The Ethiopian Student Movement

Ethiopian students of the 1950s and 1960s were the major political forces that shaped the history of contemporary Ethiopia. The students, filled with passion for a new change and influenced by Marxist-Leninist political thoughts, strongly opposed the Imperial system that resisted to bring meaningful socioeconomic and political reforms in the country. Their political activism galvanized the masses into action. As a result, the country witnessed the 1974 bloody revolution, which eventually consumed the life of many of those students.

Ethiopian students still remain thorns in the side of the oppressive regime. And their struggle for equality, freedom, and justice continues…

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ethiopian students protesting at AAU > Source

Here is an excerpt from a research paper, The Ethiopian Student Movement in the Struggle against Imperialism, 1960-1974, published in 1976. The paper broadly explores the history of the movement and its impact on Ethiopian politics. It is worth reading.

There seem to have been three main periods in the development of student militancy in Ethiopia. But before the first period was one in which the political consciousness of the students was virtually unformed. The intelligentsia was numerically tiny and had not recovered from the Italian decimation of its ranks during the occupation, nor from the subsequent barren period of British administration.

The University College of Addis Ababa was inaugurated in 1951 under the administration of Canadian Jesuits, and in the period 1956 or 1957 the first student newspaper, UC Calls, was established, containing mainly didactic homilies on moral values.

In 1959, a Kenyan scholarship student started the Campus Star, a genuinely political student newspaper. It was vigorously critical of the paternalism of the Jesuits, who banned it after a few issues. The UCAA Newsletter, an official publication, replaced News and Views. In an attempt to pre-empt the role of the Campus Star, it included student contributions, but they were subject to administration censorship. In February Hagos Gebre Yesus, president of the Student Council, attended the eighth International Student Conference in Peru. The Student Council was subordinate to the Dean of Students, who also attended its meetings. Soon after this there was a first attempt to form a student union.

In January 1960 a seminar of student unions, attended by thirty student leaders from African countries, was held in Addis Ababa. The example that they set was not lost upon the Ethiopian students, and by the end of the year, on 11 December, there was an attempt to set up a national student union. A few days later, Girmame Neway and his brother Mengistu, together with other bodyguard officers, seized power while Haile Sellassie was out of the country. Girmame and some of the other officers had taken extension courses at the university in constitutional history, economics and European history, and had come into contact with the first stirrings of student radicalism, even though the student critique of the emperor went no further than blaming him for retarding modernisation. Mengistu Neway clearly regarded the support of the students as important, for in the few days before the coup was crushed, he managed to meet with student leaders to explain his objectives. The students of Addis Ababa’s colleges and schools organised a large demonstration in support of the coup, and published a manifesto criticising the exploitation of the peasants and the corruption of the administration. On the morning of 15 December, the radio station broadcast a cautious statement by student leaders, assuring listeners that “the new government is doing all in it power to free you from oppression, giving you freedom of speech, press and political parties.” News and Views was also cautious in its support of the change of government, provided that “it is not a military coup d’état”. Later estimates of the number of active supporters of Mengistu and Girmame among the students range from 20 to 100.

After the defeat of the Neway coup until 1967, when the University Students’ Union of Addis Ababa (USUAA) was founded, the student movement was inchoate and militant at the same time. The students forced several confrontations with the regime, but without scoring any major victories, Pyrrhic or otherwise. This period constituted the first stage in the development of the student movement.

In 1961 the students mounted their first anti-government demonstration. In September, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) launched its first attack on Ethiopian forces. The next year, at the university’s Student Day ceremonies, held in May, students publicly read poems in Amharic containing oblique political references. The traditional technique of samenna worq, in which the speaker’s real meaning is cleverly disguised in innocent-sounding ambiguities remains alive in modern Ethiopia in both verse and song. After this incident, the government warned students that they must stop meddling in politics, and the university authorities suspended several individual students. But despite their apparent powerlessness, the students did succeed in organising a union, without which their protests would have remained diffuse and ineffective. They also lacked a single issue that would mobilise and unify the whole student body.

