The Politics of Resettlement

Ethiopia Table of Contents

The Derg's policies appear to have been driven more by political imperatives than by perceived economic objectives. A case in point was the controversial policy of resettling the victims of the drought and famine outside their home areas. At the height of the drought and famine in 1984, the regime set in motion a resettlement policy that was initially designed to relocate 1.5 million people from areas in the north most severely affected by drought to areas in the west and south that had experienced adequate rainfall. By 1988, despite the resettlement program's obvious failure, President Mengistu repeatedly asserted that the program would continue. He estimated that eventually 7 million of Ethiopia's approximately 48 million people would be resettled. The government claimed that it was carrying out the program for humanitarian reasons, contending that it would remove the people from exhausted and unproductive land and place them in settlements with rich agricultural potential. In addition, the government argued that the new settlements would greatly facilitate its efforts to provide social services.

Initially, settlers were chosen from feeding centers in Welo, Tigray, and northern Shewa and transported by trucks, buses, and cargo aircraft to resettlement sites in Kefa, Gojam, Gonder, Welega, and Ilubabor. The government was poorly prepared for the operation, and the first settlers experienced tremendous hardships in alien, underdeveloped, and disease-infested areas. Some peasants moved voluntarily, but many more were forced to move. Many of those forcibly resettled were able to escape. Some fled into Sudan or Somalia, and others took shelter in refugee camps or walked thousands of miles to reenter their native regions. Still others joined opposition groups dedicated to overthrowing the regime. Those who remained in resettled areas were often resented by the local residents, many of whom had been impressed into building community infrastructure and donating materials.

Some critics rejected the government's argument that resettlement was driven by humanitarian considerations. Instead, they contended that the government's motives were political. The policy led to a depopulation of areas that harbored groups that militarily opposed the regime, such as the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).

Critics within the international community charged that the Ethiopian government's resettlement program served as an obstacle to dealing more effectively with the problems of drought and famine relief. Moving victims to settlements far from their home areas merely made them inordinately dependent on the government. In addition, they claimed that fundamental human rights were sacrificed in the name of political expediency.

Regardless of the real motive for the resettlement policy, its net effect was to increase government control over large segments of society. In each resettlement site, WPE cadres carried out political education and attempted to stimulate the population to be more productive. The government insisted that it was not trying to enforce collectivized agricultural production but rather was trying to encourage more efficient activities. However, in actual practice, cadres pressured peasants to form collectives. The main value of this policy for the regime seems to have been the political control it promised.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress