Ethiopia’s universities: Educational institutes or places of training for the oppressive TPLF?

Million Feyyisa Lenjiso | April 2, 2012

Million Feyyisa Lenjiso

Upon seizing government power, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front’s promised policy was, among others, to improve the education of Ethiopia. If it was to be done so, education was meant to help the country step one leap forward, show economic progress, and feed its people. However, the Nation’s educational institutions are hardly made places of academy, rather are mainly used as entities for propaganda and recruiting loyal servants for the government.

The father of South Africans’ freedom, Nelson Mandela, said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” It is clear that there is no civilized state wherein its population has freedom without education. The European colonizers and many African dictators were cautious about advancement of education due to consequence it has in that regard as they knew that an educated population could solve any of its social problems. They knew that education is a very strong weapon to get rid of oppressive rules ¬– stronger even more than guns. Ethnic and/or religious diversity is not the only factor behind unrest and chaos in the world. We have experienced many diversified while democratic nations and alternatively, there are countries where people of the same ethnicity, religion, and same historical make-up have lived with no harmony for a long time. Somalia and India are good examples of the two extremes in this regard.

Like in many African countries and elsewhere, student movements have had, and continue to have, big roles in oppositions against oppressive Ethiopian rulers since the time of Emperor Haile Selassie. The current dictatorial regime of the EPRDF, which has come to power by militarily getting rid of the socialist Derg regime, continued a movement that was initiated by university students. Students of Addis Ababa University and other higher educational institutes opposed the oppressive and less progressive communist party of Derg. Later on, the movement turned into a military movement and Derg has been taken over. The current top leaders of the EPRDF, including Meles Zenawi, were involved in students’ movement and they know the educated part of the population cannot tolerate oppressive rules. Actually, it has been a big challenge for the EPRDF to culminate student protests back in 2001when Oromo students in Addis Ababa and other universities, and later on, joined by students of the whole nation protested against the oppressive EPRDF regime. The government’s response was beating, arresting, or at minimum, dismissing them from academy forever. Things were going out of control in those times. Now, the tactic has changed due to the increase in pressure from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and others.

The EPRDF has highly involved itself in educational institutions to control any movement. During the 2005 National Election, they stopped at nothing to rig the election. They publically violated the minimum voting age in schools by coercing students of minority age to vote them. In the Constitution they framed on behalf of the people of Ethiopia they formulated minimum age is 18 (art 38). Students who would not vote were told that they do not seat for national exams. Taking advantage of the minority age, they coerced students to tick on the “bee” picture, the election symbol of the EPRDF, and put it in the ballot box. The election rigging of that time is not my focus here. The 2005 election was big test for TPLF and it was a turning point to strengthen their control on places and sectors they felt have resulted in the unexpected result of election especially in Addis Ababa. The education sector, or in other words the country’s public universities, private colleges and high schools, were targeted mainly.

Having said this, I jump to my insight on the recent brand new strategy of the TPLF’s gross encroachment into the academia – in universities, colleges and high schools. The administration, students’ personal and social life and all aspects in the country’s higher education institutions are controlled by the TPLF. This ranges from becoming involved in what is thought in class rooms, to encroaching on their private lives in dormitories.

In all universities, membership to EPRDF is top priority issue government focuses on. Besides education, every student is supposed to show loyalty and support to the ruling political party. This is meant to be expressed by participating in meetings periodically organized by government delegates, by contributing money which is collected by assigned cadres of the party and the assigned cadres evaluate and grade the loyalty status of the students. The surprising thing is it is graded on “A”, “B”, “C” and “D” basis similar to academic courses. The assigned student cadres are selected based on strong loyalty. The lowest structure in EPRDF’s systematic political control is called “cell.” There are hundreds of EPRDF cells in all universities each of which are framed to constitute up to maximum of 50 students. In Haramaya University students are organized in cells based on department they study and with students in their batch. Each student is supposed to be member of one the four political parties, the TPLF (the mastermind of the other three puppet parties), OPDO, ANDM and SEPDF – all organized under the umbrella of the so-called EPRDF. All campus cells are organized under “campus committee.”

