kingdom of Aksum: from the 5th century BC
The story of the Queen of Sheba links her with Ethiopia in a legend which echoes historical reality. The Ethiopian national epic, Kebra Nagast ('Glory of Kings'), records the tradition that Solomon and the Queen of Sheba have a son, Menelik, who comes to Ethiopia to found the royal dynasty.
Sheba, now known as Saba, is at the narrow mouth of the Red Sea, only twenty-five miles from the coast of Africa. From about the 10th century BC Sabaeans migrate in increasing numbers across this strait. By perhaps the 5th century they are sufficiently numerous and powerful to establish Ethiopia's first civilization - the Semitic kingdom of Aksum.
The kingdom of Aksum lasts for a millennium and more. Towards the end of that time, in the 4th century AD, its close links with the Red Sea ports (full of Greek merchants trading with the Roman empire) result in an imported creed which will profoundly influence the rest of Ethiopian history. The country becomes Christian.
In a document of 356 there is a mention of Frumentius, the first bishop of Ethiopia. He is consecrated in Alexandria (the beginning of a lasting link between Ethiopia and the Coptic church of Egypt). Tradition says that Frumentius is a young Christian, captured and brought to Aksum, who persuades the king to allow Greeks to build churches in his kingdom.
An island of Christianity: from the 7th century AD
Ethiopia, as a Christian country, is isolated from the 7th century by the emergence of Islam. Egypt is in Muslim hands from AD 642; and gradually, in subsequent centuries, Muslim sultanates become established on the African coast east and south of Ethiopia.
A strong link survives with Christians elsewhere in the Muslim world. The head of the Ethiopian church is appointed by the patriarch of the Coptic church in Egypt, and Ethiopian monks have certain rights (maintained to this day) in the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. But in military terms the medieval centuries are a long struggle against Muslim incursions from several directions.
The gravest danger is in the 16th century. It derives from the strong Muslim sultanate established at Harar. In 1530 its ruler, Ahmad ibn Ibrahim (known to the Ethiopian Christians as Grañ) moves west with an army of Somalis in a holy war against Ethiopia. By the time of his death, ten years later, the holy places and Christian shrines have been sacked and burnt as far north as Aksum.
Another Muslim threat becomes evident at much the same period. For some years the Ottoman Turks have occupied the Dahlak islands in the Red Sea. In 1557 they move on to the mainland, establishing a garrison at Massawa.
Yet somehow, in the fastnesses of its highland plateau, Christian Ethiopia manages to weather the onslaught of Islam - becoming the only region of northern Africa to survive as a Christian state. (The Christian kingdom of Nubia, lying to the north between Egypt and Ethiopia, succumbs to Islam during the 13th century.)
This period of danger and isolation is the time when the legendary figure of Prester John becomes linked with Ethiopia. As a far-away Christian king, of whom no hard facts are known in the courts and monasteries of Europe, the role of the mysterious Prester John seems tailor-made for the Ethiopian monarch. This ruler even holds an extra trump card. There is mention in his lineage of Solomon.
The dynasty of Solomon: from AD 1270
Various dynasties follow each other on the Ethiopian throne in the unsettled centuries of the early struggle with Islam. Then, in 1270, a warlord by the name of Yekuno Amlak wins power and establishes a royal line which survives until the late 20th century. He provides his descendants with the best possible Ethiopian pedigree, for he claims to be descended from Solomon and the queen of Sheba.
At first this royal line of Solomon exercises little real control over the region now thought of as Ethiopia. The position of the king is more akin to that of a medieval European monarch, presiding at the peak of an unruly feudal pyramid.
There are three major provinces within Ethiopia, in each of which the ruler usually enjoys virtual independence. Each of these regions, moving southwards, is in its turn the centre of the developing realm of Ethiopia.
