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Political and Economic History of Ethiopia

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Political and Economic History of Ethiopia

Ethiopia is a nation with a long, venerable and complex history. Although located in the tropics its high altitudes give much of it a temperate climate.

Although the ancient, aboriginal population of what is now Ethiopia were Cushitic language speakers, the culture that came to be identified with Ethiopia came from Arabia, probably as early as 1000 B.C. These Semitic language speakers adopted Christianity in the fourth century A.D. The particular version of Christianity adopted by the Ethiopians was called monophysite because it maintained that Jesus of Nazareth was of a single nature rather than of two natures, divine and human, as maintained by the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches. The other monophysite Christian organizations were the Coptic church of Egypt, the Syrian church and the Armenian church. Now the monophysite churches are accepted as orthodox but in the Middle Ages these theological issues were considered vitally important.

With the advent of Islam there was a political upheaval as well as a religious one in the region. The Christians of Ethiopia initially had good relations with the converts to the new religion of Islam. A party of converts to Islam in Arabia fled persecution across the Red Sea. They sought and received refuge from the Ethiopian Christians. Jesus is a revered figure in Islam, having the status of a Prophet. The Koran mandates tolerance for the People of the Book; i.e., Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians. So initially there was no friction between the Muslims and the Christians. But later political rivalries manifested themselves as religious conflicts.

(To be continued.)

The Geography of Ethiopia

The climate of Ethiopia is created by the moisture-laden winds from the southwest interacting with the mountains and high plateau. The lowlands to the east beyond the mountains get relatively little rainfall as shown in the map below.

The Rainfall Pattern

of Ethiopia and Eritrea

The rainfall of the high plateau comes mainly in the summer from mid-June to mid-September. A secondary rainy period occurs in late spring in April and May. This rain comes from the winds of the northeast intersecting the winds from the southeast. These rains, known as the balq, are lighter than those of the main rainy season of the summer.

Another seasonal phenomenon is the passage in January of high pressure systems from Asia over the Red Sea. This passage brings some moisture to the coastal lowlands but very little to the highlands of Ethiopia.

A very important aspect of the climate of Ethiopia is the variability of the rainfall. The average rainfall level may allow a buildup of vegetation, cattle herds and the human population which is devastated when the rainfall falls below average. Thus the climate of Ethiopia leads to sporatic episodes of hardship and famines.

Haile Selassie

When one considers the extraordinary career of Ras Tafari, later known as Haile Selassie, one wonders whether a writer of fiction would dare to create a character who had such an improbable life. Ras Tafari (the Ras is an honorific roughly meaning prince) was the son of Ras Mekonen of the eastern city of Harer. His line was descended from a king of Shewa, the region around what is now the capital, Addis Ababa. Shewa was to the south of the traditional homeland of the ruling class, the Habesha, and many felt that the Shewa nobility were not pure Habesha but a mixture of Habesha and Oromo. This was a factor in the dynastic politics of Ethiopia.

The southern areas of what is now Ethiopia were conquered in the late 19th century by the Emperor Menelik II who created the new capital of Addis Ababa (new flower) in Shewa. This conquest brought non-Habesha people, primarily the Oromo, into the empire and created a distinction between the north and the south in terms of people and institutions.

When Menelik II died in 1917 the line of succession was not clear. Menelik II did not have a son and the title of emperor was given to his nephew Lij Iyasu. Lij Iyasu was only thirteen at the time and the real power fell into the hands of Lij Iyasu's father, Ras Mikael. Ras Mikael was an Ormo who had converted from Islam to Christianity. When Lij Iyasu converted to Islam there was understandable concern that his father's conversion to Christianity had not been real. This ethnic/religious issue along with Ras Mikael's involvement of Ethiopia in the external power politics of the time led to the excommunication of Lij Iyasu and his loss of the throne. Menelik II's daughter, Zauditu, was declared empress, but many did not accept the leadership of Zauditu. Some generals of Menelik II claimed the right to lead Ethiopia. In the power struggle Ras Tafari emerged as a leading contender for the throne. During the 1920's there was a period of dual leadership with Empress Zauditu, who was not powerful enough to suppress Ras Tafari, and Ras Tafari, who was not powerful to take the throne. To some extent there was cooperation between the two.

Ethiopia applied for membership in the League of Nations in 1919 but was initially denied because of the survival of slavery in Ethiopia. After Empress Zauditu and Ras Tafari issued proclamations making slave trading a capital offense the League of Nations immediately (1919) accepted Ethiopia as a member. The sanctions against slave trading did not abolish slavery but it was a significant step in that direction. In 1924 slavery itself was abolished by edict in Ethiopia.

During the 1920's Ras Tafari established schools and promoted education. He was clearly the major policy innovator for Ethiopia during that time. But the power in Ethiopia did not reside in the monarchy in Addis Ababa but instead was held by the traditional nobility in the countryside. Throughout his career Ras Tafari tried to the break the power of regional and local gentry and consolidate and centralize Ethiopian power. He wanted to modernize Ethiopia but only if that could be done without limiting his personal power. It was difficult to determine whether his quest for power was personal or for the Ethiopian state. Ras Tafari probably identified himself and the Ethiopian state as one so there was no distinction between the two in his mind.

In 1924 Britain and Italy tried to define spheres of interest in the region of the Horn of Africa that put Ethiopia in the Italian sphere. Ras Tafari took the matter to the League of Nations and under the threat of a public airing of the British-Italian division of that part of Africa both Britain and Italy issued statements that they never intended to



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