Country profile: ethiopia


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A Report Prepared by the Federal Research Division,

Library of Congress

under an Interagency Agreement with the

Department of Defense

April 2005
Researchers: LaVerle B. Berry

Benjamin S. Flowers
Project Manager: Sandra W. Meditz

Federal Research Division

Library of Congress

Washington, D.C. 20540-4840

Tel: 202-707-3900

Fax: 202-707-3920



1 57 Years of Service to the Federal Government

1948 – 2005


This Country Profile is one in a series of profiles of foreign nations prepared as part of the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. After a hiatus of several years, the program was revived in FY2004 with Congressionally mandated funding under the sponsorship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Strategic Plans and Policy Directorate (J-5). Country Profiles, offering brief, summarized information on a country’s historical background, geography, society, economy, transportation and telecommunications, government and politics, and national security, have long been and will continue to be featured in the front matter of published Country Studies. In addition, however, they are now being prepared as stand-alone reference aides for all countries in the series (as well as a number of additional countries of interest) in order to offer readers reasonably current country information independent of the existence of a recently published Country Study. Country Profiles will be updated annually (or more frequently as events warrant) and mounted on the Library of Congress Federal Research Division website at They will also be revised as part of the preparation of new Country Studies and will be included in published volumes.

April 2005

Formal Name: Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (Ityop’iya Federalawi Demokrasiyawi Ripeblik).
Short Form: Ethiopia.
Term for Citizen(s): Ethiopian(s).
Capital: Addis Ababa.
Major Cities: Addis Ababa, Dire Dawa, Nazret, Harer, Mekele, Jima, Dese, Bahir Dar, and Debre Zeyit (in order of decreasing size, 1994 census).
Independence: Ethiopia celebrates May 28 as its National Day, the date of the defeat of the military government (Derg) in 1991.
Public Holidays: Ethiopians observe the following public holidays: Christmas (January 7, 2005*); Epiphany (January 19, 2005*); Feast of the Sacrifice/Eid al Adha (January 21, 2005*); Battle of Adowa (March 2, 2005); Birth of the Prophet/Mouloud (April 21, 2005*); Good Friday (April 29, 2005*); May Day (May 1, 2005); Easter Monday (May 2, 2005*); Patriots’ Victory Day (May 5, 2005); Downfall of the Derg (May 28, 2005); New Year’s Day (September 11, 2005*); Feast of the True Cross (September 27, 2005*); End of Ramadan/Eid al Fitr (November 4, 2005*). Asterisks indicate holidays with variable dates according to either the Islamic or Orthodox calendar.

Calendar: Ethiopia uses a solar calendar, which divides the year into 12 months of 30 days each, the remaining five days (six in a leap year) constituting a short thirteenth month. The Ethiopian New Year commences on September 11 in the Gregorian (Western) calendar and ends on the following September 10. In addition, the Ethiopian calendar runs eight years behind the Gregorian (seven years from September 11 to December 31). Hence, the Ethiopian year 1997 began on September 11, 2004, and will end on September 10, 2005, in the Gregorian calendar.



Click to Enlarge Image
thiopia’s flag has three equal horizontal bands of green (top), yellow,

and red with a yellow pentagram and single yellow rays emanating from

the angles between the points on a light blue disk centered on the three

bands. Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Africa, and the three

main colors of the flag were so often adopted by other African countries

on independence that they became known as the pan-African colors.


Prehistory and Aksum: Archaeologists have discovered remains of early hominids in Ethiopia’s Rift Valley, including Australopithecus afarensis, or “Lucy,” thought to be 3.5 million years old. By ca. 7000 B. C., Cushitic- and Omotic-speaking peoples were present in Ethiopia, after which further linguistic diversification gave rise to peoples who spoke Agew, Sidamo, Somali, Oromo, and numerous Omotic tongues. Initially hunters and gathers, these peoples eventually domesticated indigenous plants, including the grasses teff and eleusine, and ensete, a root crop, kept cattle and other animals, and established agricultural patterns of livelihood that were to be characteristic of the region into contemporary times. By at least the late first millennium B. C., it appears, the Agew occupied much of the northern highlands, whereas the Sidama inhabited the central and southern highlands. Both played important roles in subsequent historical developments.