The north is the area where the first rulers establish themselves, arriving from across the Red Sea. Comprising at times both Eritrea and Tigre, this province contains Aksum, the original centre of Ethiopian civilization. Next is Amhara, in the northern highlands, with Gondar as its capital. Here are to be found the great medieval monasteries of Ethiopia. And this is the home territory of the supposed dynasty of Solomon, helped to power in the 13th century by the support of rich abbots and their feudal vassals.
Further south again, in the central highlands, is the kingdom of Shewa. This is the natural site from which to rule the entire region. Addis Ababa is founded here in 1886 by Menelik II, who is subsequently the first man to establish control over the modern nation of Ethiopia.
When Menelik comes to the throne in 1889 he restores the line of Solomon (recently displaced by a powerful usurper) and he brings back to international prominence Ethiopia's own brand of Christianity. This has survived not only the assault of Islam but also the attentions of Catholic Rome, determined to put an end to this isolated survival of the monophysite heresy.
Links with Rome: AD 1441-1622
In 1441 some Ethiopian monks travel from Jerusalem to attend the council in Florence which is discussing possible union between the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches.
The arrival of the Ethiopian monks causes something of a sensation. It begins two centuries of contact in which Rome hopes to bring the Ethiopians into the Catholic fold (the doctrinal problem is that they incline to the monophysite heresy associated with the Coptic church of Egypt). In 1554 Jesuits arrive in Ethiopia - to be joined in 1603 by Pedro Páez, a Spanish missionary of such energy and zeal that he has been called the second apostle of Ethiopia (Frumentius being the first).
Páez learns Amharic, the Ethiopian language, and prepares in it a catechism. He also writes a treatise on the theological errors of the Ethiopian church, armed with which he persuades the king, Susenyos, to abandon his monophysite heresy and to declare that Christ has two natures. But Páez dies in 1622. Ten years later, under strong local pressure, the king reverts to Ethiopia's traditional version of Christianity.
The departure of the Jesuits is followed by two centuries in which Ethiopia survives once more in precarious isolation - until the second half of the 19th century, when the colonial interest in Africa again involves the kingdom in the affairs of the wider world.
Menelik II: AD 1889
Menelik II is crowned emperor, in 1889, after a time of great turmoil in the region - both internally and outside Ethiopia's borders.
Three decades of internal upheaval have led to a strengthening of central control, but this has not been achieved by Menelik's royal dynasty. By the early 19th century his ancestors have become little more than token emperors in a feudal system which has collapsed into anarchy. Order is restored in mid-century by one of the powerful barons, who after defeating his northern rivals proclaims himself emperor in 1855 as Theodore II. In 1856 Theodore marches south against Haile Malakot, king of Shewa and a member of the Solomon dynasty.
Haile Malakot dies during Theodore's invasion of his territory, whereupon Theodore takes with him as a hostage Malakot's 11-year-old son, prince Menelik. The boy lives the next twelve years in virtual imprisonment until, on the death of Theodore in 1868, he becomes one of three claimants to the throne. From 1872 he bides his time during the reign of a stronger rival, John IV. He is finally crowned after John dies, in 1889, in battle against a Muslim army invading from the Sudan.
Aggressive followers of the Mahdi in the Sudan are only one of the external dangers facing the new emperor. Equally threatening are the European imperialists now staking out their claims on the Red Sea coast, and in particular the Italians.
Ethiopia and Italy: AD 1889-1897
Menelik's first response to the Italian presence on the coast is to make an alliance to his own advantage. In the treaty of Uccialli, signed in 1889, he accepts their right to Eritrea and cedes to them territories in the north of Ethiopia around Keren, Massawa and Asmera. In return he receives money and weapons (30,000 muskets and 28 cannon).
However the treaty, whether by accident or by Italian design, contains a discrepancy which guarantees future conflict. One of its articles states, in the Amharic version, that when dealing with international powers the Ethiopian emperor may use the assistance of the Italian government. The Italian text of the treaty says that he must do so.
