U.S. Department of State
Background Notes: Ethiopia, July 1996
Released by the Bureau of African Affairs
Official Name: Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia
Area: 1.1 million sq. km. (472,000 sq. mi.); about the size of Texas,
Oklahoma, and New Mexico combined.
Cities: Capital--Addis Ababa (pop. 2.25 million). Other cities--Dire
Dawa (180,000), Harar (138,000), Nazret (100,000), Awassa (90,000).
Terrain: High plateau, mountains, dry lowland plains.
Climate: Temperate in the highlands, hot in the lowlands.
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Ethiopian(s).
Population (1995 est.): 55 million.
Annual growth rate: 3 percent.
Ethnic groups (est.): Oromo 35-40 percent, Amhara 20-25 percent,
Tigre 6-8 percent, Sidama 8 percent, Somali 6 percent.
Religions: Muslim 40-45 percent, Ethiopian Orthodox Christian 40-45
percent, indigenous beliefs 10-20 percent.
Languages: Amharic (official), Tigrinya, Orominga, Arabic, English.
Education: Years compulsory--none. Attendance (elementary)--46
percent. Literacy--25 percent.
Health: Infant mortality rate--145/1,000. Life expectancy--44.5 yrs.
Work force: Agriculture--80 percent. Industry and commerce--20
Type: Federal Republic.
Constitution: Ratified 1994.
Branches: Executive--president, Council of State, Council of Ministers.
Executive power resides with the Prime Minister. Legislative--
Bicameral parliament. Judicial--Divided into federal and regional
Administrative subdivisions: 10 regions.
Political parties: Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front
(EPRDF) and over 50 other registered parties, most of which are small
and ethnically based.
Central government budget (1995/1996): $1.54 billion.
Defense: (1995/1996): 7% of total government expenditures.
National holiday: May 28.
Flag: Green, yellow, and red horizontal stripes from top to bottom, with
gold five-pointed star and rays on a blue circular background.
Real GDP (1995): $7.352 million.
Annual growth rate (FY95-96): 7 percent.
Per capita income: $120.
Avg. inflation rate (last 3 yrs.): 10 percent; FY95-96: 1.6%.
Natural resources: potash, salt, gold, copper, platinum, natural gas
Agriculture (40% of GDP): Products--coffee, cereals, pulses, oilseeds,
meat, hides, and skins. Cultivated land--67 percent.
Industry (13.7 percent of GDP): Types--textiles, processed foods,
construction, cement, hydroelectric power.
Trade: Exports (1995)--$312 million: coffee 66 percent, other 34
percent. Major markets--US, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Japan,
Netherlands. Imports (1995)--$652 million, petroleum 23 percent,
transportation goods 23 percent, consumer goods 32 percent, capital
goods 12 percent, other 10 percent. Major suppliers--US, Japan,
Germany, UK, Italy.
Official exchange rate: 6.32 Ethiopian Birr=US$1.
Fiscal year: July 8-July 7.
Membership in International Organizations
UN and its specialized agencies, Organization of African Unity (OAU),
International Coffee Organization (ICO).
Ethiopia is located in the Horn of Africa and is bordered on the
northeast by Eritrea, on the east by Djibouti and Somalia, on the south
by Kenya, and on the west and northwest by Sudan. The country has a
high central plateau that varies from 1,800 to 3,000 meters (6,000-
10,000 ft.) above sea level, with some mountains reaching 4,500
meters (15,000 ft.). Elevation is generally highest just before the
of descent to the Great Rift Valley, which splits the plateau
A number of rivers cross the plateau--notably the Blue Nile rising from
Lake Tana. The plateau gradually slopes to the lowlands of the Sudan
on the west and the Somali-inhabited plains to the southeast.
The climate is temperate on the plateau and hot in the lowlands. At
Addis Ababa, which ranges from 2,200-2,600 meters (7,000-8,500 ft.),
maximum temperature is 26 degrees C (80 degrees F) and minimum 4
degrees C (40 degrees F). The weather is usually sunny and dry with
the short (belg) rains occurring February-April and the big (meher)
rains beginning in mid-June and ending in mid-September.
Ethiopia's population is highly diverse. Most of its people speak a
Semitic or Cushitic language. The Oromo, Amhara, and Tigreans make
up more than three-fourths of the population, but there are more than
80 different ethnic groups within Ethiopia. Some of these have as few
as 10,000 members. In general, most of the Christians live in the
highlands, while Muslims and adherents of traditional African religions
inhabit lowland regions. English is the most widely spoken foreign
language and is taught in all secondary schools. Amharic was the
language of primary school instruction but has been replaced in many
areas by local languages such as Oromifa and Tigrinya.
Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Africa and one of the
oldest in the world. Herodotus, the Greek historian of the fifth century
B.C., describes ancient Ethiopia in his writings. The Old Testament of
the Bible records the Queen of Sheba's visit to Jerusalem. According to
legend, Menelik I, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba,
founded the Ethiopian empire. Missionaries from Egypt and Syria
introduced Christianity in the fourth century A.D. Following the rise of
Islam in the seventh century, Ethiopia was gradually cut off from
European Christendom. The Portuguese established contact with
Ethiopia in 1493, primarily to strengthen their hegemony over the
Indian Ocean and to convert Ethiopia to Roman Catholicism. There
followed a century of conflict between pro- and anti-Catholic factions,
resulting in the expulsion of all foreign missionaries in the 1630s.
period of bitter religious conflict contributed to hostility toward
Christians and Europeans, which persisted into the 20th century and
was a factor in Ethiopia's isolation until the mid-19th century.
Under Theodore II (1855-68) and Emperor Menelik II (1889-1913),
the kingdom began to emerge from its medieval isolation. When
Menelik II died, his grandson, Lij Iyassu, succeeded to the throne but
soon lost support because of his Muslim ties. He was deposed in 1916
by the Christian nobility, and Menelik's daughter, Zewditu, was made
empress. Her cousin, Ras Tafari Makonnen, was made regent and
successor to the throne. In 1930, the empress died, and the regent,
adopting the throne name Haile Selassie, was crowned emperor. His
reign was interrupted in 1936 when Italian fascist forces invaded and
occupied Ethiopia. The emperor was eventually forced into exile in
England despite his plea to the League of Nations for intervention. Five
years later, the Italians were defeated by British (primarily colonial)
and Ethiopian forces, and the emperor returned to the throne. After a
period of civil unrest, which began in February 1974, the aging Haile
Selassie I was deposed on September 13, 1974.
In 1974, a provisional administrative council of soldiers, known as the
Derg ("committee") seized power from Emperor Haile Selassie and
installed a government which was Socialist in name and military in
style. Its leader, Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, assumed power as
head of state and Derg chairman. Mengistu's years in office were
marked by a totalitarian-style government and the country's massive
militarization, financed by the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, and
assisted by Cuba. From 1977 through early 1978 thousands of
suspected enemies of the Derg were tortured and/or killed in a purge
called the "red terror." Communism was officially adopted during the
late 1970s and early 1980s with the promulgation of a Soviet-style
constitution, Politburo, and the creation of the Workers' Party of
In December 1976, an Ethiopian delegation in Moscow signed a
military assistance agreement with the Soviet Union. The following
April, Ethiopia abrogated its military assistance agreement with the
United States and expelled the American military missions. In July
1977, sensing the disarray in Ethiopia, Somalia attacked across the
Ogaden Desert in pursuit of its irredentist claims to the ethnic Somali
areas of Ethiopia. Ethiopian forces were driven back far inside their
own frontiers, but, with the assistance of a massive Soviet airlift of
arms and Cuban combat forces, they stemmed the attack. Although the
major Somali regular units were forced out of the Ogaden in March
1978, insurgency and occasional border clashes in the area continue.
