April 22, 2011 § 5 Comments
Ethiopia has up to 80 different ethnicities and languages. However most of these are very small. The most influential ethnic groups (in order of size) are the Oromo, Amhara, Tigray, and Somalis. The second group, despite making up only 25% of the population of the country, have traditionally totally dominated political and civil society (although the current government is mostly Tigray). Whilst over 30 languages are spoken, and many are officially recognized at the regional level, it is the language of this dominant group – Amharaic – which is the only official national language. The ancient Ethiopian language Ge’ez became extinct around the 4th century but is still used in the liturgies of the Ethiopian Orthadox and Rastafari churches. Moreover most Ethiopian languages, including Amharaic, use the Ge’ez alphabet.
Ethiopia has its own totally unique calendar – it combines elements of the Coptic and Julian calendars and runs about eight years behind the Gregorian calendar.
In terms of religion: 60% are Christian (40% Ethiopian Orthodox – an Eastern Orthodox ie Coptic church – and the rest mostly Catholic), 30% are Shafi’i Sunni Muslim (mostly living in the south), and most other people follow traditional beliefs. Ethiopia was one of the first countries in the world to officially convert to Christianity (in the 4th Century AD) and one of the first to recognize and accept Muslims as members of a valid religion (in 615 AD – seven years before the Hijra).
Its links to Judaism are older still – some would say impossibly old – and allegedly (this is the subject of much debate) go back to the 10th Century BC, or to the possibly mythical Queen of Sheba – whichever came first. It is for this reason that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims to hold the Ark of the Covenant in a surprisingly small church in Axum. The modern Ethiopian Jewish Community is however now very small, as the Israeli government’s 1984 and 1991 attempts to evacuate and give citizenship to Ethiopia’s entire Jewish population were largely successful. There are now 120,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel (they make up to 30% of the population in rural areas of Israel) but only a thousand or so remaining in Ethiopia.
Another significant population are the Falash Mura. The Falash Mura are Ethiopian Jews who converted back to Christianity – sometimes under duress – in the middle ages. Some are now converting back to Judaism and it is a bone of contention in both Ethiopia and Israel as to whether they should be given the right to return or not.
Finally, whilst Ethiopia is the holy land of the Rastafarian religion, Rastafarianism has never really taken off amongst Ethiopians and there are only about 200 or so practicing Rastafarians in “Zion” – almost all of whom are Jamaican settlers living on land donated for that purpose by Haile Selassie I. Selassie never accepted the Rastafarianism himself but was not above playing the situation to his advantage. He was fairly stridently opposed to the idea of Rastafarians moving to Ethiopia en masse and so told Rastafari clerics they needed to fully reform “Babylon” before they could enter Zion.
How does the system work? (the theory): The president of Ethiopia has only nominal power, they are elected indirectly by both the houses in turn: the winner in the upper house having to be ratified by the lower house or the whole thing is rerun. Terms are for six years
Real power is entrusted to the Prime Minister, who is the person best able to command a majority in the lower house – the Council of People’s representatives. This has 547 members, each elected by First Past the Post in general elections which must be held at least every five years.
The upper house, the House of the Federation, is a stranger beast. It doesn’t have much power in of itself but it forms a Committee of Constitutional Enquiry – which is quite powerful – and it also runs two fairly powerful committees on local government and budgetary manners.
There are 112 members, elected for a five year term, one for each ethnic group and one more for every subsequent million people of that ethnic group. Of course that makes the governments definitions of who and what are distinct ethnic groups, and how large they are, controversial. Currently 68 groups are admitted. More controversial still is the fact that these members are elected by the states governments – which is kind of a Heath Robinson arrangement as there is nothing like a 1-1 mapping from states to ethnicities.
There are nine states, each supposedly based around an ethno-linguistic super grouping, although the idea that the states and ethnicities correspond exactly is somewhat simplistic. State legislatives then have the responsibility to assign seats to the upper house on behalf of those ethnicities claimed to be part of their ethnic super grouping. They can do this either by running elections or by nominating the members themselves – states invariably opting for the latter. Either way the result is that if you are an ethnic minority within your state, or if you live out of the state of your supposed ethnic family, then you will find your upper house representatives being selected for you by others.
