A Lion in the Grass: Ethiopia’s Sovereignty and Fight for the Future

A. Davey l “Battle of Adwa” l 22 October 2007 l 800 x 529 l Wikimedia Commons

Africa.

The name of the continent itself conjures visions of indomitable wilderness. A lion, low to the ground, moves through the grass, quietly stalking its prey, an antelope without the slightest idea that death creeps upon it until it is too late. Rivers wide and deep, flowing with brown murky waters, snake through the grasslands like pythons, dispensing life and wreaking havoc in equal measure. Come the rainy season, their banks flood, but the dry spells make their waters recede, shriveling all surrounding vegetation and crumbling their banks. One might wander the scorching deserts for days upon days upon weeks, with only the clearest stars to guide them and the sun scorching them to madness as mirages of lakes and palm trees fizzle in the searing heat. At times, the harsh conditions cause us to wonder whether men were ever intended to wander these corners of the earth. On the same continent, tropical luscious forests color large swaths of land with their verdant green blankets drenched in daily rainfall. And bordering the quintessential savannas and rising along prosperous coasts, mountains reach up as if to touch the face of God, covered in his white beard, Kilimanjaro in the Rift Mountains and Toubkal in the Atlas range tower as the highest iconic peaks. These heavenly landscapes have long fascinated adventurers and enticed Europeans explorers with the promise of free range for complete exploration and colonization in the latter decades of the 19th century.

Indeed, in this process of exotification, Africa has long served as a source of intrigue and mystery for Western minds. With often questionable representation in classic media such as Oroonoko, Tarzan, and Heart of Darkness, Western societies have looked to the African continent with a sense of misplaced idealism for its virginal landscapes laced with contempt for its lack of ‘properly civilized’ peoples throughout history. Since Europeans first laid eyes and set foot on the African continent, its peoples and lands had served not as a bastion of cultural exposure and exchange, but as a bounty of resources ripe for exploitation to benefit European colonizers. Delving into the “dark heart” of the continent and emerging with the reward of plunder was considered to be a testament to the resolve and superiority of the European nations, but it was the hearts of the colonizers that contained the darkness.

Following rapid industrialization in Europe with its accompanying population explosion, most European powers decided to set their sights on outward expansion beyond their own continent.  In agreement, they scrambled to divide the African continent among themselves. They then sent in their naval fleets in a mass conquest of the continent in the latter part of the nineteenth century, divvied up like a pie at a banquet of monarchs and rapacious wealthy elites who stood to gain from exploitation.1 No portion of the continent was safe from the far-reaching ambitions of European nations.

Like the lion in the grass who awaits its prey fiercely defending the territory he has painstakingly marked, Ethiopia  managed to escape falling prey to the European thirst for blood and hunting trophies in this first scramble. It carefully guarded its sovereignty. The Italians, on the other hand, had hardly consolidated their own national country. Hence, Italy was late to join the conqueror’s game, but nonetheless eager to grab a larger piece of the African pie for themselves and set their sight on neighboring Ethiopia. Ethiopia like the majestic lion in the grass, its symbol, protected its kingdom through one of the most valiant fight. 2

***

The nation of Italy, located entirely on a peninsula jutting out into the Mediterranean Sea, is in a prime position for access to Africa. No more than a hop, skip, and a jump away from the continent’s northern coastline, separated by a relatively narrow expanse of sea, the southern European country seemed poised to jump into the fray that was the Scramble for Africa. However, having only very recently been unified under one cohesive flag of sovereignty, Italy found itself, rather unfashionably late to the party.3 The glorious riches of the resources of Central and South Africa had thus been claimed by other European powers, the western shores spoken for. What was left for the Italians?

