Sub-Saharan Africa

The Zulu Exception in South Africa’s 2024 General Election

In South Africa’s general election of May 29, 2024, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party received only 40 percent of the vote. This election marked a stunning reversal of the party’s fortune; in 2019 it took 57 percent of the vote, while in 1994, 1999, 2004, 2009, and 2014 it took over 60 percent. Economic problems, persistently high levels of crime, allegations of corruption, and growing opposition to immigration have turned many South Africans against the once-dominant party that brought an end to apartheid and successfully democratized the country.

Despite its relatively poor showing, the ANC still did much better than any other party. The centrist Democratic Alliance (DA) came in a distant second place, with only 21.8 percent of the vote. The previously third-ranking party, the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), took less than 10 percent, losing five seats in the National Assembly. Several new parties gained seats, particularly the left-populist uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party, founded by the disgraced former president and previous ANC leader, Jacob Zuma. Zuma’s MK party took a healthy 14.6 percent of the vote, gaining 58 of the 400 seats in the National Assembly.

The strong showing of the new leftwing MK party coupled with the losses experienced by the African National Congress seem to indicate a profound level of dissatisfaction with the relatively moderate economic policies of the ANC’s current leader, Cyril Ramaphosa. But a geographical analysis of the election reveals a more complicated situation. As the map posted below indicates, MK did not emerge as a new party with national appeal, but rather one whose support is largely limited to the Zulu population. It received 45 percent of the vote in the Zulu heartland (KwaZulu-Natal), 16.8 percent in Mpumalanga, which is 24 percent Zulu-speaking, and 9.8 percent in Gauteng (the country’s core province, containing Johannesburg), which is 23 percent Zulu-speaking. Otherwise, MK’s level of support ranged from small to negligible. Its poor showing among the country’s other ethnic groups is not surprising, as its ideology is based – according to Wikipedia – on “Zulu nationalism” and “Zulu interests.”

South Africa 2024 election MK vote map

uMkhonto weSizwe is not the only South African political party that represents Zulu interest. The long-established Zulu-nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) did relatively well in the 2024 election, taking over 18 percent of the vote in KwaZulu-Natal and gaining three additional National Assembly seats, for a total of 17. A socially conservative, anti-communist organization, the Inkatha Freedom Party finds most of its support in the more traditional north-central region of KwaZulu-Natal, as the paired Wikipedia map posted below show. It performed particularly well in the municipality of Ulundi. The town of Ulundi was once the capital of the Zulu kingdom and later became the seat of the Bantustan (apartheid-era pseudo-country) of KwaZulu. In no other province did the Inkatha Freedom Party exceed one percent of the vote; in the western third of the country it received less than one tenth of one percent.

2024 South African Election IFP vote map

2024 South African Election KwaZulu-Natal Vote Map

The 2024 election results show that KwaZulu-Natal stands apart from the rest of South Africa, its voters more inclined to support parties that favor Zulu interest than those who focus on national issues. As the paired maps posted below show, the only municipalities in KwaZulu-Natal that did not give plurality support to one the two Zulu nationalist parties are demographically dominated by Xhosa speakers rather than Zulu speakers.

South Africa 2024 election KwaZulu-Natal vote map

But KwaZulu-Natal is not the only South African province that stands politically apart from the rest of the country. As the first map posted below shows, the African National Congress received a relatively low percentage of the vote in three provinces: KwaZulu-Natal, Western Cape, and Gauteng.  Elsewhere, it took a majority or near-majority of the votes cast. As a result, I have divided South Africa into four electorally distinctive regions (see the final map below). Coming Geo-Currents posts will explore these patterns in greater detail.

South Africa 2024 election ANC vote map

South Africa electoral regions map

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Africa’s Questionable Expansion of Regional Political Organizations

Africa is noted for cooperation among its many countries. All African states belong to the African Union (AU), although four are currently suspended due to recent military coups (Sudan, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea). Owing in part to the AU, and its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, Africa has few conflicts among is internationally recognized sovereign states, although it has many conflicts within them. The AU defines Africa broadly, seeking to promote solidarity and cohesion across both the continent and the nearby island countries of the Atlantic and Indians oceans.

The African Union also seeks to promote economic growth and cooperation among its member states, mainly through on its ambitious New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). A cornerstone of NEPAD is the creation and strengthening of Regional Economic Communities (RECs), groups of neighboring countries designed to foster economic integration. In theory, such smaller organizations can cooperate more effectively than the union as a whole. The eight officially recognized RECs (mapped below) are described as the “building blocks” of the AU and its grand developmental vision. In addition, six other African political-economic blocks have not received official AU recognition. (Four of these unofficial groups are depicted in the final map in the series posted below; note that the Indian Ocean Commission also an includes France, which is not shown on the map, although two of its overseas departments, Mayotte and Réunion, are.)

Although economic cooperative among neighboring countries can help propel economic and social development, the utility of Africa’s RECs is questionable. Several of them continue to add new members, becoming unwieldly in the process. Overlap is now pronounced. Democratic Republic of Congo, a country that hardly manages to govern itself, now belongs to four of these “communities.” Barely functional Somalia belongs to three and has applied for membership in a fourth. Several of the RECs have expanded well beyond the regions that supposedly define them. Consider CEN-SAD: The Community of Sahel-Saharan States. As can be seen on the map posted below, its original members were all located in the Sahara-Sahel belt, a region faced with many similar environmental and economic challenges. But CEN-SAD now includes countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone that are far removed from the hyper-arid Sahara and the semi-arid Sahel located immediately south of the great desert.

