Cushitic language speakers are believed to have been the original inhabitants of Ethiopia. They were driven out of the region by the Cushites in the 2d millennium BC The Cushites founded a new civilization which probably traded with the Egyptians, according to ancient Egyptian texts. The Egyptian name for Ethiopians was Habashat, which is the probable origin of the name Abyssinia.
According to tradition, the Ethiopian kingdom was founded (10th cent. BC) by Solomon's first son, Menelik I, whom the queen of Sheba is supposed to have borne. However, the first kingdom for which there is documentary evidence is that of Aksum (Axum), a kingdom which probably emerged in the 2d cent. AD, thus making Ethiopia the oldest independent country in Africa and one of the most ancient in the world. Immigrants (mainly traders) from S Arabia who had been settling in N Ethiopia since about 500 BC influenced the economy and culture of Ethiopia. Aksum controlled much of the Red Sea coast and had links with the Mediterranean world.
Under King Ezana, Aksum was converted (4th cent.) to Christianity by Frumentius of Tyre. Closely tied to the Egyptian Coptic Church, the established Ethiopian church accepted Monophysitism following the Council of Chalcedon (451). In the 6th cent., Jewish influence penetrated Aksum, and some Ethiopians were converted to Judaism.
With the rise of Islam in the 7th cent. Aksum declined, mainly because its land contacts with the Byzantine Empire were severed and its control of the Red Sea trade routes was ended. Thereafter, the focus of Aksum was directed inward toward the center of the Ethiopian Plateau (mainly the regions of Amhara and Shoa), and it was largely cut off from the outside world. Aksum soon lost its cohesion, and Ethiopia lapsed into a period of competition among small political units.
In 1530–31, Ahmad Gran, a Muslim Somali leader, conquered much of Ethiopia. The Ethiopian emperor Lebna Dengel (reigned 1508–40) appealed to Portugal for help against the Somalis (a Portuguese embassy had reached the Ethiopian court in 1520). The Somali war exhausted Ethiopia, ending a period of cultural revival and exposing the empire to incursions by the Oromo. For the next two centuries the Ethiopian kingdom, centered at Gondar near Lake Tana, was beset by ruinous civil wars among princes (especially those of Tigray and Amhara), was menaced by the Oromo, and was again isolated from the outside world.
The reunification of Ethiopia was begun in the 19th cent. by Kasa (Lij Kasa; c.1818–68), who conquered Amhara, Gojjam, Tigray, and Shoa, and in 1855 had himself crowned emperor as Tewodros II (Theodore II). He began to modernize and centralize the legal and administrative systems, despite the opposition of local governors. Tensions developed with Great Britain, and Tewodros imprisoned (1867) several Britons, including the British consul. A British military expedition under Robert (later Lord) Napier was sent out, and the emperor's forces were easily defeated near Magdala (now Amba Mariam) in 1868. To avoid capture, Tewodros committed suicide.
A brief civil war followed, and in 1872 a chieftain of Tigray became emperor as John (Yohannes) IV. John's attempts to further centralize the government led to revolts by local leaders; in addition, his regime was threatened during 1875–76 by Egyptian incursions and, after 1881, by raids by followers of the Mahdi in Sudan. The opening (1869) of the Suez Canal increased the strategic importance of Ethiopia, and several European powers (particularly Italy, France, and Great Britain) sought influence in the area. In 1889, John was killed fighting the Mahdists, and, following a short succession crisis, the king of Shoa (who had Italian support) was crowned emperor as Menelik II.
Menelik signed (1889) a treaty of friendship and cooperation with Italy at Wuchale. Due to a dispute over the meaning of the treaty (Italy claimed it had been given a protectorate over Ethiopia, which Menelik denied), Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1895 but was decisively defeated by Menelik's forces at Adwa on Mar. 1, 1896. By the subsequent Treaty of Addis Ababa (Oct., 1896), the Treaty of Wuchale was annulled, and Italy recognized the independence of Ethiopia while retaining its Eritrean colonial base. During his reign, Menelik also greatly expanded the size of Ethiopia, adding the provinces of Harar (E), Sidamo (S), and Kaffa (SW). In addition, he further modernized the military and the government, made (1889) Addis Ababa the capital of the country, developed the economy, and promoted the building of the country's first railroad (financed by French capital).
