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Ethiopia’s Radical Revolutionary Student Movement

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Multiple factors led to Ethiopia’s 1974 Marxist-Leninist revolution and the brutal autocracy that followed.

In the reactions to several interviews I recently gave, I came across several misunderstandings that need to be straightened out concerning the impacts of the Ethiopian student movement on the 1974 revolution.

The first point has to do with the high level of radicalization of the  student body by Marxist-Leninist ideas, a level such that an African scholar, Ali Mazrui, characterized the students in 1973 as  “the most radical African students [he] had ever addressed.”

The second issue that needs to be dealt with is the question of knowing: (1) the reasons for this high level of radicalization and (2) whether the movement is solely responsible for the eruption of the revolution and its consequences on Ethiopian society.

Against  the lies and fabrications of the nostalgics of the old imperial regime, I have nothing to say except to warn them that denial or misrepresentation of the severe shortcomings of the imperial regime doesn’t help us lessen, let alone solve, the serious and intricate problems that today’s Ethiopia faces as a consequence of the continuous turmoil triggered by the revolution fifty years ago. It’s one thing to discuss the disastrous effects of the revolution and quite another to absolve the imperial regime of its role in setting the ground for a revolutionary uprising.

For those interested in a detailed account of the issues raised in this paper, I invite them to read two of my books: Radicalism and Cultural Dislocation in Ethiopia (2008) and Ideology and Elite Conflicts: Autopsy of the Ethiopian Revolution (2011).

Revolutionary Causes

Regarding the first question, most existing studies assign the revolutionary direction of the student movement and its heightened degree of radicalization to the grave socio-economic and political conditions in Ethiopia under Haile Selassie I. They thus speak of economic stagnation, which progressively deteriorated owing to the lack of needed reforms, bringing with it youth unemployment and generalized increasing poverty.

A climatic incident exacerbated by government inaction and adverse international events aggravated the mounting popular frustration. Internally, famine exploded in the northern parts of the country. Externally, the closure of the Suez Canal after the Arab-Israeli war and OPEC’s dramatic rise of oil prices in 1973 contributed to soaring prices of goods.

This heightened popular frustration operated against the backdrop of unfair treatment of the majority by a minority claiming noble privileges, especially regarding the land tenure system. Particularly alarming was the system of tenancy in the south because of the fear that it could fuel ethnic awareness and animosity.

Another important cause of discontent was the total lack of democracy. This was demonstrated by the imperial ban on political parties and autonomous civic organizations, along with heavy restrictions on freedom of speech.

When we add all these factors together, we have the characteristic of a society that is badly in need of reforms, but, alas, that is also deprived of the means necessary to undertake the needed reforms. It can be described as a closed society that offered no other alternative to a revolutionary uprising and, thus, had no way out other than to explode. This is the aspect that nostalgics and those who see the student movement as a culprit for the destructive effects of the revolution overlook, namely, the lack of alternative courses of action.

Sure enough, the imperial regime had proposed a reform agenda under the short-lived premierships of Endelkachew Makonnen and Mikael Imru. All reformist attempts became an impossibility owing to palace intrigues to prevent reforms, the radical view of students who would accept nothing short of a revolutionary denouement, and, most importantly, the breakup of the military hierarchy in the armed forces and its major consequence, the formation of the Derg (committee or council) with its maneuvering to circumvent a civilian alternative.

It can’t be stressed enough how the single factor that derailed the revolution, leading to all sorts of calamities, was the formation of a military committee composed of disgruntled junior officers, non-commissioned officers, and privates, which eventually came to be led by Mengistu Hailemariam, the very personification of a narcissistic personality.

Though Haile Selassie I is often praised for establishing a disciplined, well-trained, and patriotic army, it quickly rebelled against its senior officers. Of course, his policy in Eritrea and Ogaden as well as his habit of cementing divisions and constantly moving senior officers from one unit to another unit to guard against a coup d’état had a hand in the fast collapse of the military chain of command.

Radicalism Influenced

Without the rebellion in the barracks, the student radicalism would not have gone beyond protests and skirmishes. Neither would it have had any significant impact if their Marxist-Leninist ideology had not seduced members of the Derg, mostly for its advocacy of violent methods to seize and strengthen absolute power in the name of the interests of the working masses.