The Derg's collapse was hastened by droughts and famine, as well as
by insurrections, particularly in the northern regions of Tigray and
Eritrea. In the late 1980s, the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front
(TPLF) merged with other ethnically-based opposition movements to
form the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
In May 1991, EPRDF forces advanced on Addis Ababa. Mengistu fled
the country and was granted political asylum in Zimbabwe, where he
In July 1991, the EPRDF, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and
others established the Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE),
which was comprised of an 87-member Council of Representatives and
guided by a national charter that functioned as a transitional
constitution. In June 1992, the OLF withdrew from the government; in
March 1993, members of the Southern Ethiopia Peoples' Democratic
Coalition left the government. In May 1993, Eritreans voted
overwhelmingly in favor of independence from Ethiopia, and Eritrea is
now an independent country.
In Ethiopia, President Meles Zenawi and members of the TGE pledged
to oversee the formation of a multiparty democracy. The election for a
547-member constituent assembly was held in June 1994, and this
assembly adopted the constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic
of Ethiopia in December 1994. The elections for Ethiopia's first
popularly chosen national parliament and regional legislatures were
held in May and June 1995. Although most opposition parties chose to
boycott these elections, international and non-governmental observers
concluded that the elections were generally free and fair. The
government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia was
installed in August 1995. Ethiopia today has ten semi-autonomous
administrative regions which are organized along major ethnic lines.
In July 1991, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front
(EPRDF) organized a national conference in which most Ethiopian
political organizations participated. This conference set up an 87-
member Council of Representatives and adopted a new charter that
committed the Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE) to respect
fundamental human rights and provided for the drafting of a new
constitution and national elections based on the constitution by the end
of 1993. An elected Constituent Assembly ratified the constitution in
December 1994, and national legislative elections, together with
regional administrative elections, were held May/June 1994.
In May/June 1995, Ethiopia held national and regional elections which
were boycotted by most opposition groups and resulted in an EPRDF
landslide. Since then, the EPRDF-led government of Prime Minister
Meles has promoted a policy of ethnic federalism, devolving
significant powers to regional, ethnically-based authorities. Under the
present government, Ethiopians enjoy greater political participation and
freer debate than ever before in their history, although some
fundamental freedoms, including freedom of the press and freedom of
association, are in practice somewhat circumscribed.
In May 1991, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), led by
Isaias Afwerki, assumed control of Eritrea and established a
provisional government. This provisional government independently
administered Eritrea until on April 23-25, 1993, Eritreans voted
overwhelmingly for independence in a UN-monitored free and fair
referendum. Eritrea was declared independent on April 27, and the
U.S. recognized Eritrean independence April 28.
Principal Government Officials
Prime Minister--Tamirat Layne
Minister of Foreign Affairs--Seyoum Mesfin
Minister of National Defense--Seeye Abraha
Ethiopia maintains an Embassy in the United States at 2134 Kalorama
Road, NW., Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-234-2281) headed by
Ambassador Berhane Gebre-Christos. A separate trade and commercial
office is located at 1800 K Street, NW., Suite 824, Washington, D.C.
20006 (tel. 202-452-1272).
Ethiopia has one of the largest armed forces on the African continent.
Since the war with Somalia in 1977-78, the armed forces have grown
to more than 250,000 troops. The United States was Ethiopia's major
arms supplier from the end of World War II until 1977, when Ethiopia
began receiving massive arms shipments from the Soviet Union. These
shipments, including armored patrol boats, transport and jet fighter
aircraft, helicopters, tanks, trucks, missiles, artillery, and small
have incurred an unserviced Ethiopian debt to the former Soviet Union
estimated at more than $3.5 billion.
Ethiopia's Marxist rulers committed the country to a centralized,
planned economy based on "Socialist" principles. To achieve this
objective, the government nationalized all agricultural land, urban
financial institutions, large manufacturing enterprises, and later many
small-scale, modern businesses. A small private sector survived,
mainly in export-import trade, construction, and small-scale
manufacturing and commerce. However, the government controlled the
private sector through regulation of licenses, credit, and foreign
The current government has embarked on a program of economic
reform, including privatization of state enterprises and rationalization
of government regulation. While the process is still ongoing, the
reforms have begun to attract much-needed foreign investment.
