Ethiopia has a long, rich and colourful history that's generally not well known outside East Africa. Who knows that Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian civilisations in the world? And that it has the longest archaeological record of any country on earth? From the ancient Aksumite civilisation’s obelisks to the fascinating architectural wonders of medieval Lalibela to the castles of Gonder to the communist monuments of the Derg, Ethiopia wears its history on its sleeve.
Cradle of Humanity?
In palaeoanthropology, where years are measured in tenths of millions, 40 years is less than a blink of an eye. However, 40 years worth of palaeoanthropological study can rock the very foundations of human history.
After Richard Leakey’s discovery of skull 1470 near Kenya’s Lake Turkana in 1972, which proved Homo habilis (the direct ancestor of Homo sapiens) had lived alongside Australopithecus africanus and therefore couldn’t have evolved from them, the search was on for a new species that had branched into the genera Homo and Australopithecus, a species that would likely be Darwin’s ‘missing link’.
On 30 November 1974 Lucy was discovered in a dried-up lake near Hadar in Ethiopia’s northeast. She was a new species, A. afarensis, and she miraculously walked on two legs 3.2 million years ago. Lucy’s bipedal (upright walking) anatomy also shattered previous theories that hypothesised our ancestors only started walking upright after evolving larger brains. Lucy, the oldest and most complete hominid ever found, was famous and Ethiopia was tipped to claim the prize as the cradle of humanity.
After further finds in Ethiopia, including the 1992 discovery of the 4.4-million-year-old A. ramidus, whose foot bones hinted at bipedism, the ink on Ethiopia’s claim was almost dry. However, recent computed-tomography (CT) scans on a six-million-year-old hominid skeleton (Orrorin tugenensis) found in Kenya in 2001, and computer-aided reconstruction of a six- to seven-million-year-old skull (Sahelanthropus tchadensis) in Chad seem to suggest that Lucy and A. ramidus may not be part of the direct line of human evolution, but rather a lateral branch of it.
Land of Punt
Though this period is shrouded in darkness, Ethiopia (and Eritrea) are believed to have formed part of the ancient Land of Punt, an area that attracted the trading ships of the Egyptian Pharaohs for millennia.
Many valuable commodities such as gold, myrrh, ivory and slaves were issued from the interior of the region and were exported from the coast.
It’s thought the northern coastal region saw much migration from surrounding areas, and by 2000 BC it had established strong contacts with the inhabitants of southern Arabia.
The cultural significance of the southern Arabian and the East African cultures mixing was enormous. One consequence was the emergence of a number of Afro-Asiatic languages, including Ge’ez, which laid the foundation for modern Amharic. Amazingly, Ge’ez script is still read by many Christian priests in Ethiopia.
Most significant was the rise of a remarkable civilisation in Africa’s Horn in 1500 BC. The fact that the influence of southern Arabia was so clear (in the Sabaean script and in the worship of Sabaean gods), that the civilisation appeared to mushroom overnight and was very localised, and that it benefited from specialist crafts, skills and technologies previously unknown in the area, led many scholars throughout history to believe that the civilisation was actually spawned by Arabian settlers, and not Africans.
However, scholars of late argue with great conviction that this civilisation was indeed African and, while undoubtedly influenced by Sabaean ideas, it developed from within from local effort and initiative.
Whatever the origin, the civilisation was a very important one. The most famous relic of the times is the extraordinary stone ‘temple’ of Yeha.
Kingdom of Aksum
The Aksumite kingdom, which grew to rank among the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient world, was the next civilisation to rise in present-day Ethiopia. The first written evidence of its existence (Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, written by a Greek-speaking Egyptian sailor) was from the 1st century AD, but by this point its realm of influence was wide, suggesting it rose to prominence much earlier. New archaeological evidence hints it may have emerged as early as 400 BC.
