The sixties witnessed worldwide student movements that demanded more significant roles in mapping the course of their nations’ development and greater access to their countries’ social, economic and political systems, writes Alem Asres.
Ever since the dawn of medieval universities, students have protested against and challenged the established order of their society with considerable frequency. “Activism by students in the affairs of their universities and their community and nation beyond the universities”, said E. W. Bakke, “is no new phenomenon.” Even though student movements have a long history, the decades of the l960 witnessed student movements of great frequency, geographic range, and social and political intensity “When social historians come to write about the decade of the nineteen sixties,” remarked Blackstone and Hadley, “it seems likely that they will single out student protest as one of its distinguishing characteristics in many countries.” Ethiopia was no exception. What was an exception, however, was the fact that both the student movement and student opposition of the sixties was sociologically and historically a new phenomenon in Ethiopian history. To understand these new phenomena and Haile Selassie’s government response to them, one must first examine not only what Abraham Demoz called, “The many worlds of Ethiopia,” but also the prevailing socio-economic and political environment of the country during the decades of 1960s.
Historians, ancient and modern, have portrayed Ethiopia as a country rich in traditions rooted in a glorious and enduring civilization. Ethiopia was mentioned in the Old Testament and its civilization was known to the Mediterranean world from antiquity to the renaissance period through the works of various classical writers. The rulers of Ethiopia, including the late Emperor Haile Selassie I, are said to have traced their lineage to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. In the twentieth century, Ethiopia gained symbolic status for gallantly defending her independence against European colonization. However, behind the glorious traditions and the symbols of gallantry, Ethiopia remained, until 1974, a stronghold of feudalism with social, economic and political power held exclusively by the Emperor.
By the early 1960s, it was common knowledge that Ethiopia was not only one of the oldest nations in the world but also one of the poorest and most “underdeveloped.” Moreover, it was not uncommon to describe Ethiopia as characterized by high rates of illiteracy, infant mortality, and mass poverty with reoccurring famine. Exploitation of the peasants by feudal lords and the church was also recognized along with widespread corruption in the government, devastating secessionist wars with heightened political oppression. In comparing the situation in Ethiopia with that of the other African states, General Mengistu Neway, who was later hanged for leading the 1960 coup against the Emperor, made this remark: “Ethiopia has been standing still, while our African brothers are moving ahead in the struggle to overcome poverty.”
The decade of the l960s saw a dramatic change in the social, economic and political make-up of the entire African continent. Africa was transformed from a vast colonial domain into a continent of independent states. For the vast majority of the African people this dramatic change produced new hopes and new expectations for a better world and better life. Amidst the rapidly changing world of the Africans, social, economic and political stagnation characterized the realm of the Ethiopians. During the 1960 coup, the Crown Prince of Ethiopia was quoted to have said: “The laws and regulations of the country have been abused to deprive the common people of their rights and privileges in order to boost the riches of the favored few. The people of Ethiopia have waited for a long time with patience in the hope that they will be free some day of oppression, poverty, and ignorance.”
In December 1960, the Imperial Bodyguard, the Emperor’s own elite force tried to dethrone Emperor Haile Selassie while he was on a state visit to Brazil. The coup failed and the Emperor returned to Ethiopia triumphantly. The failure of the 1960 coup to dethrone Haile Selassie coupled with the absence of any organized opposition against the Imperial regime led many observers of the Ethiopian political scene to conclude that the Emperor could not be overthrown and that the feudal institution in Ethiopia was secure. It was believed that any attempt to overthrow the Emperor would meet strong popular opposition and would, indeed, plunge the country into a bloody civil war. However, there was no civil war of historical nature to mention following the December coup. Nevertheless, it is a historical fact that every society, sooner or later, faces the conflict between its traditional order and the forces within it pressing for fundamental change. Composed of various socio-economic classes, the Ethiopian students at home and abroad served as a formidable forces calling, not only, for the overthrow of feudal regime, but also for the creation of free and democratic Ethiopia.
