ETHIOPIAN STUDENTS: Heroic, But Unfortunate Class in History
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ETHIOPIAN STUDENTS: Heroic, But Unfortunate Class in History

Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia  (Associate Professor of African Studies)

(May 01, 2001) The sad encounter that befalls Ethiopian students like a
fever from time to time has probably now desentisized the Ethiopian larger
I am speechless and torn apart by the police brutality directed against
students at Addis Ababa University (AAU) campus on april 11, 2001. This campus
was descecrated by police several times, and the one that I witnessed myself
was the December 29, 1969 campus massacre at Sidist Kilo. For the sake of a
better understanding of the Ethiopian Student Movement, I will first furnish a
synopsis of the student unrest in the late 1960s and early 1970s and then
galvanize my comments and sympathy to the present generation of Ethiopian
students. To undertake such an
analysis of students political culture is not necessarily daunting, but
it is at once nostalgic and painful. I have dedicated the second chapter of my
book [Ethiopia: The Political Economy of Transition] to "Haile Selassie and The
Ethiopian Student Movement," and I have also contributed an article entitled
"The Ethiopian Student Movement: Retrospective" to 'Ethiopia Focus' on May
1995. The narrative analysis
below is in effect a synthesis of my previous works. In 1967, a strong student
organization, the University Students Union of Addis Ababa (USUAA), with its
official paper 'Struggle' was founded. USUAA superceded the University College
Union (UCU)
in terms of structure and broader agenda, and became the foremost militant
organization to challenge and shake the very foundations of Haile Selassie's
Government. In an attempt to pre-empt student activities, the Government
outlawed demonstrations, but to the contrary on April 1967 joint USUAA/NUEUS
(National Union of Ethiopian University Students) was staged to protest the
implementation of the law. In fact the whole of 1968 and 1969 witnessed student
rallies and demonstrations. The student movement, steadly but surely created
political crisis of national proportions and constantly confronted the
Government. In the midst of
all this, a group of students, Berhane Meskel Reda and Yohannes Sebhatu among
them, hijacked two Ethiopian airlines planes from the same spot (Bahr Dar) to
Sudan and Libya respectively. At this stage, student protest went beyond mere
defiance to 'declaration of war' on the Government. 1969-70 academic year was
perhaps the height of the student struggle symbolized with the presidency of
Tilahun Gizaw. This was the time I entered
the University as freshman. Like most of my generation, I witnessed the trial
and tribulations and the glory and setbakcs of the Ethiopian Student Movement
(ESM). I still have a clear picture of the inauguration of Tilahun Gizaw, when
the X-mass Hall (Lideta Adarash) was completely packed, when the
president-elect introduced Zeru Kihishen
( a veteran of the ESM) as 'an old man', and when he said, "if a mouse is
cornered by a cat, it will react"--an analogy of students and the Government.
For me and other
freshmen who had just joined Haile Selassie University, campus politics was a
turning point. We were actually "baptized with fire" as Gebru Gebrewold
(another veteran of
ESM) then aptly put it. At least for me, it was a fundamental transformation in
my thinking after I was exposed to "Purge of Feudal Legacy," the editorial of
the November 1969 (Vol. V, No. 2) issue of 'Struggle'. The latter had carried a
number of important articles including the "Question of Nationalities in
Ethiopia," by Walelign Mekonnen. Gezahegn Bekle condemned the "Green Berets"
film by way of supporting the struggle
of the Vietnamese people, and Terefe Belay showed his concern over the ever
growing link between German espionage and the Ethiopian police; Abraham
GebreEgziabiher wrote about the battle cry of Ho Chi Minh and Ernesto 'Che'
Guvera. The editor-in-chief
of 'Struggle' was Yohannes Kifle; the English editor was Nega Ayele and taught
me Political Science in the Faculty of Arts; Amharic editor was Yohannes
The editorial board included a body of bright and militant students: Gezahegn
Bekele, Gezahegn Desalegn, Walelign Mekonnen, Mesfin Habtu, Berhane Ijigu,
Solomon Mitiku, Girma Bekele, Abraham GebreEgziabiher, AynAlem Kebede, Tekalign
WoldeAmanuel, Girma Seyoum, Semachew Desta, and Fikre Zergaw. The Government of
Ethiopia, at
this point, seriously considered the role of the ESM and its influence on the
larger society. Especially after the publication of Walelign's "Question of
Nationalities" and Abraham G/Egziabiher's "Hizb Weis Ahzab Be'Ethiopia" (People
or Peoples in Ethiopia), the government-controlled media began campaigning