Madman2001 l “Map of the Mediterranean Sea and subdivisions” l 1 June 2011 l 799 x 314 l Wikimedia Commons

There was the Horn. An interesting position, geographically speaking – if one traces the outline of the African continent, one might discern the profile of an elephant’s head, making the Horn the valuable ivory tusk, quite appropriate when considering the greed that flashed before the eyes of the Italians. Ethiopia, or Abyssinia as it was known at the time, provided a strategic base of sorts.4 The bounty of the sea was plentiful off the coast of Eritrea, situated right along the northern border of Ethiopia, for trade with the Arabian Peninsula – and potentially the entirety of the Indian Ocean – made this out to be too good of an opportunity to pass up.5

Bukkia l “Italian East Africa” l 2 October 2009 l 668 x 599 l Wikimedia Commons

Since the Scramble for Africa entered into full swing, Ethiopia had miraculously managed to wrest itself free of foreign dominance. A brief altercation with Great Britain in 1868 painted a black mark on their record. But otherwise, from the 100s A.D. all the way to the late 1800s, Ethiopia remained secure in its sovereignty. Then, after an initial Italian invasion, Emperor Menelik II agreed to terms of friendship with the Italian government in 1889, which Italy perceived as acquiescence to the status of an offshore territory.6  Naturally, Ethiopia vehemently opposed this stipulation, which equally went against the Italians’ interests. Ethiopia, for its part, desired nothing less than complete and honored sovereignty as one of the only African lands besides Liberia to have escaped the horrors of colonization.7 It was the lion in the grass, and it would not succumb to a hyena’s scavenging for scraps.

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Hyenas fulfill the role of the trickster in folklore across their endemic range on the African continent. Like many of its fellow archetypal characters around the world, a tricky hyena oscillates from playfully mischievous to outright brutal, and as anyone who has flipped on the Discovery Channel can attest, they are far more often the latter. Italy certainly resembled the hyena to Ethiopia’s lion in this turn of events. Emperor Menelik II, fully confident in his nation’s status as sovereign in this fateful interaction, believed this treaty to simply be an agreement to end hostilities and respect each other as sovereign states. The Italians had other plans. Drafting two copies of the treaty, one for the Ethiopians, and one for themselves, their stipulations signed and agreed to include establishing a protectorate in Ethiopia. Because this was a legally binding agreement, no matter the content, the Italians could hold the Ethiopians to both versions of the treaty.8 Thus was the beginning of a long road ahead for Ethiopia, rife with struggle against foreign colonizers and within its own borders, as though it ultimately prevailed against the scourge of colonization, this tumultuous history has landed it among the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) of the world.

The Italians had initially lost Ethiopia but managed to salvage the tiny region for themselves.9 However, now that they indeed had Eritrea, they could turn their eyes to Ethiopia once more, hungrily like the hyenas they were. Jumping off the platform of territorial disputes within the autonomous and colonized regions of the Horn of Africa, Italy – now headed by the infamous Benito Mussolini – invaded the state a second time in 1935.10 The Italo-Ethiopian War was a relatively short affair, but a devastating one nonetheless – resulting in an Italian victory and the total takeover of Ethiopia, something that the African nation had so valiantly staved off for decades.11 Assistance was required, assistance endowed by the British Empire in 1941, reconquering the capital of Addis Ababa and then the whole of the nation, and reinstating the Ethiopian Haile Selassie in a position of power.12

The lion had won this grassland fight and, come the 1960s, made the move to annex Eritrea in its bid for independence from the British.13 Now, they had become conquerors themselves, and a future as an empire resonated a glorious chord where their enemies had failed.

“Ethiopian Orthodox priests. Creative Commons photo” l Religion Unplugged

***

Eritrea, a tiny nation on coast of the Red Sea, was now under Ethiopian authority. From the 1960s till the 1990s, for a count of thirty-one years, it was subsumed in the fledgling Ethiopian Empire.14 And throughout those thirty-one years, it fought just as long and just as hard to regain its own independence.15 Ethiopia had become the very thing it swore it would never succumb to, all in the name of power and newfound security in sovereignty. Though Eritrea eventually declared its independence in 1993, this small victory was far from the end of the conflict.16 Ethiopia, a lion on the prowl, salivated at the catching of the Eritrea stalwart buffalo. But when a lion messes with a bull, it risks the horns.

