“The agenda for change in the last 50 years was set by Ethiopian students”—Andreas Eshete.
What today’s young activists have in common with those of past generations is that neither has offered comprehensive solutions for the country’s myriad social and economic problems.Emperor Haile Selassie I had been warned. He was told repeatedly that educating the children of poor people would bring nothing but trouble to his country. Nevertheless, he chose to start and expand public education. To his credit, he understood that Ethiopia could not maintain its sovereignty unless it updated the nature of its diplomatic relationships with the world’s great powers. That would require the establishment of a modern education system capable of producing a competent civil service, a literate military force, and other institutions to keep pace with the rest of Africa.
The school system the emperor built was small, but it was accessible to the children of all people, and therefore played a pivotal role in our history.
As predicted, modernization proved a double-edged sword. The first shock to Haile Selassie’s imperial regime came when two men who were products of his modernization effort, the Neway brothers, attempted to overthrow his government. The emperor must have been alarmed to see university students line up behind the attempted coup. At the same time, as more young people were inevitably drawn to universities, there was a growing realization among the emerging educated class that the modernization process had to be accelerated. The monarchy was seen as an obstacle. The stage was set for conflict that would soon result in the emperor’s forcible removal.
Unlike many other African students, Ethiopian students took political activism as an important element of their education. They were quick to adopt the ideology of socialism. The then Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba were seen as places worthy of emulation in order to achieve progress. The capitalist model was rejected as exploitative and imperialistic.
More consequentially, Ethiopian students adopted the ideology of liberation, which validates armed struggle. The inspiration came from the incipient Eritrean armed movements. Directly or indirectly the liberation movements’ ideology permeated the Ethiopian student body, which looked to these organizations for guidance and inspiration. Their ideology championed the view that Ethiopia was an empire forged by brute force to incorporate large swaths of land occupied by people with different languages and cultures. The students felt these communities should have the right to self-determination, up to and including secession.
Wallelign Mekonnen articulated this view and transformed it into a political objective in his essay titled On the Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia, which has had a huge influence on the thinking of the Ethiopian left ever since.
The main characteristics of Ethiopian student activism can be summarized as follows:
- Marxism-Leninism was its guiding ideology.
- The activists were bound by a common belief that Ethiopia was a country of many nationalities that were being ruled by one, the “Amhara – Shoa” elites.
- Ethiopian Marxists thought they would be able to bring the disparate nationalities under one Marxist-Leninist political structure that would solve both the national question and the country’s economic backwardness.
- The “national movements” were seen as part of the struggle for Ethiopia’s progress and therefore democratic in nature, and would support the attempt to modernize the country.
- Students were urged to engage in politics at the expense of their education. “Liberation before education” became a slogan. Universities and high schools were seen as places for intensifying political activism, not for education.
- With the wholesale adoption of the teachings of Marx, Lenin and Mao Tse-Tung, students’ understanding of Ethiopian history, society and government declined to the point where they lacked the depth required to reform their own society. Rather than focusing on such issues as the formation of the Ethiopian state, Ethiopia’s war against Italy, and the Ethiopian bureaucracy, curricula at Ethiopian institutions of higher learning instead focused on the revolutions in China and Russia, and leftist ideology.
- Knowledge of Marxism was seen as superior to anything else. Marxism was the end-all cause of activism. How that might work in the Ethiopian political environment was not given much thought.
- Students adopted not only the Marxist ideology, but its methods of party formation, conflict resolution and outlook toward life, marriage and religion.
The result of that ‘education revolution’ was a generation of student activists whose legacy has dominated politics in Ethiopia for the last 60 years. Their coming of age was the catalyst for the 1974 upheaval that led to the overthrow of the emperor and the takeover of the government by a military council. University and high school students took part in demonstrations to bring down the government. Political parties formed by veteran student activists (and academics) quickly emerged and attempted to direct the course of political change in Ethiopia.
However, their attempts reflected a lack of understanding of Ethiopian society and power relations. While parties formed by former student activists succeeded in reaching the educated urban segment of society, they could not organize the masses of the Ethiopian peasantry for whom they were attempting to struggle. The peasantry was hard to reach. They also failed to understand that they could not hold power without including the country’s most powerful, organized, and weaponized institution—the armed forces. Their inability to wield state power effectively paved the way for the military takeover. While the student activists fought among themselves, the military was able to adopt their language and consolidate power. These youthful idealists were oblivious to the world of realpolitik, and they paid dearly for it.
The initial failure of this Ethiopian Student Movement, which was multi-ethnic in its approach and Marxist in ideology, led to the emergence of a new strain of ethno-nationalist activists. While these “ethnic nationalists” were mainline Marxists, they were unique in that they equated ethnic grievance with economic exploitation. Ethnic mobilization became their most potent weapon. They adopted the Eritrean liberation doctrine and military tactics, which were designed to exploit perceived ethnic domination.
