Ethiopia – Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia
Ethiopia, country on the Horn of Africa. The country lies completely within the tropical latitudes and is relatively compact, with similar north-south and east-west dimensions. The capital is Addis Ababa (“New Flower”), located almost at the centre of the country. Ethiopia is the largest and most populated country in the Horn of Africa. With the 1993 secession of Eritrea, its former province along the Red Sea, Ethiopia became landlocked.
Ethiopia is one of the world’s oldest countries, its territorial extent having varied over the millennia of its existence. In ancient times it remained centred on Aksum, an imperial capital located in the northern part of the modern state, about 100 miles (160 km) from the Red Sea coast. The present territory was consolidated during the 19th and 20th centuries as European powers encroached into Ethiopia’s historical domain. Ethiopia became prominent in modern world affairs first in 1896, when it defeated colonial Italy in the Battle of Adwa, and again in 1935–36, when it was invaded and occupied by fascist Italy. Liberation during World War II by the Allied powers set the stage for Ethiopia to play a more prominent role in world affairs. Ethiopia was among the first independent nations to sign the Charter of the United Nations, and it gave moral and material support to the decolonization of Africa and to the growth of Pan-African cooperation. These efforts culminated in the establishment of the Organization of African Unity (since 2002, the African Union) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, both of which have their headquarters in Addis Ababa.
Relief of Ethiopia
Ethiopia’s topography, one of the most rugged in Africa, is built on four geologic formations. Rocks of Precambrian origin (more than 540 million years in age) form the oldest basal complex of Ethiopia, as they do in most of Africa. The Precambrian layer is buried under more recent geologic formations—except in parts of northern, western, and southern Ethiopia, where there are exposed rock layers of granite and schist. Geologic processes of the Mesozoic Era (about 250 to 65 million years ago) contributed sedimentary layers of limestone and sandstone, most of which have been either eroded or covered by volcanic rocks. Younger sedimentary layers are found in northern Ethiopia and on the floors of the Rift Valley. Lava flows from the Cenozoic Era (i.e., the past 65 million years) have formed basaltic layers that now cover two-thirds of Ethiopia’s land surface with a thickness ranging from about 1,000 feet (300 metres) to almost 10,000 feet (3,000 metres). The Rift Valley forms a spectacular graben (a massive tectonic trough) running right down the middle of the country from the northern frontier with Eritrea to the southern border with Kenya.
Although Ethiopia’s complex relief defies easy classification, five topographic features are discernible. These are the Western Highlands, the Western Lowlands, the Eastern Highlands, the Eastern Lowlands, and the Rift Valley. The Western Highlands are the most extensive and rugged topographic component of Ethiopia. The most spectacular portion is the North Central massifs; these form the roof of Ethiopia, with elevations ranging from 14,872 feet (4,533 metres) for Mount Ras Dejen (or Dashen), the highest point in Ethiopia, to the Blue Nile and Tekeze river channels 10,000 feet below. Lake Tana—Ethiopia’s largest inland lake and the main reservoir for the Blue Nile River—is located in this region, at an elevation of about 6,000 feet (1,800 metres).
The Western Lowlands stretch north-south along the border with Sudan and South Sudan and include the lower valleys of the Blue Nile, Tekeze, and Baro rivers. With elevations of about 3,300 feet (1,000 metres), these lowlands become too hot to attract dense settlement.
The Rift Valley is part of the larger East African Rift System. Hemmed in by the escarpments of the Western and Eastern Highlands, it has two distinct sections. The first part is in the northeast, where the valley floor widens into a funnel shape as it approaches the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. This is a relatively flat area interrupted only by occasional volcanic cones, some of which are active. The Denakil Plain, in which a depression known as the Kobar Sink drops as low as 380 feet (116 metres) below sea level, is found here. High temperatures and lack of moisture make the northeastern Rift Valley unattractive for settlement. The southwestern section, on the other hand, is a narrow depression of much higher elevation. It contains Ethiopia’s Lakes Region, an internal drainage basin of many small rivers that drain into Lakes Abaya, Abiyata, Awasa, Langano, Shala, Chamo, and Ziway. Together these lakes have more than 1,200 square miles (3,108 square km) of water surface. The upper Rift Valley is one of the most productive and most settled parts of Ethiopia.
The Eastern Highlands are much smaller in extent than the Western Highlands, but they offer equally impressive contrast in topography. The highest peaks are Tullu Deemtu (Tulu Dīmtu), at 14,360 feet (4,377 metres), and Mount Batu, at 14,127 feet (4,305 metres). The Eastern Lowlands resemble the long train of a bridal gown suddenly dipping from the narrow band of the Eastern Highlands and gently rolling for hundreds of miles to the Somalian border. Two important regions here are the Ogaden and the Hawd. The Shebele and Genale rivers cross the lowlands, moderating the desert ecology.
Ethiopia has three principal drainage systems. The first and largest is the western drainage system, which includes the watersheds of the Blue Nile (known as the Abay in Ethiopia), the Tekeze, and the Baro rivers. All three rivers flow west to the White Nile in South Sudan and Sudan. The second is the Rift Valley internal drainage system, composed of the Awash River, the Lakes Region, and the Omo River. The Awash flows northeast to the Denakil Plain before it dissipates into a series of swamps and Lake Abe at the border with Djibouti. The Lakes Region is a self-contained drainage basin, and the Omo flows south into Lake Turkana (Rudolf), on the border with Kenya. The third system is that of the Shebele and Genale rivers. Both of these rivers originate in the Eastern Highlands and flow southeast toward Somalia and the Indian Ocean. Only the Genale (known as the Jubba in Somalia) makes it to the sea; the Shebele (in Somali, Shabeelle) disappears in sand just inside the coastline.
Soils of Ethiopia
The soils of Ethiopia can be classified into five principal types. The first type is composed of euritic nitosols and andosols and is found on portions of the Western and Eastern highlands. These soils are formed from volcanic material and, with proper management, have medium to high potential for rain-fed agriculture. The second group of soils, eutric cambisols and ferric and orthic luvisols, are found in the Simien plateau of the Western Highlands. They are highly weathered with a subsurface accumulation of clay and are characterized by low nutrient retention, surface crusting, and erosion hazards. With proper management, they are of medium agricultural potential.
The third group of soils is the dark clay found in the Western Lowlands and at the foothills of the Western Highlands. Composed of vertisols, they have medium to high potential for both food and agriculture but pose tillage problems because they harden when dry and become sticky when wet. Some of the rich coffee-growing regions of Ethiopia are found on these soils.
The fourth group is composed of yermosols, xerosols, and other saline soils that cover desert areas of the Eastern Lowlands and the Denakil Plain. Because of moisture deficiency and coarse texture, they lack potential for rain-fed agriculture. However, the wetter margins are excellent for livestock, and even the drier margins respond well to irrigation. The fifth soil group is lithosols found primarily in the Denakil Plain. Lack of moisture and shallow profile preclude cultivation of these soils.
Soil erosion is a serious problem in Ethiopia. Particularly in the northern provinces, which have been settled with sedentary agriculture for millennia, population density has caused major damage to the soil’s physical base, to its organic and chemical nutrients, and to the natural vegetation cover. Even on the cool plateaus, where good volcanic soils are found in abundance, crude means of cultivation have exposed the soils to heavy seasonal rain, causing extensive gully and sheet erosion.
Because Ethiopia is located in the tropical latitudes, its areas of lower elevation experience climatic conditions typical of tropical savanna or desert. However, relief plays a significant role in moderating temperature, so higher elevations experience weather typical of temperate zones. Thus, average annual temperatures in the highlands are in the low 60s F (mid-10s C), while the lowlands average in the low 80s F (upper 20s C).
There are three seasons in Ethiopia. From September to February is the long dry season known as the bega; this is followed by a short rainy season, the belg, in March and April. May is a hot and dry month preceding the long rainy season (kremt) in June, July, and August. The coldest temperatures generally occur in December or January (bega) and the hottest in March, April, or May (belg). However, in many localities July has the coldest temperatures because of the moderating influence of rainfall.
Ethiopia can be divided into four rainfall regimes. Rain falls year-round in the southern portions of the Western Highlands, where annual precipitation may reach 80 inches (2,000 mm). Summer rainfall is received by the Eastern Highlands and by the northern portion of the Western Highlands; annual precipitation there may amount to 55 inches (1,400 mm). The Eastern Lowlands get rain twice a year, in April–May and October–November, with two dry periods in between. Total annual precipitation varies from 20 to 40 inches (500 to 1,000 mm). The driest of all regions is the Denakil Plain, which receives less than 20 inches (500 mm) and sometimes none at all.
Plant and animal life
Ethiopia’s natural vegetation is influenced by four biomes. The first is savanna, which, in wetter portions of the Western highlands, consists of montane tropical vegetation with dense, luxuriant forests and rich undergrowth. Drier sections of savanna found at lower elevations of the Western and Eastern Highlands contain tropical dry forests mixed with grassland. The second biome is mountain vegetation; it comprises montane and temperate grasslands and covers the higher altitudes of the Western and Eastern highlands. The third biome, tropical thickets and wooded steppe, is found in the Rift Valley and Eastern Lowlands. The fourth biome is desert steppe vegetation, which covers portions of the Denakil Plain.
Ethiopia has had a rich variety of wildlife that in some cases has been reduced to a few endangered remnants. Lions, leopards, elephants, giraffes, rhinoceroses, and wild buffalo are rarities, especially in northern Ethiopia. The Rift Valley, the Omo River valley, and the Western Lowlands contain remnants of big-game varieties. Smaller game varieties such as foxes, jackals, wild dogs, and hyenas are found abundantly throughout the country.
Uniquely Ethiopian and among the most endangered species are the walia ibex of the Simien Mountains, the mountain nyala (a kind of antelope), and the Simien jackal. In addition, the gelada monkey is under threat. All four species are found in the Western and Eastern highlands in numbers ranging from a few hundred for the walia ibex to a few thousand for the others. More-abundant varieties found in the lowlands include such antelopes as the oryx, the greater kudu, and the waterbuck, various types of monkeys including the black-and-white colobus (known as guereza in Ethiopia and hunted for its beautiful long-haired pelt), and varieties of wild pig. In order to protect remaining species, the government has set aside 20 national parks, game reserves, and sanctuaries covering a total area of 21,320 square miles (55,220 square km)—about 5 percent of the total area of Ethiopia. Simien Mountains National Park, home to several endangered species, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978.
Ethnic groups and languages
Ethiopians are ethnically diverse, with the most important differences on the basis of linguistic categorization. Ethiopia is a mosaic of about 100 languages that can be classified into four groups. The vast majority of languages belong to the Semitic, Cushitic, or Omotic groups, all part of the Afro-Asiatic language family. A small number of languages belong to a fourth group, Nilotic, which is part of the Nilo-Saharan language family.
