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Ethiopia's Student Movement Relatively Quiet in Political Arena

FILE - Voters queue early in the morning to cast their votes in Ethiopia's general election, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, May 24, 2015.

Ethiopia’s government just won another five years in power. Students have played a vital role in the country's political history. The ruling party is often accused of not being democratic, but while former Ethiopian regimes faced politically active student movements, Ethiopian students today appear less involved.

Addis Ababa University law student Nathanael agrees that his generation is not as active.

“I do admire the sacrifice they have paid. And I think the reason why youth and students that are my contemporaries do not behave in this manner is because they do not have a point to rally behind,” he said. “Right now, there is a divide between the youth. It could be from an ethnic point of view, it could be financial because of difference between the rich and poor. They cannot set their differences aside to rally behind a point.”

No freedom of expression

Besides the divisions, more students say they find it difficult to freely voice their opinion. They save political discussions for when they are in safe spaces with only close friends and family.

Nathanael, who did not want his last name used in this report, said it is implied there might be consequences of having a different opinion. “Voicing your opinions as maybe a fully-fledged democratic state would have it, and voicing your opinions in this particular state might not be considered the same thing,” he explained.

Economics student Menelik said today’s students have no one else but themselves to blame for their passiveness as they have now better access to information. But Menelik also believes the divisions keep today’s students from being successfully organized.

“If we had something to die for like our ancestors, our ancestor had something to die for. They thought that if they die, there is somebody else carrying the torch who would take it to the finish line. They were 100 percent convinced about that. We are not united,” he said. “If I die, I die. Close friends come to my funeral and that is it, and family. It ends there.”


The former regime of Mengistu Hailemariam was especially tough on students, forcing many to flee the country, go underground or join armed movements.
Ethiopia’s current government came to power in 1991 after overthrowing the former regime. Students such as former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi led a 17 year guerilla war.

But before that, Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie, also had to deal with critical students protesting his policies. Yakob Hailemariam was the president of the National Union of Ethiopian University Students in 1966. He said that even though the emperor ran an absolute monarchy, students could still protest against issues such as landownership.

“The emperor was very paternalistic. There was no cruelty involved,” Yakob said. “And they looked at us really as misbehaving children rather than somebody that is to be taken seriously in terms of their ideas and so on. So there were no large scale imprisonments.”

Yakob wishes more students of the current generation were actively involved in their countries affairs, saying they are not as militant as his generation used to be.

Students made up a large part of those who protested against the 2005 election results.

But as expected, there were no student protests after the 2015 election results were announced. The ruling Ethiopia’s People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, and their affiliated parties won 546 out of 547 parliament seats.

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