During the first millennium B. C., Sabaeans from southwest Arabia migrated across the Red Sea and settled in the extreme northern plateau. They brought with them their Semitic speech and writing system and a knowledge of stone architecture. The Sabaeans settled among the Agew and created a series of small political units that by the beginning of the Christian era had been incorporated into the Aksumite Empire, with its capital at Aksum. The Aksumite empire was a trading state that dominated the Red Sea and commerce between the Nile Valley and Arabia and between the Roman Empire and India. Centered in the highlands of present-day Eritrea and Tigray, it stretched at its height from the Nile Valley in Sudan to Southwest Arabia. The Aksumites used Greek as a trading language, but a new Semitic language, Ge’ez, arose that is thought to be at least indirectly ancestral to modern Amharic and Tigrinya. The Aksumites also constructed stone palaces and public buildings, erected large funerary oblelisks, and minted coins. In the early fourth century, Christianity was introduced in its Byzantine Orthodox guise. Although it took centuries before Christianity gained a firm hold, in time Orthodoxy became the embodiment of Ethiopian identity. During the seventh century A.D., Aksum began a long decline. By the eleventh century, the political center of the kingdom had shifted southward into Agau territory, and a non-Aksumite dynasty, the Zagwe, had assumed control. Aksum faded, but it bequeathed to its successors its Semitic language, Christianity, and the concept of a multi-ethnic empire-state ruled by a “king of kings.”

The Medieval Period: From Aksumite times, there began a process of cultural and lingustic fusion between the northern Semites and the indigenous Agew that was to continue over the course of a millennium. This process gave rise to northern Christianized Agew, who formed themselves into the Tigray and Amhara ethnic groups. The Zagwe placed their capital, Lalibala, far south of Aksum and constructed there and elsewhere across their domains a remarkable ensemble of rock-hewn churches. In the late thirteenth century, an Amhara dynasty moved the center of the kingdom still farther south into Shewa in the southernmost part of the northern highlands. During the succeeding centuries, the Amhara kingdom, a military state, was often at war either with Sidama kingdoms to the west or with Muslim principalities to the east.
About 1529 a Muslim Afar-Somali army overran the highlands, and during the 1530s nearly succeeded in destroying the Amhara-Tigray state and Christianity. At almost the same time, the Oromo were in the midst of a decades-long migration from their homeland in the far southern lowlands. The Oromo moved north through the southern highlands, bypasssing the Sidama on the west, and into the central highlands, where they settled in the center and west on land, some of which had formerly belonged to the Amhara. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Jesuits arrived to minister to Portuguese soldiers who had helped defeat the Muslims in the early 1540s and who had remained in the kingdom. As part of their mission, however, the Jesuits attempted to convert the Orthodox Ethiopians to Roman Catholicism. They met with some initial success before their crusade set off a religious civil war in the late 1620s that led to their expulsion and an attempt to keep out all “Franks,” as the Ethiopians called Europeans.

Early Modern Times: An era of reconsolidation and cultural flowering ensued during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries following the founding of a new capital at Gondar. The monarchy eventually become a pawn of regional warlords, however, and it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that Tewodros II reunited the kingdom and sought to restore the power of the throne. Most scholars trace the origins of the modern history of Ethiopia to his reign. Menilek II (1889–1913) defeated the Italians in 1896 when they sought to invade Ethiopia, although he allowed them to retain the frontier province facing the Red Sea, which they named Eritrea. Menilek, in turn, sent armies to conquer the southern highlands and surrounding lowlands, annexing them to the traditional Amhara-Tigray kingdom to create the present-day nation-state of Ethiopia with its capital at Addis Ababa. He also opened the country to Western influence and technology, for example, by establishing diplomatic relations with several European powers and by authorizing construction of a railway from Addis Ababa to Djibouti on the Red Sea.

