Western backers of the Ethiopian education system should not ignore reports of violent clashes on university campuses
By Paul O’Keeffe
May 22, 2014 (The Guardian) — Over the past 15 years, Ethiopia has
become home to one of the world’s fastest-growing higher education
systems. Increasing the number of graduates in the country is a key
component of the government’s industrialisation strategy and part of its
ambitious plan to become a middle-income country by 2025. Since the
1990s, when there were just two public universities, almost 30 new
institutions have sprung up.
On the face of it, this is good news for ordinary Ethiopians. But dig
a little deeper and tales abound of students required to join one of
the three government parties, with reports of restricted curricula,
classroom spies and crackdowns on student protests commonplace at
Nowhere has this been more evident than in Ambo in Oromia state. On
25 April, protests against government plans to bring parts the town
under the administrative jurisdiction of the capital, Addis Ababa, began
at Ambo University. By the following Tuesday, as protests spread to the
town and other areas of Oromia, dozens of demonstrators had been killed
in clashes with government forces, according to witnesses.
As Ethiopia experiences rapid economic expansion, its government
plans to grow the capital out rather than up, and this involves annexing
parts of the surrounding Oromia state. An official communique from
the government absolved it of all responsibility for the clashes,
claiming that just eight people had been killed and alleging that the
violence had been coordinated by a few rogue anti-peace forces. The
government maintains that it is attempting to extend Addis Ababa’s
services to Oromia through its expansion of the city limits.
However, Oromia opposition figures tell a different story. On 2 May, the nationalist organisation the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) issued a press release that
condemned the “barbaric and egregious killing of innocent Oromo
university students who have peacefully demanded the regime to halt the
displacement of Oromo farmers from their ancestral land, and the
inclusion of Oromo cities and surrounding localities under Finfinnee
[Addis Ababa] administration under the pretext of development”. The
Addis Ababa regime dismisses the OLA as a terrorist organisation.
While news of the killing of unarmed protesters has caused great
concern among many Ethiopians, there has been little coverage overseas.
The government maintains strict control over the domestic media; indeed,
it frequently ranks as one of the world’s chief jailers of journalists,
and it is not easy to come by independent reporting of events in the
Nevertheless, the government’s communique does run contrary to
reports by the few international media that did cover the attacks in
Ambo, which placed the blame firmly on government forces.
The BBC reported that a witness in Ambo saw more than 20 bodies on the street, while Voice of America (VOA) reported that
at least 17 protesters were killed by “elite security forces” on three
campuses in Oromia. Local residents maintain that the figure [of those
killed] was much higher.
These reports, while difficult to corroborate, have been backed up by Human Rights Watch, which issued a statement saying
that “security forces have responded [to the protests] by shooting at
and beating peaceful protesters in Ambo, Nekemte, Jimma, and other towns
with unconfirmed reports from witnesses of dozens of casualties”. One
university lecturer said he had been “rescued from the live ammunition”,
and that it was the “vampires – the so-called federal police” who fired
on the crowds.
The Ethiopian government likes to trumpet its higher education system
to its western aid backers as a crowning success of its development
policy. As billions in foreign aid are spent annually on Ethiopia, the
west must be more cognisant of the fact that this money helps reinforce a
government which cuts down those who dare to speak out against it.
Inevitably, continued support for such an oppressive regime justifies
its brutal silencing of dissent. Yes, the higher education system has
grown exponentially over the past 15 years but the oppression and
killing of innocent students cannot be considered an achievement. Any
system which crushes its brightest should not be considered a success.