Ethiopian Higher Education in Crisis


Ethiopian Higher Education in Crisis
A Report by Makonnen Bishaw
28 December 2002

Thirty-three years ago today, Tilahun Gizaw, president of the University Students Union of Addis Ababa (USUAA), was gunned down not far from the main campus of the then Haile Selassie I University (now renamed Addis Ababa University). His assassination was neither the beginning nor the end of the cruel campaign against the otherwise peaceful struggle for democracy, the rule of law, and respect for citizens’ human and democratic rights. Both before and after Tilahun’s cold-blooded murder, there have been many Ethiopians both young and old, educated as well as ordinary peasants and workers  who fell victim to this futile attempt by the country’s dictators to suppress citizens’ rights and fundamental freedoms.

What exactly happened during Emperor Haile Selassie’s rule may be a bit too distant for many Ethiopians in the Diaspora to know in detail. For those of us who were unfortunate to have lived and continue to live under the Dergue and, now, under the TPLF/EPRDF regimes, Haile Selassie’s period appears to have been more humane in dealing with the protests and demands of citizens. Haile Selassie’s regime was quite rightly accused of being too slow in leading the country out of the centuries-old autocratic and unjust relations between the ruling class and the masses. In his attempt to remain the undisputed leader, Haile Selassie failed miserably to bring about changes that would ensure the country’s modernization. His love of power resulted in his vain attempt to suppress any action that he perceived to threaten his control.

What happened during the Dergue period is comparatively too recent to be forgotten. The large majority of those in the Diaspora are believed to be products of that period. Perhaps no one will ever know how many Ethiopians fell victims, in one way or another, to what were then called qey and ne
c shibir in Amharic and ‘Red’ and ‘White’ terror in English respectively. The Red Terror was a brutal campaign mounted by the Dergue, the military, ‘Marxist’ regime under Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. The White Terror, on the other hand, referred to the equally violent campaign mounted by political groups opposed to the military regime. Both campaigns are said to have started at the beginning of 1976 and lasted for some four years thereafter. Some writers put the number of dead at over ten thousand, while others claim that over one hundred fifty thousand were killed. Thousands of others, often the young and educated, were forced to leave the country. In short, these campaigns and the civil wars then raging in different parts of the country characterised the period as one of unimaginable cruelty and horror in the country’s recorded history.

When the TPLF/EPRDF took power in May 1991, many had hoped that the society had acquired the rare opportunity, twice in just two decades, of working for a peaceful, just, and democratic society. That hope has long been dashed by many of the ruling party’s policies and actions. It is not the purpose of this brief report to go into the details of all of the ruling party’s repeated and repressive actions against students and teachers in different parts of the country. The intention here is to review briefly recent developments at the Addis Ababa University and other institutions of higher education in the country.

The Ruling Party’s Efforts to ‘Renew’ Itself and to Create ‘National Consensus”

For nearly two years, the ruling party has been engaged in what appear to be endless meetings organized primarily for its cadres and ordinary members. These meetings were often referred to as meetings of Tehadisso (renewal) by no other than the government-controlled media (newspapers, radio, and television). Information leaking out of these meetings and subsequent developments indicated that these tehadisso meetings were very much reminiscent of the well-known Marxist-Leninist “criticism & self-criticism). Highly-placed cadres as well as ordinary members of the ethnic parties forming the EPRDF coalition were reported to have criticised themselves for being ‘corrupt’, ‘narrow-minded’, and ‘anti-development’, etc. Many of these were either dismissed from their parties or demoted from their party and/or government posts. This process of dismissals and demotions has continued to this day.
For many observers, the whole tehadisso was no more than a continuation of Meles Zenawi’s attempt to clean his ruling party from remnants of those he suspected of being sympathisers or supporters of the group (i.e., Seye Abraha, Gebru Asrat, etc.) that had split from the ruling party soon after the Ethio-Eritrean war. Others believe that these recent dismissals and demotions are no more than a desperate but futile attempt by Meles to create scapegoats for the mess his increasingly dictatorial rule has put the country into. Whatever the motive behind these tehadisso meetings, they seem to have failed miserably. For one thing, tehadisso meetings have continued, in many cases regional ethnic parties going through not just one but a series of such meetings, each time ending by dropping key cadres and members. As I am writing this report, members of the core TPLF are reported to be in just such a meeting for the third or fourth time in about a year. Second, Meles Zenawi continues to stubbornly refuse to reconsider some of his government’s destructive policies and actions (e.g., agriculture-led industrialization, land tenure, ethnic-based federalism, violation of citizens’ human rights and fundamental freedoms, etc.)

