Resettlement and Villagization
Cornfields surround a village in Ansokia Valley, 350
kilometers nort of Addis Ababa.
Courtesy World VIsion (Bruce Brander)
Drought and famine have been frequent occurrences in
Ethiopia. In fact, it was the imperial government's attempt
to hide the effects of the 1973-74 famine that aroused world
indignation and eventually contributed to Haile Selassie I's
The Establishment of the Derg, ch. 1). Between
1984 and 1986, drought and famine again hit Ethiopia and may
have claimed as many as 1 million lives and threatened
nearly 8 million more (see
The Politics of Drought and
Famine, ch. 4). Even worse disaster was averted when the
international community mounted a massive effort to airlift
food and medical supplies to famine victims.
The government embarked on forced resettlement and
villagization in the mid-1980s as part of a national program
to combat drought, avert famine, and increase agricultural
productivity. Resettlement, the regime's long-term solution
to the drought problem, involved the permanent relocation of
about 1.5 million people from the drought-prone areas of the
north to the south and southwest, where population was
relatively sparse and so-called virgin, arable land was
Government Rural Programs, ch. 3;
Politics of Resettlement, ch. 4).
Development specialists agreed on the need for resettlement
of famine victims in Ethiopia, but once the process had
begun, there was widespread criticism that resettlement was
poorly planned and haphazardly executed and thus increased
the number of famine deaths. Moreover, critics charged that
the government forcibly relocated peasants, in the process
breaking up thousands of families. Thousands also died of
malaria and sleeping sickness because of poor sanitation and
inadequate health care in newly settled areas. A Paris-based
international doctors' organization, Doctors Without Borders
(Médecins sans Frontières), estimated that the forced
resettlement and mass deportation of peasants for purposes
of resettlement endangered the lives of 300,000 because of
shortages of food, water, and medicine. Other international
organizations accused the Ethiopian government of moving
peasants to resettlement areas without adequate preparation
of such basic items as housing, water, seeds, and tools.
Because of widespread criticism, the Mengistu regime
temporarily halted the resettlement program in mid-1986
after 600,000 people had been relocated, but the program
resumed in November 1987.
Some sources voiced suspicion that the regime's primary
motive in resettlement was to depopulate the northern areas
where it faced insurgencies. Resettlement, the argument
went, would reduce the guerrillas' base of support.
But this argument did not take into account
the strength of the Tigray People's
Liberation Front (TPLF) (see
The Tigrayan Movement, ch. 4;
The Tigray, ch. 5). Another Western objection to the
resettlement program related to the long-term government
policy concerning peasant farms. Western countries, on whose
support the resettlement program depended, did not want to
sponsor a plan in which recruits labored for communist-style
collectives and state farms.
The villagization program, the regime's plan to transform
rural society, started in earnest in January 1985 (see
Politics of Villagization, ch. 4). If completed, the program
might have uprooted and relocated more than 30 million
peasants over a nine-year period. The regime's rationale for
the program was that the existing arrangement of dispersed
settlements made it difficult to provide social services and
to use resources, especially land and water, efficiently.
The relocation of the peasants into larger villages (with
forty to 300 families, or 200 to 2,500 people) would give
rural people better access to amenities such as agricultural
extension services, schools, clinics, water, and electricity
cooperative services and would strengthen local security and
the capacity for self-defense. Improved economic and social
services would promote more efficient use of land and other
natural resources and would lead to increased agricultural
production and a higher standard of living.
More specifically, the Ethiopian government perceived
villagization as a way to hasten agricultural
collectivization. Most peasant farming in Ethiopia was still
based on a traditional smallholding system, which produced
90 percent of farm output, employed about 80 percent of the
labor force, and accounted for 94 percent of cultivable land
in 1985. State farms and cooperative farms were responsible
for only 4 percent and 2 percent, respectively, of
By the end of 1988, more than 12 million people had been
relocated in villages in twelve of the fourteen
administrative regions. The exceptions were Eritrea and
Tigray, where insurgents were waging war against the regime.
In 1989 the total reached about 13 million people. Some
regions implemented villagization more rapidly than others.
In Harerge, where the program began in 1985, more than 90
percent of the population had been relocated to villages by
early 1987, whereas in Gonder and Welo the program was just
beginning. In Ilubabor more than 1 million peasants had been
relocated to 2,106 villages between December 1985 and March
1989. Nomadic peoples and shifting cultivators were not
affected by villagization.
The verdict on villagization was not favorable. Thousands
of people fled to avoid villagization; others died or lived
in deplorable conditions after being forcibly resettled.
Moreover, the program's impact on rural peasants and their
social and economic well-being remained to be assessed.
There were indications that in the short term, villagization
may have further impoverished an already poor peasantry. The
services that were supposed to be delivered in new villages,
such as water, electricity, health care clinics, schools,
transportation, and agricultural extension services, were
not being provided because the government lacked the
necessary resources. Villagers therefore resorted to
improvised facilities or reverted to old ways of doing
things. Villagization also reduced the productive capacity
of the peasants by depriving them of the opportunity for
independent organization and action. By increasing the
distance peasants had to travel to work on their land and
graze their cattle, villagization wasted time and effort.
Denied immediate access to their fields, the peasants were
also prevented from guarding their crops from birds and
other wild animals.
In the long run, analysts believed that villagization would
be counterproductive to a rational land use system and would
be damaging ecologically. Concentrating people in a central
area would, in time, intensify pressure on available water
and grazing and lead to a decline in soil fertility and to a
poorer peasantry. The ecological damage could be averted by
the application of capital investment in infrastructure,
such as irrigation and land-intensive agricultural
technology and strict application of land rotation to avert
overgrazing. But resources were unavailable for such
The most bitter critics of villagization, such as Survival
International, a London-based human rights organization,
argued that the Mengistu regime's noneconomic objective in
villagization was control of the population. Larger villages
would facilitate the regime's control over the population,
cut rebels off from peasant support, and discourage
dissident movements. Indeed, some observers believed that
the reason for starting villagization in Harerge and Bale
was nothing less than to suppress support of the Oromo
Liberation Front (OLF).
After the government's announcement of the new economic
policy in March 1990, peasants were given the freedom to
join or abandon cooperatives and to bring their produce to
market. Hence, the Mengistu regime abandoned one of the
strong rationales for villagization and, in effect, the
whole program as well.
Data as of 1991