Aksum, its capital, is thought to have owed its importance to its position, situated at an important commercial crossroads. To the northwest lay Egypt, and to the west, near the present-day Sudanese border, were the rich, gold-producing lowlands. To the northeast, in present-day Eritrea, was the Aksumite port of Adulis, positioned at the crux of an extensive trading route. Exports included frankincense, grain, animal skins, rhino horn, apes and, particularly, ivory (tens of thousands of elephants were reported to roam the region). Imports of dyed cloaks, cheap unlined coats, glassware, and iron for making spears, swords and axes flowed in from Egypt, Arabia and India. Syrian and Italian wine and olive oil were also imported, as was much gold and silver plate for the king. The flourishing trade allowed the Aksumite kingdom to thrive.
Aksum also benefited from its well-watered agricultural lands, which were further exploited by the use of dams, wells and reservoirs.
During its heyday between the 3rd and 6th centuries, the Aksumite kingdom stretched into large parts of southern Arabia, and west into the Sudanese Nile Valley. Aksumite society was rich, well organised, and technically and artistically advanced. During this era, an unparalleled coinage in bronze, silver and gold was produced and extraordinary monuments were built, all of which are visible in Aksum today. The kingdom also exerted the greatest influence of all on the future of Ethiopia: it introduced Christianity.
The Coming of Christianity
The Ethiopian church claims that Christianity first reached Aksum at the time of the Apostles. According to the Byzantine ecclesiastical historian Rufinus, it arrived on Ethiopian shores by accident rather than by design, when two young Christian boys from the Levant were given to the King.
Whatever the truth of the matter, what’s certain is that Christianity didn’t become the state religion until around the beginning of the 4th century. King Ezana’s stone inscription makes reference to Christ, and his famous coins bear the Christian cross – the world’s first to do so.
The end of the 5th century AD brought the famous Nine Saints, a group of Greek-speaking missionaries from the Levant who established well-known monasteries in the north of the country, including Debre Damo. At this time, the Bible was first translated from Greek into Ge’ez.
Christianity shaped not just Ethiopia’s spiritual and intellectual life, but also its cultural and social life, including its art and literature. Today almost half of Ethiopia’s population is Orthodox Christian.
The Coming of Islam & the Demise of Aksum
According to Muslim tradition, the Prophet Mohammed was nursed by an Ethiopian woman. Later, the Muslim Hadith (collection of traditions about Mohammed’s life) recounts that Mohammed sent his daughter (and successor) along with some of his followers to Negash in AD 615, to avoid persecution in Arabia.
When things calmed in Arabia, most refugees returned home. However, Negash continues to be a crucial pilgrimage point for Ethiopia’s Muslims.
Good relations between the two religions continued until at least King Armah’s death. Thereafter, as the Arabs and Islam rose to prominence on the opposite side of the Red Sea, trade slowly shifted away from Christian Aksum and it eventually became isolated.
After Aksum’s decline around AD 700, Ethiopia endured what is commonly known as its ‘dark age’.
Lalibela & the Zagwe Dynasty
The 12th century witnessed a new capital (Adafa) rise in the mountains of Lasta, not far from present-day Lalibela. It was established under a new power: the Zagwe dynasty.
Although the Zagwe dynasty reigned from around AD 1137 to 1270, and left the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, this period is shrouded in mystery. Seemingly, no stones were inscribed, no chronicles written, no coins minted and no accounts of the dynasty by foreign travellers have survived.
It’s not certain what brought the Zagwe dynasty to an end; it was likely a combination of infighting within the ruling dynasty and local opposition from the clergy. In 1270 the dynasty was overthrown by Yekuno Amlak; political power shifted south to the historical province of Shoa.
The Ethiopian Middle Ages
Yekuno Amlak, claiming to be a descendant of King Solomon and Queen Sheba, established the ‘Solomonic dynasty’, which would reign for the next 500 years. His rule would also ring in the start of what’s known as the Ethiopian Middle Ages, a period that, up until the modern age, was more documented than any other in the nation’s past.
With its all-powerful monarchy and influential clergy, the Middle Ages were a continuation of the past. However, unlike the past, the kingdom’s capitals were itinerant and were little more than vast, moving military camps. There were no longer minted coins, and trade was conducted by barter with pieces of iron, cloth or salt.
Culturally, the period was important for the significant output of Ge’ez literature, including the nation’s epic Kebra Negast. It was also at this time that contacts with European Christendom began to increase. With the rising threat of well-equipped Muslim armies in the East, Europe was seen as a Christian superpower.
