Ethiopia's proximity to the oil-rich Arab states and its prestige within the African continent made it strategically important. Thus, Selassie persuaded the United Nations (UN) Economic Commission for Africa and the Organization of African Unity (OAU) to base their headquarters in Addis Ababa. Anxious to strengthen relations with Ethiopia, in 1953 the United States offered economic and military aid to the country in return for access to military facilities, beginning a special relationship that would endure for more than twenty years.
Ethiopia benefited from Agency for International Development (AID) programs, a large Peace Corps contingent, and advanced American training of Ethiopian military personnel, while one of the most significant American gains was access to a communications facility at Asmara. Named Kagnew Station in honor of the Ethiopian legion that fought as part of the UN force in the Korean War, it provided important intelligence until the 1970s, when technological advances made it obsolete.
The Soviet Union also recognized the strategic importance of Ethiopia and thus attempted to court the Ethiopian emperor. Selassie accepted $100 million in Soviet aid in 1959 but maintained his alignment with the West. Hopeful that new leadership might prove more receptive to Soviet overtures, the USSR attempted to generate change by aiding internal opposition movements. The Ethiopian population is ethnically diverse, so secessionist movements flourished. The most serious one was in Eritrea, which the UN federated with Ethiopia in 1952. As Eritrea provided the only access to the sea, however, Selassie wanted complete control of the area. Consequently, in 1962 he made the region an Ethiopian province, igniting an Eritrean struggle for independence that would last for thirty years.
Soviet hopes of gaining a foothold in Ethiopia were boosted in September 1974 when social problems, exacerbated by famine the previous year, and discontent within the military over pay and working conditions provoked the overthrow of Selassie. Ethiopia was then ruled by the provisional military government, led by the provisional military administrative council known as the Derg, the Amharic word for "committee." In December 1974 the Derg announced a program of Ethiopian socialism. This included the nationalization of industries, the closing of schools and universities, and land reform.
Committee rule ended in February 1977 when Mengistu seized sole control of the government by having his political rivals shot. The same month, the new U.S. president, Jimmy Carter, sharply condemned the Ethiopian government-sponsored violence and suspended military aid to the nation. Mengistu used the American action to sever ties with the United States in April and then turned to Moscow for support.
The onset of the Ogaden War with Somalia (1977–1978) consolidated the relationship between Ethiopia and the USSR, as the Ethiopian victory was a direct result of communist bloc support. The war also resulted in a vast increase in the size of Ethiopian armed forces. Until 1977 the Ethiopian military had been relatively small, but during 1977–1980 it increased from 53,000 to 229,000 men. By 1987, with continued Somali incursions as well as internal unrest, that figure grew to 320,000.
Meanwhile, Mengistu created a Soviet-style state, culminating in the 1984 creation of the Workers' Party of Ethiopia. He launched the new party with great ceremony as part of the festivities celebrating the tenth anniversary of his coup. Time magazine estimated that the total cost of the celebrations was upwards of $150 million. Days later, journalists broke the news of the famine that had gripped the northern part of Ethiopia for months, which Mengistu had attempted to conceal. In February 1985, he publicly admitted the crisis and announced a major resettlement program, financed by increased taxes. Dissent against Mengistu intensified as the truth about his lavish spending in a time of famine became widely known. In 1984 the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) had regrouped, while farther south the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) were among the main opposition movements.
A common determination to oust Mengistu from power led the EPLF and TPLF to coordinate their activities beginning in 1988, while increasing dissatisfaction within the army resulted in an aborted coup in 1989. Mengistu responded by executing or imprisoning a number of army officers but nonetheless agreed to make some concessions to the growing opposition. He abandoned Ethiopian socialism and introduced free-market principles, but the economy continued to deteriorate, exacerbated by a drop in the price for coffee (Ethiopia's main export) and increases in the price of oil.
In 1989 the TPLF led a coalition of resistance forces to form the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Over the course of the next two years, the EPRDF took control of the countryside, then advanced on Addis Ababa. With little internal support and no external support (Soviet military aid had ceased that year), Mengistu fled the country on 21 May 1991. On 23 May the besieged Ethiopian army in Asmara, cut off since the EPLF had seized Massawa in 1990, surrendered, giving Eritrea de facto independence. Five days later, leaders of the EPDRF entered Addis Ababa and, in a move endorsed by the United States, set up a new democratic government comprised of representatives from the major ethnic groups and political organizations. Donna R. Jackson
Korn, David A. Ethiopia, the United States and the Soviet Union. London: Croom Helm, 1986.; Lefebvre, J. A. Arms for the Horn: U.S. Security Policy in Ethiopia and Somalia, 1953–1991. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991.; Schraeder, Peter J. United States Foreign Policy toward Africa: Incrementalism, Crisis and Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Donna R. Jackson