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Source: Abysinia - "Ethiopia" Microsoft
Encarta 1994


Ethiopia, formerly Abyssinia,a republic in eastern Africa, bounded on the northeast by Eritrea and Djibouti, on the east and southeast by Somalia, on the southwest by Kenya, and on the west and northwest by Sudan. The area of the country is 1,128,176 (435,606 sq mi).

Land and Resources

The heart of Ethiopia is a tableland, known as the Ethiopian Plateau, covering more than one-half the total area of the country. The plateau is split diagonally in a northeastern to southwestern direction by the Rift Valley. Although the average elevation of the plateau is about 1675 m(about 5500 ft), it is cut by many rivers and deep valleys, some of which are 610 m (2000 ft) below the level of the plateau. The area is capped by mountains, the highest of which is Ras Dashan (4620 m/15,157 ft). These heights and indentations occur in northern Ethiopia, in the region surrounding Lake T'ana (the lake in which the Blue Nile rises). The northeastern edges of the plateau are marked by steep escarpments, which drop some 1220 m(4000 ft) or more to the sunbaked coastal plain and the Denakil Desert. Along the western fringe the plateau descends less abruptly to the desert of Sudan. Along the southern and southwestern limits, the plateau lowers toward Lake Turkana (also called Lake Rudolf).


The climate of Ethiopia varies mainly according to elevation. The tropical zone below approximately 1830 m (approximately 6000 ft) has an average annual temperature of about 27 C (about 80 F) and receives less than about 510 mm(about 20in) of rain annually. The subtropical zone, which includes most of the highland plateau and is between about 1830 and 2440 m (about 6000 to 8000 ft) in elevation,has an average temperature of 22 C(about 72 F) with an annual rainfall ranging from about 510 to 1525 mm(about 20 to 60 in). Above approximately 2440 m (approximately 8000 ft) is a temperate zone with an average temperature of about 16 C (about 61 F) and an annual rainfall between about 1270 and 1780 mm (about 50 to 70 in). The main rainy season occurs between mid-June and September, followed by a dry season that may be interrupted in February or March by a short rainy season.

Natural Resources

The resources of Ethiopia are primarily agricultural. The plateau area is fertile and largely undeveloped. The wide range of soils,climate,and elevations permits the production of a diversified range of agricultural commodities. A variety of mineral deposits exit; iron,copper,zinc,lead,potash( see potassium ), gold and platinum are the principal ones that have been commercially exploited.

Plants and Animals

The great variations in elevation are directly reflected in the kind of vegetation found in Ethiopia. The lower areas of the tropical zone have sparse vegetation consisting of desert shrubs,thornbushes, and coarse savanna grasses. In the valleys and ravines almost every form of African vegetation grows in luxurious profusion. The temperate zone is largely covered with grassland. Afro-alpine vegetation is found on the highest slopes. The larger species of African wildlife are native to most parts of the country. These include the giraffe,leopard, hippopotamus, lion, elephant, antelope and rhinoceros. The lynx, jackal, hyena,and various species of monkey are common. Birds of prey include the eagle, hawk, and vulture. Herron, parrot and such game birds as the snipe, partridge, teal, pigeon, and bustard are found in abundance. Among the many varieties of insects are the locust and tsetse fly.


The highland of Ethiopia is made up of folded and fractured crystalline rocks capped by sedimentary limestone and by sandstone and by thick layers of volcanic lava. The torrential rains of the main rainy season cause severe erosion, especially in areas where all natural vegetation has been cleared. The rains also leach the highland soils of much fertility, particularly those soils overlying crystalline rocks. The volcanic soils of the highland are less readily leached and therefore are more fertile.


Most of the inhabitants of Ethiopia support themselves through agriculture, which is largely of a subsistence nature. The population is concentrated heavily in the central plateau region, where agricultural resources are most developed. The ethnic composition is extremely diverse, as a result of racial and linguistic integration that began in ancient times.

Population Characteristics

According to the 1984 census, Ethiopia had a population of 42,019,418. The estimated population in 1993 was 51,070,000, yielding an overall density of about 45 persons per sq km (about 117 per sq mi ). The Amhara (who founded the original nation), a highland people partly of Semitic origin, and the related Tigreans constitute about 35 percent of the total population. They occupy the Ethiopian highlands, especially north of latitude 10 North and west of longitude 40 East, and the former province of Shoa as far south as Addis Abeba, the capital. The Galla, a pastoral and agricultural people living mainly in central and southwestern Ethiopia, constitute about one-third of the population. The Shangalla, a people found in the western part of the country from the border of Eritrea to Lake Turkana, constitute a little more than 5 percent of the population. The Somali, who live in the east and the southeast, notably in the Ogaden region, are approximately equal in number to the Shangalla. The Denakil inhabit the semidesert plains east of the highlands. The nonindigenous population includes Yemenites, Indians, Armenians and Greeks.

