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Retrospective and Prospective Analysis of Ethiopian University Student Activism for Diversity Curricula

By Asayehgn Desta
Sarlo Distinguished Professor of Sustainability Dominican University of California
Tigrai Online, Feb. 17, 2018


Following the dismantlement of the Military Junta—the “Derg”—in 1991, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a product of the 1960s and 1970s, Addis Ababa University’s university student movement and an adherent of Marxism and Leninism ideology came to power; it vigorously embarked on actualizing the self -determination of the various Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia. That is, in contradiction to the socialization process of the ancient regime and the military Junta who favored a centralized type of government, after coming to power, the EPRDF propagated and endorsed an ethnic-based federal type of government structure in Ethiopia (Hailemariam, 2017).

Based on its ideological orientation, the EPRDF attempted to raise the ethnic self-awareness of the Ethiopian masses (Africa Report, 2009). With the full implementation of the Ethiopian Constitution in 1995 the EPRDF then established ethnic federalism and categorized the country into nine ethno-linguistic regional states. It also advocated for the rights to self-determination of the Ethiopian people, nations, and nationalities.

 The EPRDF encouraged the newly autonomous regional states to use their local languages to serve as the medium of communications and instruction for their elementary schools.  For example, though the federal government kept Amharic as its working language, the six regional states continued to use their local languages, and more than 20 languages are used for instruction in primary schools (Adamu, 2014). 

Whereas advocates for federalism wholeheartedly argued that multi-cultural federalism creates unity and respect among the diversified Ethiopian citizens, advocates for a pro-unitary system, or a strong centralized state, argued that federalism tends to dismantle the Ethiopian nation state.  For instance, Milkias (2011) calls Ethnic federalism in Ethiopia “a ticking bomb that may railroad the country toward eventual Balkanization.” Going one step forward, Hailemariam (2017) argues that federalism would undermine the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia tailored to accommodate and promote diversity in Ethiopia. He believes the democratic centralism practiced by the EPRDF runs contrary to the autonomous federal system that it preaches.        

As Ortiz and Santos explain (Spring 2010), higher educational institutions generally encourage intergroup learning that contributes to multicultural competence. Based on this premise, Ethiopian university of the 1960s and ‘70s served as the center of intellectual discourse and political mobilization. The background characteristics of learners commonly shape current Ethiopian university movements. Instead of being broad knowledge factories of diversity that prepare students to tackle the socio-political challenges on campus, Ethiopian universities tend to reflect current political struggles and thus become centers for ethnic skirmish. In other words, because ethnic politics serve as a measure of political consciousness and as a revolutionary guide (Borkena, 2017), Ethiopian university students from the same ethnic groups tend to aggregate and contribute to deadly ethnic violence and has forced the current Ethiopian Prime Minister, Haile Mariam Desalgne to submit his letter of resignation to his Party (Schemm, P. February 16, 2018).  

This study aims to:  1) map out the rise and decline of the political activism of the Ethiopian student movement since the 1960s; 2) briefly review the political consciousness of current Ethiopian University Students; and 3) propose a brief Freshman Diversity competency general education program for university students.

This study is based on the following questions:

  1. What were the local and global factors that triggered university student movements in Ethiopia in the 1960s and 1970s?
  2. What identifiable current socio-political factors contribute to ethnic conflicts among the current Ethiopian students in higher educational institutions? and
  3. Can a colloquium on cross-ethnic general education diversity offered to all Ethiopian university Freshman students help them to: a) interact positively with a diverse set of peers in universities, and b) prepare for life in an increasingly complex and diverse Ethiopian society.

Review of the Literature

The University College of Addis, established in 1951, served as a catalyst for social transformation and political activism in Ethiopia. Every year since the late 1950s, without challenging the content of their educational curricular and policies, Ethiopian university students recite poems in Amharic at the May Day Ceremonies that demand the fundamental political and social change of Ethiopia’s semi-feudal regime.

 The first impulse of a political landslide among Ethiopian university students goes back to 1965, when they courageously rallied around the land ownership system in Ethiopia. Guided by the slogan “Land to the Tiller, Ethiopian university students recklessly demonstrated in city of Addis Ababa, demanding a redistribution of land from the then-wealthy and absentee land lords to the toiling Ethiopian tenants.

Shortly thereafter, university students continued the tradition by protesting the inhuman treatment and the incarceration of beggars in the Shola (Addis Ababa) Concentration Camp. As the regime turned a deaf ear to their demands, in 1967, university students went one step further by forming a more militant University Students Union of Addis Ababa (USUAA).

