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The Bastions of Academia Stormed: Politicization of Higher Education in Ethiopia.

Yohannes Aberra, PhD 12-9-19

Based on the invitation of Gondar University I travelled to Gondar City to teach a group of PhD students. As soon as I arrived at the airport I was alarmed by the news, from the driver assigned to pick me up from the airport, that building was burning in the University’s main campus. When I entered the campus the next morning the gate was strongly manned by regional troops and it was not easy to enter. Inside, the University campus  looks more like a garrison than an institute of higher education. A week later, as I was entering the campus I noticed heavy troop movement around the gate and knew that something bad must have happened over night. Two students were stabbed in their dormitories and the entire next day was tense. No one was allowed to enter or leave the campus until lunch time. Although I finished my job earlier I was unable to go to my hotel. I was forced to wait at the canteen for two hours.

By now it is well known to the Ethiopia public that what I experienced in the University of Gondar is comparatively a milder case. In the rest of the Universities in Ethiopia political tension and the politically-motivated murder of students has become a norm rather than an exception. A nation does not fail in the palace, a nation does not fail in its army, a nation fails in its higher education institutions. It was only in the past that the survival and success of nations depended on the strength of kings and their armies. In our modern times the foundation of all nations is almost invariably the political impartiality which in principle characterizes higher education systems.

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The higher education system is going down pulling Ethiopia along with it. When the entirety of highly educated current and potential human resource, located in the universities, is fully engaged in political squabbles in a background of utterly failing quality of education,  what kind of a human resource is going to come out that can drive the Country into a future of sustainable development? One of the parameters of the quality of education is the time students devote to work on a course. What matters most is not the semesters end and the course as well (through make ups or skipping contents and vital activities for the sake of making the exams on time). Students are finishing their studies without grasping even the most basic theoretical content of the courses let alone the required skills. To acquire this students need peace and tranquility in campus: an academic atmosphere. The science of physiology tells us that the human brain does not engage in analysis, synthesis and creativity when the adrenalin is very active. Because of the constant fear of violence students are always in the fight or flight mood. The worst part of this is that none of them know when, in the 24 hours of the day, the violence flares. They are on the edge of their nerves all day and night. They read but they don’t capture; they attend classes but they don’t listen. They check their face books for events in other universities as by now there is an almost predictable tendency that any violent event in some university will be repeated by other universities the next morning.

The last Monarch of Ethiopia Haile Selassie, other political or social problems that he had notwithstanding, was the best when it came to higher education. The only university in Ethiopia-HSIU- only bore his name; it was not his instrument to retain his power. He recognized the academic independence of the university. In spite of the severe opposition to his rule that was brewing in the University, he did not try to create his own student union to counter the existing student union. He had banned the union and restored it a year later. Whenever there is student rally against him in campuses sending police or troops was only the last resort after consultation with the university president. If the president says I can handle it with campus guards, that is final! Other than occasional spies and individual supporters of the King there was no monarchial political network in the university.

Although the university hosted students from all over Ethiopia, ethnic tensions between students was rare to accidental. In the absence of the educational technology that the current generation enjoys (computers, LCD projectors, internet, etc.) the teaching and learning atmosphere was most convenient for students to grasp the contents and skills as adequately as required. Some say the quality of education was higher in the old days than it is now. The mystery is not that students were naturally better performers than now; it was not teachers were better teachers than they are now; it was not that facilities were much better than they are now but it is the academic atmosphere that prevailed in campuses that did the magic. Except for occasional political rallies and a day or two closures the academic activities were performed with full vigor and rigor maintaining an international standard. Even the “revos”, who had become devoted to opposition politics in campus, were only active on occasions which were much less frequent than academic activities. Student political activism enjoyed unanimity as it was against the existing feudal system. Although it was a class struggle which crossed ethnic divides the sons and daughters of the nobility were on the side, even leading the student movement against the Monarchy. That was why inter-student violence was rare to non-existent.