Principal Cities

In 1984 Addis Ababa, the capital, had a population of 1,423,111. Other major cities include Dire Dawa (98,104), Gonder (68,958), and Dese (68,848).


The Ethiopian Orthodox Union church, an autonomous Christian sect headed by a patriarch and closely related to the Coptic church of Egypt, was the state church of Ethiopia until 1974.

About one-half of the total population is Christian, and Christianity is predominant in the northern provinces. All the southern regions have Muslim majorities. The region of Gamu-Gofa and parts of the Sidamo and Arusi regions contain considerable animist elements. The Falashas practice a type of Judaism that probably dates back to contact with early Arabian Jews.


Of the 70 or more languages spoken in Ethiopia, most belong to the Semitic and Cushitic branches of the Afro-Asiatic family (see African Languages). The language of the Ethiopian Church liturgy, Ge'ez, gave rise to the Semitic cluster of languages, Amharic, Tigrinya and Tigre. Amharic, the official language of the country, is spoken by about 60 percent of the population. English and Arabic are also spoken by many people.


Education has expanded considerably since 1952, when only 4 percent of the adult population was literate. Since then, many schools have been opened, and several teacher training schools have graduated numerous teachers. A major program to increase literacy was started in 1979; by the mid-1980s about 63 percent of the adult population could read and write. Free education exists from primary school through the college level, but regular school facilities are available to only about one-third of the children of school age. In the mid-1980s about 3.1 million students attended about 9100 primary and secondary schools run by the government and religious groups. Addis Ababa University (1950) has branches in Awassa, Bahir Dar, Debre Zeit, and Gonder. The Alemaya University of Agriculture was founded in 1962. More than 20,000 students were enrolled in colleges and universities in the late 1980s.


The most significant area of Ethiopian culture is in the field of literature, represented predominantly by translations from ancient Greek, Arabic, and other languages into the ancient Ge'ez and modern Amharic. Most of the works are theological or mythological in nature. Secular literature is largely confined to history.

Ecclesiastical architecture is relatively rich because of the early advent of Christianity in the country. Such structures and their frescoes usually show both Byzantine and Coptic influences. Of the folkart, silversmithing is remarkable for the imagination and the skill it entails.


In the late 1980s Ethiopia was one of the world's poorest nations, with a per capita income averaging only $120 a year. Average life expectancy at birth was only 47 years; the infant mortality rate was 135 per 1000 live births, and famine was a constant threat. The economy of Ethiopia remains heavily dependent on the earnings of the agricultural sector. Participation by the mass of the populace in the monetary economy is limited; much trading is conducted by barter in local markets. The estimated annual budget in the late 1980s included $1.4 billion in revenues, $1.2 billion in current expenditures, and $700 million in development spending.


Traditional agriculture by primitive methods, including the raising of livestock, is the most characteristic form of Ethiopian economic activity. Commercial estates, which are run by the government, supply coffee, cotton, sugar, fruit and vegetables to the nation's processing industries and for exports. Pulses (chickpeas, lentils, haricot beans) and oilseeds are also grown on a commercial scale. Periodic droughts have greatly reduced agricultural output and forced Ethiopia to import basic foodstuffs, while civil war has disrupted the food distribution system.

Despite a government program of diversification, coffee remains the most important commodity on which the economy of Ethiopia depends. About one-fourth of the population is engaged in its production.

In the late 1980s the livestock population included about 31 million cattle, 23.4 million sheep, 17.5 million goats, 57 million poultry birds, and smaller number of horses, mules, donkeys and camels. About one-third of the cattle are oxen used for heavy labor. Sheep and goats are raised primarily for skins and meat.


Although many mineral deposits exit in Ethiopia, thick layers of volcanic lava cover the older ore-bearing rock and render exploitation difficult. Outcroppings of iron, copper, zinc and lead have been mined since ancient times. Small quantities of manganese ore, gold and platinum are mined and deposits of petroleum and natural gas have been found. About 135,000 metric tons of salt were mined annually in the late 1980s. Ethiopia also has considerable untapped deposits of high-quality potash.