These states are further divided into zones, districts and municipalities. In addition Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa are charter cities. Decentralized government is fairly advanced and effective, at every level there is an elected executive head and a legislative council. This brilliant paper has more, both on the powers and shortcomings of Ethiopian local government.
How does the system work? (the practice): Opinions differ, it seems Ethiopian democracy was a bit of a curate’s egg. Some external observers had given elections a clean bill of health – others hadn’t. Elections are semi-competitive: the opposition win plenty of seats but so far haven’t threatened to take anything resembling power. Similarly the press is semi-free but journalists who look too closely into things end up in prison and “free speech” laws in many cases provide excuses for the government to seize material owned by the private press. The uncritical state press dominate, freedom of assembly is limited, and civil society is tightly regulated.
However the last elections were an absolute disgrace and were utterly rigged.
How did we get here?: Ethiopian history is cool, so I am going to be self indulgent:
The area which is now Ethiopia, along with Kenya, seems to have played a key role in the evolution of humanity. According to the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, it was in the (then) marshland of northern Ethiopia that our common ancestor became so different from other great apes. Early hominid fossils have been found in Ethiopia which are over 4 million years old. The oldest ever fossil of something approaching a modern human – Homo sapiens idaltu – was found in Ethiopia and is thought to date to around 160,000 BC. According to the Out of Africa theory, it was from Ethiopia that modern humans – Homo Sapiens – first set out (via Djibouti and Yemen) around 100,000BC and colonized the whole world (utterly replacing, according to the theory, the Homo Erecti who had left Africa some 900,000 years before).
Ethiopian history also goes back an incredible distance. Egyptians report trading with kings in the area – who they called the Punt – in the 30th Century BC. It has not been established whether the ancient kingdom of Sheba ever existed – and if it did whether it was in Ethiopia, Yemen, or both – but there are some sources to suggest it was real, and that it was around well before 1500 BC. The 8th Century BC kingdom of Dʿmt (the upper case c is pronounced “ia”) certainly did exist and whilst this part of history is patchy (highlights include: the Dʿmt probably collapsing around the 4th Century BC; Zadok the priest is alleged to have stolen the Ark at some point – the Ethiopians claim 4th century but 10th would make more historical sense; and there may or may not have been a colony of the Yemeni Sabean kingdom in the area) it is about this time the term Ethiopia starts appearing to describe the area – firstly in the works of Greek scholars, then in the Bible.
The first real kingdom then that we know more than a smattering about springs up round about the year 0. Called the Axum, the beginning and end (around 700AD) are a bit of a mystery but in the middle they were a major global power: conquering much of the Arab peninsula, threatening Roman possessions, forging diplomatic relations with much of Europe, and building some impressive buildings. The Ethiopian monarchy claim descent form the Axumites but this is doubtful: there is a 500 year gap in Ethiopian history from which all we have are some fairly self-serving legends about uppity pagan women who threatened to kill everyone until subdued by the firm but benign hand of christian patriarchy.
So we jump forwards to around 1270 when we know there was a kingdom called the Zagwe because we know it was destroyed (although not how, Ethiopian history contains some brilliant mysteries) and into the vacuum moved an outfit calling itself the Ethiopian (or Abyssinian in Greek) Empire claiming ancestry from everything that came before from Axum to Sheba and thus Solomon. They ruled for the next 800 years.
They re-established links with Europe and, as a Christian Kingdom surrounded by Muslims, they found willing allies in the Portuguese. Luso-Ethiopian links were at their strongest in the 16th century, in 1540 a large Portuguese army went deep into the interior to help defend Ethiopia from an Ottoman invasion. Having successfully done so they stuck around in order to try and persuade/coerce the Emperor into dropping Eastern Orthodoxy for Catholicism – at this point they were sent packing.
In general however the relationship between Christians and Muslims in Ethiopia at this stage was quite good. Indeed at this stage Ethiopia was more of a loose affiliation of different states, some of them Muslim and some of them dominated by ethnic groups (some indigenous, some newly arrived) other than the Amhara. Only the post of Emperor was reserved for an Amharic Coptic Christian, and even then the situation got blurrier after the major families of the different states started intermarrying.
