Early Life and Background
Tilahun Gizaw was born in 1940 in Maychew, Tigray, Ethiopia. He played a significant role in the Ethiopian student movement that contributed to the Ethiopian Revolution. His father, a wealthy landowner from Tigray, divorced his mother. Tilahun received his pre-university education at mission boarding schools in Aqaqi and Addis Ababa and at the Haile Selassie I Secondary School. His half-sister was Princess Sara Gizaw, the widow of Mekonnen Haile Selassie.
The Prelude to Unrest
During the early 1960s, unrest spread throughout Ethiopian schools, but students in Addis Ababa lacked central leadership or a unifying cause. Protests persisted, leading to the closure of the university in 1963 to restore order. In 1964 and 1965, students rallied around the issue of land tenure, holding large demonstrations under the slogan “Land to the Tiller!” They appealed to Parliament for the redistribution of land from wealthy landlords to working-class tenants but did not directly protest against Emperor Selassie.
The Growth of Activism
In 1967, Ethiopian students reorganised their efforts, and the movement became more unified. The student unions within the University protesting various government-related issues joined the University Students Union of Addis Ababa (USUAA), focusing on overthrowing the government. In November 1969, Tilahun Gizaw was elected President of the USUAA, representing the radical and committed voice of the Ethiopian masses.
Challenges within the Movement
Despite the movement’s strength and support, there were organisational issues. The USUAA could not offer an alternative to Selassie’s regime, as no leader wanted to step forward. Additionally, the government was trying to suppress an Eritrean revolt while dealing with the student revolt, dividing the USUAA’s members. Tilahun Gizaw advised the students to reevaluate their plan.
Death and Legacy
On December 28, 1969, tragedy struck when student leader Tilahun Gizaw was murdered by police in the Afencho Ber area for his organising efforts. His death sparked further unrest among students and showcased the government’s willingness to use repression. Tilahun Gizaw’s death played a crucial role in radicalising activists and pushing Ethiopia towards revolution, raising the average student’s political consciousness and increasing their sense of alienation from the regime.
Escalating Protests and Government Crackdown
The murder of Tilahun Gizaw ignited the student movement, which began to grow in intensity and scale. Protests became more frequent, and the government responded with increasing force. The violent crackdown on student activists further fueled resentment towards the ruling regime, making it apparent that peaceful reform was becoming increasingly unlikely.
The Emergence of New Opposition Groups
In the wake of Gizaw’s death, several new opposition groups began to form, each with its own agenda and vision for Ethiopia’s future. Some of these groups included the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), the All-Ethiopian Socialist Movement (MEISON), and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). These organisations worked both independently and together in various capacities to challenge the ruling regime and advocate for change.
The Fall of Emperor Haile Selassie
The growing unrest in Ethiopia, fueled in part by the student movement and the death of Tilahun Gizaw, eventually led to the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. As public opinion turned against the monarchy, a military committee known as the Derg seized power, ousting the emperor and establishing a socialist military dictatorship. The new regime initially garnered support from various opposition groups, including some student activists, who hoped it would bring about much-needed reform.
Continued Struggle for Democracy and Human Rights
Unfortunately, the Derg’s rule was marked by widespread human rights abuses, economic decline, and the continuation of the Eritrean conflict. As the situation in Ethiopia worsened, many of the opposition groups that had originally supported the Derg turned against it, sparking a new wave of protests and armed resistance. This period of political turmoil ultimately led to the fall of the Derg in 1991 and the establishment of the current Ethiopian government.
Tilahun Gizaw’s Enduring Legacy
Tilahun Gizaw’s activism and ultimate sacrifice continue to inspire generations of Ethiopians to fight for justice, democracy, and human rights. His efforts in the student movement and the impact of his death on the Ethiopian Revolution serve as a powerful reminder of the importance of standing up against oppressive regimes and advocating for change. Today, Ethiopia continues to grapple with the legacy of its tumultuous past and the ongoing struggle for a more inclusive and equitable future.