The university Students replaced the then-liberal student newspaper, News and Views, with a more radical, politically charged paper, Struggle.  Through Struggle, students demanded that the university administration grant them the right to public demonstration and assembly (Ruyter, 2011). Further igniting their collaboration with high school students, the university students started circulating pamphlets around Addis Ababa and vigorously antagonized the then-Haile Selassie’s regime, calling it senile and corrupt. They urged peasants, workers, and soldiers throughout Ethiopia to march with them for the formation of genuine revolution against the Haile Selassie regime (Hess, R. 1970, and Desta, A. 1977).

Through Struggle, Ethiopian university students indulged in a widespread form of political agitation, criticizing the policies of the regime in power. In 1969, university students demanded that the different nationalities in Ethiopia be granted the right to self-determination. Walleligne Mekonnen, the chief university student ideologue of the time, forcefully rejected the ruling regime’s claim that Ethiopia was a unified nation.  In contradiction, Walleligne considered Ethiopia a museum of a dozen nationalities with different languages, ways of dressing, histories, social organizations and territorial entities. Based on this premise, Walleligne urged all Ethiopians to fight for a democratic and egalitarian Ethiopia, whereby “all nationalities participate equally in state affairs and where every nationality is given equal opportunity to preserve and develop its language, its music and its history” (November17, 1969). 

 Increasing discontent among university and high school students ignited the masses, catching Haile Selassie’s regime by surprise. As a result, the Board of University Governors suspended the student union, USUAA, and banned the student newspaper, Struggle, thereby suppressing autonomy and freedom of expression on campus.

Instead of arresting the existing student agitation, the Board of University Governors tightened its discipline and fueled further student activism. In collaboration with high school students, the university students vigorously agitated against the implementation of new educational reform initiated by the regime (the Education Sector Review).

In 1973, the student movement rekindled the Ethiopian masses by highlighting the regime’s neglect of the famine stricken in the regional states of Wollo and Tigrai. With the rise of fuel prices, taxi drivers in Addis Ababa had no choice but to demonstrate against the regime in power. Ethiopia’s economic slowdown created a perfect opportunity for the lower ranks within the Haile Selassie military to hijack the Ethiopian student’s Marxist-Leninist discourse. The military used its muscle to claim its historic mission of ushering the country into socialism (Kebede, 2001). 

In 1974, as students created significant political awareness, Haile Selassie’s regime was replaced by the Provisional Military Administrative Council, better known as the “Derg”—Ethiopia’s most oppressive military dictatorship. Thus, as the student movement contributed to the demise of Haile Selassie’s regime in 1974, the lower ranks of the military dictatorship moved Ethiopia from imperial polity to military dictatorship (Balsvik (2009).

As the military Junta (the Derg) came to power, it attempted to coopt the university student union and strongly advocate for Marxist-Leninist ideology. The Derg believed that student rhetoric could serve a useful purpose in its attempts to legitimize the seizer of power (Balsvik, 2009).

To demonstrate its allegiance to the cardinal demands of university student movements, the Derg allowed the university students to reestablish their student union, USUAA. The Derg also gave students the full right to resume publishing Struggle.  To the surprise of the half-baked socialist military junta, the first publication of Struggle commemorated Wallelign Makonnen’s leading argument that rested on “the question of nationalities.”  In other words, Wallelign’s argument assumed that for all Ethiopian nationalities to ascertain self-determination, power must be bestowed to the peoples of Ethiopia.  

In 1975, to further win the legitimacy of the university students, the military junta promulgated, “Land to the Tiller.” In order to disband student movements from the urban areas, the Derg, thorough programs known as “development through cooperation campaign” (“Zamacha”), discharged about 50,000, junior and senior high school students and 6,000 university students and teachers to the countryside.  More specifically, the Derg assigned “Zamacha” campaign workers to distribute the nationalized farm lands, organize peasant associations, organize women’s and youth associations, build primary schools, clinics and latrines, dig water wells, and initiate a mass literacy campaign, using about fifteen local languages as medium for instruction. Though statistics provided by the Derg’s military government have been falsified and regarded as inaccurate, the Derg’s military government was awarded the annual UNESCO Literacy Award in 1980 (Balsvik, 2009) for its effort on spreading literacy throughout Ethiopia.    

