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The Ethiopian Student Movement and the Revolution of 1974 

Ethiopian Student  Movement
Photo : Wikipedia

Messay Kebede  

In the reactions to several interviews I recently gave to different YouTube videos, I came across a  number of misunderstandings that need to be straightened out, with the exclusion, as one would  expect, of the deliberate distortions coming from the nostalgics of the old imperial regime. Against  the lies and fabrications of these nostalgics, I have nothing to say except to warn them that denial or  misrepresentation of the severe shortcomings of the imperial regime does not help us lessen, let  alone solve, the serious and intricate problems that today’s Ethiopia faces as a consequence of the  continuous turmoils triggered by the Ethiopian revolution fifty years ago. It is one thing to bring out  the disastrous effects of the revolution, quite another to absolve the imperial regime of its  responsibilities in setting the ground for a revolutionary uprising.  

NB. 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, University of Rochester Press,  2008; Ideology and Elite Conflicts: Autopsy of the Ethiopian Revolution, Lexington Books, 2011.  

The Radicalization of the Student Movement  

To begin with, two points need to be clarified when we talk about 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, 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 the  Ethiopian society.  

As regards the first question, most existing studies assign the revolutionary direction of the student  movement and its heightened degree of radicalization to objective conditions, that is, to the grave  socio-economic and political conditions of Ethiopia under Haile Selassie. They thus speak of  economic stagnation, which progressively turned into deterioration subsequent to the lack of  needed reforms, bringing with it youth unemployment and generalized increasing poverty. A climatic  incident and adverse international events aggravated the popular frustration: on the one hand,  famine exploded in the northern parts of the country; on the other hand, the closure of the Suez  Canal after the Arab-Israeli war and OPEC’s dramatic rise of oil price in 1973 contributed to a  significant soaring of the prices of goods. This heightened popular frustration operated against the  background of an 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. In addition to all the foregoing,  scholars include as an important cause of discontent the imperial ban on political parties and  autonomous civic organizations, the total lack of democracy, of freedom of speech, etc. 

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 is, as a society that had no other way out than to explode,  that offered no other alternative than a revolutionary uprising. This is the aspect that notalgics and  those who see the student movement as a culprit for the destructive effects of the revolution  overlook, namely, the lack of alternative courses. Sure enough, the old regime had proposed a  reformist agenda under the premiership first of Endelkachew Makonnen and then of Mikael Imru. Not  only both premierships were short-lived, but also palace intrigues to prevent reforms, the radical  view of students who wanted to hear nothing other than a revolutionary denouement, and, more  importantly, the breakup of the military hierarchy in the armed forces and its major consequence, to  wit, the formation of the Derg and its open determination and maneuver to circumvent a civilian  alternative changed all reformist attempts into an impossibility.  

We do not stress it enough: the formation of a military committee composed of disgruntled junior  officers, non-commissioned officers, and privates, led, to crown it all, by Mengistu Haile Mariam, the  very personification of a narcissistic personality, is the single derailment behind all the calamities of  the revolution. Though Haile Selassie 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 habits of cementing divisions and constantly moving senior officers from one  unit to another unit—all this to prevent a coup d’etat––have had a hand in the fast collapse of the  military chain of command. Without the rebellion in the barracks, the student radicalism would not  have gone beyond protest and skirmishes. Neither would it have had any significant impact if their  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. All the  more reason to insist on the impairments of the army is that they show, if there is still such a need,  how fanciful was the expectation of those many people who were hoping for some form of military  coup by senior officers to unblock the Ethiopian society.  

Since more than any other factor, the student success in spreading and popularizing the idea of  revolution and socialism has created a 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. For, granted that all the objective  conditions enumerated by various scholars were indeed propitious for a revolutionary uprising, still  without the addition of specific subjective conditions of radicalization, we fall short of explaining the  heightened degree of the radicalization of students.  

To this effect, various studies cite the global impact at that time of Marxist-Leninist ideology, of  Maoism, and of the Soviet and Chinese attempts to spread their respective ideologies. The studies  also include the revolutionary mood of the 60s and early 70s among Western youth and 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 and the spread of the global dominance of  the Marxist ideology had gained considerable momentum. Naturally, the global nature of the  revolutionary mood has influenced Ethiopian students, especially those who studied in Western  universities. All those Ethiopians who had the chance to study at that time in European and American  universities surely remember the powerful impact of these leftist ideas on them. 

