Why was Ethiopia not colonized?

Why was Ethiopia not colonized?

Africa History Blog II 

Ethiopia is Africa’s oldest independent state and one of two African countries that avoided colonial rule. The country was however occupied by Italy in the 1930s, forcing the Emperor Haile Selassie to flee. Haile Selassie was only able to return after British and Ethiopian forces expelled the Italian army in the course of World War II (Council on Foreign Relations).

Ethiopia hosts the African Union (AU) and is one of the world’s largest troop contributor to U.N. peacekeeping operations. Agriculture accounts for 70% of employment and a third of GDP. Coffee is the country’s largest export. The hydroelectric project, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam, is Africa’s largest hydroelectric power project. Once completed, it would allow Ethiopia to export electricity to its neighbors (US Congressional Research Service).

Natural resources that make a significant contribution to the economy include gold (At least a million people are estimated to be employed in gold mining), platinum, copper, potash, natural gas and (as stated above), hydropower. However, in 2015, Ethiopia played a significant role in the world’s production of pumice, pumicite and tantalum (USGS Minerals Yearbook; Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook).

What made Ethiopia different?

Ethiopia has never really been supported by rich mineral resources. Instead, it relied on advances in agriculture. Indeed, Ethiopia was among the first African people to adopt plowing technology. What made Ethiopia stand out from other African countries was its state formation capabilities, advances in agricultural production and fiscal structures (Cambridge).

Menelik II and the Italians

Menelik II was Emperor of Ethiopia from 1889 to his death in 1913, and King of Shewa (1866–89). He introduced several significant changes. For example, his decision in the late 1880s to locate the royal seat to Addis Ababa (“New Flower”) led to a permanent capital in the 1890s (US Library of Congress).

Ethiopia was long an isolated country (US State Department). However, as Menelik started expanding his empire, European colonial powers started showing an interest in the territories surrounding Ethiopia. During his rise to power, Menelik struggled to control Ethiopia against his internal rival Emperor Johannes IV. The Italians allied with him and began supplying Ethiopia with weapons in hopes that Menelik would eventually surrender his power to them (World War II in Europe: An Encyclopedia; NBC learn).

Menelik II, the emperor of Ethiopia who defeated the Italians

Eritrea: Ethiopia's independence deal?

In 1885, Italian troops occupied Eritrea, then still a province of Ethiopia (Oxford).They mainly did so, to counter the French expansion in the region.

The seizure by Italians of huge swathes of agricultural fields in the highlands sparked an anti-colonial revolt in the Ethiopian army. In response, the Italians invaded the Tigray region but faced the resistance of Ethiopian troops, who defeated them in the battle of Adwa in 1896. This victory brought Ethiopia new prestige as well as general recognition of its sovereign status by the European powers (Harvard Press; United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner).

In the peace treaty that followed, Emperor Menelik II renounced Ethiopian claims to the Italian colony of Eritrea in exchange for the recognition of Ethiopia as an independent State (United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner). More specifically, Italy was granted the territories of Bogos, Hamasen and Akale-Guzai (Britannica). On 1 January 1890, the Italian king announced the creation of the colony of Eritrea – the new monarch of the independent Ethiopia, Menelik II accepted (United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner).

Due to its coastal location on the Red Sea and its trading links with various empires, Eritrea had been an integral part of historic Ethiopia. It remained an Italian colony until 1941 (United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner).

(Further Reading: The Guardian)

Selected Timeline of Ethiopia

Ca. 500 BC

The rulers of Aksum, the first Ethiopian kingdom, claim descent from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba


Ahmad ibn Ibrahim leads Muslim Somalis in a holy war against Christian Ethiopia, destroying churches and shrines


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Addis Ababa is founded, to become subsequently the capital of Ethiopia


Menelik II is crowned emperor in Ethiopia, bringing the crown back to the Solomon dynasty


In the treaty of Uccialli, Menelik II cedes the Ethiopian province of Eritrea to Italy

The Ethiopian emperor, Menelik II, inflicts a shattering defeat on Italian forces at Aduwa

Italy, one of the local colonial powers, accepts Ethiopia’s claim to the Ogaden region of the Somali territory

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  • africaneuropean

    Thank you for your kind messages. We appreciate you visiting our blog and look forward to any other things you may find.

  • Leah

    Keep on working, great job!

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