Ethiopia's universities host over half a million students from different regions across the country. And when inter-regional conflicts, like the one along the Oromia and Somali borders, erupt, these universities are not spared from its effect. Of particular concern was the recent outbreak in Adama Science & Technology University where a row between students of different factions intensified and spread like wildfire to other universities in the country. The government's failure to contain these riots has raised questions whether stability can sustain, writes SAMSON BERHANE, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER.
Unrests have become common in many towns outside Ethiopia. But the recent spurt of violence in universities nationwide has left Beyene Aragaw, whose name was changed to protect his identity, a fifth-year Civil Engineering student at Adama Science & Technology University (ASTU), in a desperate need to escape the protests that erupted in his campus.
Although Beyene, born in a small town 80Km away from the University, had witnessed such clashes in the past, the latest one, horrifying and gruesome, has put him in a dilemma.
“Had my family been able to finance my education at a private university, I could have gone back to my hometown,” laments Beyene, whose classmates and friends are leaving the campus fearing the protests would flare-up.
At ASTU, a political dispute amongst students from two factions turned violent, getting intense by the day, forcing students to vacate their dormitories.
“Three of my friends left their dormitories witnessing the worsening condition on campus,” Beyene, 24, told Fortune.
The University, located around four kilometres from Adama’s city centre, had suspended its classes for two consecutive weeks due to the unabating unrests at its campus.
The premises seemed deserted; lecturers, students and office staff were barely visible on the grounds, contrary to the hustle bustle some months ago. This comes as a blow for many who saw all activities come to a halt.
Although most activities were suspended, some departments continued their routine, but the number of students attending classes had drastically declined from 60 on a typical day to a measly seven, according to eyewitnesses.
The University’s administration made all efforts to bring the students back and resume classes but to no avail. The lecturers and students were still in fear of more violence unfolding at the campus. Thus, unable to carry out their tasks.
ASTU is not the only higher education institution where such protests have stirred up.
The past two weeks had been traumatic for the nation’s public universities. Demonstrations and protests by students broke out in 17 higher education institutions across the country, initially triggered by the inter-regional conflicts between Somali and Oromia regional states.
In spite of the cautions by the Ministry of Education (MoE), whose officials believe a small group of students are instigating the violence, had warned students not to engage in what it calls ‘subversive acts’ during the onset of the protests at universities experiencing strikes and quarrels among students.
Students nationwide called for enhanced administration and equal treatment of regional states in the eye of the federal government. The growing tension in towns added to the grief.
Within a week’s time, Haromaya, Jimma, Ambo, Wollega and Metu Universities closed and soon after Bahir Dar, Adigrat, Adama and nine others followed.
More than a dozen people died in the protests that have engulfed the public universities for the past three weeks. Last week, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, in his speech aired by the state media broadcaster, Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC), confirmed the deaths and injuries of students and civilians during the unrests.
“Students across the nation’s universities have lost their lives, and many have been displaced,” he stated expressing condolence to the victims.
The tense atmosphere in the universities was further aggravated by the implementation of exit exams in all departments by the MoE pushing many, including Estifanos Tefera, who enrolled as a civil engineering student at Woldia University in 2015, to rethink about their future endeavours.
Born and raised in Addis Abeba, it was Estifanos’ first experience seeing students belonging to different regions of the country attack each other in such a manner. As the chaos got out of control on his campus, he, along with at least five of his friends, climbed a two and a half metre wall to escape from it, Estifanos recalls.
The protests in Woldia University, first instigated by a dispute among fans of Woldia and Adigrat football clubs, soon turned political, eventually claiming the lives of two.
“The situation was terrifying and unprecedented,” Estifanos recounts the horror of the incident. “As the gates of the universities were closed, it was not easy to escape the chaos.”
Thousands of undergraduates and postgraduates share the sentiments of Estifanos- who is amongst half a million students across the nation’s 44 public universities.
Such protests unravelling in Ethiopia’s public universities are not uncommon.
A couple of years ago, students were protesting against the 10th master plan of Addis Abeba City Administration, whose intention was to expand the city’s territorial jurisdiction and had drawn a fear that it would displace farmers living in the surrounding Oromia Special Zone.
But, despite the city’s Administration and Oromia Regional State’s announcement that the master plan was dropped, the protests sustained. The crackdown, which continued inside and outside the gates of universities, resulted in the deaths of over 400 people including members of security forces, according to a report by Human Rights Commission in April 2017.
Investments worth hundreds of millions of Birr were also destroyed during the unrests, including foreign-owned farms, textile factories and various buildings.
Alarmed by the situation across the country, the parliament had declared a state of emergency, lasting almost ten months, which was lifted five months ago.
The protests, however, have not faded away since then.
“It is the result of political corruption,” said Lidetu Ayalew, a renowned politician and a veteran member of the Ethiopian Democratic Party. “Using power for illicit private gains will finally lead to such outcomes.”
The inter-regional dispute between Oromia and Somali regional states, resulting from rivalry over Khat and contraband trade as well as forex smuggling, for Hailemariam Desalegn’s Administration, has been spurring protests across towns and public universities since September 2017, becoming an impediment for students such as Beyene to pursue their dreams.
“I don’t know how long I can stay here fearing someone will suddenly attack me,” said Beyene, who will graduate this year. “If it persists, I will be left with no other option but to withdraw from the university and return to my hometown.”
Such incidents are a significant hurdle for the government- which allocates over 70.5 billion Br of the country’s budget to advance the education sector. The lion’s share of that amount is used to boost the capacity of higher education institutions.
Aiming to become a lower middle-income country by 2025, the government seeks to raise the percentage of the population enrolled in universities and colleges to 22pc.
To achieve all these, Estifanos, for his part, believes student’s safety should be of prime concern.
“Many of us are not willing to return under such circumstances,” he said. “We want a secured campus, a place free from chaos.”
MoE announced that the universities had resumed operation.
“Although we cannot claim the problem is solved, 16 universities have already started calling students and conducting regular classes,” said Haragua Mamo, communications director of the MoE.
Nonetheless, how stability could be sustained across all public universities is still a debatable subject for many.
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