After serving as regent, Tafari Makonnen, a cousin of Menilek, ascended the throne in 1930 as Emperor Haile Selassie I. French-educated and aware of Ethiopia’s backwardness, he began to introduce various Western-inspired reforms, but these changes were hardly underway before war broke out with Italy in October 1935. The emperor’s dramatic appeal for assistance in mid-1936 before the League of Nations, of which Ethiopia was a member, went unanswered. Italian colonization lasted from 1936 to 1941. The Italians never controlled large parts of the countryside and at times ruled harshly. Nonetheless, they constructed public buildings, built a rudimentary road system throughout the country, and in general sought to modernize the country.
The Post-World War II Era: After the war, Haile Selassie pursued a policy of centralization, but he also continued to introduce change in areas such as public education, the army, and government administration. The slow pace of his reform efforts, however, fostered discontent that led to an attempted coup in 1960. In early 1974, a mutiny among disgruntled lower-ranking army officers set a process in motion that led to the fall of the imperial government. The mutineers were joined by urban groups disappointed by the slow pace of economic and political reforms and aroused by the impact of a devastating famine that the government failed to acknowledge or address. Over a period of several months, the rebellious officers arrested the emperor’s ministers and associates, and in September removed the emperor himself. A group of junior military officers, soon known as the Derg (“committee” in Amharic), then assumed power and initiated a 17-year period of military rule.

The Derg pursued a socialist agenda but governed in military style, and it looked to the Soviet Union as a model and for military support. It nationalized rural and urban land and placed local control in the hands of citizen committees; it also devised controversial policies of peasant resettlement in response to another devastating drought in 1984–85 and of “villagization,” ostensibly to improve security. A Somali invasion in 1977–78 to capture the Somali-inhabited southeast lowlands was repulsed with Soviet aid, but thereafter resistance against the Derg arose in all parts of the country, most notably in the north. In Eritrea the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) pursued a campaign against the 1962 annexation and eventually sought separation from Ethiopia. In Tigre, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) sought regional autonomy and the overthrow of the Derg. In the late 1980s, the TPLF and other Ethiopian ethnically based resistance groups formed the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), and, together with the EPLF, administered defeats on a demoralized Ethiopian army that led to the collapse of the Derg in May 1991.

The EPRDF Regime: The EPRDF coalition set up a provisional administration in Addis Ababa under the TPLF’s leader, Meles Zenawi. The Oromo Liberation Front and the (Somali) Ogaden National Liberation Front soon withdrew and resorted once more to armed insurgency. In April 1993, the Eritreans voted for independence, a decision the TPLF leadership and many Ethiopians reluctantly accepted. The EPRDF committed itself to multi-party democracy and to economic reconstruction, for which it relied on international donor assistance. The constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia was adopted in 1994. National elections in 1995 and 2000 produced EPRDF victories but were widely boycotted by opposition parties. Meles Zenawi has remained effective head of government. From 1998 to 2000, Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a bitter war over their common border. Despite international arbitration, the status of the border in mid-2005 remained stalemated and relations between the two nations, hostile.

Click to Enlarge Image

Location: Ethiopia is located in eastern Africa in the southern Red

Sea region. It borders Sudan on the west, Eritrea on the north,

Djibouti and Somalia on the east, and Kenya on the south.
Size: The total area of the country is 1,127,127 square kilometers.
Land Boundaries: Ethiopia’s borders total 5,328 kilometers. Bordering countries are: Djibouti (349 kilometers), Eritrea (912 kilometers), Kenya (861 kilometers), Somalia (1,600 kilometers), and Sudan (1,606 kilometers).

Disputed Territory: The border between Ethiopia and Eritrea has never been precisely demarcated. Between 1998 and 2000, the two countries fought a war over the issue, which involves quite small enclaves along the northern segment of their border, including the tiny village of Badme and the enclave of the Irob people. In 2002 an international boundary commission delimited the border. Although both nations agreed to accept its decision, Ethiopia has refused to accept the commission’s findings in full, much to the consternation of the Eritrean government. The central section of Ethiopia’s border with Somalia also has never been fully demarcated and is only provisional. Questions remain about the precise location of small parcels along the border with Sudan as well.

