12 April, 2008

Common Knowledge on Ethiopia, Part 1: Historical Context

In this post and the next I will give a basic outline of Ethiopia's history, politics, international relations, and political economy. Some of what I am posting here is culled from paying attention to news media over the years, some from a lifetime of skimming interesting books, some from reading the Bradt guidebook to Ethiopia, and some from going to a lecture last week by Dr. Kassahun Berhanu, former professor of Political Science and International Relations in the University of Addis Ababa.

Ethiopia is an old country with a continuous history from antiquity to the present day. As a mountainous country, it developed in semi-isolation from the rest of Africa and the world generally, though it was never a completely closed country. The country was an early adopter of Christianity, with its national Church developing separately from the Church in Europe (or even the other sects in Egypt and the Middle East). As well as Christians, the country has animists, and Muslims, and it has (or had) a large Jewish population that had also developed in isolation from world Jewry. Ethiopia is also a patchwork of different ethnicities and languages.

Ethiopia's great claim to fame is that it was never colonised. In the late 19th century, the Italians sent an army to conquer the country, but the Ethiopians destroyed it at the Battle of Adowa. King Menelik II was the only African leader to end the Scramble for Africa period with a larger realm than he had had when it started.

In the 20th century, an ambitious nobleman of royal lineage seized the throne from Menelik's heirs. Haile Selaise was overthrown by the Italians in the 1930s, when they successfully invaded the country. He was reinstated when the country was liberated in 1941 by British forces operating in concert with the Ethiopian resistance. Italy's coastal colony of Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia. When Haile Selaise instituted a more unitary regime, the Eritreans launched a long war for independence.

For reasons that have never become clear, Haile Selaise was somehow hailed as a divinity by a strange new religion in Jamaica. Despite his apparently divine nature, his rule became increasingly discredited in Ethiopia, as he grew older and his regime seemed unable to respond to a succession of crises.

Haile Selaise was overthrown and murdered by radical army officers in the early 1970s. These fellows ended the monarchy and ruled as the Derg, a name that sounds wonderfully exotic and conjures up the image of a creepy cabal of cloaked figures meeting in darkened caves; sadly the name just means Committee. The Derg aligned Ethiopia to the USSR in the Cold War, and partly thanks to this alliance they were able to successfully fight a war against the US-backed Somalia. Domestically, they broke the power of the old feudal elite and instituted extensive land reforms that remain in place to this day. Apart from that, they instituted a mini-Stalinist reign of terror. The Eritreans stepped up their independence struggle, and were soon joined in arms against the Derg by a host of ethnic-regional movements.

Ethiopia exploded into the world's consciousness in the early 1980s when famine broke out in Tigre, caused by drought and local crop failures and exacerbated by government action against this separatist region. Simplistic news coverage of this tragic event, in which enormous numbers died, created a false perception of Ethiopia as some kind of permanently arid desert, a far cry from the Ethiopian plateau's status as perhaps the most fertile land in sub-Saharan Africa.

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