against the "communist" and "unpatriotic" students "who wanted to divide up
Ethiopia into several states and shatter the age-old territorial integrity and
sovereignty of the country." The Government clearly saw the danger that the
student movement could bring about to the challenge and downfall of the status
quo. It was not even impressed by the relatively compromising articles on
Ethiopian unity such as 'Ethiopia and Ethiopianism' by Abdul Mejid Hussien. The
Government, for obvious reasons, was frightened by the Marxist jargon used in
many of the student association papers and exposition of the ills of the
political system by the latter. Government campaigns against students finally
culminated in the assassination of Tilahun Gizaw. On December 28, 1969 Tilahun
was shot by a sniper while walking with his brother and fiancee at the
cross-like intersection of Afncho Ber
near Sidist Kilo campus. The news was quickly disseminated through memos
written by USUAA leaders and by word of mouth. To this day, I have a fresh
memory of what happened on December 28 and the following day. Almost every
evening the bars and tea rooms in the vicinity of the various campuses were
packed by students watching TV at the Mekane Iyesus Amist Kilo Cafe. At about
9:30 p.m., we heard that Tilahun was shot and we immediately rushed to the the
Haile Selassie Hospital where he was taken "for treatment". Contrary to medical
ethics, Tilahun did not get the necessary treatment and finally died at about
mid-night. Between 10 p.m. and 12 a.m. the number of students
that gathered at the Hospital grew fast; it easily turned into a mob, broke
into the
Hospital and entered where Tilahun's body was laying on a stretcher. Two things
that I encountered at the moment, and which I can never forget, are the socks
that Tilahun
was wearing [all his body was covered by a blanket except his feet] and Goit'om
Berhe crying. Goit'om was one of the militant students from Law School who
moderated the presidential debate at Arat Kilo Science Campus[this event was
shot and recorded by
a German TV crew] on November 4, 1969. On December 29, the Sidist Kilo campus
was filled with thousands of high school and university students; Addis
Ababans, faculty and staff members and student sympathaziers had come to bid
final farewell to the beloved student leader. This incident coincided with the
famous Kulibi Gebriel annual pilgrimage to Harrar and the Emperor was there for
the festival, but the Imperial Body Guard
[Ye'Kibir Ze'Begna] came "to pay homage to Tilahun!" and they demanded that the

funeral service be held in the Royal tradition [Tilahun was the brother of Sara
Gizaw, the wife of the late Prince Mekonnen]. Students were adamant not to
surrender to the demands of the Body Guards. But finally, an apparent
compromise was reached to have a joint funeral procession, not knowing that all
this was a trick, and indeed a strategem, on the part of the Imperial Guard.
All of a sudden elements of the Guard began to shoot
at students and all the souls that had assembled on campus. The bastards of the
Imperial Guard continued to shoot and we started to disperse with a lot of
stampede on our way. Imagine shooting on a crowd over twenty thousand! You do
not need to aim! In fact, blind folded you can kill and wound hundreds. Thanks
to adrenaline, however, a significant number of us managed to jump the tall
campus walls facing Etege Mesk
which we would never try under normal circumstances. A number of students,
and staff were trapped in the New Arts Building and were mercilessly stabbed
and bayonetted by the invading Body guard monsters. A day after the massacre,
campus was completely deserted and officially closed. On new year 1970, we
learned that three students died in campus and over twenty died of their wounds
in various hospitals including the Police Hospital. The massacre was condemned
by some courageous faculty members including L.X. Tarpey [Dean of Business
College] but the latter was deported within 24 hours from Ethiopia. It required
guts to condemn the Ethiopian Government for massacring students but it was not
easy for Ethiopian faculty members to do so [I mean the militant ones] for they
could risk their positions or even their lives. Opportunist faculty members
were silent as usual. Student morale was low after the massacre, but the spirit
of struggle was not easily extinguished as the Haile Selassie regime expected.
On the contrary, by 1971 USUAA reorganized itself,
'Struggle' had began to publish again and student activism was rekindled.
Between 1972 and 1974, student protestation assumed nation wide and many of
department student papers also began to reappear. And not knowing we were about
to witness a revolution
in Ethiopia, we were conducting the traditional study circles and we were also
preparing the last 'Struggle' (Vol. 6, No. 1, 1974) for public consumption.
