Ethiopian universities have infringed on human rights during the Tigray war

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The principles of academic freedom have been violated amid the civil war and universities have contributed to wartime abuses in a variety of ways. 

The violations of academic freedom in Ethiopia since November 2020 go well beyond misguided opinions expressed by universities or professors. They involve universities moving away from their core values, while being implicated in the war and targeting of Tigrayans.

The shelling and bombing of campuses are only the most immediate effects of the war on institutions of higher education. There have also been attempts to cover-up human rights abuses by Ethiopian universities.

Beyond this, institutions of higher education in Ethiopia failed to adequately respond to the murder and arrest of Tigrayan students and academics on their campuses, provided intellectual justifications and funding to the government’s war effort, and failed to punish university staff who have propagated hate speech.

In documenting such actions, this article relies on information received through networks at Ethiopian universities, from the universities’ own announcements on their Facebook pages, and from news publications that were gathered in a database.

Hate speech

While academic freedom and freedom of expression are values of the greatest importance, universities must, at the same time, prohibit academics from committing crimes like spreading hate speech, inciting violence, or making death threats.

Yet, Ethiopian universities and their staff have spread hate speech targeting Tigrayans prior to and during the Tigray war. Some of the most notable people preaching hate on campus include Muktarovich Ousmanova of Jigjiga University and Taye Bogale of Addis Ababa University (AAU).

There is also Seyoum Teshome who, while he was employed by Ambo University, wrote that his Tigrayan colleague “should be shot in the head just like they did to Seyoum Mesfin and the likes,” referring to the execution of the former Ethiopian minister of foreign affairs. On another occasion, he directed hate speech during an hour-long tirade against the then president of Mekelle University, Professor Fetien Abay.

Universities also revoked academic degrees or threatened to do so, in an effort to silence colleagues with opinions that are different from the Ethiopian government.

Most notably, AAU threatened to revoke academic degrees from anybody they perceived as supporting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Gondar University also revoked the honorary doctorate of Dr. Eleni Gabremedhin because she spoke out about the war.

Campus abuses

Ethnically-motivated murders, particularly of Tigrayans, are often committed with either active or tacit involvement of institutions of higher education.

At Debre Markos University, in Amhara region, Seare Abraha, a third-year economics student, was stoned to death on 27 May 2019. The university management took no measures against students participating in the mob violence.

Two Wollo University academics of Tigrayan descent, Birhanu Gidey and Haile Habenom, were killed on 22 October 2021 by a mob of Amhara extremists, in which some university staff participated. Again, there was no condemnation from the university. Prior to that, lists of staff of Tigrayan descent had been extracted from the university’s personnel register and circulated on social media.

At Bahir Dar University (BDU), Meareg Amare, a highly respected professor, was murdered in front of his house in Bahir Dar on 3 November 2021. Before the killing, there was a hate campaign on a Facebook account called BDU Staff directed at the professor.

Meareg’s family has accused Fano militias loyal to the government and Amhara special forces, as well as BDU, of being responsible for his murder. The university never condemned the murder or even offered its condolences. Other Tigrayan staff at BDU were fired and expelled from their residence on campus.

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Moreover, numerous academics have been sent to concentration camps, with examples known from Bahir Dar, Addis Ababa, Arba Minch, Debre Tabor, Haramaya, and Wolkite universities.

The university management often cooperated by sending campus guards to guide the police or military to the houses of the Tigrayan staff who were then put in these prison camps. In many cases, after people were taken to prison camps, their car or household items were stolen from campus residences, without any reaction from the university.

Haramaya University, where many of the professors are Oromos, is described as a relatively safe place for staff and students of Tigrayan origin. Tigrayan lecturers taken into custody were set free after intervention of the management, which saved them from ending up in concentration camps.

Material support

On 21 September 2022, the federal Ministry of Education proudly announced that the ministry and Ethiopia’s public universities had donated 211 million Birr to the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF).

The overt budget transfer from the educational sector to the military leaves budget gaps that would likely then be covered with funds from international donors and project funds.

Individual Ethiopian universities themselves have also provided direct support, not only in their discourse but even materially, to the Ethiopian army and its allies who are implicated in gross violations of human rights in Tigray.

Accompanied by open public announcements, most universities have transferred part of their budget to the federal armed forces. For instance, AAU donated 60 million birr to the ENDF and the University of Gondar 50 million. In another example, AAU’s president, Tassew Woldehanna, publicly announced the hand-over of university vehicles to the army.

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Universities’ sports academies, particularly in Amhara region, organized staff military training in order to send them to the war front. For instance, the BDU president was displayed on the university’s Facebook page while chairing the graduation ceremony of its administrative and academic staff for such training courses.

In one final example, universities in Amhara are clearly supporting the illegal modification of internal borders in the country. The presidents of these universities even went on an organized visit to support the Amhara militias in the occupied Western Tigray.

There is no evidence that, while visiting Humera in Western Tigray, they inquired about the dire human rights infringements in that town. To the contrary, the University of Gondar has been accused of disposing and covering up evidence of the massacres that happened in Western Tigray.

Silent ministry

The Ethiopian Ministry of Science and Higher Education (MOSHE) committed its own infringements and was fully complicit with the infringements by the universities.

The bank accounts of the four universities in the Tigray Region—Mekelle, Raya, Axum, and Adigrat—have been closed and their budget was not released. Staff salaries have not been paid since June 2021.

Tigrayan students who finished their academic year or graduated from various universities had to leave their campuses despite clear signals that they were going to face real danger from military and paramilitary groups after leaving, as they could not travel home to Tigray.

Staff members of the four universities in Tigray who travelled to Addis Abeba looking for a safe place or others who remained there incidentally faced detention in police stations. Others are presently in concentration camps or have gone into hiding.

MOSHE never denounced the human rights abuses committed against those professors who are targeted based on their ethnicity. When Mekelle University’s Adi Haki campus was hit by an airstrike on 13 September 2022, the Ministry again remained silent.

International complicity

These are just some examples from what is reported in the database about the conduct of Ethiopian public universities during the Tigray war.

It should be noted that—while destruction of campuses by warring forces also occurred in Amhara region—we did not come across any media article or communication regarding involvement of the four universities in Tigray in violating human rights or academic freedom, or any reports of people being killed on campus there because of their ethnicity.

Rather, university workers and students at the four universities in Tigray have been subjected to detentions, extrajudicial killings, and starvation during the last two years.

As this evidence shows, human rights abuses have been widespread at Ethiopian universities and academic freedom has been significantly restricted during the war.

Some people could argue that the universities have been forced to undertake all these human rights infringements against their own will. Of course, this is not what we understand from their public communications.

Regardless, individuals must take responsibility for their own actions. Yet not a single Ethiopian university administrator has left their position due to disagreement with the human rights infringements on their campuses.

In contrast, Filsan Abdi resigned from her position as a minister in the Ethiopian government over the cover up of war crimes against women and girls in Tigray. Nothing prevents the university leaders from acting in the same way.

Embassies and international universities’ foreign departments are also culpable. They must explain to taxpayers why the Development Cooperation sector financially supports Ethiopian universities while these universities transfer money to the army.

International academic cooperation should not look past the dire human rights situation at Ethiopian universities.

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This is the authors’ viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Main photo: Ministry of Education office; Addis Abeba, Ethiopia; Ministry of Education Ethiopia Twitter; 9 September 2020

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Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished.

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