I am an academic and many times some of my persistent concerns about Ethiopia and Ethiopians revolve around university or college education, its state now, and its future directions, especially since the current regime began expanding universities in the country. It is a well-known fact from our past that the previous regime had turned higher education institutions into propaganda machines then as it is now with a different propaganda replacing the previous regime’s distorted vision of higher education. Both regimes used higher education to extend their tyrannical rule over the Ethiopian people. It is the role of citizens to express their deeply held concerns, share their reflections on critically important issues affecting the country, as they seek to diagnose, propose and act on solutions for the ever increasing attack on the purpose of higher education in Ethiopia. At least one of the core purposes of higher education is to actively facilitate the pursuit of the life of the mind, the pursuit of truth, to gain deeper understanding of the world we live in, to understand our place in the world, and to organize our lives in light of what we discover and learn about the world we inhabit and navigate through. Let’s reflect for a moment on the late PM’s legacy with respect to the nature and purpose of higher education. That is the focus of this piece.
First, consider the impact of the proliferation of universities in the country mostly with a focus on the NUMBER of universities across the country. Ethiopians need more universities than we previous had when the current regime took over. Granted. How many more universities do we need to produce decently educated citizens who would be in a position to contribute to their society’s needs in various ways? It is hard to suggest an exact number as an answer to this question. But that need not lead us to say that we need a university in each Kebele or Wereda or in all small towns across the country. That would be practically infeasible, and does not seem to be realistic. The answer need not be just a couple more universities to the ones the current regime inherited from its predecessor either. The point is that we don’t need an exact answer to this question to carefully reflect on the need for more universities in Ethiopia. Not just more universities, but universities that are actually, realistically intended to educate citizens as responsible agents to make a difference in their society and to be competent global citizens in this increasingly interconnected world. We need more universities. No dispute is needed over that.
Second, focus on the expansion of universities across the country by sheer numbers while apparently expecting quality of university education to emerge somehow magically is the logical extension and corollary of the political/administrative structure of the country, i.e., the politics of ethnic federalism. This piece is not on “ethnic federalism”, so no need to digress to talk about it. But here is the relevant point: It seems that the logic behind numerical expansion of universities goes as follows: Each ethnic group in the country or a set of ethnic groups in some cases (probably in the South) need a regional university to train citizens in their local areas with a purpose of making higher education accessible to most citizens. Granted. But one wonders: is the main goal of higher education making mostly buildings (classrooms without qualified instructors and books, etc.) available for citizens in the closest proximity to them? This expansion policy regarding universities in all religions of the country is accompanied by a claim that suggests that we do not need to worry about the quality of university education since it takes time to bring about quality. True, there is an element of truth in this view. But one wonders as to what the government is doing to bring about a balance between the quantity and quality of university education to ensure the main thing we need is making real university education available to citizens. There must be a clear difference regarding the level of education students are supposed to get in universities and in high schools. When there isn’t much difference between university educated students and high school students, the result is that there is no real university and university education, it is all the way high school by a different name! Worse, at the present pace of expansion of universities in Ethiopia, we are destined to produce “university graduates” who are worse than academically good high school graduates. Think of the future of the country with such a scenario that the present university education presents us with, which, unfortunately, is not a hypothetical scenario.
True, it takes time to bring about quality of university education, but quality does not pop up into existence somehow. It also takes a plan, action and effort since without quality, there is not much point to university education. At any rate, this same idea, that quality will come later, is also part of the driving force behind the view about real democracy, the late PM advocated, that real democracy can or will come later and in the meantime what Ethiopians need is development, fighting poverty even when that is done with a persistent violation of basic human rights. This was the view of an authoritarian leader that respect for basic human rights is the luxury that Western countries want to dictate to the developing countries. Such a philosophy is at work when it comes to numerically expanding universities with little or no regard to the quality of university education. It does not take any level of research beyond commonsense to see the negative consequences of this ill-conceived view of higher education. Those people who are told to wait for far too long, without any acceptable justification for the waiting, for their basic human rights to be respected are now made to wait badly educated when it comes to their right for better education. What happened to basic human rights by persistent abuse of human rights is now happening, in the name of development-first mantra, to the purpose of university education such that these same citizens must wait badly educated until quality of education comes later, somehow by developmental magic, as it were.
On reflection one can see that the combination of development-first mantra with mere numerical expansion of universities has a much desired result for an authoritarian government: Citizens who are deprived of decent university education, with a goal that such people are much easier to rule over, to manipulate, to deceive, and to mislead—all of these have already been achieved with some degree of success. What would an authoritarian government want more than citizens who are easier to rule and lord it over for as long as that is possible? The late PM has left a legacy for the TPLF/EPRDF government to mine power sustaining resources for dictators for generations to come, as those who inherited the deeply damaging legacy would hope and wish. Consequently, the twin gifts of the late PM that the incumbent government has religiously clung to are: a continuous abuse of basic humans rights in the name of development-first mantra and mostly nominal university education for the citizens which can hardly pass for a decent university education even in the Ethiopian standard a decade or so ago. The result? Producing “university educated” citizens who are badly educated who could hardly pose a threat to those in power whose only constant nightmare is losing that power! In other words, consider an analogy, the short-term vis-à-vis the long-term gains the government gets from basing politics on ethnicity. We all know what has happened and will continue to witness what will happen from politicizing ethnicity. There is no space (in this short piece) to record lamentations about the litany of problems about politicizing ethnicity! [For the record, I’m not against a political structure that rightly recognizes and duly protects the equal standing before the law of all human beings from all ethnic backgrounds]. Similarly, think of the short-term gain the government gets from expanding universities without duly doing what is needed to ensure the quality of university education. In the short term, it is again mostly an appearance of doing all the good to citizens who lacked access to university education and that clearly wins support for the regime from so many. However, the long-term benefit the government gets from the expansion of universities with little regard for the quality of university education is producing graduates who are badly educated and mostly loyal, unquestioning the status quo, and unchallenging those in power. What else does an authoritarian regime want more than this?