This student official paper was incidentally supported by the University
Administration which financed for at least one thousand copies; the rest of the
circulation was facilitated by USUAA's own budget. The editor-in-chief of the
last issue of 'Struggle' was Meles Tecle; English editor was Amaha Tsehaye and
Amharic editor was Girmachew Alemu. Members of the editorial board and their
contributions were as follows: Ayed Ahmed (The Political Implication of Famine
in Ethiopia), Nigatu Tsehaye (What Is To Be Done Now), Ghelawdewos Araia (New
Democratic Revolution In Ethiopia), Said Yimer (Our Task); and Amharic
contributing editors were Girmachew Alemu (The Necessity of Democratic
Republic), Getachew Belhu (Change: Revolutionary and Reformist), AnduAlem
Tefera (To Tilahun, Walelign & Marta), Reta Alemayehu (Ball Game -poem-; Gossip
Mongers), Ayalew Yimam (The Eritrean People's Struggle: Which Way?), Abebe
Asefa (The Necessity
of Political Associations), Mulugeta Asfaw (Worker and Peasant Get Organized
Before You Are Consumed By Unexpected Fire-poem-), Berhanu Chala (Law and
Change), Belachew Tilahun (The Condition of the Ethiopian Economy),
Girmachew Alemu (Raise Your Hand), Abdul Hafiz Yusuf (The Ethiopian Drought
From Political Perspective). By comparison, student activism was in its heyday
during the period discussed above, and relatively, and in retrospect, the Haile
Selassie Government was by far tolerant to student's demands if one examines
what Ethiopian youth and students experienced under the Derg regime. Instead of
killings [except for Tilahun's assassination and the subsequent massacre] Haile
Selassie, for the most part, incarcerated "troublesome"
[us] students, and the usual detentions centers were Kolfe, Holeta, and
Sendafa, and
at times Boter and Chinagsen. But of all detention centers, Sendafa was the
most infamous. in fact, one of the articles featured in 'The Balance and the
Sword' [Law
School Student Association paper] and which depicted the cruel imprisonment of
students was entitled "Detention at Sendafa". Like all students of my
I have a vivid memory of the punishments perpetrated by the government, not
of course that the worst was yet to come under the Derg regime. Thousands upon
thousands of Ethiopian students and youth, the cream of the cream, the heros
and heroines of Ethiopia, and the future leaders of their country, perished
under the
murderous regime of Mengistu Haile-Mariam. The Derg regime virtually decimated
Ethiopian youth and students by an official campaign of Red Terror. The latter,
literally sealed off the hope of Ethiopia, at least in the context of
contemporary Ethiopian
politics. Now again, Ethiopian students have encountered police brutality in
campus, and like the generation of students three decades ago, they are
detained in
the same detention center: Sendafa. What makes the current student experience
different from their predecessors is the fact that the latter were facing
regimes that
have apparently poles apart in their background, thinking, and class interest.
The Meles regime should have been the least suspected government to attack
students in campus. Meles was not there to witness the campus massacre of 1969
mentioned above, but a significant number of his associates are survivors of
the massacre. it is therefore astounding that these same people have gone to
the extent of wounding, injuring, and killing students. How is that possible
that people who have had similar fate like the present victims of AAU in fact
allow unarmed students to be shot? "It is the police; not the Government"
rationale is a terribly cynical and foolhardy reasoning and a manifestation of
an utterly depraved system. The Police are the final expression of the
government, and its operation are are the deeds of the latter. Are the current
leaders oblvious of their previous experience or could there be any
psychological explanation attributed to the intriguing commodity known as
'power'? I believe there could be three possible social science explanation to
the above question. A year before the EPRDF assumed power, sometime in 1990, I
wrote a petrtinent analysis in one of my works, which I think, now adequately
explains the Meles regime vis-a-vis the power nexus.
And, in brief, this is what I argued: "According to [Robert] Michels, all
hitherto popular movements which profess the good for the entire community
inevitably contradict themselves. The question of power remains a problem and
rather proceeds in a natural cycle. The leaders of the movements first seize
power from the masses, but the power eventually raises above the people and is
directed against them. Moreover, Michels contends that in such relations
between fellow travellers and idolators, megalomania is apt to develop, thereby
suffocating the basic tenets of democaracy." It seems to me the above argument
is more relevant to the present Ethiopian political landscape than when I wrote
it over a decade ago. But, there could be two other explanations as indicated
above, namely that the so-called struggle of liberation was pretentious, and
that there is some hidden agenda or a mystique of relatively unfathomable
undergound movement to emasculate the Ethiopian nation. I can't see any reason
why the present Ethiopian government wants to attack defenseless students
unless it is motivated by the above hypotheses. The April 18th incident were 39
to 41 students lost their lives, again, must not be justified by "the new
phenomenon of gangsterism"; the Government is responsible to make distinction
between the two, and we don't need any theory to explain the latter. In any
event, let's set aside theory and let's all demand the safety of Ethiopian
students to be guaranteed and that no violent assault be directed against the
future leaders of Ethiopia. I personally suggest that the National [Federal]
Ethiopian Parliament propose an act and legislate to the effect that no
students be attacked by any armed government forces, and that no police or any
other armed government troops violate the presmises of the university campus.
NOTE: Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia, a Tigrean himself, was one of the Editors of
Ethiopian Commentator, a magazine which gave unequivocal support to TPLF when
it came to power in 1991.  Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia is a Tigrean nationalist who
believes in the right of self-determination of the Tigray nation and other
nations and nationalities in Ethiopia.



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