From the issue dated May 18, 2001

Academics in Ethiopia Are Again Under Siege

Street violence follows an armed assault on the main campus of Addis Ababa U.

The Chronicle of Higher Education

From the issue dated May 18, 2001

 

By WACHIRA KIGOTHO

 

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

 

In the aftermath of an attack by the riot police on university students here, squads of officers in open trucks patrol downtown,

near the campus that was the scene of the assault. Student leaders are hiding in slums, trying to avoid arrest. Lecturers in

university common rooms are reluctant to talk to strangers.

 

Little wonder that a tense fear predominates: The police attack last month on Addis Ababa University's largest campus, which

followed student boycotts, left 41 students and other protesters dead and 250 injured. About 2,500 were arrested.

 

After the attack, police officers rounded up protesters and went door to door -- even into churches -- looking for them. Those

arrested were held at a police college outside the city and at other locations. While many students have been released, others

remain detained under circumstances that human-rights activists say do not meet international judicial standards. As events have

unfolded, the government has squelched any reporting inside the country about what is going on. Police officers have whipped

journalists trying to cover government actions, and have arrested news vendors to keep them from selling publications reporting

on the crackdown.

 

Addis Ababa University, at the center of the political firestorm, was once regarded as one of the best colleges in East Africa.

Now, after years of ethnic and political conflict, it is one of the most poverty-stricken.

 

The story of the university's decline is also the tale of a country that has been in turmoil for decades.

 

Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Africa and one of the oldest in the world. Addis Ababa University's troubles began

under the regime of President Mengistu Haile Mariam, who reigned from 1977 to 1991. He terrorized and tortured those

whom he deemed his enemies and confiscated their property. The country's plight was aggravated by periodic droughts and

famines that put Ethiopia in the international limelight in the 1970's and 80's.

 

The brutal socialist regime of Mengistu, as he is known, considered Addis Ababa University the hub of dissent. Many lecturers

and students on the university's three campuses, kept under surveillance by police and undercover operatives, fled the

oppression to Europe, the United States, and Canada.

 

Contributing to the brain drain was a continuing war with the province of Eritrea, which started fighting for independence in the

1960's and won it in 1993.

 

As a result of the country's poverty and constant state of conflict, Ethiopia sends more immigrants to the United States than any

other sub-Saharan African country, according to the International Organization for Migration, a group that tries to reverse the

brain drain from developing countries. About 85 percent of the Ethiopian immigrants in the United States have a college

education, and they have resisted overtures by the migration organization to return to Ethiopia, says Y. Djamba, a program

officer with the group.

 

Today, almost two-thirds of Ethiopia's 64 million people are illiterate. According to a World Bank report, less than 0.5 percent

of the school-age population in Ethiopia has access to higher education. Even by sub-Saharan standards, such enrollments are

low, says Ruth Kagia, an African-development expert at the World Bank.

 

During the war with Eritrea, the Mengistu army was also fighting, on its own turf, against the rebel militia of the Tigrayan

People's Liberation Front and other armed opposition groups. The rebels finally formed a coalition and seized power in 1991.

Mengistu fled to exile in Zimbabwe.

 

But 10 years after seizing power from Mengistu's Marxist regime, Meles Zenawi, the prime minister and the chairman of the

ruling coalition, appears to have developed the same fear of intellectuals and an independent press that Mengistu had.

 

Mr. Zenawi, who has renewed the struggle with Eritrea, has purged Addis Ababa University of lecturers sympathetic to

opposition political parties. Mr. Zenawi's faction, the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front, is a strong, well-organized political

machine that controls the rest of the ruling coalition, and has made key appointments at the university. Even university

admissions are controlled by the Tigrayan elite, to the dismay of other ethnic groups. Recently, 42 professors and lecturers

were fired and replaced with what many at the university consider to be "home boys" of the prime minister -- acquaintances

from Tigray province. "Graduate scholarships are selectively given to candidates from Tigray while other communities are

discriminated against," says Gebre Keduss, a law student.

 

The government has maintained a strong police presence at the university and done its best to silence dissent. Regular police

officers guard the gates of the campuses and the entrances of student residences, while undercover agents posing as students

attend lectures and watch the libraries, says Mesfin Wolde Mariam, a lecturer at the university and an executive of the Ethiopian

Human Rights Council, a group that is independent of the government.

 

The chairman of the human-rights council, Andargachew Tesfaye, says Ethiopia is the only country in sub-Saharan Africa

where the government has set up a police station on a campus to control it. The government has also changed a library into a

detention center where arrested students are held overnight, says Hewohat Ehadey, a student leader at the Sadist Kilo campus,

in downtown Addis Ababa.

 

In February, the government banned the only union for students and expelled the union's leadership on charges of encouraging

violence at the university. In early April, Zewde Genet, the education minister, announced a new charter that ended student

participation in the university senate and on the committee that reviews disciplinary charges against students. The charter also

made the police presence on university campuses legal and permanent.

 

Protesting students demanded unconditional withdrawal of the charter and replacement of the police force with civilian security

officers who would answer to the university administration. Students also demanded an end to the union ban and the right to

start a politically independent newspaper. A military government banned the last student publication in 1974 and replaced it

with official propaganda leaflets that soon ceased publication because nobody read them, says Birhanu Nega, a lecturer at the

university.

 

Students' political frustrations are compounded by life in overcrowded classrooms and decaying buildings in a country that

desperately needs more educated professionals.

