Taking an African Empire to its own Court: Rethinking Tools and Methods of State Construction in Imperial Ethiopia (1944-1974)

This paper examines crafts, tools and subtle processes of state construction in imperial Ethiopia through analysis of the contradictory claims, contestations and negotiations over access to and use of the essential resource—land—between 1944 and 1974. The study draws its case from a province in the west of imperial Ethiopia, Qellem, southwestern Wallagga. With Qellem as historical laboratory and drawing largely on imperial Ethiopia’s archives, oral interviews and other primary sources, the paper analyses the subtleties of the qälad system of land measurement during the period 1944–74, a period that witnessed a systematic reversal by imperial Ethiopia of the transformations of 1936–41, as well as the multiple reactions it generated. While recognizing that imperial Ethiopia’s determined efforts after 1941 derived from the commercialization of land and the national integration of the peoples in Ethiopia’s conquered south, this paper seeks to navigate the issue further by arguing that local contestations over the right to access land were significant in demonstrating how the Ethiopian state was imagined, negotiated, partially legitimized. It also examines how it was resisted through peasant appeals, petitions and court litigations as the process of state construction was embedded into the local social context in Qellem.