Although the actual “border war” only last for about a year, from 1999 to 2000, the whole conflict persisted in off-and-on cold tension and hot combat until the year 2018. Famines, which had plagued the Horn of Africa since the early 1970s, forced large-scale resettlement of both Ethiopians and Eritreans, bringing into contact ethnic groups comprised of varying cultural, religious, and – particularly relevant when a refugee is compelled to relocate in a strange land, even within their own country – topographical backgrounds. This migration included many from the region of Tigray, a border region between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Although in 2018, the conflict had formally ended between the two states, in actuality, tensions in Tigray had been escalating for quite some time, primarily due to the previously noted forced resettlement. As of last year, 2020, in the aftermath of a botched election process in the region, the conflict had quickly devolved, with the nation of Ethiopia now teetering on the edge of full-blown civil war.17

The current prime minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, had been celebrated for his sweeping governmental reforms in the wake of the Eritrean war for independence. However, his administration has come into armed conflict with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front over an election that was deemed invalid.18 Ahmed has long been regarded as a peacekeeper in the Horn of Africa, having been awarded the coveted Nobel Peace Prize, even holding a doctoral degree in the field. But as friction pertaining to his reforms against the wishes of the political parties in Tigray and the north of the nation has escalated, the sparks of war set the region ablaze once again. The former Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, had long been supported by the dominant Tigrayan political parties; the appointment of Ahmed, an Oromo man, has contributed to not just political stressors, but ethnic ones as well.19 Truly, this is a picture of a lion, having lorded the savanna for what seems an age, the victor bruised and battle-scared, finding himself challenged and his rule upended. Ethiopia is unraveling, and it is not the government that suffers, but rather the ordinary people who fall under its subjection.

***

Herein lies the major caveat of international relations. The actors on the stage are not merely nebulous pieces of land defined by imaginary lines on a map. Realists in international relations are wont to portray the world stage as comprised of simple states, territories with clearly defined borders, yet these are but imaginary lines. The real actors are the people within these borders, their suffering the real play. However involved they may be is irrelevant – each and every one is an individual unit, a name, a face, a human being. That is why it is called a humanitarian crisis, and not a governmental or a military crisis, when innocent civilians are involved. Of course, human beings make governments and military forces as well, no one is denying this. But it is one thing for two governments, two heads of state, two armed forces to be at each other’s throats. It is a far different matter entirely when non-combatant fathers, mothers, and children become caught up in the conflict and end up pay the ultimate -a price they never acquiesced to pay for in the first place. In this borderlands conflict, 52,000 people have perished, with many more thousands having been displaced, either directly as a result of warfare activity or the resource depletion which has accompanied it.20

Rod Waddington. “Tigray, Ethiopia” l 800 x 485 l 21 November 2012 l Wikimedia Commons

***

Sadly, in part due to this ongoing ethnic conflict, Ethiopia has floundered fragile among the Least Developed Countries of the world or LDCs. Although the nation is rich in resources, armed territorial conflict and regional famines across the entire Horn of Africa have all but thwarted its potential prosperity. From 2005 to 2015, Ethiopia experienced a 10.7% increase in economic growth, a remarkable achievement, and its vast hoard of gas, oil, and fossil fuels such as these have certainly not been exhausted, and offer the potential for further growth. Fortunately, there are organizations such as the World Bank which have allocated funds and assistance to these vital sectors, especially the nation’s mining industry.21

But the situation in Ethiopia remains disheartening, as according to the United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the average gross national income per capita is only $644, almost a full $600 below the highest generating LDCs. Additionally, its Human Assets Index (HAI), which averages lifespan, mortality, and literacy rates, is one of the lowest as compared to the rest of the LDCs.22 No doubt, much of this is attributable to states of warfare and famine – the latter of which an unfortunate byproduct of either freak events of nature such as severe droughts, or deliberate crop destruction in areas of ethnic conflict. The issue still stands that Ethiopia is in desperate need of an improvement to its situation. This is a proud nation, which has overcome much in it existence, and deserves to be remedied so it may grow and flourish as it is meant to.