Inevitably bitter ethnic and religious conflict rose over the position of the Emperor. In what became known as the Era of the Princes, various rival claimants to the throne popped each other off with almost tedious regularity. The result (around 1770 onwards – although the succession only finally stabilized in 1872) was a compromise (although that word suggests far more deliberation than actually took place) whereby the Amharic Coptic “line of Solomon” retained the title of Emperor but outside of the capital real power shifted to warlords, nobles and emirs – who occasionally installed their own “puppet emperor”. Partly as an unintended consequences, and partly as a deliberate ploy to prevent outsiders stirring up religious tension, Ethiopia then reversed its previous openness to the outside world and became increasingly insular and remote.
This isolation was partly eroded by the British establishing trading ports in Ethiopian controlled parts of what is now Somalia during the Napoleonic war, and partly by the secret missions of Richard Burton. However it only really ended in the late 19th century when a couple of strong emperors (Tewodros II and Yohannes IV) came to the fore, destroyed by force of arms the power of the warlords and nobles, and reestablished diplomatic links.
It was about this time that the interest of European powers in the area became substantial. Ethiopia was happy to let go of areas it half-owned (or at least had a relationship with) in Eritrea and half of modern day Somalia (to the Italians), Djibouti (to the French) and the other half of modern day Somalia (to the British), but it kept the historical heart of the kingdom to itself. When the British (1868) and the Italians (1888 and 1896) tried to conquer the rest – or to install their own puppet king – they were sent packing.
This military resistance meant that by 1897 Ethiopia was the only independent African nation (Liberia was also an independent nation, but not an African one. It was founded and ruled by colonizers from the USA – almost all of whom were freed slaves). They retained their independence through a rough passage for the monarchy (including – briefly – a Muslim Emperor) and by 1930, when Haile Selassie I was crowned, the outlook looked good.
In Britain where we know Selassie for his obvious intelligence, his spirited war against fascism, his beautiful words to the UN (later lovingly sung by Bob Marley), his relationship with Sylvia Pankhurst (as all great minds of the 20th century should have, they used to go caravaning in Southport), and the Rastafarian’s fairly arbitrary decision to worship him as a god there is a tendency to think of him as a “goodie”. Sadly history is rarely this simple and he was something of an autocrat: certainly a dictator and not necessarily a benign one. Putting it another way: he’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy.
His most significant flaw was in going overboard when trying to create a coherent identity for Ethiopia: by stressing Amhara language and culture to the exclusion of all else he crossed the line into ethnic favoritism, alienated the other ethnicities of Ethiopia, and so started an ethnic conflict which continues to this day – and which spilled over into all out war with Somalia, Eritrea, and seemingly constant civil-wars.
However we are still in 1930 and all that lay in the future. For the moment Selassie was popular and his reign stable. In 1932 he conquered the Kingdom of Jimma: a Muslim emirate and the last place in Ethiopia not to recognize the Emperor.
Then in 1935 Mussolini, anxious to try out his new modern weaponry and thinking he saw an easy target, invaded. Italy had conquered Ethiopia by the following year and when every member of the League of Nations bar the USSR ratified the conquest (this vote wasn’t just out of anti-fascism, Ethiopia and Russia have multiple surprisingly strong and frequent links going back centuries) it showed that body to be utterly toothless. However the Italian conquest wasn’t total and pro Selassie guerrillas continued to fight on – maybe for this reason Italian settlers moving to Ethiopia numbered in the tens of thousands rather than the planned hundreds of thousands.
In 1941 Selassie guerrillas, aided by the British, succeeded in expelling the Italians, not just from Ethiopia but from the entire horn of Africa. They eventually gave Somalia back (via a Italio-UN trust territory) but kept Eritrea. In the next few years Selassie embarked upon an ambitious program of centralisation and education. Whilst this resulted in positive outcomes for many, it led inevitably to ethnic tension and full out civil war with Eritrea – which rumbled on for forty years and ended in Eritrean independence.
It also led to more widespread opposition, opposition which became more explicitly left wing as outcomes continued to fail to improve and Selassie’s health and mental faculties deteriorated. Finally in 1974 a group of Marxist low level army officers, known as the Derg, seized power in a military coup. Selassie – now 83 – was imprisoned and died within a few months, allegedly strangled in prison but very possibly of old age.
