Origins and the Early Periods

Early Populations and Neighboring States

Details on the origins of all the peoples that make up the population of highland Ethiopia were still matters for research and debate in the early 1990s. Anthropologists believe that East Africa’s Great Rift Valley is the site of humankind’s origins. (The valley traverses Ethiopia from southwest to northeast.) In 1974 archaeologists excavating sites in the Awash River valley discovered 3.5-million-year- old fossil skeletons, which they named Australopithecus afarensis. These earliest known hominids stood upright, lived in groups, and had adapted to living in open areas rather than in forests.

Coming forward to the late Stone Age, recent research in historical linguistics–and increasingly in archaeology as well–has begun to clarify the broad outlines of the prehistoric populations of present-day Ethiopia. These populations spoke languages that belong to the Afro-Asiatic super-language family, a group of related languages that includes Omotic, Cushitic, and Semitic, all of which are found in Ethiopia today. Linguists postulate that the original home of the Afro-Asiatic cluster of languages was somewhere in northeastern Africa, possibly in the area between the Nile River and the Red Sea in modern Sudan. From here the major languages of the family gradually dispersed at different times and in different directions–these languages being ancestral to those spoken today in northern and northeastern Africa and far southwestern Asia.

The first language to separate seems to have been Omotic, at a date sometime after 13,000 B.C. Omotic speakers moved southward into the central and southwestern highlands of Ethiopia, followed at some subsequent time by Cushitic speakers, who settled in territories in the northern Horn of Africa, including the northern highlands of Ethiopia. The last language to separate was Semitic, which split from Berber and ancient Egyptian, two other Afro-Asiatic languages, and migrated eastward into far southwestern Asia.

By about 7000 B.C. at the latest, linguistic evidence indicates that both Cushitic speakers and Omotic speakers were present in Ethiopia. Linguistic diversification within each group thereafter gave rise to a large number of new languages. In the case of Cushitic, these include Agew in the central and northern highlands and, in regions to the east and southeast, Saho, Afar, Somali, Sidamo, and Oromo, all spoken by peoples who would play major roles in the subsequent history of the region. Omotic also spawned a large number of languages, Welamo (often called Wolayta) and Gemu-Gofa being among the most widely spoken of them, but Omotic speakers would remain outside the main zone of ethnic interaction in Ethiopia until the late nineteenth century.

Both Cushitic- and Omotic-speaking peoples collected wild grasses and other plants for thousands of years before they eventually domesticated those they most preferred. According to linguistic and limited archaeological analyses, plough agriculture based on grain cultivation was established in the drier, grassier parts of the northern highlands by at least several millennia before the Christian era. Indigenous grasses such as teff and eleusine were the initial domesticates; considerably later, barley and wheat were introduced from Southwest Asia. The corresponding domesticate in the better watered and heavily forested southern highlands was ensete, a root crop known locally as false banana. All of these early peoples also kept domesticated animals, including cattle, sheep, goats, and donkeys. Thus, from the late prehistoric period, agricultural patterns of livelihood were established that were to be characteristic of the region through modern times. It was the descendants of these peoples and cultures of the Ethiopian region who at various times and places interacted with successive waves of migrants from across the Red Sea. This interaction began well before the modern era and has continued through contemporary times.

During the first millennium B.C. and possibly even earlier, various Semitic-speaking groups from Southwest Arabia began to cross the Red Sea and settle along the coast and in the nearby highlands. These migrants brought with them their Semitic speech (Sabaean and perhaps others) and script (Old Epigraphic South Arabic) and monumental stone architecture. A fusion of the newcomers with the indigenous inhabitants produced a culture known as pre-Aksumite. The factors that motivated this settlement in the area are not known, but to judge from subsequent history, commercial activity must have figured strongly. The port city of Adulis, near modern-day Mitsiwa, was a major regional entrepôt and probably the main gateway to the interior for new arrivals from Southwest Arabia. Archaeological evidence indicates that by the beginning of the Christian era this pre-Aksumite culture had developed western and eastern regional variants. The former, which included the region of Aksum, was probably the polity or series of polities that became the Aksumite state.

