A short history of the enclosures in Ethiopia

By tracing the history of enclosures in Ethiopia we learn how common property was first turned into state property that now enables the transfer of land to private investors. Such historical political ecological analysis can help civil society organisations learn from past social struggles against the enclosures and for the commons.*

Land clearance in East Hararge, Ethiopia. Source: Photo by J. Wedekind

The 2007/08 financial crisis, which saw rising food and fuel prices, has been accompanied by a rush of investors for agricultural land in the global South. This has been called ‘the global land grab’ or ‘the new enclosures’ of commons.

Mainstream economists argue that land grabbing and its negative consequences occur where states are too weak to enforce property rights that clearly define ownership and use of land, so that land may be legally transferred to investors, economic benefits captured and social ills avoided. Yet such a view does not help us to understand the dynamics of land grabbing in a country like Ethiopia, where the state itself is a strong agent in manipulating property rights and enclosing the commons to grab control of land and peasants.

Political ecology not only assesses the property rights that are in place in a certain context, but also analyses property relations – the social struggles that take place over control and access to and use of property such as land – as well as how power relations change across time and space. By tracing the history of enclosures in Ethiopia we learn how common property was first turned into state property that now enables the transfer of land to private investors. While enclosures of the commons historically served to strengthen state (or market actors) from above, they also always unleashed struggles from below, by commoners  who challenged the state to provide social justice and protect the commons. This historical unfolding of enclosure and protection of the commons is part of what Karl Polanyi once referred to as a double movement in his classic book The Great Transformation.

In retelling Ethiopia’s great transformation and by paying close attention to its long history of changing property relations we can uncover a remarkable continuity of enclosures and resistances under different political regimes in the 20th century:  First under imperialism (1870s–1974), then under socialism (1974–1991), until today under developmentalism (1994–2000s). While specific to Ethiopia, a close reading of property relations can always be applied to other settings in the global South to help uncover how struggles over property and power are always closely linked.

Feudal Imperialism                                  

Ethiopia’s imperial, feudalist regime was formed during the ‘scramble for Africa’ in the late 19th century. While other African territories were enclosed by European colonizers, Emperor Menelik II expanded his rule from the central highlands of Shewa north and southwards to establish a modern Ethiopian state. Through integration and conquest of rival chiefdoms and peasantries, the Ethiopian state formed into an empire that was able to maintain independence from colonizers in the early 20th century. While Ethiopia did not experience colonial enclosures as elsewhere in Africa [1] the external presence of colonial powers meant that there were limits to further territorial expansion of the imperial state. Instead, imperial elites looked within their peripheries to transform the commons into state property and impose feudal relations which would allow them to tax peasants and fund the imperial state, which John Markakis describes in the book Ethiopia: Anatomy of a Traditional Polity.

In the densely populated central and northern highlands, various peasant communities historically practised a locally and culturally diverse customary property system called rist. It gave community members the right to access and use land, according to family or community ties. As the expanding state began to declare the highlands as property of imperial landlords many peasants eventually only had individual use-rights to the land they once had customary rights to under the rist. Although highland peasants were not physically evicted, they were in effect legally dispossessed from their rights to land. While the rist officially remained in use it was subjected to a feudal tax system where landlords taxed peasants for using farmland. Because the state was unable to fully abolish the rist and many peasants communities were either unable or unwilling to pay land taxes, some imperial elites became warlords and looked southward to exploit the lowlands for profit and power. This expansion of the Ethiopian state is detailed in The Southern Marches of Imperial Ethiopia by Donald Donham and Wendy James.

Cover Page: The Southern Marches of Imperial Ethiopia. By D. Donham and W. James.

The southern lowlands were considered by imperial elites as “unused” or sparsely populated by “primitives” – even though they were (and still are) inhabited by indigenous peasant and pastoralist communities with highly diverse customary property systems based on seasonal or shifting agro-ecological cultivation practices. Through violent forms of land grabbing the warlords enclosed vast swathes of the southern lowlands, often physically dispossessing local populations and sometimes taking them as slave labourers. The warlords began imposing a feudal property system in the south which forced peasants to pay taxes or work as labourers on the land they had once owned collectively; and yet the warlords rarely settled in the lowlands, preferring to rule in absence through local chiefs or militias.

In the mid-20th century, Emperor Haile Selassie I legally enforced the enclosures of the southern lowlands by constitutionally declaring ‘all property not held or possessed in the name of any person as state domain under imperial law’. Empowered by law, imperial administrators (often former warlords) gradually began privatising southern farmland that was suitable for large-scale farming. This way Ethiopia’s south was turned into a periphery for cheap resources and strengthened the political power of imperial elites in the urban centres.