The main problem with Africa’s regional-political approach to economic development is that it is relatively expensive and requires a lot of attention from governmental officials who might be better off focusing on domestic issues. Such complications are noted in several relevant Wikipedia articles. The one on the RECs mentions that “multiple and confusing membership creates duplication and sometimes competition in activities, while placing additional burdens on already over-stretched foreign affairs staff to attend all the various summits and other meetings.” The article on the New Partnership for Africa’s Development has more pointed wording:

More recently, NEPAD has also been criticised by some of its initial backers, including notably Senegalese President Abdoulaya Wade who accused NEPAD of wasting hundreds of millions of dollars and achieving nothing. Like many other intergovernmental bodies, NEPAD suffers from slow decision-making, and a relatively poorly resourced and often cumbersome implementing framework. The great lack of information about the day-to-day activities of the NEPAD secretariat—the website is notably uninformative—does not help its case.

Creating such regional organizations is a tempting and understandable developmental strategy. Doing so makes it seem as if African leaders are deeply committed to peace, international cooperation, and economic betterment. But such a strategy can easily be overextended, with rapidly diminishing utility as the number of organizations and their geographical coverage increases. It would seem that such a situation has been reached in Africa.

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The Cheetah: Vanishing from Africa but Returning to India

In 2016, National Geographic announced that the cheetah is “racing toward extinction,” with its population expected to decline precipitously over the next 15 years. Only around 7,000 cheetahs, the world’s fastest mammal, live in the wild. Their remaining habitat is dispersed and disjunct, with roughly 77 percent of it falling outside of protected areas. A recent scientific study found that outside of protected areas, cheetah populations are highly vulnerable and declining. The Asiatic subspecies, now limited to Iran’s arid Dasht-e Kavir, is now functionally extinct, its population limited to an estimated 12 individuals, nine of which are male.

Several hundred years ago, Cheetahs inhabited a vast area extending across most of Africa and southwestern Asia. (The map posted below, however, exaggerates and misconstrues the historical range, as is common in maps of this sort; cheetahs never lived in the dense forests of far north-central Iran or in the driest parts of the Sahara, and their range did not abruptly terminate at the modern political border between Iran and Armenia and Azerbaijan.) In prehistoric times, cheetahs also lived in Europe, where, according to one theory, they died out due to competition with lions. But as cheetahs easily coexisted with lions in historical times across most of Africa and southwestern Asia, this thesis is unconvincing. Regardless of where they lived, cheetahs evidently came close to extinction twice, once around 100,000 years ago and again around 12,000 years ago. Due to these near misses, cheetahs have extremely low genetic diversity, making them highly vulnerable to infectious diseases.

But just as cheetahs are vanishing from Africa, they are getting a new lease on life in India. In September 2022, eight cheetahs were transferred from Namibia to Kuno National Park in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, where they were personally released by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his 72nd anniversary. (One of these cats later came down with a kidney ailment is currently undergoing treatment.) On January 25, 2023, South Africa announced that it sill send more than 100 cheetahs to India. Whether Kuno is large enough to sustain a viable cheetah population is an open question, leading some biologists to express reservations about the entire initiative. In the future, they might also have to compete with lions. In the 1990s, Kuno was selected as the main site of the Asiatic Lion Reintroduction Project, which resulted in the removal 1,650 Adivasis (tribal people) from Kuno National Park. India’s – and indeed, Asia’s – only remaining lion population has long been restricted to Gir National Park in Gujarat, making it highly vulnerable to extinction. Gujarat, however, has successfully resisted the transfer of any of its lions to Kuno, even though its own population has overpopulated its restricted range.

Cheetahs have a celebrated history in India, where they were widely used by aristocrats as a semi-domesticated hunting animal. According to the Indian author Divyabhanusinh, the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great owned some 9,000 cheetahs over the course of his lifetime, although most experts think that this figure is greatly exaggerated. Regardless of numbers, tame Cheetahs figure prominently in Mughal art and were held in high esteem. But cheetahs were also killed in large numbers by elite Indian and British hunters. According to Wikipedia, “Three of India’s last cheetahs were shot by the Maharajah of Surguja in 1948. The same maharaja “has the notorious record of having shot and killed a total of 1,710 Bengal tigers, the highest known individual score.”

India was not the only place in which cheetahs were used extensively in hunting. Images from the third millennium BCE in both Mesopotamia and Egypt depict leashed cheetahs. According to the Indian blogger Rahultiwary, citing Wildcats of the World by Mel and Fiona Sunquist, “Later the cats were widely used in the Middle East, Afghanistan, southern Russia, Pakistan, India, and China. Tame cheetahs were used to hunt goitered [or black-tailed] gazelles, foxes, and hares in Russia and Mongolia, and the sport flourished during the middle ages in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. In 1474, one Armenian ruler owned 100 hunting cheetahs.” In Central Asia and the Caucasus, cheetahs here evidently exterminated in the 1950s, and by the late 1970s they were hunted out of the Arabian Peninsula as well.

The gradual disappearance of cheetahs from Africa, coupled with their reintroduction to India, has important lessons for conservation biology. Many environmentalists who warn about the impending “sixth wave of extinctions” also think that economic growth and development more generally are the root cause of the crisis. According to the noted Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, the primary drivers are “continued population growth, and overconsumption, especially by the rich” Continuing economic growth, such authors argue, entails the extraction of ever more resources, which will eventually – and quite soon in Ehrlich’s view – reach the point of exhaustion, resulting in a systemic collapse. Although their dire predictions have all failed thus far, eco-pessimists might be right in the long term , as only time can tell. But in the short term, they are almost certainly wrong. Rampant habitat loss and wildlife destruction is occurring primarily in the least developed parts of the world. Where economic development has reached an advanced stage, habitat is generally increasing and wildlife is rebounding. Economic development is also closely correlated with reduced human fertility; economically surging India now has a below-replacement-rate Total Fertility Rate of around 2.0, whereas in economically troubled Niger the figure stands at 6.6. To the extent that economic development is hindered in tropical Africa for environmental reasons, the destruction of nature can be expected to be intensified rather than reversed. Even in Europe, environmentally justified energy austerity programs are accompanied by increased environmental degradation. When people have difficulty affording power, trees can be quickly sacrificed for fuel, as is indeed occurring in some of Europe’s few remaining old growth forests.