Europe, for its part, dreamed of winning back Jerusalem from the ‘Saracens’, and realised the important strategic position occupied by Ethiopia. At the time, it was almost the only Christian kingdom outside Europe.
In the early 15th century, the first European embassy arrived in Ethiopia, sent by the famous French aristocrat Duc de Berry. Ethiopians in their turn began to travel to Europe, particularly to Rome, where many joined churches already established there.
The Muslim–Christian Wars
The first decades of the 16th century were plagued by some of the most costly, bloody and wasteful fighting in Ethiopian history, in which the entire empire and its culture came close to being wiped out.
From the 13th century, relations between Christian Ethiopia and the Muslim Ethiopian emirates of Ifat and Adal were showing signs of strain.
In the 1490s animosities came to a head. After establishing himself at the port of Zeila in present-day Somalia, a skilled and charismatic Muslim named Mahfuz declared a jihad against Christian Ethiopia. Emperor Lebna Dengel finally halted Mahfuz’s incursions, but not before he had carried off huge numbers of Ethiopian slaves and cattle.
An even more legendary figure was Ahmed Ibn Ibrahim al Ghazi, nicknamed ‘Ahmed Gragn the Left-Handed’. After overthrowing Sultan Abu Bakr of Harar, Ahmed declared his intention to continue the jihad of Mahfuz. Carrying out several raids into Ethiopian territory, he managed in March 1529 to defeat Emperor Lebna Dengel.
Ahmed then embarked on the conquest of all of Christian Ethiopia. Well supplied with firearms from Ottoman Zeila and southern Arabia, the Muslim leader had, by 1532, overrun almost all of eastern and southern Ethiopia.
In 1535 the Emperor Lebna Dengel appealed in desperation to the Portuguese, who were already active in the region. In 1542 an army of 400 well-armed musketeers arrived in Massawa (in present-day Eritrea) led by Dom Christovão da Gama, son of the famous mariner Vasco da Gama. They met Ahmed near Lake Tana, where he quickly routed them before lopping off the young and foolhardy head of Dom Christovão.
In 1543 the new Ethiopian emperor, Galawdewos, joined ranks with the surviving Portuguese force and met Ahmed at Wayna Daga in the west. This time, the Christians’ huge numbers proved too powerful and Ahmed was killed.
Oromo Migrations & the Jesuits
A new threat to the Ethiopian empire arose in the mid-16th century. The nomadic pastoralists and warrior horsemen of the Oromos began a great migration northwards from what’s now Kenya.
For the next 200 years intermittent armed conflict raged between the empire and the Oromos.
Early in the 17th century the Oromo threat led several Ethiopian emperors to seek an alliance with the Portuguese-backed Jesuits. Two emperors, Za-Dengel and Susenyos, even went as far as conversion to Catholicism. However, imposing Catholicism on their population provoked widespread rebellion. Za-Dengel was overthrown and, in 1629, Susenyos’ draconian measures to convert his people incited civil war.
Eventually Susenyos backed down and the Orthodox faith was re-established. Susenyos’ son and successor, Fasiladas, expelled the meddling Jesuits and forbade all foreigners from setting foot in his empire.
The Rise & Fall of Gonder
In 1636, following the old tradition of his forefathers, Emperor Fasiladas decided to found a new capital. However, Gonder was different from its predecessors: it was to be the first permanent capital since Lalibela.
By the 17th century’s close, Gonder boasted magnificent palaces, beautiful gardens and extensive plantations. It was also the site of sumptuous feasts and extravagant court pageantry, attracting visitors from around the world.
Under the ample patronage of Church and state, the arts and crafts flourished. Impressive churches were built, among them the famous Debre Berhan Selassie, which can be seen to this day. Outside Gonder, building projects included some remarkable churches at Lake Tana’s historic monasteries.
But not all was sweet in Gonder’s court, and between 1706 and 1721 everyone from royal bodyguards, the clergy and nobles to ordinary citizens tried their hand at conspiracy. Assassination, plotting and intrigue became the order of the day, and the ensuing chaos reads like something out of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. No fewer than three monarchs held power during this turbulent period, with at least one meeting a sticky, poisonous end. Emperor Bakaffa’s reign (1721–30) briefly restored stability, during which time new palaces and churches were built, and literature and the arts once again thrived.