The Derg were initially a fairly broad based organisation but increasingly dominated by the person of Mengistu Haile Mariam (many of the other leading Derg figures were either executed or died in the mysterious shootout during a meeting of the Derg central committee on the 3rd of February 1977 – one of Ethiopia’s greatest mysteries is how this shootout came about). They were not good people. Whilst they were not so explicitly Amharic exclusivist as the Selassie regime they did insist on imposing a centralised, albeit Marxified, narrative as to what it meant to be Ethiopian – which had just as disastrous an effect on ethnic relations as the Selassie policies.
As well as escalating the war with Eritrea the Derg thus also became embroiled in the Ogdan war with Somalia and the Western Somali Liberation Front and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (who wanted to join ethnic Somali areas of Ethiopia with Somalia), in a war with Oromo rebels in the west, in a war with Tigranyan rebels in the north, in a war with South Ethiopian separatists, and in the end even with Amharic and pan-Ethiopian based rebel groups. In addition countless political opponents were eliminated in the “red terror”. Both a consequence and a cause of these civil wars was the Derg’s runaway military spending – fueled by massive Soviet encouragement. In the Derg’s time in power military spending rose to 46% of the total whilst health fell to just 3%.
The inevitable result were the famines of 1984 to 1987 which left over a million dead. Band Aid and Live Aid were created in direct response to this. However, some have argued that by delivering aid to the Derg, and to the rebel groups, these endeavors prolonged the war and so made the situation worse rather than better. As Adam Curtis has brilliantly examined, this had profound effects both on the media’s reporting of disasters and international thinking on humanitarian intervention.
The Derg tried to stave off the inevitable by remodeling themselves as a modern Marxist one party state called the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, and led by Mengistu. That only brought them four more years and in 1991 the various ethnic groups coalesced as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and routed the forces of Mengistu.
The EPRDF started off as a broad tent organisation but increasingly it was dominated by the former members of the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front and Tigray members. The powerful (at the time) Oromo Liberation Front and the Southern Ethiopia Peoples’ Democratic Coalition pulled out after just a couple of months citing Tigray favoritism – this then of course became a self fulfilling prophecy as Tigray influence was less tempered.
Whilst there were always considerable issues with poverty, freedom, ethnic favoritism and fraud the EPRDF’s stewardship of the country wasn’t initially entirely negative. The new constitution, electoral system, and flag (the current one) introduced in 1996 paved the way for Ethiopia to become a modern functioning democracy. They also introduced considerable (theoretical) devolution just as it was becoming fashionable in development circles. Of course the theory hasn’t always lived up to the practice – and things have taken a recent turn for the worse. The guiding light throughout has been EPRDF leader Meles Zenawi, and when (in 1995) he moved from the position of President to that of Prime Minister it made it inevitable that Ethiopia would become a Parliamentary democracy and not a Presidential one.
War with Eritrea flared up again over the demarcation of the border and is still going on. War with Somalia over Ogaden rumbled on for a while but soon Ethiopia found itself allied with (what remains of) the Somali government (and sometimes allied warlords) against their common enemy: the Union of Islamic Courts, which were rapidly taking over Southern Somalia. This led to Ethiopia’s 2007 invasion of Somalia and involvement in some of the various Battles of Mogadishu.
Who’s in charge?: Zenawi and the EPRDF. They are ostensibly centre-left and promote what they refer to as pro-poor policies. They are also trying to cozy up to the international community who are eager to give aid and feeling less morally conflicted than they did in the time of the Derg. There’s actually quite a good summary of their various ostensible policy positions on the Zenawi article linked above. The President, Girma Wolde-Giorgis, is also EPRDF having been elected by the upper house (I believe unanimously) and the lower (430 votes in favor, 88 against, and 11 abstaining) most recently in 2007.
