Overview | Government

This series of profiles of foreign nations is part of the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The profiles offer brief, summarized information on a country's historical background, geography, society, economy, transportation and telecommunications, government and politics, and national security. Derived from The Library of Congress.


Overview: The Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia was adopted by the country’s transitional government in December 1994 and came into force in August 1995. At that time, power also was formally transferred to the newly elected legislature, the Federal Parliamentary Assembly. The constitution provides for a parliamentary form of government and an administration based on nine states. It enshrines the separation of church and state and basic human rights and freedoms, and guarantees that all Ethiopian languages will enjoy equal state recognition, although Amharic is specified as the working language of the federal government. Ethiopia has a tradition of highly personal and strongly centralized government, a pattern the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (the present government) has followed despite constitutional limits on federal power.

Constitution: Ethiopia’s present constitution was created and ratified in 1994 by a constituent assembly. The constitution establishes Ethiopia as a federal republic with a parliamentary form of government.

Branches of Government: The legislative branch is made up of a bicameral parliament; the upper chamber is the House of the Federation (108 seats); the lower chamber is the House of People’s Representatives (548 seats). Members of the upper chamber are elected by the states’ parliamentary assemblies, whereas members of the lower chamber are elected by popular vote. All recognized national groups are guaranteed representation in the upper house; representation in the lower chamber is on the basis of population, with special set-asides for minorities. Terms in both chambers are five years, with elections last held in May 2000 and scheduled next for May 2005. Legislative power is vested in the House of People’s Representatives. The executive branch includes the president, prime minister, Council of State, and Council of Ministers. The president is elected by both legislative chambers for a six-year term. The leader of the largest party in the lower chamber becomes prime minister, who submits cabinet ministers for the chamber’s approval. All ministers serve for the duration of the legislative session. Executive power is in the hands of the prime minister, who is also the commander in chief of the armed forces. The current president is Girma Wolde-Giorgis, who has served in that position since 2001. The current prime minister is Meles Zenawi, who has served since August 1995. The judicial branch is composed of federal and state courts. The Federal Supreme Court is the highest court and exercises jurisdiction over all federal matters; lesser federal courts hear cases from the states. The president and vice president of the Federal Supreme Court are recommended by the prime minister and approved by the lower chamber of the legislature.

Administrative Divisions: Ethiopia is divided into nine ethnically based states: Afar, Amhara, Banishangul/Gumuz, Gambela, Hareri, Oromiya, Somali, Tigray, and Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples, as well as two special city administrations: Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa. The states are subdivided into zones, districts, and sub-districts.

Provincial and Local Government: Each of the nine states has its own parliamentary assembly, which elects representatives to the upper chamber of the federal parliament, the House of the Federation. Each has taxing powers and its own budget, but in practice the assemblies have had to rely on the central government for funding.

Judicial and Legal System: In 2004 the United States Department of State reported that the judiciary remains weak and overburdened, with a significant backlog of cases. Although the judicial and legal system are beginning to show signs of independence, routine abuses or neglect by the government of rights afforded under the Ethiopian constitution occur, and severe shortages of personnel and funding hamper effective operation of the courts. The government continues to decentralize and restructure the judicial system and has established courts at the state, zonal, district, and local levels. The structure of the state judiciary mirrors that of the federal judiciary. Efforts to strengthen the state court system mean that regional cases now are more likely to have a local hearing.

Electoral System: Elections for state assemblies and for the House of People’s Representatives are by universal suffrage at age 18 and secret ballot. A National Election Board prepares and conducts elections for federal and state offices. According to international and local observers, the 2000 national elections were generally fair and free in most areas, despite reports of serious irregularities in some areas.

Politics and Political Parties: The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is a coalition of ethnically based parties founded by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in 1989 to unite insurgent groups fighting against the military government. The TPLF was and remains the dominant member, and since 1991 it has provided most of Ethiopia’s military and political leadership. The TPLF’s most important partners are the Amhara National Democratic Movement and the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization. A large number of other parties, sponsored by the TPLF and often labeled “democratic organizations,” are allied with the EPRDF and hold seats in parliament. In the national elections held in 2000, the EPRDF and affiliated parties carried 519 of 548 seats in the lower chamber of parliament. The EPDRF and affiliated parties also control all regional parliamentary assemblies by a large margin. A number of opposition parties exist and are permitted to contest elections. These include the Joint Action for Democracy in Ethiopia and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Coalition, both composed of several member groups united by their opposition to the EPRDF.