On this basis Italy declares to the world that Ethiopia is now an Italian protectorate. In 1890 Menelik dismisses this claim. In 1893 he repudiates the entire treaty. The Italians respond with an attempt to impose their protectorate by force. The Italian commander in Eritrea, instructed to win a decisive victory over Menelik, begins his campaign by declaring that he will return with the Ethiopian ruler in a cage. The actual result is strikingly different.
Menelik leads some 70,000 men on the long journey north from Addis Ababa. When the armies meet, at Aduwa on 1 March 1896, the Italians suffer the most humiliating and bloody defeat ever experienced by a colonial power in Africa.
By the end of the day more than 4000 Italian soldiers are dead or missing. Another 2000 have been captured, to be taken on an agonizing march back to Addis Ababa. 4000 Eritrean troops in the Italian army are also dead or captured. The Ethiopian losses have been comparable (about 7000 dead), but this figure is dramatically out of keeping with the disparity between Ethiopian and Italian weapons.
When news of the disaster reaches Italy, there are riots in the streets. Within two weeks the prime minister is replaced. Before the end of the year the new Italian government climbs down on the issue of the supposed protectorate, accepting now the full independence of Menelik's Ethiopia.
With this much achieved, Menelik presses his diplomatic advantage. From all three colonial powers in the region he wins slices of Somali territory. To the north the border is redrawn to bring into Ethiopia the southern parts of French and British Somaliland.
But it is to the east, and at the expense of the defeated Italians, that Menelik makes the greatest gain. Harar and the rich province of Ogaden, independent regions long ago penetrated from the coast by Islam, have recently been subject to Italian pressure from the same direction. Now, in the aftermath of Aduwa, Italy accepts Menelik's claim to this area. The frontier of Ethiopia is permanently redrawn in a great easterly peak, like an inner reflection of the Horn of Africa.
The empress Zauditu and Ras Tafari: AD 1916-1930
When Menelik II dies, in 1913, he is succeeded by his grandson, Lij Yasu. The young man is ineffectual, but also gives more serious cause for affront in this Christian country. He shows an inclination towards Islam. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914 this implies the likelihood of supporting Turkey and the Central powers.
A plot is hatched by the church leaders in conjunction with a talented young man in his twenties, Ras Tafari. As a member of the imperial family, son of Menelik's most trusted lieutenant Ras Makonnen, and from 1910 governor of his native province of Harar, Ras Tafari is already a considerable figure. In 1916 he leads a successful coup against Lij Yasu.
The deposed emperor is replaced on the throne by his aunt, Zauditu, daughter of Menelik. Ras Tafari is appointed regent and becomes heir to the throne.
For fourteen years he gives Ethiopia a greatly enhanced international presence, while accepting that the conservative character of the empress restricts as yet the opportunity for much change at home. In 1923 he secures the admission of Ethiopia to the League of Nations. In the following year he becomes the first Ethiopian ruler to travel abroad, visiting Rome, Paris and London.
When Zauditu dies, in 1930, Ras Tafari is crowned emperor. He takes the title Haile Selassie, meaning 'might of the Trinity'. He immediately introduces a programme of reform, beginning with the provision of Ethiopia's first written constitution. He attempts to put an end to slavery and to improve the provision of public services such as education. But an international crisis intervenes in December 1934.
A dispute over grazing rights and the use of wells by Somali tribes, on the border of Ethiopia and the Italian colony of Somalia, flares up into a skirmish at Wal Wal between Ethiopian and Italian Somali troops. It is a minor incident. But it is eagerly seized upon by fascist Italy as a pretext for war.
Italian East Africa: AD 1936-1942
The issue of grazing rights around Wal Wal, in the Ogaden, is referred to the League of Nations. The League takes its time before coming up with a non-committal decision in September 1935. But meanwhile Italy, which has been sending out large reinforcements of troops to Somalia and Eritrea, seems intent on war. Mussolini's obsessive desire for an Italian empire leaves no time for legal niceties.