For two years, participants poured their hearts and souls into the program. They scoured the countryside to build a socialist state, to actualize university student demands for the distribution of land to the landless peasants, and to provide peasants with social services.

In 1976, the Derg declared the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) to endorse the university students demand for “the right to self-determination of all nationalities.” Though it never came to fruition, the Derg set up the Institute of Study of Nationalization (ISN) in 1983 and then it categorized the country into twenty-four autonomous administrative regions (Ottaway, 1976, and Markakis, 1977, Araia, 2013).

Many progressive Ethiopians welcomed these radical measures by the Derg and viewed them as genuine. From a saddle of power, the Derg began revealing its hidden authoritarian nature. For example, after workers returned from their “Zamacha” campaign to pursue their education in 1976, the Derg tried to isolate them. Left alone to reflect on the administrative style of the Derg, returnees were not allowed to intermingle. Those suspected of criticizing the Derg’s incompetence or dysfunctional administration style were labeled as either counter-revolutionaries or members of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) and were subjected to Derg’s Red Terror campaign.  As Araia persuasively states (2017), “…contrary to the wishes and ambitions of Ethiopians, when the Derg military regime consolidated power, it effectively terminated the political culture of the golden age (of the 1960s and 70s) by prioritizing the gun to suppress the people and declaring the so-called Red Terror against the EPRP, the youth, and other progressive forces…” 

 As Balsvik (2009) observes, the Derg’s Red Terror campaign turned violently against educated young Ethiopians for their resistance to military rule and forced them either into exile or to join various guerrilla movements. Even after the “Red Terror Campaign” supposedly ended in 1978, the lunatic Mengistu’s regime continued killing or arresting educated young Ethiopians for their opposition to military rule and their suspected support of the Tigrai , Oromo, and Eritrea liberation moments who fought for the right to self- determination of all nationalities in Ethiopia.   

In 1984, by declaring Workers’ Party of Ethiopia (WPE) the only legal party in Ethiopia, the Derg officially made Ethiopia a socialist state. However, as Glasnost, Perestroika, and a multitude of problems engulfed the USSR, the soviets discontinued their tutorship and hegemony over Ethiopia. Soon, Ethiopia’s economy dwindled into shambles, and Mengistu fled into exile in Zimbabwe. Ethiopia’s brutal military administration grew increasingly disorganized, and, in 1991, the coalition of the ethno-nationalist movements, better known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), buried the Derg for good.

Once it came to power, the EPRDF completely negated the Derg’s centralized or unitary system. It resorted to the Leninist philosophy of democratic centralism and partitioned the country into nine asymmetrical, ethnic-based regional states and two chartered cities (Balsvik, 2009, and Hailemariam, 2017). EPRDF’s policy makers proclaimed the formation of federalism in Ethiopia is a step in the right direction. Federalism allows inhabitants of the federal states autonomy and a chance for self-rule because each region can to develop, promote, and preserve its language and native culture (Desta, 2017). Keller (2003) also strongly endorses the noble objectives of the formation of Federal regional states in Ethiopia. After its implementation, Turton (2005) acknowledged that the restructuring of Ethiopia as an ethnic-based federation contributed to its ultimate stability and economic success.  

However, Huntington rightly forecasted in 1993 that the formation of ethnic regional states in Ethiopia would exacerbate cleavages and ethnic-tensions in Ethiopia (1993b).  Given its current political landscape, Ethiopia triggers flashpoints that indicate signs of political deteriorations as massive demonstrations flare up into new waves of ethno-nationalistic political turmoil. This new unrest has led observers and members of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) to conclude that the very survival of the Ethiopian state is amid political turmoil (Gebreluel, G and Bedasso, B, 2018), and has forced the current Ethiopian Prime Minister, Haile Mariam Desalgne to submit his letter of resignation to his Party (Schemm, Feb. 16, 2018).  

Outside politics in Ethiopia focus on ethnicity, university campuses remain ethnically polarized. For example, for the last 25 years, Ethiopian universities have been recruiting diverse students to flourish their notoriety for worthwhile diversity. Nonetheless, without a substantial improvement in campus climate, increasing compositional diversity does not unto itself enhance diversity competency.

In other words, instead of interacting with peers and learning through diversity, various ethnic backgrounds remain isolated and even ready to fight if necessary. For example, in 2017, when an Amhara student in Adigrat university, Tigrai Region, was killed, ethnic demonstrations flared in Gonder, Ambo, Debre Tabor, and Woldia (www.Borkena). Similarly, students in the East (Haromaya University), south (Bule Hora university) and southwest (Gambella and Metu universities) have voluntarily left their campuses and disrupted their educations. As a result of ethnic conflicts over the years, parents have been insisting their children be placed in local universities within their own regional states in order to avoid ethnic-based attacks ( Asmamaw, 2012).   

