argument that, despite this 'stunning diversity,' Ethiopia has to be perceived as a country that is sufficiently unified both ecologically and culturally, is less than convincing. It is barely a century since a substantial percentage of Ethiopian citizens began to share historical experience with the Abyssinian core. Moreover, the nature and quality of their shared experience has often been as divisive as it has been unifying. In addition to the fraternal bonds that Ethiopians developed through centuries of interaction, the architects of modern Ethiopia hoped to build a single society through political centralization reinforced by cultural homogenization. Amharic and orthodox Christianity were imposed as the state language and religion respectively. However, Amharic remained essentially a language of administration, courts, and schools, of trade, and the small, but expanding, literary elite. Christianity has continued to struggle with residual forms of older beliefs and with Islam, and may have lost substantial ground to the latter over the last hundred years. The policy of cultural integration, let alone homogenization, was ineffectual as autonomous ethnic and regional cultural units persisted. The multifarious groups encapsulated in the nineteenth century, or even long before, were not molded into a fully integrated homogeneous whole. Lack of political, economic, and cultural integration meant the survival of multiple loyalties. Social identities remained in a state of great ambiguity and flux, oscillating between assimilation and rejection of the dominant culture. Many factors molded peopleís attitudes and political behavior: habitat, kinship, confessional rivalries, variant traditions, and social structures."
In light of this, it seems facile to talk about the modern Ethiopian state in terms of the project identified by Marx and Engels under the general rubric of the bourgeois-democratic revolution of the early to mid-nineteenth century. It was neither bourgeois, nor democratic. Upholding the sacred unity of the Ethiopian state, perhaps expressed most recently in quasi-Marxist terms through Mengistu's slogan "Ethiopia first!", denies the social reality of the absolutist state. There were progressive and socialist goals that could have emerged in modern times, but they must begin at the outset by rejecting the false premises of the imperial bureaucracy.
As I mentioned in a previous post, the feudal system that confronted Selassie depended on two institutions: 'gult' and 'rist'. The first defined the tributary obligations of the peasant to the nobility; the second defined the ancestral rights of a peasant or aristocrat to land. Under Selassie, these two institutions were undermined and replaced by a new set of relationships that prioritized the state rather than local fiefdoms. This was necessary in order to allow the land to become a commodity. The plantation system in Ethiopia required smashing these feudal relationships, even if the landlords who emerged in the aftermath retained certain extra-legal means of keeping the peasant under his thumb. In most instances, this entailed the same mechanisms used in Latin America, such as burdening the peasant with debt that could only be repaid by forced labor.
Selassie's unique contribution was a system called "shum-shir", which treated political and administrative offices as if they were inheritances like the old-fashioned gult. In feudal times, the gult was awarded to local nobleman in order to legitimate their extraction of tribute from the peasants. Under "shum-shir", privileges were associated with office-holding under the Emperor, which allowed a local bureaucrat to impose taxes on the peasants. In either case, the Emperor could withdraw the privileges. This, more than anything, fostered the growth of decadent cronyism in the Ethiopian political system, one of the key elements that led to its downfall.
"Listen here, Mr. Journalist, not only did the Emperor decide on all promotions, but he also communicated each one personally. He alone. He filled the posts at the summit of the hierarchy, and also its lower and middle levels. He appointed the postmasters, headmasters of schools, police constables, all the most ordinary office employees, estate managers, brewery directors, managers of hospitals and hotels and, let me say it again, he chose them personally. They would be summoned to the Audience Hall for the Hour of Assignments and lined up there in an unending line, because it was a multitude, a multitude of people awaiting the Emperorís arrival. Each one approached the throne in turn, emotionally stirred, bowing submissively, listening to the Emperorís decision. Each would kiss the hand of his benefactor and retreat from the presence without turning his back, bowing all the time. The Emperor supervised even the lowliest assignment, because the source of power was not the state or any institution, but most personally His Benevolent Highness. How important a rule that was! A special human bond, constrained by the rules of hierarchy, but a bond nevertheless, was born from this moment spent with the Emperor, when he announced the assignment and gave his blessing, from which bond came the single principle by Which His Majesty guided himself when raising people or casting them down: the principle of loyalty." (Ryszard Kapuscinski, "The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat")
In this odd admixture of feudalism and modernizing absolutism, it is not difficult to understand why the forms of resistance mounted by peasants often exhibited traits that render themselves suspect to Marxists steeped in orthodoxy. While this resistance was somewhat "impure", there was no other social class capable of resisting the dictatorship. The small commercial and industrial sector of the Ethiopian economy was inextricably linked to a largely precapitalist agrarian society, which employed more than 92 percent of the economically active population and 65 percent of the GDP. Industry employed 1 percent of the workforce, mostly employed in agroexport processing or shipping and its total contribution to the GDP was a mere 3 percent. Although the peasants produced what wealth there was in such a backward society, their lot was "nasty, brutish and short." While Selassie and his cronies benefiting from "shum-shir" walked around in the lap of luxury, the peasant subsisted on less than $120 per year, suffered an infant mortality rate of 20 percent, and 94 percent of adults were illiterate.
The first significant peasant uprising took place in the Tigre province in 1943. Resistance took the form of a coalition between peasants, semipastoral nomads, a significant fraction of the local nobility and bandits. Popularly known as the 'Weyane', the rebellion had strong provincialist and ethnic overtones. The semipastoralists fought against the local feudal lords, while both groups found motivation to resist Addis Ababa. The Italians had amalgamated portions of Tigre during their occupation of Eritrea and had canceled all taxes. When Ethiopia regained control of the province, the first thing it did was re-establish collection of the taxes, a measure that the peasants regarded as little better than the outright theft that typified Abyssinian rule in the 19th century. The peasants were nostalgic for Italian rule: "[My big brother], the Italian, with a golden belt, [is] shepherd of the poor, and eats only what is his."
Selassie could have ingratiated himself to the peasants, but his loyalties were to the big landlords and bureaucrats who saw the Tigre peasant as a mere object to draw blood from. Provincial functionaries abused the peasantry through a combination of fraud, intimidation, and misrepresentation of the tax laws. Since 94 percent of the peasants were illiterate, it was easy to understand how they could be cheated. As is typical in peasant rebellions, including the one led by Father Gapon in Czarist Russia, the peasants directed their anger at everybody but the Emperor, as expressed in this poem:
"Woe, woe, woe -- death unto the officials of today
Who abuse their authority for a kilo of grain
And who destroy documents for the gift of a goat
The emperor is not aware of these scandals
But surely he has sent us hyenas to all places
Between 1963 and 1970 the peasants of Bale, who belonged to the Somali and Oromo nationalities, took up arms against the Ethiopian state, while receiving substantial assistance from outside forces. Unlike the Tigrean 'Weyane', the conflict directly pitted peasants against landlords, although class contradictions were revealed mostly through ethnic and religious clashes. Again, the underlying symptom was the same. The imperial bureaucracy expropriated a huge portion of the cultivable land under the guise of tax default, slowly turning peasants into landless tenants.
Almost entirely Islamic, the Somali and Oromos blamed their troubles on the Amharic and Christian usurpers, who first confronted them as feudal tribute-extractors and now as bureaucratic cheaters and thieves. When Somalia became independent in 1960, irredentism fed into peasant discontent and a full-scale revolt soon broke out. While the Somalis in Ethiopia had a natural affinity for the new state, their co-suffering Omoro brothers soon were swept up by the same mood. A tactical alliance was forged by the two nationalities against their common oppressor.
Both communities were classless and stateless. Groups of extended families formed common production units, where grazing animals--including camels--were shared along with rudimentary tools. They had no experience of taxes and simply yearned for the precapitalist status quo. Based on a simplistic notion of "stages", it might be arguable that the Ethiopian state represented "civilization" and progress. Such a view has more to do with Social Darwinism than Marxism, however. In reality, the main contradiction between the Somali/Omoro alliance and the Addis Ababa state was over the social surplus, no matter what form that took. The Amharic-Christian bureaucracy viewed these nationalities as in inconvenient obstacle in the path of fertile, well-watered highland areas. The peasants were first of all to be disenfranchised from their land and then turned into sharecroppers and laborers, who would provide a wide variety of semifeudal obligations. This has nothing to do with "progress".
The last important rural uprising prior to the 1974 revolution took place in the province of Gojjam in 1968, where a new agricultural income tax in 1967 sparked long-suffering peasants into action. The principal objective of the revolt, however, was to defend the producers' unfettered access to the means of production, which were threatened by the encroachment of large estates growing coffee and other commodities for the export market as well as the customary abuse by bureaucrats. A local priest testified at an assembly on July Fourth, 1968 (!):
"I personally have not suffered any inconvenience, but in presenting the peopleís woes on oath, I know I may have put my own life in jeopardy. Come what may, it is my duty to speak, for here we have with us high-ranking state officials willing to listen. The revolt has not been caused by the levy, which in fact hurts the state more than it does the taxpayer. But the country is being plundered, wives are violated, and men are still forced to work on private estates. People have little time left to work on their own farms as they are frequently called upon to plow the fields and to harvest the crops of those in authority. It has become a common obligation to transport their flour mills from place to place, and fatal accidents have occurred in the performance of such [illegal] services. The officials kill. They never sit in their offices to carry out their duties; instead they travel around the country in pursuit of other benefits, and they deposit their [ill-gotten] money in the bank. Whenever visitors come here we are always reminded to speak of the pleasantness of life under their 'good' administration; punishment is the price of disobedience. We have even become pitiful servants of the militia; and the village judges have become like pests, for they have no regular allowances from the state. We cannot appeal, and suits are dragged out for years since delays are profitable to judges. The people have lost hope in the cause for justice."
When the peasants finally took action, it was in the form of a chaotic explosion of retribution. It was reported that tax collectors and cops were hanged and their skulls bashed in. Large estates were burned and crops uprooted. As is typically the case in all such revolts, they soon peter out because they lack a national focus and a clear social program.
Eventually an opportunity for generalizing peasant, worker and middle-class discontent manifested itself in 1974. This will be the topic of a subsequent post, but only after I address the question of Eritrea.
Sources: John Haldon, "The State and the Tributary Mode of Production," Verso, 1993 Ryszard Kapuscinski, "The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat" (Harcourt-Brace, 1977) Harold G. Marcus, "A History of Ethiopia", U. of Cal, 1986 Gebru Tareke, "Ethiopia: Power and Protest" (Cambridge University, 1991) Teshale Tibebu, "The Making of Modern Ethiopia 1896-1974" (Red Sea Press, 1995) Bahru Zewde, "A History of Modern Ethiopia 1895-1974" (Addis Ababa Press, 1991)