India deserves credit for protecting and restoring wildlife and wild lands at a far higher level than might be expected on the basis on its raw developmental standing. Most of the world’s remaining wild tigers, for example, live in India, even though India accounts for a relatively small portion of the animal’s original range, and even though India is far poorer than most countries that had, or still have, viable tiger populations. The contrast in wildlife conservation between India and China is especially stark and has been apparent for hundreds if not thousands of years. The sad story of China’s long history of wildlife extirpation can be found in Mark Elvins’ well-researched book, The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China.

As a final note, North America had its own “cheetah” (Miracinonyx trumani) until the Pleistocene-Holocene Extinction Event circa 12,000 years ago, which wiped out roughly 85 percent of its large mammals. This large America cat was morphologically similar to the cheetah. It was likewise built for speed, as was its main prey, the pronghorn “antelope.” Recent genetic research, however, has shown that Miracinonyx trumani was much more closely related to the puma (cougar or mountain lion) than to the eastern hemisphere’s cheetah, and is therefore now properly deemed “the American cheetah-like cat.” It came to resemble the cheetah through convergent evolution, not from descent from a common ancestral species.

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Pentecostalism, Fermented Milk, and Coffee in Ethiopia’s Sidama Region

Several recent posts have mentioned the recent growth of Pentecostal Christianity in Ethiopia, noting that a significant portion of the Oromo people, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, now follow the faith. Pentecostalism originated in Los Angeles, California in the early twentieth century and is now growing explosively in many parts of Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. Most Ethiopian Pentecostals are members of smaller ethnolinguistic groups that are concentrated in the southern highlands. One of these is the Sidama, Ethiopia’s fifth largest group, numbering some four to five million. After a long period of lobbying and protests, the Sidama were finally granted their own semi-autonomous region in 2019. According to Ethiopia’s 1994 national census, 67 percent of the Sidama then followed Protestant Christianity, with the rest being divided among followers of traditional beliefs (15 percent), Islam (7.7 percent), Catholicism (4.6 percent), and Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity (2.3 percent). The 2007 census, however, found that 84.4 percent of the people in the Sidama region were Protestants. The MapPorn map posted below indicates that over much of the Sidama Region the figure is over 90 percent.

Christianization of the Sidama people was a complicated process involving several missionary groups. It seems that the region’s different Protestant denominations have recently converged on the highly emotional (or spiritual) mode of worship associated with Pentecostalism. According to the Christian proselytizing organization called the Joshua Project:

The Sidama were evangelized in the early-mid 1900s by Kambata* Christians and later, by Norwegian and Danish Lutheran and SIM missionaries. The first Kambata missionaries were martyred by the Sidama, but the Kambata persevered and finally, a small group of Sidama Christians resulted. Now, Sidama is largely Christian including a number of Orthodox. Nearly a tenth are Muslim, non-Christian cults, and traditional religionists. The main churches, in order of size are: Mekane Yesus (Scandinavian Lutheran roots), Kale Hiwot (SIM, Baptist roots), Orthodox, Hiwot Birhan (Swedish/Finnish Pentacostal roots), Mulu Wengel (Full Gospel roots), and Catholic. Over the past 10-15 years, most Protestant churches have adopted a charismatic/pentecostal, style of worship. Youth choirs are influential in the church and keyboards are the choice of musical instruments of church worship.

The Sidama people are significant in other respects. Their land is one of the mostly densely populated parts of Ethiopia, yet they have not suffered much from famine or severe malnutrition, owing largely to their stable crop, enset (see the previous post on this crop). Fermented cow’s milk is another important part of the Sidama diet. Although fermented dairy products are often associated with Central Asia, they are also widespread in Africa, particularly Ethiopia. As one article on the subject notes, “In Ethiopia, a large proportion of milk is consumed in the fermented form through the application of traditional fermentation methods. The main fermented milk products include ergo (sour milk), ititu (milk curd), ayib (cottage cheese), neter kibe (spiced butter), kibe (traditional butter), aguat (whey) and arerra (sour defatted milk).” As most Ethiopians, like most Mongols. are lactose intolerant, fermentation is needed to make milk digestible.

The Sidama region is also noted for its fine arabica coffee, the main local cash crop. Coffee is Ethiopia’s most important export by a wide margin, and the Sidama Region produces over 40 percent of the marketed national crop. When global coffee prices drop, hardship comes to the Sidema people.

It is possible that the Sidama people were associated with the domestication of the coffee plant. The first commercial coffee plantations were probably located in Yemen, but the southern highlands of Ethiopia has the best claim to being the site of origination. One prominent but evidently apocryphal legend links coffee consumption to a ninth-century Ethiopian goatherd who noticed how frisky his animals became after eating the plant’s berries. Other stories connect coffee to the Oromo people. An Atlantic article on coffee domestication cites “a tradition of an Ethiopian tribe, the Galla, who regularly consume ‘energy balls’ made by blending animal fat and macerated coffee cherries” (“Galla” is an Amharic term for the Oromo, but is now avoided for its pejorative connotations). A Wikipedia article on the history of coffee claims that “according to one legend, ancestors of today’s Oromo people in the region of Jimma in Ethiopia were the first to recognize the energizing effect of the coffee plant.”

The main problem with these latter two accounts is the fact that the Oromo did not enter the Ethiopian highlands until the early modern period, whereas coffee was probably consumed and cultivated much earlier. The Sidama themselves had to flee from their original homeland, located further to the east, to avoid being assimilated by the Oromo in the sixteenth century (many of them probably were). Further to the west, the Jimma area, noted by Wikipedia as a possible locus of coffee domestication, was the site of the Kaffa Kingdom of the Kaffa people. This kingdom was partially overrun by the Oromo in the eighteenth century and then finally conquered by the Ethiopian (Abyssinian) Empire in the late nineteenth century. The Kaffa people, who now number a little less than a million, are also heavily dependent on coffee cultivation, and also suffer when global prices drop.

