Ethiopia Economy

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Historical development of transport

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This text is designed to give the reader some idea of the growth and development of transport in Ethiopia.

For convenience, the treatment is based on the ancient, medieval and nineteenth century historical periods of Ethiopia; and the accompanying map indicates developments in the more recent periods since 1820 E.C (1828.)

During the Axumite period, Ethiopia was a mighty and prosperous state in North-East Africa. A network of caravan trade routes used to connect its interior with its ports of Adulis, Mitsiwa and Zula. Its fleets dominated the Red Sea.

However, Ethiopia fell under persistent invasion which, in combination with internal conflicts, brought about stagnation or retrogression. Its active ports and trade centre were occupied and destroyed.

Sea routes which once carried its merchandise and warriors across the Red Sea collapsed with the kingdom. Internal transport conditions also deteriorated. Permanent trading routes, previously frequented by traders leading huge caravans from the interior of the kingdom to the ports, reverted to bush and shrub land.

Although a revival of economic prosperity was witnessed in the medieval period, the same causes, internal strife and foreign invasions, crippled development of inter-regional links between the interior and the coast.

This situation may have discouraged initiatives for the building and expansion of a transportation network.

Both kings of kings and regional kings built some roads. Even so, the task of road building at the time was not with the consideration for its economic importance, but rather for the strategic importance that it could have served.

Kings and their followers engaged themselves in the clearance of bush, scrub and boulders in regions they happened to pass through, giving rise to trail-like roads which came to be known as “King’s roads”.

Apart from the mere trails in existence, road building in the modern sense was started during the reign of King of Kings Theodros 1847-1860 E.C. (1855-1868). In this effort to restore the state of Ethiopia and form a strong central government, Theodros ultimately came to realize the importance of improved roads to facilitate easy movement and mobilization of his forces.

The British expedition, under the leadership of Napier, seeking Theodros, had its hand in road construction. Realizing the difficult terrain and the problem of mobility, the British force constructed a road from the port of Zula to Mekdela (Napier’s expedition route, on the map). Later the road had little use for subsequent governments.

However, following the death of Theodros and the subsequent unfavourable attitude of king of kings Yohannes IV towards road construction, who believed that it was easy access which could play an advantageous role for invaders, there was a brief period of recession in road development.

New and better conditions prevailed for road construction during the reign of King of Kings Menilik II, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The construction of the railway line (Ethio-Djibout, formerly known as Franco-Ethiopian) together with a deep-seated intention towards modernization, growing commercial activity and urban development, necessitated a full-scale engagement in road construction.

Thus a number of roads, although poor for motor vehicles, were built. These joined nearly all the regions with the capital Addis Ababa (the then flourishing and expanding village).

At the same time the Italians too, were busy in the northern part of the country which they snatched and occupied. Well-built road networks together with the ports of Mitsiwa and Asseb (a small village but prospective port) were already being developed.

A number of air-fields, both in the occupied territory and other parts of the country were built, particularly during and after World War I.

But development of transport construction took shape only following the introduction of motor vehicles, the presence of which brought accelerated efforts for improved motorable roads.

The coming of this new element, which was unknown previously, necessitated the creation of organized activity in road construction. Thus, the Department of Public Works came into existence.

The five-year period of the Italian occupation saw a tremendous growth in motorable roads. Obviously the primary intention was the provision of easy mobility for the occupying forces. Existing trails were improved and new roads were constructed.

After the liberation there was a period of brief stagnation which came to an end with the establishment in 1943 E.C (1951). of a new organization, the Imperial Highway Authority.

In subsequent years the Authority engaged itself in the task of overcoming transport problems. Many roads (totalling 5460 kms) were rehabilitated. Of these, 1270 Kms were asphalted during the first ten years.

By 1955 E.C (1963) the total road network in the country reached 22,759 Kms. including fully motorable roads constructed by the Authority in its regular programmes plus other roads, routes and trails formerly in use.

However, in a country of large size and rugged terrain, it proved very expensive and time-consuming to reach all regions by road.

To keep pace with the influence of modernization, it was therefore, necessary, to fill the mobility gap by the expansion of air transport, which is the only option available when accessibility by vehicle is very difficult and expensive.

Its indispensability in remote and isolated areas and its capability of covering long distances in a shorter period of time has kept the air transport sector among the top-most priorities of the country’s development targets.

(Source: National Atlas of Ethiopia)


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