Is Ethiopia Africa’s Oldest Country?

With many debates on what the oldest African country is, there are many reason to believe Ethiopia fits that profile. Although Liberia is believed to be the oldest “independent” country in Africa, we cannot ignore the fact that Ethiopia is one country that was never colonised and going further back than nations and countries, some of the oldest hominid fossils have been found in Ethiopia.

Ethiopian Flag

Ethiopia and Liberia’s Independence

Ethiopia and Liberia were the only two African countries that were not colonized. Liberia was founded by freed slaves and Ethiopia resisted Italian attempts at colonization.

Between 1881 and 1914, an invasion and occupation of Africa by European countries resulted in a mass colonization of most African countries. This invasion is referred to as the “Scramble for Africa.” By 1914, 90 percent of Africa was colonized, compared to 10 percent in 1870.

Ethiopia, known as Abyssinia at the time, was invaded by Italy twice but their efforts to colonize the country were unsuccessful and Abyssinia, or Ethiopia, remained independent. Liberia was established as an independent colony created for freed slaves by the American Colonization Society. In 1839, it was declared as a commonwealth and, in 1847, Liberia was declared completely independent.

History of Ethiopia

Nubia (Upper Nubia, this was called Kush (Cush) under the 18th-dynasty and was called Ethiopia by the ancient Greeks) was the seat of one of the earliest civilizations of ancient Africa, with a history that can be traced from at least 2000 BC onward (through Nubian monuments and artifacts, as well as written records from Egypt and Rome), and was home to one of the African empires. There were a number of large Nubian kingdoms throughout the Postclassical Era, the last of which collapsed in 1504

Picture by Nina Hamilton

Ethiopia was able to maintain its independence after defeating the Italians in the 1896 war in Adawa. Over 70,000 Ethiopian troops stood firmly and confronted the Italians.

Italy occupied Ethiopia for 5 years but failed to colonize it. When Italy declared that Ethiopia was her protectorate, Menelik II dismissed the claim in 1890. Under his leadership, the Ethiopian troops won the war, leaving more than 4,000 Italian soldiers dead or missing. Two thousand Italian soldiers were captured. When the news reached Italy, there were riots on the streets and the prime minister got replaced after 2 weeks. In the same year, the new government accepted the full independence of Ethiopia.

Human life in Ethiopia

Human life has been around in Ethiopia for millions of years as skeletal fragments belonging to Australopithecus afarensis, an apelike creature that may have been the ancestor of modern humans, that  were found in the area are thought to be about 3.4 million – 2.9 million years old. As life flourished in Ethiopia, complex societies began to develop and one of the first kingdoms established was Dʿmt, which lasted from c.980 BCE – c.400 BCE. The people of this kingdom developed irrigation schemes, used plows, grew millet, and made iron tools and weapons. 

After the fall of  Dʿmt, the Aksumite Kingdom rose to power around 100 AD and ended sometime in 940 AD. This kingdom was followed by the Zagwe Dynasty, and the Solomonic Dynasty after that – Ethiopia would continue to be ruled by a monarchy until 1974. Ethiopia is one of the only countries in Africa to never be colonized by a European power, but it was occupied by the Italians from 1936 – 1941.  

The country has had various monarchies since the 2nd millennium BCE. Importantly, Ethiopia was the only African country that was never colonized by a European country, as they were able to defeat all invading forces. When the League of Nations, the interwar predecessor to the United Nations, was formed after World War I, Ethiopia was the only independent African member. Ethiopia has always been a highly diverse, multi-ethnic state, and this also extends to its religion. The Kingdom of Aksum was one of the first countries after Armenia to accept Christianity, but there are also long histories of Muslims and Jews in the country.

Image by Adrian Whear

It has a unique cultural heritage, being the home of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church – one of the oldest Christian denominations – and a monarchy that ended only in the coup of 1974.  It served as a symbol of African independence throughout the colonial period, and was a founder member of the United Nations and the African base for many international organisations.

Drought and civil conflict left Ethiopia in a state of turmoil until 1991, when the long authoritarian rule of Meles Zenawi brought a degree of stability. Since 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has launched a campaign of political liberalisation at home and sought to end disputes with Ethiopia’s neighbours, in particular Eritrea.

Why were Ethiopia and Liberia independent in 1914

Ethiopia is a mountainous nation that has existed for thousands of years, even existing as the kingdom of Axum in Roman times. It was a powerful empire at the time of the scramble for Africa, and, since it lacks natural resources, had a large military and good diplomatic relations with many nations, it was not a target for any of the major European powers. While Italy did twice attempt to conquer the nation, they won only due to their advanced European weaponry and occupied the nation for only a few years. The nation has had a strong sense of independence, and due to the skilled leaders Menelik II and Haile Selassie, Ethiopia remained a well known and powerful country and a member of the league of nations, which was supposed to guarantee its existence.

Liberia, while technically never colonized, was never taken over by Europeans because Americans got there first. It was supposed to be a refuge for freed slaves to return to “the homeland” and establish a new African nation, but it went horribly wrong and now the nation is a mess. Europeans have always feared a war with the U.S. and thus stay away from Liberia.

In conclusion…

These two countries did not witness the Europeans or Americans directly steering the affairs of their country. They were left alone to decide for themselves what better suits them. They were not part of the African nations who were scrambled and partitioned into different colonial interests.

Ethiopians won the the invasion of Italy at the Battle of Adwa which came to be known as Victory of Africa. According to one historian, “In an age of relentless European expansion, Ethiopia alone had successfully defended its independence”. As some of the locals put it, “we waited until they had built us railways and nice buildings… and then kicked them out

Liberia on the other hand was never invaded as the country itself was founded by the American Colonization Society in hopes that slaves, once emancipated, would move there. The country was founded as a free state which makes it a safe assumption to make, that Ethiopia is the oldest African country.

Source: 1, 2, 3, 4,

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