Third, to cement the aforementioned legacy of the late PM, the incumbent PM has been committed to avoid any serious deviation from the scripts the late PM had handed down by which to rule Ethiopians. One of the ways to undermine quality of university education is by turning universities into propaganda machines by way of stifling dissent and denying academic freedom. One of the worst and early messages to the academic community in Ethiopia from the late PM was the expulsion of over 40 academics in 1993. There is no doubt the shock-wave this act of terror by the then PM had sent to acadeics with a result, as it was intended, to gag the academic community throughout the country. If those competent and well known academics could be fired by an act of fiat of a dictator, those who are in academia would reason, that they would face the same fate if they ever make public criticisms of or opposition to the tyrant. Though it has not been the case that all academics have been totally silenced since that terrorist act against academics, the impact of the termination of over 40 academics did work well for the regime in power so much so that vocal academic critics of the government have been rare than common until the most recent termination from their teaching positions of the two prominent academics, Drs. Merera Gudina and Dagnachew Assefa, from Addis Ababa University.
It is important to take a note of the message the EPRDF government is sending, once again, to its academic critics whose critical stance to the regime comes in the form of a simple exercise of their basic human right— to freely speak their mind about issues of timely importance to the country. The obvious message of the regime to academics, by firing two prominent vocal critics of the government, is that the same fate awaits them if others want to expose the incompetence and deception and lies of the ruling party. For academic critics to speak out and show that there are better ways of governing the country amounts to telling that the regime in power is ill-fitted for the job. Those in power are acutely aware of their inadequacy as leaders of the country, and anything that exposes their inadequacy becomes their target and hence their victim. The relationship between authoritarian rulers to the free and independent media is a perfect example of life of those in power and how much of it is fueled by fear.
Generally, the politicization of higher education has a clear goal, i.e., to bring about “educated cadres”, minds that are deeply indoctrinated and hence lack an objective and critical perspective to discern the way the authoritarian regime rules the country. Hence, vocal critics of the regime are sources of persistent fear for the regime because the government has made so much investment to make sure that university education is not supposed to produce graduates who are prone to questioning and challenging those in power. Drs. Merera and Dagnachew have been examples of what it means to be critical thinkers outside of the politicized regime’s cadre box. In short, the message from the government is that dissent by way of exercising one’s basic human right, by freely speaking one’s mind about the critical-mind-phobic authoritarian government, will not be tolerated. Think of the fateful experiences of Zone 9 bloggers. We don’t need more examples to measure the depth of phobia the regime has about uncontrolled, uncensored thinking and sharing information among the citizens.
Finally, there are a couple of points with which I close this piece: One of the easiest things to find in present day Ethiopia is countless Ethiopians who have had to make difficult choices, mostly on pragmatic grounds and have become members of the EPRDF—the ONLY political party that is also the REGIME– especially to secure government jobs. We should be careful not to believe that all university educated members of the ruling party are genuine supporters of the regime, despite the politics of deception by the regime that claims so many—again the politics of numbers (!), are genuine supporters of the regime. It would not be further from the truth to suggest that it is only the minority among university educated cadres who are genuine supporters of the government and it is obvious—for most Ethiopians–who those supporters are. The genuine support comes predominantly from Tigreans (not all) because they have a vested interest in this whole political reality and cruel drama that has held the country hostage by the TPLF for more than two decades.
The other thing worth registering: With the continuing legacy of the late PM, to produce decently educated citizens seems to have been left to magic or chance and that is working to good effect for the regime. The number-only-oriented expansion of universities in many parts of the country has the following effect that is not hard to believe and it works in favor of the EPRDF’s religious-like devotion to cling to power, if possible permanently: It is so hard to challenge those thousands of Ethiopians who have had access to “university education” mostly due to the availability of local universities in most recent years. Note that I am not against fellow Ethiopians having an opportunity to get university education. Absolutely not! What I am pointing out is this: How can you tell your fellow Ethiopian who graduated from one of the newly minted universities that he/she has not received some good, acceptable, decent university education? It is a pretty tough call. What does this situation tell us? The legacy of the late PM has made it hard for fellow citizens to talk about the quality of university education with one another due to fear that one could hurt the feelings of the other, especially the feelings of the ones from the most recently built universities that can hardly provide an acceptable university education. No one should blame fellow citizens for the kind of education they receive in the new universities. That is no fault of theirs! As I pointed out above, one obvious consequence of numericalization (to coin a new word) of universities in Ethiopia is to produce loyal supporters of the regime because it is hard to be critical of a government that has apparently given these fellow Ethiopians opportunities for “university education.” Though the legacy of Meles Zenawi is working to prolong the lives of his successors in power for a while, it is only a matter of time before those who have been abused by a tyrannical government’s power perpetuating goal of university education begin to reclaim what is naturally theirs in virtue of their being humans—the protection of their basic human rights and access to decent university education. In the meantime, it is not hard to see how the late PM, Meles Zenawi, is ruling Ethiopia from the grave!
In a sequel to this piece, I intend to show, with respect to university education, how deeply damaging Meles Zenawi’s legacy is, especially in the long-run.
The writer is a PhD candidate in Philosophy and an adjunct instructor of Philosophy at St. Louis University, USA.