As these ethnic conflicts become deeply rooted in Ethiopia’s higher educational institutions, instability throughout the country continues to foment. This calls for fundamental changes in the curricula of higher educational institutions, designed to challenge student’s long-held beliefs and ideas. Exposure to effective cross-ethnic diversity programs could help diverse Ethiopian college students look past their differences and start learning from them instead (Hass, 1999). 

Conclusion and Policy Implications

   Since the establishment of the University College of Addis Ababa in 1951, Ethiopia has experienced waves of student activism. In the 1960s, the Ethiopian university student protests became radicalized and played a pivotal role in raising the political consciousness of the Ethiopian masses. Because of their genuine concern for the emancipation of the Ethiopian masses, Araia (2017) vividly describes these university political movements as a golden age in Ethiopian history.   

The 1960s and 1970s left-leaning of Ethiopian  university students were generally premised on the radical Leninist concept of ‘National Question’ and were ingrained in Stalin’s agenda calling for the right to “self-determination” to the peoples of a nation.  Subscribing to these galvanizing phrases, Ethiopian university students fully believed that Ethiopia could undergo fundamental change and emancipation if the various nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia were granted the rights to self-determination.

 Accordingly, through their ‘University National Services Program,’ Ethiopian university students grafted and effectively socialized Ethiopian High School Students to buy into the Ethiopian university student’s insurgency movements; they engineered spectacular social and critical issues that focused on a) the ownership of land, b) ending poverty, and c) overcoming the oppression of the peoples, nations, and nationalities in Ethiopia. Globally, the Ethiopian student activism was linked to international socio-political and global issues related to the independence of the then-colonized African countries, America’s war in Vietnam, and the alienation and exploitation of international working class (See, Araia, 2017).

Thus, when the proponents of ethnic federalism during the 1970s finally achieved power in Ethiopia in 1991, they stood against the oppressive Haile Selassie and the Derg regimes and any possibility of their cultural reproduction. When the EPRDF toppled the Derg from power, it felt obligated to implement ethnic federalism as a viable option for reconstituting the Ethiopian state (Kebede, 2001). As a result, the EPRDF reorganized the Ethiopian state in terms of ethnicity representation and territorial administration, and it gave every ethnic group an unconditional right to self-determination up to secession (Vaughan, 2003).

Concentrating on ethnicity, primary schools throughout Ethiopia were encouraged to use local languages to socialize their students. According to the Higher Education Proclamation (HEP), universities in Ethiopia proclaimed multiculturalism as the guiding principle to prepare citizens for life and leadership in a diverse society (FDRE, 2009), and universities in Ethiopia attempted to redesign their campus climates to accommodate diversity and to facilitate purposeful inter-ethnicity interactivity programs (Adamu, 2014).

Implementing diversity is a dynamic process of recruiting and admitting different ethnic groups of students to pedagogically-reformed higher educational institutions featuring transformed curricula, co-curriculum, and diverse faculty and staff. These universities are designed to leverage learners to develop diversity competencies which integrate cognitive complexity, to prepare them to work in diverse environments, and to participate effectively in democratic societies (Lee A. et al, August 12, 2011, Milem, J. Chang M. and Antonio, A, 2005).  

In short, as explained by Milem, Chang, and Antonio (2005), the institutional context of campus framework for ethnically diverse universities includes, a) compositional diversity (diverse student, faculty, and staff requirement), b) an organizational/structural dimension  (diversity of curriculum, and decision-making policies), c) a psychological dimension (student perceptions and ethnic tension), and d) a behavioral dimension (social interaction across ethnicities, classroom diversity, and pedagogical approaches).

Drawing on the previously attempted socialization process of Ethiopian university students, though piecemeal and token, the current state in Ethiopian universities has initiated and prefaced the broad diversity of students currently attending the different universities. Sadly, the account provided above indicates that students from the same ethnic background tend to aggregate on university campuses for safety and often instigate deadly ethnic skirmishes.


