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Ethiopia is one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse countries in the world. Ethnic-related issues have been a constant, prevalent issue of Ethiopian society. Cognizant of this, the current regime introduced an ethnic-based federal system to accommodate diversity and to improve equality among the different ethnic groups. Consequently, ethnicity became the basis for political and administrative organization. In the last three decades, the ethnic-based federal system and its embedded political strategy reinforced ethno-national sentiments and deepened divisions along ethnic lines. It is becoming more and more evident that many people’s first allegiance is to their ethnic group, rather than their country.

Universities are a microcosm of the country where students from diverse ethnic, social and cultural backgrounds come together to live and study. Historically Ethiopian university students have participated in and contributed to political and social change of the country. They are often known to have voiced questions and concerns of the broader society, even in the face of repressive government measures. However, these days, instead of becoming a strong force to address major societal problems and contributing to peace and national unity, university students are aggravating the politicization of ethnicity. They have been vulnerable to ethnic extremism and becoming instruments for various political agendas, even at the expense of the lives of their classmates.

Although tension and conflict are not new to Ethiopian public universities, it was not to the extent being witnessed in recent years. Ethnic tensions and violence have become so prevalent that many parents are becoming hesitant (or unwilling) to send their children to universities located in states where their ethnic group is not the majority. Consequently, although the tuition at public universities is insignificant compared to the tuition at private universities, some parents prefer to send their children to private universities to avoid the danger in public universities.

In recent years, public universities have seen escalating ethnic tensions resulting in damage to property, interruption of the teaching-learning process and, sadly, risk to a student’s life. During 2018-19, campuses were temporarily closed, many students left universities and some students were killed. Since September 2019, two students in one public university have been killed, setting off a series of conflicts and widespread tension across public universities. Within weeks, at least five students at four public universities were reportedly killed by fellow students due to ethnic conflict. Clashes ensued; classes have been interrupted; students who belong to minority groups in the region where their university is located barricaded themselves in classrooms and auditoriums out of fear. Some sought refuge in churches, mosques and among residents in local communities, and some managed to go home. Photos of students fleeing their universities appeared on social media, as the security forces tried to keep things under control. Despite efforts by the government and university administration to calm the situation, tension continued, prompting the prime minister to suggest closing down the universities until things improved. Many students are still demanding permission to obtain a formal withdrawal from their programs so that they can go home.

Escalating Factors

The ethnic-based federal system that has been cultivated for more than 25 years and the politicization of ethnicity are at the root of these problems. Moreover, activists and political parties with extremist agendas; unverified, undocumented and twisted historical narrations and hate speeches by academicians and politicians; unethical, unprofessional and irresponsible journalists in both private and government media; irresponsible use of social media; and statements by different government officials are some of the factors contributing to ongoing political unrest and escalating ethnic conflict on campus and beyond.

Measures Taken to Address the Problem

The government of Ethiopia and the Ministry of Science and Higher Education (MoSHE) has been taking different measures to address the ethnic conflict among students. The measures include (1) a tripartite agreement signed by parents or guardians, students and government representatives to prevent the involvement of students in ethnic conflict and other major problems on campus, (2) discussions between federal and regional government representatives and students, (3) peacemaking sessions and advice by elderly people and religious and community leaders, and (4) involving the military and other security structures when the situation escalates and becomes difficult to manage with university capacity. The ministry also instructed all public universities not to accept any withdrawal request from students in order to oblige students to stay in class. Despite all these measures, universities and the wider Ethiopian society are still suffering from ethnic conflict.

What Needs to Be Done?

Universities have responsibility for contributing to the solution of social problems as they are the primary institution charged with their study. However, so far, universities in Ethiopia have not proved capable of resolving ethnic tensions on their own campuses, let alone playing a vital role in addressing the ethnic-related problems of the larger society.

The root causes of ethnic tensions and conflicts among students are related to the politicization of ethnicity resulting from the poor implementation of federal policies. The tension and conflict in universities are mirrors of what transpires in the broader political space. Therefore, a national political solution would be to help mediate ethnic violence at public universities. In the meantime, universities need to implement different approaches that de-escalate ethnic tensions and conflict on campus. These include (1) a first-year student orientation that addresses transition to university life; the potential contribution of university students to social and political development in Ethiopia; expectations of university students regarding behavior, attitude and activities; and student rights, duties and responsibilities; (2) different platforms for scholarly discussion to grapple with historic discontent and grievances, to understand the “other’s” point of view and facilitate inter-ethnic friendships and be cautious of extremist agendas; (3) successive trainings on the proper use of social media and etiquette of communication in the public space; (4) curricular and extracurricular activities that contribute to the national unity (e.g., embedding multicultural and diversity education); and (5) serious responses to students and staff who violate university rules and foment ethnic tension and conflict.

Abebaw Yirga Adamu is an associate professor of education at Addis Ababa University and director of the Ethiopian Institute for Higher Education, Ethiopia. Emails: and

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