Manufacturing is primarily oriented toward the processing of agricultural commodities. The textile industry ranks second to food processing. During the 1960s the gross annual value of manufactured products was accelerated considerably. The industrial base was broadened by the establishment of various metalworking industries and factories for the production of consumer goods and industrial commodities. The principal manufacturing center is Addis Ababa.


Ethiopia has great potential for producing hydroelectricity, and in the late 1980s about 80 percent of its relatively small yearly electricity output was generated by hydroelectric facilities. In the same period the country had a total installed electricity generating capacity of some 363,000 kilowatts, and annual production was about 810 million kilowatt-hours.

Currency and Banking

The Ethiopian birr is issued by the National Bank of Ethiopia (6.35 Ethiopian birr equal U.S. $1; 1997). Other banks in the country include the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia and the Agricultural and Industrial Development Bank.


Ethiopia is primarily an exporter of agricultural products and an importer of consumer and capital goods. In the late 1980s exports amounted to about $429 million, and imports were valued at about $956 million. Coffee accounts for more than 55 percent of all exports and is the most valuable foreign exchange earner. Other important exports are pulses, hides and skins, and oilseeds. Leading trade partners include United States, Germany, and Japan.

Transportation and Communications

The Ethiopian terrain makes land travel difficult. Because many areas are inaccessible by road and others are inadequately served by surface transportation, air transport is of great importance. A government-owned airline company, Ethiopian Airlines, handles both domestic and international air service. International airports serve Addis Ababa, Dire Dawa, and Jimma. The capital is connected by rail with the port of Djibouti, on an inlet of the Gulf of Aden. Ethiopia has about 39,480 km (about 24,530 mi) of roads, of which about 20 percent are paved. Construction of a highway linking Addia Ababa with Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, was completed in the 1970s.

In the late 1980s Ethiopia had about 137,300 telephones; an estimated 2 million radio receivers and 40,000 television sets were in use. The Voice of Revolutionary Ethiopia makes radio broadcasts daily in Amharic, Arabic, Somali, English, and French. Television broadcasting is government controlled.


Between 1974 and 1987, Ethiopia was governed by the Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC), also known as the Dirgue, made up of about 80 people, most of whom were members of the armed forces of police. The council came to power following the deposition of Emperor Haile Selassie I on September 12, 1974, when it suspended the revised constitution of 1955 and disbanded the bicarmeral Parliament. In March 1975 it abolished the hereditary monarchy. The council was headed by a chairman, who was the country's chief government official.

A program published by the council in late 1974 called for the state to play a leading role in the country's economy and in establishing a specifically Ethiopian type of socialism. It also called for the establishment of a single, all-embracing political party. The Union of Ethiopian Marxist-Leninist Organizations was created in 1977 as the sole legal party but was bisbanded soon after. In September 1984 the Workers party, a Communist organization was established as the nation's only legal political group.A new constitution in 1987 established a republic headed by a president, who was indirectly elected to a five year term by the National Shengo, a unicameral assembly.

In 1991 the Marxist government was ousted by two allied rebel movements, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front and the Eritrean People's Liberation Front. Under a provisional charter, an 87-member elected Council of Representatives chose a president to govern Ethiopia, pending general elections in 1993. A separate government was established in Eritrea, and the province was recognised as an independent republic in May 1993. In June 1994 elections were held for the Constituent Assembly and in May 1995 federal and regional elections took place. In August 1995 the 548- member Council of People's Representatives, the federal assembly formally came into operation and the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia was formed. Ato Negaso Gidada was appoined as President and Ato Meles Zenawi was appointed Prime Minisster.


The PMAC and, subsequently, the 1987 constitution retained aspects of the imperial judicial system, including a supreme court, a high court, and various provincial and regional courts. Under the PMAC a special military tribunal was established to try government officials accused of corruption or abuse of power.


In the late 1980s the Ethiopian army had 313,000 members; the air force, 4000; and the navy, 1800. Incorporated in the army is the People's Militia, with about 150,000 members. In the late 1970s and in the 1980s Ethiopia received military equipment from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) to use in fighting rebel forces; Cuban troops were stationed in Ethiopia from 1977 to 1989.