The Semitic languages are spoken primarily in the northern and central parts of the country; they include Geʿez, Tigrinya, Amharic, Gurage, and Hareri. Geʿez, the ancient language of the Aksumite empire, is used today only for religious writings and worship in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Tigrinya is native to the northeastern part of the country. Amharic is one of the country’s principal languages and is native to the central and northwestern areas. Gurage and Hareri are spoken by relatively few people in the south and east.
The most prominent Cushitic languages are Oromo, Somali, and Afar. Oromo is native to the western, southwestern, southern, and eastern areas of the country. Somali is dominant among inhabitants of the Ogaden and Hawd, while Afar is most common in the Denakil Plain.
The Omotic languages, chief among which is Walaita, are not widespread, being spoken mostly in the densely populated areas of the extreme southwest. The Nilotic language group is native to the Western Lowlands, with Kunama speakers being dominant.
Under the constitution, all Ethiopian languages enjoy official state recognition. However, Amharic is the “working language” of the federal government; together with Oromo, it is one of the two most widely spoken languages in the country. In the 1990s ethnolinguistic differences were used as the basis for restructuring Ethiopia’s administrative divisions.
Religion of Ethiopia
Christianity was introduced to Ethiopia in the 4th century, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (called Tewahdo in Ethiopia) is one of the oldest organized Christian bodies in the world. The church has long enjoyed a dominant role in the culture and politics of Ethiopia, having served as the official religion of the ruling elite until the demise of the monarchy in 1974. It also has served as the repository of Ethiopia’s literary tradition and its visual arts. The core area of Christianity is in the highlands of northern Ethiopia, but its influence is felt in the entire country. More than two-fifths of Ethiopians follow the teachings of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. An additional one-fifth adhere to other Christian faiths, the vast majority of which are Protestant.
Islam was introduced in the 7th century and is now practiced by about one-third of Ethiopians. It is most important in the outlying regions, particularly in the Eastern Lowlands, but there are local concentrations throughout the country. Traditionally, the status of Islam has been far from equal with that of Christianity. However, Haile Selassie I (reigned 1930–74) gave audiences to Muslim leaders and made overtures in response to their concerns, and under the Derg regime (1974–91) even more was done to give at least symbolic parity to the two faiths. Nevertheless, the perception of Ethiopia as “an island of Christianity in a sea of Islam” has continued to prevail among both highland Ethiopians and foreigners. There are some concerns among highlanders that fundamentalist Muslim movements in the region and in neighbouring countries may galvanize sentiments for a greater role of Islam in Ethiopia.
A small fraction of Ethiopians are animists who worship a variety of African deities. The majority of these traditionalists are speakers of Nilotic languages, such as the Kunama, and are located in the Western Lowlands.
Judaism has long been practiced in the vicinity of the ancient city of Gonder. Most of the Ethiopian Jews—who call themselves Beta Israel—have relocated to Israel (see Researcher’s Note: Beta Israel migration to Israel, 1980–92).
With only about one-fifth of the population urbanized, most Ethiopians live in scattered rural communities. In order to reduce traveling distance, homesteads are generally scattered to be near farm plots. Buildings vary between circular and rectangular styles and are constructed of materials readily found within the environment. Roofs are mostly thatched, but rural households are increasingly opting for corrugated steel tops.
Modern urban centres in Ethiopia include the national capital of Addis Ababa and such regional centres as Dire Dawa (in the east), Jima (south), Nekemte (west), Dese (north-central), Gonder (northwest), and Mekele (north). Addis Ababa, founded by Menilek II in 1886, brought an end to the custom of “roving capitals” practiced by earlier monarchs. After World War II, “Addis” obtained the lion’s share of investments in industry, social services, and infrastructure, so it became the most attractive place for young people to seek opportunity. Although there has been an emphasis on decentralizing development, Addis Ababa still remains the prime destination for many migrants who are attracted by the opportunities it is perceived to offer or by its relative peace and security.
Ethiopia’s population growth rate is well above the global average and is among the highest in Africa. Birth and death rates for the country are also well above those for the world. Life expectancy is about 50 years of age, about average for the African continent but lower than that of the world. Although the general age of the population is slightly older than it was in last decades of the 20th century, Ethiopia still has a relatively young population, with more than two-fifths under age 15.
Ethiopia hosts refugees from several neighbouring countries. The overwhelming majority of refugees are from Somalia, but there are also sizable numbers from Eritrea, Sudan, and South Sudan. Most have fled their countries because of conflict or famine. Conversely, there is some movement of Ethiopian refugees, most claiming political persecution and destined primarily for Kenya or the United States. In addition, since the last quarter of the 20th century, many young educated Ethiopians have opted to move to the Untied States or European countries for greater opportunities.
Internal migration has occurred for a number of reasons, including conflict and various government land-resettlement schemes. During the 1998–2000 war with Eritrea, for example, more than 300,000 Ethiopians in the Eritrean-Ethiopian border region were internally displaced, and, after periods of drought and famine in the early 2000s, some 300,000 people were moved from drought-prone areas to western parts of the country. Conflict between the federal government and the Tigray regional forces that began in 2020 led to the displacement of more than two million Tigrayans.
Economy of Ethiopia
Under Haile Selassie I (reigned 1930–74), Ethiopia’s economy enjoyed a modicum of free enterprise. The production and export of cash crops such as coffee were advanced, and import-substituting manufactures such as textiles and footwear were established. Especially after World War II, tourism, banking, insurance, and transport began to contribute more to the national economy. The communist Derg regime, which ruled from 1974 to 1991, nationalized all means of production, including land, housing, farms, and industry. Faced with uncertainties on their land rights, the smallholding subsistence farmers who form the backbone of Ethiopian agriculture became reluctant to risk producing surplus foods for market. Although land has remained nationalized, conditions in rural Ethiopia have improved slightly, as the government has given considerable attention to rural development. Still, the question of land ownership has remained contentious and has hindered the development of commercial agriculture.
Despite progress with economic reform since the 1990s, Ethiopia remains one of the poorest countries in Africa and the world. In 2001 Ethiopia qualified for debt relief under the Highly Indebted Poor Countries initiative of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, and in 2005 Ethiopia was one of several countries that benefited from 100 percent debt relief of loans from the IMF, the World Bank, and the African Development Bank.
Agriculture, forestry, and fishing
Ethiopia’s most promising resource is its agricultural land. Although soil erosion, overgrazing, and deforestation have seriously damaged the plateaus, nearly half the potentially cultivable land is still available for use. Most of the reserve land is located in parts of the country that have favourable climatic conditions for intensive agriculture. In addition, Ethiopia is among the richest countries in Africa in number of livestock, including cattle. With better management of grazing lands and breeding, livestock raising has the potential to meet the demands of internal as well as export markets.
Agriculture contributes almost half of Ethiopia’s gross domestic product (GDP). There are three types of agricultural activity. The first—and by far the most important—is the subsistence smallholder sector, which produces most of the staple grains such as teff, wheat, barley, and oats (on the cooler plateaus) and sorghum, corn (maize), and millet (in warmer areas), as well as pulses such as chickpeas, peas, beans, and lentils. Farm plots are very small, ranging from 3 to 6 acres (1.2 to 2.5 hectares). The second type of agriculture is cash cropping. Products include coffee, oilseeds, beeswax, sugarcane, and khat (qat; Catha edulis), a mild narcotic. Coffee, which is native to Ethiopia, is the single most important export. Subsistence livestock raising, the third agricultural activity, is important in the peripheral lowlands of Ethiopia. Large herds may be kept by a family as it migrates each season in search of grazing and water.
Fishing occurs on the country’s rivers and inland lakes and is primarily artisanal. Most of the fish sold locally is produced by small operators whose scale of operation and technology is inadequate for export production. Although the fishing industry is small, production more than doubled during the 1990s. The country does not engage in significant economic activity in the forestry sector.
Resources and power
The role of minerals in Ethiopia’s economy is small. Only gold and tantalum are of significance. Gold is mined at Kibre Mengist in the south, platinum at Yubdo in the west, and tantalum in the south-central part of the country. Deposits of gemstones, niobium, and soda ash are also mined, and there is potential for the exploitation of other mineral resources, including petroleum and natural gas. Also important are rock salt from the Denakil Plain and quarried building materials such as marble. Compared with its potential, this sector contributes very little to the country’s economy (less than 1 percent of GDP).
Hydroelectricity, the most important source of power for industries and major cities, is generated at several stations, including those on the Awash River, the Blue Nile River or its tributaries, the Omo River, the Gilgel Gibe River, and the Shebele River. However, these stations represent only part of Ethiopia’s full potential, and others are planned. Some hydroelectric projects have generated considerable controversy, such as the massive Gilgel Gibe III dam and power station along the Omo River, which was inaugurated in 2016, and the massive Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and power stations along the Blue Nile River, construction of which began in 2011. Filling of the GERD reservoir, scheduled to take place during the rainy season across several years, began in July 2020, and power generation began when the first of 13 turbines was switched on in February 2022.
Most energy for domestic use in rural areas is derived primarily from firewood and charcoal, which has strained the remaining wood resources in the country. Ethiopia’s long dependence on these sources has contributed to the depletion of its trees and to the erosion of its soil. The government’s ongoing expansion of hydroelectric power generation is intended to increase access to electricity in rural areas as well as produce electricity for export to other countries.
Modern manufacturing contributes about one-tenth of Ethiopia’s GDP. Products are primarily for domestic consumption. Among the most important are processed foods and beverages, textiles, tobacco, leather and footwear, and chemical products. Cottage industry and small enterprises are more important than industrial manufacturing in offering nonfarm employment and in producing a variety of consumer goods—for example, furniture, farming and construction implements, utensils, woven fabric, rugs, leathercrafts, footwear, jewelry, pottery, and baskets. Some of these products reach the tourist market.
The National Bank of Ethiopia is the country’s central bank. It issues the national currency, the birr, and is also responsible for regulatory functions. There are many commercial banks, most of which are located in Addis Ababa. The Commercial Bank of Ethiopia is the largest commercial bank, with branches throughout the country. The Development Bank of Ethiopia provides loans for agricultural and livestock development and investment in manufacturing. Since the end of the 20th century, more financial institutions have begun extending loans for business and real-estate development.
Ethiopia’s exports are almost entirely agricultural. Coffee is the primary foreign-exchange earner; other exported products include khat, hides and skins, live animals, oilseeds, and gold. Manufactures, especially machinery and transport equipment, and chemical products account for much of the value of imports; food products and fuels are also important. Significant trading partners include Saudi Arabia, China, and the United States. With more being spent on imports than earned from exports, Ethiopia’s balance of payments has been negative for many years.
The services sector, primarily tourism, contributes to about two-fifths of Ethiopia’s GDP. Although tourism was curtailed during the period of Derg rule, Ethiopia once again promotes the tourist potential of such historical wonders as the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, the antiquities at Aksum, and the Gonder castles. Of equal attraction are Ethiopia’s diverse peoples, their intriguing cultures, and the natural beauty of their land. Unfortunately, potential has been limited because of a lack of tourism infrastructure and continuing political instability in the country. The 1998–2000 conflict with Eritrea and lingering tensions have discouraged tourists from visiting places such as Aksum, one of the most attractive destinations in northern Ethiopia.
