Ethiopia Table of Contents
by Yohannis Abate (A Geographer and African Analyst with the Department of Defence)
Traditional council of elders
THE ETHIOPIAN PEOPLE ARE ETHNICALLY heterogeneous, comprising more than 100 groups, each speaking a dialect of one of more than seventy languages. The Amhara, Oromo, and Tigray are the largest groups. With the accession of Menelik II to the throne in 1889, the ruling class consisted primarily of the Amhara, a predominantly Christian group that constitutes about 30 percent of the population and occupies the central highlands. The Oromo, who constitute about 40 percent of the population, are half Orthodox Christians and half Muslims whose traditional alliance with the Amhara in Shewa included participation in public administration and the military. Predominantly Christian, the Tigray occupy the far northern highlands and make up 12 to 15 percent of the population. They or their Eritrean neighbors had been battling the government for nearly three decades and by 1991 had scored many battlefield successes.
According to estimates based on the first census (1984), Ethiopia's population was 51.7 million in 1990 and was projected to reach more than 67 million by the year 2000. About 89 percent of the people live in rural areas, large sectors of which have been ravaged by drought, famine, and war. The regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam embarked on controversial villagization and resettlement programs to combat these problems. Villagization involved the relocation of rural people into villages, while resettlement moved people from drought-prone areas in the north to sparsely populated and resource-rich areas in the south and southwest. The international community criticized both programs for poor implementation and the consequent toll in human lives.
The traditional social system in the northern highlands was, in general, based on landownership and tenancy. After conquest, Menelik II (reigned 1889-1913) imposed the north's imperial system on the conquered south. The government appointed many Amhara administrators, who distributed land among themselves and relegated the indigenous peasants to tenancy. The 1974 revolution swept away this structure of ethnic and class dominance. The Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC; also known as the Derg --see Glossary) appointed representatives of the Workers' Party of Ethiopia and the national system of peasant associations to implement land reform. Additionally, the government organized urban centers into a hierarchy of urban dwellers' associations ( kebeles --see Glossary). Despite these reforms, however, dissatisfaction and covert opposition to the regime continued in the civilian and military sectors.
Prior to the 1974 revolution, the state religion of Ethiopia had been Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, whose adherents comprised perhaps 40 to 50 percent of the population, including a majority of the Amhara and Tigray. Islam was the faith of about 40 percent of the population, including large segments (perhaps half) of the Oromo and the people inhabiting the contiguous area of the northern and eastern lowlands, such as the Beja, Saho, Afar, and Somali. Adherents of indigenous belief systems were scattered among followers of the two major religions and could be found in more concentrated numbers on the western peripheries of the highlands. In line with its policy that all religions were equally legitimate, the regime in 1975 declared several Muslim holy days national holidays, in addition to the Ethiopian Orthodox holidays that were already observed.
Declaring education one of its priorities, the PMAC expanded the education system at the primary level, especially in small towns and rural areas, which had never had modern schools during the imperial era. The new policy relocated control and operation of primary and secondary schools to the subregion (awraja) level, where officials reoriented curricula to emphasize agriculture, handicrafts, commercial training, and other practical subjects. The regime also embarked on a national literacy campaign.
The regime's health policy included expansion of rural health services, promotion of community involvement, selfreliance in health activities, and emphasis on the prevention and control of disease. As with education, the PMAC decentralized health care administration to the local level as part of its effort to encourage community involvement. Despite an emphasis on rural health services, less than a third of the total population had effective health coverage in mid-1991.
Data as of 1991
Ethiopia Table of Contents