It was in this context that Meles Zenawi rather unexpectedly announced that his government would extend his party’s tehadisso discussions with other communities of the society. He claimed that there was now an urgent need to create ‘national consensus’ regarding the political, economic, and social programs of his party and government. One of the first, if not the first, such meetings was to be held with teachers and students of the Addis Ababa University and, subsequently, with those of other secondary schools and higher educational institutions, members of the business community, civil servants, and members of urban dwellers and peasants associations, etc. The one with the staff of the Addis Ababa University was held between Hamle 22 and Nehasse 11, 1994 (June 28  August 17, 2002).

These discussions, which were broadcast on television, seemed to promise a new beginning. Many, including myself, expressed their hope (in both government and private media) for such dialogue among citizens and especially between government officials and leaders of opposition parties. The society’s critical problems (e.g., the democratisation process, mass poverty, famine, HIV/AIDS, human and democratic rights, land tenure and the government’s agriculture-led development, etc.) were raised and, it appeared, freely discussed between Meles and the members of the University community. When Meles and his colleagues admitted openly some of the mistakes committed by the ruling party (including the arbitrary dismissal of 42 teachers of the University in 1993) and promised to take steps to ensure academic freedom and autonomy at the country’s institutions of higher education, our hope for improvements were strengthened, even though there were many even more important, national policies, which Meles and his colleagues appeared to be unprepared to change.

Despite his promises, Meles Zenawi is now embarking on a systematic campaign to muffle, once and for all, any free thought and academic endeavour at these institutions, especially at the Addis Ababa University. The current confrontation between the government and members of the University community has already resulted in the resignation of the University president, vice presidents for academic and business affairs, at least three deans, and a number of department chairpersons. Other resignations are expected. A brief account of these recent developments at the University follows.

Gimgema at Institutions of Higher Education

 One of the agreements reached at the summer discussions with Ato Meles Zenawi was that the Addis Ababa University staff (as well as others at other similar institutions) would hold gimgema sessions (criticism-self-criticism) among themselves with the view of “cleaning their dirt”. The staff, on the whole, had hoped that they themselves would decide on how and for what purpose this gimgema would be conducted. On Hidar 15 (24 November 2002), officials of the University suddenly called the staff to a meeting. When these officials raised the issue of the gimgema, the staff started protesting against what they perceived to be an attempt to impose on them the ruling party’s decisions regarding the modalities and objectives of the planned gimgema. The heated discussion lasted the whole day, but no agreement could be reached.

It is now believed that the causes of the disagreement were the decisions passed by an earlier meeting held in Wondo Guenet between officials of the Ministry of Education and heads of the various institutions of higher education. At that meeting, it is reported, it had been decided that the heads of the various higher education institutions would ensure that the staff of their respective institutions would go through the proposed gimgema. Each institution was expected to ensure that the following types of face-to-face gimgema were held:

1.      Presidents and vice presidents would evaluate each other,

2.      Presidents and vice presidents by each senate,
3.      Deans and directors by academic commissions,
4.      Department chairpersons by teachers,
5.      Department chairpersons by deans,
6.      Teachers among themselves, and
7.      Teachers by their students.

It is reported that the representatives of the Addis Ababa University who had participated in the Wondo Guenet meeting had agreed to these decisions on condition that the staff of the University accepted them. Even though the decision that students should evaluate their teachers in face-to-face meetings appears to have been the main decision that the teachers could not accept, they also believed that the mere imposition of the whole gimgema package was a violation of their academic freedom. Many argued that the proposed gimgema was identical to that used by the ruling party among its members and, as such, the ruling party had no right to impose the package on citizens that were not its members.

