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Ethiopian universities have infringed on human rights during the Tigray war

Ministry of Education office; Addis Abeba, Ethiopia; by Ministry of Education; 9 September 2020
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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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About the author

Teklehaymanot G.Weldemichel

About the author

Emnet Negash

Emnet Negash is a PhD candidate at Ghent University (Belgium) and Assistant Professor at Mekelle University (Ethiopia). His research interest include climate, hydrology, farming, RS and GIS.

About the author

Gebrekirstos Gebremeskel

Gebrekirstos is an Amsterdam-based researcher who runs mermru.com, a website dedicated to developing NLP resources for Ethiopian languages. He is interested in science communication, the history of ideas and the politics of the Horn. He manages tghat.com, which is dedicated to chronicling the war on Tigray. Follow him on Twitter @GebrekirstosG

About the author

Amare Teklay

About the author

Jan Nyssen

Jan is a professor of physical geography at Ghent University in Belgium. He has carried out research in Ethiopia since 1994.

13 Comments

  • I see a political game in this article. Blaming the one and blessing the other. That is how the TPLF politics has been operating for 27 years. The article has repeated the legacy. The rout cause of the war and all the messes is TPLF. I am not her to defend the mistakes of the then government. They have done a lot.

    If we truely demand real change in Ethiopia, we need to see case from different angels so that the elites can learn and correct their actions. Politians are propogandists. If acadamicians do the same. There is No gain for the country.

  • Sad and heartbreaking anecdotes but then again we are talking about Africa and especially Ethiopia. It how Ethiopians and Africas in general treat and behave towards their own fellow africans and especially it is true for the so-called Ethiopian higher education institutions and its intellectuals, who are bedeviled by pity tribalism, ethnic revalry , intellectual dishonesty / mediocrity and intolerance . When it comes to the defence of human rights abuses and other oppressive policies of a given autocratic regimes, they would gang up against victim citizens with little reflection or moral conscience in the pretext of hallowed and hypocritic patriotism, but not the reverse . This reminds me of story told my former professor. He was student at Haramayo Agriculture college in 1977 in height of the war between Ethiopian regime and Somali rebels in the Sonali region. Then the governor of Harar and the college Dean called one morning for public meeting in the compus about the situation and when asked the governor about the rights of Sonali ethnic civilian for killings, disappearances torturing, , ethnic cleaning and other human rights abuses in region at the hands of the regime and vigilante groups ,the chaivenist official contemptuously and insultingly said ከዚንጆሮ የቱ፧ or which monkey from which ? They are all monkeys and criminals and they deserve everthing and anything.. Futhermore, I won’t trust readily the motives and whatever the all-knowing. foreign expatriates wrote about political inner-working of Abyssinia state. To be honest, I suspect they are advancing their own careers and monetary gains. Whatever they spout about Ethiopia or elsewhere in Africa has little relevance. Few exceptions were Riszard Kipuschiski, Richard Greenfield et al. The Emperial regime of Haile Selassie era used to employ extensively such tactics for ignorance reasons , foreign image promotion anf PR techniques. Remember what generations of Pankhurst brood had scribbled for what it is worth and fictions spread about Ethiopia and the so-called nobel feudal ethnic Amhara group and their sidekicks? The Derg regime was not much into it but the subsequent Woyane regime pick up the trend and employed the tired tricks and old tactics. Sad but it is true .

  • Sad and heartbreak anecdotes but then again we are talking about Africa. It how Ethiopians and Africas in general treat and behave towards their fellow africans and especially true to the so-called Ethiopian higher education institutions and its intellectuals who are bedeviled by pity tribalism, ethnic revalry , intellectual dishonesty / mediocrity and intolerance . When it come tio the defence of human rights Abu see as and other oppressive policies of a given autocratic regimes, they would gang up against victim citizens with little reflection or moral conscience in the pretext of hallowed and hypocrit patriotism, not the reverse . This reminds me of story told my former professor. He was student at Haramayo Agriculture college in 1977 when the war between Ethiopian regime and Somali rebels broke out in the Sonali region. Then the governor of Harar and the college Dean called one morning for public meeting in the compus and when asked the governor about the rights of Sonali ethnic civilian for killings, torturing, , ethnic cleaning and other human rights abuses in region at the hands of the regime and vigilante groups ,
    the chaivenist dude contemptuously and insultingly said ከዚንጆሮ የቱ፧ or which money from which ? They are all moneys and criminals and they deserve everthing and anything.. Futhermore, I won’t trust readily the motives and whatever the all-knowing. foreign expatriates about political inner-working of Abyssinia state. To be honest, I suspect they are advancing their own careers and monetary gains. Whatever they spout about Ethiopia or elsewhere in Africa has little relevance. Few exceptions were Riszard Kipuschiski, Richard Greenfield et al. The Emperial regime of Haile Selassie era used to employ extensively such tactics for ignorance easons , foreign image promotion anf PR techniques. Remember what generations of Pankhurst brood had scribbled for ws hat is worth and fictions spread about Ethiopia and the so-called nobel feudal ethnic Amhara group and their sidekicks? The Derg regime was not mich to it but the subsequent Woyane regime pick up the trend and employed the tired tricks and old tactics. Sad but it is true .

