A Brief History of Ethiopia: Social, Geographical, Political and Cultural Background


Ethiopia is located in the Horn of Africa on the continent’s northeast coast. Ethiopia borders six countries in total: Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya, Djibouti, Somalia and Eritrea. Addis Ababa, the capital city, is located in the middle of country and the land contains a wide altitude range, from 100 meters below sea-level on the north-eastern border to more than 4000 meters above sea-level in the country’s mountain ranges [2]. The differences in altitude around the country results in variable temperature conditions, and a rainy season that spans the majority of the area between June and August. The land, however, is vulnerable to droughts mostly in pastoral regions during other times of the year – a problem which first began in 1972 and has persisted on a seasonal basis. The Abbai (Blue Nile) River, a tributary connected to the Nile River that flows in to Ethiopia and ends in Lake Tana is located northwest of the capital city [2].

Photo: Ethiopia on the Map

Photo: Ethiopia on the Map (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-13349398)

Population and Demographics

96 million people live in Ethiopia, with major ethnic groups including Oromo (34.4%) and Amhara (27%). 17% of the total population lives in urban areas, and about 3 million people live in the capital city of Addis Ababa [1]. Interestingly, the country is comprised of a mostly young population, with a median age for both males and females of 17 years old. In addition, Oromo and Amharic are the most common spoken languages. In regards to religion, approximately half of the country’s population is Christian and one-third are Muslim [3].

The Ethiopian Economy

One of the world’s fastest growing, the Ethiopian economy is among the strongest in the Nile region, with the majority of growth being from agricultural production. Coffee is a integral export crop in the region, however, seasonal droughts and substandard cultivation methods threaten economic growth from agriculture [2]. More recently, the government has prompted growth in the manufacturing, textiles and energy sectors to bolster the economy in addition to agriculture [2].


Photo: Ethiopian Flag (http://en.wikipedia.org/)

Country and Political History 

Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Africa. With the majority of its political history being monarchical, it has existed for over 2,000 years, dating back to the first century B.C. during its rule under the Aksumite Kingdom [1]. Coptic Christianity was introduced by the Egyptians during the fourth century, and by the 15th century, Muslim leader Ahmad Gran had conquered the majority of Ethiopia. After a series of power shifts throughout much of the 19th century, Emperor Menelik II took control and led the country through a 1895 Italian invasion. The Ethiopian army defeated the Italians, allowing the country to be recognized as an independent state [4]. By 1930, leader Ras Tafari Makonnen, soon named Emperor Haile Selassie I, came to power. By 1935 during World War II, however, the Italians attempted a second invasion and succeeded in capturing Addis Ababa in 1936, dethroning Salassie in the process. Soon after, Italian East Africa was formed, combining three separate nations – Ethiopia, Eritrea and Italian Somaliland [4]. The Ethiopian Resistance, greatly assisted by the British army, defeated the Italian rule, which restored Selassie to power by 1941. Salassie continued to rule the country until 1974, when he was overthrown during a military coup and overtaken by General Terefi Benti [4].


Photo: Emperor Haile Salassie I (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-13351397)

“Red Terror” and Somali Invasion

In 1977, Benti was assassinated and replaced by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, a Marxist dictator. He was responsible for the deaths of thousands of governments opponents during a campaign of mass killings known as the “Red Terror” between 1977 and 1979 [4]. Simultaneously, Ethiopia defeated a Somali invasion with assistance from the Soviet Union and Cuba. By 1987, Mengistu was elected as president under a new constitution and both Ethiopia and Somalia signed a peace treaty in 1988 [4].


Photo: Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam photographed with Fidel Castro (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-13351397)

Conflict with Eritrea 

The last 25 years in Ethiopian political history have been marked by tensions with neighboring Eritrea. After Mengistu was ousted by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front in 1991, Eritrea established formal independence from Ethiopia in 1993 [4]. By 1998, however, tensions erupted along the border and turned into a war by 1999. By 2000, both countries signed a peace agreement, but tensions have continued ever since [4].


Photo: Border Clashes Turn into a Full-Scale War between Eritrea and Ethiopia (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-13351397)

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

More recently, Ethiopia has started the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, set to be Africa’s largest and most ambitious hydropower plant project. Laying on the Blue Nile River, the plant is anticipated to triple the country’s current electricity generation, which would subsequently reduce frequent power outages, stimulate economic growth and make the country more competitive on the world stage [5]. Upon its completion, the dam is meant to serve as a monument of national pride – with the majority of its construction being funded by Ethiopia itself. In addition to generating electricity, the dam will serve as a way to mitigate the flow of water in the Blue Nile during dry seasons and droughts [5].


Photo: Construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/12/world/dam-rising-in-ethiopia-stirs-hope-and-tension.html)

Among the other nine countries that share the Nile River as an integral resource, the Egyptian government has been quick to the criticize the Renaissance Dam because it may compromise the flow of water upstream from Lake Tana to Egypt [2]. Egypt even threatened war at one point, with former president Mohamed Morsi remarking, “Egyptian blood would substitute for every drop of lost water [5].” The sour tensions and threat of war, however, have been alleviated as current Egypt Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has approached discussions in a different, more understanding tone. Despite all the controversy, the nearly $5 billion dam brings hope to Ethiopians for a bright future.

Work Cited

[1] “Ethiopia,” The World Factbook, Washington, D.C.: Central Intelligence Agency (2015), https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/et.html

[2] Last, G.C., Venkataraman, M., Kahsay, W. “Ethiopia,” Europaworld.com.

[3] Abe, Marie. “Musics of the Nile Region.” Music and Society: Sound, Music, and Ecology Class. Boston University College of Fine Arts, Boston. 3 Mar. 2015. Class Lecture.

[4] “Ethiopia Profile.” BBC News. BBC, 20 Sept. 2013. Web. 16 Mar. 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-13351397

[5] Fortin, Jacey. “Dam Rising in Ethiopia Stirs Hope and Tension.” The New York Times. October 11, 2014. Accessed March 16, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/12/world/dam-rising-in-ethiopia-stirs-hope-and-tension.html?_r=0


One thought on “A Brief History of Ethiopia: Social, Geographical, Political and Cultural Background

  1. This is a really good all-encompassing yet concise overview of Ethiopia. I appreciate how in the end you also tied everything up to the current issue of the Renaissance Dam. A bit more of the human element would have been interesting as well. Although I understand length constraints, I would be interested to find out why there were so many coups? What about their government at the time were these people against?


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