However, by the time of Iyasu II’s death in 1755, the Gonder kingdom was back in turmoil and the provinces started to rebel.
Between 1784 and 1855 the emperors were little more than puppets in the hands of rival feudal lords and their powerful provincial armies. The country disintegrated and civil war became the norm.
After the fallout of Gonder, Ethiopia existed only as a cluster of separate and feuding fiefdoms. That was until the mid-19th century, when a unique man dreamt of unity.
Kassa Haylu, raised in a monastery and the son of a western chief, had first been a shifta (bandit) after his claim to his deceased father’s fief was denied. However, he eventually became a Robin Hood figure, looting the rich to give to the poor. This gained him large numbers of followers and he began to defeat the rival princes, one after another, until in 1855 he had himself crowned Emperor Tewodros.
The new monarch soon began to show himself not just as a capable leader and strong ruler but as a unifier, innovator and reformer as well. He chose Maqdala, a natural fortress south of Lalibela, as his base and there he began to formulate mighty plans. He established a national army, an arms factory and a great road network, as well as implementing a major program of land reform, promoting Amharic (the vernacular) in place of the classical written language, Ge’ez, and even attempting to abolish the slave trade.
But these reforms met with deep resentment and opposition from the land-holding clergy, the rival lords and even the common faithful. Tewodros’ response, however, was ruthless and sometimes brutal. Like a tragic Shakespearean hero, the emperor suffered from an intense pride, a fanatical belief in his cause and an inflated sense of destiny. This would eventually be his downfall.
Frustrated by failed attempts to enlist European, and particularly British, support for his modernising programs, Tewodros impetuously imprisoned some Britons attending his court. Initially successful in extracting concessions, Tewodros overplayed his hand, and it badly misfired. In 1868 large, heavily armed British forces, backed by rival Ethiopian lords, inflicted appalling casualties on Tewodros’ men, many of them armed with little more than shields and spears.
Refusing to surrender, Tewodros played the tragic hero to the last and penned a final dramatic and bitter avowal before biting down on a pistol and pulling the trigger.
In the aftermath of Tewodros’ death, there arose another battle for succession. Using his weaponry gained from the British in exchange for his support of their Maqdala expedition, Kassa Mercha of Tigray rose to the fore. In 1871, at the battle of Assam, he defeated the newly crowned Emperor Tekla Giorgis.
After proclaiming himself Emperor Yohannes the following year, Kassa reigned for the next 17 years. In contrast to Tewodros, Yohannes staunchly supported the Church and recognised the independence of local lords.
Yohannes also proved himself a skilful soldier. In 1875, after the Egyptians had advanced into Ethiopia from the coastal area, Yohannes drew them into battle and resoundingly routed them at Gundat and then again at Gura in 1876.
But soon another power threatened: the Italians. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 greatly increased the strategic value of the Red Sea, which again became a passageway to the East and beyond.
In 1885 the Italians arrived in Massawa (in present-day Eritrea) and soon blockaded arms to Yohannes. The failure of the British to impede the arrival of the Italians made Yohannes furious. He accused them of contravening the 1884 Hewett Treaty. Though protesting otherwise, Britain privately welcomed the Italians, both to counter French influence on the Somali coast (in present-day Djibouti) and to deter Turkish ambitions.
Meanwhile, the Mahadists (or Dervishes) were raising their heads in the West. Dislodging the Egyptians and British, they overran Sudan before arriving in Ethiopia and eventually sacking Gonder in 1888.
Yohannes rushed to meet the Dervishes at Qallabat in 1889 but, at the close of yet another victory, he fell, mortally wounded by a sniper’s bullet.
Menelik, King of Shoa since 1865, had long aspired to the imperial throne. Confined at Maqdala for 10 years by Tewodros, he was yet reportedly much influenced by his captor, and also dreamt of Ethiopia’s unification and modernisation.
After his escape from Maqdala and his ascendancy in Shoa, Menelik concentrated on consolidating his own power, and embarked on an aggressive, ruthless and sometimes brutal campaign of expansion.