 

In 1991, the government began admitting more university students in an effort to remedy the neglect of higher education by the

Mengistu regime. The number of students at Addis Ababa University rose from less than 5,000 in 1990 to more than 19,000

last year, although no new facilities have been built. Many students lack textbooks, and even notebooks. "We heavily rely on

copying our notes on the blackboards," says Taddesse Melesse, who teaches sociology at Addis Ababa.

 

The flight from the university of most of the academic talent means that almost 70 percent of the 850 faculty members have no

graduate-level training. A member of the Society of Friends of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, a support organization for

Ethiopian higher education, who requested anonymity, says ethnic politics has polarized teaching at Addis Ababa University to

an extent that it has lost its original mission of charting the country's development strategy. The common feeling is that "this is the

time for Tigrayans to eat."

 

After the education minister announced the new charter, all of the university's 19,000 students boycotted classes, although they

continued to live in the dormitories. Students say the police tried to lure them into the streets by sending in plainclothes officers

disguised as opposition activists. "The men told us that they were emissaries of opposition leaders who wanted us to hold

demonstrations outside the campus in order to discredit the government," says Shimeles Aliyeasu, a pharmacy student.

 

Elias Awoke, editor of The Sun, a private English-language newspaper in Addis Ababa, says the police wanted an excuse to

crush the student protest, and an off-campus demonstration would have created such a pretext. But students identified one of

the undercover policemen, and shouted an alarm; the men hurriedly departed.

 

By refusing to leave the campus, Mr. Awoke says, the students deprived the police of any justification for an attack. Eventually,

frustrated by their failed provocations, heavily armed riot-police units stormed the Sadist Kilo campus and brutally assaulted

unarmed students on April 11, in the first of two attacks, says Mr. Awoke. Forty students suffered serious injuries, and one

female student later died at Black Lion Hospital.

 

Her fellow students attributed the death to police beatings.

 

After the assault, Ms. Genet, the education minister, issued an ultimatum to students to end their protest and resume classes by

midday on April 18. Instead, hundreds of students from elementary schools, secondary schools, and the Kotebe Teachers

Education College also boycotted classes, and some of them joined university students in street protests.

 

Later in the day, unemployed youths who were not students apparently joined in the unrest, and the protests turned chaotic.

Businesses were looted and barricades were erected on the streets. Several government cars and buses were set ablaze, and

the central business district was littered with broken glass from shattered storefront windows. The riot police joined the regular

police in attacking the demonstrators.

 

By the end of the day, 41 people, most of them students, had been shot or beaten to death.

 

Defending the shootings, a government spokesman, Ato Yemane Kidane, says jobless men and gangsters had taken advantage

of student demonstrations and started "an orgy of theft and destruction." He says the government's response was not

oppression but a crackdown on criminal elements. The government also accused the opposition of fomenting the crisis and

detained the leadership of the two leading opposition groups.

 

The arrested students are being held at Sendafa Police College, 28 miles outside the capital, and at police stations in the city,

although 1,300 have been set free. "The students will be released step by step," says Mr. Kidane, "but suspected criminals will

be taken to court, and the guilty will be sentenced and taught a lesson."

 

The Federal Police Crime Prevention Department, the formal name for the riot police, links the current student unrest to the

Ethiopian Human Rights Council, whose officers are lecturers at Addis Ababa University. A police spokesman says some

members of the council were trying to incite students to anarchy. The council "has not condemned the illegal actions of the

demonstrators and looters during the disturbances," says the spokesman.

 

But the human-rights council terms the police accusations "a fabrication of facts." In a statement distributed to reporters entitled

"An Appalling and Dangerous Violation of the Rights of Students," the council says it only taught the students their academic

rights.

 

During the last few weeks, the government has also harassed journalists and news vendors. At the disturbances, the police

attacked journalists with whips made out of old tires and confiscated photographers' cameras. The government later arrested

more than 700 vendors caught selling independent newspapers with articles about the police attacks. "We were arrested after

the bloody clash and warned not to sell newspapers that carried negative stories on the government," says Yacob Mamo, who

sells newspapers and magazines near the Addis Ababa Hilton. Ethiopia has only one television station, owned and run by the

government, and it has taken the government line on the protests.

 

Shortly after the latest disturbance, government-owned printing presses began rejecting materials submitted for publication if

they contained reports on the unrest. Independent newspapers must use government presses because there are no private

printing houses in Addis Ababa. Even if there were such facilities, the officials would have closed them down by now, says

Kibru Kifle, deputy editor of The Sun.

 

During the crisis, the government has admitted that overcrowding, poor teaching, and impoverished research may have

embittered students. "We know the students have genuine grievances, and this is the reason why we have agreed to negotiate

with them when they resume classes," says Ms. Genet.

 

Students are continuing to press for the withdrawal of the charter and the removal of police officers from the university before

they will return to classes. The government has promised tentatively to remove the police by August.

 

Last week, the police arrested Mr. Mariam, the lecturer belonging to the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, and Mr. Nega, a

colleague at the university, and took them to Makalawi Central State Prison. Police officers detained Mr. Mariam in a cafe near

his home and picked up Mr. Nega at his university office.

 

The government is accusing the lecturers of inciting violence at a university seminar. The lecturers deny the charge. "The issues

we talked about are enshrined in the country's Constitution, and there is nothing violent in quoting the Constitution," said the

lecturers in a statement released by the council.

 

In downtown Addis Ababa, police officers surround the Ministry of Education headquarters, whose windows were smashed

during the violence. On Addis Ababa University's campuses, policemen are more in evidence than students. And with fresh

memories of beatings and shootings, few students are hurrying to put themselves in the line of fire again.

 

Copyright 2001 by The Chronicle of Higher Education