A month after the League's pronouncement, in October, Italian forces cross the borders into Ethiopia in a two-pronged attack - from Eritrea in the north, from Somalia in the east. This time, unlike at Aduwa forty years previously, the relatively primitive Ethiopian weapons are no match for a modern European armed force.
In their advance the Italians have the benefit of tracked armoured vehicles, artillery, fighter and bomber aircraft. To this conventional arsenal they also add one of the horrors developed in World War I, mustard gas.
Even so, the terrain in Ethiopia is difficult. It is not until May 1936 that the Italians enter Addis Ababa. Haile Selassie has fled abroad four days earlier. He presents his country's case in person to the League of Nations in Geneva, but to no avail. The European nations, accepting the Italian conquest of Ethiopia as a fait accompli, soon re-establish normal diplomatic relations with Addis Ababa under its new masters - making all too plain the inability of the League to safeguard the international rule of law.
In Italy Mussolini is able to make much of his triumph. On May 5, the day on which Addis Ababa falls, he announces the establishment of a new Italian empire. The king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III, is proclaimed emperor of Ethiopia. And a new colonial entity, comprising Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, is established under the name Italian East Africa. Haile Selassie retires to the English city of Bath.
As it turns out, Italian East Africa has only four years of existence. When Mussolini brings Italy into World War II on Hitler's side, in June 1940, Haile Selassie travels to Khartoum to help prepare an allied invasion of his country. This begins in January 1941. On May 5, five years to the day after Addis Ababa fell to the Italians, the Ethiopian emperor returns in triumph to his capital.
Haile Selassie: AD 1941-1974
After the war the restored emperor continues to give Ethiopia a leading role among the nations of Africa. The most notable example of this is the establishment of the OAU, or Organization of African Unity. Designed to be the voice of Africa on the world stage, the OAU is founded at a conference in Addis Ababa in 1963. Addis Ababa remains to this day its headquarters.
Internally the emperor continues his pre-war attempts to give Ethiopia a less feudal system of government. In 1955 he introduces a new constitution. This provides for an elected lower chamber in parliament, with power to question the acts of the emperor and his ministers. And it purports to give full independence to the nation's judges.
Nevertheless the emperor still retains the right to rule by decree and to appoint his ministers. The situation is a drastic improvement on Ethiopia's past, but it falls far short of what Africans elsewhere are expecting in the rush of the late 1950s towards independence from the colonial powers. The result is an attempted military coup while Haile Selassie is abroad in 1960.
The coup fails. But it has the effect of pushing the emperor into a more authoritarian stance. He now chooses his ministers increasingly from the landowning aristocracy, the power base of a feudal ruler. Meanwhile his policy on Eritrea is also, in the early 1960s, running into trouble.
Ethiopia and Eritrea: AD 1945-1974
During the first half of the century, with the Italians in possession of Eritrea, Ethiopia has been landlocked. The defeat of Italy in World War II gives Haile Selassie the chance to redress this deficiency. In a meeting with President Roosevelt in 1945 he stresses his need for access to the sea through the possession of Eritrea, an area loosely linked with Ethiopia at various periods in the past.
The USA, seeing the chance of a naval base in the Red Sea at Massawa, shares an interest in this development. When the United Nations considers the future of Eritrea, in 1948-50, Washington applies pressure for its annexation by Ethiopia.
The UN decision, given in 1950, is that Eritrea shall become part of Ethiopia from 1952, as an autonomous federal province with its own constitution and elected government. In that year an Eritrean administration duly takes control, bringing to an end the temporary British rule in the region.
Within Eritrea opinion has been divided, largely along Christian versus Muslim lines, on the question of union with Christian Ethiopia. On one side is the Unionist party, founded in 1946 with financial assistance from Addis Ababa. On the other is the Muslim League, set up a year later to campaign for Eritrean independence. In the election the Unionists fail to win an outright majority. The Eritrean government is therefore at first a coalition.
