Ethiopia’s Educated Suffer Government Repression Says Human Rights Watch

Ethiopia’s Educated Suffer Government Repression Says Human Rights Watch

Addis Tribune- January 24, 2003

The Ethiopian government is muzzling educators and students with a policy of harsh repression that includes extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and widespread denials of freedom of opinion and association, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

As an important strategic ally in the U.S.-led war on terror because of its position in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia has escaped international censure for many of these violations.

“Ethiopia’s security forces have targeted students and teachers because they are among the most politically active elements of Ethiopian society,” said Saman Zia-Zarifi, academic freedom director for Human Rights Watch. “Ethiopia is on the brink of another famine, and it needs educated people to lead the country out of this disaster.”

The 52-page report, “Lessons in Repression: Violations of Academic Freedom in Ethiopia,” documents an ongoing pattern of impunity among federal and state security forces accused of using excessive lethal force to disperse protests by unarmed high school students and other civilians. For example, five high school students were killed protesting economic conditions in Oromia state last year and hundreds of students, teachers, and other intellectuals arbitrarily arrested. The state government claimed it could not afford to use non-lethal means of crowd control like teargas or water cannons, and threatened to continue to shoot students if they continued protesting.

“There is no excuse for shooting unarmed students or civilians exercising their rights,” Zia-Zarifi said. “The United States and the United Kingdom should question the value of allying with a government that is so callous in dealing with its own citizens.”

In April 2001, students at the capital’s Addis Ababa University (AAU) went on strike to demand academic freedom, including the right of the student union to meet and publish a newspaper. Federal Special Forces quelled their demonstrations with excessive force—storming the campus, killing more than forty, and arresting thousands. The government admitted wrongdoing but has not prosecuted those responsible.

Today, a climate of self-censorship reigns at AAU, as on other campuses. Having been forced to drop their demands for academic freedom, AAU students went back to school a year after the strike. Professors say they curb independent political speech  activity because they are government employees who can be fired at will.

The government has imposed a system of evaluations known as “gimgema,” which may be used to pressure academics to tout the ruling party’s ideology. Some of the university’s most distinguished professors resigned last month in protest at the gimgema system.

The government has also continuously harassed the independent Ethiopian Teacher’s Association (ETA) over the past decade, arresting the union’s leaders and some of its members, confiscating its assets and property, and threatening teachers who support the union. Teachers, who represent the largest educated population in the country, have been critical of education policy and other government policies.

The government has used similar tactics to repress civil society groups including the Ethiopian Human Rights Council and journalists in recent years. Taken together, these actions create an environment strongly hostile to independent thought.