The thought of Ethiopia conjures up the picture of an old empire of ancient kingdom in the Horn of Africa and home to a great civilisation. From 1270-1974, Ethiopia was one of only three great empires in the entire world, the other two being the Japanese and Persian empires.
The nation is often mentioned alongside Liberia, as one of the only two countries in Africa that escaped the yoke of colonialism. This is true, albeit partially. The Ethiopian empire once boasted of a strong army that was able to repel many intruders from Europe to the Middle East. Italy suffered a crushing defeat in the first Italo-Ethiopian war (1895 to 1896), regarded as one of the greatest battles in the history of Africa. Benito Mussolini’s Italy, however, re-invaded Abyssinia as it was then also called, in October 1935, resulting in her subjection to Italian rule as part of Italian East Africa and forced Emperor Haile Selassie into exile. But just five years later and with the help of the British army, the Italians were again sent parking and the Emperor returned to the capital in May 1941.
Over the ages, the nation of Ethiopia has undergone transformation from the biblical kingdom of Aksum, through the reign of emperors and to a Federal Democratic Republic. In 1974, Mengistu Haile Mariam, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Ethiopian army seized power in a military coup and deposed Emperor Haile Selassie marking the end of the Solomonic dynasty which had ruled Ethiopia since the 13th century.
Mengistu’s Marxist-Leninist leaning government ushered in a period known as the Red terror characterised by a brutal crackdown on opposition groups and civilians. He lasted from 1976-1985 and about 500,000 people were estimated to have been killed by his communist regime.
As a consequence of his dictatorship, pockets of militia groups popped up all across the country and a civil war ensured. Two of the strongest militias that emerged out of that crisis were the Tigrayan People Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Eritrean People Liberation Front (EPLF). But following the overthrow of Mengistu in 1991, Eritrea declared independence, leaving the TPLF to become the most powerful force in Ethiopia.
TPFL would later join forces with others militia groups to form a coalition known as the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) that went on to rule the country for about 30 years. The coalition effectively converted Ethiopia to a one-party state and because TPLF was the main faction, the country effectively was in the hands of the Tigrayans, an ethnic group of predominantly Christian Orthodox in northern Ethiopia, even though they constitute only about 6% of the country’s population. Meles Zenawi, a Tigrayan was the Prime Minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia from 1995-2012.
Post Mengistu, the new government started off well. Over time, however, the TPFL-dominated government became repressive, was accused of curtailing press freedom, election irregularities and in 1998 started a war with Eritrea. Eventually, frustration started to build and boiled over with mass protests in 2017, forcing the TPLF Prime Minister to resign. The man chosen to replace him was Abiy Ahmed, the current Prime Minister.
Abiy Ahmed from the Oromo Democratic Party faction of the EPRDF coalition became the leader of the party. That would be the first time a non-Tigrayan and a non-TPFL would lead the party. He was, however, hugely popular and was believed to be a safe choice even by the TPLF. He was also seen as young, dynamic, reform-minded and spoke eloquently about the need for national reconciliation. One of his most significant achievements so far, was to end the two decades of Ethiopian-Eritrean war which earned him the Nobel peace Prize.
Abiy’s government was moving in a positive direction, cracking down on corrupt TPLF officials, gave the press more freedom and released a bunch of political prisoners. As time went on, however, there was a resurgence of ethnic tension that has often characterised Ethiopian politics. In order to have a party with national outlook instead of an ethnic one with tribal allegiance, he started a brand new party known as the Prosperity Party and invited others including the TPFL to join. The TPLF saw it as the Prime Minister wanting to consolidate his powers and shunned the coalition. They instead, embraced the opposition.
Ethiopia was headed for an election but in June 2020, Prime Minister Abiy acting in concert with the National Election Board of Ethiopia made the decision to postpone the election due to Covid-19 pandemic, a move which opposition accused him of finding a convenient excuse to cancel the election. The Tigrayans then went a step further, defied the government and held their own election. Tension built up and on November 4th, 2020, Abyi announced that Tigrayan forces attacked a military base and stated that the government was being forced to respond militarily. The rest is the conflagration being witnessed today.
Since the conflict started in November 2020, the death toll has continued to rise exponentially and an estimated 16-50,000 people died in 2021 alone.
Today, a coalition of rebel troops are closing in on the nation’s capital of Addis Ababa. The war has plunged this East African nation into humanitarian crisis and the UN estimates about 400,000 already experiencing famine. But I digress.
In the 1930’s, the African Diaspora in Jamaica were feeling oppressed within Western society (Babylon) and yearned to someday return to the Promised Land (Zion). This Promised Land is located in the first century ancient Kingdom of Aksum but what is today northern Ethiopia, Eritrea and eastern part of Sudan. Rastafarianism was formed as both a new religion and a social movement with an Afrocentric focus. Bob Marley, the reggae icon helped popularise it.
Born Ras Tafari Makonnen on July 23rd, 1892, many in the movement regard Ethiopia’s last Emperor, Haile Selassie as the true prophet or “Jah” incarnate. Rastafarians adopted the flag that was used during his reign from 1930 to 1974 that combined the symbol of the Ethiopian monarchy’s green, gold, and red with a conquering lion of Judah.
Both for her rich history that rivaled the ancient Greek and recent status as a developing economy, Ethiopia held out hope and promise for a beleaguered continent in a desperate search for role models. It’s no secret that Africa is home to the poorest countries of the world burdened by turbulent pasts and bloody wars.
With Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in power, Ethiopia was the fastest-growing non-oil-dependent African economy in the years 2007 and 2008. It also became a hub for light manufacturing in Africa, posting an economic growth of over 10% and averaged a GDP of 10.9%.
Ethiopian Airline has been consistently rated number one in Africa and with a fleet size of 130 aircraft, ranks 4th in the world going by the number of countries served.
The current crisis is an ill wind that blows no one any good and has the potential to reverse all the gains made over the years. All stakeholders including the African Union which coincidentally is headquartered in the nation’s capital of Addis Ababa and the United Nations should as a matter of urgency rein in on the warring parties to stop the violence. This open sore shouldn’t be allowed to fester.
•Dr. Agbo, a public affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: [email protected]