Aware that there will be continuing agitation for independence, Haile Selassie shamelessly interferes to secure his aim of union. With his help the Unionists remove Muslims from government jobs, put an end to teaching in Arabic, ban all other political parties (1958) and trade unions (1959), introduce Ethiopian law and even give the Eritrean government a new name. It becomes merely the Eritrean administration.
In these circumstances, and with the persecuted leaders of the independence movement now abroad, the result is a foregone conclusion when the Ethiopian and Eritrean parliaments debate the question of union in November 1962.
On a unanimous vote in both Addis Ababa and Asmara it is agreed that Eritrea's federal status within Ethiopia shall be abolished. The area is now to become a province like any other in the Ethiopian empire.
By the same token this degree of unanimity also exists by now on the opposing side. In 1960 Eritrea's Muslim leaders, living in exile, form the ELF or Eritrean Liberation Front to fight for independence. By the mid-1960s they have a guerrilla force operating in western Eritrea. And in a few years they cease to be a purely Muslim movement. Soon after the union of 1962 Haile Selassie interferes in Tigre's schools, banning Tigrinya, the local language, and replacing it with Amharic. This converts many Tigre Christians to the cause of independence.
Eventually, after bitter disputes and even outright warfare between rival factions in the Eritrean independence movement, a single powerful group emerges as a distant offshoot of the original ELF. This is the EPLF, or Eritrean People's Liberation Front. Dedicated to a religion as demanding and intolerant as either Christianity or Islam (in their most radical forms), the EPLF is a highly efficient Marxist enterprise.
The EPLF is offered an unexpected chance to achieve its aims in 1974, when Ethiopia is convulsed by a major upheaval.
From empire to Dergue: AD 1974-1991
Early in 1974 there is dissatisfaction on many fronts - with Ethiopia's economic performance, with the continuing struggle against separatists in Eritrea, and with Haile Selassie himself (seen by now as running an outdated feudal system, with benefits reserved for his own group and with too much reliance on US support). The result is a series of mutinies within the army.
By June the spirit of mutiny is affecting the police as well as the regular and territorial armies. A committee (Dergue in Amharic) is set up to provide coordinated action. By September the movement is strong enough to arrest the emperor, now eighty-two and senile. In November sixty senior members of his entourage are shot. In August 1975 the old man is strangled in his bed.
These events are followed by three years of chaos during which rival guerrilla groups fight each other. The man who emerges in control is the original chairman of the Dergue, Major Mengistu Haile Mariam.
Mengistu proceeds to impose upon Ethiopia a brutally rigid Marxist regime. Opponents are purged or driven into exile. Peasant families are resettled in villages, around which they are allotted twenty-five acres each. From these plots they are expected to produce unrealistic yields - and, as the economy declines, to provide them to the state at below the market price.
The result, exacerbated by the lack of spring rain two years running, is an appalling famine in 1984. Millions in the north of the country, in Tigre and Eritrea, are in danger of death by starvation. Their plight is the first of its kind to be seen all round the world on television.
Mengistu's response is typical of an authoritarian theorist. He forcibly moves 600,000 people from the drought-striken north to areas in the south where he proposes to resettle them. The result, through lack of effective organization, is to add a massive refugee problem to the other difficulties already affecting Ethiopia. Chief among these is the continuing guerrilla campaign in Eritrea.
The toppling of Mengistu: AD 1987-1991
The beginning of the end for Mengistu and the Dergue is in 1987, when the Eritrean guerrillas, the EPLF, are strong enough to move south past Nakfa into the highlands of Ethiopia. In 1988 they join forces with another Marxist group fighting for regional independence, the TPLF or Tigre People's Liberation Front. In 1990, in the most crucial step of all, they capture Massawa, cutting off Ethiopia's link with the sea.
