Ethiopia – Then & Now

This is an interesting time to live in. The world’s eyes are focused on the USA’s debate over which two future leaders would be the lesser of two evils, while in my home country of South Africa protests calling for free tertiary education have erupted, seeing the destruction of property, loss of life and the shutting down of many university campuses. The #FeesMustFall campaign, as it has come to be known, is a controversial topic that I would like to share my opinions on, but not today; today, I am going to focus on a fellow African country whose struggles have gone largely unnoticed by the rest of the world: Ethiopia. This is meant to inform, firstly, and also to awaken within the reader’s mind – especially the South African reader – the possibility that South Africa might have a similar destination in mind.




Durban, South Africa


The Facts

Ethiopia’s government has declared a state of emergency. This in response to protests that have erupted throughout the country with horrendous violence. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister has said that the state of emergency has been declared because of the “enormous” damage to property. For those who do not know, my university – Stellenbosch University (SU) – has deployed heavily armed men from several private security companies all over campus, stating that management wishes to prevent further destruction of property. 

An Ethiopian Government statement pointed out that ~1000 people have been arrested near the capital of Addis Abbaba in, authorities claim, response to damage of property. The US government has issued the following travel warning regarding Ethiopia:

An October 15 decree states that individuals may be arrested without a court order for activities they may otherwise consider routine, such as communication, consumption of media, attending gatherings, engaging with certain foreign governments or organizations, and violating curfews…

… Avoid demonstrations and large gatherings, continuously assess your surroundings, and evaluate your personal level of safety. Remember that the government may use force and live fire in response to demonstrations, and that even gatherings intended to be peaceful can be met with a violent response or turn violent without warning.

Ethiopia Stampede

Protests in Oromo region, Ethiopia, sparked government to respond with a state of emergency, effective immediately.

Ethiopia is a country that has a history of clashes between the different ethnic groups (the two major ones being the Oromo and Amhara people) and the government. The protests that have recently sprung up – the worst the country has seen in 25 years – have, according to the BBC, no real trigger, but are “an accumulation of years of frustration from ethnic groups who say they have been marginalised by the government.” Attention was brought to the protests in Ethiopia’s Oromia region when Olympic silver medalist Feyisa Lilesa – who is from the Oromia region – used his Olympic debut to stand in solidarity with the protesters – friends and family – who were “dying and disappearing in anti-government protests.”


Feyisa Lilesa crossing his arms above his head to raise awareness about the dire situation in his home country.

The protests begun in the Oromia region, as the Oromo – Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group – claim that they have been marginalised by the government, and have experienced systematic oppression and persecution. Human Rights Watch claims that hundreds of people have died during protests and demonstrations in Oromia, but these claims have been denied by Ethiopia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

But… why?

Ethiopia has a long history of being an African country that prides itself on independence and is not afraid of a fight. If Africa were a family of individuals, Ethiopia would be that leather-wearing uncle with long hair who drives a Harley Davidson.

The First Italo-Ethiopian War

In 1889, the death of Emperor Yohannes IV sparked chaos as his eligible successors scrambled for the throne. Menelik II His Majesty the King of Kings (Negus Negesti) of Ethiopia, who ruled from 1889 to 1913 after winning the game of thrones thanks to the large military support of the Italians, is responsible for many Ethiopian developments which had not existed prior to his reign: advances in education, electricity and road construction; the founding of the city of Addis Ababa; and the development of a central taxation system.

In 1889, King Menelik signed the Treaty of Wichale with the Italian king (if you want to read the entire text of the treaty, it is available here) stating that Italy would gain control of a northern part of Ethiopia (now called Eritrea) in exchange for not only weapons but also the recognition of Ethiopia’s sovereignty. An ambiguity in the translation of an article in the treaty implied the declaration of an Italian protectorate over Ethiopia. King Menelik repudiated this article at first, then, in September 1893, repudiated the entire treaty and began preparing for a military conflict with the Italians. The military campaign was initiated in early 1895; on 1 March 1896 the Italians were defeated by the Ethiopian army which stood strong at over 140,000, making Ethiopia the first and only African country to effectively defeat a colonialist invasion and retain its sovereignty. This victory has come to be known as the Battle of Adwa.