During the first millennium BC, Semitic people from Sheba (Saaba) crossed the Red Sea and conquered the Hamite on the coast of what was eventually to become the Ethiopian Empire. By the 2nd century AD the victors had established the kingdom of Aksum. The Kingdom was ruled by the Solomonid dynasty, so called because the kings claimed direct descent from the biblical king Solomon and the queen of Sheba. Aksum converted to Christianity, belonging to the same tradition as the Coptic Christians of Egypt. It flourished for a while, but beginning in about the seventh century the kingdom declined as the Solomonids lost control of section after section of their realm. Early in the 10th century the Solomonid dynasty was overthrown and replaced by the Zagwe dynasty, the ruling family of a region on the central plateau known as Lasta. Regaining control of the country around or after 1260, the Solomonids gradually succeeded in reasserting their authority over much of Ethiopia, although Muslims retained control of the coastal area and the southeast. During the reign (1434-1468) of Zara Yakub, the administration of the Ethiopian church, which had become divided by factionalism, was reformed, and religious doctrines were codified. At about this time, a political system emerged that lasted until the middle of the 20th century. It was characterized by absolutist monarchs who exacted military service in return for grants of land.

European Influence

When Muslims from Harar invaded Ethiopia beginning about 1527, the emperor, as the ruler was now called, asked the Portuguese for assistance, and with their help the Ethiopians defeated the Muslims in 1542. In 1557, Jesuit missionaries arrived, but their ongoing attempts to convert the Ethiopian emperors from Coptic Christianity to Roman Catholicism were largely unsuccessful, and provoked social and political unrest from those who felt the Coptic Church was the backbone of an independent Ethiopian culture.

In 1632, following a period of turbulence and dynastic confusion, Fasiladas became emperor. He was succeeded by his son, Johannes I, in 1637. The 17th century was one of artistic renaissance for Ethiopian culture, as it was exposed to styles of expression from western Europe and the Muslim world. This was especially true during the reign of Johannes' son, Iyasus I, also known as Iyasus the Great. After succeeding to the crown in 1682, Iyasus became known as the lover of the arts, as well as modernizer and brilliant military tactician. His reign saw the construction of some of Ethiopia's most beautiful religious architecture as well as the re-establishment of governmental authority over several provinces in the south that had succumbed to Muslim and tribal encroachment. After the death of Iyasus in 1706, Ethiopia entered another prolonged period of dynastic confusion and decline, during which the country fractured into separate regions.

The only unifying force that remained throughout this period was the Ethiopian church. Gaining the support of high church officials, a successful brigand from the northwestern frontier, Ras Kassa, had himself crowned Emperor Theodore II in 1855, after having defeated a number of petty feudal type rulers who controlled various sections of the country. Later, when Theodor imprisoned some British officials for conspiring against him, the British dispatched an expeditionary force to Ethiopia, and the emperor committed suicide in 1868 rather than be taken prisoner. After a four-year struggle for the throne by various claimants, Dejaz Kassai, governor of the province of Tigre, succeeded, with the British aid, in being crowned Johannes IV, emperor of Ethiopia.

In the 1870s the main external enemy of the empire, which was still little more than a collection of semi-independent states, was Egypt. In 1875 the Egyptian khedive Ismail Pasha extended Egyptian protection to the Muslim ruler of Harar and launched an attack on Ethiopia from both the north and the east. John IV successfully halted the Egyptian invasion, but the continued occupation by Egypt of the Red Sea and Somali ports severely curtailed the supply of arms and other goods to Ethiopia. Johannes was killed defending his western frontier against the Sudanese in 1889. He was succeeded by Menelik II, who established a new capital at Addis Ababa and succeeded in uniting the provinces of Tigre and Amhara with Shoa.

The Italo-Ethiopian Wars

With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the Red Sea coast had become increasingly attractive to the European powers as an object for colonization. Italy focused its attention on Ethiopia, seizing Assab in 1872 and Massawa in 1885. In 1889 Menelik and the Italians signed the Treaty of Wichale (Ucciali). The treaty was one of friendship and cooperation, but the Amharic and Italian versions of it differed, and the Italians claimed that it made all of Ethiopia their protectorate. As a result, war broke out between Italy and Ethiopia in 1895, and Italian forces were decisively defeated at Adwa (Adowa) the following year. Italy was forced to recognize the independence of Ethiopia, and Menelik's present-day boundaries. The successor of Menelik, Emperor Lij Iyasu (reigned 1913-1916), was deposed in favor of his aunt, crowned Empress Zauditu. Ras Tafari Mekonen, her cousin, was selected as heir apparent; he succeeded to the throne as Haile Selassie I. In 1931 he granted Ethiopia its first constitution.

