I often think I should do a sweep of what the state controlled Ethiopian media is saying, and on that rare occasion I’m pumped with optimism and vitamins I venture out to ENA… and… “Dear ENA Web page customers, sorry for the discomfort to access recent news. The web site is under maintenance and we will start to upload the news soon
Yeah. Sounds about right.
Mesqel Square, however, has a stronger stomach lining than I, and has been brilliant in keeping us up to date on heady stuff the Ethiopian Herald manages to cough up… stuff like how the State Minister stresses providing information to the media is one way to keep the populace informed. Eww. (Except that story is no longer on the Meskel Square June page… what gives, Andrew?)
But another interesting story he’s picked up on reminded me of a conversation I had with two ex-professors a while back.
In Football in the Classroom, we learn the Ethiopian government has approved the broadcasting of the World Cup on all plasma TVs in Ethiopian classrooms. Quoting an Addis Fortune article:
The Education Media Agency (EMA) has approved the screening of the 18th World Cup at 450 schools across the country that have plasma screen televisions.
450 schools have plasma TVs?
The EMA has 8,000 plasma screens that have been set up in 450 schools across the country. The Ethiopian government purchased plasma televisions as a cost of a quarter of a billion Birr with the intention of conducting uniform courses at schools throughout the country.
8,000! Is that a typo? Seriously? Quarter of a billion birr? That’s a typo.
Sources at the EMA told Fortune that the Agency would continue to provide educational screenings on the eight channels that are available to it.
“It is trying to work out a way that all of the games will be screened without affecting the schoolwork of the children,” said the source.
Well, as long as it is trying.
A few months ago I was at a gathering (where I had another encounter with that older gentleman who insists upon pointing at me in public settings and screaming, “You! Weichegud! You! That is Weichegud!” with both fury and contempt… but let’s not go there…) where I started chatting with a couple of science types who gave up academia for lucrative Silicon Valley jobs- one Ethiopian, one ferenjie. They were lamenting the decline of the great Addis Ababa University. One of the programs they had helped set up was PhD science scholarships to graduates from AAU. Alas, they lamented, no more. Why, I asked above the “You! Weichegud!” belligerence in the background.
Well, apparently the level of scholarship has so significantly declined at AAU that they can’t seem to get the same quality students from Ethiopia. “They are teaching on those damn plasma TVs, or via outsourced teachers from India. We can’t get half the caliber students we used to.”
Woah. They’re teaching university students through plasma TVS, too?
Here’s the fascinating quote in the Addis Fortune story:
the intention of conducting uniform courses at schools throughout the country.
Has there been a more anti-education government in Ethiopia? Has there been a more control freakish government that disguises itself as progressive? Has there been a government this committed to unmitigated mediocrity?
Emperor Haile Selassie gave up his palace so that the first university could be established in Ethiopia. If you have not seen the gut-wrenching documentary Deluge by Ethiopian filmmaker Salem Mekuria, get a hold of it, but get ready to fall completely apart. In tracing the student unrests of the early 70s, she interviews an elderly man who recounts how the Emperor’s courtiers warned him he should not educate the people at such rapid a pace. “These very people who you educated will one day rise up to overthrow you,” they said. The Emperor was reportedly defiant. “As long as they are educated, let them.”
Well, we know the rest of the story. And apparently so do the people in the EPRDF who rose against the Emperor with their cliff notes of Das Capital and anything Lenin’s evil mind concocted.
A little history:
On January, 4, 1993 students at the AAU protested the referendum (“for freedom or slavery”, cute, no?) on Eritrean independence. The government shot live ammunition into the crowd. (See Human Rights Watch’s thorough report, Lessons in repression: violations of academic freedom in Ethiopia.)
In April 1993, the government dismissed 40 professors from AAU. They were deemed too critical of the government, and you know how Marxists feel about dissent.
Among the dismissed were some of the most brilliant minds Ethiopia had. In an August 1993 article for the Ethiopian Review, Donald Levine writes:
Essential and not easily replaceable faculty were dismissed, including experienced faculty in engineering, medicine, economics, international relations, and linguistics--indeed, five of the University's only eleven full professors. The dismissees included Dr. Tamire Hawando, the University's only soil scientist; Dr. Admassu Gebeyehu, its only specialist in water resources; Ato Ayele Tarekegn, its only trained archaeologist; Dr. Makonnen Bishaw, its only medical anthropologist; and Dr. Taddesse Beyene, who managed the Permanent Secretariat for the International Conference on Ethiopian Studies.
