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new internationalist
issue 249 - November 1993

Country profile: Ethiopia

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From the obelisks of ancient kings to the covenant of the Lost Ark, Ethiopia exudes a sense of the ancient history of a forgotten Africa - before the ravages of colonialism. When the Caribbean-based Rastafarian movement wanted to recover African roots, it was to Ethiopia that they looked first. Ethiopia is the oldest country in Africa and its history is closely identified with the African expression of Coptic Christianity which dates back to biblical times. The legendary Queen of Sheba was one of the early rulers of a succession of imperial dynasties.

At first the religious and political centre of Ethiopia was in the rugged hill province of Tigray with the imperial throne in Axum. Gradually the centre of power shifted southwards, eventually to Addis-Ababa (New Flower) and the Ethiopian state came to be dominated by the Amharic people of central Shoa province.

The feudal system offered pomp and prosperity to the nobility but kept the peasant majority in poverty. Haile Selassie shocked the world by trying to hide a large scale famine. A popular movement against the monarchy and its corrupt oligarchy of landowners overthrew him in 1974. In 1977 a military junta led by Colonel Mengistu embarked on a brand of barracks-style communism that condemned Ethiopia to 15 years of state repression, high military spending and bloody civil war.

During the years of 'Red Terror', bodies left as warnings on the streets of Addis were a fairly common sight. Across the country ethnically-based liberation movements sprang up to oppose autocracy.

Mengistu's regime was finally overthrown in May 1991 and replaced by a multi-ethnic coalition led by the leftist Ethiopian People's Democratic Movement.

Today Addis houses the glistening headquarters of the Organization of African Unity and the UN Economic Commission of Africa. The city is marked by the stalled modernity of unfinished high-rises and has doubled in size as refugees arrived from the region's countless battlefields. Most are homeless and literally live and die on the streets.

Rain-fed agriculture remains the staple for most peasant farmers. With fertile land turned over to cash crops like coffee, the country has been particularly vulnerable to drought which contributed to the devastating famine of the mid-1980s.

The former province of Eritrea is now independent, leaving the new Ethiopian Government of Meles Zenawi to balance the aspirations of Ethiopia's different ethnic groups and meet basic social needs. The results of regional elections in 1992 have been challenged by the Oromo Liberation Front who are increasingly alienated by the dominance of Tigrayan interests, but the political atmosphere in Addis is freer than in living memory. Much will turn on the results of full national elections promised for May 1994.

Richard Swift


LEADER: Ata Meles Zenawi, leader of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and President of the transitional government of Ethiopia.

ECONOMY: GNP per capita US$ 120 (US $21,790)
Monetary unit: Birr
Main Exports: Coffee (60%); hides and skins, some vegetable products.
Main Imports: Most industrial products; cars, machinery, medicine and most manufactured goods.

PEOPLE: 46.7 million.

HEALTH: Infant mortality: 125 per 1,000 live births (US 9 per 1,000). It's estimated that more than a million Ethiopians have died of starvation in the last 20 years.

CULTURE: Two thirds are of Amhara or Oromo descent. There are many other ethnic groups including the Tigre, Gurage, Niloti, Somali and Afari.
Religion: Most Ethiopians are Coptic Christians but with a large Muslim minority. Traditional African religions are also practised.
Language: Amharic (official); Oromo; English widely taught in schools; Arabic and over a hundred local languages and dialects.

Sources: State of the World's Children, UNICEF 1993: 1993/4 Third World Guide, ITeM, Uruguay: World Development Report, The World Bank, 1992.

Last profiled in July 1983



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INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Very poor country but less wealth polarization than its neighbours.

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ADULT LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Estimates range from 23 to 62% but figures are old and unreliable and don't cover current borders.

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SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Heavy debt load and dependence on aid from Mengistu period.

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FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Basic rights and ethnic self-determination guaranteed by Zenawi govt.

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POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Women played an important role in the struggle against military dictatorship but gains must be consolidated.

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LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown]
At 46, one of the lowest in the world. High infant mortality.

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Politics now
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Interim President heads transitional government before next year's elections.


NI star rating

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