During the 1st millennium BC, Semitic people from Saba’ (Hebrew Sheba) crossed the Red Sea and conquered the Hamite on the coast of what was eventually to become the Ethiopian Empire. By the 2nd century AD the victors had established the kingdom of Axum. The kingdom was ruled by the Solomonid dynasty, so called because the kings claimed direct descent from the biblical king Solomon and the queen of Sheba. Axum converted to Christianity, belonging to the same tradition as the Coptic Christians of Egypt. It flourished for a while, but beginning in about the 7th century the kingdom declined as the Solomonids lost control of section after section of their realm. Early in the 10th century the Solomonid dynasty was overthrown and replaced by the Zagwe dynasty, the ruling family of a region on the central plateau known as Lasta.  Regaining control of the country around or after 1260, the Solomonids gradually succeeded in reasserting their authority over much of Ethiopia, although Muslims retained control of the coastal area and the southeast. During the reign  (1434-1468) of Zara Yakub, the administration of the Ethiopian church, which had become divided by factionalism, was reformed, and religious doctrines were codified. At about this time a political system emerged that lasted until the middle of the 20th century. It was characterized by absolutist monarchs who exacted military service in return for grants of land.

A. Ethiopia and the Early Islamic Period

Warriors from the Islamic state of Adal with their Leader Gragn Ahmed invaded Ethiopia beginning about 1527.

Ethiopians defeated the Muslims in 1543. In 1557 Jesuit missionaries arrived, but their ongoing attempts to convert the Ethiopian emperors from Coptic Christianity to Roman Catholicism were largely unsuccessful, and provoked social and political unrest in those who felt the Coptic Church was the backbone of an independent Ethiopian culture. In 1632, following a period of turbulence and dynastic confusion, Fasiladas became emperor. He was succeeded by his son, Johannes I, in 1637. During the 17th century the country experienced an artistic renaissance for Ethiopian culture, as it was exposed to styles of expression from Western Europe and the Muslim world. This was especially true during the reign of Johannes’ son, Iyasus I, also known as Iyasus the Great. After succeeding to the crown in 1682, Iyasus became known as a lover of the arts, as well as a modernizer and brilliant military tactician. His reign saw the construction of some of Ethiopia’s most beautiful religious architecture as well as the re-establishment of governmental authority over several provinces in the south that had succumbed to Muslim and tribal encroachment. After the death of Iyasus in 1706, Ethiopia entered another prolonged period of dynastic confusion and decline, during which the country fractured into separate regions.

The only unifying force that remained throughout this period was the Ethiopian church. Gaining the support of high church officials, a successful brigand from the northwestern frontier, Kassa Haylu, had himself crowned Emperor Theodore II in 1855, after having defeated a number of petty feudal rulers who controlled various sections of the country. He began to modernize and centralize the legal and administrative systems, despite the opposition of local governors. Tensions developed with Great Britain. Later, when Theodore imprisoned some British officials for conspiring against him, including the British consul, the British dispatched an expeditionary under Robert (later Lord) Napier force to Ethiopia, and the emperor committed suicide in Magdala (now Amba Mariam) 1868 rather than be taken prisoner. After a four-year struggle for the throne by various claimants, Dejach Kassai, governor of the province of Tigray, succeeded, in being crowned Johannes IV, emperor of Ethiopia. Johannes IV 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.

In the 1870s the main external enemy of the empire, which was little more than a collection of semi-independent states, was Egypt. In 1875 the Egyptian khedive Ismail Pasha extended Egyptian protection to the Muslim ruler of Harer and launched an attack on Ethiopia from both the north and the east. Johannes successfully halted the Egyptian invasion, but the continued occupation by Egypt of the Red Sea and Somali ports severely curtailed the supply of arms and other goods to Ethiopia. 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. Johannes was killed defending his western frontier against the Sudanese in 1889. He was succeeded by Menelik II, who established a new capital at Addis Ababa and succeeded in uniting the provinces of Tigray and Amhara with Shewa.

