New Internationalist


October 2010

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.

Thomas Mukoya / REUTERS
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.

Nick Hunt
Ethiopia Fact File
Leader Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
Economy GNI per capita $280 (Kenya $770, Italy $35,240).
Most people farm for subsistence but the coffee crop is vital to the economy as a source of foreign exchange – though the cultivation of qat (a plant chewed as an amphetamine-like stimulant and banned in some countries) is increasing. Ethiopia is among the countries that have benefited from debt relief under the HIPC Initiative.
Monetary unit Birr.
Main exports coffee, qat, gold, leather products, live animals.
People 80.7 million. Annual population growth rate 2.6%. People per square kilometre 73 (UK 253).
Health Infant mortality 69 per 1,000 live births (Kenya 81, Italy 3). HIV prevalence rate 2.1%. Lifetime risk of maternal mortality 1 in 27 (Italy 1 in 26,600).
Environment CO2 emissions per capita 0.1 tonnes (Italy 7.9). The highlands (source of the Nile) are rainy but agriculture and therefore food supplies on the plateaus are prone to recurrent drought.
Culture There are over 90 ethnic groups. The largest are the Oromo (about a third), followed by the Amhara (about a quarter) and the Tigrayans (about a tenth).
Religion Orthodox Christianity predominates, particularly among the Amhara and Tigrayans, though Islam is practised by the Somali, Afar and Aderi ethnic groups. Traditional animist religions are also common.
Language Amharic is the official language but there are 80 registered languages from four major language families – Semitic, Cushitic, Omotic and Nilo-Saharan. Human Development Index: 1995 0.308; 2007 0.414 (Kenya 0.541, Italy 0.951).
Last profiled link November 1993
Ethiopia ratings in detail
Income distribution
There exists massive inequality between the minority urban Èlite and the rural poor, who constitute 70% of the population. Much of the country lives in extreme poverty.
Previously reviewed
Life expectancy
55 years. Poor sanitation and malnutrition take their toll on the country’s health, although the prevalence of HIV/AIDS is much lower than in other parts of Africa.
Previously reviewed
36%. Schools suffer from a lack of funding and resources, and children often have to drop out of education to work for their families.
Previously reviewed
Position of women
The constitution provides for equality, and women are active in politics, but tradition means many rural girls still face child marriage and female genital mutilation.
Previously reviewed
The government controls and monitors the press, and persecutes its opponents. The police and security forces routinely ignore human rights.
Previously reviewed
Sexual minorities
Male and female homosexual acts are illegal in Ethiopia, and very little cultural tolerance exists in the country.
NI Assessment (Politics)
Ostensibly a multiparty democracy, opposition parties have been systematically weakened over the past five years, and there now exists no credible challenge to the government’s stranglehold on power. Endemic corruption and cronyism hampers economic development. There is widespread resentment at the ruling party’s perceived bias towards the Tigray region, increasing the possibility of tension between ethnic groups.

This column was published in the October 2010 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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  1. #1 Judith Louis 06 Jun 11

    The OAU could be used to channel aid from the UN and its agencies such as the UNWater, UNHRC to help improve socio-economic conditions. Training for local government leaders aimed at peaceful coexistence, social tolerance and modernistiaon of farming communities is critical.

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Country ratings (details)
Income distribution1
Previously reviewed3
Life expectancy2
Previously reviewed2
Previously reviewed2
Position of women3
Previously reviewed3
Previously reviewed4
Sexual minorities1
NI Assessment (Politics)2

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