The Role of Hailesellasie University Progressive students:

Excrept From The conspiracy theory: Part 2
By Petros Tesfagiorgis - Nov 27, 2007

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In the late 60th The Haile Sellasie 1 University students were extremely concerned of the poverty and lack of development that prevailed in Ethiopia.

They were partly influenced by the international political environment of the time. The 2nd World War weakened Europe and intensified the resolve of the colonized people to determine their own destinies free from European rule. The 60th was the era of world wide decolonization. The struggle in Africa were part of the global marches towards national and social liberation exemplified by the victories of the ex-Portuguese colonies of Guinea Bissau led by Amilcar Cabral and Mozambique led by Samora Michelle.

The Ethiopian progressive University students were inspired by the teachings of Marx and Lenin and started to see the socialist ideology as a way out of poverty and oppression.

When Lenin led the Russian Revolution in 1917 he became a champion of Marxist doctrine advocating the end of oppression and the transformation of society. Lenin was able to symbolize the struggle of the colonized people and many armed struggle adopted the ideology to achieve social and political liberation. The pioneer university students started off as an underground study group nick named the crocodile. Among the prominent leaders was Berhane Meskel Redda, from Tigray. Berhane Meskel was an extraordinary skilled orator. Students would rush to listen to his speeches. He was extremely charismatic. No one would be able to pull that grace off him. You just had to be born with that kind of Charisma. He led the first armed wing of the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Party (EPRP). When he got captured in Shoa during the red-terror, Colonel Mengistu asked to see him, felt unease by the myth built around him. It was rumoured that Mengusti, too scared to keep him alive in prison, ordered his immediate execution. The nature of his death resembled that of Che Guevara in Bolivia. There were others like Gebru Gebrewold, Gebru Mersha, Tzegaye Gebremedhin (debteraw). Abdelmegid Hussein and Eshetu Chole were among the gifted speakers. Zeru Kihishen and Baro Tumsa played law profile but were active as well.

The input of Eritrean progressive students was very significant

The Eritreans were conspicuously seen in the front rows of the various demonstration and they were likely to get hurt when the riot police charged. I remember in one of the demonstrations there were many Eritreans of us in the front 6 or 7 rows among them were Amanuel Yohanes, Mesfun Araya, Tesfazione Medhane, Tesfu Kidane, Meles Gebremariam, Amanuel Geresus, who was one of the 2nd highjackers. He joined the ELF and later defected to the Military Junta and served them in Eritrea. No body knows how much damage he had done to the Eritreans.

We were cut off from the rear and found ourselves completely surrounded by the riot troops. We surrendered and were shipped to prison called Kolfe in army Lorries. There was also a qualitative input from Eritrean progressive students. The following students played a pivotal role. Temesgen Haile was a brilliant, articulate, extremely bold and a man of action. He was the first to die under torture in prison. He was also involved in the underground Eritrean nationalist newspaper named “Tihisha”, Petros Yohanes Adgoy, co-editor of the student journal. Yohanes Sebhatu, a brilliant Marxist Guru. He was a reporter in an English daily paper in Addis Ababa during the two years of his suspension from the University. Yohanes Sebhatu and Mussie Tesfamicael were executed by EPLF as a member of the “Menka uprising”. Amanuel Yohanes, an extraordinarily mobile militant, died in the 3rdhighjacking. He was probably the only one who had proper training of the use of arms. There was also, Dr. Tesfatzion Medhanie, who was well read intellectual, good writer and orator. However, Tesfaztion had never had that kind of full commitment to the cause of the day. He wanted to build his carrier and transform his and his family’s social and economic status.

The Eritrean progressive students realized that if the oppressive feudal system is replaced by a socialist government the problem in Eritrea could be resolved peacefully based on the right of people to self-determination.

In this the Eritreans saw a light at the end of the tunnel and were very active in the Ethiopian University students’ movement. Eritrean progressive students were extremely concerned of the 1967-68 scorch-earth policy of the Emperor. The Ethiopian government, under the command of colonel Getachew Nadew, sent airborne troops in the Western Lowlands of Eritrea were the ELF was operating and they gather villagers together, burn their houses, kill the men and put women and children in camps like the strategic HAMLETS, the US did during the Vietnam war. They did so in order to cut the guerrillas from their base, the people. Later Getachew Nadew became a General and he was sent to Eritrea as a Governor by the Military regime and eventually executed together with Sissay Habte who turned around and sought a peaceful solution to Eritrea- he and Sissay a member of the Dergue representing the Air force saw that there was no way to win the popular war in Eritrea. It was alleged that from the air force base they conspired to overthrow Mengustu Hailemariam.

Further more the Emperor brought in Israelis anti-insurgent experts to train Eritrean commandos and brain wash them saying that the ELF was as the pay of Arab petro dollar to dismember Ethiopia. It marked the first massive influx of Eritrean refugees to the Sudan, it was believed more than 30 thousand Eritreans crossed to the Sudan and languished in refugees camps ever since.

The Nature of the Student Activities: Their main activity was about identifying those crucial issues which kept the country backward- but which the students and the population at large did not know much about. They were hidden or lied upon on the government media. And then use the information to influence change. In short, it was about evidence-based revolution.

To start with, the students rallied around” Land to the tiller”. The land holding system was one of the underlying reasons that kept the people of Ethiopia in abject poverty. The land symbolized the oppression of the people in the South whose land was appropriated by the invaders from the North under Emperor Menelik. The other issue was the chronic famine, which in 1972/73 killed over 2 million people in Wollo, Lasta and Tigrai. Emperor Hailesellasie hid it from the Ethiopian public and the international community. The University students produced photographs of the victims of famine from Wollo and Lasta and presented it to the Authorities and set on a demonstration march to create awareness among the residents of Addis Ababa. The demonstration did not go far from 6 kilo; it ended up by police brutality.