Empress Taitu Menelik II Tewodros II Yohannis IV
Menelik II (1844-1913) was the one monarch who accomplished the dreams Tewodros had for his country. Menelik took over as king of Ethiopia in 1889 after the death of Yohannes in the Battle of Metema. Most European powers in the late 19th century were determined to secure territories in Africa. Italy was focusing its desires on particularly Ethiopia. The Treaty of Uccialli was negotiated between Ethiopia and Italy in 1890. Two copies, one in Amharic and one in Italian, were prepared. On the Italian version of the treaty, Francesco Crispi, prime minister of Italy, announced to all European nations that Ethiopia had become a territory belonging to Italy. On the Amharic version, it gave Menelik II the right to ask Italy for help in times of need, but it did not say anything about Ethiopia becoming a territory of Italy. When Menelik II discovered the misunderstanding, he immediately wrote to Britain’s Queen Victoria, to the ruler of Germany, and to the president of France insisting that Ethiopia was still an independent nation. In 1893, Menelik II denounced the treaty and by 1895 Ethiopia and Italy were at war. On March 1896 Menelik’s troops crushed the Italian army at Adwa, Ethiopia. Later, Italy did recognize Ethiopia as an independent nation.

After Menelik defeated the Italians at the Battle of Adwa, he expanded Ethiopia by conquest. Turmoil led to Menelik’s death, which brought his daughter, Empress Zauditu, to power in 1917. Tafari Makonnen was regent and heir apparent. Upon Empress Zauditu’s death in 1930, Tafari Makonnen was crowned Haile Selassie I as he became the 225th successor of the Solomonic dynasty. The name Haile Selassie means ‘the Power of the Trinity’ in Amharic, and his official titles also included ‘King of Kings’ and the ‘Lion of Judah.’ In 1931, Haile Sellasie decreed the nation’s first written constitution. Through his efforts, Ethiopia became a member of the international organization called the League of Nations (now United Nations) in 1932.

B. The Italo-Ethiopian Wars

With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the Red Sea coast had become increasingly attractive to the European powers as an object for colonization. Italy focused its attention on Ethiopia, seizing Aseb in 1872 and Massawa in 1885. In 1889 Menelik and the Italians signed the Treaty of Wichale (Ucciali). The treaty was one of friendship and cooperation, but the Amharic and Italian versions of it differed, and the Italians claimed that it made all of Ethiopia their protectorate. As a result, war broke out between Italy and Ethiopia in 1895, and Italian forces were decisively defeated at Adwa (Aduwa) the following year. Italy was forced to recognize the independence of Ethiopia, and Menelik’s present-day boundaries. The successor of Menelik, Emperor Lij Iyasu (reigned 1913-1916), was deposed in favor of his aunt, crowned Empress Zauditu. Tafari Makonnen, her cousin, was selected as heir apparent; he succeeded to the throne as Haile Selassie I. In 1931 he granted Ethiopia its first constitution.

With the rise of the dictator Benito Mussolini, Italian designs toward Ethiopia were revived, and in October 1935 Italy invaded the country (see Italy: The Ethiopian Campaign). An attempt by the League of Nations to halt the conquest failed. Addis Ababa fell to the invaders, and in May 1936 Mussolini proclaimed Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel III emperor of Ethiopia. Haile Selassie was forced to flee the country and take refuge in England, but he was restored to the throne by British and Ethiopian forces in 1941.

C. The Later Reign of Haile Selassie     

Empress Menen HIM 1 HIM 2 Imperial Guard

According to the terms of the Allied peace treaty with Italy, signed in1947, agreement was to be reached within a year on the disposition of the former Italian colonies of Eritrea, Italian Somaliland, and Libya. In the absence of such an agreement, however, the decision was left to the United Nations (UN). The UN General Assembly voted for the federation of Eritrea with Ethiopia, to be completed by September 1952.

In 1955 Haile Selassie issued a revised constitution, which was a half-hearted attempt to move the country into the 20th century. For example, it gave certain limited powers to the parliament. Progressive elements in the country, however, felt it was insufficient. After an unsuccessful attempt by members of the imperial guard to overthrow Haile Selassie in December 1960, the emperor increased government efforts toward economic development and social reform.