Nevertheless, in 1963 the university was closed down for two weeks by student disturbances, and in 1964 further student demonstrations were held under the slogan ‘Land to the Tiller!’ A Presidential Commission was appointed and reported on student unrest. In 1965, the Ethiopian Student Union in Europe held its fifth annual conference in Vienna, and condemned feudalism, the Orthodox Church, the Imperial family, the nobility and the landed gentry, while advocating land reform and the establishment of an independent trade union movement. In a parallel development, the Ethiopian Students’ Association in North America, at its thirteenth annual congress in Cambridge, Massachusetts, condemned the IEG as a “festerng dictatorship”. These two groups were the major overseas opposition groups at the time, although splinter groups also existed.

In February 1965, the government provided the unifying issue that the student movement needed. Parliament was debating a land reform bill, over which the feudal nobility and the bureaucrats were divided. Students gathered outside the parliament building to demonstrate against the feudal land tenure system, again under the slogan of “Land to the Tiller!” The government and the university administration reacted to this by banning the student union and suspending nine students for organising meetings. Some weeks later, in May, fighting between the police and students demonstrating in support of the nine led to the temporary closure of the university.

In 1966, in a minor victory, a protest by students about conditions in the Shola camps outside Addis Ababa, where beggars and vagrants were customarily incarcerated during state visits by foreign leaders, led to small improvements in the camps and inevitably to the arrest of the student leaders involved.

In April 1967, USUAA was formally constituted; its organ Tagele (Struggle) had first appeared a month earlier. The students planned a march through the streets of Addis Ababa, which was immediately banned. Relying on the guarantee of the right of peaceful assembly in Article 45 of the Ethiopian Constitution, a small group of students then defied the ban and went ahead with the march. As the demonstrators left the university grounds, army units set upon them and then occupied the campus. The Emperor threatened to suspend all financial support to students who criticised the government. Student leaders were suspended, and the university stayed closed for three weeks. Article 45, in the meantime, was to all intents and purposes rendered a dead letter by the Detention Act, in effect a ninety-day detention law. Meanwhile, the second major report on student unrest, the Awad-Strauss Report, was completed.

The rest of the article: here.

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2 Responses to “The Ethiopian Student Movement”


  1. 1 degenet March 22, 2009 at 9:12 am

    There seem to have been three main periods in the development of student militancy in Ethiopia. But before the first period was one in which the political consciousness of the students was virtually unformed. The intelligentsia was numerically tiny and had not recovered from the Italian decimation of its ranks during the occupation, nor from the subsequent barren period of British administration.

    The University College of Addis Ababa was inaugurated in 1951 under the administration of Canadian Jesuits, and in the period 1956 or 1957 the first student newspaper, UC Calls, was established, containing mainly didactic homilies on moral values.

    In 1959, a Kenyan scholarship student started the Campus Star, a genuinely political student newspaper. It was vigorously critical of the paternalism of the Jesuits, who banned it after a few issues. The UCAA Newsletter, an official publication, replaced News and Views. In an attempt to pre-empt the role of the Campus Star, it included student contributions, but they were subject to administration censorship. In February Hagos Gebre Yesus, president of the Student Council, attended the eighth International Student Conference in Peru. The Student Council was subordinate to the Dean of Students, who also attended its meetings. Soon after this there was a first attempt to form a student union.