Relations with the Italians were at first good; Menelik had been seen as a potential ally against Yohannes. On Yohannes’ death, the Italians recognised Menelik’s claim to the throne and, in 1889, the Treaty of Wechale was signed. In exchange for granting Italy the region that was later to become Eritrea, the Italians recognised Menelik’s sovereignty and gave him the right to import arms freely through Ethiopian ports.
However, a dispute over a discrepancy in the purportedly identical Amharic and Italian texts – the infamous Article 17 – led to disagreement. According to the Italian version, Ethiopia was obliged to approach other foreign powers through Italy, which essentially reduced Ethiopia to a lowly Italian protectorate. The Amharic version differed in its wording.
In the meantime, the Italians continued their expansion in their newly created colony of Eritrea. Soon, they were spilling into territory well beyond the confines agreed to in both treaties.
Despite the Italians’ attempts to court Tigray’s local chiefs, the latter chose to assist Menelik. Nevertheless, the Italians managed to defeat Ras Mangasha and his Tigrayan forces and occupied Mekele in 1895.
Provoked at last into marching north with his forces, Menelik shocked the international world by resoundingly defeating the Italians at Adwa. This battle numbered among the very few occasions when a colonial power was defeated by a native force in Africa. Ethiopia stood out as the only independent nation left in Africa.
Menelik then set his sights on modernisation. He abandoned the Shoan capital of Ankober and soon founded the new capital, Addis Ababa. During his reign, electricity and telephones were introduced; bridges, roads, schools and hospitals were built; and banks and industrial enterprises were established.
Menelik died a natural death in 1913. Iyasu, his raffish young grandson and nominated heir, proved to be very much a product of the 20th century. Continuing with Menelik’s reforms, he also showed a ‘modern’ secularist, nonsectarian attitude.
The young prince built mosques as well as churches, took several Muslim as well as Christian wives, and supported the empire’s peripheral populations, which had for years suffered at the oppressive hands of Amharic settlers and governors.
Iyasu and his councillors pushed through a few reforms, including improving the system of land tenure and taxation, but they faced ever-deepening opposition from the church and nobility.
Finally, after also upsetting the allied powers with his dealings with the Weimar Republic (Germany), Austria and the Ottoman Empire, a pretext for his removal was found. Accused by the nobles of ‘abjuring the Christian faith’, the prince was deposed in 1921.
Zewditu, Menelik’s daughter, was proclaimed empress. Things were not plain sailing for her, though. Zewditu had a rival to the throne, Ras Tafari (the son of Ras Makonnen, Menelik’s cousin, and grandson of an earlier Showan monarch). The conservative Ethiopian aristocracy largely supported Zewditu, but they had severe misgivings about other members of her family. In the end a kind of ‘power sharing’ agreement was reached with Zewditu being empress and Ras Tafari proclaimed the prince regent.
Prince Ras Tafari boasted more experience and greater maturity than Iyasu, particularly in the field of foreign affairs.
In 1923 Tafari pulled off a major diplomatic coup by securing Ethiopia entry into the League of Nations. Membership firmly placed Ethiopia on the international political map, and also gave it some recourse against the grasping designs of its European, colonial neighbours.
Continuing the tradition begun by Menelik, Tafari was an advocate of reform. A modern printing press was established as well as several secondary schools and an air force. In the meantime, Tafari was steadily outmanoeuvring his rivals. In 1930 the last rebellious noble was defeated and killed in battle. A few days later the sick empress also died. Ras Tafari assumed the throne.
Emperor Haile Selassie
On 2 November 1930 Tafari was crowned Emperor Haile Selassie. The extravagant spectacle was attended by representatives from across the globe and proved a terrific public-relations exercise. It even led indirectly to the establishment of a new faith, Rastafarianism.
The following year, Ethiopia’s first written constitution was introduced. It granted the emperor virtually absolute power. The two-house parliament consisted of a senate, which was nominated by the emperor from among his nobles, and a chamber of deputies, which was elected from the landholders. It was thus little more than a chamber for self-interested debate.