In combination with the blockage of the Ethiopian society under imperial rule, the global impact of  the revolutionary culture goes a long way to answering the question of knowing why Ethiopian  students so easily and in great numbers succumbed to the Marxist-Leninist ideology and the  revolutionary mood. Even so, the explanation does not fully account for the ferocity of the  revolutionary commitment. For instance, it does not say why Ethiopian students, unlike other  students from third-world countries who were in comparable conditions, excelled in their degree of  radicalism. To elucidate the heightened 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 brings out the extent to which Western education  undermined the 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 African students were also equally exposed to Western  education, the experience of colonialism and its denigration of the humanness of black people  infused some restraint into their eagerness to fully espouse Western centrality and norms. Less so  with Ethiopian youth: both the prevention of colonization and the legacy of a clogged old culture and  outdated socio-economic system, to the extent that they 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, agreed with the Marxist historical scheme of traditional societies being wiped out by  revolutionary movements. 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 harness the blocked society to  the march of the dominant and winning ideology of the time.  

The Derg’s Leadership of the Revolution  

Thus explained, the radicalization of students gives enough elements to determine the question of  responsibility. Most studies advance the argument that the student movement is responsible for the  revolutionary direction of the social upheaval. This is so true that these studies strongly 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. My study, on the other hand, shows that the  question of responsibility does not have a simple answer. True, the revolutionary direction is  unthinkable with the influence of the student movement and its ideology. However, I consider the  implied thesis, namely, that students overthrew the imperial regime, highly questionable. As  suggested already, without the military uprising, especially the uprising of junior and non commissioned officers, the social and the students’ unrests would have been, sooner than later,  squashed. Moreover, if despite inimical conditions, a regime change nevertheless occurred, it would  not have gone beyond a classical military coup by senior officers.  

This state of things stresses 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 hinted earlier, the military uprising in general can be explained by dissatisfaction over conditions of life and the imperial  government’s refusal to contemplate a different resolution than the solution to crush militarily  insurgents in Eritrea, Ogaden, and in other parts of the country. The other reason for the formation of  the Derg is based on a previous lesson, which is that the establishment of an elected committee  appeared as the best way to avoid an internal military fight, as it happened in 1960 with the open war  between the imperial bodyguard 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 well-being of their units. Add to all this Haile Selassie’s deliberate policy, as mentioned above,  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 these ingredients that made  senior officers incapable of having a firm grip on the units they were commanding. Their situation  was such that, whatever rebellious intent they had, they were unable to materialize it.  

Once the circumstances for the rise of the Derg are explained, 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 familiarity of military coups and of the slogan of socialism among  African countries at that time should also be counted. 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 the determination to have the exclusive and absolute  control of state power demand that the explanation goes beyond 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. And since the ideology mandated the exercise of dictatorial power, the overriding reason  behind the Derg’s exchange of its nationalist ideology of Ethiopia Tikdem for the radical and  radicalizing ideology of Marxism-Leninism is its positioning for absolute power. As alluded to above,  what seduced most members of the Derg in the Marxist-Leninism idea of socialism is that it is  premised on the necessity of retaining an undivided absolute power in the name of the interests of  the working masses. From the adoption of a convenient tool to achieve a political goal to assuming  a vocational entitlement, the road is direct and inevitable. To kill, imprison, and displace so many  people as well as to put the country upside down by shattering all that has been respected for  generations and passed on, one needs to believe that one has been called for such a mission. What  was at first a utilitarian justification easily grows into a vocation, especially when a narcissistic  personality like Mengistu Haile Mariam assumes the iron-fisted leadership of the Derg.  

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. In the same way as, whether one likes it or not, the  sun rises and sets, it is futile to approach the revolution with a moralistic or any other type of  appraisal without first clarify the true nature of the situation back then. Obviously, those who  evaluate the revolution positively and those who find nothing but negative fallouts think that they  have sound and convincing arguments in favor of their position. Yet, prior to engaging in some assessment, they should ask themselves the question of whether Ethiopia had a choice between  revolution and evolutionary change. Stated otherwise, understanding should precede any form of  assessment.  