Length of Coastline: Ethiopia is landlocked, having surrendered its Red Sea coastline to newly independent Eritrea in May 1993.
Maritime Claims: None.
Topography: Ethiopia’s topography consists of a central high plateau bisected by the Ethiopian segment of the Great Rift Valley into northern and southern highlands and surrounded by lowlands, more extensive on the east and southeast than on the south and west. The plateau varies from 1,500 to 3,000 meters above sea level and features mountainous uplands separated by deep gorges and river valleys, especially in the north. The highest point is Ras Dashen at 4,620 meters in the northern highlands. In the east, the Denakil Depression, part of the Rift Valley, is in places 115 meters below sea level and is one of the hottest places on earth. A chain of lakes lie in the southern Rift Valley, but the largest inland body of water is Lake Tana in the northwest. The diversity of Ethiopia’s terrain determines regional variations in climate, natural vegetation, soil composition, and settlement patterns.
Principal Rivers: All of Ethiopia’s rivers originate in the highlands and drain into the surrounding lowlands. The Abay (Blue Nile), Ethiopia’s largest river, the Tekezé, and the Baro flow west into the Nile River in Sudan, the Blue Nile contributing some two-thirds of the Nile’s volume below Khartoum. The Awash flows east through the northern Rift Valley and disappears into saline lakes in the Denakil Depression. In the south, the Genale and Shebele flow southeastward into Somalia; the Omo drains the southwest and empties into Lake Turkana on the border with Kenya.

Climate: Rainfall and temperature patterns vary widely because of Ethiopia’s location in the tropics and its diverse topography. In general, the highlands above 1,500 meters enjoy a pleasant, temperate climate, with daytime temperatures between 16°C and 30°C and cool nights. In areas below 1,500 meters, such as large river valleys, the Denakil Depression, the Ogaden in the southeast, and parts of the southern and western borderlands, daytime temperatures range from very warm (30°C) to torrid (upwards of 50°C), sometimes accompanied by high humidity. Precipitation is determined by differences in elevation and by seasonal shifts in monsoon winds. The highlands receive by far the most rainfall, most of it between mid-June and mid-September, whereas lower elevations receive much less. In general, relative humidity and rainfall decrease from south to north and vary from scant to negligible in the eastern and southeastern lowlands.

Natural Resources: Ethiopia has small reserves of gold, platinum, copper, potash, and natural gas. It has extensive hydropower potential.
Land Use: Of the total land area, about 20 percent is under cultivation, although the amount of potentially arable land is larger. Only about 10 to 15 percent of the land area is presently covered by forest as a result of rapid deforestation during the last 30 years. Of the remainder, a large portion is used as pasturage. Some land is too rugged, dry, or infertile for agriculture or any other use.
Environmental Factors: The Great Rift Valley is geologically active and susceptible to earthquakes. Hot springs and active volcanoes are found in its extreme east close to the Red Sea. Elsewhere, the land is subject to erosion, overgrazing, deforestation, and frequent droughts. Water shortages are common in some areas during the dry season.
Time Zone: Local time in Ethiopia is Greenwich Mean Time plus three hours.


Population: As of early 2004, the United Nations estimated Ethiopia’s population at more than 70 million and growing at rates estimated as between 2.1 and 2.5 percent per year. Density averaged about 62 people per square kilometer but varied widely from region to region. The population is concentrated in the northern and southern highlands, the lowlands in the southeast, south, and west for the most part being far more sparsely inhabited. Only about 15 percent of the population is urbanized, making Ethiopia one of the least urbanized countries in the world. There is little internal migration, but the government is in the midst of relocating some 2 million highland farmers to land at lower elevations to address problems of population pressure and exhausted farming plots, a plan similar to the much larger relocation effort that the military government undertook in the 1980s for the same reasons. During the last three decades, tens of thousands of Ethiopians, many young and educated, have emigrated to Europe and the United States. At the end of 2003, Ethiopia was host to some 112,000 refugees, most of them Sudanese, whereas an estimated 19,000 Ethiopians were refugees or seekers of asylum, most of them residing in Kenya, Europe, or the United States.