Centralised Socialism

The enclosures of the commons under imperialism were increasingly challenged by peasants and workers across Ethiopia in the 1940s – 1970s. To avoid taxation various northern and central highland peasant communities retreated into subsistence production, while others retreated into clandestine production and trading networks to avoid taxation. Across southern Ethiopia, some of the dispossessed even turned to banditry for survival.

Various peasant movements began forming in different areas as early as the 1940s which challenged the imperial state well into the 1970s. In the north, the woyane movement fought a long-lasting peasant war to challenge centralisation of the imperial state and aim for autonomy and self-governance. Various peasant uprisings took place across the central highlands. Resistance to feudal property also emerged in the cities. Students and workers, many of who had rural backgrounds, declared solidarity with peasants with slogans like ‘land to the tiller’, demanding land reforms to abolish feudal property.

This culminated i the social revolution of 1974, which overthrew the feudal regime and different fractions of progressive intellectuals and military leaders struggled for power, which is described in detail by John Markakis and Nega Ayele’s in Class and Revolution in Ethiopia. A military junta under Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam moved most quickly and ruthlessly to form a new centralised socialist state. The so called Derg regime set out to abolish feudal property relations with the radical 1975 Land Act which declared ‘all rural lands [as] collective property of the Ethiopian people’ and pledged that ‘any person … willing to personally cultivate land shall be allotted rural land’. In theory this gave all peasants equal rights to land, but in practice these land reforms were experienced highly unevenly [2] across the north, centre and southern peripheries of Ethiopia.

Class and Revolution in Ethiopia
Cover Page: Class and Revolution in Ethiopia. By J. Markakis and N. Ayele

The northern peasantries had hoped for autonomy after the revolution in order to re-establish customary property systems. Yet precisely because peasants were now regarded by the state to have “equal” rights to state land, the regionally and culturally uneven rist systems were not prioritized by the state. The state planners instead created rural Peasant Associations and staffed these with bureaucratic administrators in order to implement the land reforms as fast as possible. Soon after the first wave of land reforms, the central state quickly ran out of revenues – due to stagnant agricultural productivity and high military expenses – and ordered the Peasant Associations to begin taxing the peasantry stronger. The effect of agrarian reform in Ethiopia was that northern peasants soon found themselves having the same squeezing tax obligations to the administrators of the socialist regime as they previously experienced under the imperial regime.

In the south, land reforms initially provided a relief for much of the population, especially for landless peasants who now managed to regain access to farmland. But by the 1980s the state made collectivised agriculture in the south a priority for economic development. Like previous imperial elites, the socialist planners considered the low-density lowlands and their peasant or pastoralist communities “unproductive”. Accordingly, old private capitalist farms were converted into collectivised state farms and small peasants were forced into producer co-operatives. The additional landless labour force required for agricultural collectivisation was violently mobilised through massive resettlement projects, including the forced resettlement of poor highland peasants to southern producer co-operatives and the displacement of landless peasants or pastoralists across the south into wage-labour camps near large state farms.

By the 1980s a huge section of Ethiopia’s rural population had experienced land grabbing, displacement and famine as a result of the radical land reforms and resettlement projects, as is well documented in Pankhurst and Piguet’s important book on Moving People in Ethiopia: Development Displacement and the State.

Federal Developmentalism          

The agricultural policies of the socialist planners were unsuccessful and unpopular as agricultural output was low and famine a constant risk. Particularly, the suppression of cultural diversity, ethnic identity and customary property regimes led to rural unrest. Various rural liberation movements formed across Ethiopia, mobilising their own ethnic communities and forming coalitions with other ethnic movements in different regions. This multi-ethnic coalition was led by the northern Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and coordinated rural insurgencies against the socialist military. After years of guerilla struggle, the movements took power in 1991, forming a coalition of ethnic parties, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), in which the TPLF was (and remains) the most influential group dictating the politics of the ethnic-federal state.

EPRDF Propaganda for agrarian transformation. Photo by J. Wedekind

Ethiopias federal system governance is supposed to be decentralised by means of its division into different ethnic regions and the 1994 Constitution according to which ‘the right to ownership of … land is exclusively vested in the state and the peoples of Ethiopia. Land is a common property of the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia and shall not be subject to sale’. Ethiopia’s decentralised property system was indeed partly designed to acknowledge the cultural diversity of the various customary property systems.

