Book review: Land to the Tiller an interview with Zegeye Asfaw

Land to the Tiller an interview with Zegeye Asfaw
By Ann Oosthuizen
Morfa Books
34 Rosamund Rd, Oxford, UK

By Leenco Lata

Addis Abeba, December 26/2020 – This book is an attempt to peer into the soul of a very remarkable man by relating the story of his passionate empathy with the landless peasant farmers of Ethiopia. The man is Zegeye Asfaw Abdi and his empathy with landless peasant farmers drove him to ultimately become the key government official to draft and implement the most radical land reform proclamation in history. And he achieved this remarkable feat despite himself coming from a landowning family.

The story of Zegeye Asfaw is truly remarkable on a number of levels, including his descent. On his father’s side, he descends from one of the military commanders who participated in the Menelikian conquest that brought contemporary Ethiopia into existence. The brutality of that conquest was later on widely and repeatedly reviled in Oromo nationalist discourse. On his mother’s side, however, he descends from Tufa Muna who led the uprising of Gulale Oromo clan against Menelik’s oppression, and is thus revered in Oromo nationalist discourse.

What comes through most clearly in the book is the remarkable empathy of Zegeye Asfaw with various downtrodden sectors of society. Not only the peasants but workers and women benefited from his empathy. He relates the story, when as a practicing lawyer, he found himself defending employers against their laborers without any legal council, which troubled him very much. And as the founder and overall leader of the NGO, Hundee, he advocated the rights of rural women, and whatever he could to lighten their burdensome lifestyle, as he continues to do.

More than anything else, this book is about the fight of Zegey to fully implement the Land to the Tiller slogan of the Ethiopian student movement of the 1960s. At the time many Western donors identified the outmoded and medieval land tenure system of Ethiopia as the major obstacle to its economic development. The pressure exerted by the donors ultimately forced the Imperial Government of Ethiopia to establish the Ministry of Land Reform. The Amharic title of the ministry, however, was the Ministry of Land Holding. The two versions of the title of the same institution were intended to reassure donors that land reform is seriously being considered while, at the same time, signaling to the landowning aristocracy that their land is safe.

Upon graduating from Law School Zegeye joined the Ministry of Land Reform and had to adopt a gradualist approach toward implementing the Land to the Tiller agenda because of the prospective official opposition. He and others engaged in the exercise thought regulating the relationship between landlords and their tenants could serve as the starting point for this effort, which drew the ire of the student movement radicals of the time. Even this minimal reform of the land tenure system, however, was completely unpalatable to the establishment. This came about when the Minister of Land Reform was summoned to the palace and strongly reprimanded by the Emperor accompanied by two owners of large estates in various parts of the country. And they were the Emperors own daughter, Tenagnework and Ras Mesfin Sileshi.

This refusal to stomach even a mild land reform measure paved the way for a truly unprecedented transformation of the land tenure system after the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution broke out. The Land Reform Proclamation starts out by boldly declaring that the relationship between landlord and tenant has been abolished hereafter.

This proclamation was the most important factor that put the Ethiopian Revolution on par with the preceding one in France in 1789 and the later one in Czarist Russia in 1917. What these three revolutions share in common is the total eradication of one particular class, the aristocracy.

How the proclamation was pushed through the ruling military junta and became the law is the central story in this book. And anyone interested in the history of Ethiopia of that time ought to read this book.

And it is also the story of the person, Zegeye Asfaw. What comes through very clearly is his generosity. This becomes evident from his attempt to search and dare to publicly state a positive side of the man widely reviled in recent Ethiopian history, i.e. Mengistu Hailemariam. Anyone interested in what positive aspects of this dictator, if any, could be publicly stated should read this book, which is available on Amazon. AS

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