*The Kambata are another ethnic group of the Ethiopia’s southern highlands.

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Religion, Ethnicity, and Conflict in Ethiopia and Eritrea

Some journalists and scholars have tried to link conflicts in Ethiopia and Eritrea to religious divides that are either insignificant or nonexistent. The most egregious example was that of Samuel Huntington in this famous (infamous?) book, The Clash of Civilizations (1996). Huntington portrayed the war that was then being waged between Ethiopia and Eritrea as a religious/civilizational conflict, one pitting Christian Ethiopia against Muslim Eritrea. Maps based on Huntington’s work thus depict Eritrea as a Muslim country (see the figure below). Most actual assessments, however, find that Eritrea is roughly half Muslim and half Christians, although some sources claim that the country is roughly two-thirds Christian, with almost 58 percent of its people adhering to the Oriental Orthodox Tewahedo Church. But nothing is clear about Eritrean demography; figures for the country’s total population range from 3.6 to 6.7 million.


The current Tigray War in northern Ethiopia is based largely on ethnic politics but has little to do with religion. The Tigrayans are overwhelmingly Ethiopian Orthodox, but the Amhara, often regarded as their main opponents, mostly follow the same religion. To be sure, a sizable Muslim Amhara minority does exist, but this religious division does not play a role in the current conflict. Ethiopia’s Amharic-speaking Muslim population is concentrated in the South Wollo Zone, where almost three quarters of the population follows Islam. This Muslim Amhara area is easily seen on a fantastic map of religion in Ethiopia made by an anonymous cartographer and posted on the MapPorn section of Reddit. In the figure posted below, I have lightly edited this map to highlight the Tigray and Amhara regions.

The Oromo, forming Ethiopia’s largest ethnolinguistic group, have played a major role in the country’s recent political dramas. Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, is Oromo, but the militant Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) has sided with the Tigrayan rebels against the government. Abiy seeks pan-Ethiopian civic nationalism, whereas the OLF champions Oromo self-determination and contains ethno-nationalist elements that would prefer independence. Despite such political divides, Oromo ethnic identity remains strong. Yet the Oromo are deeply split by faith. In the Oromo Region (Oromia), which is roughly 88 Oromo-speaking, 48 percent of the population follows Islam, 30 percent Ethiopian Orthodoxy, and 18 Protestant Christianity, mostly Pentecostalism (Abiy Ahmed is a devout Pentecostal). As the MapPorn religion map shows, different parts of Oromia have distinct religious complexions, with some zones heavily Muslim, others heavily Orthodox, others heavily Pentecostal, and others mixed. In the far south of the region, however, most people evidently follow Waaqeffanna, the indigenous Oromo faith. It is not coincidental that this area is commonly regarded as the original homeland of the Oromo people. As the Oromo moved north into the Ethiopian highland in the early modern period, they assimilated local populations into their ethnolinguistic group, but were themselves often religiously assimilated into the Muslim and Ethiopian Orthodox communities of the people that they were assimilating. (Pentecostalism came later.)

The Wikipedia article on Oromia claims that three percent of its people follow Waaqeffanna, the indigenous religion. Standard sources hold that only around a half a percent of Ethiopia’s total population adheres to “traditional” faiths of all varieties. I suspect that the actual figure is much higher. As the MapPorn map indicates, many of the peoples in the southern part of the highly diverse SNNPR Region (Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples) follow traditional religions. Pentecostalism Christianity, however, has been spreading rapidly here in recent years. Indigenous faiths might disappear, but revivals are always possible.

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Famine in Ethiopia and the Enset Solution in the Southern Highlands

Ethiopia is a notoriously drought and famine plagued country. Although the western highlands receive abundant precipitation, the densely populated eastern highlands are much drier. Almost all the precipitation that this area receives falls in a brief window during the summer. When summer rains are inadequate, as they frequently are, famine typically results. Ethiopia’s most densely populated areas are in the southern highlands, an ethnolinguistically diverse area that has long been both politically and economically marginalized. Despite its rapid economic growth since 2003, Ethiopia is still a very poor country, and the southern highlands is one of its poorer areas. One would therefore expect it to be particularly vulnerable to famine.

Yet despite all of these disadvantages, the southern highlands are much less prone to famine than Ethiopia’s core zone in the northern and central highlands. The answer to the seeming paradox is simple, found in the area’s staple crop. The people of the northern and central highlands subsist largely on grain, which is highly vulnerable to dry weather during the growing season. Those of the southern highlands, in contrast, subsist largely on enset, which is far more resilient. This crop, unique to Ethiopia, is a close relative of bananas and plantains. It is not cultivated for its fruit, however, but rather for its carbohydrate-rich leaf sheaths and corms.

            The advantages of enste are nicely explained in a recent article entitled “Enset in Ethiopia: A Poorly Characterized But Resilient Starch Staple.” As the authors write:

Enset has historically been ascribed as a ‘tree against hunger’ (Brandt et al., 1997), due to the domesticated plant having important attributes that support the food security of communities that cultivate it. These attributes were evident during the devastating famines of the 1980s, where enset-growing communities reported little-to-no food insecurity (Dessalegn, 1995). Most significant is the apparent ability of enset to withstand environmental stress, including periods of drought (Quinlan et al., 2015). Enset can also be harvested at any time of the year and at any stage over several years (including when it is immature), and enset-derived starch can also be stored for long periods (Birmeta, 2004). Enset also provides fibres, medicines, animal fodder and packaging material (Brandt et al., 1997). It stabilizes soils and microclimates (Abate et al., 1996) and is culturally significant (Kanshie, 2002Negash and Niehof, 2004Tewodros and Tesfaye, 2014). Enset has a complex management system supported by extensive ethnobotanical knowledge (Borrell et al., unpubl. res.). In a comparison of starch crops, enset has been reported to produce the highest yield per hectare in Ethiopia (Tsegaye and Struik, 2001Kanshie, 2002) with relatively low inputs and management requirements. Enset therefore has the ability to support a larger population per unit area than regions relying on growing cereals (Yirgu, 2016). As a result of these qualities, enset farming provides a long-term, sustainable food supply capable of buffering not only seasonal and periodic food deficits, with minimum off-farm input, but also demonstrates potential that exceeds its current utilization in South-West Ethiopia.

Enset could be cultivated in many tropical areas. If it were to spread, food security could be significantly enhanced in some very poor and marginalized areas. Unfortunately, most international agricultural research has focused on a handful of crops, particularly wheat, rice, and corn (maize). If more attention could be given to highly productive minor crops such as enset, major benefits could probably be gained.

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Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity is NOT Eastern Orthodox, But It Did Influence Protestantism

Ethiopia is a predominantly Christian county, with around two-thirds of its people belonging to a Christian church. Roughly 44 percent follow Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity (the Tewahedo Church), and little over 20 percent belong to a Pentecostal denomination.

Many sources erroneously depict the Tewahedo Church as part of the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity, putting it in the same category as Greek Orthodoxy, Russian Orthodoxy, Serbian Orthodoxy, and so on. Even highly reputable publications such as the Pew Research Center make this error (see the figures posted below). In actuality, Eastern Orthodoxy is much more similar to, and historically intertwined with, Roman Catholicism than it is with Ethiopian Christianity. Eastern Orthodoxy did not split from Roman Catholicism until 1054 CE, and even then the divorce was more a political than a religious matter. (The main theological disagreement stemmed from a single Latin term, filioque.*) The Ethiopian Church spilt from the main Christian stem much earlier, in 451 CE. It did so as a result of theological decisions reached at the Council of Chalcedon. At issue was the relationship between the human and divine natures of Jesus. The council decreed that Jesus is one person in two natures, whereas the Ethiopian church insisted that Jesus is fully divine and fully human in one nature. Although this distinction now strikes most Christians and non-Christians alike as insignificant if not beside the point, such Christological controversies mattered a great deal in late antiquity.

The Ethiopians were not the only Christians to reject the decisions made at Chalcedon. The Armenian Apostolic Church and the Coptic Church of Egypt also maintained that Jesus has a single nature, as did several other eastern sects. Today these churches are grouped together under the category of “Oriental Orthodoxy” – not to be confused with Eastern Orthodoxy. More properly, they are described as constituting Miaphysite Christianity, a term that capture the crucial “one nature” aspect of their theology. The Ethiopian Tewahedo Church is most closely connected to the Coptic Church of Egypt, as both follow the Alexandrian Liturgical Rites (so too does the Eritrean Tewahedo Church, which split from that of Ethiopia in 1991 on geopolitical grounds.)

Arguably, the Tewahedo Church has closer ties with Protestant Christianity, especially Lutheranism, than it does with Eastern Orthodoxy. As the figure posted below shows, Martin Luther was influenced by Ethiopian Christianity, arguing that it adhered more closely to the original teachings than did Roman Catholicism. Luther evidently had close contacts with an Ethiopian cleric named Michael the Deacon, and they discovered that they agreed about many issues of religious belief and practice, if not on the nature of the Trinity.


Ethiopia has an unusual cultural/religious link to England, Catalonia, and the Republic of Georgia, as each polity has the same patron saint: George. Saint George is famed for killing a dragon in all four lands, but, unsurprisingly, he is given a very different physical appearance in Ethiopian religious art than in that of Western Europe.

*As is explained in the Wikipedia article on the term, “In the late 6th century, some Latin Churches  added the words “and from the Son” (Filioque) to the description of the procession of the Holy Spirit, in what many Eastern Orthodox Christians have at a later stage argued is a violation of Canon VII.”

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The Ethnic Roots of the War in Ethiopia and the Paradox of Tigrayan Ethnic Identity

The horrific and under-reported Tigray War in Ethiopia hinges largely on tensions between ethnolinguistic identity and national solidarity. Under both the Ethiopian monarchy during the Haile Selassie era (1930-1974) and the communist Derg regime (1974-1991), the government foregrounded the minority (30%) Amhara ethnic group and its Amharic language, pushing a harsh “Amharaization” program in many areas. Partly as a result, ethnic militias proliferated and eventually prevailed, toppling the brutal Derg government in 1991. Leading the fight was the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which represented the minority Tigrayan people, constituting only around six percent of Ethiopia’s population. The TPLF had allied with other insurgent groups in an umbrella group called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front (EPLF). After coming to power in 1991, this formerly Marxist-Leninist organization revised its political stance, dropping communism in favor of center-left ethnic federalism. Ethiopia’s old provinces were soon wiped off the map as the country was re-divided into semi-autonomous regions defined primarily on ethnolinguistic grounds.

Ethiopia’s new government performed well. By the early 2000s the country was booming, posting the world’s third highest gains in per capita GDP between 2000 and 2018. But ethnic problems continued to plague Ethiopia. Smaller ethnolinguistic groups, concentrated in the southwest, were unsettled by being amalgamated with other groups in composite regions. This was a particular problem in the linguistically fractured region called Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples. Owing to such ethnic pressure, the Ethiopian government eventually created several new autonomous regions. Elsewhere, ethnic groups clashed over regional boundaries, and anger was provoked when the government tried to shift internal borders. Critics argued that Ethiopia was undermining itself by insistently politicizing ethnicity.

After coming to power 2018, prime minister Abiy Ahmed sought to reorient Ethiopia away from ethnic federalism and toward civic nationalism. In 2019 he disbanded the ruling multi-ethnic coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front (EPLF), replacing it with the non-ethnic Prosperity Party, which currently holds 454 out of 547 parliamentary seats. The Tigrayans were not pleased by this maneuver. They were already angered by their loss of prominent positions within the government and they now feared that they would eventually lose their regional political autonomy. As a result, they rebelled against the government in 2020, precipitating the current war.