Meanwhile the TPLF have merged with yet another guerrilla organization to form the EPRDF or Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front. Together they move south through Gondar and into the province of Welo.
Confronted with this seemingly inexorable advance, Mengistu announces a drastic change of policy. Socialism is to be abandoned. Resettled peasants return to their old territories. Goods belonging to the state are seized in a mood of anarchy. Local officials lose all authority. The army becomes demoralized. Mengistu's predicament is markedly worse.
By May 1991 it is clear that there is nothing to prevent the rebels reaching Addis Ababa. Mengistu flees the country. The EPRDF takes power, under its chairman Meles Zenawi. He promises a new form of government guaranteeing rights (even to the point of secession) to regional minorities. Implicitly included is Eritrea's claim to independence.
A federation of regions: from AD 1991
Meles Zenawi and the EPRDF are prompt in delivering what they have promised. A national conference in July 1991 appoints a provisional government, headed by Zenawi, which draws up a plan to divide Ethiopia into fourteen regions reflecting as closely as possible the territory of different ethnic groups. The councils of these regions are to be given devolved power on all matters other than foreign affairs, defence and economic policy.
Elections to the councils are held in 1992. By 1994 a new constitution is ready, enshrining these reforms and confirming the promised right of each region to secede. From the start the new regime has supported the independence of Eritrea, which is achieved in 1993.
The first multiparty elections under the new constitution are held in 1995. Four major opposition parties boycott the election, enabling the EPRDF to win by a wide margin with 80% of the seats in the Council of People's Representatives. The council elects Negaso Gidada to the non-executive role of president. Meles Zenawi becomes prime minister.
The newly democratic Ethiopia also takes quick action to confront its recent past. The trial begins in 1994 of Mengistu and seventy-two of his senior officials, jointly charged with war crimes, genocide and the death of between 100,000 and 200,000 people. Twenty-four of them, including Mengistu who is in Zimbabwe, are tried in their absence.
The mid-1990s seem to offer exceptional promise for long-troubled Ethiopia. There is admittedly a recurrence of famine in the Tigre region in 1994, but thereafter the country becomes almost self-sufficient in food - an unusual circumstance, caused now by good rains combined with higher output from the reintroduction of a market economy.
Moreover the blight of the previous three decades, war with Eritrea, seems a thing of the past - understandly, since the EPLF and the EPRDF fought side by side in toppling the Dergue. A tariff-free border between the two countries is agreed in 1995. Relations have never been better. But suddenly, in 1998, things go disastrously wrong.
The return of war: AD 1998
Relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea begin to turn sour after Eritrea introduces its own currency, the nakfa, in November 1997. Until this time it has continued to use the Ethiopian birr. Eritrea declares the nakfa to be of equal value to the birr and expects its trade with Ethiopia (70% of its total exports) to continue uninterrupted.
Ethiopia insists, instead, that all transactions between the two nations shall henceforth be in hard foreign currency. Although this restriction harms both nations' economies, it is far from being a cause for renewed war. Nor, on the face of it, is the small incident which actually reignites the long but apparently resolved conflict between the two countries.
In May 1998 there is an incident in the town of Badme, in Tigre just on the Ethiopian side of a disputed section of the border. Gunfire is exchanged between Ethiopian policemen and a group of armed intruders from Eritrea. In spite of international mediation, the conflict escalates into full-scale war.
Being a war along a border, it develops a World War I quality. Trenches are dug, mines are laid, the bodies of dead soldiers rot between the lines, the unimportant desert town of Badme is taken and retaken like a symbolic trophy. By mid-1999 it is calculated that the confronting armies number some 400,000 men and that 50,000 soldiers have died. Just as in World War I, it seems hard to understand why.
The costly stalemate continues until May 2000, when Ethiopia wins large tracts of land in a sudden push. Peace talks begin in Algeria in June. But apart from the appalling death toll at the front, the futile border war has grievously aggravated conditions of famine in both the belligerent countries.
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