Summary by John Gibbs
Sandra Steingraber, “Resettlement and Villagization – Tools of Militarization in S.W. Ethiopia,” Cultural Survival Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 4, Winter 1987.
The Main Point
Implemented by the government of Ethiopia to battle the suppressing famine of 1984-5, the resettlement and villagization programs were designed as one of the largest mass movements of people in the world. The government justified their actions by insisting that the relocations were necessary for ecological reasons; that it would make the division of people better attuned with the natural resources. Steingraber contradicts this and uses the remainder of her paper to distinguish how the government uses the relocation communities to “contain rural armed opposition and increase military control of this region.”
The resettlement program began relocation in late 1984, but due to western media exposure of human rights violations, the program was suspended in 1986. Due to financial contributions from western countries, the Ethiopian government realized a need to scale back movement to divert attention. After reevaluating the program, the government decided to scaled back relocation and reinitiated the program one year later in 1987.
According to the author, villagization has two purposes: “to create the necessary ‘preconditions’ for agrarian socialism, and to facilitate the provision of human social services by concentrating scattered homesteads into central communities.” A pre-designed timetable established that most rural dwellers in Ethiopia would be living in new communities by the next decade. Each community would consist of “several hundred families living in centralized locations and farming some distance from their dwelling sites.” By 1987, roughly 15 percent of the rural population had been moved into 11,000 new villages.
The southwest area of Ethiopia, containing Wollega and Illubabor, have been the most affected as a result of the programs by having received hundreds of thousands of highland settlers. The same areas harbor two armed rebel forces: the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and the Gambella People’s Liberation Movement (GPLM), both of which the government considers political and military oppositions.
Many of the refugees within the region have communicated to Steingraber the reality of the programs that are supposed to be aimed in the development of the states welfare and economy. Through regimentation of labor, threat of punishment, a hierarchal decision-making process, surveillance, and curfews suppress the people within the communities into a militarized society. Many of Steingraber’s respondents saw no evidence of social services in the new villages and many felt less advantaged than when they were home fighting the famine. Breaking rules within the camp came with strict consequences. Many settlers were beaten and food was often withheld for lesser offenses, such as refusing to work. Camp rations of 15kg of unground grain were below the internationally accepted 20kg for famine victims, also served as a source of military control and recruitment of militia. By creating militarized societies, the government was able to control the settler’s lives by controlling their diets. Members of the militia received somewhat higher apportionments of food and allowed to sleep in special places. These unique privileges enabled the government to allure settlers into the militia without similar competition from the rebel forces. Anyone found or suspected to aid rebel forces were often tortured and executed and their wives were often raped.
Most of these refugees described villagization as the last in a series of repressive measures designed to weaken their resistance to governmental control. Some believe the specific purpose of villagization was to isolate them from the rebels.
While the collective farms in the settlements were increasing agricultural production, less food was going to the producers themselves. They continued to get their monthly allotment of maize while all of the different crops they were producing were being trucked away and guarded in warehouses. President Mengistu, addressing the question, stated that “production of cash crops and agricultural ‘surpluses’ in the settlement sites are now ‘contributing to the enhancement of the country’s economic development.’” Almost half of Ethiopia’s GNP was being used in the military sector, effectively showing how the government was using the settlers labor to strengthen the military power of the state.
Within the rainforests of the Bambella lowlands lies the homeland of the Anuak, who fished the rivers, hunted the forests, and farmed the soil. In 1979, the rainforest were a chosen as a sight for a new government village and the Anuak farmers were violently removed. Immediate uprisings ensued costing the lives of hundreds of Anuaks. Some of their crops were destroyed or left to whither and be consumed by nature. Those who refused to go were bound and beaten with sticks by local militia raised by the government. Following the evictions of 1979, some Anuaks fled to Sudan where they founded the GLF.
As more Anuaks are evicted from their lands and as more settlers are brought into the region, we can expect more violent uprisings.