When he’s not looking for booze close to the beach or climbing temples and stuff, the standard traveller is very affected by postcolonial issues. According to his social media presence, he’s deeply political, and the internet makes him stumble upon the fact that Ethiopia is Africa’s only country that has never been a colony. The traveller drinks a toast to that and feels achingly cosmopolitan.

But is he right? Was Ethiopia never colonised?

First, Italy colonised the areas close to the coast in the late 19th century.1 Second, Italy tried to colonise the big rest of the country but the Ethiopian army won important battles and kept the country independent. However, Italy made another attempt under Mussolini and annexed Ethiopia from 1936 to 1941. So technically, Ethiopia was affected by colonialism but the extent was very limited with regard to both space and time. This is indeed different to the rest of Africa and I’m thrilled to announce that the standard traveller is almost right.

As a sophisticated buzzkill, you probably want to know why.

  1. Ethiopia is not very accessible. There are massive mountains and valleys but no big river. 80 percent of the country lie above 1,200 meters, Addis Ababa – the capital – at 2,400 meters. Consequently, establishing a colony would have been really expensive.

  2. Still, Western powers would probably have accepted the challenge if Ethiopia would have had resources such as coal or iron – it didn’t. When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, it wasn’t before long that the few commercially interesting parts close to the Red Sea were colonised.

  3. Colonial powers wanted to grab the land anyway but they couldn’t reach a conclusion and postponed the decision – which left Ethiopia independent.

  4. Last but not least, the majority of the population was Christian which meant that not even missionaries were interested in going there.

In short, Ethiopia wasn’t easy to conquer and lobby groups that pushed for colonisation elsewhere – such as the extractive industries or the church – didn’t find the region worthwhile. However, this doesn’t mean that the county is better off than other African countries. When more than 800 years of monarchy ended in 1974, a socialist one-party dictatorship took over. It collapsed in 1991 and an alliance of former rebels came into power. The new regime is so authoritarian that, since 2015, not a single member of parliament is with the opposition.


Photo credit: Rod Waddington on flickr.com / CC BY-SA

  1. This colony was “Italian Eritrea”.