The Tigrayan rebellion thus shows the continuing power of ethnic identity in multiethnic Ethiopia, as well as the relatively weakness of national bonds in many parts of the country. But the current conflict also ironically shows the limits of ethnolinguistic identity and the potential power of national bonding to unravel ethnic ties. The Tigrinya linguistic community that has historically underpinned Tigrayan ethnicity has long been spilt on geopolitical grounds, divided between Ethiopia and Eritrea ever since Italy successfully colonized the latter region in the late 1800s. Although Tigrinya speakers form a relatively small portion of Ethiopia’s population, they constitute roughly half of that of Eritrea, arguably forming the country’s dominant ethnic group. Most Tigrinya speakers in both countries also follow the same “Oriental” Orthodox Christian religion, although it was split into Ethiopian and Eritrean branches in 1991. Despite such cross-border ethnic ties, in the current conflict Eritrea is closely allied with the Ethiopian government against Ethiopia’s Tigrinya-speaking population. Eritrea has militarily occupied a small slice of Ethiopia’s Tigray Region and has reportedly attacked local people with brutality. No evidence of any pan-Tigrinya-speaking ethnic solidarity is readily available. In this case, it would seem that national identity has easily trumped language-based ethnic identity.

It is perilous to make such a claim, however, precisely because little information is available. Eritrea is one of the world’s most repressive and militarily dominated countries, sometimes put in the same category as North Korea. Its government has worked hard to generate a solid sense of Eritrean national identity and has perhaps succeeded. Its quest to do so was facilitated by its long war of independence against Ethiopia (1961-1991), followed by periodic border conflicts with the same country. But it must also be noted that many Eritreans chafe under their brutal government, prompting vast numbers to flee. As of 2016, an estimated 321,000 Eritrean refugees were living in Europe, with another half million in Ethiopia and Sudan, out of a total national population of roughly six million. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to come to any solid conclusions about ethnic and national identity in Eritrea.

The Ethnic Roots of the War in Ethiopia and the Paradox of Tigrayan Ethnic Identity Read More »

The Growing Commonwealth of Nations

Unlike the Commonwealth Realms, the Commonwealth of Nations (formerly the British Commonwealth) is expanding, now counting 56 members. Almost all are former British colonies, and most former British colonies belong to the organization. If, as is expected, most Caribbean Commonwealth Realms drop the monarchy and become republics, they will almost certainly remain part of this international organization, mow headed by King Charles III.

The Commonwealth of Nations is not a particularly strong or effective organization, but it does play an important role in cultural, scientific, and intellectual exchange. Member states evidently value their membership. The only countries that have withdrawn are Ireland and Zimbabwe, and Zimbabwe submitted an application to rejoin in 2018. Originally, only countries that had been directly under British authority, or were constitutionally linked to a country that had been, were eligible to join. In 1995, however, the former Portuguese colony of Mozambique was admitted. A more controversial admission was Rwanda, a former German-then-Belgian colony, which gained membership in 2009. In 2022, two additional former French colonies in Africa, Togo and Gabon, joined the organization.

The admission of Rwanda in 2009 was highly controversial, but not because the country lacked a historical connection with the British Empire. The issue here was Rwanda’s human-rights record. As was noted at the time in the “Report and Recommendations of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative”:

Among the key Harare Principles [of the Commonwealth] are commitments to the protection of human rights and to democracy. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) believes that overwhelming evidence, conveniently ignored by leading Commonwealth states, demonstrates that the government of Rwanda is not sufficiently committed to these values.

But it must also be recognized that most African members in the Commonwealth do not have well-consolidated democracies and often fail to protect human rights. Also significant is the fact that Rwanda has made significant strides in both human and economic development. The CHRI acknowledged this fact (“Rwanda has what appears to be a well-deserved reputation for governmental efficiency and for being less corrupt than a number of other countries”), but proceeded to dismiss it as largely disingenuous (“The Rwandan government has excellent public relations machinery. Its leaders are astute, and effectively play upon the conscience of the world…”) But whatever one makes of this controversy, Rwanda’s position in the Commonwealth is now secure. The Commonwealth Chair-In-Office, one of the organization’s key positions, is currently Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda since 2000.

The movement of French-speaking African countries into this English-using organization is based on several factors. One is a desire to forge closer connections with their Anglophone neighbors. Another is a wish for their people to gain more facility in the English language. Rwanda pioneered this path, switching most of its schools from instruction in French to instruction in English in 2007. English is widely seen as bringing more international advantages than French, both across the world and in Africa. Finally, many countries in western and central Africa are keen to move out of the French geopolitical orbit. The CFA Franc, a currency* backed by France and used by most former French colonies in Africa, is widely seen as benefitting the metropolitan core at the expense of local economies, which are not able to adjust the valuation of their currencies to match economic conditions. French military action in the Sahel, the zone just south of the Sahara, is also unpopular. It will be interesting to see if other Francophone African countries join the Commonwealth and move in an Anglophone direction.

* Actually it is two closely linked currencies, the West African CFA Franc and the Central African CFA Franc

The Growing Commonwealth of Nations Read More »

Human Development in Sub-Saharan Africa: Recent Gains and Losses

Several recent GeoCurrents posts have noted substantial improvements in human development over the past several decades, as measured by the human development index (HDI). As the first map posted here shows, some of the world’s least developed countries have experienced the largest gains. Only a few countries saw HDI values decline from 2010 to 2020 (Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Venezuela, Jordan, and Timor Leste).



Although sub-Saharan Africa registered impressive improvements, it still has the world’s lowest HDI figures, and by a substantial margin. A world map showing only countries in the World Bank’s “low human development” tier, posted here, includes just three countries outside of the region (Haiti, Yemen, and Afghanistan). Within sub-Saharan Africa, however, much of the west and most of the south are excluded.

The World Bank’s HDI tiers might not be the best way to the categorize human development standings. Are we really expected to believe that Papua New Guinea has a “medium” level of human development? (Admittedly, it just barely makes this category.) The thresholds for the categories seem might be too low to accurately represent public conceptualization of this issue. The index might also underestimate income levels, putting too much emphasis on education and health. Finally, the numbers used to generate the index are not necessarily always accurate – particularly in the poorer parts of the world.

