The Ethiopian Student Movement (1960–1974)

Introductory Note

While there are many notable events in the 1950s and early 1960s leading to the development and radicalization of the Ethiopian student movement (ESM),1 the first public expression of the ESM as a leftist and Marxist-Leninist movement was in 1965, “when students came out on to the street with the revolutionary slogan of ‘Land to the Tiller’… a turning point in the history of the student movement.”2 

The 1965 protests for “Land to the Tiller” were followed by yearly uprisings in 1966, 1967, and 1968, each with its own demands, culminating in the major student uprising in 1969. In the second semester, students annually confronted “the powers that be on a variety of social and political issues.” The slogan for May 1966 was “Is poverty a crime?” and the demonstrations that year were the first confrontations with police. The students became the victors of the “Battle of Ras Makonnen Bridge,” giving as good as they got and immediately winning their demand for closure of what became known as the Shola Concentration Camp.3 The estimated 2,000 students that participated in the action carried signs that read “Rich Are Getting Richer, Poor Are Getting Poorer,” “Poverty is Crime in Ethiopia,” and “Close the Shola Concentration Camp,” in reaction to reports of inhumane conditions at the camp in Shola where panhandlers and other poor people rounded up from streets of Addis Ababa were detained.4,5

In April 1967, the third successive year of protests mostly centered on the Arat Kilo campus rather than the main campus in Seddest Kilo. In an apparent reaction to the two previous years’ protests, the government promulgated “a law that students argued made public demonstrations virtually impossible by laying a number of preconditions, including the issuance of a permit by the Ministry of Interior.”6 The day before the law was to go into effect on April 11, students organized a demonstration that gathered between 1,500 and 1,700 people at the Arat Kilo campus but were prevented from leaving by police who had surrounded the campus. The police eventually stormed the campus using tear gas and clubs to attack “indiscriminately not only the students … but also faculty and foreign students who were not part of [the protest].”7

Ultimately, however, while it no doubt played a part, it was not student activism and agitation that directly triggered the 1974 revolution; it was the 1973 famine.8 According to Elleni Centime Zeleke:

The very spontaneity of the popular movements of 1974 also meant that the various [student] groups involved were not able to develop their own organisation and political leadership before the soldiers pushed forward to monopolise power.

The student movement, it would appear, was ill prepared for the sudden onset of the revolution and not ready to take advantage of the natural mass uprising. Bahru Zewde writes:

In short, the Ethiopian student movement produced many militant adherents of Marxism-Leninism but few theoreticians who were able to interpret the Ethiopian reality through the creative application of Marxist theory… What occurred was to all intents and purposes a transmutation of the religious orthodoxy of the classical tradition… into a Marxist orthodoxy, or continuation of dogma by other means. Agitprop, more than theory, was to be the hallmark of the Ethiopian student movement. The overriding preoccupation of the movement’s leaders was to mobilize students for the anti-feudal and anti-imperialist struggle, and Marxist-Leninist writings provided a ready-made justification for such militant opposition.9

Nonetheless, the political parties that dominated the immediate post-1974 period were founded from the ESM. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) was started by Ethiopian students in exile in the US, Europe, and Algiers, while the All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement (MEISON) came out of the Ethiopian Student Union in Europe (ESUE).10 Unfortunately a split within the movement, along with the rise of the Derg as a military junta, set the stage for the liquidation of the leadership of both parties.

Before the bloody purge of 1976–1978 in which EPRP and MEISON were both essentially eliminated, an immediate legacy of the student movement was the fact that the military regime adopted a number of proposals from the movement’s demands,11 including the land reform program and the creation of peasant associations.12 The ESM’s most enduring legacy may be that it served as the initiation and proving ground for many of the debates and conflicts that would dominate the post-revolution era. Not only does almost every Ethiopian political party of the late 20th and early 21st centuries—including the TPLF and EPRDF, which came to power between 1991 and 2018—trace their roots to 1974 and their membership come from the ESM, the questions that dominate the modern era also trace their roots to before the revolution and to the writings and debates that were part of the discourse of the multi-locale ESM. To this day, these questions, especially the question of the multi-nation, multi-ethnic, and multilingual nature of Ethiopia, i.e., the “national question,” dictates much of the politics.

Internal Political Education Program

The Ethiopian student movement’s most prominent internal political education programs were its several publications. Each geographical wing of the movement—in North America, in Europe, and in Ethiopia—had several publications that produced varied essays, reports, and other writings on a wide range of topics. However, these publications did not function and are not read solely as an internal political education apparatus, and therefore are discussed in more detail in the next section on the movement’s external political education programs.