There are four campus committees in all schools – TPLF, OPDO, ANDM and SEPDF campus committees. Membership to one of these four parties is based on the language a student speaks and their region of residence. The four chairpersons of the campus committees are called “campus coordinators.” These cadres are not students, but they live on campus and get paid for their service to the government. Their power is controlling the cells under them, choosing cell chairpersons, evaluating cells’ reports and heading general meetings of cells – twice a year. The coordinators and the cell chairpersons get promotion and paid better for their good service. It is highly discouraging and from time to time the country’s prospect of showing improvement is facing big challenge since the education is highly abused. The EPRDF leaders work hard to guard their power while they did not do anything for the interest of the country. Few cadres of the party are put in all campuses and schools and sometimes teachers are questioned for something they discuss in classes without knowing who spied them. They are also fired often if they think he or she is not loyal to them. Freedom of opinion, which is formulated under art 27 of their own constitution, is worthless for TPLF. On top of this, students in all universities are in suspicion and fear of each other because it is hard to identify the cadres of government. TPLF has never been happy about the harmony of the ethnicities in Ethiopia. The cadres in schools and universities are mandated to create suspicion and hatred among the students. Sometimes students are arrested by officers from their dormitories and either dismiss them from school or suspend them for years. While these all happen, they disseminate rumors among students saying students of other ethnicity are spying on the other. In Haramaya University in 2008 – 2010 many students were arrested without any reason. These arrested students were denied any rights they are entitled to under art 19 of the country’s constitution and international bill of rights. In fear of possible disclosure of such gross violation of human rights, the 2009 enacted law that is intended to systematically get rid of NGOs’ influence would leave the voiceless people of Ethiopia continue being oppressed.

Most of the arrested students were from Oromo, Amhara and other ethnicities, and none of them belong to the clan of the State’s leader. This has created sense of animosity and grudge on not only the state leaders but also among the nation and nationalities of Ethiopia. The arrests in Haramaya University caused a big tension among students of different race because the EPRDF cadres made a rumor to disseminate saying that students of one race have spied on the others. However, the fact is that the loyal cadres of the TPLF spy on the students and sow seeds of hatred among students. This is systematically adjusted to disunite the students, which would pose a challenge to the oppressive TPLF regime. However, it did not lead to further problem as the propaganda and tricks of TPLF is clear for every student. This sinful act of TPLF’s state officials, which aims to shed blood only to extend their power age has always been condemned. But, the oppressed people of Ethiopia are left voiceless due to inhumane and strong measures the government uses and tends to use. It is common to see any university in Ethiopia filled by Federal Police and Special Forces of the TPLF. For a visitor, seeing fully dressed and armed soldiers in Haramaya University campus, would seem like a military zone.

The dictatorial TPLF government in Ethiopia acts as a rebel sometimes. Hundreds of Federal Special Forces and Oromiya Police searched dormitories and personal belongings of students, several times. They come in the middle of the night without any prior notice and wake every student up and search them. Using this opportunity they arrested targeted students whom they reasoned possessing deadly weapons, while it is clear for everyone that they were arrested for other, political reasons. Above other problems, the regime of Meles Zenawi is disrespectful to its own constitution. The right to privacy which is formulated under art 26 of the FDRE Constitution, is one of the inalienable democratic rights that is meaningless for the TPLF, it is just coverage to tend to look democratic.

Beside the absence of the basic human rights and freedoms including freedom of expression, opinion and privacy, there is gross violation right to equality by the EPRDF government. Students who were not members of the political party and did not show loyalty to it are denied employment in any public offices and even private institutions fear to hire anyone not approved for being members of the party. As a result, it is surprising to see the immeasurable number of university and college graduates without jobs. Those who are from the ethnicity of the leading groups in origin and those who show loyalty and support to the TPLF are placed in administrative positions. Others unless they are members of the party and show loyalty, they are denied employment. This is highly discouraging the young generation to go to school, and on top of this, the quality of the education is very poor because it is political loyalty or race that is considered to get jobs – not merit. The facts about employment of students graduating from universities look like this: students who are Tigre have unquestionable right to work anywhere in the country and they are chosen to run offices. Students who are from other ethnicities but who are loyal to the EPRDF will get a job, but only in their place of residence. Students who are non-Tigre and non-loyal will never get a job and in most cases, systematically end up in prison without any offence. Have we seen such violations elsewhere? In the contemporary condition, the government of Meles Zenawi is leading the country into unredeemable crisis in all aspects. The harmony of the peace-loving people of Ethiopia is withering away due to the seeds of antagonism sowed by TPLF cadres, the education of the country is becoming fruitless since school are places of propaganda and corruption is highly deep rooting. So, where are we heading with this system?

Million Feyyisa Lenjiso is an LLM student at University of Washington School of Law. He can be reached at or