ETHIOPIAN DEFENCE FORCE An influential short essay written by Walleligne Mekonnen—who at the time was a second-year political science student at the university, and who was later on shot and killed along with fellow activists while attempting to hijack an Ethiopian Airlines flight–titled, became a founding text of the radical wing of the student movement. In his essay, Walleligne argued that “Ethiopia is not really a nation” but rather “made up of a dozen nationalities with their own languages, ways of dressing, history, social organization and territorial entity.
When Emperor Haile Selassie rose to the throne in 1930, he was acutely aware of the shortage of educated Ethiopians to build Ethiopia’s nascent civil service and bureaucracy. In order to fill in this gap, like his predecessor, he sent many Ethiopians to Europe and the U.S. for higher education that in the words of produced “a generation of daring, innovative intellectual leaders and thinkers”. However, sadly many of these intellectuals were annihilated by the Italian colonial power in the late 1930s. This loss of its brightest left post-war Ethiopia with deep psychological scar and decades of stagnant time devoid of social and political change. With the founding of the University College of Addis Abeba in 1950, the future Haile Selassie University (now, Addis Abeba University), Emperor Haile Selassie’s dream of producing educated Ethiopians amass finally came true.
The 196o’s is when the role of Ethiopian intellectuals in the country’s politics probably got its most consequential phase. Starting in the 1960’s, with the backdrop of broader social unrest, university students started to oppose Haile Selassie’s single-man authoritarian rule and the oppressive socio-economic and cultural structures within which the students said the Imperial government and its predecessors functioned. They demanded rights and freedom. It was until a more radical wing of the movement sprang that, concurrent with the more mundane demand for reform, started to question the very essence of the Ethiopian state as a nation. Compared to the reformist intellectuals of the previous generation, Ethiopia’s newly minted intellectuals displayed impatience and lacked foresight in their calls for might not be far from the truth when he observed these intellectuals’ “wholesale adoption of unmediated Western ideologies and abandonment of Ethiopian values” had had “quite disastrous consequences.”
Subsequent rulers of Ethiopia mended the “glitch” and followed the path that almost was dismantled by Emperor Tewodros II, and, as a result, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church remained inseparable from the Ethiopian state, and, with that, the state narrative. That, however, changed with Emperor Menelik II assuming the throne in 1889. Although the historical Ethiopia dates back to millennia, Emperor Menelik is widely considered as an architect of the modern Ethiopian state. His epic defeat of the Italian colonial power at the Battle of Adwa added another, if not stronger, element to the myth of God’s-chosen-people identity to Ethiopians and the Ethiopian state.
As the Ethiopian historian Bahru Zewde recounts in his book Pioneers of Change, eager to modernize Ethiopia, Menelik sent Ethiopians to Europe and the U.S. for higher education. Unlike the church-educated elites that preceded them, these early Western-educated Ethiopian elites broke with tradition and became critics of the state. It may be argued as such that Emperor Menelik could be credited with spearheading the creation of a new intellectual-elite class and with bringing the same to the center of state politics. Unbeknown to him, with that he laid the groundwork for the creation of a new elite class that would later challenge the very essence of Ethiopia as a nation state.