The truth is that all the avenues leading to evolutionary change were blocked one by one by all  participants: the nobility, the army, the monarchy, and the students. In addition, foreign  interventions, notably the Somali invasion, 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. Outside the Soviet assistance, it is impossible to defend the integrity of the  country, 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 of army men, that, in the end, only the thin road of the scorched-earth  policy of total revolutionary changes remained.

Editor’s note : Views in the article do not necessarily reflect the views of


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  1. Just empty drivel and jibberish mumbo jumbo. In hind sight, the so called Ethiopian Revolution of 1974 has brought nothing but misery after misery for Ethiopians. The author claims, the Ethiopian students of the 1960s and 1970s were the “most radicalized” in Africa. They probably were but it is irrelevant now.

    “Land to the tiller” was an empty, passion and emotion packed slogan with zero planning and forecasting. In 1974, the Imperial Regime which held less than 26% of land was accused of being a Feudal Regime. Fifty years later, the repressive regimes that have sprawled out now control 100% of the land n the entire nation , and now are the New Unquestionable FEUDAL KINGS AND QUEENS OF ETHIOPIA IN THE 21 ST CENTURY!!!!

    None of the two well educated prime ministers of Ethiopia then , the Sorbonne graduate PM Aklilu Habetewold and the Oxford graduate PM Endalkachew Mekonnen, could even remotely have been labeled as feudal.

    The butcher mengistu hailemariam with his collection of 10 alekas and 50 alekas derg collection of filth, massacred 60 of the civilian and military figures in Ethiopia. Many of these figures had average government and management experiences in the range of 30 years. This barbaric act translated to the elimination of some 1200 years of experienced and skilled manpower from the top civil and military branches of the Ethiopian government.

    The red terror that followed then spared none of these “radicalized students” either. Tens of thousands of them were butchered in the streets of Addis and in other major towns and cities across the nation. Whoever survived just left the country en masse.

    The murderous degree regime also did not spare its own. Out of the initial 120 or so members close to one- half or more of them were murdered by the mengistu killing squad.

    Can the author argue if the judiciary system in Ethiopia today fares any better than it did during Emperor Haile Selsaaie’s regime? General Mengistu Newaye who in his own words was responsible for the death of 400 plus soldiers, and the execution of top ministers, including Ministers Mekonen Habetewold, the patriot Abebe Aregaye etc were given a trial and was found guilty in the court of law. Is that even remotely possible in Ethiopia today. Look at the members of parliament languishing in remote dungeons of the despot abiy ahmed for just exercising their rights to oppose, challenge and demand accountability from the despot masquerading as the pm of Ethiopia?

    የፀሃፊ ትዕዛዝ or minister of the pen position was simultaneously held in parallel by the newer position of prime minister or ጠቅላይ ሚኒስትር during the time of PM Aklilu Habtewold. The Ethiopian Imperial regime then was not also a feudal regime as the “radicalized students” labeled it. It was an emerging and evolving semi capitalist state with a heavy agricultural and yet to be modernized rural agrarian society.

    There was an asymmetrical growth between rural and city Ethiopia. This phenomenon is not unique to Ethiopia . Even a well developed and master example of a truly federal system, a Hamiltonian Federal system, like the US, has issues of asymmetric rural vs town or city development, eg in broad band internet service, specialized medical experts and facilities, schools etc. In the truly capitalist systems, these issues are addressed by trying to identify the root causes, ie. population density, tax bases of the given community, profit margins and incentives of of the service providing company etc. Both the Federal and local governments address and attempt to solve these issues based on their jurisdiction and available tools in their toolboxes.

    Look 50 years later a one man show is running the circus with his monkeys. The government coffers, the media, all branches of the military, all media, all religious institutions must bow down and genuflect in front of the oromumma cult leader, impostor, fake pm, fake doctor and fake pastor, abiy ahmed 7ኛ ጨ.