Labour and taxation
Ethiopian law allows all workers, with the exception of civil servants, to form and participate in unions. The Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions, an umbrella organization of several autonomous federations, is the largest labour organization. Also prominent is the Ethiopian Teachers’ Association.
Tax revenue typically contributes to more than half the government’s budget. Improvements made in the late 1990s to methods of tax collection have contributed to an increase in tax revenue. Important taxes include import duties, income and profit tax, and sales tax.
Transportation and telecommunications
Among the more successful developments in Ethiopia has been the road system. During the brief Italian occupation of 1935–41, highways linking Addis Ababa to the provinces were opened up, and after World War II the Imperial Highway Authority opened new feeder roads to isolated localities. Road construction and maintenance slowed during the periods of conflict in the 1980s and ’90s. In 1997 the government embarked on an ambitious long-term road-development program and in the following decades constructed new roads and made repairs to the country’s existing road network.
With the 1994 secession of Eritrea, Ethiopia lost direct access to the Red Sea ports of Aseb and Mitsiwa. This loss placed greater importance on the Djibouti–Addis Ababa railway, which was originally built between 1897 and 1917 by a French company and was jointly operated by the governments of Djibouti and Ethiopia. The railway fell into disrepair, however, and, in the early 21st century, in spite of ongoing attempts to implement repairs, large portions of the tracks were unusable at any given time. The railway’s limited functionality curtailed passenger and freight traffic until finally, by late 2010, trains had stopped traveling on any part of it. In the following years a new electrified rail line was constructed along the route of the old track; it was completed in 2016. The rail line, which was capable of handling cargo trains at speeds of up to 75 miles (120 km) per hour and passenger trains at up to 100 miles (160 km) per hour, substantially reduced the travel time between Djibouti city and Addis Ababa. The construction of the railway was part of a long-term plan by the Ethiopian government to create an expansive rail network across the country. A light-rail mass transit system in Addis Ababa was completed in 2015.
Ethiopia’s air transport system has enjoyed a success unparalleled in Africa. There are numerous airports located throughout the country. The internal network of Ethiopian Airlines (EA), a state-owned but independently operated carrier, is well developed, connecting major cities and locations of tourist interest. Its international network provides excellent service to destinations throughout the world. Bole International Airport, near Addis Ababa, serves EA and other international airlines and is also an acknowledged centre for pilot training and aircraft maintenance.
Telecommunications systems in Ethiopia are rather underdeveloped. Use of landline and mobile phones is not widespread, although mobile phone usage is increasing. Internet usage is limited. Since the late 1990s the government has actively worked to expand telecommunications infrastructure and services in the country.
Government and society
Ethiopia’s ancient system of feudal government experienced significant changes under Haile Selassie I (reigned 1930–74), who carefully grafted onto the traditional governing institutions a weak parliament of appointed and elected legislators, a judiciary with modernized civil and criminal codes and a hierarchy of courts, and an executive cabinet of ministers headed by a prime minister but answerable to the emperor. The Derg took power in 1974 and promised to bring revolutionary change to Ethiopia. Promulgating itself as the Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC) and later as the Workers’ Party of Ethiopia (WPE), the Derg instituted a Soviet-style government with a state president and a house of deputies that were answerable to a revolutionary council with a politburo at the top. In May 1991 the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) entered the capital. The EPRDF introduced a temporary constitution called the National Charter, created an 87-member assembly known as the State Council, and proceeded to form a cabinet for the Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE). The TGE endorsed the secession of Eritrea, realigned provincial boundaries in an attempt to create ethnic homogenates, demobilized the national armed forces, and suspended the courts and enforcing agencies. The TGE was replaced by the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, which was established by a constitution adopted in 1994 but not promulgated until after the federal elections of 1995. The new constitution stated that “sovereignty resides in the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia” rather than in the people as a whole and granted each nation, nationality, or people rights of self-determination, up to and including secession.
Under the constitution the government is a republic with a powerful prime minister as head of government and a titular president as head of state. The legislature is bicameral, with a House of Peoples’ Representatives (lower chamber) and a House of the Federation (upper chamber). Members of the former are directly elected to a five-year term, while members of the latter, who also serve a five-year term, can be either selected by state councils or directly elected if state councils exercise the option to hold an election. The ruling party in the House of Peoples’ Representatives designates a prime minister. It also nominates a candidate for the presidency, who is then subject to a vote by both legislative houses. The president serves a six-year term.
The 1994 constitution created ethnically based kililoch (regional states; singular kilil)—Afar, Amhara, Benishangul Gumuz, Gambella, Harari, Oromia, Somali, Tigray, and Southern Nations, Nationalities and People (SNNP)—and two self-governing administrations, the cities of Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa. Each regional state is headed by a president elected by the state council, and the cities are headed by a chairman. Voters in a 2019 referendum overwhelmingly supported the creation of a new kilil for the Sidamo people, which would be split from the SNNP kilil.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary. The federal court system is headed by the Supreme Court; there are also a High Court and Courts of First Instance. Each state has a parallel court system.
There is universal suffrage for Ethiopian citizens age 18 and older. All nations, nationalities, and peoples are guaranteed the right to participate in government, and each group is represented by at least one member in the House of the Federation. Some one-fifth of the seats in the House of Peoples’ Representatives are designated for underrepresented minorities. Despite these measures, however, in practice each group is not proportionally represented. Women also participate in the political process, although representation tends to be disproportionate. In the 2000s women held about one-fifth of the seats in both legislative houses. In addition, some women also served as cabinet ministers and as justices of the Supreme Court.
The EPRDF, a coalition comprising primarily Amhara, Oromo, and Tigray parties, was the ruling party since the formation of the new republic in 1995—until the party was dissolved in 2019. It was replaced by the Prosperity Party, which included some Amhara and Oromo groups that had been part of the EPRDF as well as several smaller regional ethnic-based parties. Other political parties include the National Movement of Amhara, Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice, and Gedeo People’s Democratic Organization.
The country’s military, the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF), is among the largest on the African continent. The army is by far the largest contingent; in addition, there is a small air force. ENDF troops have participated in several international missions as United Nations Peacekeeping Forces.
Health and welfare
Ethiopia’s health care system includes primary health centres, clinics, and hospitals. Only major cities have hospitals with full-time physicians, and most of the hospitals are in Addis Ababa. Access to modern health care is very limited, and in many rural areas it is virtually nonexistent. The infant mortality rate is almost twice that of the world average. Common health concerns are lower respiratory infections, diarrheal diseases, and HIV/AIDS. Ethiopia’s HIV/AIDS adult prevalence is above the world average and slightly above that of neighbouring countries, although it is lower than that of many other African countries. In Ethiopia the prevalence is higher in urban areas and among young women and girls.
Most health facilities are government owned. Progress in health care in Ethiopia suffered during the Derg era, when many of the country’s doctors either emigrated or simply failed to return from specialized training abroad. Despite the fall of the Derg regime in 1991, this trend has not been reversed. Medical schools in the country continue to produce general practitioners and a few specialists, but the scale of output does not match the rising demand. Shortages of equipment and drugs are persistent problems in the country. Widespread use of traditional healing, including such specialized occupations as bonesetting, midwifery, and minor surgery (including circumcision), continues to be important.
Education of Ethiopia
Ethiopia maintains two educational systems. The traditional system is rooted in Christianity and Islam. Christian education at the primary level is often conducted by clergy in the vicinity of places of worship. Higher education, with emphasis on traditional Christian dogma, is still run by most major centres of worship, the most prominent being monasteries in the northern and northwestern parts of the country. Graduation from these centres leads to a position within the priesthood and church hierarchy.
Modern education was an innovation of the emperors Menilek II (reigned 1889–1913) and Haile Selassie I (1930–74), who established an excellent, though limited, system of primary and secondary education. In addition, colleges of liberal arts, technology, public health, building, law, social work, business, agriculture, and theology were opened in the 1950s and ’60s.
Public education is free at primary, secondary, and tertiary levels. Primary education is offered for eight years and is compulsory between ages 7 and 12. Four years of secondary education, comprising two two-year cycles, follow. Primary schools are generally accessible, and there is a high rate of enrollment; in contrast, there is a shortage of secondary schools, and enrollment declines at that level. The public school system in general has deteriorated from lack of adequate funding, teaching staff, facilities, and space. Overcrowding is common.
The country’s oldest university, Addis Ababa University, was founded in 1950 as University College of Addis Ababa. In 1961 it was restructured and renamed Haile Selassie I University, and in 1975 it adopted its present name. Other universities in Ethiopia include Alemaya University in Dire Dawa, Debub University in Awassa, and universities in Jimma, Mekele, and Bahir Dar.
Literacy rates in Ethiopia are much lower than regional and world averages. About half the male population is literate; literacy rate estimates for the female population range from about one-third to two-fifths.
Daily life and social customs
The cultural heritage of Ethiopians resides in their religions, languages, and extended families. All major language and religious groups have their own cultural practices (which also vary by geographic location); however, there are commonalities that form strong and recognizable national traits. Most Ethiopians place less importance on artifacts of culture than they do on an idealized ethos of cultural refinement as reflected in a respect for human sanctity, the practice of social graces, and the blessings of accumulated wisdom. Religion provides the basic tenets of morality. The invocation of God is often all that is needed to seal agreements, deliver on promises, and seek justifiable redress. Hospitality is reckoned the ultimate expression of grace in social relations. Old age earns respect and prominence in society, especially because of the piety, wisdom, knowledge, prudence, and altruism that it is supposed to bestow.
The influence of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church on the national culture has been strong. Easter (Amharic: Yetinsa-e Be-al, or Fassika), Christmas (Yelidet Be-al, or Genna), and the Finding of the True Cross (Meskel) have become dominant national holidays. In an effort to reduce the dominance of Christianity, both the Derg and the EPRDF-led government have elevated the status of Islam. Major Islamic holidays include Eid al-Fitr (ending the fast of Ramadan) and Eid al-Adha (ending the period of pilgrimage to Mecca). Nondenominational holidays include National Day on May 28, in observance of the 1991 defeat of the Derg regime, and Workers’ Day on May 1.
Ethiopia’s distinctive cuisine has gained a worldwide reputation. Its most typical dishes are wats and alechas, stews redolent with spices and aromatic vegetables. The wat is further enhanced by the addition of berbere, a complex seasoning paste made incendiary by dried hot chilies. The wat or alecha may contain beef, goat, lamb, chicken, hard-boiled eggs, or fish. Berbere and other spice pastes enliven many dishes. A spiced clarified butter, niter kebbeh, is widely used to flavour sautéed foods. Since the Ethiopian Orthodox Church mandates abstaining from meat on as many as 250 days a year, vegetarian dishes form an important part of Ethiopian cuisine. Legumes such as lentils or chickpeas appear in many guises. Other popular dishes include kitfo, chopped raw beef served with berbere.