The military government was portrayed (wrongly) as an institution for perpetuating the domination by one ethnic group over all the others. Local and historical grievances were exploited to win support from minority ethnic groups. There was virtually no-one to challenge this false narrative because proponents of a pan-Ethiopian identity had been delegitimized and sidelined. The narrative of historical grievance combined with Mengistu Haile Mariam’s horrible prosecution of the Eritrean war gave these new ethno-nationalist activists the space and time needed to organize. The government, which was engaged in a life or death struggle in Eritrea, left Tigray to these activists, who, along with the Eritrean nationalists, eventually brought the Mengistu regime to its knees.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) became the most successful example of student activism in Ethiopia’s history. Where all others failed to seize power, TPLF did. Its success was due to its strict adherence to ethnic liberation ideology. Whereas the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party and Meison saw the national (ethnic) struggle as part of a broader struggle for modernization, democracy, and self- rule, TPLF saw ethnic liberation as an end in itself. It embarked on a grand experiment to reorganize Ethiopian society along ethnic lines, much to the detriment of the concept of a greater Ethiopian identity. The multiethnic parties were viewed with suspicion and barred from participating in politics.
Here again, however, the TPLF, like the other Marxists, failed to understand the nature of Ethiopian society. TPLF theorists wanted the country to conform to their ideological pre-dispositions. They drew up a constitution to reflect this ideology. Ethiopia became an ethnic federalist state with each regional administration on paper wielding almost equal power relative to that of the federal government. The TPLF, however, did not trust the people in each ethnic state to guide their own affairs, so the party interfered in its own federal arrangement, appointing party loyalists to rule over the states.
Its ambitious economic transformation also required a stronger federal authority that could direct resources to where the central (TPLF-led) government thought they would be most effective, but this violated constitutional principles and led to resentment from the ethnic states. The TPLF was accused of being a minority ethnicity wielding disproportionate power over others with larger populations and greater resources. Eventually, these inherent contradictions gave rise to a new generation of youth activists. In an ironic twist of fate, the TPLF was faced with angry protesters accusing them of ethnic domination. Just as it had exploited the sense of ethnic grievance to seize power more than a quarter century earlier, ethnic grievance was used to bring the TPLF down.
Today, campus activism in the tradition of the student movements of old is once again galvanizing Ethiopian society. Activists now have distinct brands: Qeerroo, Fano, etc. A new even more destabilizing element has been introduced. These are, to a significant degree, the youth activists of Ethiopia’s two major religions, but that is a subject for another essay.
Unlike in the past, these groups have no ideological orientation. Their cause is simply ethnic grievance. Fueled by the lack of jobs or meaningful economic engagement, their tactics reveal a desperation at their plight. They block roads and destroy economic enterprises they consider exploitative. They see their hopelessness as having been caused by other ethnic groups. They don’t read newspapers or books. They get their information from the fragmented tribal media. They follow their ethnic media personalities, disregarding the common bonds of humanity and issues that might create a sense of community.
Ethiopia is home to a huge mass of young people hell-bent on getting their share of the economic pie at any cost, at the expense of those they consider rival ethnic groups. No one seems to know how to handle this issue. While there is much discussion of the country’s political problems, the epidemic of youth unemployment defies solution. A sense of grievance gnaws at Ethiopia’s soul.
What today’s young activists have in common with those of past generations is that neither has offered a comprehensive solution to the country’s myriad social and economic problems. Moreover, the energy of the young has often been exploited by their elders. For instance, it is fair to claim the Qeerroo rebellion was tacitly encouraged and exploited by the leadership of the Oromia ruling party in its struggle against the TPLF. The same can be said of the Fano activists.
Ethiopia’s young people believe, with some accuracy, that they have been the agents of the country’s change. But it is also true that their activism has contributed to making Ethiopia ungovernable. While they have undeniably provided the impetus for the change that brought Abiy to power and forced the retreat of the TPLF, it is naïve to think that youth organized along ethnic or religious lines understand the complexity and the nature of the Ethiopian state that will be needed to formulate workable solutions. That is a task for wiser heads.
We tend to glorify youth activism and accept uncritically the narrative that young people brought about the changes. That is a debatable point, but irrelevant. Youth can change or destroy the old system and provide the energy for the new, but they do not have the experience or wisdom to build a society. That comes with age. It will require the involvement of society’s elders, who are products of a system permeated for generations by Marxist ideology.
Young Ethiopians, whether Marxist or identity-driven, can play a productive role if they realize that their understanding of politics is driven primarily by passion. One of the biggest challenges may be in persuading the young that their passion must be tempered by experience. They cannot fix a world they do not yet fully understand. The hard truth is that the fate of society cannot be left to the whims of youth whose grasp of issues is as transient as their emotions.
This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.
Editors: Peter Heinlein, William Davison
Main photo: A general strike during the 1974 revolution
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Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished.
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