    ጉልቻ ቢለዋወጥ ወጥ አያጣፍጥም እያለ ያጨበጨበው ሁላ ሃምሳ አመታት ሙሉ ጉልቻ ብቻ አየለዋወጠ ወይንም እየተለዋወጠበት አንዲት ስንዝር ወደፊት ሳይራመድ : እንደ እባብ ቆዳቸውን እየለዋወጡ እንደ እስስት ቀለማቸውን እየቀያየየሩ በሚመጡ በደርግ ዘመን አብዮታዊ ተራማጅ : በኢህአድግ ዘመን የብሄር ብሄረሰቦች አቀንቃኝ :በአብይ አህመድ የአእምሮ ድንኩ ስነምግባረ ቢሱ ዘመን ደግሞ :የ ኦሮሙማው ቅዠት ህልም አራጋቢ ለሆዳቸውና ከርሳቸው ብቻ ሲሉ በሙያቸው ሰርተው ማፍራት ማግኘት ስለማይችሉ ከጌታቸው ለሚወረወርላቸው አጥንት ሲሉ እንደ ውሻ እያለዘኑና ጅራታቸውን እየቆሉ በሚልከሰከሱ የሰው ተባዮች ኢትዮጵያን ተወረው ጀርባው ላይ እንደትኹዋንና መዥገር ተጣብቀው የምስኪኑን ኢትዮጵያዊያን ደም በሚመጡ የቁሻሻ እና ቅርሻታም ካድሬዎች የገማ ስብስብ አየተነከሰ እየደማ እያለቀሰ ይኖራል::

    There is your 50 years of Ethiopian student revolution. Back to square one. Zilch, nada, back to poverty and now worse.

    • Mr. “Not our monkeys,”
      You seem to be tottering on the verge of enormous outbursts. Calm down. Yes, mistakes were made by so-called revolutionists. If nothing else, I don’t know how you failed to see that there are no peasants today! It could be you are one of those budding monarchists who look down on everyone unless they pay obeisance to the Crown Council in Virginia. It could be you have no sense of what feudal lords are or what they did to the peasantry. Farmers today work their land and sell their produce at a fair (at times not so fair) market price. Pray there will be peace in the land! That’s what’s missing.

  2. You ask, Why, then, did the Derg quickly go from the mere slogan of socialism to the determination to implement in earnest a socialist program? You answered, It was because the Derg was seeking path to “absolute power.” Unbelievable! You should have thought of a historical antecedent some 13 years earlier. The whole reason for Neway brothers’ coup was not power for its own sake but the alleviation of deep and embarrassing poverty in the country! Mengistu Hailemariam & Co, despite all their shortcomings, were out to revive and satisfy those frustrated dreams! Remember Mengistu, etc were contemporaries of Neway brothers.

    Why the uprising progressed the way it did, of course is complicated. For one, it was the Cold War era, meaning one is either with the West or the East (socialism or capitalism). Every poor country in the world was against American imperialism! Ethiopia had no choice but to follow socialist ideology! Complications further arose from student radicalism (as in wiping out age-old religious beliefs and not tolerating any who did not conform to their (often) half-baked adolescent ideology); that stance later ended up a/ instigating the soldiery to take caution about the nation’s security (remember Somalia with US support was mobilizing its troops) and b/ turning students into petty factions (later repeated from their hideout in Assimba mountains). Remember also the Ethiopia of those days was very different from what it was 17 years later. The filter you are using needs working on.

  3. The problem with the Student Movement generation is that they are stubborn with the stand they took long time ago. To me, who came a little after the revolution and grew up under the Derg, it was the student movement and their insistence in the Socialist dogma that made the transformation of HIMH Government impossible or made the Derg leaders to be hard liners. The Endalkachew and Michael Emeru cabinets were willing for the change but those associated with the students seems to sabotaged it. They didn’t want slow transformation like other successful countries.