A traditional Ethiopian meal is served on a communal platter covered with thin sheets of injera, a soft flat-bread prepared from a slightly fermented batter made from teff, a type of millet. The spongy injera serves as both plate and utensil; it is topped with meat and vegetable stews. Ayib, a fresh soft cheese similar to cottage cheese, serves to temper the heat of the spicy dishes. Each diner tears off a piece of injera and uses it to scoop up a morsel of one or more dishes and their sauces. One diner may feed an injera-wrapped morsel to another, a practice called gursha. Tej, a honey-based wine, or beer accompanies the meal, and coffee sweetened with honey concludes it. Tea is grown in Ethiopia and is also a popular beverage.
Traditional Ethiopian music is as diverse as the country’s population. Many of the songs in the Amharic language incorporate a layered meaning that is described as “gold and wax.” Such songs can be interpreted as having both a spiritual theme (gold) and a meaning that is more personal and earthy (wax). The poet Mary Armede is an accomplished contemporary practitioner of this style. Influences of foreign music have been very selective, though brass ensembles and soul music have made an important impact. The celebrated Wallias and Roha bands are popular, as are singers Neway Debebe and Netsanet Mellesse.
Ethiopian literature, which has a long tradition, is written primarily either in classical Geʿez or in Amharic. The earliest extant literary works in Geʿez are translations of Christian religious writings from Greek, which may have influenced their style and syntax. During the 16th century, Amharic, then the principal spoken language, began to be used for literary purposes. Geʿez poetry (qene) flourished in the 18th century and has since continued to be practiced at many monasteries. After Ethiopia regained its independence from Italy in 1941, authors were encouraged to write with an emphasis on moral and patriotic themes, and there was a focus on Amharic literature. Notable writers during this period include Makonnen Endalkachew, who produced allegorical novels and plays, Kebede Mikael, known for verse dramas, and Tekle Tsodeq Makuria, known for histories.
Most cultural institutions, including the National Museum of Ethiopia, the Museum of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, and the National Library and Archive of Ethiopia, are located in Addis Ababa. Evidence of Ethiopia’s rich cultural history is also found throughout the country at various sites, several of which have been designated UNESCO World Heritage sites. The lower valleys of both the Awash and Omo rivers are home to several paleoanthropological sites that have yielded remains that provide evidence for the theory of human evolution. One of the best-known fossil remains is a partially complete female skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis, popularly known as Lucy, which was discovered at the Hadar site in the lower Awash River valley. Tiya, south of Addis Ababa, is an archaeological site that contains more than 30 monuments from an ancient Ethiopian culture. The city of Aksum, once the seat of an ancient kingdom of the same name, is home to obelisks, castle ruins, and tombs, some of which date back to the 1st century CE. Ethiopia’s long Christian tradition is evident in several rock-hewn churches, dating back to the 13th century, situated in the landscape of Lalibela. The historical town of Harar Jungol in southern Ethiopia developed into an important centre of Islamic culture and trade by the 16th century; its architecture and layout are notable for their unique blend of African and Islamic influences. The fortress city of Fasil Ghebbi in Gonder includes the remains of castles and palaces constructed by a series of emperors during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Sports and recreation
Ethiopia is best known for its excellence in track events, and the international triumphs of Ethiopian runners have lifted the spirits of a people deeply aggrieved by the effects of political conflicts, social upheaval, and environmental disasters. The country’s Olympic debut came at the 1956 Melbourne Games, but it was Abebe Bikila’s epic barefooted Olympic marathon victory through the streets of Rome in 1960 that thrust Ethiopian athletes into the global sporting limelight. By winning at the 1964 Tokyo Games (this time wearing shoes), he became the first athlete to win consecutive Olympic marathons. At the 1968 Mexico City Games, Ethiopia claimed a third consecutive marathon gold on the performance of Mamo Wolde. Miruts Yifter won gold medals in the men’s 5,000- and 10,000-metre events at the 1980 Moscow Games. (Ethiopia joined boycotts of both the 1976 and 1984 Summer Games.) Haile Gebrselassie was the dominant long-distance runner of the 1990s and captured the gold medal in the 10,000-metre events at both the 1996 Atlanta Games and the 2000 Sydney Games. Millon Wolde and Gezanhegne Abera also took gold medals at the Sydney Games, in the 5,000-metre race and the marathon, respectively. Kenenisa Bekele dominated in the 2000s, taking the gold medal in the 10,000-metre race in the 2004 Athens Games and in the 5,000-metre and 10,000-metre events at the 2008 Beijing Games.
Ethiopian women also enjoy an impressive record. Derartu Tulu captured the gold medal in the 10,000-metre events at both the 1992 Barcelona Games and the 2000 Sydney Games, and Fatuma Roba won the marathon gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Prominent female Ethiopian runners in the 2000s include Tulu’s cousin, Tirunesh Dibaba, who won the gold medal in the 5,000-metre and 10,000-metre events at the 2008 Beijing Games, and Meseret Defar, who broke three world records in 2007.
Ethiopia was instrumental in the organization of postcolonial African football (soccer), thanks to the efforts of Ydnekatchew Tessema. Tessema, former player for the St. George football team of Addis Ababa, was a founding member and guiding force of the African Football Confederation from 1957 until his death in 1987. In the 1960s Ethiopia was a force in African football, seizing the 1962 African Nations Cup held in Addis Ababa and finishing fourth in 1963 and 1968. Star forward Worku Menghistu personified the golden age of Ethiopian football and was a national hero in the 1960s. After 1970, football in Ethiopia entered a period of steady decline.
Media and publishing
Although there has been much growth in the area of media and publishing since the fall of the Derg regime in 1991, there are still some limitations. Freedom of the press is provided for under the constitution, but the current government has not always respected these rights in practice. Media personnel have been harassed and arrested, and many journalists typically practice self-censorship. The government essentially has control over all broadcast media.
Ethiopian daily newspapers include two state-owned publications, Addis Zemen (Amharic) and the Ethiopian Herald (English), and the independent Daily Monitor (English). There are many other periodicals, including Captial, a business weekly (English), and the weekly Ethiopian Reporter (English and Amharic).
Radio is the most popular medium of choice, and there are several radio stations that broadcast in Ethiopia. The state-owned Radio Ethiopia offers programming in several Ethiopian languages as well as in Arabic, French, and English. The state also operates a television station, Ethiopian Television.Assefa MehretuThe Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica
From prehistory to the Aksumite kingdom
That life is of great antiquity in Ethiopia is indicated by the Hadar remains, a group of skeletal fragments found in the lower Awash River valley. The bone fragments, thought to be 3.4 to 2.9 million years old, belong to Australopithecus afarensis, an apelike creature that may have been an ancestor of modern humans.
Sometime between the 8th and 6th millennia BCE, pastoralism and then agriculture developed in northern Africa and southwestern Asia, and, as the population grew, an ancient tongue spoken in this region fissured into the modern languages of the Afro-Asiatic (formerly Hamito-Semitic) family. This family includes the Cushitic, Semitic, and Omotic languages now spoken in Ethiopia. During the 2nd millennium BCE, cereal grains and the use of the plow were introduced into Ethiopia, possibly from the region of the Sudan, and peoples speaking Geʿez (a Semitic language) came to dominate the rich northern highlands of Tigray. There, in the 7th century BCE, they established the kingdom of Dʾmt (Daʾamat). This kingdom dominated lands to the west, obtaining ivory, tortoiseshell, rhinoceros horn, gold, silver, and slaves and trading them to South Arabian merchants.
After 300 BCE, Dʾmt deteriorated as trade routes were diverted eastward for easier access to coastal ports, and a number of smaller city-states arose in its place. Subsequent wars of aggrandizement led to unification under the inland state of Aksum, which, from its base on the Tigray Plateau, controlled the ivory trade into the Sudan, other trade routes leading farther inland to the south, and the port of Adulis on the Gulf of Zula. Aksum’s culture comprised Geʿez, written in a modified South Arabian alphabet, sculpture and architecture based on South Arabian prototypes, and an amalgam of local and Middle Eastern deities. Thus, evidence exists of a close cultural exchange between Aksum and the Arabian Peninsula, but the traditional scholarly view, that South Arabian immigrants actually peopled and created pre-Aksumite northern Ethiopia, is increasingly under siege. Nevertheless, the ancient cultural exchange across the Red Sea became enshrined in Ethiopian legend in the persons of Makeda—the Queen of Sheba—and the Israelite king Solomon. Their mythical union was said to have produced Menilek I, the progenitor of Ethiopia’s royal dynasty.
By the 5th century CE, Aksum was the dominant trading power in the Red Sea. Commerce rested on sound financial methods, attested to by the minting of coins bearing the effigies of Aksumite emperors. In the anonymous Greek travel book Periplus Maris Erythraei, written in the 1st century CE, Adulis is described as an “open harbour” containing a settlement of Greco-Roman merchants. It was through such communities, established for the purposes of trade, that the Christianity of the eastern Mediterranean reached Ethiopia during the reign of Emperor Ezanas (c. 303–c. 350). By the mid-5th century, monks were evangelizing among the Cushitic-speaking Agau (Agaw, or Agew) people to the east and south. The Ethiopian Church opted to follow the leadership of the Coptic Church (in Alexandria, Egypt) in rejecting the Christology proposed at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 and breaking with the bishops of Rome and Constantinople (relations would not resume until the second half of the 20th century).
At its height, Aksum extended its influence westward to the kingdom of Meroe, southward toward the Omo River, and eastward to the spice coasts on the Gulf of Aden. Even the South Arabian kingdom of the Himyarites, across the Red Sea in what is now Yemen, came under the suzerainty of Aksum. In the early 6th century, Emperor Caleb (Ella-Asbeha; reigned c. 500–534) was strong enough to reach across the Red Sea in order to protect his coreligionists in Yemen against persecution by a Jewish prince. However, Christian power in South Arabia ended after 572, when the Persians invaded and disrupted trade. They were followed 30 years later by the Arabs, whose rise in the 7th and 8th centuries cut off Aksum’s trade with the Mediterranean world.
The Zagwe and Solomonic dynasties
As Christian shipping disappeared from the Red Sea, Aksum’s towns lost their vitality. The Aksumite state turned southward, conquering adjacent grain-rich highlands. Monastic establishments moved even farther to the south; for example, a major church was founded near Lake Hayk in the 9th century. Over time, one of the subject peoples, the Agau, learned Geʿez, became Christian, and assimilated their Aksumite oppressors to the point that Agau princes were able to transfer the seat of the empire southward to their own region of Lasta. Thus, the Zagwe dynasty appeared in Ethiopia. Later ecclesiastical texts accused this dynasty of not having been of pure “Solomonic” stock (i.e., not descended from the union of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba), but it was in the religious plane that the Zagwe nonetheless distinguished themselves. At the Zagwe capital of Roha (modern-day Lalibela), Emperor Lalibela (reigned c. 1185–1225) directed the hewing of 11 churches out of living rock—a stupendous monument to Christianity, which he and the other Zagwes fostered along with the Ethiopianization of the countryside.
