Home Opinion Born in Chains: A Brief History of an Ethiopian Peasant

Born in Chains: A Brief History of an Ethiopian Peasant

Ethiopian Peasant _ FineartAmerica
Ethiopian Peasant ( photo credit : Fine Art America)

Bezabih Wegayehu

A traveler that roamed the northern part of Ethiopia for three years in the 19th century stated that the people he visited were “so crushed in their circumstances … they were incapable of forming any expensive ideas of liberty”. Indeed, this traveler, who was named Samuel Gobat, arrived in Ethiopia during the era of the Princes or Zemene Mesafint – a time of anarchy. The lords fought against themselves for power while they ravaged the peasants to fund and feed their pointless wars. According to Richard Pankhurst, the peasants also ransacked one another because that was the only way they could survive the calamity that was brought by warring entities. This tumultuous time, without a doubt, was one of the worst eras of Ethiopian history. It was, it can be well argued, a time when justice was forced on exile. The peasant, who was poor and weak, longed for this justice until he forgot what it was. 

Zemene Mesafint ended in 1856 when the rebel Kassa Hailu unified the northern part of Ethiopia and crowned himself emperor Tewodros II. The Ethiopian State was saved from disintegration by the rise of Kassa but for the poor, little changed. Emperor Tewodros was in constant wars with the kings of his provinces. Shewa would revolt when he went to subdue uprisings in Tigray and vice versa. This meant that the Kings of each province needed an army to resist the blow of their Emperor and, of course, the Emperor also needed soldiers to crush his “enemies”. The armies, which were the sons of peasants, in turn, needed land to fight on. They also needed food to stay strong for the cause of their king or Emperor, as the case may be. As a result, the poor peasant was once again faced with violence and famine. Tewodros’ successors, Emperor Tekle Giorgis II, Emperor Yohannes IV, Emperor Minilik II, Lij Eyasu, Empress Zewditu I, and Emperor Haileselassie I were also not able to lift the poor out of their suffering. Until 1974, the country was a harsh feudal state that treated its peasants like slaves.

In 1974, the monarchy was toppled once and for all as a result of a revolution which was fueled by students who leaned towards communism. A military junta took power from Emperor Haileselasie I and declared “land to the tiller”. It took land from the owners and distributed it to the peasants. However, it made the government the legal owner of the land giving itself the power to do how it pleases with the land. The peasant, once again, had to live according to the will of his rulers – whether right or wrong. 

The Dergue was in a constant civil war until it was defeated in 1991. The children of the peasants were taken to fight the wars in Eritrea and Tigray. The peasants and the poor of the 70’s and 80’s gave their sons away to die as their fathers, grandfathers, and great grandfathers did. The peasant was also not an owner of a land, which he was promised. To make matters worse, this peasant was forgotten by his government when his land was struck with a severe drought in the 1980’s. As Berhanu Bayeh, who was a Foreign Minister during the Dergue era, stated in his autobiography his government was busy celebrating its 10th anniversary and forgot the fathers of its soldiers in a frenzy of imported whisky during the 1984 famine. Meanwhile, Ethiopia became infamous across the world for famine – a name which still haunts its people. Justice continued to be a fantasy for the Ethiopian peasant. 

In 1991, the EPRDF controlled power after defeating the Dergue while Eritrea got its independence in 1993. The time of the EPRDF was peaceful except for a border war with Eritrea that lasted for two years between 1998 and 2000 (again, the children of the peasant were at the front defending their country). This time, at least, forced military service was not exercised. The government is also commended for developing the country. Nonetheless, the EPRDF followed a suffocating style of authoritarianism where nothing can be said against the party. Hence, it grew to be corrupt while its courts failed to deliver justice for those who stood against the government. Under a developmental mindset, the peasant was also relegated as “unlearnt” who does not know what is good for himself. 

In 2018, a change was promised after a series of protests in Oromia, and to some extent, Amhara regional states. A new Prime Minister promised justice and prosperity for his people. The EPRDF was changed to the Prosperity Party in 2020. The country saw hope. However, the euphoria was short lived as the country found itself in a civil war which started in November 2020 between the Federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. This war lasted for two years and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. The peasant, once again, found himself at the front. As the country’s human rights commission testified, he saw his house being destroyed and his wife and daughters, raped. 

Ethiopia is still at war with itself and its poor are in agony. Suffering for the Ethiopian peasant seems to be eternal. It did not start during the Zemene Mesafint and it does not look like it will end soon. As indicated in the previous paragraphs, the country has always been embroiled in civil wars and the peasant has always paid the heaviest price. Indeed, there were times that could be dubbed “peaceful” in Ethiopian history. However, these “peaceful” times were not as peaceful and comfortable for the peasant as we think they ought to be. The peasant had other duties when he was not fighting the wars of his rulers or feeding their armies. Most of the peasants did not own land and, therefore, had to serve their lords. A typical peasant during the times of the Monarchy (until 1974) had to farm for his lord and provide his labour whenever required by the lord. His wife, on the other hand, was required to fulfill any household duty required by her lady, the wife of her lord. On top of that, the peasant was also required to pay heavy taxes. And if the peasant had legal battles, the local authority would not start his gear and look at the case unless he was greased with some form of bribe. Absurd customary laws also forced the peasant not to enjoy life with what little he had. For example, an Ethiopian peasant who lived in the north before Emperor Yohannes IV was not allowed to brew honey mead (tej). This delicacy was reserved for the nobility. 

Even today, the peasant who lives in parts of Ethiopia where there are military actions is required to sacrifice his children and harvest. He/she will easily be relocated from his/her home because land belongs to the government. Corruption denies him of basic needs such as justice, health care, and clean water. The elite, on the other hand, often forget the peasant when they vehemently argue about the economy and politics. Investors and merchants do not pay their taxes properly – money which could be used to build hospitals and schools for the poor peasant. Religious institutions do not preach moral values and hard work as they should. 

In conclusion, the history of the Ethiopian peasant is full of suffering. An Ethiopian peasant is born in a country that does not care about the poor and weak. He leads life in a corrupt society that admires violence, corruption, and theft. He is forced to die for a cause that will only nourish warlords or his so-called leaders at the end. Therefore, it seems that an Ethiopian peasant is cursed to lead a hard life because he is born in chains. 

Bezabih Wegayehu is an avid reader of history. He can be reached at bezabih.wegayehu@outlook.com 

Editor’s note : Views in the article do not necessarily reflect the views of borkena.com


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