    In January 1960 a seminar of student unions, attended by thirty student leaders from African countries, was held in Addis Ababa. The example that they set was not lost upon the Ethiopian students, and by the end of the year, on 11 December, there was an attempt to set up a national student union. A few days later, Girmame Neway and his brother Mengistu, together with other bodyguard officers, seized power while Haile Sellassie was out of the country. Girmame and some of the other officers had taken extension courses at the university in constitutional history, economics and European history, and had come into contact with the first stirrings of student radicalism, even though the student critique of the emperor went no further than blaming him for retarding modernisation. Mengistu Neway clearly regarded the support of the students as important, for in the few days before the coup was crushed, he managed to meet with student leaders to explain his objectives. The students of Addis Ababa’s colleges and schools organised a large demonstration in support of the coup, and published a manifesto criticising the exploitation of the peasants and the corruption of the administration. On the morning of 15 December, the radio station broadcast a cautious statement by student leaders, assuring listeners that “the new government is doing all in it power to free you from oppression, giving you freedom of speech, press and political parties.” News and Views was also cautious in its support of the change of government, provided that “it is not a military coup d’état”. Later estimates of the number of active supporters of Mengistu and Girmame among the students range from 20 to 100.

    After the defeat of the Neway coup until 1967, when the University Students’ Union of Addis Ababa (USUAA) was founded, the student movement was inchoate and militant at the same time. The students forced several confrontations with the regime, but without scoring any major victories, Pyrrhic or otherwise. This period constituted the first stage in the development of the student movement.

    In 1961 the students mounted their first anti-government demonstration. In September, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) launched its first attack on Ethiopian forces. The next year, at the university’s Student Day ceremonies, held in May, students publicly read poems in Amharic containing oblique political references. The traditional technique of samenna worq, in which the speaker’s real meaning is cleverly disguised in innocent-sounding ambiguities remains alive in modern Ethiopia in both verse and song. After this incident, the government warned students that they must stop meddling in politics, and the university authorities suspended several individual students. But despite their apparent powerlessness, the students did succeed in organising a union, without which their protests would have remained diffuse and ineffective. They also lacked a single issue that would mobilise and unify the whole student body.

    Nevertheless, in 1963 the university was closed down for two weeks by student disturbances, and in 1964 further student demonstrations were held under the slogan ‘Land to the Tiller!’ A Presidential Commission was appointed and reported on student unrest. In 1965, the Ethiopian Student Union in Europe held its fifth annual conference in Vienna, and condemned feudalism, the Orthodox Church, the Imperial family, the nobility and the landed gentry, while advocating land reform and the establishment of an independent trade union movement. In a parallel development, the Ethiopian Students’ Association in North America, at its thirteenth annual congress in Cambridge, Massachusetts, condemned the IEG as a “festerng dictatorship”. These two groups were the major overseas opposition groups at the time, although splinter groups also existed.

    In February 1965, the government provided the unifying issue that the student movement needed. Parliament was debating a land reform bill, over which the feudal nobility and the bureaucrats were divided. Students gathered outside the parliament building to demonstrate against the feudal land tenure system, again under the slogan of “Land to the Tiller!” The government and the university administration reacted to this by banning the student union and suspending nine students for organising meetings. Some weeks later, in May, fighting between the police and students demonstrating in support of the nine led to the temporary closure of the university.

    In 1966, in a minor victory, a protest by students about conditions in the Shola camps outside Addis Ababa, where beggars and vagrants were customarily incarcerated during state visits by foreign leaders, led to small improvements in the camps and inevitably to the arrest of the student leaders involved.

    In April 1967, USUAA was formally constituted; its organ Tagele (Struggle) had first appeared a month earlier. The students planned a march through the streets of Addis Ababa, which was immediately banned. Relying on the guarantee of the right of peaceful assembly in Article 45 of the Ethiopian Constitution, a small group of students then defied the ban and went ahead with the march. As the demonstrators left the university grounds, army units set upon them and then occupied the campus. The Emperor threatened to suspend all financial support to students who criticised the government. Student leaders were suspended, and the university stayed closed for three weeks. Article 45, in the meantime, was to all intents and purposes rendered a dead letter by the Detention Act, in effect a ninety-day detention law. Meanwhile, the second major report on student unrest, the Awad-Strauss Report, was completed.

  2. 2 abdulkerim November 30, 2009 at 11:29 pm

    really I respected you because Ifound what I WANT
    thank you


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