Road transport was the means of movement for about 93 percent of freight and 95 percent of all passengers. In l991, in addition to the l3,000 kilometers of all-weather roads, of which about 4,000 were asphalted and 8,900 were all-weather gravel roads, there were 4,900 kilometers of rural dirt roads, making a total of nearly 18,000 kilometers of all types of roads. Centered in Addis Ababa, the road system radiated in all directions in a spoke-like pattern. However, substantial parts of the country, notably in the west, southwest, and southeast, still lacked all-weather connections to this network. Only about l2 percent of the population had ready access to roads. Most roads in the national network were concentrated in the central, eastern, and northern highlands.
During the 1936-41 Italian occupation, road building increased. Mobility helped Italy consolidate its rule over Ethiopia, initiate development projects, and pacify unstable areas. By l94l there were about 7,000 kilometers of roads, of which about half were surfaced with asphalt. After liberation, road construction and maintenance stagnated because of a lack of funds, equipment, and expertise until l95l, when the government established the Imperial Highway Authority. With the help of World Bank funds and with technical assistance from the United States Bureau of Public Roads, the development of Ethiopia’s highway system continued.
The Imperial Highway Authority played a major role in the construction of roads until the revolution. The Derg restructured the Imperial Highway Authority as the Ethiopian Road Authority and the Rural Roads Task Force. The government created the latter to develop rural roads outside the main system and to extend feeder roads within the main system. The World Bank, which had financed four previous highway programs, funded this project. In addition, the African Development Bank and the EEC provided assistance for road construction and maintenance. Despite these efforts, Ethiopia’s road network remained primitive and quite limited, even by African standards. This shortcoming had tragic consequences during the 1984-85 famine, when the lack of good roads contributed to Ethiopia’s inability to distribute food to famine victims. As a result, many thousands of Ethiopians perished. In 1991 completion of an adequate nationwide highway system continued to be one of Ethiopia’s major development challenges.