Ever since the day of his regency, the emperor had been bringing the country under centralised rule. For the first time, the Ethiopian state was unambiguously unified.
By the early 20th century Ethiopia was the only state in Africa to have survived European colonisation. However, Ethiopia’s position between the two Italian colonies of Eritrea and Somalia made it an enticing morsel.
From 1933, in an effort to undermine the Ethiopian state, Italian agents, well heeled with funds, were dispatched to subvert the local chiefs, as well as to stir up ethnic tensions. Britain and France, nervous of pushing Mussolini further into Hitler’s camp, refrained from protests and turned a blind eye.
In 1934 a minor skirmish known as the Wal Wal incident took place between Italian and Ethiopian forces. Italy had found its pretext.
On 3 October 1935 Italians, overwhelmingly superior in both ground and air forces, invaded Ethiopia from Eritrea. First the northern town of Aksum fell, then Mekele.
The League of Nations issued sanctions against Italy, but their enforcement by various European nations was lacklustre and had little impact.
Terrified that the international community would impose more serious embargoes, and keen to keep Italian morale high, Il Duce pressed for a swift campaign.
Impatient with progress made, he soon replaced De Bono, his first general. Pietro Badoglio, his replacement, was authorised ‘to use all means of war – I say all – both from the air and from the ground’. Implicit in the instructions was the use of mustard gas, which contravened the 1926 Geneva Convention.
Despite overwhelming odds, the Ethiopians succeeded in launching a major counter-attack, known as the Christmas Offensive, at the Italian position at Mekele at the end of 1935. However, the Italians were soon on the offensive again. Backed by hundreds of planes, cannons and weapons of every type, the Italian armies swept across the country.
Meanwhile, Emperor Haile Selassie had fled Ethiopia (some Ethiopians never forgave him for it) to present Ethiopia’s cause to the world. On 30 June 1936 he made his famous speech to the League of Nations in Geneva. However, the league lifted the sanctions later that year against Italy – only the USSR, the USA, Haiti, Mexico and New Zealand refused to recognise Italy’s conquest.
Occupation & Resistance
Soon Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia were merged to become the colonial territory of ‘Africa Orientale Italiana’ (Italian East Africa).
Hoping to create an important economic base, Italy invested heavily in its new colony. From 1936 as many as 60,000 Italian workers poured in to work on Ethiopia’s infrastructure.
Ethiopia kept up a spirited resistance to Italian rule throughout its brief duration. Italy’s response was famously brutal. Mussolini personally ordered all rebels to be shot, and insurgencies were put down using large-scale bombing, poison gas and machine-gunning from the air.
Ethiopian resistance reached a peak in February 1937 with an assassination attempt on the much-hated Italian viceroy, Rodolfo Graziani. In reprisal, the Italians spent three days shooting, beheading or disembowelling several thousand people in the capital.
The ‘patriot’s movement’ (the resistance fighters) was mainly based in the historical provinces of Shoa, Gonder and Gojam, but drew support from all parts of the country; many fighters were women.
Graziani’s response was simple: ‘Eliminate them, eliminate them, eliminate them’. But Ethiopian resolve stiffened and resistance grew. Although in control of major towns, Italy never conquered the entire country.
The outbreak of WWII, particularly Italy’s declaration of war against Britain in 1940, dramatically changed the course of events. Britain at last reversed its policy of tacit support of Italy’s East African expansion and initially offered Ethiopia assistance on the Sudan–Ethiopia border. Later, in early 1941, Britain launched three major attacks.
Though not then widely recognised, the Ethiopian patriots played a major role before, during and after the liberation campaign, which ended on 5 May 1941 when the emperor and his men entered Addis Ababa.
The British, who’d entered Ethiopia as liberators, initially seemed to have simply replaced Italy as occupiers. However, Anglo-Ethiopian treaties in 1942 and 1944 eventually marked Ethiopia’s resumption of independence.
The 1940s and ‘50s saw much postwar reconstruction, including (with US assistance) the establishment of a new government bank, a national currency and the country’s first national airline, Ethiopian Airlines.
In 1955 the Revised Ethiopian Constitution was introduced. Although for the first time the legislature included an elected chamber of deputies, the government remained autocratic and the emperor continued to hold all power.
