Ethiopia's rebels take revenge on alma mater: The new government has sacked 42 university teachers in an ethnic purge. Richard Dowden reports

THE SACKING of 42 teachers at the University of Addis Ababa looks like an excessively repressive move by a government that talks a lot about freedom of expression, human rights and democracy. The university simply wrote to the teachers saying their contracts would not be renewed. There were no warnings and no appeals.

One university professor said: 'Such a thing never happened in the whole of Mengistu's time.' Mengistu Haile Mariam's regime, which was overthrown in 1991, controlled all dissent and maintained a formidable East German-trained secret police, but never purged the university.

Western donors, who are giving President Meles Zenawi both moral and financial support, have not made a fuss about the sackings. One diplomat said that many of the sacked teachers were more interested in politics than in teaching. Another suggested they had been appointed by Mengistu. Neither allegation is true. Only a few of those sacked have become politicians and many of their appointments predated the Mengistu era. One was imprisoned by Mengistu but most kept their mouths shut in those days, though to be fair so did everyone else in the capital.

One clue is that 39 of the 42 sacked teachers are believed to be Amharas. The university has a reputation for being a bastion of old-fashioned Ethiopian nationalism, which is strong among the Amharic speakers of the capital. During a visit by Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN Secretary-General, this year to finalise the plans for a referendum on Eritrean independence, university students demonstrated against the break-up of Ethiopia. The demonstration was met by gunfire from troops and an unknown number of students were killed or wounded.

The demonstrators opposed the new government's proposal to allow Ethiopia's 'nations' to choose their own destiny, inside or outside Ethiopia. They adhere to the myth of a 3,000-year-old sacred Ethiopian state. The Emperor Haile Selassie and Mengistu, both Amharas, epitomised this belief. During their reigns, the Amharas formed the ruling class, providing most of the civil servants - and the university teachers.

Two years ago this week, these sober and suited middle classes of Addis Ababa were appalled to see their capital invaded by wild-looking young men and women with unkempt hair, wearing shorts and plastic sandals and a lot of guns. This was the disciplined, makeshift rebel band that defeated the biggest and best-equipped army in Africa. It was as if the Scots had made it to London in the '45. These woyane (bandits) as they were called, were mostly from Tigray and Eritrea, the northern provinces. They did not speak Amharic, the language of the capital.

But their leaders were in a sense coming home; 20 years ago they were all students at Addis Ababa University. They were Marxist-orientated, and organised the student revolts of the early 1970s that led to the overthrow of the Emperor. When the revolution was hijacked by Mengistu, Ethiopia's Stalin, they took the Maoist route to the countryside and began a Long March. In a recent interview, President Meles said: 'Our ideas from the student movement were all confirmed by practice in the bush, in the struggle. But in the early days we tried to lecture the peasants - that was a costly mistake. Then we learned to talk to them . . . instead of trying to teach them.'

Their Long March took 20 years, but in May 1991 the class of 1970 returned as the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front. Their Marxism faded as they got closer to power, but despite their new-found belief in free-market economics and Western-style democracy, they retain a rigorous political analysis and a certain asceticism. Mr Meles still looks awkward in the grand corridors and reception rooms of the imperial palace. When he came to power he tried to open up politics to the whole country - without losing power. The Front set up a national conference that elected representatives to a parliament and encouraged a free press and the formation of political parties and tolerated dissent.

They returned without vengeance except in one area: they found the university unchanged, the same professors teaching the same things. The seedbed of their revolution had been untouched by it, and had become a bastion of the old Ethiopia. This they resented deeply. 'In our day,' one of the forty-something leaders said, 'We were universalist and revolutionary in our thinking. These students and teachers are so inward-looking, so conservative.'

Replacements for the sacked teachers have yet to be named.