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Leading Ethiopian Historian Revisits Student Movement
Photo by Kevin Matthews

Leading Ethiopian Historian Revisits Student Movement

Bahru Zewde of Addis Ababa University was a member and early observer of the movement that supplied ideas for transition after the 1974 revolution.

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Zewde insisted on ground rules under which interviews with former student leaders would be "a forum for recollection," not for analysis and debate.

Although Ethiopia's student leaders spent much of the 1960s and early 1970s dreaming about a revolution that would free them from the decades-old rule of Emperor Haile Selassie I, "everybody" was caught by surprise when revolution actually came in 1974, explained the prominent Ethiopian historian Bahru Zewde on April 3, 2006. On a rainy afternoon in Los Angeles, Zewde spoke to about 40 members of the public and the UCLA community at a talk co-sponsored by the James S. Coleman African Studies Center and the Department of History.

UCLA History Department Chairman and Africanist Ned Alpers introduced Zewde—who has taught in Ethiopia, the United States, and Germany and served as a leader in Ethiopian and pan-African historical associations—as the principal figure in a second generation of historians of modern Ethiopia. Zewde is author of A History of Modern Ethiopia, 1855–1991, among many books and articles. His current project is an account of the student movement's heydey, based in part on oral interviews conducted in September 2005 with former members of the student groups.

Zewde said that students played key political roles both before and after the revolution, when they became the main source of ideas, generally Marxist, for new avenues and institutions. There were also student militants, but the movement did not suffer its first fatality in a confrontation with the government until 1969. Because access to political texts was much better on the outside, Ethiopian students in Europe and the United States contributed mightily "on the theoretical side," Zewde said. At the same time, African scholarship students from Kenya, Uganda, and as far as Nigeria shared their experiences in political organization and sometimes became leaders in the universities of Addis Ababa, the capital. The emperor initiated the African scholarships program in 1958, with some unintended consequences.

In 1965, students took to the streets of Addis Ababa to demand land reform, meaning some form of ownership rights for impoverished tenant farmers working primarily in the south. These were the first large demonstrations since a failed coup attempt in 1960, Zewde said. Later, in 1969, the issue of nationalities and national rights in the multi-ethnic country came to the fore.

The two sets of debates prompted by students, on land reform and the question of nationalities, would remain in the political discourse, according to Zewde. A right of national self-determination "up to and including secession" from the central power would be enshrined in Ethiopia's 1994 constitution, adopted the year after coastal Eritrea became independent.

But neither issue was ever satisfactorily resolved. The Ethiopian state took over lands from the landlords of the empire but never relinquished them to peasants; Ethiopians continued to suffer drought and famine, including the catastrophic episode of 1984–85. Meanwhile, the multi-ethnic revolutionary party that has ruled the country since 1991 has struggled with the principle of self-determination, given its near-total exclusion of the nation's largest ethnic groups. The country is divided into ethnically based administrative regions that, Zewde's comments suggested, do not and could not fully reflect its complex demographics or redress gross economic inequalities.

Even though he was a participant in the student movement and grants that his latest project "is autobiographical in some ways," Zewde's historian's focus has remained on establishing the facts. At a four-day retreat with former student leaders in September, his Addis Ababa University research team insisted on ground rules under which the collective interviews would be "a forum for recollection," not for analysis and debate. Otherwise, Zewde told participants, "we're going to go back to the '60s and '70s."

In a sense, Zewde said, he has himself gone back. His first academic article, on the Ethiopian student movement, was published in 1968 amid international student agitation.

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