Enigmatic Ethiopia: Africa’s (still) hidden jewel in the crown?

The St Georges Church in Lalibela surrounded by worshippers. (John Battersby)

A recent 10-day visit to Africa’s fastest-growing economy – it grew at an average of 10% a year between 2008 and 2018 – revealed a country of 105-million people with a fascinating history and a kaleidoscope of ethnic, religious and cultural diversity.

Addis Ababa, a seething and rapidly developing African metropolis, is a regular transit stop for north-south travellers and a destination for officials connected to the African Union and its many commissions.

While transit travellers benefit from the cheaper rates of Ethiopian Airlines – Africa’s largest and most globally connected national carrier – the development of Ethiopia’s tourism industry is still at an early stage. 

It will not stay that way for long. 

Africa’s diplomatic capital – which means “New Flower” in the native Amharic language – is inundated with construction sites, leading hotel chains and sprawling markets amid chaotic traffic in overcrowded streets.

Addis Ababa Skyline 2019 (Rass Addisu via Flickr)

Mountain lodges and hilltop hotels are appearing in the main historic towns in the north of the country where ruined palaces, obelisks and monasteries of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church add to the Ethiopian enigma.

A recent 10-day visit to Africa’s fastest-growing economy – it grew at an average of 10% a year between 2008 and 2018 – revealed a country of 105-million people with a fascinating history and a kaleidoscope of ethnic, religious and cultural diversity.

It is Africa’s second-most populous country and was the fastest growing economy in the world last year, albeit from a low base.

The ancient kingdoms of Yeha, Axum, Lalibela and Gondar weave a narrative rooted in a deep-seated faith spanning the three major monotheistic religions.

The 12 iconic rock churches of Lalibela – where Christianity was first declared a state religion in AD 300 – vie with the Seven Wonders of the World for sheer vision, scale and resilience.

The subterranean St Georges Church in Lalibela which was hewn out of solid rock 700 years ago. (John Battersby)

The breathtaking rock churches, which have been in regular use continuously for the past 700 years,  defy both imagination and description.

The subterranean entrance to St Georges Church. (John Battersby)

We were in Axum, the 10th Century capital of the Kingdom of Ethiopia, on what is called Saint Mary’s day: one of the most important festivals on the Ethiopian Christian calendar. 

From morning to night there were rivers of pilgrims clad in white muslin cloth streaming towards the Church of Saint Mary of Zion. 

Axum is the city of the Queen of Sheba’s ancient palace and the Ark of the Covenant which is never seen by anyone other than the lone custodian charged with its safe-keeping, according to the legend.

Today, the mosaic of Ethiopia is an intriguing intertwining of religious, ethnic and regional loyalties which appear to contribute to a somewhat precarious equilibrium which erupts from time to time

Some 63% of the population is Christian, 34% are Muslim and there are some 80 ethnic groups living in ten states or provinces.

The largest ethnic groups are the Oromo (34%), Amhara (27%) and the Tigrayans, who span the border with Eritrea and box well above their 6% of the total.

The government is made up of four liberation movements which resisted and defeated the Soviet-backed military junta, the Derg (1974-91), headed by Mengistu Haile Mariam, a brutal dictator who fled to Zimbabwe where he still lives in exile.

The Derg was followed by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) which ruled for 27 years under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s policy of ethnic federalism and his successor, Hailemariam Desalegn.

The four movements are now being subsumed along with five other groups in a single party – known as the Prosperity Party – which is the brainchild of reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali who was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating a peace deal with Eritrea.

Since Abiy was elected in 2018, he has pursued a vigorous process of reform, releasing political prisoners, promoting freedom of speech and attempting to unite a country riven by ethnic and regional conflicts which have claimed hundreds of lives and seen 3.5-million people displaced since 2015.

Lifting decades of repression has unleashed resistance including an attempted coup in which two senior officials were killed in June 2019 and a spontaneous uprising in his Oromia heartland in October 2019 which claimed more than 80 lives, with 200 injured.

The recent referendum granting the Sidama ethnic group in the south a tenth state has opened the floodgates to demands from at least five other ethnic groups wanting their own states.

The dynamics of conflict are complex and often occur within ethnic groups over differences regarding regional vs federal power; sometimes, religion also plays a part but is not the primary cause of conflict.

