It has been a couple weeks since the government started holding discussions with university lecturers across the nation. This discussion, though an annual exercise before the start of the new academic year, has come after a series of unrest in parts of the Amhara and Oromia regional states, and lately also in the Southern Nations, Nationalities & Peoples’ Region.
The government has been holding talks with members of society in different parts of the country, trying to understand the issues that have created frustration and led to some of the violent protests, which have resulted in the deaths of civilians and law enforcement officers.
The discussions at universities were chaired by high ranking officials at both regional and federal offices.
In the past, the discussions’ agendas covered wide ranging issues relating to the country’s social, economic and developmental endeavours. However, this year’s meetings were, by most of the participants, expected to focus more on the recent unrest in parts of the country.
Some Addis Abeba University lecturers Fortune spoke with expressed their dissatisfaction with the attention given to the unrest at the meeting.
“The agenda prepared by the government did not even mention the turmoil and the discussion is below my expectation,” a social science lecturer, whose name is withheld upon request, told Fortune.
“Even at this point of time where the country’s future is at stake, the agendas raised do not correspond to the current needs of the society,” said another scholar from the university who has been working there since the current government came into power, who also wished not to have his name mentioned.
Let down by what was on the table for discussion, which he describes as ‘political clichés, he intentionally decided not to attend the meeting.
The discussion at the AAU was attended by 3,000 academic staff, as well as Kassa Tekleberhan, Minister of Federal & Pastoralist Development Affairs and Chairperson of the University’s board, who took part in the presentations. The discussion came with a pre-determined agenda, including issues like the 25-year performance of the University, creating one economic society and quality of education.
However, these agendas and the whole discussion platform were met with disappointment from the scholars, as they claimed it did not address the elephant in the room, figuratively speaking.
“This is absurd,” said one academician, speaking on the conditions of anonymity. “It is like trying to solve the wrong question.”
Such talks with the scholars have been going for years.
“We thought they had come to listen to us and let us have a say on the current issues,” said the scholar.
The conference, held at the Addis Abeba Cultural Centre Hall on Algeria Street, started in a tense atmosphere, kicking off with a moment of silence for those who have lost their lives during the recent unrest in parts of the country.
Though the agenda prepared by the government was not responsive to dealing with current issues, most of the questions raised by the participants reflected that particular predicament. Some went to the extent of calling for a regime change and the release of prisoners as a way forward. Kassa admitted that there have been problems, but stated that the government has been working to resolve them.
Small group discussions among staff took place at various colleges and institutes of the university. These platforms were instrumental in collecting and organising questions.
Representatives of the group discussions presented questions during the general gathering.
There were criticisms directed towards the government for what the scholars described as a deteriorating quality of education. Universities being led by a board of directors who are political appointees and demonstrate a clear lack of capacity to handle the task at hand, was part of a question from the College of Business & Economics (CBE) and the Institute for Peace & Security Studies (IPSS).
The scholars wondered how these boards filled with politicians will ever ensure the quality of education in universities, which they claim is an over-discussed issue with no practical steps to bring solutions. In addition, scholars also criticised the Ministry of Education for being full of political appointees, rather than technocrats.
The lists of questions gathered from the small group discussions raised issues of benefits for teachers. This question comes only a month after a government incentive to support higher education instructors was rolled out, with a pay rise and promotion.
A representative from social sciences, law & governance studies and visual & performing arts read out a question asking whether “the agenda presented to us is relevant at this time?” Those from the CBE and IPSS were pessimistic that the suggestions and recommendations were falling on deaf ears and that there was no point in holding these meetings every year, wasting weeks from the academic calendar.
On the contrary to the sense of disenchantment, a young lecturer from the university told Fortune that the meeting was “a useful platform to share people’s ideas.”
The young lecturer, who also wants to speak anonymously, said “the first days of the meeting were intense and emotional.
When the last day of the meeting came on September 23, 2016, and the presentation was dominated by the university’s performance for the past year and its plan for the current year, disappointed participants booed and clapped, and some even walked out.
The experience of participants with high expectations being left disappointed by the conference is an all too common feature of the university meetings.
Meqelle University’s meeting was chaired by Adisalem Balema (PhD), Chairperson of the University’s board and Vice President of Tigray State.
“There was nothing new,” said a lecturer from the university who spoke to Fortune anonymously. “The meeting hall during the first days was full and we were optimistic that recently emerging issues would be a central point of the discussion.”
During the weeklong conference in Meqelle, the same agenda as the one at AAU was presented.
“The first day of the meeting was dominated by a long speech by the Chairman of the meeting,” the lecturer noted.
The same lecturer told Fortune that he finally lost interest and decided not to participate.
A similar feeling was shared by Abrha Desat, a member of an opposition political party and also a lecturer at the university. He was released from jail back in July.
“The agendas were merely redundant from what we have heard in the media,” Abrha told Fortune. “We were told to bring our questions after discussing in our respective colleges.”
“Some of the participants pointed their fingers at the government for causing the problems that are happening at the moment,” he added. “Despite so many questions asked by participants, the responses given were too general.”
Judging by the disconnect the government has with the public, Abrha argues that “the EPRDF has become a political body on the verge of its demise.” Even going as far as to suggest it is better for the country if the ruling party facilitates a peaceful transfer of power.
His political party, Arena Tigray, was established by veterans of the TPLF. Most of them left the party following its spilt in the early 2000’s.
This week, most of the universities are expected to finalise their discussions with the government.
The following steps will be that each university will prepare a comprehensive report on the discussions and pass it on to the government. There is also an intention to form a permanent communication on the developments to follow up the questions raised by the scholars.
These universities are now announcing the entry dates for both senior and fresh students. Similar meetings are expected to be held between the government and the students before they can finally get on with their classes.
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