The Ethiopian economy is based on agriculture, which contributes 45
percent to GNP and more than 80 percent of exports and employs 85
percent of the population. The major agricultural export crop is coffee,
providing 65-75 percent of Ethiopia's foreign exchange earnings. Other
traditional major agricultural exports are hides and skins, pulses, and
oilseeds. The volume of these exports, however, has declined
drastically since the revolution.
Ethiopia was the most seriously affected of the nine African nations
that suffered massive drought in 1983-85. Nine of its provinces, with
an estimated 7.9 million people, faced starvation; up to 1 million may
have died. The United States and other Western nations and
nongovernmental agencies mounted an unprecedented relief effort,
with the United States providing $465.6 million in food and nonfood
aid. The drought and famine compelled hundreds of thousands of
Ethiopians to seek refuge in neighboring states. Following a good
harvest in 1986, the rains failed again in 1987, and the Ethiopian
government has requested an initial 950,000 metric tons of grain to
keep a food pipeline open to the affected areas, hoping to prevent
another massive movement of people from their villages. Ethiopia's
agriculture has been plagued by periodic drought; soil degradation
caused by overgrazing, deforestation, and high population density;
dislocation due to the economy's rapid centralization; and government
policies that do not provide incentives to producers. Yet, it is the
country's most promising resource. A potential exists for self-
sufficiency in grains and for export development in livestock, grains,
vegetables, and fruits.
Gold, copper, and small amounts of platinum are mined in Ethiopia.
Other resources with potential for commercial development include
large potash deposits, natural gas, and possibly oil and geothermal
energy. Although Ethiopia has good hydroelectric resources, which
power most of its tiny manufacturing sector, it is totally dependent on
imports for its oil. Ethiopia's two seaports, Assab and Massawa,
handled 3.2 million tons of cargo in 1985-86. Ethiopia also uses the
port of Djibouti, connected to Addis Ababa by rail, for international
trade. Of the 16,400 kilometers of Ethiopia's all-weather roads, 28
percent are asphalt. Mountainous terrain and the lack of good roads and
sufficient vehicles make land transportation difficult. However, the
government-owned airline is excellent. Ethiopian Airlines services 37
domestic airfields and has international jet services to 32 countries.
Dependent on a single, vulnerable crop for its foreign exchange
earnings and reliant on imported oil, Ethiopia lacks sufficient foreign
exchange. The financially conservative government has taken measures
to solve this problem, including stringent import controls and sharply
reduced subsidies on retail gasoline prices. Nevertheless, the largely
subsistence economy is incapable of supporting high military
expenditures, drought and resettlement efforts, an ambitious
development plan, and indispensable imports, such as oil, and therefore
must depend on foreign assistance.
Ethiopia was relatively isolated from major movements of world
politics until the 1885 and 1935 Italian invasions. Since World War II,
it has played an active role in world and African affairs. Ethiopia was
charter member of the United Nations and took part in UN
peacekeeping operations in Korea in 1951 and the Congo (now Zaire)
in 1960. Former Emperor Haile Selassie was a founder of the
Organization of African Unity (OAU). Addis Ababa is the host capital
for the headquarters of the UN Economic Commission for Africa
(ECA) and the OAU.
Although nominally a member of the Non-Aligned Movement, after
the 1974 revolution Ethiopia moved into a close relationship with the
Soviet Union and its allies and supported their international policies
and positions. Subsequently, Ethiopia signed a treaty of friendship and
cooperation with the Soviet Union and much of Ethiopian foreign
policy paralleled and supported that of the Soviet Union.
Today, Ethiopia has very good relations with the United States and the
West, especially in responding to regional instability in surrounding
countries, and increasingly, through economic involvement. Ethiopia's
relations with Eritrea are extremely close, reflecting the shared
revolutionary struggle against the Derg. Continuing instability along
Ethiopia's borders with Sudan and Somalia contributes to a high level
of tension with the NIF regime in Sudan and various Somali groups.
U.S.-Ethiopian relations were established in 1903 and were good
throughout the period prior to the Italian occupation. After World War
II, these ties strengthened, on the basis of a September 1951 treaty of
amity and economic relations. In 1953, two agreements were signed, a
mutual defense assistance agreement, under which the United States
agreed to furnish military equipment and training, and an accord
regularizing the operations of a U.S. communication facility at Asmara.
Through fiscal year 1978, the United States provided Ethiopia $282
million in military assistance and $366 million in economic assistance
in agriculture, education, public health, and transportation. A Peace
Corps program emphasized education, and educational and cultural
exchanges were numerous.
After Ethiopia's revolution, the bilateral relationship began to cool as
result of differences over human rights, the U.S. response to Ethiopia's
request for increased military assistance to intensify its fight against
Eritrean Secessionist Movement and to repel the Somali invasion, and
growing radicalism within the Ethiopian Government. The
International Security and Development Act of 1985 prohibited all U.S.
economic assistance to Ethiopia with the exception of humanitarian
disaster and emergency relief. In July 1980, the U.S. Ambassador to
Ethiopia was recalled at the request of the Ethiopian Government, and
the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia and the Ethiopian Embassy in the United
States were headed by Charges d'Affaires.
With the downfall of the Mengistu regime, U.S.-Ethiopian relations
improved dramatically. Legislative restrictions on assistance to
Ethiopia other than humanitarian assistance have been lifted.
Diplomatic relations were upgraded to the ambassadorial level in 1992.
During FY94, the United States provided about $150 million in
assistance to Ethiopia, of which $110 million was emergency
assistance to deal with a food shortfall of over 1 million metric tons.
U.S. development assistance to Ethiopia is conditional on progress in
democracy and human rights, as well as economic reforms. Some
assistance is also provided in military training funds (including
in such issues as the laws of war and observance of human rights.) The
Peace Corps recently returned to Ethiopia, where in the past it had one
of its largest programs.
Principal U.S. Officials
Deputy Chief of Mission--Martin Brennan
Chiefs of Sections:
Administrative--Paul E. Rowe
Political/Economic--Thomas C. Niblock, Jr.
U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)--Margaret I.
Defense Attache Officer--Col. James Lewis
U.S. Information Service (USIS)--Arlene R. Jacquette
Peace Corps Director--Lis A. Doane
The address of the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia is P.O. Box 1014, Entoto
Street, Addis Ababa (tel. (251) (1) 550-666, fax (251) (1) 552-191.
Customs: A valid Ethiopian visa is required for entry. Evidence of
yellow fever immunization is required if entering from an area where it
Climate and clothing: Lightweight woolens and light wraps are
appropriate year round. Umbrellas and lined raincoats are necessary in
February and March and from June to September.
Health: Medical facilities and some modern medicines are available in
Addis Ababa. Take reasonable precautions regarding food and drink.
Tapwater is not potable. The altitude in Addis Ababa can cause
dizziness and adversely affects those with cardiopulmonary conditions
or asthma. Health conditions in the countryside are poor. All
immunizations, particularly for children, should be up to date before
arrival in the country.
Telecommunications: Long-distance telephone and telegraph service is
available to the large towns in Ethiopia, to the US, and to most
European and many African countries. Addis Ababa is eight time zones
ahead of eastern standard time.
Transportation: The most direct air routes from the US to Addis Ababa
are via Frankfurt, London, Nairobi, Rome, or Athens. International
airlines link Addis Ababa to Europe, Africa, Middle East, and Asia.
Ethiopian Airlines also serves the interior. Municipal bus
is likely to be crowded, but taxis are available from the National
Tourist Office at reasonable rates.
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