The new political elite immediately pursued a highly modernist development logic, according to which the state strongly regulates industrial development and – in theory – only gradually privatises agricultural land, in order to avoid the massive peasant dispossessions of the previous regimes. The propaganda of the new developmental state declared that its main task is a great transformation of Ethiopia from a primarily agrarian society to a modern industrial economy. The strategy to do so wasinitially based on providing peasants with technologies (credits, fertilisers, seeds) to boost their productivity and to systematically shift agricultural surpluses (i.e. agrarian capital) into industrial development. Yet over the 90s and early 2000s the peasantries did not become as productive as the political elites had hoped. Consequently the state soon revised its development strategy, increasingly relying on foreign direct investments (international agribusiness and national elites) to bring in capital and boost agricultural productivity and industrial growth. But these investments also go hand in hand with a re-centralisation of land governance by the state and leads to further uneven development across the north and south of Ethiopia.

In the central and northern highlands, the state now directs investments into peasant agriculture in order to commodify their production activities. These investments encourage farmers to produce a surplus to sell on agricultural markets or for export. The effect of directing investments into peasant agriculture in the Ethiopian highlands leads to a slow process of economic differentiation between peasants as they compete with each other, accelerating the process of depeasantization – as poorer peasants are compelled to give up farming – and dispossession – as farmers often leave their farmland and become landless. The state still does not fully privatise land, fearing that this will lead to massive dispossessions and potentially social upheavals. But by directing investments into peasant agriculture and thereby promoting the commodification of customary peasant land and production systems, the federal state gradually contributes to the slow destruction of customary property systems (i.e. the commons) in the highlands.

As part of its new development strategy for the southern and western peripheries, the Ethiopian state identified special investment zones where foreign and domestic investors may establish large-scale farms for food and energy production. This land is leased to investors and the state sometimes mobilises the required labour force for the investors. Like the two previous regimes before it, the political elites claim that the lowlands are “underused” by “unproductive” peasants and pastoralists. To make way for agricultural investments, the state resettles or claims to compensate indigenous communities. In many cases however, pastoralists are forced to settle-down and peasants are disposessed so as to make space (or work as daily labourers) for the new large-scale investment farms.

In recent years, as John Markakis argues in Ethiopia: The Last Two Frontiers – his latest of three seminal books on the Ethiopian state – it seems that the Ethiopian state is stretching to its final frontier, grabbing land to enforce state control and enable capital accumulation over the peripheries, and thereby displacing the last commoners and enclosing the remaining commons in Ethiopia. But as we have learned here from Ethiopia’s great transformation, there is always a double movement. The enclosure of the commons by the state and market actors never goes unchallenged.

ethiopia the last two frontiers
Cover Page: Ethiopia, The Last Two Frontiers. By J. Markakis

Lessons from Ethiopian History

Land grabbing has different faces in different global settings. The above historical political ecology of changing property relations, though specific to Ethiopia, provides analytical tools that can be applied to other settings, in order to first comprehend and potentially counteract the global enclosures of the commons.

There are two key elements that individuals and organisations involved in social struggles for land rights can learn from such an historical analysis:

First, it is always vital to understand histories of property relations – their changes and continuities – in order to identify the coercive and consensual strategies through which state (and market) actors can manipulate property rights in order to legally (and illegally) enclose the commons and physically grab land. This is important, to comprehend and challenge processes of commons’ enclosures and land grabs that are taking place today.

Second, progressive states, even when promising to act in the interest of a marginalised collective, must be held accountable by a strong civil society organisation, in order to serve commoners rather than political or economic elites. Currently there are few civil society organisations in Ethiopia that are able to push for common land rights for culturally diverse commoners, despite a rich history of social movements, revolutions and progressive state agents [3] striving for common access to and use of ressources like land.

The task therefore, is to help strengthen civil society organisations on the basis of learning from the potentials and perils of past social struggles against the enclosures and for the commons.

* This post is part of a series sharing chapters from the edited volume Political Ecology for Civil Society. Jonah Wedekind’s chapter contribution with the original title ‘A Short History of the Enclosures in Ethiopia: imperialist, socialist and developmentalist land grabs’ is included in the chapter on the commons. We are eager to receive comments from readers and especially from activists and civil actors themselves, on how this work could be improved, both in terms of useful content, richness of examples, format, presentation and overall accessibility.


[1]  Apart from a brief but violent Italian occupation (1935-1940).

[2] See the contribution by Gustavo Garcia-Lopez in the manual, to be posted shortly on ENTITLEblog, where comparable radical land reforms were carried out.

[3]  See the contribution by Diego Andreucci on Bolivia, where a supposedly progressive government has curtailed the rights of CSOs.

A list of organisations working on land grabs in Ethiopia

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