Ethnic Conflict in Higher Institutions: Where is it heading?

AAUTesfaye Kebede (Sidist Kilo, Addis Abeba) Historically Ethiopian higher Institutions have been the main source of leaders for both the ruling and opposition parties. Since early 1960s, the time when most of the current party leaders were higher education students, Ethiopian higher education has been the breading ground for the would be leaders of the country. In those days, it is in university campuses that the most contentious issues of the time like ‘meret le arashu’ and ‘equality of nations and nationalities’ came to the forefront. Taking the significant role played by higher institution students in the past and the current circumstances into account, this short article will touch on some of the manifestation of the failed ethnic policy in higher learning institutions. Accordingly, the first part will illustrate how the ethnocentric policy of the current regime is affecting the relationship among students of different ethnic background, and its implication on their parents and beyond. The second part will briefly indicate how Woyane is moving from politicizing ethnicity to ethnicizing academics.

The impact of ethno-centrism on students’ relationship and beyond

In many of the years since 1960s Ethiopian student movements of different forms have served as mouth- piece of the people. The public has continuously been backing and reflecting on their initiatives. Students have paid a great deal of price in their attempt of airing the grievances and concerns of the people out. Government after government the response has been a heavy-handed crack down. Despite all these students have stood united for the basic human right, democratic values and national issues. Thanks to Woyane and its ethno-centric policies nowadays let alone to stand together for the good of the people and the nation they barely agree among themselves. These days it has become common news to hear that a student of one ethnic group being attacked by the other. It is hard to find a university which finishes its academic year with out such horrendous incidences and interruption. It is not unusual to see campuses surrounded by Zenawi’s Special Forces.

These kinds of news are evidences for how bad and deep ethnic politics had gone in our country. It is not something that should be taken as a simple conflict among some interest groups as it is usually portrayed by the very regime which brought such divisive system for sake of short-term political benefit. It is a very serious issue with far reaching consequences.

The immediate causes of such conflict vary from a simple personal disagreement between students who just happen to belong to different ethnic group that would then be translated into a full-blown inter-ethnic conflict to the ones instigated by organized attacks of certain ethnic group. The organized attacks are mostly orchestrated by Woyane agents, who disguise themselves as students and actually live in campuses getting all the benefits like students and even more. Whenever these thugs feel that students are united even on issues other than politics they play their dirty game of dividing them along ethnic lines. In some instances they have gone as far as killing a student of certain ethnic group for the sake of instigating violence against the others. The old fashioned “divide and rule” principle of Woyane, which is being executed by their agents and some students, has effectively halted any united action of students even for the very fundamental non-ethnic, administrative and academic grievances.

Woyanes love to immediately label any student action as an ethnic issue. In a bid to weaken any solidarity an issue will be depicted as a demand of Oromo students, Amhara students, Gurage students and so on; not ever presented as the issue of the whole students. To mention some, when students opposed the unfair and politically motivated land re-distribution in 1996 it was labeled as the question of Amhara students. When students asked the government to stop the distraction of Bale natural forest by fire in 2001 it was told us as an issue of Oromo students. When students protested against the day light election fraud of 2005’s national election it was branded as the issue of Amhara and some other students. When 300 Oromo students expelled from Addis Ababa University no students form other ethnic groups had the courage to stand together with them. Some of these students didn’t return to school yet. No body stood on the side of Tigray students when they were singled out for an attack in Ambo Agricultural College and later petitioned to the Ministry of Education to be relocated to their region.

The follow-up crack-down of student protests is further evidence for how deeply ethnicized higher institutions are. In all of the aforementioned cases students were hunted down based on their names as to which ethnic group they belong to. Even the ethnic composition of the notorious federal police, who are usually sent to the universities to quash protests, depends on the perceived ethnic background of the protesters. The federal polices either directly ask as to which ethnic group a student belongs or, if they want to look a little smart, they demand to see the identification card of students so that they would be able to match their names to a certain ethnic group. The saddest part of the story is the accomplice of the very students, who share the same bed, class and dinning room with, but just happen to be of different ethnic background, in the hunt down

The implication of such an act is far greater than any kind of conflict a country might go through. These are not simply students. They are the would be leaders of the country and the reflections of what a society would be like in the future. The very idea that is haunting us down now and on the verge of disintegrating the country is conceived in university campuses. Our ‘champions’ of ethnic politics, and divide and rule were in one of these campuses in their early student days. History has taught us how we ended up so. Ethiopia today is the result of what has happened 30 or 40 years ago in the university campuses. There is no doubt that what is happening now in higher learning institutions will determine what Ethiopia would look like in the future. It is of a great concern to let these institutions, which should have been used to bridge the gap among different groups, be places for ethnic radicalization. What kind of leaders are they going to make? What is it like to be an Ethiopian beyond belonging to one of the ethnic groups? What would you feel about a person who targeted you for the mere fact that you belong to a certain ethnic group? What would the outlook of a person who went through this be? What is there left for students to think outside their ethnic lines? Ethnic conflicts are not confined to campuses. They are affecting students’ parents and neighboring population too.