Demography: According to the U.S. Population Reference Bureau, in 2003 the number of births per 1,000 population was 41, the number of deaths, 18. The infant mortality rate per 1,000 live births was 104.5. Life expectancy at birth was 46 years (47 years for females, 45 years for males). According to the United Nations Population Division, Ethiopia’s population in 2000 fell into the following age-groups: ages 1–14, 45.9 percent; ages 15–59, 49.5 percent; and ages 60 and older, 4.6 percent, making Ethiopia a typical sub-Saharan country with a large proportion of its population under 15 years of age and a large proportion of women within the reproductive years of 15–49 years of age. For the years 2000–2005, the average number of children per woman was estimated at 6.1.
Ethnic Groups and Languages: Ethnic classification in Ethiopia is difficult because people categorized on the basis of one criterion, such as language, may be divided on the basis of another, such as ethnic identity. Language, however, often is used to classify various groups of peoples. At least 70 languages are spoken as mother tongues, but several predominate. Most belong to the Semitic, Cushitic, or Omotic families of the larger Afro-Asiatic super-language family; a small number belong to the Nilo-Saharan family of languages. The largest Semitic-speaking groups are the Amhara, who speak Amharic, formerly the official language that is still quite widely used, and who constitute perhaps 25 percent of the population; and the Tigray, who speak Tigrinya and account for perhaps 14 percent of Ethiopia’s people. The Amhara occupy the center of the northern highlands, the Tigray, the far north. Both are plow agriculturalists. Smaller groups include the Gurague, Hareri, and Argobba.

Cushitic-speakers include a large number of groups, most of whom live in the southern highlands. Among them is the largest and most widespread of all of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups—the Oromo, perhaps 40 percent of the population, who live in the center-west and in the central southern highlands. Some are agriculturalists and others pastoralists. The Oromo language consists of a number of dialects. The Somali occupy the southeastern lowlands; they are pastoralists and are organized into clans and lineages. North of the Somali are the Afar or Denakil, pastoralists who inhabit the hot lowlands between the Red Sea and the northern highlands. In the southwest southern highlands are several groups who speak related languages sometimes called Sidamo languages. The largest of these are the Sidama and the Hadya-Libido, cultivators of ensete and coffee. Finally, in the northern highlands are several small groups known as the Agew, Cushitic-speaking agriculturalists who successfully preserved their ethnic identity in the face of Amhara acculturation during the last two millennia. In 1970 they numbered upwards of 125,000. Among these Agew-speakers are the Awi, Kimant, and Beta Israel (Felasha).

In the far southwest on both sides of the Omo River are perhaps 80 groups of Omotic-speakers, of whom the Welamo are the most numerous. They are hoe cultivators; some specialize in craftwork and weaving. In the far southwest and western borderlands with Sudan are groups who speak Nilo-Saharan languages. They are hoe cultivators and cattle keepers. In the south are the Anuak and the Nuer, who are the most numerous. Farther north are smaller groups, such as the Gumuz and the Berta, and, in western Tigray, the Kunema.

Religion: No reliable statistics exist on religious affiliation in Ethiopia. Still, clearly, by far the largest faiths are Orthodox Christianity and Islam. Each is thought to constitute perhaps 40 to 45 percent of the population. Orthodoxy was introduced to the ancient Aksumites from the Byzantine world in about 340 A. D., thereafter slowly spreading southward into the northern highlands. Islam was introduced a few centuries later by merchants from Arabia to peoples along the Red Sea coast, spreading thereafter into the center and south. Orthodoxy is most strongly represented among the Tigray and Amhara, Islam among the Somali, Afar, Oromo, particularly those in the southern highlands, Gurague, and Sidama in the southwest. Merchants in major towns also tend to be Muslims. In the east and to an extent in the south, Muslim peoples surround Orthodox Christians. Protestants number perhaps 11 million, constituting up to 10 percent of the population. Smaller groups include Roman Catholics (about 500,000), Eastern Rite Catholics, and Ethiopian Jews (Felasha). A large number of foreign missionaries are active, especially in the south and southwest borderlands. Some Ethiopians still adhere to traditional religious practices and beliefs.

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