However, Zagwe hegemony was never complete, and opposition continued among the Semitic-speaking elite of Tigray, to the north, and the newly emergent Amhara people, to the south. The opposition increasingly focused on questions of “Solomonic” legitimacy. In 1270 a leading nobleman of the province of Shewa, Yekuno Amlak, rebelled. He was supported by an influential faction of monastic churchmen, who condoned his regicide of Emperor Yitbarek and legitimated his descent from Solomon. The genealogy of the new Solomonic dynasty was published in the early 14th century in the Kebra nagast (“Glory of the Kings”), a collection of legends that related the birth of Menilek I, associated Ethiopia with the Judeo-Christian tradition, and provided a basis for Ethiopian national unity through the Solomonic dynasty, Semitic culture, and the Amharic language. Well-armed ideologically, the Ethiopian state was prepared for a struggle impending in its eastern and southern provinces, where Christianity was meeting increasing resistance from the forces of Islam.
Islamic preaching had converted many of the people living on the peripheries of Ethiopian rule. In the late 13th century, various Muslim sultanates on Ethiopia’s southern border fell under the hegemony of Ifat, located on the eastern Shewan Plateau and in the Awash valley. The Ethiopian emperor Amda Tseyon proved a vigorous campaigner, waging wars in all directions—to the Red Sea in the north, unincorporated areas in the south and eastward against the Muslim state of Ifat. He established strategic garrisons to consolidate the newly conquered regions, creating a system of gults, or fiefs, in which the holders of a gult were paid tribute by the gult’s inhabitants. His heavy taxation of exports, especially of gold, ivory, and slaves that were transshipped from Ifat to Arabia, met with resistance. Amda Tseyon and his successors replied with brutal pacification campaigns that carried Solomonic power into the Awash valley and even as far as Seylac (Zeila) on the Gulf of Aden.
Aggrandizement into non-Christian areas was accompanied by internal reform and consolidation of the Christian state. As heads of the church, the Solomonic monarchs actively participated in the development of religious culture and discipline by building and beautifying churches, repressing “pagan” practices, and promoting the composition of theological and doctrinal works. Nevertheless, the relations between church and state were marked by conflict as well as cooperation. The rise of the Shewan Solomonics had been preceded by a revival of monasticism in the Amhara areas, and the monks had an uneasy relationship with the new dynasty. The bolder ones among them condemned the dynasty’s practice of polygyny, and not until the late 14th century was the conflict resolved, the royal court winning over the monks with rich grants of land. Other conflicts also arose. The monk Ewostatewos (c. 1273–1352) preached isolation from corrupting state influences and a return to biblical teachings—including observance of the Judaic Sabbath on Saturday in addition to the Sunday observance, an idea apparently already widely diffused in Ethiopia. The great emperor Zara Yaqob (Zara Yakob; reigned 1434–68) conceded the latter point in 1450 at the Council of Debre Mitmaq, but he also initiated severe reforms in the church, eliminating abuses by strong measures and executing the leaders of heretical sects. Zara Yaqob also conducted an unsuccessful military campaign against the Beta Israel, a group of Agau-speaking Jews who practiced a non-Talmudic form of Judaism.
Zara Yaqob valued national unity above all and feared Muslim encirclement. In 1445 he dealt Ifat such a crushing military defeat that hegemony over the Muslim states passed to the sultans of Adal, in the vicinity of Harer. About 1520 the leadership of Adal was assumed by Aḥmad ibn Ibrāhīm al-Ghāzī, a Muslim reformer who became known as Sahib al-Fath (“the Conqueror”) to the Muslims and Aḥmad Grāñ (“Ahmad the Left-Handed”) to the Christians. Aḥmad drilled his men in modern Ottoman tactics and led them on a jihad, or holy war, against Ethiopia, quickly taking areas on the periphery of Solomonic rule. In 1528 Emperor Lebna Denegel was defeated at the battle of Shimbra Kure, and the Muslims pushed northward into the central highlands, destroying settlements, churches, and monasteries. In 1541 the Portuguese, whose interests in the Red Sea were imperiled by Muslim power, sent 400 musketeers to train the Ethiopian army in European tactics. Emperor Galawdewos (reigned 1540–59) opted for a hit-and-run strategy and on February 21, 1543, caught Aḥmad in the open near Lake Tana and killed him in action. The Muslim army broke, leaving the field and north-central Ethiopia to the Christians.
Challenge, revival, and decline (16th–19th century)
Meanwhile, population pressures had mounted among the Oromo, a pastoral people who inhabited the upper basin of the Genalē (Jubba) River in what is now southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya. Oromo society was based upon an “age-set” system known as gada, in which all males born into an eight-year generation moved together through all the stages of life. The warrior classes (luba) raided and rustled in order to prove themselves, and in the 16th century they began to undertake long-distance expeditions, availing themselves of the collapse of the frontier defenses of both the Christian and Muslim states. By 1600 the Oromo had spread so widely in Ethiopia that Emperor Sarsa Dengel (reigned 1563–97) limited his government to what are now Eritrea, the northern regions of Tigray and Gonder, and parts of Gojam, Shewa, and Welo, areas that included the bulk of the Christian Semitic-speaking agriculturalists. Meanwhile, the church had barely revived following the destruction and mass apostasy of the jihad era, when it found itself facing a different kind of threat from Roman Catholicism.
Following close upon the Portuguese musketeers were missionaries who, sent by the Jesuit founder St. Ignatius of Loyola, sought to convert Ethiopia to the Western church. The most successful of these was the Jesuit Pedro Páez; his personal authority and eminent qualities were such that Emperor Susenyos (reigned 1607–32) was persuaded to accept the doctrine of the dual nature of Christ and to notify the pope of his submission. This apostasy was joined by many in the royal court but met with violent resistance from the provincial nobles, the church, and the people at large. Susenyos was forced to abdicate in favour of his son Fasilides (reigned 1632–67).
Fasilides established a new capital at Gonder, a trading centre north of Lake Tana that connected the interior to the coast. At its height about 1700, the city supported the arts and educational, religious, and social institutions as well as Beta Israel craftspeople, Muslim traders, and a large population of farmers, day labourers, students, and soldiers. Fasilides was succeeded by his son, Yohannes, and then by a grandson, Iyasu the Great. The court sponsored secular and religious construction, manuscript writing and copying, the verbal arts, and painting. A second wave of cultural productivity followed, in the middle decades of the 18th century under the sponsorship of Empress Mentewwab (reigned 1730–69), a remarkable woman who ruled jointly with her son and grandson. However, ethnic, regional, and religious factionalism undermined the kingdom and led in 1769 to its collapse. The Zamana Masafent (“Age of the Princes”; 1769–1855), an era of feudal anarchy, had commenced.
For most Ethiopians, life during the Age of the Princes was difficult. Power had shifted from the central court to the courts of regional princes, and they vied with one another in battle. There were no significant changes in the social order, but the oppression of the farming population increased as armies traversed the highlands, ruining the countryside and plundering the harvests of farmers. Nevertheless, significant developments were taking place in the south.
Agricultural development in the Gībē River basin led to the formation of Oromo states to the southwest of Shewa; the Gonga people developed their own states in the Kefa highlands on the west bank of the Omo River; and a line that claimed Solomonic descent established a formidable regional kingdom in northern Shewa. Shewa prospered in the growing trade of the Gībē states, and Shewa’s self-proclaimed king, Sahle Selassie (reigned 1813–47), and his successors expanded southward; by 1840 they controlled most of Shewa to the Awash River and enjoyed suzerainty as far south as Guragē.
To the north, Kassa Hailu was in the process of ending the Age of the Princes. After serving as a mercenary in Gojam, Kassa returned to his native Qwara on the extreme edge of the western highlands, where he prospered as a highwayman and built a good small army. By 1847 he had monopolized the lowlands’ revenues from trade and smuggling, forcing Gonder’s leading magnates to integrate him into the establishment. Finally, in April 1853 at Takusa, Kassa defeated Ras (Prince) Ali, the last of a succession of the Oromo lords who had played a central role in the Age of the Princes. After defeating the ruler of northern Ethiopia, Kassa was crowned Emperor Tewodros II on February 11, 1855. Later that year he marched south and forced the submission of Shewa. His consolidation of power over the formerly separate states established the modern Ethiopian country.
Emergence of modern Ethiopia (1855–1916)
Tewodros II (1855–68)
Although Tewodros’s first years were marked by attempts at social reform, his effort to establish garrisons nationwide lost the allegiance of the already heavily taxed peasantry, and he alienated parish clergy by converting “excess” church land to military and secular tenure. Such measures gave heart to the regional aristocrats, who returned to rebellion. The emperor held Ethiopia together only through coercion. In 1861 he conceived a bold foreign policy to bolster his kingdom and promote his reforms. In 1862 Tewodros offered Britain’s Queen Victoria an alliance to destroy Islam. The British ignored the scheme, and, when no response came, Tewodros imprisoned the British envoy and other Europeans. This diplomatic incident led to an Anglo-Indian military expedition in 1868. Sir Robert Napier, the commander, paid money and weapons to Kassa, a dejazmatch (earl) of Tigray, in order to secure passage inland, and on April 10, on the plains below Āmba Maryam (or Mekʾdela), British troops defeated a small imperial force. In order to avoid capture, Tewodros committed suicide two days later.
Yohannes IV (1872–89)
After a period of conflict that saw the brief and self-proclaimed rule of Tekle Giorgis (1868–72), the Tigrayan Kassa took the imperial crown as Yohannes IV on January 21, 1872. After ejecting two Egyptian armies from the highlands of Eritrea in 1875–76, Yohannes moved south, forcing Shewa’s king Sahle Mariam to submit and to renounce imperial ambitions. Yohannes thus became the first Ethiopian emperor in 300 years to wield authority from Tigray south to Guragē. He then sought to oust the Egyptians from coastal Eritrea, where they remained after the Mahdists had largely taken over the Sudan, but he was unable to prevent Italy from disembarking troops at Mitsiwa (now Massawa) in February 1885. In order to weaken the emperor, Rome tried to buy Sahle Mariam’s cooperation with thousands of rifles. The Shewan king remained faithful to Yohannes but took the opportunity in January 1887 to incorporate Harer into his kingdom. Meanwhile, Yohannes repulsed Italian forays inland, and in 1889 he marched into the Sudan to avenge Mahdist attacks on Gonder. On March 9, 1889, with victory in his grasp, he was shot and killed at Metema.