In the early good days, parents hardly care about where their children are going to be placed to study. Now the story is quite different. The concern has become the ethnic region where the institution is located. Location here has less to do with distance and cost of transportation that goes with it. It is all about the security issue. What is going to happen if, as usual, a conflict for the same reason of ethnic based clash occurs? This is the question that every parent wants to answer before sending their children. Because of this reason the number of parents who are sending their children to private college is growing. Mind you, I am talking about sending students to one of the universities in their own country. No one ever raises such an issue even when an Ethiopian is sent to other country to pursue her/his studies. I have never thought of such an issue when I was offered to study abroad. Families are well aware that a university in their neighborhood/region is not immune from any inter-ethnic conflicts. Their only consolation is the fact that their children are near and can be home when the inevitable happens, and won’t be attacked by the surrounding population.

The spill over effect of an outbreak of a conflict is so great that people living in nearby areas have in many occasions threatened to storm campuses in support of their ethnic groups. That is what happened when a student from Tigray died for unknown reason in Nazareth, which later was confirmed to be non-ethnic and off-campus. The surrounding people were on the verge of invading Mekelle University to attack Oromo students. Simply imagine yourself as an Oromo student or, for that matter, any other student with similar story who happen to be studying in Tigray or somewhere else, but threatened to be attacked for the death of a student hundreds of miles away, which has nothing to do with you. What would have happened if the threat hadn’t been avoided? What do you think would be the reaction of parents and relatives of victim students? This is not an imaginary threat. It is an imminent one. Once such an incidence happens the outcome would be irreparable and would have far reaching consequences. This case is simply raised as an example but the story is not different in other higher institutions too.

As a further evidence for how low ethnic politics has taken us, let me give you a brief account of one of distressing, but worth mentioning, incidences I witnessed in my student days at AAU. It was immediately after the contentious 2005 national election. Defying the ban imposed by Zenawi, students were protesting against Woyane’s day light election fraud. As usual, in response, Woyane sent its blood thirsty Agazi forces to quash the protest. It is not what the Agazi’s did that struck me most. Rather, it was the bizarre attack waged by our fellow students. Later, I was able to confirm that some Tigray students were instructed by security personnel ahead of time to stay around their dormitories. It wouldn’t have been surprising if this instruction was intended to isolate other students or to protect those who haven’t been involved in the protest. But, it was instead aimed at putting them as a back-up force that would attack students when they flee to dormitories. Most students sustained injuries not from Agazis but from their fellow students. The story doesn’t end here. After taking everything under control it was time for celebration. Agazis left the campus but their compatriots remained behind. To show case their victory over their fellow students and to further harass the people standing out side the campus, who were crying and shouting in solidarity with students, these senseless students started beating their drums and singing victory songs. Still now, I wonder where they got those drums at that time. Was it part of the preparation or a simple coincidence?

Mind you, these are not some aliens. They are fellow country men and students whom we shared rooms with. This begs to question what kind of students are our institutions producing? Where is the failed ethnic policy taking us? It is hard to blame students who are manipulated into doing something tragic and regrettable. The blame should absolutely go to the Woyanes, who are hell-bent on ethnicizing everything, and their discriminatory policies. This is a clear case of failed ethnic policy which is destined to promote the supremacy of a minority on the pretext of ethnic equality. Absurdly enough some officials consider this as a success story. For them, it is a story that indicates how they succeeded in avoiding any united action against the government. Short-sighted Woyanes don’t have any clue what they are leaving behind for their children and grand children. But in reality, it is becoming increasingly clear that no ethnic group, even those who enjoy an exclusive protection from the regime, or institution is immune from such a tragedy. We are all in it together. Ethnic politics has never had a happy ending anywhere in the world. It leads to a terrible ending, especially when there is an overwhelming perception that the ethnic minorities at the helm of power are oppressing, and exploiting the majority.