The currents within the EPRDF are mostly ethnic. Whilst very central in practice, the EPRDF style’s itself in theory as a loose affiliation of different regional movements – and it is these regional movements that allow these ethnic currents to manifest, and allow the EPRDF to dominate politics across the nation. However the central power base is dominated by the Tigray faction and Zenawi. In full the ethnic/regional divisions of the EPRDF are
- OPDO – Oromia Region
- ANDM – Amhara Region
- SEPDF – Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region
- TPLF – Tigray Region
- Afar National Democratic Party – Afar region
- Somali People’s Democratic Party – Ogaden Region
- OPDO (for ethnic Oromo) and Hareri National League (for ethnic Hareri) – Harari Region
- Gambela People’s Democratic Movement – Gambela region
- Benishangul-Gumuz People’s Democratic Unity Front – Benishangul-Gumuz region
In the 2005 elections 17 parties won seats, 200 odd went to the opposition, and two opposition parties got almost 150 seats between them – about a third of the total. An umbrella opposition group – the Coalition for Unity and Democracy – won nearly 100 seats and swept Addis Ababa. They were a mixture of pro-democracy advocates, general anti-EPRDF types, and some people with links to the Derg. Another umbrella opposition group – the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces – won 50 seats, almost entirely in the Oromia Region. Whilst having some allied Tigray parties this was a more ethnically based coalition more explicitly opposed to Tigray favoritism. The leading force was the Oromo People’s Congress who won a good number of seats in the state legislative as well.
However the 2010 parliamentary election was a horse of a very different colour. The EPRDF won 499 seats, various regional outfits of the EPRDF won 44 (SPDP 24, BGPDP 9, ANDP 8, GPDM 3, Argoba People’s Democratic Organization 1, and HNL 1) and the opposition won … 2 seats (a new pan opposition umbrella group, Menlek, won 1 and 1 was won by an independent). The regional elections were no less one sided – and so I assume the upper house is 100% EPRDF, although I haven’t seen this confirmed.
As always happens when a regime allows no outlet for democratic dissent there is of course a thriving violent opposition movement. Most prominent (and the de facto government of some areas of Ogaden) is the Ogaden National Liberation Front, who split with the EPRDF in the early nineties and are now at war with the Ethiopian government.
The clergy are fairly influential, particularly the Ethiopian Orthadox clergy. Civil society is in other respects rather stymied by stringent registration requirements.
What does it look like?: If this were a fifth year geography project or an introduction to the World Cup on ITV, I would start by saying Ethiopia is a land of contrasts. It has some of Africa’s highest mountains and its lowest points below sea level. It is very very hot but some parts are still fairly lush.
In general Ethiopia is a highland plateau cut in half by the great rift valley and with terrain determined by climate and, largely, height. So the north is Afromontaine scrubland, the east and west are desert and the south is tropical forest. The high plateau of central Ethiopia, particularly around Addis Ababa, is not only very high but very dry and (mostly) very flat – which is why it has produced most of the world’s best long distance runners. The source of the Blue Nile is also in Ethiopia:
What are the issues?: Whilst a key issue for the wider world (and presumably for Ethiopians) is reversing the last couple of years erosion of democracy, this is not openly discussed in Ethiopia. Poverty and poverty alleviation dominate the agenda: Ethiopia is actually one of the most fertile countries in Africa and has a great – and as yet untapped – potential as a bread basket. This means that an India style green revolution is needed, but it has not happened yet. In the meantime a lack of democracy and resources means war is not far away and ethnic tensions continue to fester.
A good source of impartial information is: the Reporter is probably the most free of the English papers but freedom of speech is limited
A good book is: Perhaps the oldest book still worth a read is The Prester John of the Indies, the surprisingly readable (depending on the translation) autobiography of Portugal’s first ambassador to Ethiopia which was written, extraordinarily, in 1550.
Haile Selassie I’s My Life and Ethiopia’s Progress is considered a holy book by Rastafarians which makes it a difficult book to review objectively. Ah well: it is very detailed, to be honest not a little dull, but does provide fascinating insights into the thoughts a clearly intelligent and hugely influential man. If you are very interested it is worth studying as a primary source, Otherwise I wouldn’t bother (in the interests of balance I’d say that that holds for the holy books of almost every religion, except for Battlefield Earthwhich is just dreadful).
Sylvia’s son Richard Pankhurst was raised and spent almost his entire adult life in Ethiopia. An academic, and a respected historian, his highly regarded opus is The Ethiopians, and one could not think of a better connected person to write it.
For something more up to date, and written by an Ethiopian, I recommend Beneath the Lion’s Gaze.
When are the next elections?: 2013 (indirect) for President, 2015 for parliament.