Even though the attempted coup d’Etat of the 1960, failed to dethrone the Emperor, it gave birth to a new social force that previously had not been recognized as politically relevant. This new social force came to be known as the Ethiopian Student Movement. For the following fourteen years, from 1960 to 1974, the Ethiopian Student Movement appeared to be the only organized force to openly challenge the institution of feudalism and the Emperor, both in Ethiopia and abroad. In Ethiopia, it challenged the legitimacy of the monarchy and called for a new social, economic and political order, as well as for the overthrow of the feudal regime. Abroad, it employed various means to expose the social, economic, and political contradiction in Ethiopian society at that time and to remove the shroud of mystery that for centuries has enshrined the feudal state and blurred genuine understanding of the country and its people. Some 14 years later, the seeds of discontent sawed by the December coup began to germinate fast.
In February l974, the wind of change finally swept up the ancient kingdom of Ethiopia, reviving revolutionary discontents and stirring up new hope for dissolution of the feudal system. Forces seeking fundamental social change in Ethiopia began to surface all over the country making Ethiopia, once again, the focus of international attention. This time, it was not the glorious tradition or the enduring civilization of Ethiopia that caught the attention of the world rather it was the pulse of a revolution signaling the end of feudal regime. “This revolution,” wrote Jackson “has propelled aged Ethiopia from a society of oppressive feudal bourgeois backwardness into the orbit of socialist countries with rocket-like speed.” And Sahel Selassie described the event of February l974 in this way: “A violent wind started to blow all over Ethiopia. From Bale in the south to Eritrea in the north, from Harar in the east to Kaffa in the west the wind blew, raising a heavy dust. In the capital aviation workers went on strike demanding the removal of their management staff; bank workers went on strike, demanding better conditions; municipal workers went on strike threatening to make Addis Ababa stink if their various demands are not met at once; taxi-drivers went on strike in protest to a rise in the price of oil; bus drivers went on strike challenging the true owners of the bus company to come to the surface; likewise workers in factories, employees in corporations and in government departments stopped work demanding pay raises, removal of officials, and improved working conditions. Teachers and students boycotted classes for various reasons.” The wheels of social change set in motion by the leaders of the December coup continued turning with maximum speed signaling the end of feudal dynasty in Ethiopia once and for all.
In 1974, Emperor Haile Selassie was dethroned and the Ethiopian feudal system was dismantled. Neither single political party; social class; nor common ideology was responsible for the 1974 “Ethiopian Revolution”. The revolution was a product of several social forces mobilized behind separate issues and demanding separate responses. Political activity of the Ethiopian Student Movement at home and abroad has been cited both nationally and internationally as a key factor leading to the overthrow of the Haile Selassie’s government and closing the chapter on the Solomonic Dynasty. To adequately understand the Ethiopian Student Movement and its driving ideology requires searching the broadly scattered body of socio-economic and political literature on Ethiopia and its student’s activities both at home and abroad. Ethiopian student radicalism grew as the sixties progressed. It called not only for dismantling the oppressive feudal system of Emperor Haile Selassie, but also called for severing the umbilical cord which tied Ethiopia with Imperialist and Neo-Colonialist countries.
Thus, the continued pressure applied by Ethiopian student opposition, coupled with the regime’s inability to deal with the country’s deteriorating social, economic and political conditions was a key factor in ending feudalism in Ethiopia. Michael F. Lofchie, in an article with heading, “The Lion of Judah De-Clawed”, wrote: “The entire structure of Ethiopian society has been unalterably changed, and the country is irrevocably launched on a course of far-reaching reform.” Reform or no reform, it is clear to everyone, that Ethiopia will never be the same.
In conclusion, the sixties witnessed worldwide student movements that demanded more significant roles in mapping the course of their nations’ development and greater access to their countries’ social, economic and political systems. Of course, students’ demands were relative to each region’s historical and cultural characteristics; however, the call for some form of social change was universal. No region emerged unaffected from the decade of the sixties. It is my hope that this rather short introductory article will motivate students of Ethiopian political history and national scholars to engage in research designed to explain fully and adequately the contributions made by Ethiopians in general and the Ethiopian Student Movements in particular.
Ed.’s Note: Alem Asres (PhD), (former Alemayehu Wondemagegnehu), earned his Doctorate of Philosophy in Social Foundations of Education with emphasis on Comparative and Multicultural Education from the University of Maryland, College Park. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].