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The Kebele System - Ethiopia by J7G2UPN


									The Kebele System - Ethiopia

The Kebele System is a tight system of neighbourhood administration and control in
urban Ethiopia (‘kebele’ – Amharic for ‘neighbourhood’).
Historically the Kebele became the urban equivalent to the so-called Peasant Associations
(PAs), founded by the military revolutionary government (the Derg), after dismantling
Ethiopia’s monarchy and finally arresting Haile Selassie I. During the revolutionary year of
1974 the imperial exploitation of the rural population was identified as one of the main
reasons for national poverty and underdevelopment, so land reform was first on the Derg’s
political agenda. Peasant Associations were assigned to redistribute land and persecute
‘anti-revolutionary elements’ with their own militias. Especially in the capital the Derg rivalled
with the student-backed Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP) on ideology and
influence. This resulted in the so-called Red Terror period of 1977/78, when the military
sought consolidation of its power and elimination of EPRP-members through 'revolutionary'
neighbourhood committees, the Kebeles.1
From the beginning this administrative institution served political means. So the distribution
of donated food in the different historical periods of food crisis (e.g. 1984/5) has been
channelled through this instrument as well as the allocation of housing and infrastructure
facilities. Due to its practicability the Kebele System has been kept by the succeeding
EPRDF-government2 successfully seizing power in 1991 after a long guerrilla-war.
Every neighbourhood in Ethiopia’s larger cities has its own Kebele office, comprising around
500 households per unit. Addis Ababa has 330 Kebeles, organised in 28 Woredas3 – the
next higher administrative unit, equivalent to a district. Today’s Ethiopia contains more than
30.000 Kebeles in total.4
While some of Addis Ababa’s poor and densely populated quarters may appear unclear and
chaotic, all houses, huts and the respective heads of households are registered at their
Kebele office. As state ownership of house and ground is common, house rent has to be
paid to the Kebele as well as electricity and water. Also for most bureaucratic affairs the
Kebele has to be approached - for the issue of an Identity Card, for birth or marriage
certificates or support letters for higher authorities and various job offers.5 Certain health
programmes and public education can only be accessed via the Kebele office. An ID card
can usually be applied for at the respective Kebele, if two witnesses state one's name and
origin. In case of a specific political affiliation, known or suspected by the Kebele staff one
might however be unable to do so. Consequently one will be unable to apply for a passport
or for any services where an ID is needed. In the current modernisation process of Ethiopian
cities, the Kebeles serve as administrative instruments in clearing urban building ground and
allocating apartments in the then newly erected ‘condominium’ residential buildings. While
this can bring an improvement to citizens, who are able to pay for the increased rent, poor
people rarely get the necessary support in case of their displacement. However there seem
to be no legal means to prevent, change or at least publicly discuss the governmental
construction plans at Kebele-level.

  See Donham, Donald: Marxist Modern. An Ethnographic History of the Ethiopian Revolution. Berkeley 1999:
27-30; Bahru Zewde: The History of the Red Terror. Contexts and Consequences. In: Tronvoll, Kjetil; Schaefer,
Charles; Girmachew Alemu Aneme (eds.): The Ethiopian Red Terror Trials. Oxford 2009: 17-32
  Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front
  Mekete Belachew: Modern Addis Abäba. In: Uhlig, Siegbert (ed.): Encyclopaedia Aethiopica. Vol. 1.
Wiesbaden 2005: 85-89
  Shinn, David H.; Ofcansky Thomas P.: Kebele. In: Shinn, David H.; Ofcansky Thomas P. (eds.): Historical
Dictionary of Ethiopia. Lanham, Maryland et al. 2004: 237-238
  Pausewang, Siegfried; Aalen, Lovise: Blighting the Seeds of Democracy. The 2001 Local Elections in Addis
Ababa and the Central Region. 184. In: Pausewang, Siegfried; Tronvoll, Kjetil; Aalen, Lovise (eds.): Ethiopia
since the Derg. 2002: 179-199
The need to hold elections to keep the international donors' support brought the Ethiopian
government into a dilemma as it had to accept international election observers in the
country. Especially during the local and national elections of 2001, 2005 and 2010, the
Ethiopian government used its administrative system beforehand to register or not to register
voters or to intimidate political activists by door-to-door-visits of Kebele officials in their
respective neighbourhoods.6 Suspected supporters or open members of opposition groups
might thus be excluded from community services, while members of the ruling party EPRDF
are likely to be rewarded by access to subsidised or free food, grain etc. In the war years
with neighbouring Eritrea (1998-2000) the urban Kebeles have been decisive in identifying,
dispossessing and deporting potential Eritrean citizens. For the Ethiopian government it has
become indispensible not only to control the national government, the parliament and the
regional governments (through related regional parties), but to control each and every
Kebele. This practice is widely known and documented - and tolerated by the international
donor states. The EU decided to keep critique on the national elections 2010 to a low
profile.7 Opposition leaders such as the political scientist Merera Gudina, however, identify
the use of state administration as party instruments as an obstacle to a pluralistic,
democratic state.8

Dr. Magnus Treiber
Universität Bayreuth
Fachgruppe Ethnologie
GWII Universitätsstr. 30
95440 Bayreuth

  Pausewang, Siegfried; Aalen, Lovise: Blighting the Seeds of Democracy. The 2001 Local Elections in Addis
Ababa and the Central Region. In: Pausewang, Siegfried; Tronvoll, Kjetil; Aalen, Lovise (eds.): Ethiopia since the
Derg. 2002: 179-199
  See e.g. Human Rights Watch: Ethiopia. Donor aid supports repression. 18.10.2010.
(; Human Rights Watch: One
Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure. Violations of Freedom of Expression and Association in Ethiopia.
24.05.2010; German Foreign Policy: Disziplinierungshilfe. 12.11.2010 (www.german-foreign-
  Merera Gudina: Electoral Politics and Regime Changes in Africa: The Ethiopian Experience. 120 In: Bruchhaus,
Eva-Maria; Sommer, Monika (eds): Hot Spot Horn of Africa Revisited - Approaches to Make Sense of Conflict.
Berlin 2008: 114-131; See also German Foreign Policy: Inherent Racist. Interview with Berhanu Nega.
04.10.2010 (

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