***

The old lion, wounded many times throughout its life, but still survives earned his crown. Ethiopia, despite its struggles, its hard-fought battles through past centuries, stands unique among the African nations as one of the few that have never fell to sustained colonization by European invaders. Ethiopia, an ancient land, with a singular language and religious system, separate from the rest of the Horn of Africa, kept its national lineage alive for centuries. However, Ethiopia’s political and historical dynamic with Eritrea continue to negatively impact the lives of its people. Can Ethiopia now sustainably safeguard its sovereignty, not from foreign invaders, but from internal ethnic strife?

  1. “The Scramble for Africa,” St. John’s College University of Cambridge, 2021.
  2. Arsema Abera, “The Struggle against Colonialism: Ethiopia’s Experience to Virtual Loss of Independence,” StMU History Media Project, March 4, 2020.
  3. Arsema Abera, “The Struggle against Colonialism: Ethiopia’s Experience to Virtual Loss of Independence,” StMU History Media Project, March 4, 2020.
  4. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Italo-Ethiopian War,” Britannica, 2020.
  5. Arsema Abera, “The Struggle against Colonialism: Ethiopia’s Experience to Virtual Loss of Independence,” StMU History Media Project, March 4, 2020.
  6. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Italo-Ethiopian War,” Britannica, 2020.
  7. Arsema Abera, “The Struggle against Colonialism: Ethiopia’s Experience to Virtual Loss of Independence,” StMU History Media Project, March 4, 2020.
  8. Arsema Abera, “The Struggle against Colonialism: Ethiopia’s Experience to Virtual Loss of Independence,” StMU History Media Project, March 4, 2020.
  9. Arsema Abera, “The Struggle against Colonialism: Ethiopia’s Experience to Virtual Loss of Independence,” StMU History Media Project, March 4, 2020.
  10. Clayton Goodwin. “When Italy Invaded Ethiopia… 70 Years Ago.” New African, no. 444 (October 2005): 32–33. http://blume.stmarytx.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=18552330&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
  11. Ethiopia profile – Timeline,” BBC, October 12, 2020.
  12. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Italo-Ethiopian War,” Britannica, 2020.
  13. Ethiopia profile – Timeline,” BBC, October 12, 2020.
  14. “How African countries left their European colonisers,” The South African, January 1, 2020.
  15. Ethiopia profile – Timeline,” BBC, October 12, 2020.
  16. Ethiopia profile – Timeline,” BBC, October 12, 2020.
  17. “Explained: Why Ethiopia is suddenly on brink of civil war,” The Times of India, November 6, 2020.
  18. “Explained: Why Ethiopia is suddenly on brink of civil war,” The Times of India, November 6, 2020.
  19. Peter Yeung, “Abiy Ahmed and the future of Ethiopia,” Al Jazeera, November 15, 2020.
  20. “Tigray crisis: Ethiopia region at risk of huge ‘humanitarian disaster’,” BBC, February 3, 2021.
  21. The World Bank Group, “Can Ethiopia’s Resource Wealth Contribute to its Growth and Transformation?” The World Bank, January 26, 2015.
  22. “Least Developed Country Category: Ethiopia Profile,” United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2018.

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13 Responses

  1. Danielle, the way you threaded your opening metaphor all throughout this article was fantastic; it essentially told the story of Ethiopia through the exploits of the lion (and its relationship with all the other animals that represented countries). My favorite parts were the introductory paragraphs where you explained the ways “exotification” has affected all of Africa and not just Ethiopia.