Menilek II (1889–1913)
Sahle Mariam declared himself emperor of Ethiopia on March 25, taking the name Menilek II, and at Wichale (or Ucciali, as the Italians called it) in Wallo on May 2 he signed a treaty of amity and commerce granting Italy rule over Eritrea. The Italian version of Article XVII of the Treaty of Wichale made Rome the medium for Ethiopia’s foreign relations, whereas the Amharic text was noncommittal. Both texts agreed that in the case of differences the Amharic text was to prevail. Learning that Rome had used the mistranslation to claim a protectorate over all of Ethiopia, Menilek first sought a diplomatic solution; meanwhile, during 1891–93 he sent expeditions south and east to obtain gold, ivory, musk, coffee, hides, and slaves to trade for modern weapons and munitions. In December 1895, after two years of good harvests had filled Ethiopia’s granaries, Menilek moved his army into Tigray.
Rome believed that as few as 35,000 soldiers could control Ethiopia, but it was proved wrong on March 1, 1896, at the Battle of Adwa, where Gen. Oreste Baratieri led 14,500 Italian troops on a poorly organized attack against Menilek’s well-armed host of some 100,000 fighters. The Italian lines crumbled, and at noon retreat was sounded. The emperor retired into Ethiopia to await negotiations, and on October 26, 1896, he signed the Treaty of Addis Ababa, which abrogated the Treaty of Wichale.
Menilek subsequently directed the Solomonic state into areas never before under its rule. Between 1896 and 1906 Ethiopia expanded to its present size, taking in the highlands, the key river systems, and a buffer of low-lying zones around the state’s central core. Revenues from the periphery were used to modernize the new capital of Addis Ababa, to open schools and hospitals, and to build communication networks. Menilek contracted with a French company to construct a railway between Addis Ababa and Djibouti, which thus spurred the exploitation of the country’s produce by foreign merchants in cooperation with the ruling elites.
As Menilek aged, he appointed a cabinet to act for his grandson and heir designate, Iyasu (Lij Yasu), a son of the Muslim Oromo ruler of Wallo. Upon the emperor’s death in 1913, Iyasu took power in his own right. Seeking a society free of religious and ethnic divisions, he removed many of Menilek’s governors and integrated Muslims into the administration, outraging Ethiopia’s Christian ruling class. During World War I, Iyasu dallied with Islam and with the Central Powers in the hope of regaining Eritrea and freeing himself still further from the dominance of the Shewan aristocrats. After the Allied powers formally protested, the Shewan aristocrats met, accused Iyasu of apostasy and subversion, and deposed him on September 27, 1916.
The rise and reign of Haile Selassie I (1916–74)
Regent and heir apparent
Iyasu was replaced by Menilek’s daughter, Zauditu. Since it was considered unseemly for a woman to serve in her own right, Ras Tafari, the son of Ras Makonnen and a cousin of Menilek, served as Zauditu’s regent and heir apparent. The prince developed the rudiments of a modern bureaucracy by recruiting the newly educated for government service. He also engineered Ethiopia’s entry into the League of Nations in 1923, reasoning that collective security would protect his backward country from aggression. To brighten Ethiopia’s external image, he hired foreign advisers for key departments and set about abolishing slavery—a process possibly helped by the stirrings in Ethiopia of a market economy.
By 1928, when Zauditu named Tafari king, the economy was booming, thanks mainly to the export of coffee. In the countryside, local officials built roads and improved communications, facilitating the penetration of traders and entrepreneurs. Ethiopians remained in charge of the economy, since Tafari forced foreigners to take local partners and maintained tight control over concessions.
On April 1, 1930, Zauditu died, and Tafari declared himself emperor. He was crowned Haile Selassie I (“Power of the Trinity”; his baptismal name) on November 2. In July 1931 the emperor promulgated a constitution that enshrined as law his prerogative to delegate authority to an appointed and indirectly elected bicameral parliament, among other modern institutions. During 1931–34 Haile Selassie instituted projects for roads, schools, hospitals, communications, administration, and public services. The combined effect of these projects was to increase the country’s exposure to the world economy. By 1932 revenues were pouring into Addis Ababa from taxes applied to 25,000 tons of coffee exported each year.
Conflict with Italy
Haile Selassie’s success persuaded Italy’s ruler Benito Mussolini to undertake a preemptive strike before Ethiopia grew too strong to oppose Italian ambitions in the Horn of Africa. After an Ethiopian patrol clashed with an Italian garrison at the Welwel oasis in the Ogaden in November–December 1934, Rome began seriously preparing for war. Haile Selassie continued to trust in the collective security promised by the League of Nations. Only on October 2, 1935, upon learning that Italian forces had crossed the frontier, did he order mobilization. During the subsequent seven-month Italo-Ethiopian War, the Italian command used air power and poison gas to separate, flank, and destroy Haile Selassie’s poorly equipped armies. The emperor went into exile on May 2, 1936.
For five years (1936–41) Ethiopia was joined to Eritrea and Italian Somaliland to form Italian East Africa. During this period Italy carried out a program of public works, concentrating especially on highways and on agricultural and industrial development. Resistance to the occupation continued, however. The Italians dominated the cities, towns, and major caravan routes, while Ethiopian patriots harried the occupiers and sometimes tested the larger garrison towns. When Italy joined the European war in June 1940, the United Kingdom recognized Haile Selassie as a full ally, and the emperor was soon in Khartoum, Sudan, to help train a British-led Ethiopian army. This joint force entered Gojam on January 20, 1941, and encountered an enemy quick to surrender. On May 5 the emperor triumphantly returned to Addis Ababa. Defying the British occupation authorities, he quickly organized his own government.
Return to power
In February 1945 at a meeting with U.S. Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Haile Selassie submitted memoranda stressing the imperative for recovering Eritrea and thereby gaining free access to the sea. In 1948 and again in 1949, two commissions established by the wartime Allied Powers and by the United Nations (UN) reported that Eritrea lacked national consciousness and an economy that could sustain independence. Washington, wishing to secure a communications base in Asmara (Asmera) and naval facilities in Massawa—and also to counter possible subversion in the region—supported Eritrea’s federation with Ethiopia. The union took place in September 1952.
During the 1950s Ethiopia’s coffee sold well in world markets. Revenues were used to centralize the government, to improve communications, to develop a national system of education based on the western model, and to modernize urban centres. In November 1955 the emperor promulgated a revised constitution, which permitted the parliament to authorize finances and taxes, to question ministers, and to disapprove imperial decrees. The constitution also introduced an elected lower house of parliament, a theoretically independent judiciary, separation of powers, a catalog of human rights, and a mandate for bureaucratic responsibility to the people. At the same time, the emperor retained his power of decree and his authority to appoint the government. Among his ministers, he subtly established competing power factions—a stratagem that had the ultimate effect of retarding governmental functioning and bureaucratic modernization.
Internal conflicts and the fall of the monarchy
Some officials concluded that the country would move ahead only when the imperial regime was destroyed. In December 1960, while the emperor was abroad, members of the security and military forces attempted a coup d’état. The coup rapidly unraveled, but not before the country’s social and economic problems had been described in radical terms. Even then, the emperor ignored the coup’s significance; in February 1961 he began to name a new government that reflected the status quo ante by depending on the landowning military, aristocracy, and oligarchy for authority. Haile Selassie showed himself unable to implement significant land reform, and, as a result, progressives and students opposed the regime. The monarchy gradually lost its credibility, especially as it became embroiled in intractable conflicts in Eritrea and with Somalia.
Somalia’s independence in 1960 stimulated Somali nationalists in Ethiopia’s Ogaden to rebel in February 1963. When Somalia joined the fighting, the Ethiopian army and air force smashed its enemy. Somalia’s consequent military alliance with the Soviet Union upset the regional balance of power, driving up Ethiopia’s arms expenditures and necessitating more U.S. assistance. Meanwhile, an insurrection in Eritrea, which had begun in 1960 mainly among Muslim pastoralists in the western lowlands, came to attract highland Christians disaffected by the government’s dissolution of the federation in 1962 and the imposition of Amharic in the schools. At the same time, an increasingly radical student movement in Addis Ababa identified Haile Selassie as an agent of U.S. imperialism and his landowning oligarchs as the enemy of the people. Under the motto “Land to the tiller,” the students sought to limit property size and rights, and, by fostering debate on the issue of ethnicity, they confronted a problem marginalized by Haile Selassie. Some students espoused the Leninist notion that nationalities had the right to secede and, in so doing, gave strength and ideological justification to the Eritrean rebellion.
By the early 1970s one-third of Ethiopia’s 45,000 soldiers were in Eritrea, and others were putting down rebellions in Balē, Sīdamo, and Gojam. In January 1974 there began a series of mutinies led by junior officers and senior noncommissioned officers, who blamed the imperial elites for their impoverishment and for the country’s economic and social ills. For the government the situation was greatly worsened by drought and famine in the north, the denial of which became an international scandal. In June representatives of the mutineers constituted themselves as the Coordinating Committee (Derg) of the Armed Forces, Police, and Territorial Army. Maj. Mengistu Haile Mariam, of Harer’s 3rd Division, was elected chairman. The Derg proceeded to dismantle the monarchy’s institutions and to arrest Haile Selassie’s cronies, confidantes, and advisers. It then campaigned against the old and senile emperor, who was deposed on September 12, 1974. The Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC) was established. The PMAC was administered by the Derg and assumed the functions of government, with Lieut. Gen. Aman Andom as chairman and head of state and Mengistu as the first vice-chairman. Tensions within the Derg soon fueled a power struggle and led to Bloody Saturday (November 23, 1974), when as many as 60 leaders, including Andom, were executed. Andom was replaced by Brig. Gen. Teferi Banti. The new government issued a Declaration of Socialism on December 20, 1974.
Socialist Ethiopia (1974–91)
The Derg borrowed its ideology from competing Marxist parties, all of which arose from the student movement. One of them, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), believed so strongly in civilian rule that it undertook urban guerrilla war against the military rulers, and anarchy ensued in the following years.
In February 1977 Mengistu (now a lieutenant colonel) survived a battle between his supporters and those of rivals on the PMAC. Andom and several other members were killed, and Mengistu seized complete power as chairman and head of state. A series of EPRP attacks against Derg members and their supporters, known as the White Terror, was countered by Mengistu’s Red Terror, a bloody campaign that crushed armed opponents among the EPRP and other groups, as well as members of the civilian populace. As a result of the campaign, which continued into 1978, thousands of Ethiopia’s best-educated and idealistic young people were killed or exiled; in all, as many as 100,000 people were killed, and thousands more were tortured or imprisoned.
Meanwhile, in May and June 1977, Somalia’s army advanced into the Ogaden. The U.S.S.R. labeled Somalia the aggressor and diverted arms shipments to Ethiopia, where Soviet and allied troops trained and armed a People’s Militia, provided fighting men, and reequipped the army. Unable to entice the United States into resupplying its troops and faced with renewed Ethiopian military vigor, Somalia withdrew in early 1978. Mengistu quickly shifted troops to Eritrea, where by year’s end the Eritrean nationalists had been pushed back into mountainous terrain around Nakʾfa.