Since, more than any other factor, the student success in spreading and popularizing the idea of revolution and socialism created fertile ground for the Derg’s seizure of power—if only because it provided a legitimizing idea that disarmed the traditional classes and sources of authority and vindicated the use of political violence—any serious study of the revolution must furnish a satisfactory explanation for the radicalization of the students.

Although there’s no doubt the conditions enumerated by various scholars were indeed propitious for a revolutionary uprising, the radicalization of students cannot be overlooked as an explanatory factor. To this effect, various studies cite the global impact at that time of Marxist-Leninist and Maoist ideologies. These studies also note the revolutionary mood of the 1960s and early 70s among Western youth and on university campuses, notably the radicalizing fallout of the American war in Vietnam.

In the Western academic world, the leftist prediction of the decline of imperialism caused by the global spread of Marxist ideology had gained considerable momentum. Naturally, the global nature of the revolutionary mood influenced Ethiopian students, especially those who studied at Western universities.

In combination with the conditions in Ethiopia under imperial rule, the global impact of the revolutionary culture goes a long way to explaining why Ethiopian students so easily and in such great numbers succumbed to the Marxist-Leninist ideology and the revolutionary mood.

Ferocity Explained

Even so, this explanation doesn’t fully account for the ferocity of the revolutionary commitment and can’t explain why Ethiopian students, unlike other students from countries that were in comparable conditions, excelled in their degree of radicalism.

To elucidate this heightened ideological commitment, we must dwell on one particular subjective factor that most scholars missed, which is the impact of Western education on the Ethiopian youth of that time.

My study of the Ethiopian student movement reveals the extent to which Western education undermined traditional beliefs, values, and forms of authority, including parental authority, thereby creating a generational fracture between the Westernized youth and the rest of society. For these uprooted young students, Marxism-Leninism was not just a political theory; it was also a cultural substitute for the lost system of beliefs, especially for those associated with the traditional religious culture of Ethiopia.

While students elsewhere in Africa were also exposed to Western education, the experience of colonialism and its denigration of the humanness of black people infused some restraint into their eagerness to espouse Western centrality and norms.

Among Ethiopian youth, the prevention of colonization, along with the legacy of a clogged old culture and outdated socio-economic system, agreed with the Marxist historical scheme of traditional societies being wiped out by revolutionary movements. These factors inculcated pride mixed with the belief that Ethiopia could have reached a higher scale of civilization had it not been held back by a reactionary ruling class.

Accordingly, while in Africa the issue of social change revolved around decolonization, in Ethiopia it was about putting the country on the right track of history by removing archaic obstacles, like the monarchy, the church, and the nobility, a scenario that triggered the irresistible compulsion of abiding by the revolutionary prescription that ended Tsarist Russia.

Since Western education implanted an outward-looking mental makeup, the subsumption of Ethiopian society into the Marxist scheme of history, besides appearing logical, entrusted the Western-educated Ethiopian youth with the mission to realign the blocked society with the dominant ideology of the time.

Influence Gauged

Having detailed how the radicalization of students largely explains why the revolution took place and why Ethiopian students became so radicalized compared to elsewhere in Africa, we now turn to the questions of how much influence the student movement had on the revolution.

Most studies advance the argument that the student movement is responsible for the revolutionary direction of the social upheaval. These studies maintain that the Derg stole the leadership from the movement by violently eliminating all its organizations and leaders through a fascistic use of its ideology.

Conversely, my research shows that the question of responsibility does not have a simple answer. While it’s true the revolutionary direction would have been unthinkable without the influence of the student movement and its ideology, I consider the implied thesis, namely, that students overthrew the imperial regime, highly questionable.

Without the military uprising, especially the uprising of junior and non-commissioned officers, the social and campus unrest would have been quashed, sooner than later. Moreover, if, despite inimical conditions, regime change nevertheless occurred, it would not have gone beyond a classical military coup by senior officers.