But perhaps a discrete example of an internal political education program within the movement was the Political Education Program (PEP). The Ethiopian Students Association in North America (ESANA), later the Ethiopian Students Union in North America (ESUNA), launched PEP at its 16th congress in 1968 with Dessalegn Rahmato as its coordinator. A resolution at the 16th congress in New Haven, Connecticut,13 called for the creation of a reading list on “revolutionary ideology.” Such lists created in subsequent years included writings not only by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, but also Kwame Nkrumah, Malcolm X, C.L.R. James, Isaac Deutscher, Andre Gunder Frank, Régis Debray, Leo Huberman, and Paul Sweezy. A 1970 bibliography of writings on Russian, Chinese, Cuban, and Vietnamese revolutions—in an intentional effort to focus on revolutions as opposed to theory—also included general declarations stating “anything by Giap is recommended” and “all books by Fanon are recommended.”14

On the internal political education of the movement in Europe, Bahru writes:

While I have not been able to come across an equivalent documentation on the European side, it is nonetheless a well-known fact that there were study groups in the various branches of ESUE. The ABCs of Marxism-Leninism as well as detailed discussions of such topical issues as the national question and the woman question were regularly discussed in such chapters. The general practice was for random selection of presenters to initiate discussions so that all members would come prepared.15

External Political Education Program

The ESM’s most ubiquitous and sustained form of external political education was its publications. Elleni writes:

In the years between 1964 and 1974, Ethiopian post-secondary students studying at home, in Europe, and in North America organized themselves into a number of student unions… [which] articulated a new radical social agenda for the burgeoning Ethiopian nation-state. Each of these student unions produced journals that attempted to explore the relationship between social theory and social change as it might apply to the case of building a socialist Ethiopia. The titles of these journals include Challenge, Struggle, and Combat. What is most remarkable about these journals is that, collectively, they became the venues where the policy outcomes of the 1974 Ethiopian revolution were first articulated and argued over. In these journals we witness the development of the ideas and thoughts of much of the leadership that participated in the Ethiopian revolution after 1974, and can begin to understand the divisions that influenced the different political parties in the post-1974 period.16

Below is a description of some of the most notable publications of the movement:

  • News and Views (N&V) was “[t]he most famous and enduring student paper of the home-based student movement.” N&V was founded in part as a continuation and in part to replace the earlier Newsletter by the students at the University College of Addis Ababa (UCAA), the predecessor of Haile Selassie I University (later Addis Ababa University). The UCAA Newsletter had been criticized for the publication’s self-professed avoidance of coverage “in matters of politics, religion, and race.” In subsequent years, News and Views began to offer more professionalized coverage of issues managed by journalism students advised by their professor. However, authors maintained their anonymity by publishing under assumed pen names such as “Tamariw” (“the Student”), “Lelaw Tamari” (“the other Student”), or “Tayaqiw” (“the Enquirer”). The use of pseudonyms continued into the 1970s and became a commonplace practice in student activism in Ethiopia and the diaspora. A notable column in N&V was “That will Be the Day, When…,” a satirical lamentation from students that appeared regularly on the newsletter.17 However, N&V more often butted heads with UCAA and its Jesuit administration, or even the student union under whose auspices it was organized, than engage in the larger discourse as it originally set out to do in the editorial in its first issue in 1959. The first series of News and Views spanned until 1964 and the second series, after a hiatus, was published from December 1965 to June 1966.18

[More to come as research continues]

  • Challenge
  • Struggle
  • Combat
  • Democracia and Voice of the Masses

—Abel Amene


1 See Chapter 4 of Bahru 2014, “The Process of Radicalization”
2 Bahru 2014, p. 128
3 Ibid, p. 139–140
4 Legesse 1979, p. 33
5 Ibid. This was done to present Addis Ababa as the ideal location for the headquarters of the Organization of African Unity, which was being formed at the time. The operation was intensified ahead of visits by foreign dignitaries.
6  Bahru 2014, p. 142, cites Balsvik 1985, p. 183
7 Ibid, p. 143
8 Ibid, p. 42
9 Ibid, p. 138
10  Elleni 2020, p. 87
11 Ibid, p. 50
12 Ibid, p. 2
13 Bahru 2010, p. 66
14 Bahru 2014, p. 135–137.
15 Ibid, p. 137
16 Elleni 2020, p. 87
17 Bahru 2014, p. 79
18 Ibid, p. 80–81, 291