Understanding the Battle of Adwa is crucial to understanding African history.

On Monday, 26 October 1986 the Treaty of Addis Ababa was signed, and this negotiated an unambiguous peace while abrogating the previous Treaty of Wichale. King Menelik’s victory at the Battle of Adwa was much more than a military conquest: it supplied his army with thousands of guns that the Italians had left behind, it boosted his credibility with the other European powers which were slicing Africa up and dividing it among themselves, and also bolstered the faith his people had in him as a leader, as the rest of Africa, at that time, were not so lucky in their resistance of the colonial invasion of their land.


The Second Italo-Ethiopian War

Haile Selassie I (original name Tafari Makonnen), undoubtedly the most popular man to ever emerge out of Ethiopia (or, at least, the only powerful Ethiopian figure that teenage potheads would know) ascended to the throne following Empress Zewditu’s death on 2 November 1930. Selassie had a background in three of Ethiopia’s Afroasiatic-speaking populations: the Oromo, Amhara and Gurage. He brought Ethiopia into the League of Nations and the United Nations, the latter of which Ethiopia was a founding member of.


The letter sent to the Bolivian president announcing Haile Selassie I’s ascension to the throne.

Selassie was heavily opposed to the feudal system in Ethiopia; the policies he followed sought to break the power that the local nobility had, and he thus became widely associated with aggressive politically progressive aspects of the population. One such policy was one of a salaried civil service.

After Menilek II’s death, there was some resistance to his grandson’s ascension to the throne, after which his daughter, Zauditu, became empress in 1917, and Haile Selassie I was named heir to the throne. Zauditu was conservative in nature, but Selassie’s progressive stance appealed to the younger generation of modernists.

On November 2, 1930, following the death of Empress Zauditu, Haile Selassie I succeeded to the title of Emperor, and enforced strict limitations on the powers of Parliament. He implemented radical social, economic and educational changes. By outlawing feudal taxation, strengthening the police force and creating provincial schools, Haile Selassie I sought to make a better life for the people by increasing the authority of the central government by taking it away from the feudal nobility. This, in effect, lead to him becoming the government.

In December 1934 there was a border “scuffle” between Ethiopia and Italian Somaliland, giving the renowned Benito Mussolini the excuse he needed to invade Ethiopia (and also seek vengeance for the Battle of Adwa). He rejected all offers of arbitration and, on December 3 1935, invaded Ethiopia.

The Italians won a major victory near Lake Ascianghi on April 9 1936, and proceeded to take the capital of Addis Ababa in May. Haile Selassie I was forced into exile in London and Mussolini then declared Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel III Emperor of Ethiopia, which was largely opposed by Ethiopians and by Selassie but recognized by the League of Nations. Selassie became a world-renowned figure when he delivered an address to the incompetent League of Nations, who, after condemning the 1935 invasion of Ethiopia by Italy, issued sanctions on Italy which were largely ineffective because of a lack of general support.

After the Italians entered the fray that was World War II, British forces teamed up with Ethiopian soldiers and invaded Ethiopia. This campaign restored sovereignty to the Ethiopians in 1941. The following year, Selassie abolished slavery.

Due to the world oil crisis in 1973, the popular opinion of Haile Selassie I dropped. High gasoline prices, discontent in the middle classes due to modernization, border wars, high food prices, all of these were contributing factors that led to taxi drivers and teachers striking in February 1974. Two days later, students and workers in the capital protested against the government.

The Derg


Haile Selassie I.

Haile Selassie I was deposed by a group commonly known as “The Derg.” The Derg, formally known as The Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police, and Territorial Army, was officially announced in 1974 by military officers in order to maintain law and order in the armed forces following widespread mutiny. The committee was initially tasked with basically rooting out corruption, and was chaired by Major Mengistu Haile Mariam, with Major Atnafu Abate as vice-chair.

