- Throughout its history, Ethiopia’s geography has enabled it to consistently assert power beyond its borders, no matter who its leaders have been.
- The loss of direct access to the sea after Eritrea seceded hampered Ethiopia’s economic development; regaining control of that coastline will continue to be part of its long-term strategy.
- The geographic potential for agricultural development, as well as the densely populated Ethiopian Highlands, provide the cornerstones of Ethiopia’s ability to create wealth and wield power in the future.
Among its African contemporaries, Ethiopia stands out as one of the few countries that has existed in essentially the same form since antiquity, albeit under different names. Its geographic position at the heart of the Horn of Africa has made it a crossroads for trade, helping it to maintain a continuity that has lasted from ancient times through the colonial era to today. While modern Ethiopia’s interests are much more tightly focused on its core than the far-flung reach its ancient predecessors commanded, its geography still makes it a key player in global trade and regional politics. Although its importance in international trade has diminished with technological advances in transport and a shift away from the resources it provides or conveys, exports are still a focus of its economy.
Ethiopia rose to prominence as a regional empire known as the Kingdom of Aksum in the first century A.D. The kingdom had existed for centuries prior, but it began to flourish thanks to trade between the Roman Empire and ancient India. But its growing wealth and influence wasn’t solely a function of its position along vital coastal trade routes. Rather, the core of present-day Ethiopia, and its historic predecessors, has always been the Ethiopian Highlands. The large protected area of fertile lands and major rivers became the seat of a power that would hold sway in its nearby region and beyond the continent.
Unlike other African empires of old, which in their pre-colonial histories enjoyed similar prominence in trade with Europe but were unable to expand their activities much beyond generating wealth through that trade, the Kingdom of Aksum parlayed its economic success into political power. It emerged as a regional force that established hegemony over significant portions of the continent and extended its reach across the Red Sea. Within Africa, the Kingdom of Aksum captured the Kingdom of Kush, which corresponds more or less with today’s Sudan. In doing so it seized control of trade from the African interior, as well as caravan routes from the Middle East. In a geopolitical sense, overcoming the dominance of powers along the Nile River corridor was no small feat.
By the sixth century, the kingdom was sending its armies beyond Africa. Having adopted Christianity as its official religion, the empire embarked on an expedition against Jewish persecution of Christians in modern-day Yemen. But the rise of Islam in the seventh century led to the economic isolation of the Kingdom of Aksum as its neighbors embraced the new religion. While Aksum remained a center of Christianity, its power waned, and the land now known as Ethiopia has not since managed to reclaim the mantle of a true trade empire.
Steering Clear of Colonialism
Ethiopian power waxed again through its embrace of modernity. During the Middle Ages, Ethiopia (known as Abyssinia) harnessed new technologies — particularly agricultural techniques such as terrace farming and water resource management with dams and cisterns — to help it thrive as a local feudal empire. Ethiopia also attempted to overcome its isolation by interacting closely with foreign powers. In the 16th century, the kingdom’s leaders persuaded Portugal to send its troops to help defeat a Muslim army that had overrun it. In the 19th century, under Emperor Tewodros II, Ethiopia forged an alliance with Great Britain. At the same time, it developed a modern centralized legal and administrative system. The kingdom’s relationship with the British Empire turned sour, however, when Queen Victoria failed to respond to a request for military assistance. Instead, Tewodros II took several British citizens hostage. When a British punitive expedition laid siege to the capital in response, Tewodros II killed himself with a pistol that had been a gift from the queen.
In 1893, Italy attempted to invade Ethiopia from what was then Italian Eritrea. By that time, Ethiopia had fostered a close relationship with another orthodox Christian nation, Russia, which provided it with military training and arms. The threat of invasion also attracted the attention of France and Britain, which both wanted to protect their own colonial interests by thwarting Italy’s expansion. Though they didn’t go so far as to support Ethiopia in battle, they did lend diplomatic aid. But there was another reason for the eventual defeat of the Italian campaign — a development showcasing Ethiopia’s potential for empire. Instead of succumbing to competition with rival African kingdoms and tribes, as Italy had expected, Ethiopia forged a pragmatic alliance, leaving the Italians to face a more significant force than they had expected, and their invasion eventually was beaten back.
With the victory, Ethiopia preserved its status as the sole African power that was never subjected to colonialism. Four decades later, hostilities between Ethiopia and Italy resumed after Italy built a fortress inside Ethiopian territory. This time, Italy won the clash, and the Second Italo-Ethiopian War ended with Italian forces occupying Ethiopia until 1941, when Allied troops drove them out. Emperor Haile Selassie, who had fled into exile when the Italians seized Addis Ababa in 1936, returned to power and continued to modernize the imperial monarchy. Under his rule, however, Ethiopia came to face one of its most significant challenges, and its failure continues to call into question Ethiopia’s true capabilities as a state.
The Critical Loss of Sea Access
In the 1960s, Eritrea — by then a province of Ethiopia — rebelled against rule by Addis Ababa, depriving the country of its entire coastline. This has prevented Ethiopia from having full control over its exports and reviving its historical role as a trade hub. The unpopularity of the war against the Eritrean separatists also eventually led to the emergence of an Ethiopian Marxist movement, which gained the support of the Soviet Union and brought Mengistu Haile Mariam to power after a coup toppled Selassie and ended the imperial monarchy in 1974. It was replaced by the Dergue, the communist committee that ruled the country until 1991, when an alliance of rebel groups brought it down. But the same rebel struggle that defeated the Dergue also led to Eritrea’s independence, and left Ethiopia without direct access to the Red Sea.
These developments transformed Ethiopia into its current political and geographic form. The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia continues to exert considerable regional influence, although its lack of coastal access has dampened its economic potential. Ethiopia, however, has retained the ability to shape its region to its own advantage. Ethiopian forces have eliminated any opportunity for Somalia to re-emerge as a threat, as it did in the late 1970s when the two countries fought a war, while keeping Somali instability at bay. Ethiopia has also employed the help of rebel factions in South Sudan and Somalia as a means to limit the expansion of those countries’ influence in East Africa.
Economically, Ethiopia heavily depends on foreign investment, particularly from China and the Gulf states. It has used those funds to develop its infrastructure with an eye toward unlocking even greater potential within the country. Among those projects is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which when completed will provide capacity for power generation to support industry and investment. Transportation has been another focus of the Ethiopian government, and the opening of a railway connecting Addis Ababa with the port city of Djbouti will increase its access to the outside world. Right now, the country’s economy is oriented toward the development of agricultural exports, but infrastructure improvements and a large population should also enable Ethiopia to create a low-end manufacturing base.
To fulfill its potential, Ethiopia will still have to overcome several hurdles, including enduring internal frictions. So far the minority government that came to power after the overthrow of the Dergue has kept low-intensity rebellions at bay, but it has recently had to contend with a wider insurrection by its two largest ethnicities. The Oromo and Amhara revolts in the country have damaged Ethiopia’s reputation as a stable destination for investment, causing trade to decline.
In the longer term, though, Ethiopia will continue to enjoy the inherent advantages accorded by its geographic position, no matter who rules it. After all, despite its history of political upheaval, it has maintained considerable strength and resilience, especially compared with its East African neighbors.
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