Menelik died in 1913 and was succeeded by his grandson Lij Iyasu, who alienated his fellow countrymen by favoring Muslims, and antagonized the British, French, and Italians through his support of the Central Powers (which included the Muslim Ottoman Empire) in World War I. Lij Iyasu was deposed in 1916 and Judith (Zawditu), a daughter of Menelik, was made empress with Ras Tafari Makonnen as regent and heir apparent. In the 1920s, there was tension with Italy and Great Britain, as each tried to extend its influence in Ethiopia. Ras Tafari was given additional powers by the empress in 1928, and on her death in 1930 he was crowned emperor as Haile Selassie I.
Almost immediately he faced threats from Italy's ruler, Mussolini, who was determined to establish an Italian empire and to avenge the defeat at Adwa. A border clash at Welwel in SE Ethiopia along the border with Italian Somaliland on Dec. 5, 1934, increased tension, and on Oct. 3, 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia. The League of Nations (which Ethiopia had joined in 1923) called for mild economic sanctions against Italy, but they had little effect, and an attempt by the British and French governments to arrange a settlement by giving Italy much of Ethiopia failed. The Italians quickly defeated the Ethiopians and in May, 1936, Addis Ababa was captured and Haile Selassie fled the country. On June 1, 1936, the king of Italy was also made emperor of Ethiopia. The country was combined with Eritrea and Italian Somaliland to form Italian East Africa.
In 1941, during World War II, British and South African forces easily conquered Ethiopia, and Haile Selassie regained his throne. Britain had considerable influence in Ethiopian affairs until the end of the war and administered the small Haud region in the southeast (adjacent to present-day Somalia) until 1955. In 1945, Ethiopia became a charter member of the United Nations. Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia in 1952, and in 1962 it was made an integral part of the country; Ethiopia thus gained direct access to the sea. In 1955 a new Ethiopian constitution came into force, and in 1958 the Ethiopian church became independent of the Coptic patriarch in Egypt.
Despite considerable aid from the United States and other countries, Ethiopia remained economically underdeveloped, with its wealth concentrated in the hands of a small number of large landlords and the Ethiopian church. A coup in 1960 lasted only a few days before Haile Selassie was returned to power. Between 1961 and 1967 there were border skirmishes between Ethiopia and Somalia, and in the late 1960s and early 70s there was considerable fighting between the government and a guerrilla secessionist movement in Eritrea. In 1966, Haile Selassie instituted several reforms, including the granting of more power to the cabinet. Nevertheless, unrest continued among groups seeking more far-reaching reforms.
In a gradual coup that began in Feb., 1974, and culminated in September with the ouster of Haile Selassie, a group of military officers seized control of the government. Haile Selassie's failure to deal adequately with the long-term drought in N Ethiopia in 1973–74 was reportedly a major reason for his downfall. The constitution was suspended, parliament was dissolved, and Lt. Gen. Aman Michael Andom became head of a newly formed Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC). In 1977 Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam became head of the PMAC, which soon diverted from its announced socialist course. A popular movement, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party, began a campaign of urban guerrilla activity that was contained by government-organized urban militias in 1977. Under the Mengistu regime, thousands of political opponents were purged, property was confiscated, and defense spending was greatly increased.
In 1977, Somalia invaded disputed territory in the Ogaden Desert and Bale Province. In addition, Eritrean nationalists were able to gain control of most of Eritrea. However, with massive amounts of military aid from the USSR and troops from Cuba, the government drove the Somalis out of the country (1978) and also retook land in Eritrea. Severe droughts throughout the 1980s resulted in devastating famine and led to widespread flight to Djibouti, Somalia, and Sudan. In 1987 a new, Marxist-based constitution was approved. Ethiopia and Somalia signed a peace agreement in 1988, but internal strife worsened as bitter fighting occurred (1989) in Tigray and Eritrea. Diplomatic relations with Israel, which had been severed in 1974, were restored in 1989 as aid from the Soviet Union and Cuba declined and Ethiopia looked for other potential investment sources.
In 1991 the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of rebel organizations (led by Tigrayens) under the leadership of Meles Zenawi, began to achieve real successes and ultimately routed the Ethiopian army, forcing Mengistu to resign and flee the country. The EPRDF organized an interim government with Meles as president. A new constitution, drafted by an elected constituent assembly and approved in 1994, divided the country into ethnically based regions, each of which was given the right of secession. Eritrea had established its own provisional government in 1991 and became an independent nation in 1993.
In 1995, Negasso Gidada became president, a largely ceremonial post. Meles became prime minister after elections that were boycotted by most opposition parties. In early 1996, some 70 figures from the Mengistu regime went on trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity; many of them, including Mengistu himself, were tried in absentia. Ethiopia, despite work toward reforming the nation's agriculture, continues to face problems of famine and widespread poverty. Elections held in May, 2000, resulted in a landslide for the EPRDF.
A border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea broke out in 1998 when Eritrean forces occupied disputed territory. Fighting was largely inconclusive until May, 2000, when Ethiopian forces launched a major offensive, securing the disputed territory and driving further into Eritrea. A cease-fire agreement signed in June called for a truce, the establishment of a 15.5 mi (9.6 km) UN-patrolled buffer zone (in Eritrean territory), and the demarcation of the border by a neutral commission. An estimated 70,000 to 120,000 Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers and civilians died in the conflict. A treaty was formally signed in Dec., 2000, and there was slow progress toward the goals of the treaty in the subsequent months. The border was established in Apr., 2002, by the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The ruling generally favored neither country, but some decisions in favor of Eritrea led Ethiopia to fail to finalize the border.
Ethiopia, despite work toward reforming the nation's agriculture, continues to face problems of famine and widespread poverty. The country is dependent on rainfall to raise its crops, and a drought in 2000–2001 affected some 10 million Ethiopians, with perhaps as many as 50,000 dying from starvation. A new famine threatened the country in 2003 as a result of a drought that began in 2002. The situation improved somewhat by 2004, but several million people were still dependent on food aid. Girma Wolde-Giorgis was elected president in Oct., 2001; he was reelected in 2007. In 2003–4 there was ethnic violence in the Gambela region (W central Ethiopia); there were accusations that the army was involved in some of the attacks.
Parliamentary elections in May, 2005, resulted in substantial gains for the opposition in the lower house, where they won more than 170 seats, but opposition parties accused the government of irregularities in many constituencies; the government also accused the opposition of irregularities in others. When opposition protests occurred in the capital in June despite a ban on demonstrations, a number of demonstrators were killed, several thousand were arrested, and the unrest spread to other areas. Although election board investigators visited constituencies where the results were strongly in dispute, the board ultimately ruled largely in favor of government candidates, awarding Meles's coalition a parliamentary majority. Foreign observers called the vote generally free and fair, but noted that it was marred in some respects and criticized the slowness of the count and the handling of charges of irregularities. Government opponents protested the result through a parliamentary boycott and, in November, street demonstrations; the police killed some 200 protesters. The government arrested hundreds, eventually releasing most of them, but many opposition leaders were not released and were charged with treason and genocide. In response, a number of nations and international organizations suspended (Dec., 2005) foreign aid to the government. The charges of genocide and treason were dropped in Apr., 2007, but more than 80 opposition figures remained accused of attempting to overthrow the government. Many of them were sentenced (July, 2007) to life in prison, a verdict that was denounced internationally; they and most of the rest of the 80 were subsequently pardoned. The government subsequently has continued to suppress the politicial opposition and criticism of its policies.
Tensions with Eritrea escalated in 2005 as both nations bolstered their forces along the disputed border. The United Nations called (Nov., 2005) for Eritrea and Ethiopia to reduce their forces along the border, and expressed concern over Ethiopia's failure to finalize the border; UN sanctions were threatened for noncompliance. A year later the boundary commission said that it would demarcate the border on maps and the two nations would have a year to demarcate the border on the ground, but the 2007 deadline passed with the issue unresolved. In Dec., 2005, a Permanent Court of Arbitration claims commission ruled that Eritrea had violated international law in attacking Ethiopia, and that Ethiopia was entitled to compensation. The UN ended its peacekeeping mission along the border in mid-2008, blaming both Ethiopia (for its failure to adhere to the boundary commission's ruling) and Eritrea (for limiting and interfering with the operations of peacekeeping forces); the last peacekeepers were withdrawn in Oct., 2008. Since then there have been sporadic border-related violence involving the two nations' armies or rebels they support.
In Apr., 2006, Ethiopian soldiers fought with Kenyan forces when the soldiers pursued Oromo rebels across the border into Kenya. Somali Islamists accused Ethiopia of invading Somalia in June after the Islamists secured control of much of S Somalia. Although Ethiopia denied the charge, Prime Minister Meles denounced Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who became leader of the Somali Islamists' shura [council], as a threat to Ethiopia; the sheikh accused Ethiopia of
occupying the Ogaden.
In July, 2006, there were more credible reports of Ethiopian troops entering Somalia in support of the beleaguered government based in Baidoa, but Ethiopia did not acknowledge this until October, when it said the Ethiopian forces in Somalia were military trainers. In December the Somali Islamists demanded that Ethiopian troops leave or face attack. When fighting erupted, Somali government forces supported by Ethiopian forces drove the Islamists from their Somalia strongholds. Warfare ended in early 2007, but insurgent attacks continued, preventing Ethiopia from withdrawing its forces. In 2008, Ethiopia stated that its forces would remain until stability is assured or a credible peacekeeping force was in place. After a peace agreement was signed between moderate Islamists and the interim Somali government, however, Ethiopia agreed to withdraw, and removed its troops from Somalia in Jan., 2009. Ethiopian forces, however, did occasionally make incursions into Somalia in subsequent months. Flooding in Aug.–Sept., 2008, and again in October, afflicted several Ethiopian regions; several hundred thousand people were affected.
Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia reinvigorated a long-simmering indigenous Somali insurgency in the Ogaden in 2007, and Ethiopia responded with a military crackdown. It also employed local militias against the rebels, leading to accusations of Darfur-like tactics. In addition, the government was reported to have blocked food aid to the region.
In June, 2009, the government charged more than 40 people with conspiring to overthrow the government and assassinate public officials. Most of the accused were current or former military officers; 12 accused were in exile. Berhanu Nega, an exiled opposition leader and alleged mastermind, called the conspiracy charges a fabrication. Most were subsequently convicted; Berhanu (in absentia) and several others were sentenced to death. In Aug., 2009, the Permanent Court of Arbitration claims commission issued its final war damages awards; Eritrea was assessed roughly $174 million to cover Ethiopian claims while Ethiopia was assessed $164 million for Eritrean claims.
The May, 2010, parliamentary elections resulted in a landslide for the EPRDF, which won nearly all the seats, but the campaign was criticized as unfair and marred by intimidation of opposition politicians and their supporters; the opposition also accused the EPRDF of vote rigging. In late 2011, Ethiopian forces again entered Somalia, in a concerted effort in support of the transitional government forces there that continued into 2012. Ethiopian forces in Mar., 2012, also attacked what Ethiopia described as several Eritrean military bases that were used to train Ethiopian antigovernment militants.
In Aug., 2012, Meles died in office; Hailemariam Desalegn, the deputy prime minister and foreign minister, succeeded him as prime minister. Mulatu Teshome, Ethiopia's ambassador to Turkey, was elected president in Oct., 2013. The EPRDF won every seat in the parliamentary elections in May, 2015; the opposition again criticized the vote as rigged and unfair.
In 2014 and 2015 plans to transfer portions of Oromia state into Addis Ababa's administrative area led to antigovernment protests in Oromia that were violently suppressed by security forces; the plans were abandoned in early 2016. Driven by economic and human-rights issues, protests against the government continued and spread to the Amhara region as well during 2016; foreign-owned enterprises became increasingly subjected to violent attacks. In October the government declared a state of emergency (continued into 2017) in a move to suppress the protests, and subsequently thousands were arrested, though most were released by the end of the year after being held in reeducation camps.
Protests continued into 2018, despite the release of thousands of political prisoners that year. In February the prime minister resigned and a state of emergency was again declared. Abiy Ahmed Ali, an Oromo who was a former minister of technology and former army and security officer, became prime minister in April; the state of emergency ended in June, and economic reforms were announced. Also in June, Abiy was the subject of an apparent assassination attempt; in July, he reestablished diplomatic relations with Eritrea after moving to resolve their border dispute. Ethiopia subsequently signed peace agreements with Oromo and Ogaden rebels, and more than 13,000 people who had been accused or convicted of terrorism or treason were pardoned, but at the same time the government faced a new surge in ethnic violence. Mulatu resigned as president in October, and Sahle-Work Zewde was elected to the office; she became Ethiopia's first woman president.
In June, 2019, there was attempt to seize control of Amhara region in which the head of the army and the governor of Amhara were killed. Significant violence also occurred in Oct., 2019, in Adama and surrounding Oromia after an Oromo activist accused security forces of plotting to attack him. In November, members of the Sidama ethnic group voted in favor of a state of their own; the process to establish a new state, however, would require a change to the constitution. That same month, three of the four parties in the EPRDF voted to merge to form the Prosperity party; the Tigraya People's Liberation Front did not participate. In June, 2020, Ethiopia's parliament voted to extend its term due to the COVID-19 pandemic and delay elections until after health authorities determined it would be safe.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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