This suggests the need to first explain the military uprising itself and, most importantly, the creation of the Derg and the fact that it completely overtook senior officers. As mentioned earlier, the military uprising can be explained by dissatisfaction over conditions of life and the imperial government’s refusal to contemplate a different solution other than using military force to crush insurgents in Eritrea, Ogaden, and other parts of the country.

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The other reason for forming the Derg was based on a previous lesson that establishing an elected committee was the best way to avoid an internal military fight, as had happened in 1960 during the open war between the imperial bodyguards and the army. Moreover, senior officers, in addition to being perceived as too loyal to the imperial regime, were accused of corruption and of being indifferent to the wellbeing of their units.

Add to all this Haile Selassie’s deliberate policy of placing together generals with mutual hostilities, as well as moving them constantly from one military position to another and even to civilian posts, and you have all the ingredients that made senior officers incapable of having a firm grip on the units they were commanding.

Ideological Shift

Having explained the circumstances that precipitated the rise of the Derg, there remains the question of why the Derg easily and quickly moved from a nationalist slogan, Ethiopia Tikdem, to socialism and Marxism- Leninism.

The presence in the Derg of young officers who were exposed to student protest while they were in colleges or high schools and the impact of the rebellious mood of ordinary Ethiopians should be taken into consideration. The prevalence of military coups and the slogan of socialism among African countries at that time should also be taken into account.

However, the seriousness with which the Derg pursued and implemented the idea of Leninist socialism, the state of appalling violence it unleashed to pursue its revolutionary commitments, and its determination to have exclusive and absolute control of state power demand that an explanation goes beyond these circumstances.

Why, then, did the Derg quickly go from the mere slogan of socialism to the determination to implement in earnest a socialist program? Why did it become enamored with the ideology?

The one reason often cited is that members of the Derg wanted to hijack the student leadership of the social protest. They knew that they could not hope to stay in power without some form of autonomous legitimacy, and this meant usurping the leadership of the social uprising from the student movement.

Since the ideology mandated the exercise of dictatorial power in the interests of the working masses, the overriding reason behind the Derg’s exchange of its nationalist ideology of Ethiopia Tikdem for the radical ideology of Marxism-Leninism was its positioning for absolute power.

What was at first a convenient tool to achieve a political goal became a vocation under the iron-fisted leadership of a narcissistic personality like Mengistu. From there, the road was direct and inevitable; to kill, imprison, and displace countless people in an effort to turn the country upside down by shattering all that had been respected and passed on for generations.

Revolutionary Denouement

To conclude, any attempt to evaluate the Ethiopian revolution in terms of good or bad results and isolate the culprit is a wrong-headed undertaking. It is futile to approach the revolution with a moralistic framework without first clarifying the true nature of the situation back then.

Obviously, those who evaluate the revolution either positively or negatively both think they have sound and convincing arguments in favor of their position. Yet, before engaging in any form of assessment, they should ask themselves whether Ethiopia had a choice between revolution and evolutionary change. The truth is that all potential avenues leading to evolutionary change were blocked by all participants: the nobility, the army, the monarchy, and the students.

In addition, foreign interventions, notably the Somali invasion in 1977, convinced members of the Derg that a foreign sponsor and protector could come to the rescue only if Ethiopia allied with the Soviet Union and other socialist countries. Without Soviet assistance, it would have been impossible to defend Ethiopia’s territorial integrity, much less to ensure the victory of the revolutionary path.

In short, the revolutionary denouement was the outcome of the blockage of the reformist paths by all the competing actors. As a result, the range of choices was so narrowed—in fact to the very one that suited the wishes and the competencies of lower ranks in the army—that, in the end, only the scorched-earth policy of total revolutionary change remained.

Thus, what happened in Ethiopia is congruent with the manner a momentous historical event occurs in history. In the words of Friedrich Engels, a historical event can be “viewed as the product of a power which works as a whole unconsciously and without volition. For what each individual wills is obstructed by everyone else, and what emerges is something that no one willed.” In the case of Ethiopia, this result that no one willed is a radical revolution under the absolute command of Mengistu.

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Main Image: Stock image of youth at a protest; Ethiopia Insight

This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. You may not use the material for commercial purposes.

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