As the 1960s progressed, Haile Selassie became increasingly preoccupied with foreign affairs. In 1963 he played a leading role in the formation of the Organization of African Unity, which located its secretariat at Addis Ababa. During the following year a long-standing border dispute between Ethiopia and the Somali Republic erupted into armed warfare. A truce, agreed to in March, established a demilitarized zone along the border, but hostilities recurred sporadically. Trouble also arose in 1965 with Sudan, which Ethiopia accused of abetting an Eritrean independence movement. The conflict intensified when 7,000 Eritreans fled to Sudan in 1967 because of Ethiopian military reprisals against the secessionists. In December 1970 the government declared a state of siege in parts of Eritrea. The move failed, however, to end the guerrilla warfare.

Crown Prince Asfaw Wossen

Haile Sellassie

Imperial Palace
In the early 1970s Haile Selassie continued to play a major role in international affairs, helping to mediate disputes between Senegal and Guinea, Tanzania and Uganda, and northern and southern Sudan. Nevertheless, he largely ignored urgent domestic problems: the great inequality in the distribution of wealth, rural underdevelopment, and corruption in government, rampant inflation, unemployment and severe drought in the north from 1972 to 1975.

D. The Mengistu Regime

In February 1974 students, workers, and soldiers began a series of strikes and demonstrations that culminated on September 12, 1974, with the deposition of Haile Selassie by members of the armed forces. Chief among the coup leaders was Major Mengistu Haile Mariam. A group called the Provisional Military Administrative Council, known as the Derg, was established to run the country, with Mengistu serving as chairman. In late 1974 the Derg issued a program for the establishment of a state-controlled socialist economy. In early 1975 all agricultural land in Ethiopia was nationalized, with much of it then parceled out in small
Plots to individuals. In March 1975 the monarchy was abolished, and Ethiopia became a republic.

The overthrow of the monarchy and the creation of the republic ushered in a new era of political openness. Ethnic groups that were brought into Ethiopia in the 19th and 20th centuries, such as the Oromo, Afars, Somali, and Eritreans, stepped up their demands for self-determination. Several of these groups even questioned the legitimacy of the Ethiopian state and created guerrilla forces to fight for independence. With the liberalization of politics, various ideologically based political organizations formed, each with its own view as to the preferred character of a new Ethiopia. Rather than allow democratic elections, the military regime attempted to co-opt potential opponents, giving the most significant political organizations representation in a deliberative body, the Politbureau.

By 1975 it was clear that Mengistu intended to consolidate his hold on power. This led to criticism from the civilian left, particularly after several top leaders of the Derg were killed in early 1977, reportedly on Mengistu’s orders. Chief among opponents was the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), which by the beginning of 1977 had launched a systematic campaign to undermine the military regime. The EPRP conducted urban guerrilla warfare against the regime, referred to as the “White Terror.” The government responded with its own “Red Terror” campaign. The government provided peasants, workers, public officials, and students considered loyal to the government with arms to help government security forces root out so-called enemies of the revolution. Between 1977 and 1978 an estimated 100,000 people suspected of being enemies of the government were killed or disappeared in the name of the Red Terror.

Increasing human rights violations led to tensions between Ethiopia and the United States (Ethiopia’s superpower ally of more than 20 years), culminating in a complete break in relations in 1977. The regime was weakened by the withdrawal of military aid, and opponents of the regime gained control of vast amounts of rural territory and destabilized life in the cities. By the summer of 1977 the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) controlled all but the major cities in the province of Eritrea; the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), supported by the EPLF, had successfully captured significant territory in the Tigray region; and Somali separatists, aided by the national army of Somalia, had completely routed the Ethiopian army in the Ogaden region. However, by early 1978 the Mengistu regime had managed to secure military assistance from the USSR and Cuba, enabling it to regain control of lost territories and drive its opponents underground.

Following this success, Mengistu attempted to win popular support for his regime. He created the Worker’s Party of Ethiopia (WPE) in 1984 as Ethiopia’s official Marxist-Leninist party and prepared a new constitution to make Ethiopia a Marxist-Leninist people’s republic. In 1987 the new constitution was proclaimed and the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia declared, modeled after the Soviet system of government. Nominally a system of civilian rule, the new constitution abolished the Derg and established a new, popularly elected national assembly. Former Derg members remained in control, however, and the new assembly elected Mengistu as president of Ethiopia.