In a country as diverse as Ethiopia there is no doubt that equality and respect among all ethnic groups is the only way out of this mess. Ironically, there is no one who talks a lot about equality of all ethnic groups than Woyanes. What they are actually doing, however, is quite the opposite. It is in no ones interest to blow up ethnicity for the sake of short-term political profiting. But, as things stand now, the dictatorial regime, lead by a single person for nearly two decades, is running Ethiopia on the principle that ‘all ethnic groups are equal but some are more equal than the others.’ It is a principle that practically privileges few and is unjust for others. As Obang Metho once said “no one is 99 percent Ethiopian, we all are 100 percent Ethiopians”. All the benefits should also go accordingly. There is nothing more dreadful than seeing the current ‘leaders’, who at one time referred the discriminatory and disrespectful treatment by their fellow students as one of the reason to fight for justice and equality, to let the same trajectory, in much more worse way, happen again. Their dangerously die-hard ethnocentrism has left higher learning institutions highly polarized.

An effort to institutionalize ethnicity and ethnicize academics

Woyane is moving from politicizing ethnicity to institutionalizing ethnicity through the educational system. This hasn’t come up by a simple historical coincidence. It is the one of the meticulously planned acts of an irresponsible regime, which has vowed from its conception to obliterate anything that stands patriotic about Ethiopia, to intimidate anyone who has the gut to speak loud about Ethiopianism, and to eventually disintegrate the country. This is a regime, which has apparently intended to make everybody pledge allegiance to their ethnic group; not to united Ethiopia. Any talk of unity will automatically be translated as a betrayal of the régime.

Education is one of the instruments being used to promote their distorted ideology. In making the already deteriorating quality of education worse Woyane is implanting its politics in the educational system. Social science subjects of primary and secondary education are deliberately designed to instill narrow ethnic attitude and destroy the social fabric of Ethiopia. Continuing their path to destruction, recently Woyane has come up with the plan to replace all text books of primary and secondary education, except mathematics and science, so that they can infuse their rotten ethno-centric ideology into it. If it was to improve the curriculum, why are they then not changing Mathematics and science books? The obvious reason is that these subjects are not convenient enough to incorporate their politics and divisive ideology. This is all against their own constitutional provision which says that education should be free from any political and religious matters.

Another worrying development worth mentioning is the systematic move by the government to further ethncize the academic environment. It is mainly related the way high ranking posts in higher institutions are filled, and other things associated with it. Higher educational institutions, especially universities, are one of the federal institutions administered by the central government. They are typical federal institutions. Like any other federal institution the appointment of high ranking officials, particularly presidents, should have been open for all qualified Ethiopians. The reality, however, is otherwise. Almost all of assignments for the institutions located in the regions are ethnic-based. In some instances the selection mechanism has gone as far as finding some one who grew up in the near by area. These officials are not going to serve specific ethnic group as other local officials do. They are paid by the federal government, assigned to serve a federal institution and students who came from all over the country. So, what is the point in taking ethnicity as a basic criterion? It is simply the reckless obsession of Woyane with ethncization of everything and an effort to instill their poisonous ideology in the educational system forever.

There is no guarantee that the discrimination and ethnicization would stop at the top level. What do you expect of a university president appointed based on his/her ethnic background to do when it comes to the recruitment of instructors and serving all students equally? A glimpse look into the ethnic composition of the academic staff in most institutions shows where things are heading to. There are also accusations that teachers and high level officials were directly or indirectly involved in some of the ethnic-based clashes. In addition to the well evidenced and reported lack of academic freedom it is sad to hear when students associate their academic results with the ethnic background of the lecturer or theirs. The very existence of such an attitude is by itself a disturbing development. This is clear evidence that ethnic politics has brought the educational system to a new low.

As we all know the ethnic policy of Woyane has transformed many places into no-go-areas to other ethnic groups. It is hardly possible to be employed and live in an ethnic region other than ‘yours’. Higher educational institutions are one of the very few places that are left multi-ethnic. The actions of the Woyane, however, are quickly turning them into ethnic institutions. This is one of the planned attempts of the reckless regime to institutionalize its failed and dangerous ethno-centric politics.

Instead of addressing the failed ethnic policy what Woyane has opted to do, it appears, is to tackle each incident on a piece meal basis. There is nothing special about each and every inter-ethnic conflict. They are all results of the extension of divisive ethnic policy to the educational system. In a country like Ethiopia where the elites are the absolute shakers and movers of the country, it saddens to see highly polarized graduates coming out of higher learning institutions. Let alone finding a sustainable solution, Woyane hasn’t even acknowledged the existence of the problem. The painful reality is that they have planted a ticking bomb waiting to go off any time. Once it goes off, it will have an irreversible damage to all of us. No one will be immune from it, regardless of the number of people an ethnic group represents, the perceived military or economic strength a certain group might have. In being united, with respect and equality, we all benefit. Let us work for it in every front.

The writer, Tesfaye Kebede can be reached at:

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Posted by on April 15, 2009. Filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.