Mass Media: Radio and television remain under the control of the Ethiopian government. Nine radio broadcast stations, eight AM and one shortwave, are licensed to operate. The major radio broadcasting stations (all AM) are Radio Ethiopia, Radio Torch (private), Radio Voice of One Free Ethiopia, and the Voice of the Revolution of Tigray. The single television broadcast network is Ethiopian Television. In keeping with government policy, radio broadcasts occur in a variety of languages. Print media, because of high poverty levels, low literacy rates, and poor distribution outside of the capital, serve only a small portion of the population. The paucity of distribution is mirrored by a scarcity of diversity in the official press. Since 1991 private newspapers and magazines have started to appear, and this sector of the media market, despite heavy-handed regulation, continues to grow. The Ethiopian government has a history of restricting the freedom of the press, and during the last few years has imprisoned a number of independent journalists. In 2003 the government suspended the only independent media organization in the nation, the Ethiopian Free Journalists Association, charging it with failure to comply with the state’s onerous bureaucratic regulations. Major daily newspapers include Addis Zemen, the Daily Monitor, and the Ethiopian Herald.

Foreign Relations: Ethiopia has engaged in international diplomacy with its neighbors since at least the mid-seventeenth century and with the European world since the mid-nineteenth century. It was a member of the League of Nations and a founding member of the United Nations (UN). Under Haile Sellassie I, the Organization of African Unity, now the African Union, and the UN Economic Commission for Africa located their headquarters in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia participated in UN missions in Korea (1950–53) and Congo (1960–64) and, more recently, in Burundi, Liberia, and Rwanda. Since 1991, and leaving aside Eritrea and Somalia, Ethiopia’s relations with the African and European communities in general have been constructive and stable. Relations with Eritrea have been hostile since the peace agreement that ended the 1998–2000 war over their border. An international commission—the Eritrean-Ethiopian Boundary Commission—proposed a demarcation of the border in April 2002, but Ethiopia has requested modifications of the findings, a position Eritrea rejects. The issue remains unresolved, leading some observers to speculate about a resumption of hostilities. Since 1998, Ethiopia has attempted to isolate Eritrea from its African neighbors and to maintain its political dominance in the Horn of Africa region. In an effort to develop a regional bloc, Ethiopia settled a long-lasting border dispute with Sudan, returning some land in order to secure access to Port Sudan as an alternative to Djibouti. In Somalia, Ethiopia continues to support groups opposed to the transitional government, and it has sent its forces into the country to track down Ethiopian dissidents and to support friendly factions. Ethiopia’s relations with Djibouti, which has handled all of Ethiopia’s land commerce since the loss of Eritrean ports, are by necessity close, despite disagreements over transit fees and policy toward Somalia. Geopolitical events, notably the inception of the U.S. war on terrorism, have served to strengthen Ethiopia’s relations with the United States and other Western nations, as the country is now regarded as a key ally in the effort to constrain the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. In 2003 Ethiopia joined Sudan and Yemen in an agreement ostensibly about trade but that has strategic implications for Eritrea. Ethiopia, Egypt, Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda are currently engaged in talks about a new agreement to share the waters of the Nile.

Membership in International Organizations: Ethiopia is a member of the following organizations for international cooperation: the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Criminal Police Organization, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the International Labour Organization, the Nonaligned Movement, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the United Nations (UN) (including subsidiary UN agencies such as the Conference on Trade and Development, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the World Health Organization), and the World Trade Organization. Ethiopia is also a member of the following international lending institutions: the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank), the International Development Association, the International Finance Corporation, and the International Monetary Fund. Finally, Ethiopia is a member of the following multilateral African organizations: the African, Caribbean, and Pacific Group of States, the African Development Bank, and the African Union.

Major International Treaties: Ethiopia is a party to the Convention on Biological Diversity; Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction; Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, and Stockpiling of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction; Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna; Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous, or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare (Geneva Protocol); Basel Convention on Hazardous Waste; Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer; United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in Those Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and/or Desertification, Particularly in Africa; and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Ethiopia has signed, but not ratified, the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty (The Treaty of Pelindaba); Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques; and United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Ethiopia is not a party to the Convention on Conventional Weapons.