In 1962 Addis Ababa became the headquarters of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and, in 1958, of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA).
Despite modernisation, the pace of development was slow, and dissatisfaction with it, and with the emperor’s autocratic rule, began to grow. Finally, taking advantage of a state visit to Brazil in December 1960, the emperor’s imperial bodyguard staged a coup d’etat. Though put down by the army and air force, it signalled the beginning of the end of imperial rule in Ethiopia.
Discontent simmered among the students too, who protested in particular against land tenure, corruption and the appalling famine of 1972–74 in which an estimated 200,000 died.
Meanwhile, international relations had also been deteriorating. In 1962 Ethiopia abrogated the UN-sponsored federation with Eritrea and unilaterally annexed the Eritrean state.
Then war broke out in 1964 with Somalia over joint claims to Ethiopia’s Somali-inhabited region of the Ogaden Desert.
The 1974 Revolution & the Emperor’s Fall
By 1973 an increasingly powerful and radical military group had emerged. Known as the Derg (Committee), they used the media with consummate skill to undermine the authority of the emperor himself. They famously flashed striking footage of starvation from Jonathan Dimbleby’s well-known BBC TV report on the Wolo famine in between clips of sumptuous palace banquets.
The result was an unprecedented wave of teacher, student and taxi strikes in Addis Ababa. Even army mutinies began to be reported. At crisis point, the prime minister and his cabinet resigned and a new one was appointed with the mandate to carry out far-reaching constitutional reforms. But it was too late.
On 12 September 1974 Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed, unceremoniously bundled into the back of a Volkswagen and driven away to prison. Ministers, nobles and close confidants of the emperor were also arrested by the Derg. The absolute power of the emperor and the divine right of rule of the century-old imperial dynasty were finished.
The Derg soon dissolved parliament and established the Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC) to rule the country.
Emerging as the leader of the Derg was Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam who rode the wave of popular opposition to Selassie’s regime, as well as the Marxist-Leninist ideology of left-wing students.
And what happened to the emperor? The official line at the time was that he died of ‘respiratory failure’ in August 1975 following complications from a prostate operation. However, many people believe he was murdered by Mengistu himself. In 1992, after the fall of the Derg, Selassie’s bones were discovered buried under a concrete slab in the grounds of the palace in Addis.
The Demise of the Derg
Red Terror only cemented the stance of those opposing the Derg. Numerous armed liberation movements arose, including those of the Afar, Oromo, Somali and particularly Tigrayan peoples. For years, with limited weaponry, they fought the military might of the Soviet-backed Derg, which had the second-largest army in sub-Saharan Africa.
The various opposition groups eventually united to form the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which in 1989 began its historic military campaign towards Addis Ababa.
The Derg was doubly confronted by the EPRDF in Ethiopia and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) in Eritrea. With the fall of his allies in Eastern Europe, and with his state in financial ruin as well as his own military authority in doubt, Mengistu’s time was up and he fled the country on 21 May 1991. Seven days later, the EPRDF entered Addis Ababa and the Derg was done.
Mengistu received asylum in Zimbabwe, where he remains to this day, despite being tried in absentia in Ethiopia and sentenced to death.
The Road to Democracy (1991–95)
After the war of liberation Ethiopia showed zeal and determination to rebuild the country.
In July 1991 a transitional charter was endorsed, which gave the EPRDF-dominated legislature a four-year, interim rule under the executive of the TPLF leader, Meles Zenawi. First and foremost, Mengistu’s failed socialist policies were abandoned, and de facto independence was granted to Eritrea.
In August 1995 the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia was proclaimed, a series of elections followed, and the constitution of the second republic was inaugurated. Meles Zenawi formed a new government.
Despite being friends and having fought against the Derg side by side for more than a decade, Meles Zenawi and Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afewerki, soon clashed. The cause? Eritrea’s introduction of the nakfa currency to replace the Ethiopian birr in November 1997.
In early May 1998 a number of Eritrean officials were killed near the border. On 12 May Eritrea upped the stakes by occupying the border town of Badme. Over the next month there was intense fighting between the two sides. In early June the Ethiopians launched air raids on the airport in Asmara to which the Eritreans retaliated by bombing Mekele airport. In both cases civilians were killed.