One relatively easily measured metric clearly shows that sub-Saharan Africa, or at least its central-interior portion, is by far the least developed part of the world: electricity access. The numbers here are shocking. Whereas countries as poor as India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have reached full electrification, Chad and Burundi still have electrification rates below 12 percent. In several areas, the situation has deteriorated since 2020. As a recent Brookings report notes:

In fact, in developing countries in Africa, the number of people without electricity increased in 2020 (after declining over the past six years) and basic electricity services are now unaffordable. Moreover, the cost of electricity services in sub-Saharan Africa remains among the highest in the world—and those who can afford electricity often face unreliable service. As poverty levels increase, countries will be forced to scale back to basic electricity access because citizens will not be able to afford formal electricity bundles.


Human Development in Sub-Saharan Africa: Recent Gains and Losses Read More »

Human Development in Sub-Saharan Africa: Recent Gains and Losses

Several recent GeoCurrents posts have noted substantial improvements in human development over the past several decades, as measured by the human development index (HDI). As the first map posted here shows, some of the world’s least developed countries have experienced the largest gains. Only a few countries saw HDI values decline from 2010 to 2020 (Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Venezuela, Jordan, and Timor Leste).



Although sub-Saharan Africa registered impressive improvements, it still has the world’s lowest HDI figures, and by a substantial margin. A world map showing only countries in the World Bank’s “low human development” tier, posted here, includes just three countries outside of the region (Haiti, Yemen, and Afghanistan). Within sub-Saharan Africa, however, much of the west and most of the south are excluded.

The World Bank’s HDI tiers might not be the best way to the categorize human development standings. Are we really expected to believe that Papua New Guinea has a “medium” level of human development? (Admittedly, it just barely makes this category.) The thresholds for the categories seem be too low to accurately represent public conceptualization of this issue. The index might also underestimate income levels, putting too much emphasis on education and health. Finally, the numbers used to generate the index are not necessarily accurate – particularly in the poorer parts of the world.

One relatively easily measured metric clearly shows that sub-Saharan Africa, or at least its central-interior portion, is by far the least developed part of the world: electricity access. The numbers here are shocking. Whereas countries as poor as India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have achieved full electrification, Chad and Burundi still had electrification rates below 12 percent in 2016. In several areas, the situation has deteriorated since 2020. As a recent Brookings report notes:

In fact, in developing countries in Africa, the number of people without electricity increased in 2020 (after declining over the past six years) and basic electricity services are now unaffordable. Moreover, the cost of electricity services in sub-Saharan Africa remains among the highest in the world—and those who can afford electricity often face unreliable service. As poverty levels increase, countries will be forced to scale back to basic electricity access because citizens will not be able to afford formal electricity bundles.

Human Development in Sub-Saharan Africa: Recent Gains and Losses Read More »

Total Fertility Rates by Country, 1950 and 2015

(Note to readers: The distribution of free customizable base-maps will recommence later this week)

TFR 2010-2015 World MapI was recently asked to make a world map of the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) using World Bank data for the period 2010-2015. The same data sheet includes TFR figures for each five-year period starting in 1950. The contrast between fertility rates in 1950 and 2015 is so striking that I could not resist the temptation to make contrasting maps.




TFR 1950-1955 World MapAs can be seen, the overall drop in the human fertility rate has been pronounced. In countries ranging from China, to Iran, to Libya, to Brazil it has been nothing short of extraordinary.

TFR 1950-2015 World MapsTropical Africa, and especially the western portion of the region (“Middle Africa,” according to the World Bank), forms the major exception to this pattern. Here, several counties had higher TFR figures in 2010-2015 than they did in 1950-1955.   In DR Congo, for example, the respective numbers are 6.15 Gabon Fertility Graphand 5.98. Gabon also ended up in a higher category in the 2010-2015 map than on the 1950-1955 map, although the actual difference between its TFR in these two periods is not statistically significant: 4.00 and 3.99. As the graph shows, Gabon’s TFR did not stay the same during this period, but rather rose gradually and then began to decline gradually. Similar graphs can be found for other countries in “Middle Africa.”

It is quite significant that extremely high fertility figures are now mostly confined to tropical Africa, with only a few exceptions (such as Afghanistan and East Timor). It also seem to me that this phenomenon has been under-reported. Certainly most of my own students come into class with the impression that high fertility rates characterize most of the word’s less-developed countries.


Total Fertility Rates by Country, 1950 and 2015 Read More »

Free Customizable Maps of Africa for Download

Over the past few years, I have created a number of customizable base maps that I subsequently used to make the original GeoCurrents thematic maps that have been posted on this site (which are themselves now searchable by country and by topic). These customizable base maps were initially created by hand in Keynote, the Apple presentation program that competes with PowerPoint. Over the next several weeks, I will be fine-tuning all of these maps and then releasing them for downloading on this site in both Keynote and PowerPoint formats. Please free to use these customizable maps as you like. All that I would ask is that you retain the source note on the maps: GeoCurrents Customizable Base Map.

The customizable base maps were made by outlining the shapes of geopolitical units on basic maps held in the public domain. Once the outlines have been made, the resulting country- or province-shapes can be easily manipulated through a few simple clicks, allowing one to instantly change country color, boundary color and thickness, and so on. Keynote’s “shape” feature allows one to easily draw on the maps to show additional features. Shapes can also be dragged out of place and then placed back where they belong (to place shapes precisely, make sure that the “guidelines” in Keynote are turned off). Similar functionalities are available in the PowerPoint format, although I never personally use PowerPoint and hence I am a bit uncertain about what it actually allows. (But see these basic instructions How can these maps be manipulated in PowerPoint.)

