Flag of Ethiopia

Every day, from the northern highlands to the arid deserts of the south, millions of Ethiopians sit down for the social ritual of the coffee ceremony: washing, grinding, roasting and brewing fresh beans over a charcoal-burning stove, accompanied by frankincense and popcorn. Traditions like these are points of great cultural pride, helping to bind this religiously diverse, multi-ethnic country together.

Ancient birthplace of both coffee and Homo sapiens, Ethiopia’s culture is distinct from any other in Africa. Orthodox Christianity was established here when most of Europe was still pagan, and the country has mystical links with early Judaism. Ethiopians claim the Queen of Sheba as their own, and believe that the Ark of the Covenant resides in the church in Axum, itself the site of towering obelisks from a long-vanished empire. This history lends Ethiopians a sense of destiny and uniqueness which, unfortunately, is not borne out by their political record.

Few were surprised by the results of this year’s general election, which saw incumbent Meles Zenawi win another term as prime minister, after 15 years in office. Opposition parties complained of government intimidation and flaws in the voting process, with at least six people killed in election-related violence (an improvement on 2005’s election, when 193 protesters were massacred by security forces). The last five years have seen the steady erosion of press freedom, the stifling of dissenting voices, and opposition leaders branded ‘terrorists’. Increasingly taking on the appearance of a one-party state, the country’s slide back into authoritarianism comes as a disappointment to those who lauded Zenawi as a new type of African leader.

Looking into an uncertain future - a girl outside the St Mariam Coptic Orthodox church in Entoto, on the outskirts of Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa.

Thomas Mukoya / REUTERS

Essentially a feudal state until 1974, Ethiopia was ruled for centuries by Amharic-speaking emperors who claimed descent from the biblical King David. The last of these, Emperor Haile Selassie – the Ras Tafari worshipped by Rastafarians – is still a revered national figure, despite the autocratic nature of his reign. Deposed in a coup, the ‘Lion of Judah’ was allegedly smothered to death by his successor, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. Ethiopians then suffered almost two decades under the Derg regime, which imprisoned and murdered tens of thousands of civilians, plunged the country into civil war, and exacerbated the disastrous 1984-85 famine. Mengistu’s dictatorship ended when rebels took the capital Addis Ababa in 1991.

Having won the war, and won Ethiopia’s first ever democratic elections, Zenawi’s government reorganized the country along federal lines, dividing it into autonomous regions. Perhaps the most significant result of this was Eritrea voting for full independence, which cost Ethiopia its coastline. In 1998 increasing tension led to a two-year border war in which tens of thousands died.

As a relatively stable country in a notoriously unstable region, Ethiopia hosts the African Union and has sent troops into neighbouring Somalia to combat Islamism. The government retains good relations with the West, which views it as an ally in the ‘war on terror’, and is also benefiting from massive Chinese investment in infrastructure. Internally, Zenawi faces separatist insurgencies in the Ogaden, Oromia and Gambella regions. Human rights groups claim the threat of rebellion is used to justify abuses and stifle legitimate opposition.

The vast majority of Ethiopians still live as subsistence farmers, growing staple crops like teff and sorghum. Struggling with frequent droughts and chronic poverty, life for the average Ethiopian probably hasn’t improved much since feudalism. As long as the country remains strategically important to the West, and economically important to China, a blind eye will continue to be turned to its government’s increasing tendency towards repression.

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  • Income distribution
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