  • The one sidedness of this so called “researched” article is shameful. The authors of this article completely ignored to mansion TPLF is designated by the Ethiopian parliament as a “Terrorist group”. So, TPLF was never a legitimate political force but an enemy to the Ethiopian people, and a threat not only to a ruling party, but also to the existence of Ethiopia. Although I condom any arbitrary arrest or extra judiciary killings, people who collaborated or give material or morel support to a “TERRORIST ORGANIZATION”(TPLF), should brought to justice.

    As a general principle, universities should not take side during a political discourse. However, TPLF is not a political entity, rather a thuggish organization. Therefore, I don’t think Ethiopian universities should be condemned for supporting the legitimate cause of Ethiopian people and respect the rule of law.( how can anyone condemn Ukrainian universities for supporting the war against Russian invasion?!)

    It is appalling to cite the revoking of Eleni Gabredhin’s honorary doctorate by university of Gondar as silencing political dissent. Universities revoke honorary digress when the recipient violates their core values and principles. And that was Eleni Gabremedhin did- OPENLY NOT ONLY PLOTTING AND DISCUSSING HOW TO OVERTHROW A DEMOCRATICALLY ELECTED GOVERNMENT, BUT ALSO HOW TO INSTALL A TERRORIST ORGANIZATION (TPLF) AS A LEGITIMATE GOVERNMENT. Even in a social democratic countries where you live and work have laws against insurrectionists- aiding and abetting a terrorist organization is a criminal offence.

    I equivocally condemn inciting violence by any academics! I also equally condemn your misinformation and half-truth!!
    Adding the name of a white European academic to your article to disingenuous it as a legitimately researched article is, at best disingenuous, and at worst slimy!

  • Each of you seem to possess valuable academic training which is in demand in our country, and if you’re genuinely concerned about the situation in Ethiopia, Emnet specially, you should go and make your contribution. That should be your priority. I can’t say the same about the rest of you.

    Anyways, what is the point of this article now, after the Ethiopian people and federal government painfully chose peace over war, prosperity over poverty, and signed a peace agreement with tplf who ruled Ethiopia with an iron fist, 1991- 2018? Why do you chose to look backward instead of forward? Is gjis the work of the work of the Belgian professor,? If anyone of you dare, go and see the destruction left by tplf on schools, clinics, hospitals, health centers and blood banks, and farms (I’m sure you’re aware of these damages on the poor people of Ethiopia). The pile of corpses of the brutally massacred non-tigrays in Mai-Kadra, Afar, Ataye by tplf. How about the ‘Lightening speed attack’ on ENDF on Nov 4, 2020 which Sekuturea Getachew bragged about…should I go on? Are you not ashamed of being food aid recipient, instead of becoming self-sufficient in agriculture (Emnet)? How much bloodshed, death and destruction should continue when the rest of the world is on race to top? We may not get there, but we can at least try to feed ourselves.
    Anyways, please disassociate yourself from individuals like the Belgian professor; be smart. We don’t need a Belgian or individuals or organizations from other nationalities to meddle in our internal affairs. He is not good.

    Merry Christmas.

    • Similar to the government-affiliated media outlets nationwide, you are full of lies, trying to justify war this way.

      The writers conducted excellent research and quantified the violations of Tigrayan intellectuals’ human rights committed by Ethiopian universities. I don’t see anything wrong with their conclusions; in fact, they completely overlooked the situation and only covered a small portion of the entire Tigrayan story. I am a direct victim in this situation. This information is merely a scrape from the ocean.

      Please, Melaku, show a little humanity toward individuals who are unable to feed themselves and who are perishing every day due to a lack of medicine as a result of the government’s total siege in Ethiopia.

  • TPLF is the one to be blamed for all atrocities commited in Tigray,Amhara and Afar because they started the war.The writers did not mention about Axum University student who was killed because he was from Amhara.

  • African are dying and in bloody civil war since western colonizers involved in African affairs this includes economic , social , political and so on. Today they have arranged a new narrative plat form so called “expertise of African affairs ” shameful !

  • Endless shame by all Institutions and religious groups no one is innocent, entire Ethiopia assisted with great pleasure in the Tigray genocide.

    • Many of the issues raised in the article could be true, but it is not balanced. The other violations of humanity have been committed on non-Tigre students by TPLF government during the war and ever since they captured state power.

      • If Obsaa knows of any attacks on non Tigrayans in Tigrayan universitues, he is welcome to publish that data. Until then, the information published here is well sourced.

        And Melaku clearly has followed only Amhara and Ethiopian media for the last 3 years. I expect he believes there is genocide against Amhara going on in Oromia too. Wonder how they found about Ethiopia Insight?

        • Davey McCracjett, Don’t care about citizens , becouse he and his friends were the one who worked hard somali to be a lawless states. He enjoy life in Europe while his family suffering in somalia

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