Africa Per Capita GDP mapThese maps can be profitably used in the classroom. If students are provided with a customizable map of a particular part of the world along with a data list pertaining to the same place, they can make their own thematic map. One example would be a map of African countries along with a list of African countries by per capita GDP. This exercise will help students learn the locations and shapes of the units in question (the countries of Africa in this case), and will allow them to grasp the patterns that they are mapping much more effectively than by merely looking at a map that someone else has made. Such a process is also useful for teaching students about selecting appropriate breaks in the data for effective map visualization, the use of different color schemes in mapping, and so on. One can also scatter the country shapes and then ask students to reassemble the map as a sort of game. Unfortunately, the shapes will not “click” into place, but the process still works well enough.

Africa Customizable Map 1I am beginning this project by releasing a single map, that of the countries of Africa. Several different versions of this map are available in the PowerPoint and Keynote files provided below this text. The first is a simple outline map of the conventional countries of the region (although some insular African countries are excluded: Cape Verde, Seychelles, and Mauritius, as well as the French department of Reunion). Boxes with the Africa Customizable Map 2word “text” next to them can be used to construct a map key. The second is the same map but with the addition of country names. As the maps are all customizable, these names can be easily removed to (re)create the initial map. The third map includes two de facto changes to the basic political map that have not Africa Customizable Map 3been recognized by the international community: the effective independence of Somaliland, and the extension of Morocco over most of Western Sahara, along with the virtual independence of the so-called Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in the remaining territory. The essentially collapsed states of Libya and (the rest of) Somalia still appear on this map as regular countries, but that could easily be changed by the user (such as by turning them to a darker shade of grey). The final map includes the base map that was used to create the customizable map, which is a physical map of Africa. This version of the map can be used in a variety of ways. If one wants to include rivers or certain other physical features on one’s own map, just click on the relevant countries, turn their “opacity” Africa Customizable map 4settings to zero, trace in the feature in question, and then click on the countries again and reset the opacity to 100 percent.

Please note that these maps have limited resolution. Small features, such as many of the islands on the Africa map, were by necessity reproduced as mere ovals or triangles. Boundary lines between countries, moreover, have not been perfectly traced out: as a result, boundary thickness is somewhat uneven. I personally find the end result aesthetically pleasing, as it gives these maps a somewhat soft appearance. Other users, however, may disagree. Users could, however, manually adjust the boundary lines to make them fit more precisely. I have done a lot of that work myself, but eventually Africa Customizable Map 5I give up and decide that the map in question is good enough.

Also note that the physical base map was made before South Sudan gained independence. As a result, South Sudan appears as a layer placed over pre-2011 Sudan in my customizable maps. On the map (with rivers added) posted here, I somehow neglected to restore South Sudan. Other customizable maps that I will post later will not have such problems.

As this might be confusing, I would be happy to answer any questions in the discussion forum.

Many more customizable maps will be released over the next few weeks. Additional maps can be found here:


For Keynote Download, click here: Customizable Africa Maps

For PowerPoint Download, click here: Customizable Africa Maps

Free Customizable Maps of Africa for Download Read More »

Third Africa-India Forum Summit: Meeting of the Lions

India-Africa Summit LogoAlthough I will continue writing on Scolbert08’s map of world religion next week, I can’t resist taking a brief detour to consider the Third Africa-India Forum Summit, which is coming to an end today in New Delhi. Regarded as India’s largest diplomatic endeavor in its history, the summit was attended by 40 leaders of African states. I am particularly struck by its logo, which entails some interesting cartographic imagery. (Several of the islands on the map, however, are greatly exaggerated in size, and a few do not actually exist.) As noted in the Wikipedia:

The logo depicts a Lion with one half of an African lion and another half of an Indian lion. The official website mentioned about the logo: “Proud, Courageous, Bold and on the Prowl, ready to take on the future and seize every opportunity”. In the background African map overlapping merges with Indian map in a reference to ancient Gondwanaland when Indian subcontinent used to be part of today’s Africa’s continental landmass millions of years ago. The India Gate, one of the iconic land mark of Delhi, the host city will be illuminated with 3D laser projection showing India-Africa shared heritage and India’s contribution in African peace and prosperity, through out the summit week.

Lion Range MapAlthough the Indian (or Asiatic) lion is confined to one wildlife refuge in the state of Gujarat and numbers only around 500 individuals, the animal is symbolically important across South Asia. The Emblem of India, for example, depicts lions. The Asiatic lion has also made an impressive comeback, as it was on the verge of extinction a few decades ago. In early Emblem of Indiahistorical times, its rage extended all the way to the Balkan Peninsula.

Some Indian leaders hope that the summit will encourage African leaders to support India’s bit for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Most of the discussions, however, seem to have focused on India’s potential role in boosting economic development in Africa. As noted in The Hindu:

During his address, PM Modi outlined India’s vision and desire to assist Africa with infrastructure building from “Cairo to Cape Town, Marrakesh to Mombassa”. He announced credit at concessional rates of $10 billion over 5 years, in addition to about $7.4 billion that India has already pledged since 2008. “We will also offer a grant assistance of 600 million U.S. dollars. This will include an India-Africa Development Fund of 100 million U.S. dollars and an India-Africa Health Fund of 10 million U.S. dollars,” the PM said, adding that 50,000 scholarships will be given to African students, whom he called the “new links” between India and the African continent.

The Hindu article also notes that the leaders of India’s oppositional Congress Party declined to participate, based partly on issues of historical symbolism:

Interestingly, according to reports the Congress leadership has decided to boycott the African summit, to protest its exclusion from all consultations and the lack of reference to Jawaharlal Nehru, the “architect of Africa-India ties”. While denying any official boycott, Congress Leader Anand Sharma told The Hindu that the India-Africa summit’s focus on bringing all leaders together was “condescending”, and said he was “disappointed” that the NDA government had chosen to ignore the contribution of Nehru, adding that even at the anniversary of the Afro-Asian Bandung conference, EAM Sushma Swaraj had made no reference to him.



Third Africa-India Forum Summit: Meeting of the Lions Read More »