The Hidar 15 meeting failed to reach any agreement. Another meeting, chaired by the president of the University, was held next day. It was at this meeting that the differences between ‘cadres’ of the ruling party (mainly consisting of Prof. Endreas Eshete, Drs. Samuel Assefa, and Gemechu Megersa) on the one hand and the rest of the academic staff became irreconcilably clear. Teachers were accused of being anti-change and undemocratic, while those supporting the ruling party’s stand were charged with lacking the moral authority to impose a gimgema that violated academic freedom. Those supporting the government’s proposal also publicly accused the three University officials with being too lenient and ineffective, while the participating teachers tried to defend them. This meeting too ended with no definite agreement, even though many of the teachers had felt that their cause had won the day.

From subsequent reports, it was possible to learn that the University’s president, Prof. Eshetu Wencheko, academic vice president, Dr. Tet’emke Mehari, and business vice president, Ato Tesfaye Biru, had submitted their resignations to Ato Tefera Walwa, Federal Minister for Capacity Building. The University’s Board of Governors met in the morning of Tahsas 3 (12 December) to discuss the officials’ resignations. The three University officials are reported to have informed the meeting that (a) the continued interference of the government in the day-to-day affairs of the University indicated that their services as heads of the institution were no more wanted, and (b) while they and the academic staff as a whole did not oppose the proposed gimgema, the University community was being deprived of its right to decide on the objectives and modalities of the gimgema. This Board meeting too ended without any definite decision.

In the afternoon of the same day (12 Dec.), Ato Tefera Walwa and the deputy minister of education, Ato Teshome Yizengaw, recalled the University teachers to another meeting. Ato Tefera chaired the meeting. It was at this meeting that the three University officials openly reported their resignation, suggesting that it was better for the government to appoint ‘more suitable’ persons. Ato Tefera informed those assembled that the government has accepted the resignations and invited the participants to discuss the ways in which their replacements were to be appointed. Silence reigned for what seemed to be a long time. Nor was there much of a discussion after that. Finally, when Ato Tefera reiterated his mission and called on participants’ views about finding replacements, those assembled began to leave the hall. No one stayed to hear Ato Tefera thanking them for coming to the meeting.

The government has now appointed Prof. Endreas Eshete as the new president of the University. He, in turn, is expected to present the names of the two persons he would like appointed by the government to the posts of academic and business vice presidents. There is considerable tension and uncertainty within the University. Students and other support staff are also seriously affected by the prevailing atmosphere. Many fear that should Prof. Endreas nominate and the government appoint Drs. Samuel Assefa and Gemechu Megersa, as is being rumoured already, the tense atmosphere in the University may very well explode. Though things appear calm at the moment, old colleagues I was able to talk with fear the worst is yet to come.

Addendum (5 January 2003)

On 1st January 2003, the Ministry of Education announced the appointment of Dr. Gemechu Megersa of the Department of Sociology and Social Administration and Ato Mohammed Habib of the Addis Ababa Civil Service College as academic and business vice presidents of Addis Ababa University respectively. Both the president, Prof. Endreas Eshete, and the academic vice president, Dr. Gemechu Megersa, have since their respective appointments made official statements regarding what they believe is a core problem of the University. By asserting that “one ethnic group” has hitherto dominated the University, Dr. Gemechu is reported to have suggested that this situation will have to change. The new president, Prof. Endrias appears to concur with Dr. Gemechu’s assessment. He alleged that there has been ‘ethnic oppression’ within the University. Accordingly, he plans to ensure that the University falls in line with the ruling party’s agenda to bring about the equality of all ethnic groups in the University. What this perception and plan is going to mean in actual practice is yet to be seen. Many fear that one way this could be expressed would be the dismissal, once more, of both instructors and administrative personnel from the University. To date, there has been no open reaction by either students or other staff of the University.