The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Book Review - The Quest for Socialist Utopia: the Ethiopian Student Movement c. 1960-1974

Bahru Zewde

Reviewer - Christopher Clapham


Those of us who taught at the then Haile Sellassie I University in the later 1960s and 1970s will vividly recall the maelstrom of revolutionary fervour that swept over our students, and turned them into the leading force of opposition to the visibly decaying imperial regime. Their efforts and idealism, however misplaced, were tragically rewarded in the 1974 revolution that they did so much to bring about, and which in turn led to the deaths of so many of them. Now, Professor Bahru Zewde - the leading historian of modern Ethiopia and himself a student at that time - has turned his attention to the events of his own youth, and come up with what must become the definitive account of the Ethiopian student movement, placing it in the context of the global student movement of the late 1960s - encapsulated in the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and the French upheavals of May 1968 - while relating it to the very specific circumstances of Ethiopia.

His moving dedication is worth quoting in full: 'To the Youth of Ethiopia, who assumed a burden incommensurate with their intellectual resources and their country's political assets - and paid dearly for it.' As this indicates, the protesting students had very little idea of what they were letting themselves in for, and the 'socialist utopia' that they sought was entirely incommensurate with the circumstances of their own country, and indeed proved unattainable under even the most favourable conditions elsewhere. Their language owed more to the Marxist theory in which they progressively immersed themselves than to any detailed familiarity with the world of the Ethiopian peasant to whose welfare their most famous slogan, 'Land to the Tiller', was directed. The revolution initiated by their strikes and demonstrations in early 1974 was rapidly taken over by a brutal military regime which, while assuming their Marxist vocabulary, destroyed anyone who lay in its path and set Ethiopia on the road to the wars which ended only with its own destruction in 1991. Yet the EPRDF government that then came to power, and still governs Ethiopia, itself derived from a particular splinter group within the pre-1974 student movement, and proceeded to put in place the solution to Ethiopia's 'national question', of 'self-determination up to and including secession', first articulated by a student activist writing under the pseudonym Tilahun Takele twenty years earlier. The legacy of those protesting students is with us to this day.

For all the drama and controversy of the events that it describes, Bahru's account is written with the scrupulous attention to detail and documents of the professional historian, supplemented by the recollections of a group of his contemporaries whom he assembled for the purpose, to ensure that it was not too heavily influenced by his own memories. It shows how the initial tentative stirrings of opposition to the emperor, prompted in some part by the Imperial Bodyguard's attempted coup of December 1960, steadily grew in volume and radicalism until the climactic year of 1969, after which there was no room for compromise or accommodation. I have rather greater sympathy than Bahru for the impossible situation in which the university administration found itself, and especially regret his criticisms of James Paul, a wonderful man and the founder of modern legal education in Ethiopia, who found himself at the sharp end of the confrontations - but then, Bahru was a student at that time, and I was a teacher, and our perspectives may well be different. He shows how the movement came progressively under the control of a group of hardline Marxists, dubbed the Crocodiles, of whose existence most of the ordinary students were quite unaware, and how the foundations of the two major parties, the All Ethiopia Socialist Movement (Ma'ison) and the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP), later to be engaged in a vicious struggle for power that destroyed them both, were clandestinely laid at this time. Indeed, as he argues, the verbal violence of their mutual hostility prefigured the actual violence of the subsequent 'red terror.'

At the end of it all, the puzzle remains as to how a bunch of students, both in Ethiopia and abroad, could have exercised such a remarkable influence over their country's political awakening; and Bahru's answer, undoubtedly correct, is that this resulted from the absence of political parties, and thus of any mechanism through which, as happened in colonial Africa, nationalist leaders sought to gain popular support, and were obliged in the process to organise and mobilise the masses, especially in the hitherto quiescent rural areas. In Ethiopia by contrast, politics came from the top down, first through the imperial government, then through the students, and eventually through the military - and it remains that way to this day.

The Quest for Socialist Utopia: the Ethiopian Student Movement book cover

The Quest for Socialist Utopia: the Ethiopian Student Movement, c.1960-1974
Bahru Zewde
Woodbridge: James Currey, 2014
ISBN 9781847010858
Hardback 317 pages; 216 x 140mm
b&w photographs and maps
Price £50.00

First Published in News File Summer 2014

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