With the rise of the dictator Benito Mussolini, Italian designs towards Ethiopia were revived, and in October 1935 Italy invaded the country. An attempt by the League of Nations to halt the conquest failed. Addis Ababa fell to the invaders, and in May 1936 Mussolini proclaimed Italy's King Victor Emmanuel III emperor of Ethiopia. Haile Selassie was forced to flee the country and take refuge in England, but he was restored to the throne by British and Ethiopian forces in 1941.

The Later Reign of Haile Selassie

According to the terms of the Allied peace treaty with Italy, signed in 1947, agreement was to be reached within a year on the disposition of the former Italian colonies of Eritrea, Italian Somaliland, and Libya. In the absence of such an agreement, however, the decision was left to the United Nations (UN). The UN General Assembly voted for the federation of Eritrea with Ethiopia, to be completed by September 1952.

In 1955 Haile Selassie issued a revised constitution, which was a half-hearted attempt to move the country into the 20th century. For example it gave certain limited powers to the Parliament. Progressive elements in the country, however, felt it was insufficient. After an unsuccessful attempt by members of the imperial guard to overthrow Haile Selassie in December 1960, the Emperor increased government efforts towards economic development and social reform.

As the 1960s progressed, Haile Selassie became increasingly preoccupied with foreign affairs. In 1963, he played a leading role in the formation of the Organization of African Unity, which located its secretariat at Addis Ababa. During the following year a long-standing border dispute between Ethiopia and the Somali Republic erupted into armed warfare. A truce, agreed to in March, established a demilitarized zone along the border, but hostilities recurred sporadically. Trouble also arose in 1965 with Sudan, which Ethiopia accused of abetting an Eritrean independence movement. The conflict intensified when 7000 Eritreans fled to Sudan in 1967 because of Ethiopian military reprisals against the secessionists. In December 1970 the government declared a state of siege in parts of Eritrea. The move failed, however, to end the guerrilla warfare.

In the early 1970s Haile Selassie continued to play a major role in international affairs, helping to meditate disputes between Senegal and Guinea, Tanzania and Uganda, and northern and southern Sudan. Nevertheless, he largely ignored urgent domestic problems: the great inequality in the distribution of wealth, rural underdevelopment, corruption in government, rampant inflation, unemployment, and a severe drought in the north duing 1972-1875.

The Mengistu Regime

In February 1974 students, workers, and soldiers began a series of strikes and demonstrations that culminated on September 12, 1974, with the deposition of Haile Selassie by members of the armed forces. A group called the Provisional Military Administrative Council, or Dirgue, was established to run the country, and in late 1974 it issued a program calling for the establishment of a state-controlled socialist economy. In early 1975 all agricultural land was nationalized, and much of it was soon parceled out in small plots to individuals. In March 1975 the monarchy was abolished, and Ethiopia became a republic.

During 1976-1977, Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam emerged as the country's chief political figure; his position was consolidated in early 1977 when several top leaders of the Dirgue were killed, reportedly on his orders. But Mengistu's regime continued to be strongly opposed by students, by political factions, and by two secessionist mopvements-in the Ogaden region of southwestern Ethiopia and in Eritrea. In the Ogaden, Somali-speaking inhabitants sought to unite the largely barren region with adjacent Somalia. The long standing conflict escalated in mid 1977 and, with considerable help from Somalia, the secessionists soon won control of most of the Ogaden. The Ethiopian government subsequently received large-scale military aid (including troops from Cuba and advisers from the USSR), which enabled it to make gains against the rebels,but resistance to its authority continued. Meanwhile, a government program to reduce poverty and boost economic growth was stalled by recurrent drought and constant famine. In September 1984, Ethiopia became a Communist state, with Mengistu as secretary-general of the newly established Workers party. The nation changed its name to the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia in 1987, under a new constitution that ostensibly established a civilian government; the national legislature elected Mengistu president. The protracted civil war and the government's mistrust of Westerners hampered worldwide efforts to provide food and medical aid to the beleaguered country throughout the 1980s.

As the 1990s began, a drastic cutback in Soviet aid left Mengistu's government vulnerable. Two allied rebel movements, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), based in Tigre, and the separatist Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) gained control of the northern provinces in 1990. In May 1991, Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe; more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews or Falashas, were airlifted out of Addis Ababa by Israel just before the rebel forces entered the city. The EPRDF, led by Meles Zenawi, set up a national transitional government. The EPLF established a provisional government in Eritrea. After voters proved secession in 1993, Eritrea declared its independence, and Ethiopia recognized the new government.