Armed Forces Overview: After the defeat of the military government in 1991, the provisional government disbanded the former national army and relied on its own guerrilla fighters for national security. In 1993, however, the Tigrayan-led government announced plans to create a multi-ethnic defense force. This process entailed the creation of a new professional army and officer class and the demobilization of many of the irregulars who had fought against the military government, although many Tigrayan officers remained in command positions. This transformation was still underway when war with Eritrea broke out in 1998, a development that saw the ranks of the armed forces swell along with defense expenditures. During the course of the war, some commanders and pilots from the former army and air force were recalled to duty. These officers helped turn the tide decisively against Eritrea in 2000, the end of a two-year conflict that resulted in huge losses on both sides. Since then, the failure to secure a peaceful resolution of the border conflict with Eritrea has hampered efforts to reduce the size of the military and its budget, although some reductions have been achieved. Since 2001, Ethiopia has played an increasingly important role in U.S. efforts in the war against terrorism in the Horn of Africa region, a development that has spurred closer relations between the militaries of the two nations.

Foreign Military Relations: In the late 1990s, following the commencement of hostilities with Eritrea, Ethiopia contracted with several hundred personnel from the former Soviet bloc to procure, repair, and operate stocks of weaponry for the army and air force. These contractors, mostly Russian, are believed to have occupied senior command posts, including the head of the air force. In 2000 most were replaced by Ethiopian personnel, and by early 2004, it appeared the few remaining Russians were serving in a technical capacity only. There also have been reports of Israeli technicians stationed with the air force at Debre Zeit. Military relations with neighboring Djibouti, which were close in the late 1990s, have cooled somewhat, largely over a dispute between the two nations about port tariffs and rumors of Ethiopian support for a failed coup attempt in Djibouti in December 2000. In 2002 the United States established the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), a counterterrorism effort headquartered in Djibouti. The CJTF-HOA’s theater of operations includes both the airspace and land of Ethiopia. In January 2004, as part of the operations of the CJTF-HOA, soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 3d Infantry Regiment established a forward base in rural Ethiopia.

External Threat: The unresolved border dispute with neighboring Eritrea constitutes the major external threat to security and stability in Ethiopia. Ethiopia and Eritrea have been in a state of “cold peace” since the December 2000 truce, the primary bones of contention being the status of the town of Badme and the Irob enclave. Although it seems both nations have little interest in renewing a war neither can afford financially or politically, this consideration has not prevented continued sabre-rattling and political posturing on both sides. About 3,800 troops from the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea are deployed on the Eritrean side of the border between the two countries in an effort to maintain the fragile peace. Relations with Somalia are of longer-term concern, given their ill-defined and porous border and irredentist sentiment among Somalis that produced a war in 1977–78. Oromo and to a lesser degree Somali insurgents currently operate from Somali territory.

Defense Budget: In the last years of the military regime, defense spending peaked at almost US$1 billion dollars, or nearly 14 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). In the mid-1990s, spending shrank significantly to about US$130 million (or 2 percent of GDP). The onset of war with Eritrea in 1998, however, spurred massive spending to cover capital investments in new weapons systems, and by 2000 defense expenditures exceeded US$830 million (or nearly 11 percent of GDP). Military spending during the war is thought to have averaged at least US$2 million per day. Since the December 2000 peace agreement, spending on defense has fallen by 50 percent, but is still quite high, particularly for such a poor nation. In 2003 a national security policy paper proposed reducing defense spending to 2 percent of GDP (roughly a quarter of the 7.7 percent of GDP, some US$460 million, spent in 2002), but in light of continuing tensions with Eritrea, implementation of this policy has been delayed indefinitely. Ethiopia reportedly is using hard currency from remittances to finance current arms purchases. In 2003 the defense budget was US$405 million.

Major Military Units: The Ethiopian armed forces are undergoing a period of transformation from a militia force to a national body. The Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) grew out of a coalition of former guerrilla armies, mainly the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. Officers connected with the TPLF have continued to dominate the military. Although the armed forces have significant battlefield experience, their militia orientation has complicated the transition to a structured, integrated military. Ranks and conventional units were only adopted in 1996. A United States-assisted effort to restructure the military was interrupted by mobilization for the war with Eritrea, when the armed forces grew in a period of months from 100,000 to 250,000 troops, with another 100,000 militiamen serving in support. Demobilization following the cease-fire of 2000 reduced the armed forces to an estimated 180,000 in 2004. Under the planned reorganization, the military eventually will have three military districts, each with its own headquarters and under the command of army headquarters in Addis Ababa. On paper, each district will have its own corps with two divisions and one mechanized brigade. A strategic reserve of six brigades will be located in Addis Ababa. According to sources, forces around Addis Ababa in 2004 (two divisional formations, each with three brigades) were thought to be well equipped with serviceable main battle tanks and other heavy, mechanized equipment. There are army bases throughout the country, including in Addis Ababa, Bahir Dar, Debre Zeyit, Dire Dawa, Gondar, Gore, and Jijiga.

Major Military Equipment: Ethiopia made significant purchases of arms from Russia in late 1999 and early 2000 before the May 2000 United Nations arms embargo went into effect. It is likely that much of that equipment suffered battle damage in the war with Eritrea, suggesting that raw numbers alone may overstate the capacity of the defense forces. The Ethiopian army possesses approximately 250 main battle tanks, 400 reconnaissance, armored personnel, and infantry fighting vehicles, 400 pieces of towed artillery, 50 multiple rocket launchers, 370 surface-to-air missiles, and a small number of self-propelled artillery. The Ethiopian air force has 48 combat aircraft (including 6 Su-27s, 25 MiG-21MFs, and 13 MiG-23BNs), 25 armed helicopters, and 12 transport helicopters. When Eritrea gained independence in 1993, Ethiopia became a landlocked nation. Most of the small Ethiopian navy was ceded to Eritrea at that time. Ethiopia has no strategic weapons and is a party to nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons treaties. Some stockpiles of chemical weapons used by Ethiopia in the 1978–79 war with Somalia remain, but the weapons are probably useless now.

Military Service: The term of service in the Ethiopian National Defence Force is 16 months, of which 4 months are training. Service is voluntary.

Paramilitary Forces: None.

Foreign Military Forces: As of early 2005, no known foreign military forces were in Ethiopia. The 3,800-member United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) is stationed inside Eritrea. No UNMEE forces are in Ethiopia.

Military Forces Abroad: Nearly 900 Ethiopian soldiers are stationed as United Nations peacekeepers in Burundi, and some 1,800 troops serve as peacekeepers in Liberia.

Police: Reliable estimates on the size of the Ethiopian police force are not available. The budget for public order and security, which covers police, doubled between 1997 and 1999 and is believed to have remained at a high level since that time.

Internal Threat: Sporadic violence has been reported in the northeastern Afar region between the Issa-Somali and the Afar. Ethnic clashes between the Anuak and the Nuer, which drew in people from central Ethiopia (known collectively as “highlanders”), broke out in 2003 in the far western Gambella area, displacing 20 percent of the population and leaving upwards of 1,000 people dead. Accounts of those responsible for the killings include possible involvement of government forces. Since the cease-fire with Eritrea, growing dissent within the Tigray-dominated military has increased, leading to threats of mutiny in 2001 over disputed salary increases. In order to quell any attempts at rebellion, army units considered loyal to the leadership in Addis Ababa have been deployed throughout the country. The army chief of staff and commander of the air force both were dismissed after a June 2001 clash between Ethiopian army units. In 2003 there were unconfirmed reports of air force personnel defecting to Eritrea or seeking asylum in third countries. The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), created in 1973, is thought to be the primary insurgent force in Ethiopia. Its stated goal is to champion the political and cultural rights of the Oromo people, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. Estimates of the size of the OLF vary, but active members may number in the low thousands. The Ogaden National Liberation Army (ONLA), founded in 1984, seeks the right to self-determination for Ethiopian Somalis in the Ogaden region of the southeast. No estimates are available on the size of the ONLA.

Terrorism: Ethiopia is not known to harbor international terrorists. Nonetheless, several terrorist incidents have occurred, most notably the attempted assassination in 1995 of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt at Bole International Airport, for which the Sudanese government was blamed. Since 2001, Ethiopia has allied itself with the United States in its antiterrorism efforts in the Horn, and its armed forces participate in the U.S.-sponsored Combined Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa antiterrorism force based in Djibouti.

Human Rights: According to the U.S. Department of State’s human rights report for 2004 and similar sources, the Ethiopian government’s human rights record is poor. The Ethiopian government does not respect the basic human rights of many of its citizens. Police and security forces have harassed, arbitrarily and illegally detained, tortured, and in some cases, killed members of the political opposition, demonstrators, and suspected insurgents. Thousands of suspects remain in detention without charge, and lengthy pretrial detention continues to be a problem. Prison conditions are poor. The government often ignores citizens’ privacy rights and laws regarding search warrants. Although fewer journalists have been arrested, detained, or punished in 2004 than in past years, the government nevertheless continues to restrict freedom of the press. The government limits freedom of assembly, particularly for members of opposition groups, and security forces have used excessive force to break up demonstrations. Violence and discrimination against women continue to be problems. Female genital mutilation is widespread, although efforts to curb the practice have had some effect. The economic and sexual exploitation of children continues, as does trafficking in persons. Forced labor, particularly among children, is a persistent problem. Low-level government interference with labor unions continues. Although the government generally respects the free exercise of religion, local authorities at times interfere with religious practice.

Index for Ethiopia:
Overview | Government


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