Ethiopia: Protest and Addis Ababa University

By Eskinder Nega / March 18, 2011
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 into 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 onto 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 '70s, 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 secession” 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 student 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 into protests, success for the nation, as I have written a few weeks ago, will depend on whether the essential lessons of the Tunisian and Egyptian protests are embraced or not.

These are:

  1. Non-Violence
  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, prominent Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, has been in and out of prison several times while he was editor of one of several newspapers shut down during the 2005 crackdown. After nearly five years of tug-of-war with the 'system,' Eskinder, his award-winning wife Serkalem Fassil, and other colleagues have yet to win government permission to return to their jobs in the publishing industry. Email: