Ethiopia: Protest and Addis Ababa University By Eskinder Nega

March 18th, 2011 Print Print Email Email

Imagine a student movement’s hall of fame, and two countries in Africa, Ethiopia and South Africa, would be its uncontroversial inductees. But whereas rowdy, angry and not particularly ideological students dominated the South African movement, disciplined, (more…)

Imagine a student movement’s hall of fame, and two countries in Africa, Ethiopia and South Africa, would be its uncontroversial inductees. But whereas rowdy, angry and not particularly ideological students dominated the South African movement, disciplined, focused and highly ideological university students towered prominently over that of Ethiopia.

Their differences are best epitomized by the high points of their histories: south African students were ultimately overwhelmed by the powerful ANC and gently melted in to the wider anti-apartheid movement, while their Ethiopian counterparts not only charted the

course of the nation’s first revolution in 1974, but 17 years later, in 1991, went on to seize state power outright; an unprecedented feat anywhere in the world.

By African standards, Ethiopia’s student movement was a late starter. What student movements other African countries had, which were all essentially anti-colonial engagements, were in their late stages by 1960, the year Ethiopia’s hitherto largely depoliticized students burst on to the political scene with their surprise support of an
attempted coup against Haile –Sealssie.

By the mid-60s, a ferocious student led rebellion against the Vietnam War was raging in much of the West, complementing and reinforcing the Ethiopian one.

In 1967, the publication of a new student union’s paper, Struggle, heralded the advent of the militant rebelliousness which exemplified university students up to the late 70’s, when it was finally overcome by the Red Terror.

Devastated by the double shock of the Red Terror and the exodus of top students and scholars to the West, Ethiopia’s universities abruptly became dramatically transformed settings. In place of the student’s once insatiable inquisitiveness and infectious optimism, an unremitting mania for blending in, pessimism and malice inundated campus sentiment.

About ten years after the Red Terror, however, in May 1990, when the bulk of senior General’s rebelled against Mengistu Haile-Mariam by staging an unsuccessful coup attempt, outraged university students exploded in unison against the execution of 13 court-marshaled
Generals. Classes were boycotted for the first time in a decade, and for three thrilling days students, not the government, had the upper hand on campus. The regime, no less shocked than mortified, was forced to resort to the army to wrestle back control.

Amazingly, Repression strengthened rather than undermined student resolve. Almost out of the blue, politics became less of a taboo than it had been for a long time.

Ten months later, the students were once again in an openly defiant mood, this time demonstrating without permit in the streets of Addis, ostensibly in support of the government’s reluctant move towards a free market, but effectively against its dismal economic record. The government watched suspiciously and helplessly from the sidelines.
Besieged by rapidly advancing rebels from the north, it could not help but suspect the invisible hand of its adversaries.

But many students were no less wary of the advancing rebels than they were of the government. Absent the great unifying objectives of the 60s and 70s, land to the tiller and Communism, the prospect of Eritrea’s secession, which the insurgents supported, diminished the appetite for change of a sizeable number of students—large enough,in fact, to rule out the resurgence of the kind of cohesive student movement of the past.

The Derg had nothing to really worry about, after all The “right to session” continued to divide students over succeeding years. So stringent was this division that students were unable to stand in unity for their most basic rights. Thus, even after the emergence of political parties and private papers in the country in the 1990s, university students were unable to reclaim the free union and publication they had once enjoyed, if only intermittently, under Haile- Selassie’s regime.

It took them ten years before they were to acknowledge this shortcoming and move towards a concerted effort to overcome it.

It happened in 2001 when an unusually independent minded batch of AAU’s student union, led by a charismatic third year student, Tekle-Mariam Abebe, demanded that the university should immediately live up to its stated values: academic freedom, integrity, professionalism, diversity, tolerance and mutual respect.

To assert their independence, a new student paper, Hilina, was published off campus without the consent of the university’s authorities. It was almost a step by step repeat of Struggle’s saga.

The government was simply horrified. Worse, this defiance coincided with a dangerous rift at the core of the ruling party and government. Feeling that its will was being tested intentionally, the government reacted with deliberate heavy handedness when street protests in support of the student’s demands broke out in Addis.

Too many lives were cut short needlessly. Many more were wantonly wounded. But the government delivered its message. It amply demonstrated its heightened capacity beastly violence.

The budding student movement was crushed.

Note the time line: About 10 years between the advent of the student movement and its peak in the early 70s. About 10 years between the peak of the Red Terror and student protests in 1990. About 10 years between 1990 and 2001. And now 10 years between 2001 and 2011.

And mull over this: AAU has been closed for the past several weeks.Students were on a break when Mubarak fell. They will return to campus in large numbers as of this weekend to resume classes.

With the North African protests overlapping with the 10 years cyclical student uprisings, should we expect protests to break out at AAU anytime soon?

Maybe. Maybe not. Nothing is certain.

What is certain is the deep disdain of students about lack of freedoms both on and off campus. For many students, EPRDF’s shocking 99.6 % “electoral victory” symbolizes its estrangement and isolation from the people. Soaring inflation and thinning employment prospects, rather than GDP growth, also dominate their thoughts. And the sense that
high-level corruption is out of control pervades campus mood.

If these grievances do indeed translate in to protests, success for the nation, as I have written few weeks ago, will depend on whether the essential lessons of the Tunisian and Egyptian protests are embraced or not.