  2. Congrats on your nomination, Danielle! You’re an incredible writer. It’s no surprise that, with your writing talent, this article is so fascinating—from the vivid and fitting metaphor of a lion to the in-depth analysis of Ethiopia’s political struggle for sovereignty. The fact that even Ethiopia—a country that managed to maintain its sovereignty during the Scramble for Africa—nonetheless struggles with territorial conflicts and remains an LDC is telling of just how devastating the effects of colonialism are. I also agree with your assessment of realism as a political science theory. Realism doesn’t quite have the depth necessary to study our world today, particularly on the continent of Africa where so many states’ borders were arbitrarily carved out by Europeans without regard for the existing boundaries between ethnic groups. It is important to view international relations as more than just a conflict between states, but to consider the role of individuals, organizations, and ethnic groups as well. People are diverse, more than just faceless citizens of a state.

    As for the question you concluded on—will Ethiopia be able to defend its sovereignty and perhaps flourish?—I would love to hope that it can. That being said, Ethiopia remains trapped by colonialist and neoliberalist systems, which are difficult (though hopefully not impossible) to change. It seems like the organizations that have had the largest role in Ethiopia’s economy are mainly the UN, IMF, and World Bank—all of which maintain an imperialist legacy, to put it lightly. The struggle to break free of colonialism may continue for a long time, but I hope it leads to a better and more equal future where being a “well-off” former colony no longer means being slightly less exploited than your neighbors.

  3. First I really love the title, that is very appealing and made me want to read the article. I enjoyed this article because you represent different countries and animals. You did really well bringing in the audience for this article. I had no idea that all of these areas faced struggles. Very good!

  4. This was a great and very informative article. I can tell that you’re very enthusiastic about this topic and there was a lot of great research put into your writing. Your detail was great and I like how well the images tied into your topic because it really brought it all together. I learned a lot from your writing and I enjoyed how well the article flowed.

  5. Danielle, I have always loved your writing style! It makes the article that more interesting to read. I loved the visual details utilized throughout, including the use of the names of wildlife to represent nations of Africa. In addition to being an interesting read, it was an extremely informative one that provided me with important information about the history of Ethiopia. I especially loved that you noted the different camps of International Relations theory, including Realism.

  6. Hi Danielle! Thank you for taking the time to write this article and break down the single story that many have of Africa. This single story of lions and deserts can be attributed to the representation of Africa in Western media and the countries that have colonized this land. I enjoyed how you described Ethiopia in its fight to remain free from foreign dominance. It is unfortunate that they remain on the LDC list, however knowing they have not fallen to suatained European colonization is a victory in its own right. Great job!

  7. I enjoyed this article, your knowledge on the topic is so profound and it was such a nice read. You did really well in describing and informing your audience. It’s unfortunate the struggles that Ethiopia faces.

  8. In all honesty, I did not know specifically about Ethiopia’s history in the scramble of Africa. You truly elaborated on important details throughout. Also, I had no idea that Italians made claim to Ethiopia. What is even more crazy, is that they lost claim. While as many know the Portuguese held strong. Great job, and thank you expanding on knowledge that I did not know prior. I also liked the comparison to native animals with in the country.

  9. The consistent use of representing the countries as different animals was an interesting touch to the article, and made it easier to understand since the imagery is something that can be easily visualized. I was surprised to find out that Italy hadn’t been apart of the initial fragmentation of Africa to European nations, but nonetheless they also had their time to be imperial, albeit late and for not nearly as long and successful as their neighbors.

  10. I really enjoyed reading this article, the visual details that the author uses in the first paragraph to represent the image of Africa that we are misguided to believe is true. Throughout the article, the author uses names of wildlife to represent nations that divided and conquered regions of Africa. The author of this article did an amazing job drawing the reader in and detailing the scramble for Africa as well as the struggles Ethiopia faced.

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