Ethiopia has survived catastrophic famines (1888, 1973 and 1984/85), Muslim-Christian wars (1490-1529), invasions by the Egyptians and Somalia, five years of occupation by the Italians (1935-1941), decades of war with Eritrea and a seventeen-year liberation struggle against the Soviet-backed Derg (1974-91).

But the country has never been colonised and it shows in the pride, dignity and independent spirit of the people ruled by successive emperors and kings over two thousand years, culminating with the interrupted four-decade rule and ignominious death of Emperor Haile Selassie (1931-1974) ousted by the Derg.

Ethiopia has not yet managed to fully realise its natural position as a regional power in the Horn of Africa due to landlocked territory – and conflict with troublesome neighbours such as Eritrea, the Sudan and Somalia. 

But there is opportunity looming now for a forward leap under the energetic leadership of Abiy.

Investment flows from China, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and India. Chinese friendship signs abound and it is a major investor in the massive Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and other key road, rail and telecommunication infrastructure projects. 

The Chinese-built African Union headquarters building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. EPA-EFE/STR

The IMF and World Bank have also weighed in with major support.

Ethiopia is Africa’s major producer and exporter of coffee but it is diversifying a traditionally agricultural economy with a focus on the industrial and service sectors.

An Ethiopian woman performs the traditional coffee ceremony which involves a painstaking process of grinding the beans in a mortar and pestle, roasting and brewing the coffee and then serving the guests on hand-woven wicker tables. (John Battersby)

Abiy has encouraged liberalisation of the economy but despite the phenomenal growth – it has halved poverty in a decade – Ethiopia is still one of the world’s poorest countries and faces massive youth unemployment. 

Yet some experts see Ethiopia as the future “China of Africa” and Bloomberg has listed Ethiopia and the Ivory Coast as the only two African countries in the world’s top ten growth destinations.

The mountain landscapes in the north are breathtaking as are the cultivated plateaus, river canyons and patchwork of smallholdings clearly visible on the flight from Lalibela to Axum. 

And the four-hour drive from the ancient city of Gondar to Bahir Dar reveals fertile plains and valleys planted with the staple grain, teff, and cow-drawn ploughs and threshing circles that are as ancient as the Bible.

The Ethiopian belief that it houses the Ark of the Covenant, containing the tablets bearing the Ten Commandments, is at the centre of the faith of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Ethiopian Christians also believe that the first King of Ethiopia, Menelik I, was conceived in a union between the  Queen of Sheba – known as Queen Makeda in Ethiopia – and King Solomon in Jerusalem during a visit to the Holy City.

Lake Tana, adjoining Bahir Dar, is the source of the Blue Nile as it begins its journey to the Mediterranean. The Blue Nile Falls, several hours away on foot, are an impressive sight.

But the volume of water cascading 150 feet has been diminished by the diversion of water to the massive Renaissance Dam which is already a source of tension with the Sudan and Egypt as the main source of water for those two countries.

As our visit with New York Times Journeys had as its focus Ancient Lands and Religious Festivals we did not get to see the renowned bearded monkeys in the Simeon Mountains or the extraordinary Danakil Depression which claims to be the lowest and hottest destination on earth.

But we did get to visit the Ethnographic Museum in Addis which houses a replica of Lucy, which vies with South Africa’s Little Foot, as the oldest hominid of the genus Australopithecus found in Africa, which is estimated to be 3.2-million years old. 

Little Foot is estimated to be 3.7-million years old. The species Afarensis has been found only in the Afar depression – dubbed the Cradle of Civilisation – in Ethiopia while Africanus has been found only in the vicinity of the Sterkfontien in South Africa known as the Cradle of Mankind.

Hominids are the oldest known relatives of Homo Sapiens, modern humans, who are about 200,000 years old.

Successive finds in South Africa since 1925 of the species Australopithecus Africanus have included the skull of Mrs Ples, the Taung Child and most recently the almost complete skeleton of Little Foot

Even older species of hominids, which are found only in Africa, have been found in Ethiopia, Kenya and Chad and go back between five and six million years.

We learned from our guide at the museum was that Lucy, Ethiopia’s oldest and most famous female, owes her name to famous Beatles’ hit Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (LSD), from the album Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heartsclub Band, which is said to have been inspired by the psychedelic drug LSD.

It could be that enigmatic Ethiopia is still Africa’s best-kept secret. DM

  • John Battersby, a former New York Times southern Africa correspondent, accompanied a tour of Ethiopia organised by the New York Times Journeys as Africa expert and raconteur.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted