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For a year now, Ethiopia has confronted protests in Oromia, the largest regional state. The protest started in opposition to the expansion plan of the capital, Addis Ababa, into Oromia towns and villages. Then the protest engaged the second largest regional state, Amhara, contributing to further political tensions.

Following a stampede that took place during the celebration of thanksgiving by the Oromo people on October 2nd that left dozens of people dead, the protest intensified. The country descended into turmoil it has not seen in over a decade.On October 9th, the government of Ethiopia declared a six-month state of emergency that imposed restrictions on a wide array of rights while granting the prime minister a sweeping power.

The detailed directive for the execution of the state of emergency contained 31 articles. Three of the 31 articles refer to education institutions. Article 5 prohibits “conducting strikes that disturb the learning and teaching process, shutting down educational institutions or causing damage to these institutions”. Article 28 gives unprecedented authority to law enforcement officers, to detain and conduct search and seizure without a court warrant, and monitor and restrict any communication (radio, television, writings, images, photograph, theater and film). Sub-article 7 specifically grants power to legal officers to take measures against students and employees who participate in the disturbance of academic institutions; and to order the institutions themselves to take administrative measures. Finally, Article 30 states that, as for other private and government institutions, law enforcement “may enter schools, universities, [or] other higher education institutions, and take necessary measures to stop disturbances and detain the persons involved”.

These provisions underscore the current gloomy environment of Ethiopian higher education. Ethiopian higher education institutions have been a hotbed of protest and resistance to political power since the 1960s. Therefore, the relationship between universities and government has always been a precarious one. 

Since 2014, university students have been very active in the Oromo protest. In many public universities on-campus demonstrations, sit-ins, boycotts of cafeteria services, and so on have been held, to which government forces responded by arresting students involved in the protest and taking administrative measures against them. One month into the state of emergency, the state media announced that 11,607 people had been arrested. Though details are not officially available, anyone who is familiar with Ethiopian politics can guess that a sizable number would be from the universities.

The declaration of the state of emergency has a direct and serious impact on higher education institutions and their operation. Some of the adversary effects may be immediate and last only during the state of emergency while most will be, unfortunately, long lasting.

University administrators, leaders, student representatives, leaders of academic units and even faculty are likely to be intensely engaged in ad-hoc structures and activities focused on security matters. The bureaucratic and academic structure within the universities would be largely dominated by this parallel political structure. Key resources and the attention of top management would be directed toward the political agenda instead of pursuing strategic institutional goals. In addition to the clear misuse of public resources, this could wipe out the momentum that was slowly building up in some universities towards improvement.

One of the measures taken by the government since the declaration of the state of emergency is restricted access to the internet.  While the teaching-learning process in an Ethiopian university does not typically depend on online resources, this could affect partnership projects, scientific collaborations, research fieldwork, etc. In recent years many of the major universities have demonstrated a growing commitment to research, often conducted in partnership with universities abroad. However, this state of emergency may not only disrupt current work, but also cause potential partners to hesitate to engage in future collaborations.

The ever-fragile academic freedom is the most obvious victim of these measures. The command post is endowed with the authority to monitor and restrict any form of communication. It also has the power to respond as it sees fit on any act of "incitement and communication that causes public disturbance and riots". Though the obvious goal of this restriction is to control the circulation of inflammatory messages, it is not clear what counts as causing public disturbance. In the polarized political environment of Ethiopian public higher education, it is not uncommon for faculty to be censored by their students in the classroom, by the administration or by their own peers. Further, this contributes to the "with-us-or-against-us" sort of mentality and incentivizes some individuals to seize the opportunity to gain power by showing political loyalty, consequently causing damage to collegial relationships and civil dialog. Under these circumstances, academic freedom, close to non-existent even in good times, is now in serious jeopardy.

This scenario could contribute to the already severe problem of brain drain. Given the circumstances, those who have the chance— particularly the younger university teachers— would try harder to leave the country, while those already abroad are less likely to return home. The long term impact of increasing brain drain is immeasurable.

Different countries have issued travel warnings to Ethiopia. Though the government offered assurance that tourists can freely travel to any part of the country, several tour operators in different countries are reported to have canceled trips to Ethiopia. This also affects the in-bound mobility of international students. Although there is no official data in this regard, there has been a discernable growth, in recent years, in the number of students and faculty, particularly from Europe, doing short term visits to Ethiopian universities. The image and conditions generated by the state of emergency are going to affect the attractiveness of the country as a destination for mobile students and scholars for years to come.

Further, the aftermath of the state of emergency will likely impact the academic calendar and scheduling, the assignment of new students to the different universities (in line with their ethnic backgrounds and the regions they would go to), the nature and extent of extracurricular activities, and the space for engagement in critical thinking and constructive dialog.

This situation allows for abuse of power—emotional and physical harassment are likely to prevail. Learning requires a peaceful environment. With the current militarization of the university and the prevailing tension, serious learning is very unlikely to happen. This is a big set back to the pale glimpse of hope that Ethiopian higher education was beginning to see.


Ayenachew A. Woldegiyorgis is a graduate assistant and a doctoral student at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.

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