Field and river

20th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies (ICES20)
Mekelle University, Ethiopia

"Regional and Global Ethiopia - Interconnections and Identities"
1-5 October, 2018

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FANA Gebresenbet, Institute for Peace and Security Studies, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia

Attempts by successive Ethiopian governments to master the lowland frontier and interfere significantly in local social, economic and political life have been futile. Among other things, this was predicated by the inability of available land control strategies and domestic/global approaches to construct land in the lowlands as an investible resource. In past decades, the EPRDF has been vocal in criticising these past attempts. While claiming to do things differently, the EPRDF has aggressively worked to commodify this land, most successfully in Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella and South Omo. Over the past decade, domestic political and economic developments, particularly the need to marshal resources for the demands of the developmental state project, and the global land rush, created options that made investment in the lowlands feasible in the initial planning stages. Based on extensive fieldwork in Gambella and South Omo over the past five years, this paper argues that the commodification of land and associated sedenterisation schemes have led to the deployment of a form of political economy comparable to what imperial rulers were doing to the highland periphery over a century ago. In effect, the EPRDF criticises the imperial system for its land practices and cultural hegemony/denigration, while essentially doing the same thing with different systems of economic organization, discourse, political order (development) and technologies. In fact local communities experience the alienation of huge amounts of land, an influx of settlers, and an increasingly coercive state apparatus. The political economy also favours the incoming labour force and settlers, despite constitutional norms of self-determination and prioritisation of ethnicity. The villagisation scheme serves this general process, primarily by enabling land alienation by making the exclusion more legitimate and the costs bearable through a modicum of service provision.