3. The regime of emperor Haile Selassie 1930-1974

Emperor Haile Selassie, who had already firmly established his control over the country since the late 1940s, further increased his control of Ethiopia during the 1960s using the large scale development assistance Ethiopia received from foreign Government- and NGO agencies, among which from the United States and European countries including Great Britain, France, Sweden and the Netherlands.

Using this foreign assistance, the emperor send many young Ethiopian to study abroad, while other technical and financial assistance received, was used to open up the country.

The effect of all this foreign assistance was a rapid increase in population particularly in the already relatively densely occupied northern highlands. The modern medical assistance provided by missionary groups rapidly reduced the infant death rate, which caused a rapid increase of the population resulting in overcrowding of the Ethiopian highlands during the 1970s.

Another issue was that most young Ethiopians preferred to stay in the highlands in traditional farming. This resulted in a much slower development of industries and commercial enterprises compared with most other developing countries, in which countries most young people left the rural areas for the towns. This custom of staying in the highlands on the family farm further added to the population pressure in the highlands.

In summary, the rural Ethiopian situation gradually changed irreversibly since the late 1950s, due to the following factors:

  • A rapid increase of the highland population resulting in overcrowding, farm size reduction and erosion damage of farm land, particularly in North Ethiopia.
  • Eviction of traditional farmers by new landlords, who had obtained formal deeds to lands in South Ethiopia, which had already been occupied for many years by traditional Oromo and similar farmer groups.
  • A sever drought in Northern Africa during 1973-1974 covering most of the highlands and lowlands of Ethiopia.



4. The 1970-1974 drought and famine in Ethiopia

The drought in Wollo and Tigre provinces started in the late 1960s with a number of years with below average rainfall, reducing harvests and leading up to the severe drought of 1973-1974 when rain completely failed. The effect on the small fragile erosion prone, highland farms in Wollo and Tigray Provinces was disastrous. Crop production failed from the 1970 harvest onwards for four subsequent years and by 1973 the livestock started to die in large numbers, as all grazing land had dried out completely. After the farmers had consumed their last food stocks, they also started to die in great numbers. Estimates of victims of the famine ranged from 200 000 to 1 000.000 deceased persons.

In late 1972 a first warning of the seriousness of the drought and famine was given by Christian Missions operating in the Tigray province and by some University researchers, working in the Wollo province. A joint report by FAO and the Ministry of Agriculture dated December 1972, reported a large drought and famine in Wollo and Tigris provinces. The report actually included an estimate of the amounts of grain needed to avoid starvation of large groups of the farming population. Unfortunately the report was completely ignored by the central government, which actually in late 1972 sold a large amount of cereals in storage on the export market.

Struck by the severe famine among the rural population several NGOs gradually started to organize food and shelter posts along the Addis Ababa-Desi-Asmara road. Many desperate farm families from the remote villages in the highlands, who had heard of these food handouts, started to travel on foot to these food and shelter posts along the main road. Some families had to travel over a 100 km to reach these help posts along the main road and many people died during their travel to the main road, struck by severe famine, illness and total exhaustion. From some far away villages there were no survivors at all.

Despite these warnings from missionaries and local government staff the Ethiopian national and provincial Government continued to refuse to recognize the existence of the drought.

Finally a TV presentation on 18 October 1973 on British TV by Jonathan Dimbleby: The Unknown Famine, made the world aware of the seriousness of the famine.

The most striking image of the Dimbleby presentation was a picture of the emperor feeding his lions with large pieces of meat, while telling the reporter that: “There is no hunger problem in Ethiopia. There have always been famines in Ethiopia, which is a normal occurrence in my country. There is no need for negative reports or actions.” The TV presentation of the interview with the emperor was mixed with images of people dead or dying from hunger, taken only a few days earlier in Wollo province.

The effect of the Dimbleby presentation was that the World suddenly became aware of the enormous calamity that had struck Ethiopia. Soon after, Ethiopian and foreign aid agencies started to provide food and shelter and by late 1974 more than 40 aid agencies were operating in Ethiopia to give food and shelter to the Wollo and Tigray rural population. Curiously, initially part of the aid supplies were stolen by some high level Government officials. Another problem was that the Minister of Finance insisted on taxing the imported aid goods with a high rate, as he found these emergency food imports unnecessary. However, due to strong international complaints, finally the Government officials were punished, who had stolen the food aid, and the Minister of Finance stopped taxing the food aid.

In the1974 season it was further reported that drought had also affected the grazing lands of the Afar and the Somali pastoralists. Their only wealth, their livestock started to die in large numbers, depriving these pastoralists of their sole means of subsistence. Fortunately aid agencies were able to follow up this calamity much quicker and food and shelter distribution for the Afar and Somali pastoralists were quickly started. Later also some parts of the Southern highlands were effected by the drought, but by this time the aid organizations were able to act much more quickly.

For the record, it has to be mentioned that indeed Ethiopia has often in the past been suffering from severe droughts and famine in which tens of thousands of people died. Considering only the 20th century, there have been seven severe drought periods before the 1970/74 drought: These were during: 1896-1901, 1913-14, 1920-22, 1932-34, 1953-54, 1957-58 and 1964-66.

Since the 1970-1974 drought, Ethiopia has again been suffering from drought during 1984-1984, 1987-1988, 1994-1996, when the country was ruled by the Marxist regime. The latest drought, during the present regime of Meles Zenawi, was during the period 2000-2003 and again some eight million rural Ethiopians suffered from malnutrition. Unfortunately the response to the calamities by the Marxist and the present regime was hardly better as compared with Haile Selassie’s response.


5. The 1974 Ethiopian revolution

The effect of the deteriorating situation in Ethiopia since the late 1950s including the deteriorating land tenure situation in North Ethiopia and the eviction of large numbers of traditional farmers in South Ethiopia in combination with the severe 1970-1974 drought, can be summarized as follows:

  • A rapid increase of the highland population in the Northern Provinces resulted in overcrowding, farm size reduction and erosion damage of farm land.
  • Eviction of large groups of traditional farmers by new landlords in the Southern Provinces created a large group of desperate rural landless
  • The severe drought in Northern Africa during 1973-1974, covering most of the highlands and lowlands of Ethiopia and other parts of Africa, resulted in severe famine.


The effect of these negative factors resulted in a great unrest of the Ethiopian population. Thus, in spite of the ruthless control of the emperor, the regime started to break down in January 1974. It started with a mutiny among several army units in January 1974. These were joined by taxi drivers, students, teachers, and other civil servants, who did not longer accept the harsh government rules. Initially, the Haile Selassie regime tried to control the situation, but without success. Encouraged by the success of the first groups of protests, the rural population, in particular the evicted traditional farmer groups in South Ethiopia, joined the revolution, which continued during the following months. By September, however, Marxists elements within the army had gradually taken control of the revolution and increasingly controlled the entire country. The emperor and his senior civil servants, mainly members of the aristocracy, had been put in prison by October and many of these senior civil servants were executed during the following months. The emperor died suddenly in his prison in August 1975 under mysterious conditions. It was claimed that Hail Mariam Mengistu, the leader of the revolutionary Marxist army committee-the Dergue, which had taken control of Ethiopia, had personally killed the emperor in his sleep with a pillow.


NB It is outside the context of this introduction on land settlement to describe in detail the 1974 Ethiopian revolution, which is excellently reported in: “Class and Revolution in Ethiopia’ by John Markakis and Nega Ayele, 1978 to which monograph is referred.