In 2019, the new prime minister of Ethiopia received the Nobel Peace Prize.  Less than a year later much of the international community condemned his military action against a part of his own nation.  As the African nation with the longest history of independent existence and a potential model for others, what explains these seemingly contradictory events?  Join Active Minds as we explore Ethiopia’s long and fascinating history, its current challenges, and consider the future for this nation of over 100 million.

Key Lecture Points

  • Ethiopia is not only a cradle of human civilization; it the home of the human race: a treasure trove of fossils that provide evidence of the earliest ancestors of present day humans.  As such, they provide much insight into the way humans evolved from various species that existed millions of years ago.
  • From those prehistoric origins, the peoples that arose in this area were shaped by their position at crossroads between the Sahara, sub-Saharan Africa, the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and Indian ocean.  They were also influenced in different ways by their proximity to the birth places of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and the subsequent growth of those faiths in this and adjacent areas.
  • Over the centuries, leaders from various internal regions began to expand and vie with each other.  Later, as they moved into the area, larger empires got pulled into these regional rivalries, culminating in Italian influence in the 19th and 20th centuries and brief occupation before World War II.
  • Notwithstanding a brief Italian occupation, as the second most populous country in Africa and the one with the longest period of non-colonial occupation, Ethiopia has long been looked to as a model for the rest of the continent.
  • In the 20th Century, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie became a world-wide symbol of Ethiopia’s independence, but his prominence obscured increasing tensions within his nation between regions, as well as dissatisfaction with land reform and the general economic condition of the population.  The result was overthrow of the Selassie in 1974 and his replacement by a Soviet-supported military junta.
  • Since the fall of the leftist regime in 1991, Ethiopia has been governed by a coalition representing different parties representing the largest ethnic populations in this nation twice the size of Texas.  Until 2012, as part of the governing coalition, the prime minister had come from the northern Tigray region.  In 2018, responding to domestic pressure, the coalition shifted leadership to Abiy Ahmed a young leader from the Oromo region.  Abiy dissolved the 30-year ruling coalition and replaced it with one that excluded the Tigray.  Abiy soon reached agreement with Eritrea over border disputes and reached out to other countries in the Horn of Africa.  For this, he was recognized with the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.
  • In November 2020, however, Abiy’s government came into open conflict with the political and paramilitary forces of Tigray.  The Abiy-led government of Ethiopia and the leadership of Tigray have both leveled accusations of war crimes against their opposition in this escalating civil conflict.

Exploration Questions

  • While the rest of the continent was subject to European colonization, how did Ethiopia escape this fate?
  • What factors led to the centuries of rivalries among various chieftains in the area that is present day Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia before the present nations emerged?

Reflective Questions

  • Are the modern nation states of the Horn of Africa viable as separate entities or would some kind of confederation benefit their peoples?
  • Given the long history of rivalry, what are the prospects for a broadly-supported central government for Ethiopia?  What factors would contribute to or undermine that goal?
  • The United States has been focused on the international war against terrorism for the last twenty years.  Looking to the future, what should be the role of the United States and the West in this area?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Marcus, Harold G.  A History of Ethiopia, Updated Edition.  University of California Press, 2002.  316 pages.  The late Michigan State Professor brings his long interest in Ethiopia to this concise and readable history of Ethiopia from prehistory to the beginning of the twenty-first century.
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  • Pankhurst, Richard.  The Ethiopians.  Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, UK 1998.  299 pages.  Pankhurst’s history is particularly strong in going through the prehistoric skeletal findings which place the beginning of humanity in Ethiopia.  He follows this through to modern day, giving great understanding of the tensions between centralization and regional autonomy.
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