History and Characteristics of Transformation
Ethiopia in its present form – with 82 million inhabitants living in a multicultural federal state consisting of nine culturally diverse regions and two city administrations – is the outcome of the expansionist politics pursued by the Amharic-speaking people of the central highlands since the 19th century. Emperor Menelik II (1889 – 1913) conquered several ethnic groups, tribes and fertile regions south of “Abyssinia” (i.e., the highlands in the north, inhabited by Christian Amharic- and Tigray-speaking highlanders), among them the Oromo- and Somali-speaking peoples. A total of 64 ethnic groups are recognized by the state, with the Oromo, with around 20 million people, the most numerous ethnic group. A forceful nation-building process started rather recently, but has to date failed to bridge the socioeconomic gap between north and south. Ethnic clashes and religious tensions continue primarily in the south, continuing a recurrent pattern of conflict over borders, land and water resources between ethno-linguistic groups. In 2009, for example, this conflict led to hundreds of people being killed and tens of thousands displaced. An Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) remains active against the central government, fighting for political secession of “Oromiya.”
The roots of a modern state were laid by Menelik, who repelled an Italian invasion in 1896 in the battle of Adwa, thus sparing his country the experience of colonialism. The process of Ethiopia’s modernization started under Emperor Haile Selassie (1930 – 1974) and continued under the successive regimes of socialist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam (1974 – 1991) and the current multiparty EPRDF government under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a strong authoritarian leader.
Emperor Haile Selassie annexed Eritrea in 1962, triggering the formation of an Eritrean liberation movement that won the struggle against Ethiopia after 30 years of war that proved devastating to both sides. Eritrea gained its independence as a sovereign state through a referendum in 1993. In 1974, the senile Haile Selassie (who had paid little attention to a severe famine in 1971 – 1974, when more than 1 million peasants starved to death) was overthrown by a coup of army officers and later killed. A Provisional Military Administration Council (Derg in Amharaic) under Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam took power, establishing a brutal regime that lasted until 1991.
More than 100,000 people were killed during the Derg period (the so-called red terror), and many more were driven into exile in the United States and Western Europe. Among the victims were many students and intellectuals who were in favor of a modern democratic state. In 1977, the new leadership proclaimed Ethiopia to be a socialist state, nationalizing land and real estate.
When the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), under the leadership of Meles Zenawi, won the war of liberation against the Derg government (Mengistu fled into exile in Zimbabwe), the new government had to cope with a threefold transition: the transition from civil war to a lasting comprehensive peace; a political transition from totalitarian dictatorship to pluralistic multiparty democracy, which was a conditio sine qua non for foreign aid; and finally a transition from a socialist planned economy to a capitalist market economy able to withstand competition within globalized markets. Since that time, some remarkable results with regard to economic recovery and institutional rebuilding have been achieved.
Ethiopia today remains a poor landlocked multiethnic country, which has been dominated for 20 years by a single ethnic minority group, represented by the TPLF. This party has sought remain in power no matter what the cost, increasingly intimidating opponents and harassing opposition politicians. Since the first elections in 1995, the coalition of political parties making up the EPRDF has maintained its monopoly on the use of force across the country. However, some armed resistance against the government still exists in the south and among militant sections of the Oromo and Somali.