  4. I wonder if Dr. Mesay Kebede truly grasped the societal context when discussing the impact of rising oil prices and the subsequent increase in the cost of goods and services as the main catalyst for the 1974 revolution in Ethiopia under Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign. He also criticizes the King for failing to implement necessary reforms, which exacerbated the situation. It seems somewhat ironic to attribute a mere five cents per liter increase in gasoline prices as the trigger for a revolution, especially when we witness frequent price hikes without sparking similar uprisings today. During the King’s rule, basic commodities like bread were priced at a modest 5-10 cents, and a meal like Shiro lunch could be enjoyed for just 10-15 cents. Begging was uncommon except for the severely handicapped, and widespread starvation was rare except during natural disasters. Dr. Mesay Kebede also suggests that famine was the cause of the revolution. I would say it was used to incite the revolution, as opportunistic student leaders and army officers exploited the crisis to foment unrest. However, in contemporary times, despite widespread hunger and massive displacement, we do not witness revolutions on the same scale. In reality, Emperor Haile Selassie sought constitutional reforms to transition to a ceremonial monarchy akin to the British model, but his plans were thwarted by a group of disgruntled military officers known as the Derg, who seized power for their own gain. General Abebe Gemeda urged the King to arrest the Derg officers gathering at Meshualuikia, but the King’s reluctance allowed the uprising to progress. The 1974 revolution lacked broad public support and was driven by a small faction of elites, students, and agitators, as the King remained popular among the masses. Dr Mesay Kebede in his interviews even praises the 1960 coup orchestrated by the Neway brothers, despite the extrajudicial killings of prominent figures like Mekonen Habtewold and Abebe Aregay. The slogan “land to the tiller” is criticized for its adverse impact on agricultural productivity, as it forced landowners to relinquish their holdings, hindering output despite Ethiopia’s vast arable land. The uprising’s architects, predominantly students from the north, avoided ethnic divisions and instead mobilized students, particularly Amharas, with the support of university professors and government officials. Emperor Haile Selassie’s miscalculation in underestimating the Derg’s ambitions, rooted in their impoverished backgrounds, led to his downfall. Dr Mesay Kebede also highlights economic stagnation as a factor in the revolution, overlooking the progress made under Emperor Haile Selassie’s rule. The Emperor initiated modernization efforts, established key institutions like Ethiopian Airlines, the Road Authority, and the National and Commercial Banks, and expanded education and infrastructure across the country. The so-called universities we know today were, in fact, colleges established by his majesty’s administration (e.g., Awassa, Jimma, Ambo, Wodo Genet Bahir Dar, etc.). He established provincial capitals and roads linking them with the capital city, Addis Ababa. His diplomatic acumen secured strategic partnerships and territorial access, including plans for a sea outlet in Djibouti. The portrayal of the Eritrean conflict is disputed, with Eritrean accounts suggesting minimal rebel activity due to the Emperor’s adept handling of the situation. Dr Mesay Kebede’s critique appears biased, echoing anti-monarchy sentiments, and fails to acknowledge Emperor Haile Selassie’s contributions to Ethiopia’s development. It would be enlightening to hear Dr Mesay Kebede’s perspective on his role as a communist ideologist during the Derg era, particularly his interactions with EPRP members released from prison at Yekatit 66 School of politics when he was giving them the Derg’s Tehadisso course.

  5. “Farmers today work their land and sell their produce at a fair (at times not so fair) market price. Pray there will be peace in the land! That’s what’s missing.”

    Are we just tone deaf or just a hear no evil, see no evil, everything is dandy, pretentious cadres. Farmers in Ethiopia today are no freer or wealthier than they were 50 years ago. The average farmer in Ethiopia sits on a meager 1.1 acres of land and 50 years after “land to the tiller” is still under yolks of subsistence agriculture. To add insult to injury, the “not peasant anymore Ethiopian farmer” now is completely dependent on his new landlords, currently the oromumma gang of abiy ahmed and his cronies and formerly the EPRDF gang of meles zenawi and his cronies for fertilizer, quality seeds and marketing of the fruits of his/ her labor.

    The derg did try what was then called collective farming some 40 years ago. While through command economy, the derg did manage to contain inflation and cost of living, it was not able to avoid the disastrous famine of the 1980s which triggered its own downfall. It is ironic that the derg which accused HIM majesty of the Wollo famine and exploited it as a pretext to massacre the top military and civil sector echelons of Emperor Haile Selassie’s government itself precipitated a famine that killed over ten times that died in the early 1970s.

    Today 50 years later, an estimated 30,000,000 plus Ethiopians are in need of food assistance and international aid on abiy ahmed’s watch.

    “Land to the tiller” HAS FAILED!!!!! Let’s admit this and focus on what needs to be done. Let our analyses be data driven, pragmatic and dedicated to systemic changes that transform society for the better.


  6. Editor sorry for the typo:

    “under yolks of subsistence agriculture”, should actually read as “under the the yokes of subsistence agriculture”.

    Spelling matters :)


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