The months that followed the instating of the Derg, they steadily accrued more power, and were given concessions by the emperor, among which was the power to arrest military officers and government officials at any and all levels. Soon, the Prime Minister and his entire cabinet was in imprisoned; on September 12 1974 the Derg deposed emperor Haile Selassie I and placed him under house arrest in his palace, where he later died.

The Derg seized control of the government. Brigadier General Tafari Benti became the chair of the Derg and head of the state, with Mengistu and Abate as his vice-chairs. After the monarchy was formally abolished in 1975, Marxism-Leninism was adopted as the ideology of the Derg and hence of the state. Internal conflicts arose in 1977, which saw Mengistu gain undisputed leadership after executing Atnafu Abate and Tafari Benti and his supporters.

Under the Derg, gruesome atrocities were acted out. The Ethiopian Civil War, the Ethiopian-Eritrean war, the Cold War, the Red/White Terror – all of this happened while the Derg – or more specifically, Mengistu Haile Mariam – remained in power. I won’t go into detail about those events now, but you can read up about it yourself, as they are complex issues that are crucial to understanding the current political climate in modern Ethiopia. Here is a source to start you off on your reading.


Mengistu Haile Mariam.

In 1988, Mengistu abolished the Derg and established the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE). Although the Derg had been formally abolished, many of them retained key positions in Mengistu’s new government, and served on the Politburo and Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Ethiopia (WPE). Mengistu became Secretary-General of the WPE, President of the PDRE and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.

After the fall of Communism in 1989 the Soviet Union halted aid to PDRE, and stopped it altogether in 1990, dealing a massive economic blow to the republic.

The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of rebel forces, in 1991 captured several cities, while the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) had gained control of basically all of Eritrea. With the Soviet Union having to deal with its own internal issues it could offer no support or aid to the PDRE. Facing imminent destruction, Mengistu fled from Ethiopia to Kenya, where he eventually went to Zimbabwe as an asylum-seeker and resides there to this day. Note that Mengistu, along with 25 others, were found guilty in absentia of genocide. When the EPRDF eventually entered Addis Ababa, they immediately dismantled the WPE and tried the Derg for genocide.


In 1994, a constitution was adopted that allowed for the first multi-party election to take place the following year. Since then, there has been much tension and aggression, with calls of fraud and vote-rigging. A war between Eritrea and Ethiopia broke out in 1998 that lasted until 2000, which cost the economy an estimated $1 million a day, dealing a significant blow to the economy.

Meles Zenawi and his party had been in power in Ethiopia since 1991 but, following Zenawi’s death in 2012, Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn was appointed as new Prime Minister, with every parliamentary seat in the control of his party. This situation remains to this day.

Click here to see what Freedom House has to say about the matter of the ruling party in Ethiopia.


Up until this point, this blog post has been unlike any other in that it is mostly a restating of facts. The purpose of this is to present a simplistic overview of the history of Ethiopia, and to encourage you to read further to educate yourself – I am still busy reading about this, and won’t stop anytime soon. There’s so much to learn.

What is clear to me is that Ethiopia is a country that is filled with powerful, proud people who have a rich history and connection with their nation. Ethiopia is – according to current scientific consensus – the birthplace of humanity, and I find it disturbing how the injustices committed in this place can be so largely ignored by the general public. Mainstream media will show us only that which brings them the highest ratings, and for some reason it has been dictated to us that immersing ourselves in foreign Western politics is more important than our own, or that of our African countries.










One thought on “Ethiopia – Then & Now

  1. Monday.The advisers, who requested anonymity because the discussions are preliminary, said it is too early to determine whether a state of emergency would be an attractive proposition or a last resort in the face of a continuing reehesion.Ccristis, a Republican who defeated Democratic Governor Corzine last week, will face an estimated $8 billion shortfall for the budget he must present by March.


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