Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Unless you count Mussolini, who conquered the country and held it for about five years, Ethiopia is the only country in Africa never to have been colonised. The second largest population in Africa, it was ruled by a monarchy until the army overthrew it in 1974. It has its own version of Christianity, called the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and when it was still called Abyssinia (why would anyone name their country after an abyss? Rename California as Cataclysmia for its fault-lines, or maybe those Emirates in the Middle East should be called the gulf states…) it played a key role in the establishment of Islam (when Mohammed was under attack in Mecca, he sent many of his followers, including Abu Bakr, into exile in Abyssinia). 

A founding member of the United Nations too, and the African base for innumerable international bodies. It used to include Eritrea, but lost that in a civil war. It was ruled for a very long time by Emperor Haile Selassie, in whose name and divinity Rastafari was founded.

The recent history of Ethiopia is one of droughts, famines, wars, bad government, military coups and coffee; sadly it has no oil. Virtually no books either – two-thirds of the population are illiterate, though that is a government figure, so it could be higher, especially as two-thirds of the population are deemed to be innumerate as well. Total dependency on food aid, and two million people (yes, that number really is correct) forced to move out of their homes in the highlands, because nothing grows there, except coffee, which is not good to eat, however pleasant it may be to drink. I mentioned Islam, and deliberately. What happened a millennium and a half ago is being repeated now, in neighbouring Somalia mostly; the Ethiopians sent troops to help stop the Islamist radicals, then pulled them out in 2009, a tactical retreat if you like, a pragmatic realignment if you insist, a heroic victory if you read the government communiques. There is also an on-going civil war in the Ogaden region, where the Ogaden National Liberation Front is demanding a separate state. In spite of its significant Moslem population, making up about 30% of the total, the country is still Christian, and politically stable; but then Jesus was born in a stable, and look at all the trouble that caused.

Literacy and numeracy are extremely high, by contrast, in the offices of Human Rights Watch, whose most recent report notes that "hopes that Ethiopia’s new leadership would pursue human rights reforms following Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s death in August 2012 have been shattered; there was no tangible change of policy in 2013. Instead, the Ethiopian authorities continue to severely restrict the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, using repressive laws to constrain civil society and independent media, and target individuals with politically motivated prosecutions."

And then there is the Omo Valley, home to about a quarter of a million people, who still follow the same tribal lifestyle they have done since homo sapiens evolved from the simian, precisely in this part of Africa. If the Ethiopian government gets its way - and generally it does because opponents, or even critical bloggers, are usually jailed - the Omo Valley will soon disappear under water, replaced by a vast reservoir.

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