The balance between campus political  activism and academic life was wrecked soon after the February 1974 mass uprising. HSIU student movement was divided into two: one group wanted to keep politics in studentship, and another group fought to keep studentship in politics. The first group wanted to participate in the new uprising as students (activism while attending classes properly) . the opposite group felt that it was time for “fannoTesemara” to be realized and students have to abandon their education and move out to the rural areas and lead the people. The second group defeated the second group by unconventional means  such as disturbing the normal conduct of classes and reading in the libraries. The university was closed soon after and students were simply out and about, chased by police in the home regions they returned to; none of them became “fannos”.

The new Military regime used the “fannoism” to advance its own power ambitions without interference from the student movement, which was no more! Arguably, the death of higher education started here, when students turned fulltime politicians! The Military regime prolonged the freedom it enjoyed from the absence of higher education, to further consolidate its power, by launching the notorious “knowledge and work campaign”. The campaign involved all universities and college students and grade 10 to 12 high school students. For over two years higher education in Ethiopia froze leaving a backlog of two to three batches of universities and college entrants.

When higher education was reopened in the late  1970s, it was very clear that the old heavily academic days were over. Initially, the Universities,  the colleges and the feeder high schools were filled with students and teachers who were EPRP and MEISON cadres, members, and supporters turning the educational institutions into arenas of political infighting. Spying and counter spying, mutual accusations, fear and instability prevailed which rendered the main goal (education) secondary and even tertiary. Wrecking the educational system was considered or inadvertently made to be an effective weapon against the Establishment. To counter this, officials and cadres of the Military regime were making frequent visits to the secondary schools, and more into higher education institutions and intimidating students and teachers who they thought were against the Regime. Not knowing exactly who was for them and against them, the panicky cadres resorted to jailing, torturing, and killing by selecting randomly or those whose eye colors they did not like. A dark specter of terror haunted higher education institutions. No one can dare to imagine that education and training, compatible for the Country’s development, was being run normally in the higher education institutions. The quality of higher education was dying quietly under the shadow of political turmoil in the institutions. The decline of the quality of higher education was accelerating due to the cumulative effect that started soon after the February 1974 uprising. Every passing day added fuel not water to the fire.

Matters in higher education got from bad to worse when the Military regime intervened into the academic curriculum standards and reduced the years for the first degree to three. Since the decision came as a decree not as a suggestion, the academic communities of higher education were dismayed but implemented it regardless. Course contents were rushed or skipped to meet the strict academic calendars for exams and registrations. Course offers became so chaotic that few were thinking about the long term impacts on the Country’s human resource development needs. The “experimental batches” of the three-year degree were not more than two to three. The entire policy was reversed and the four-yeardegree was reinstated. In departments some were three- years the rest were four-year until the last batch of three-year graduated. The three-year batches had hard time getting into graduate school as their years in university were considered insufficient by the same politicians who introduced the three-year programme.

Having offices, in university campuses, of the ruling party, to fully regulate the activities of the universities over and above the university academic administration was started during these chaotic years of the Military Regime. In every campus there was a WPE office manned by an academic. The “political embassies” in campuses had inviolable rights to interfere in academic and administrative matters in the universities. They also had student and staff recruits who prevailed over the other students and teachers, threatening of firing and jailing for alleged or real dissidence. Academic staff recruitment required 25% points from the university youth association, which was sponsored by the Military regime. Those high GPA graduates with some records of dissidence or were under suspicion from the political representatives in campuses were unable to be hired as graduate assistants (preliminary level of academic staff). Five or more of the 42 teachers who were fired from Addis Ababa University in the early 1990s were hired as teachers not because they excelled in their CGPAs but because they were members of the political circle. The approval high above in the university administration for the hiring becomes smooth or rough depending on the political background of the recruited. At least the presidents are expected to be is WPE members. There was a case that Dr. Duri Mohammed had to abdicate his position as president of AAU because he refused to be a member of WPE. He came back to presidency during EPRDF. 