Finally, the famine was exposed by the BBC correspondent Jonathan Dimbilby and became internationalized and later on used by the Dictator Mengistu to justify the overthrow of the Emperor.

The progressive students finally controlled the student union by voting Tilahun Gizaw, a devoted Marxist, to be the chairman. All issues that were the underlying causes of poverty, underdevelopment and other forms of injustices were openly debated.

Fresh men students like Mesfun Habtu gave the student movement a new revolutionary culture. Mesfun was exceptionally gifted at concocting revolutionary songs during demonstrations and rallies in the university campuses. Songs such as “Fano Tesemara en’de Ho Chi Minh en’de Che Guevara” became popular.

Mesfun Habtu had been a rising sun and left for the USA during the crack down and some observers said that he was not welcomed by The Ethiopian Students Union in North America (ESUNA) because of his radical views. He was found hanged, under suspicion circumstances, in his room in the States.

The university student’s movement also impacted the radicalization of the Addis Ababa high school students. As a consequence Addis Ababa was seized by a climate of revolutionary fever which trickled down to the provinces. The University was a melting pot; students were coming from all parts of Ethiopia and Eritrea. The Hailesellasie Government felt threatened and banned the student union and its newspaper.

Tilahun was targeted for physical elimination. He had been warned by friends of his family to save himself. The Emperor was worried because he was the brother of Princess Sara Yigzaw the wife of Prince Mekonen who would have been the successor to the throne had he not died of a Car accident. Tilahun was openly talking that the days of peaceful rallies and demonstration was over. It was a defining moment and the students started to talk about armed struggle. They were inspired by the struggle in Eritrea. Unfortunately Tilahun did not live long to participate in the armed struggle. He was assassinated by Ethiopian security forces in a bus stop outside the Sidist Kilo University Campus, Biedemariam Hostel.

But several managed to make their way to Eritrea and got training in guerrilla warfare.

The first group led by Berhane Meskel Reda hijacked an Ethiopian Airlines to Sudan and got their training with the EPLF. The second group was also successful. The third attempt ended in disaster. The group of seven was led by Walelegn Mekonen. All except Tadelech Kidanemariam were shot and killed by the anti-hijacking security forces as soon as the plane took off. They were Walelegn Mekonen, Getachew Habte, Tesfaye Birega, Tadelech Kidanemariam and 3 Eritreans Martha Mebrahtu, a medical student, Yohanes Fekadu and Amanuel Yohanes.

Amanuel Yohannese nicknamed Radio (The brother of Zemharet Yohanese PFDJ executive member) had joined the EPLF and came to Addis disguised as a business man to offer training to his ex-comrades in the University. The group wanted to advertise their cause and believed they can garner massive support from the Ethiopian youth if they make their journey sensational by taking the road of hijacking. That proved to be fatal. Amanuel asked a comrade Mesfun Araya to go to Asmara, contact the EPLF and bring hand grenades and pistols for the highjcking which he did. Mesfun, who became a university professor in the States, was a controversial figure. He took risks to bring arms for hijacking, flew to USA before the group meet their death and started writing against liberation fronts mainly the EPLF. The whole scenario was dramatic.

The student movement brought Ethiopian and Eritrean students in collective activity in search of a solution to the misery of the people of Ethiopia and to end the brutal war in Eritrea.

The cooperation was based on fundamental principle of social justice and freedom. It was an ambitions mission to give power to the people and bring to an end the repressive feudal system.

It was from this shared values and sense of purpose that the trust between the Ethiopians and Eritreans was rooted. The ideology of Marxism and Leninism was just a tool, an instrument or a strategy for action.

The belief of both Ethiopians and Eritrean progressive students was one-dimensional view in which the good forces of liberty, secularism, democracy, equality and enlightenment had to defeat the bad forces of feudalism, inequality and darkness. Their common value transcended that of boundary, religion, region, nationalities and they were aspiring to bring to an end the oppression of man by man. It is in this moment in time that the seeds of cooperation between the liberation movements were sown. The liberation movements carried this cooperation to its highest level of military coordination that brought about the total military defeat of the brutal dictator of Mengistu Hailemariam. As a result the new Ethiopian Government that formed in July 1991 was inclusive of all parties and liberation movements in Ethiopia. In the process there were mistrust, power struggles, betrayals, greed and all kinds of human errors which sometimes led into armed clashes. At that time OLF was part of the new Government but later on they fall apart. And in 1998 a brutal war between Ethiopia and Eritrea had damaged the trust between the two peoples.

And many of us who participated in the student movements and gave away our youth to serve the various armed struggle have never fully understood the underlying reasons behind this destructive war. The truth is wrapped in mystery. We can only say that it was unnecessary and avoidable war. President Isaias and PM Meles have let the Ethiopian and Eritrean people down by going to war.

The progressive students’ insights into human freedom and dignity in search of justice for the oppressed have to be acknowledged and their selflessness celebrated.

The right of people to self-determination that is enshrined in the Ethiopian constitution article 39 was not laid on a shaky ground. The seeds were sown by the progressive university students in that moment in time.

To be continued

Can the legacy of cooperation between Ethiopians and Eritreans be emulated?

Yes it can. Simply because what the Eritreans and Ethiopians have in common is more important than what it divides them. It also applies to the rest of African countries. To day Africa is labelled a dark continent. Can this generation of Africans rise up to the challenge to transform the social economic status of the Africa people?

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