A Luminary of Social Research by Bahru Zewde* (Prof.)
If there is one word that describes Dessalegn Rahmato 's (1940, Ethiopia) career as a committed academic, it is consistency. There is a consistent theme that runs through his writings which have earned him a distinguished place in African social science research. That theme is the condition of the Ethiopian peasantry. Few intellectuals have pursued over a period of a lifetime ideas that they have first articulated in their study days. But that is precisely what Dessalegn has managed to do. His article on 'The conditions of the Ethiopian peasantry', which came out in 1970 in 'Challenge', the journal of the Ethiopian Students Union in North America (ESUNA) , has in effect proved to be his clarion call for sustained and committed research in peasant studies. Three decades later, we find Dessalegn still dealing with the manifold dimensions of the peasant's condition- from land tenure to environmental management, from famine to resettlement.
The late 1960's remain indelibly impressed in the minds of that generation of students whose destiny it became to take, albeit briefly, centre stage in global politics. It was the time of Rudi Dutschke and Daniel Cohn-Bendit , of radical student leaders who have become heads of governments. It was the time of Vietnam, the one symbol that united radicals all over the world on the side of a small nation holding its head high against bullying superpower. The ready spirit that propelled students into centre stage also toppled giants like De Gaulle. Ethiopian students were part and parcel of that movement. As the students at home battled with the coercive arm of the state for freedom and social justice, their compatriots abroad were striving to analyse the social and economic ills of their country. Reflection, more than direct political action, was their mode of operation. Dessalegn along with his other colleagues at ESUNA, kept up a tradition of sober and reasoned discussion of Ethiopian issues until forced into the backstage by a more strident edition of student activism.
When the Ethiopian Revolution broke out in 1974, Dessalegn was one of the few intellectuals who returned to their homeland. But he did not, as was the norm, rush into organized leftist politics. Instead, he chose the less spectacular but ultimately more fruitful path of an academic career at Addis Ababa University. And the time has shown the wisdom of that decision. For many of those who chose the political path were devoured by the merciless whirlpool of factional strife and the brutal clutches of a military dictatorship.
At Addis Ababa University, more specifically the Institute of Development Research, with which his name was so closely associated in the 1980s and 1990s, Dessalegn was to emerge as the luminary of social science research . That undoubtedly was the most productive period of his life. There were few issues if rural development that Dessalegn's proficient pen did not tackle. His magnum opus, “ Agrarian Reform in Ethiopia ”(1984), has remained the definitive assessment of the implementation of the radical land reform of 1975. In a country whose foreign image has been tragically synonymous with famine, he has established himself as a leading authority on the subject, ranging his investigation from rural poverty to peasant survival strategies, from rural symbolism to food dependence, and from food security to environmental stress.
At conferences symposia, some of which he himself organized, the figure of Dessalegn Rahmato, with the beret that was his unmistakable and inseparable badge, become a common sight. Why he always volunteered to take off this identity tag when he was presenting a paper or chairing a session has remained a mystery to this day.
Perhaps it is a measure if his respect for formal academic discourse. Be that as it may, it has rarely failed to render all those who have formerly known him only off-stage speechless for some moments until they could absorb the new look. Some would then continue to ponder for a few more minutes why he has chosen to smother such graceful, if grey, hair under the cover of his preferred headgear. In the field, though, as Dessalegn impatiently urged his colleagues on the next assignment, the famous beret has tended to give him the air of a field commander.
And it is years of dedicated application to field research that have given Dessalegn his unique insights into the mental processes of the peasant, his hopes and anxieties, his expectations and disappointments. The peasant, who has been the central focus of Dessalegn's study, has not been some distant object of theoretical analysis. Rather, there has always been an intimate and direct rapport between author and subject. Dessalegn has managed to combine to good effect the excitement of fieldwork with the sober analysis of data in the quiet solitude of his office. It is this close identification with the peasant and his life that has made Dessalegn wary of all commandist solution to the peasant's predicament. Hence his unrelenting struggle for the full economic empowerment of the peasant, including the vesting of absolute property rights in the land that he till and toils upon. Given his intimate knowledge of the peasant, it is not surprising that he has always found arguments that the peasant does not known his true interests, that he would sell away his plot the first sign of adversity, totally unconvincing .
In 1997, Addis Ababa University lost a social science researcher of the highest caliber when Dessalegn was forced to retire. The world of independent policy research gained had found the Forum for Social Studies (FSS), the first independent policy research center in Ethiopia . As manager of FSS, Dessalegn has been instrumental fostering a tradition of public discourse in the formulation and evaluation of national policy. Within the first year of its existence, FSS has organized three workshops which have brought together ministries and other government policy-makers and functionaries as well as academics to discuss issues of land, access to information and education. With a penchant for detail that leaves scarcely anything to chance, these gatherings have been remarkable not only for the wealth of discussion that they have generated but also for the precision with they have run their course. This well-deserved Prince Claus Award thus comes at a time when Dessalegn closes one glorious chapter of his life and embarks on another perhaps ultimately even more significant one.
* Bahru Zewde is Emeritus Professor of History at Addis Ababa University. He has authored several books and articles, most notably A History of Modern Ethiopia 1855-1991 (Second Edition) and Pioneers of Change in Ethiopia: The Reformist Intellectuals of the Early Twentieth Century . His edited books include: Ethiopia: The Challenge of Democracy from Below (with Siegfried Pausewang) and Between the Jaws of Hyenas: A Diplomatic History of Ethiopia 1876-1896 (by Richard Caulk) .
He has served as Chair of the Department of History at Addis Ababa University (1982-1986) and Director of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at the same University (1993-1 99 6) .
He is currently the Executive Director of the FSS, Member of the Board of Trustees of Trust Africa and Editor of the Africa Review of Books .