After the downfall of the military regime the hiring of the underperforming graduates as academic staff continued up to the present shifting its criteria to ethnic and regional affiliations. The concept of the genuine  “seqay” went down into the history of obscurity. The new false “seqay” is a managed one by the network of academic staff who tend to dominate certain departments and their system of staff recruitment. There is no question that the politically induced hiring of poor quality staff has replaced the in-campus instability and fear as a cause of deteriorating academic atmosphere. The advent of the EPRDF aggravated the politicization of the bastions of academia much more than the regime before it did. Political manipulation of higher education during the EPRDF took several forms including opening liaison offices of each party of the EPRDF coalition in all campuses, interfering in the functioning of the academic administration and even in the teaching and learning process through the liaison offices, which includes student grades, staff recruitments, spying and harassment related to student and staff political affiliations with the opposition, etc. While iron hard control is imposed on the running of universities from inside corruption and rent-seeking were/are tolerated and seemingly encouraged. Prospective graduates who come under pressure to conform are recruited as members of the in campus EPRDF branches with the hope acquiring letters of recommendations for easier job opportunities. Hence, at least in higher education, EPRDF was not growing but swelling as its membership was recruited with benefit motives. The EPRDF coalition, like Japanese Kamikaze pilots, killed higher education and killed itself in the process.  

The coincidence is intentional and planned. The EPRDF made sure that those who come to the top levels of the academic administration are party members and/ or cadres or even members of CCs of parties of the EPRDF coalition. The same people are engaged in corruption and rent seeking and are tolerated. None of the academic administrators engaged in corruption have the guts to correct or penalize another like them for bad performance in the administration of the academic institutions. It looks like no one’s concern when a lot of the academic life is going very badly wrong. This creates a conducive unregulated atmosphere for opportunistic self serving individuals who want to take their share of the booty. As the staff and students complain about the maladministration and neglect it becomes like a hopeless scene of “as the dogs bark, the camels keep on walking”. When things go visibility wrong and politically costly crisis brews it is the powerless stratum of the administrative hierarchy which is bombarded by the abrasive “gimgema”. The higher officials, with higher record of corruption and maladministration go stark free to continue the corruption at a much higher level with a new “permit” (throwing the blame to down below).

The big higher education political fish also enjoy promotions in the academic ranks using their administrative positions for exerting pressure and/ or mutuality in corruption on the various levels of promotion processing. Some even have become full professors after working as presidents in small or infant universities which were recently opened. The presidents that undeservedly turnedfull professors could have becomes gods if they prefer to be so let alone professors. After they attain full professorship in the “rural universities” they return to their mother universities to claim their share of the benefits in the bigger universities. The staff and administrative set up of the infant universities is incapable or unwilling to challenge these opportunists or speculators. As most of the new universities are or are made to be, by and large, ethnically homogenous the university leadership is most likely to be a native of the locality in which the university is located. Promotions and other privileges are reserved for “brothers and sisters” native to the areas.

During the EPRDF period the politicization of higher education is not restricted only to the EPRDF political activities. Opposition parties also have even more significantly altered the academic landscape in higher education using academic freedom as an effective camouflage. Unitary as well as ethnic-based parties were engaged in complex and multi directional battle against each other and against EPRDF wrecking havoc to the badly required harmony and smooth flow of the processes of academic life. Inter-party or political group crisscrossing fights have engulfed the key academic events and processes that determine the quality of higher education: thesis advising, thesis examination, and others.

In the last two years, when the politicization of higher education went from a regulated process of EPRDF control into unregulated and chaotic the same, universities turned from academic institutions into virtual war zones. Although there are “elected” university leaders, a deceptive way of retaining the status quo, the university leaders are unable to understand what is really going on in their respective universities. Although EPRDF’s political control was bad to the teaching and learning process, the political no-control brought about by the “long awaited change” has made it worse if not the worst. Now higher education in Ethiopia is almost collapsing as the daily routine of universities has become dealing with the symptoms rather than with the causes. In universities it has become a normal scene to see fully armed soldiers mixing with students everywhere in the campuses. The prime minister threatens to close universities. This is an unwise move because the solution to the problems of higher education is not killing it. It is like killing a patient when the treatment becomes increasing complex. The politicization of higher education and its adverse outcomes are cumulativeeffects selfish political decisions which downplayed the importance of the independence of higher education from the political sphere.

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