Land reform and famine
Mengistu sought to transform Ethiopia into a command state led by a disciplined and loyal party that would control all organs of authority. To this end a land-reform proclamation of 1975 transferred ownership of all land to the state and provided allotments of no more than 25 acres (10 hectares) to individual peasants who farmed the land themselves. Extensive nationalization of industry, banking, insurance, large-scale trade, and urban land and extra dwellings completed the reforms and wiped out the economic base of the old ruling class. To implement the reforms, adjudicate disputes, and administer local affairs, peasants’ associations were organized in the countryside and precinct organizations (kebele) in the towns. In 1984 the Workers’ Party of Ethiopia was formed, with Mengistu as secretary-general, and in 1987 a new parliament inaugurated the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, with Mengistu as president.
Despite initial expectations, farmers failed to generate the high yields expected from the land reform, for there was little incentive for them to do so. Moreover, their plots were tiny, rendering the legal limit of 25 acres irrelevant. Holdings varied according to the country’s different regions, but overall probably averaged not much more than 3.7 acres (1.5 hectares). In order to feed Ethiopia’s cities and the army, the government tried to force the peasants’ associations to deliver grain at below-market prices, a measure that alienated the peasants and did nothing to stimulate production. Meanwhile, drought intensified yearly from 1980, building to a climax in 1984, when the small rains were scanty and the main rains failed altogether. Famine ensued, government controls limiting the mobility with which peasants had responded to previous shortfalls. Ideological suspicions precluded the West from responding to alarms that the Ethiopian government put forward in the spring of 1984 following the small rains, and its own preoccupation with celebrating its 10th anniversary and founding the Workers’ Party led the government to cover up the developing famine in the Fall of that same year. With one-sixth of Ethiopia’s people at risk of starvation, Western countries made available enough surplus grain to end the crisis by mid-1985. Donors were not so forthcoming for a mammoth population-resettlement program that proposed to move people from the drought-prone and crowded north to the west and south, where supposedly surplus lands were available. The Mengistu regime handled the shift callously and did not have the necessary resources to provide proper housing, tools, medical treatment, or food for the 600,000 farming families it moved. Resources were also lacking for a related villagization program, which had the putative aim of concentrating scattered populations into villages where they might receive modern services. As late as 1990 most villages lacked the promised amenities, in part because of resource-draining civil strife in the north.
Challenges to the regime
By 1985–86 the government was embattled throughout most of Eritrea and Tigray, but Mengistu simply stepped up recruitment and asked the U.S.S.R. for more arms. In December 1987 the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) broke through the Ethiopian lines before Nakʾfa and waged increasingly successful war with weapons captured from demoralized government troops. In early 1988 the EPLF began to coordinate its attacks with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which had long been fighting for the autonomy of Tigray and for the reconstitution of Ethiopia on the basis of ethnically autonomous regions. The Soviets refused to ship more arms, and in February 1989 a series of defeats and a worsening lack of weaponry forced the government to evacuate Tigray. The TPLF then organized the largely Amhara Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement. Together, these two groups formed the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), and their forces easily advanced into Gonder and Welo provinces. The following year the EPLF occupied Massawa; this broke the Ethiopian stranglehold on supplies entering the country and demonstrated that the government no longer ruled in Tigray and Eritrea. Shortly thereafter, when the TPLF cut the Addis Ababa–Gonder road and put Gojam at risk, Mengistu announced the end of many of the regime’s most unpopular socialist measures.
The peasants immediately abandoned their new villages for their old homesteads, dismantled cooperatives, and redistributed land and capital goods. They ejected or ignored party and government functionaries, in several cases killing recalcitrant administrators. The regime was thus weakened in the countryside—not least in southern Ethiopia, where the long-dormant Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) became active. By May 1991, with EPRDF forces controlling Tigray, Welo, Gonder, Gojam, and about half of Shewa, it was obvious that the army did not have sufficient morale, manpower, weapons, munitions, and leadership to stop the rebels’ advance on Addis Ababa. Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe, and on May 28 the EPRDF took power.
The new government, led by a Tigrayan, the EPRDF chairman Meles Zenawi, claimed that it would democratize Ethiopia through recognition of the country’s ethnic heterogeneity. No longer would Ethiopia be maintained by force; rather, it would be a voluntary federation of its many peoples. To this end the EPRDF and other political groups, including the OLF, agreed to the creation of a transitional government that would engineer a new constitution and elections, to a national charter that recognized an ethnic division of political power, and to the right of nationalities to secede from Ethiopian—thus paving the way for Eritrea’s legal independence, which was official on May 24, 1993.
The new regime began to lay the foundations for Ethiopia’s first federal administrative structure, the component units consisting of ostensibly ethnically homogeneous regions. There was little lessening of control from the centre, however, as the ruling parties of the regional governments intimately affiliated politically and ideologically with the EPRDF. Many of the country’s elite feared that the regime was weakening the country’s unity. The Amhara, identified by the EPRDF as colonizers and unaccustomed to thinking of themselves as but one of the country’s many different ethnic groups, were particularly affronted by the apparent fragmentation of the country. The government fought back by denouncing Amhara leaders as antidemocratic chauvinists and by muzzling the press through the application of a new law, which, ironically, primarily served to end decades of systematic censorship under previous regimes but also established media regulations and penalties. In the provinces the government did not bother to maintain even the guise of freedom: there the suppression of anti-EPRDF forces, especially the OLF, was so blatant as to be noticed by the members of an international team sent to observe hastily called regional elections in June 1992. The OLF left the government over the conduct of these elections and has been in increasingly armed opposition ever since.
Throughout 1992–93 the transitional government worked with donor governments and the World Bank to forge a structural-adjustment program. This program devalued the Ethiopian currency, sharply reduced government intervention in the economy, dictated redundancies in the civil service, and made it easier for foreign companies to invest in Ethiopia and repatriate their profits. However, the government refused to denationalize land, and foreign investment was slow to return. The economy grew modestly but experienced no structural transformations. Yet another famine, stemming from a lack of national integration and the stifling overregulation of business, and again accompanied by drought, was signaled in 1994. Millions of Ethiopians were put at risk, largely in the north and east. The government called upon the international donor community for help, but, by failing to find measures to stimulate agricultural production, Ethiopia remained unable to finance its own development and to create the surplus needed to relieve its own population. Meanwhile, population growth had reduced the size of the average Ethiopian farm to under 2.5 acres (1 hectare).Harold G. MarcusDonald Edward Crummey
Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia
Political and economic reforms
In 1994 the EPRDF adopted Ethiopia’s third constitution in 40 years; it was promulgated in 1995, creating the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. This constitution enshrined the principles of regionalism and ethnic autonomy, devolving power to regional states, several of them coalitions of smaller ethnic groups. It also enshrined, for the first time as a constitutional principle, national ownership of land. The country’s first multiparty elections were also held in 1995, but they were boycotted by most opposition groups in protest against the harassment, arrests, and other actions instigated by the EPRDF-led government. As a result, the multiethnic EPRDF easily retained control of the federal government and most of the regional states. Negasso Gidada, a Christian Oromo who had served as minister of information in the transitional government, became president, and Meles became prime minister. The ethnic balance of the country was reflected in the careful selection of members for the Council of Ministers.
The economic-reform efforts that had begun in 1991 were somewhat successful, as the economy showed improvement in the mid-1990s. However, some aspects of reform, such as privatization of state-owned enterprises, progressed slowly, and the government’s cautious approach to economic liberalization remained an obstacle for foreign investment, as did the issue of nationalized property, which continued to be a source of consternation.
War with Eritrea
In 1998 simmering border tensions between Eritrea and Ethiopia erupted into war. At the heart of the dispute was some 250 square miles (640 square km) of land near Badme, but the conflict quickly spread to two other areas, Zela Ambesa and the important Eritrean port city of Assab. A cease-fire signed in June 2000 provided for a UN mission (United Nations Mission in Eritrea and Ethiopia; UNMEE) to monitor the cease-fire and deploy troops in a buffer zone between the two countries while the border was being demarcated. A peace agreement signed in Algeria in December ended the conflict, although relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea remained tense, and UNMEE troops stayed to monitor the truce and supervise the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops from Eritrean territory. The Ethiopian government was not pleased with the border demarcation proposed in 2002, as the town of Badme was awarded to Eritrea, and Meles protested this decision. Discussions continued during the next few years. UNMEE troops remained until July 2008 but ultimately left with the issue of demarcation still unsettled.
Dissent, protests, and increasing oppression
Meanwhile, the EPRDF remained in power into the 2000s, although it was weakened by internal dissent in 2001 when the EPRDF’s TPLF faction split over the government’s anticorruption policies and Meles’s embrace of more-liberal economic policies. The TPLF members who opposed Meles were purged from the party and held under house arrest. President Negasso sided with the TPLF splinter group, and, as a result, he was ousted from the leadership of his own party, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO). He did, however, keep his position as federal president until his term was up in September 2001. He was succeeded by Girma Wolde-Giorgis, who, like Negasso, was an Oromo, although he was not affiliated with the OPDO. Against the backdrop of political infighting, drought and famine continued to periodically plague the country, particularly in 2003, when the crisis was exacerbated by widespread incidence of waterborne illnesses and a malaria epidemic.
A strong performance by opposition parties in the May 2005 elections greatly increased the number of seats they held in the legislature. The EPRDF remained in power but with less of a majority and amid questionable circumstances. Although the elections were initially found to have been generally credible, there were reports of voter intimidation and other problems, and allegations of irregularities from more than half the country’s electoral constituencies delayed the announcement of the results for eight weeks. Accusations of fraud, as well as the final outcome of the elections, led to considerable protests and demonstrations in Addis Ababa; ensuing clashes between protesters and security forces left more than three dozen people dead, hundreds injured, and 3,000 arrested. This was followed in November by additional rioting, which left dozens more dead. Some of the victorious opposition candidates refused to take their legislative seats, in protest against the questionable circumstances surrounding the elections and aftermath; some were arrested for “violent activities aimed at subverting the constitutional order.” Tensions continued into the next year, with thousands of Ethiopians—including activists, journalists, and other legislators—being detained across the country. Many detainees were released periodically throughout 2006, often without having had any charges filed against them. In May 2006 the EPRDF reached an agreement with the two primary opposition political parties, which then took their seats in the legislature.
More than a decade after his ouster, former Derg ruler Mengistu and his legacy still weighed heavily in the Ethiopian consciousness. To the dismay of many, Mengistu continued to live in exile in Zimbabwe, despite the Ethiopian government’s repeated attempts beginning in the 1990s to lobby for his extradition. Nevertheless, he was tried, in absentia, on charges of genocide for his role in the Red Terror campaign. In December 2006 he was found guilty, and the next year he was given a life sentence. Following a successful appeal from the prosecution, he was sentenced to death in May 2008.