E. Resistance and Revolution

Despite its reorganization, the Mengistu government continued to be viewed by many as illegitimate, and by 1987 opposition groups such as the EPLF and the TPLF, which had been driven underground a decade earlier, emerged as revitalized and better organized military organizations. Over the next two years, the Ethiopian army suffered an increasing number of defeats, and its forces became demoralized. The EPLF regained control of most of Eritrea, and the TPLF captured the entire Tigray region and began operations in surrounding regions.

Beginning in the late 1970s Ethiopia suffered from a series of droughts, which progressively lowered agricultural production. A prolonged drought between 1984 and 1986 plunged the country into famine. The embattled northern regions of Ethiopia were hardest hit by the drought. Under an ill-planned resettlement program, the government forcibly relocated about 600,000 northerners to the south. The protracted civil war and the government’s mistrust of Westerners hampered worldwide efforts to provide food and medical aid to the inhabitants of Ethiopia. During the 1980s an estimated 1 million Ethiopians died from starvation as a result of famine.

In the late 1980s Ethiopia lost the support of the Soviet Union, which had become dissatisfied with Ethiopia’s political and economic development under Mengistu. Faced with economic and military shortages, the government was forced to devise a political solution to its problems. The Ethiopian national assembly called for unconditional peace talks with the EPLF in June 1989, and later agreed to similar talks with the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), an umbrella organization headed by the TPLF. Even as these talks proceeded, the opposition forces acquired more and more territory. In February 1990 the EPLF mounted a major drive aimed at capturing the Eritrean port city of Massawa, the entry point for much of the food and military supplies coming into Ethiopia. By the middle of the month it had overrun the city, dealing a decisive blow to the Ethiopian army. A year later the EPRDF had encircled Addis Ababa in the country’s heartland. The Ethiopian army lost its will to fight, and the country’s political leaders conceded defeat. In May 1991 the EPLF took complete control of Eritrea, Mengistu flea the country, and the EPRDF took control of Addis Ababa.

The EPRDF, led by Meles Zenawi, set up a national transitional government in Addis Ababa, and the EPLF established a provisional government in Eritrea. After a referendum in 1993, Eritrea declared its independence, and Ethiopia recognized the new Eritrean government. In June 1994 Ethiopian voters elected representatives to a Constituent Assembly, charged with writing a new democratic constitution. The EPRDF won 484 out of 547 seats in the assembly. A new constitution granting special rights to different ethnic groups in Ethiopia was ratified in December, and became effective in August 1995. In May 1995 a new legislative body, the Council of People’s Representatives, was elected, with the majority of seats going to the EPRDF. In August the Constituent Assembly officially transferred power to the new legislature, and the country was renamed the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. In the same month the legislature elected Meles as the country’s prime minister. He was reelected in October 2000.

Some ethnic groups, including segments of the Oromo and Amhara people, remain displeased with the Ethiopian government and consider it as illegitimate as the one that preceded it. The most vigorous opposition has come from the Ogaden region of southeastern Ethiopia, where Islamic fundamentalist Somali rebels, supported by Somali kinsmen, have battled for the region’s independence since before the overthrow of Mengistu. In late 1996 the Ethiopian army attacked rebel bases in Somalia, killing more than 200 Somali rebels.

In 1994 Ethiopian courts began criminal proceedings against members and supporters of Mengistu’s regime for offenses committed during and after the years of the Red Terror. By 1997 more than 5,000 suspects had been charged with war crimes such as torture, murder, and genocide. Prosecution began in 1996 against 73 Derg members, 23 of whom, including Mengistu, were tried in absentia. The Ethiopian government has attempted to extradite Mengistu from Zimbabwe, where he lives in exile. Human rights groups have criticized the fact that many of the suspects in custody-who total more than 2,000-have been in prison without trial since 1991.

In mid-1998 clashes broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea along the countries’ border, with each side accusing the other of seizing territory. The border had not been precisely delineated when Eritrea became independent from Ethiopia in 1993. By early 1999 hundreds of thousands of troops had been sent to the border, and the dispute had become bitter war. Tens of thousands of soldiers died in the fighting before a cease-fire was declared in June 2000. In December Eritrea and Ethiopia, under the auspices of the UN, signed a peace agreement that formally ended the war and established a commission to demarcate the border between the countries.

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