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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Caitlin COLLIS, University of Pennsylvania, USA

My paper asks how the development of infrastructure in southeastern Ethiopia, specifically the expansion of the rural road network under the Derg regime in the 1970s and 1980s, transformed notions of citizenship and national identity in a historically marginalized periphery. In the late 1970s, as tensions between Somalia and Ethiopia over the Ogaden flared into a full-scale war, the southeastern province of Bale was identified by the military regime in Addis as a potential base for rebels and Somali sympathizers. Within a few short years, a province that had been marginalized by the state for almost a century became the focus of intense surveillance and a test site for new forms of governmentality. A sudden policy emphasis on rural road construction, in combination with the introduction of the Peasant Associations and the implementation of various forced resettlement and ‘villagization’ schemes in the southeast, constituted a fundamentally new approach to governance – one that aimed to minimize both the actual distance and the sense of distance between center and periphery. My paper starts from the premise that roads often serve as physical manifestations of state power, and considers how the expansion of the rural road network in Bale in this particular historical moment created a host of new obligations for citizens (in terms of their labor and loyalty), and ultimately contributed to new imaginings of the state. I draw on photos, rural roads studies and manuals from the 1970s, and a file of correspondences between Bale officials and the Ministry of Public Works and Communications from the final decades of the Imperial Government in order to trace the evolution in local attitudes towards infrastructure, and to assess how rural roads factored into the broader governance strategy of the Derg. My aim is to examine the kinds of encounters that took place on and around rural roads (and in response to road construction) as a way to ascertain how ordinary Ethiopians in the southeastern periphery experienced and shaped their relationship to the center, and created their own localized centers.