These observations strongly suggest that the curricular components and the pedagogical strategies at the Ethiopian higher educational institutions need to change. All incoming freshmen should be required to take a multi-dimensional Freshman Diversity Experience course (or courses) designed to provide diversity-related competencies and skills so learners can fully engage with all classmates, faculty, and staff as members of their universities. In other words, the content of multi-dimensional Freshman Diversity Curriculum must offer university students content knowledge related to living in a diverse cultural context, valuing communalities, and accepting, tolerating, and respecting differences (Adamu, 2014).

 With the understanding that the diversity capital brought by the students could be a source of insight as opposed to conflict, all first-year students need to be offered a Multi-Dimensional Freshman Diversity Curriculum. If well designed and taught by trained faculty, the suggested dynamic course could not only help students acquire cognitive, affective, and practical skills, but use them to interact positively with people from diverse cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds (Bank, 2007).

 If tertiary educational institutions accommodate diversity in their freshman studies, learners could undoubtedly challenge old biases and their intellectual capacity would blossom. Having access to a multi-dimensional diversity competency course, learners can develop problem-solving skills, critical thinking capacity, and have the tolerance necessary live and work in a diverse society. 

From a pedagogical perspective, students from diverse backgrounds could develop these tools if they are a) assigned multi-cultural literature related to the history and culture of other ethnic groups, b) given weekly reflective assignments, c) required to live in dormitories with other diverse ethnic students, d) required to learn cooperatively from diverse peers through classroom discussion and group interaction, e) required to collaborate on off-campus projects, f) encouraged to compete and debate with the diverse students, and g) encouraged to get involved with other informal diversity activities, such as cultural events and social activities.  

As Slavin suggests (1995), when students of different backgrounds can experience positive interactions with others of different backgrounds, their prejudices against one other will most likely decrease (see also Adamu, 2014).  In addition, the diverse capital that the students bring to universities could change; learners can start to become globally minded citizens when they begin recording their classroom experiences and outside engagement in their ‘reflective journals.’

Admittedly, the “idea of teaching about diversity is intimidating, in part because the concept of diversity is so vast and because none of us has had personal experience with the full range of diversity” (American Psychological Association, 2013). Nonetheless, the diverse students accepted by Ethiopian universities need to be required to take an interdisciplinary course entitled ‘Freshman Diversity Experience,’ whereby institutional support for a positive climate for diversity are available. If the course is intensively designed by a diverse professional faculty with a sincere commitment to diversity, and if the class is offered institutional support and a safe environment for interaction to enhance a positive climate for diversity, it will not only fulfill the educational mission and goals of the university, but it will also enable students to formulate diverse thoughts and opinions, distinctively different from those with which they are familiar.  Thereby, this strategy will increase of the probability of Ethiopian students accepting other Ethiopians as their fellow citizens and compatriots. This endeavor will recall the Ethiopian university students of the 1960s and 1970s; these diverse learners will feel comfortable interacting outside their comfort zones and they can fight together for democracy in Ethiopia.   

Despite the detailed work I have in progress, it is suffices to state at this juncture that the 21st century requires student engagement to achieve the diversity skills necessary to work effectively with individuals, groups, and teams from diverse identities and perspectives. Therefore, the current political instability in Ethiopia would not improve if the federal structure created in 1995 is reorganized to meet autonomy and the demands of progressive Ethiopians without at least considering the Ethiopia’s dramatic increase in population over the last twenty years. As Lockhart observes (2014), creating autonomy has proven to be an effective political tool in settling ethnic conflicts in non-violent ways.

Given this, Ethiopians can learn that their existing federal structure—nine ethnic and the two chartered city states—must be reorganized and expanded to include not only the existing nine ethnic regional states and two chartered city states, but also need to add nine autonomous city states whose population exceeds more than 100,000 people. Ethiopian cities that have more than 100,000 people (Population of cities in Ethiopia, 2018) include: Mekelle (215, 546), Adama (213,995), Bahir Dar (168,899), Gondar (153,914), Dese (136,056), Hawassa (133,097), Jima  (128,306), Nekemte (110688), and Bishoftu (104,215).  


In summary, rather than changing personalities and using military force to calm down the massive unrest in Ethiopia, Ethiopians can resolve ethnic conflict by bestowing genuine autonomy to the proposed nine regional states and the eleven chartered city states, and by involving civic organizations, multi-parties and other opposition parties in a discourse to pursue Ethiopia’s democratic plan for the future (See, Desta, 2017). In the long run, however, the most effective method of keeping political conflicts in check and restore fragmenting multi-ethnic regional and city-states is by offering comprehensive diverse competency education in primary, secondary, and tertiary school levels.


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