Also in 2006, Ethiopia sent troops to neighbouring Somalia to defend that country’s beleaguered transitional government against rebel forces, and in December Ethiopia began a coordinated air and ground war there. Ethiopian troops had withdrawn from the country by January 2009, although they remained close to the Ethiopian-Somali border in case future intervention was deemed necessary. The intervention in the Somali crisis heightened the existing tensions with Eritrea, which supported Somalia’s rebels.
General elections were held in Ethiopia in May 2010. With the memories of the protests, violence, and deaths that followed the 2005 general elections still fresh in the minds of many Ethiopians, the political climate prior to the 2010 elections was somewhat subdued, although not free of controversy. Opposition groups complained that they were not given as much media coverage as the ruling EPRDF and that the government was harassing some opposition leaders. Those claims were supported by some international observers, who noted that not all political groups participating in the elections were afforded the same campaigning opportunities. Some international observers also noted evidence of voter intimidation and violence, although it was not considered to be enough of a factor to affect the final outcome of the elections, which were held on May 23. The EPRDF was overwhelmingly victorious in securing the majority of legislative seats, allowing Meles to remain prime minister. International observers deemed the electoral process to be organized and largely peaceful overall, yet some also noted that it did not quite meet international standards.
Meles’s health became the target of speculation in mid-2012, after he was conspicuously absent from the public eye. After weeks of such speculation, the government issued a comment in July, noting that Meles was doing well as he recuperated from an illness, which was not disclosed. Meles died on August 20, 2012, while he was abroad for medical treatment. He was succeeded by the deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, Hailemariam Desalegn.
The next year saw the regularly scheduled end of Girma’s second presidential term. On October 7, 2013, the parliament elected veteran diplomat Mulatu Teshome Wirtu to succeed him. Prior to his election as president, Mulatu had served as ambassador to Turkey since 2006. He also had held other ambassadorships and ministerial posts as well.
Although Ethiopia had seen considerable economic growth under EPRDF rule—the country’s economy was among the fastest growing in the world—that was contrasted by a worsening human rights record. In 2009 a harsh antiterrorism law had been passed, which in the following years was one of the tools used by the EPRDF-led government to suppress dissent. Numerous journalists and opposition activists were arrested, many of whom were charged with having violated that law; many others fled the country. In 2011 the government declared that two armed opposition groups as well as an opposition movement, Ginbot 7, were terrorist organizations and banned them, which led to a slew of arrests and antiterrorism charges against those accused of having interviewed or otherwise interacted with members of the proscribed groups. Prominent among those charged under the antiterrorism law was journalist Eskinder Nega, who was arrested in 2011 and later sentenced to 18 years in prison.
As the May 2015 general elections approached, opposition groups complained of harassment by the government. The government was also criticized for stifling the independent media and preventing any meaningful political discourse prior to the election. The ruling EPRDF and its affiliates won every legislative seat in the May 24 election, and on October 5 Hailemariam was unanimously reelected prime minister by the lower legislative house.
Meanwhile, a highly controversial plan by the government to expand Addis Ababa by linking it with areas in the neighbouring Oromia region generated months of protest by the Oromo people in 2015; the plan was abandoned in January 2016. More protests occurred in 2016—primarily in the Oromia and Amhara regions and, to a lesser extent, in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ region—fueled by issues such as the government’s questionable detentions of activists and journalists, feelings of political marginalization, and general discontent with the government. Security forces often responded harshly to protests and demonstrations, killing and wounding some of the protesters and arbitrarily arresting thousands more, which elicited condemnation from human rights groups. The government declared a state of emergency in October 2016; it was finally rescinded in August 2017.
Winds of change
In early 2018 the government surprised many by releasing thousands of prisoners, including Eskinder as well as other well-known individuals who had been detained for speaking out against the current administration. The government also announced that it was closing a notorious detention centre. The moves were intended to ease tensions and allow for political dialogue between the government and the opposition. Those events were followed by the equally surprising resignation of Hailemariam, which he announced on February 15, 2018; he agreed to stay on until a new prime minister could be appointed. Hailemariam stated that he hoped his resignation would help usher in political reform. The next day the government declared another state of emergency; it was expected to last six months and was intended to limit the ongoing unrest. On March 25 Eskinder and several other journalists and activists who had been recently released from prison were rearrested, allegedly for holding a gathering in violation of the declared state of emergency and having an older, prohibited version of the country’s flag.
The ruling EPRDF selected a successor to Hailemariam in late March. Abiy Ahmed, of the Oromo ethnic group, was first elected as chair of the ruling coalition on March 27, and he was then elected as prime minister by the lower legislative house on April 2 and was sworn in on the same day. Abiy was the first Oromo to hold the position of prime minister, and it was hoped that his ascent to the post would help calm the ongoing tensions between that group and the government. In his inaugural address, Abiy promised to improve conditions in the country, including strengthening the democratic process, fighting corruption, and growing the economy. He also vowed to work toward resolving the long-standing conflict with Eritrea.
In the months after his inauguration, Abiy quickly made efforts to fulfill his vows. Domestically, thousands more political prisoners were pardoned and released, including Eskinder and prominent opposition leader Andargachew Tsige. The government lifted its latest state of emergency ahead of schedule, on June 5. The government also removed Ginbot 7, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), and the OLF from its list of organizations deemed to be terrorist groups. In August the ONLF declared a cease-fire, and in October the government and the group signed a peace agreement that was intended to end the hostilities that had plagued the Ogaden region for more than 30 years. On the economic front, Abiy announced that the government would allow for some degree of privatization of some state-owned industries, such as the national airlines and the country’s telecommunications provider, in an effort to encourage domestic and foreign investment and to spur economic growth. The new developments as well as the pace at which they were unveiled surprised Ethiopians and the international community alike.
Perhaps nothing was as astonishing as the efforts of Abiy and the EPRDF-led government to achieve peace with Eritrea and the swiftness with which they moved. On June 5 Abiy announced that Ethiopia would finally honour the terms of the 2000 peace agreement that was meant to end its war with Eritrea; those terms included accepting and implementing the controversial 2002 ruling that demarcated the border between the two countries. That announcement led to a flurry of diplomatic overtures, and in early July Abiy and Eritrean Pres. Isaias Afwerki met in Eritrea. The two agreed to reopen their borders and reestablish ties between the two countries in the areas of diplomacy, trade, communications, and transportation. Most stunning was the joint statement from Abiy and Isaias on July 9 announcing that the state of war that had existed between their two countries for 20 years had come to an end.
Abiy formed a new cabinet in October 2018. It was notable not only for its smaller size—Abiy cut the number of posts in the cabinet from 28 to 20—but, more strikingly, because Abiy appointed women to half of the positions, providing the country with its first gender-balanced cabinet. Later that month President Mulatu resigned before the end of his six-year term, paving the way for a new president to be selected by lawmakers. On October 25 the parliament elected Sahle-Work Zewde to succeed him; she was sworn in the same day, becoming the first woman to serve as president of Ethiopia. Sahle-Work was an accomplished diplomat who had served as an ambassador for Ethiopia and had held several positions with the United Nations.
In October 2019 Abiy was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. The Nobel Committee highlighted his actions in resolving Ethiopia’s long-running border dispute with Eritrea as an example of his efforts to attain peace.
In November 2019 the Sidamo people held a referendum to determine if there was enough support to create a new ethnic-based regional state for themselves, an option provided to all ethnic groups under the country’s constitution. The referendum passed, with more than 98 percent of Sidamo voters supporting the measure.
Challenges, ethnic tensions, and the Tigrayan conflict
Abiy’s reforms and changes, while welcomed and lauded by many in Ethiopia and abroad, were criticized by others for their scope and the speed at which they occurred. One of the consequences of the loosening of restrictions was that existing ethnic tensions that had been held to a simmer under the previous administration could now rise to the surface, the repercussions of which were sometimes violent, as were the actions of some who felt threatened by the rapid reforms. Shortly after Abiy took office, a grenade was detonated near him at a rally in June 2018; while he was not hurt, two others were killed and many more injured. A year later, several high-ranking officials were killed in what the government alleged was a failed coup attempt in the Amhara region. The murder in June 2020 of Oromo activist and songwriter Hachalu Hundessa, presumed by many to have been politically motivated. sparked weeks of protests and ethnic violence that led to more than 280 deaths.
Abiy’s reforms also had the effect of sidelining the TPLF—despite Tigrayans’ constituting less than 10 percent of the country’s population, the TPLF had previously been the dominant member of the ruling EPRDF coalition—and led to growing resentment from that party. Furthermore, many Tigrayan officials and military officers were caught in a crackdown on corruption during Abiy’s administration.
In late 2019 Abiy championed the dissolution of the EPRDF, the process of which the TPLF decried and refused to participate in. In its place Abiy formed the Prosperity Party, which included three of the four parties that had constituted the EPRDF—the TPLF refused to be a part of it—and several smaller regional ethnic-based parties that had opted to dissolve and join the new party.
The next round of general elections, scheduled to take place in 2020, were delayed for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The TPLF and some other opposition leaders called the postponement a power grab, however, accusing Abiy of delaying the elections in an effort to remain in power past his mandate. In spite of the official delay, officials in the Tigray region held regional elections in September 2020, inflaming regional officials’ already tense relationship with the federal government. The next month, the federal government began withholding funds from the regional administration.
The animosity between Tigray and the federal government erupted into violence in early November. A communications blackout in the region made it difficult to know exactly how events were transpiring on the ground, but TPLF forces were accused of having attacked and looted federal military bases in the region, after which federal troops attacked and launched an invasion of Tigray. Almost immediately Tigrayan forces claimed that Eritrean troops were attacking them as well, which officials from both Ethiopia and Eritrea denied. In March 2021, however, Abiy admitted that Eritrean troops were involved in the conflict. Meanwhile, although Abiy had declared victory in Tigray after federal troops had taken the region’s capital, Mekele, in late November 2020, some fighting in the region continued on for months, displacing some two million Tigrayans and triggering famine conditions. All sides were accused of having committed human rights abuses during the conflict.
2021 elections, Tigrayan rebel advance, and expansion of fighting
It was against this backdrop of conflict upon which the delayed federal elections were held on June 21, 2021, though not across the entire country. In addition to Tigray, polls were not held in the Somali and Harari regions, the election board citing insecurity and logistical problems as the reason; elections were scheduled to be held in the latter two areas in September. In Oromia, elections were held but opposition parties in the region boycotted the polls. When results were released in July, they showed that the Prosperity Party had won an overwhelming majority of the contested parliament seats.
Meanwhile, during the week of the elections, fighting escalated and Tigrayan forces launched attacks heading toward Mekele. On June 28, federal troops and interim government officials abruptly withdrew from the capital and the broader Tigray region. They were quickly followed by Tigrayan forces, who retook the capital and other areas in the region. The same day, the federal government declared a unilateral cease-fire, citing humanitarian reasons. Fighting continued, though, and in July it was clear that the conflict had drawn in additional groups and had spread to other regions. In August the TPLF and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), a group of insurgents that had splintered from the OLF, announced that they had formed an alliance.
Source: Brittanica Incyclopedia
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