In February 1999 a full-scale military conflict broke out that left tens of thousands dead on both sides before it finally ceased for good in mid-2000. During this time there were mass exportations of Eritreans from Ethiopia and Ethiopians from Eritrea.
Although Ethiopia had agreed to peace earlier, it wasn’t until Ethiopia recaptured all territory and went on to occupy parts of central and western Eritrea that Eritrea finally agreed to a ceasefire.
In December 2000 a formal peace settlement was signed in Algiers. In April 2001 a 25km-wide demilitarised strip, which ran the length of the internationally recognised border on the Eritrean side, was set up under supervision of the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE).
In late 2005 a commission at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled that Eritrea broke international law when it attacked Ethiopia in 1998 and triggered the war.
Since the guns fell silent there have been periods of extreme tension between the two nations that have seen forces massed on both sides of the border, and today the two armies continue to eye each other suspiciously over the desert.
Protests & Invasions
The 15 May 2005 elections returned the EPRDF and Zenawi to power, but while the election run-up and the voting polls were witness to few irregularities, there were numerous reports by EU observers about questionable vote counting at the constituency level and the announcing of the results by state-run media.
In the years leading up to the elections, discontent with the government had been growing and then, during the election campaigning, opposition parties alleged cases of intimidation and arrests of their supporters. On the morning of 15 May, when the first results were first announced, it appeared that the opposition parties had made sweeping gains, but then later that afternoon the EPRDF announced that, aside from in Addis itself, it had in fact won a majority of seats. Straight away opposition parties and supporters cried foul play and mass protests broke out in Addis. Government troops arrested thousands of opposition-party members and killed 22 unarmed civilians. Similar protests and mass strikes occurred in early November, which resulted in troops killing 46 civilians and arresting thousands more. Leaders of political party Coalition for Unity and Democracy, as well as owners of private newspapers, were also arrested and charged with inciting the riots. The government’s actions were condemned by the EU and many Western governments, but the election result stood.
In 2006 Ethiopia launched an invasion of Somalia in order to dislodge the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which had gained control of much of the country (and ironically brought the first semblance of peace Somalia had seen in years). By the end of the year Ethiopian troops had pushed the ICU back to the far south of Somalia, but they soon found themselves tangled up in a messy guerrilla war, with the ICU slowly beginning to win back lost ground. Many observers suspected that Eritrea was secretly arming and aiding the ICU in its war with Ethiopia. Unwilling to get bogged down in a long and bloody battle in Somalia, Ethiopia called for an African Union (AU) force to take its place and the Ethiopians began to withdraw in early 2009.
Despite the official withdrawal, the Ethiopian military made repeated incursions over the border to fight al-Shabaab (the Islamic militant group which rapidly replaced the ICU after their demise, and quickly came to control much of southern Somalia) throughout the remainder of 2009 and up to 2011. Many of these incursions were denied by the Ethiopian government. In late 2011 the Ethiopian military, working with the transitional government, AU forces and the Kenyan military, officially re-entered Somalia as part of a concerted drive to destroy al-Shabaab.
The End of an Era
The elections of 2010 saw Zenawi and the EPRDF returned to power. This time there was none of the violence that marked the 2005 election, but international observers criticised the elections saying they fell short of international standards. Human Rights Watch claimed the government had a strategy of systematically closing down space for political dissent and independent criticism.
In July 2012 rumours began to circulate that Zenawi, who hadn’t been seen in public for some weeks, had died. The government denied these rumours but admitted that Zenawi had been hospitalised, but that his condition was not serious. On 20 August 2012 it was announced that after 21 years of leading Ethiopia, Zenawi, the man who had led the country since the overthrow of the Derg regime in 1991, had died of an infection contracted after an operation to remove a brain tumour. Zenawi had made economic growth and development his number-one priority and during his 21-year rule the country changed for the better, beyond all recognition of the Ethiopia Zenawi had inherited.
Hailemariam Desalegn, the deputy prime minister and former President of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples' Region, took office as prime minister. His party (the EPRDF) won another overwhelming victory in the general elections in 2015.