These are:


2.Non-ethnic affiliation

3.Non-religious affiliation

4.Non-political affiliation.

And no less, on the part of the EPRDF, if protests do break out, a quick acknowledgment that the time for peaceful change has finally arrived. There are no losers in a democracy.

The End.


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The writer could be reached at:

  1. Haile
    | #1

    It is the Constitution that all democrats should oppose. It is a tool that any organisation can use to set up a one party state. Those in the opposition today who claim that they can implement the current Constitution better than the EPRDF does are forces that democrats should confront. They may be one of the many in the opposition today. Given chance they have the potential to be sole dictators of tomorrow. University students should be made aware of that.

  2. Oda Tulu
    | #2

    መቀሌ ዩኒቨርሲቲ እንድምሳሌ ቢወሰድ ይሻላል::የችግራችን ምንጭ ትግሬዎች ስለሆኑ!!!

  3. lula
    | #3

    Yes we can , keep posting One Ethiopia & One people ( BEKA).

  4. ይገርማል
    | #4

    አዳ ቱሉ ይህ አስተያየትዎ የዘረኝነት ይመስልበዎታልና ትንሽ ቢያስቡበት መልካም ነው የሚስማሙበት ወይም የማይስማሙበት ህሳብ ካለ መግለጽ አንጅ ድፍን ያለ ዐንድ ቃል ብቻ መወርወር ያ ድንቁርና ነው በዐሁኑ ሰአት ማሰብ ያለብን እንዲት አምባገነን አስተዳደር አስወግደን ወደ ዲሞክራሲያዊ አንደምንሸጋገር መሆን ነው ያለበት….

  5. eskndre i like your analysis i can assure y nothing will happen specialy AAU because of the following reason 1.campase does not have any discusion specialy politics like 70s 2.every student were member of EPRDF and serve the regim as spy for f
    | #5


    | #6

    Lets stand up and say enough is enough. We all known this a fake development. Business controlled in Ethiopia one ethnic group. Ethiopia belongs to everyone but the regime giving authority for his ethnic group form Ethiopia Air Lines, to small business. you regime has to hold accountable. We all known that what you guys doing.

  7. Weynes go to Hell
    | #7

    Abugida, what happened? why are you guys allow people to post insult against individuals? I am talking about the person who posted using a pen name ROME. I am disappointed.

  8. Sam
    | #8

    Is idealism exist now among Ethiopian univeristy students? Probably. Even though it might exist, expressing it, moreover implementing it, is not as easy as it used to be more than three decades ago. The killer of the idealism which characterizes the Ethiopian youth usually is the ethnic politics put in practice. The government has tried, to some extent succeded, in influencing the students to think politics based on their tribe, not as an Ethiopian. The government seemed to rip the benefit off the divide and conquer strategy. In several universites it was reported students were fighting each other along tribal lines. In many universites we keep hearing even friendship was formed among students who share the same language. yes, students who shared the same language have developed more friendships than those who did not even thirty plus years ago. But at the same time people who speak different languages as their mother tongues had no problem of forming friendship then. But today in universites the past university students experience was discouraged not to be followed. True, EPDRF did not publicly came out and outlawed friendships not to be formed between different tribes. The party did not need to do that. Just put in place the seed that makes friendship between different first language speakers difficult to form, then the result will benefit the EPDRF politicos. EPDRF has tried to squeeze out of the university students the trace of idealism they might have harbored. To some extent succedded. Is that possible to kill idealism altogether indefinately, despite the corrosive nature of ethnic politics? I do not think so. Finally idealism will prevail in substantial amount among univeristy students. When will that be? The country economic situation will be a sure sign indicator. Just follow how the economy is doing. If the economic slide downward will keep continuing, which seems to be the case, the univeristy students will break out of the ethnic politics gettho EPDRF encouraged them to live under, then a hell will break out. I sincerly wish that happening. I sincerly wish Ethiopian univeristies to be the breeding place of idealism again. I hope I will meet my wish.

  9. Tsadkan
    | #9

    Addis ababa University students seem to be divided along Ethnic and religious lines already. They have to overcome this problem before they can engage in a sustained struggle for their rights. Also I think Other universities have a better chance to stage a demonstration than AAU, because AAU faces a heightened security watch. In any case if they cannot come together under one banner they cannot fight for their rights

  10. DRAMA
    | #10


  11. anbesa
    | #11

    The problem is that Ethiopians have always been #1 to talk & gossip (.)
    Ethiopians have repeatedly shown that they are Sintams and Kizenams to come to the front line or put themselves as leaders in anything. We are all #1 to write and comment against the other but no on actually gets up and takes a lead or step up!!!!

    Here are the reasons….

    —There will be blood! – Meles will not hold back to unleash the brute Agazi!
    Understand freedom is not free!!!
    2.Non-ethnic affiliation- The country is already divided. Meles already made sure of that! This is a tough one,just take a look at the comments above mine.

    3.Non-religious affiliation — Take note of what happened in the past weeks ,the burning of churches…again Meles is no stupid and find a way.

    4.Non-political affiliation.
    Please, there are anti Meles opposition gropus in every part of the world who opposit the oppositers /Ethiopiian way/! There is only one Meles.

    We will never get anywhere close to a valid uprising until we ALL learn that the problem is not Tigres and Amharas but “Meles” and his corrupt administration.

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