Imperial Railway Company of Ethiopia

Imperial Railway Company of Ethiopia

The Imperial Railway Company of Ethiopia (often referred to by its French name "Compagnie Impériale des Chemins de Fer Éthiopiens") was a semi-private firm founded in 1894 to build and operate a railway across eastern Ethiopia from Addis Ababa to the port of Djibouti in what was at the time French Somaliland. The firm failed in 1906 when political discord halted construction, and it failed to obtain any new capital. The portion it had completed ran from Djibouti to the middle of the Ethiopian desert. Its terminus evolved into the city of Dire Dawa.


Discussion of an Ethiopian railway was initiated by Alfred Ilg, an advisor to Emperor Menelek II. He had attempted to interest the previous emperor and other Ethiopian political figures in the construction of a railway to replace the six-week mule trek between the capital and the French port city, but had no success. When Menelek acceded to the throne in 1889, negotiations began anew and a decree was granted on February 11 1893 to study the construction of rail line. Ilg, a Swiss citizen, and a number of French associates put together a firm and received a royal charter on March 9 1894 enabling them to start work. Menelek resisted personally putting any funds into the venture, but did grant a 99-year lease to Ilg and his associates in return for a number of shares in the firm and half of all profits in excess of 3,000,000 francs. Furthermore, the firm was obliged to construct a telegraph line along the route.

It took until 1897 before the necessary permission from French authorities was received, by which time significant opposition in Ethiopia had materialised. Elements of the traditional nobility were opposed to the construction, and there were popular demonstrations against it. There was also opposition from the British legation in Addis Ababa, which feared a reduction in traffic to the port of Zeila in British Somaliland.

The firm also had difficulty selling its shares in Europe. Investor interest was restrained, and official interest from the French government was at best lukewarm. All in all, the initial stock offering only earned 8,738,000 francs of the 14 million projected, and an additional offering of 25.5 million francs of bonds yielded only 11 665,000 francs. This was far too little to complete the line. Despite the shortfall, construction began in October 1897 from Djibouti, a hitherto minor port that expanded primarily to serve the railway. A crew of Arab and Somali workers, overseen by Europeans, began to press inland with the line and its associated telegraph. Ethiopians were hired largely as security forces, to prevent the theft of materials on the line. This was also an important source of corruption for the primarily French administration, which fabricated incidents of sabotage and requested funds to buy off local chiefs that it claimed were responsible for it. Furthermore, the line was forced to avoid interfering with local communities and water sources, pushing it out into the desert. This meant that the railway company had to build aqueducts, an additional unplanned expense, to serve the line.

Even before reaching the Ethiopian border, it was clear the firm had serious financial problems. A group of British investors calling themselves the "New Africa Company" effectively took control of the firm over several years. They provided a new source of capital, and by 1901 had joined with the French investors to form the "International Ethiopian Railway Trust and Construction Company" - a holding firm which essentially controlled the railway and supplied it with further capital. The first commercial service began in July 1901, from Djibouti to Dire Dawa.

This mixture of French and British interests proved volatile, as each group of investors stood increasingly for both national and commercial interests. Both governments became interested in monopolising Ethiopian trade and conspired to force the other into a minor position. The demands and threats of the two governments led Emperor Menelek in 1902 to forbid the expansion of the railway line to Harar. French negotiations to resume work were blocked by Menelek's growing suspicion of French motives, and the line could not earn enough to pay back the company's debts with such a limited service. The signature of the "Entente Cordiale" in 1904 reopened the possibility of continued joint Anglo-French investment and development, but there was enough resistance to such proposals on both sides that no progress was made. The firm went formally bankrupt in 1906.


In 1908, the assets of the company were transferred to a new firm, the "Compagnie de Chemin de Fer Franco-Ethiopien de Jibuti à Addis Abeba", which received a new concession to finish the line to Addis Ababa. After a year of wrangling with the previous financiers and their governments, construction began anew. By 1915 the line reached Akaki, only 23 kilometers from the capital, and two years later came all the way to Addis Ababa itself.

Ethiopia's share in the railway was seized by the Italian government in the Second Italo-Abyssinian War, but was regained by Ethiopia after the Second World War. Following the independence of Djibouti in 1977, the French share in the railway was transferred to that new nation.

Post-War history

Workers for the Railway were pioneers in the Ethiopian labor movement. They organized one of the first labor unions in Ethiopia in 1947, the Railroad Workers Syndicate of Dire Dawa, for mutual welfare purposes. [ [ "Local History in Ethiopia"] (pdf) The Nordic Africa Institute website (accessed 1 March 2008)] Although its leadership co-operated with the Government, it attempted to strike in 1949 which was brutally suppressed by government troops in 1949; at the time, all strikes were seen by government officials as a form of insurrection. [Edmund J. Keller, "Revolutionary Ethiopia" (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), p. 147]

The railway company carried out surveys for extending its line 310 kilometers south Adama to Dila between 1960 and 1963. The government formed a Nazareth-Dilla Railway Development Corporation to support this new branch. Although the French government offered a loan to fund this new branch in 1965, and Yugoslav experts had studied and thought the project would be worthwhile, this project was never carried out. [ [ "Local History in Ethiopia"] (pdf) The Nordic Africa Institute website (accessed 26 November 2007). The route of this proposed extension is shown on the map accompanying the article by Nathaniel T. Kenney, "Ethiopian Adventure", "National Geographic", 127 (1965).]

After the independence of Djibouti (1977), France transferred its ownership to the government of Djibouti for the now newly formed Ethio-Djibouti Railways (about 1982).

In 2003 the European Commission prepared a grant of EUR 40 million for the rehabilitation of the Djibouti-Ethiopia Railway. Reflecting increases in fuel and steel prices, the commission has increased this grant to EUR 50m in 2006. The Djiboutian Ministry of Equipment and Transport and the Ethiopian Ministry of Transportation and Communications chose the South African firm Comazar to administer the railway in March, 2006. A 25-year concession was due to be signed in June 2007, but this failed to happen, and negotiations began with Kuwaiti company Fouad Alghanim and Sons Group. [ [ "No concession at Ethio-Djibouti Railway"] "Railway Gazette International" September 2007] The new management was expected to raise the capacity of the railroad from its current average of 240,000 tons to 1.5 million tons. [ [ South African firm wins bid to administer Ethio-Djibouti railway] Hiiran Online] .

The governments of Djibouti and Ethiopia signed an agreement with the Italian consortium Costra 29 November 2006; work will begin early 2007 on sections of the line that deteriorated following the Ogaden War. [ [ "Ethio-Djibouti Railway rehabilitation accord signed"] Walta Information Center]


The gauge of the line is railgauge|1000

See also

* Transport in Ethiopia
* Railway stations in Ethiopia


External links

* [ French website covering the history]
* [ The Franco-Ethiopian Railway and Its History]

Further reading

* Tom C. Killion, "Railroad Workers and the Ethiopian Imperial State: The Politics of Workers' Organization on the Franco-Ethiopian Railroad, 1919-1959", "The International Journal of African Historical Studies", 25 (1992), pp. 583-605.

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