Also dismissed was Professor Ayenew Ejigou, head of AAU's Statistics Department, an incredible mind and a great man.
In the meantime, the EPRDF continued to harass the Ethiopian Teacher’s Union, and its leaders, Shimelis Zewdie and Dr. Taye Woldesmayat, were imprisoned. The latter spent six years in prison. He talked to the BBC upon his release.
He was, he says, shackled in solitary confinement, confined to a fetid cell with five other prisoners, disallowed to talk to his lawyer in private and permitted to see his family for only 30 minutes once a week.
Dr. Taye, interestedly, was charged and convicted of creating a new political party, the Ethiopian National Patriotic Front,
in order to destabilise public order. The government blames the front for a bomb attack on an American government agency the US Agency for International Development, and for the attempted kidnap of a number of foreign diplomats.
Hmm. Sound familiar?
In fact, the Ethiopian government has had a tempestuous relationship with the ETA. According to Amnesty International:
The ETA has been engaged in a 13-year court struggle to preserve its existence and independence, and has been under threat from a pro-government organisation of the same name, which the Ministry of Justice (which controls NGO registration) had formally recognized, although it had not banned the original ETA. The original ETA head office in Addis Ababa has been shut down by the authorities for some years, although the organization still functions effectively for its members. On 1 April 2006 the High Court ordered the ETA to transfer its assets to the pro-government ETA. The original ETA is appealing against this
new court decision.
In May 1997, according to HRW, “Assefa Maru, acting director of the ETA, was gunned down by police. No proper investigation of the killing has ensued.”
Things were not just bad in Addis, and God only knows how many students and teachers in other parts of Ethiopia died, unlucky and unable enough to tell their stories to the international media.
October 2000 — Oromo students protested the move of the capital of Oromia state from Addis Ababa to Nazret, leading to the arrests of at least four students.
December 2000 — Police responded violently to students protesting living conditions at Awassa Teachers College. Students were beaten and arrested.
December 20, 2000 — AAU students were arrested and beaten after a fight erupted when a Tigrean student used the word “galla,” a derogatory word for Oromos. A series of related incidents followed in colleges and universities across the country.
On April 17 2001, students at AAU went on strike to demand academic freedom, including the right of the student union to meet and publish a newspaper. The standoff was particularly harsh and spilled over to the streets.
“… jobless youths in the capital used the student protests as an excuse to vent their own frustrations on the government, which this month is celebrating its 10th anniversary in power.”
True to form, the EPRDF sent in federal forces which opened fire on the crowd. Over 40 kids were killed. Thousands were arrested.
BBC, April 21, 2001:
Most have been taken to a police camp in the village of Sendafa, 38 km northeast of Addis Ababa after being rounded up by Ethiopian Special Forces.
In a building near the back of the compound, students could be seen trying to look out, but guards prevented them from shouting or opening windows.
Some made signals to their parents suggesting that they were hungry, by putting their hands to their mouths. Mothers screamed on seeing this.
The students paid a price for having dared speak out.
However, as I waited outside Sendafa to meet officials, police appeared to force about 1,000 students to run barefoot around a stony pitch during a heavy downpour.
Yeah, I know. The Ethiopian government’s defense: hey, at least we had the decency not to kill all of them.
Actually, this is what officials said:
"It is hard for us to distinguish who was where because of all the chaos, so we had to arrest all of those suspected," said one official.
"We hope to release those who are innocent in the coming three to four days, but it may take longer depending on our investigations," he added.
Truly, it’s a fara takeover of all things related to habeas corpus.
Professor Mesfin Wolde Mariam and Dr. Berhanu Nega were rounded up and sent to prison, charged with “inciting” the university uprising.
Any of this starting to sound familiar?
In May/June, a group of non-Ethiopian academicians wrote to the foreign embassies in Ethiopia with scathing critique of the appalling treatment of academicians by the Ethiopian government. The entire document, The Present Crisis of the Ethiopian Universities, makes for a fascinating read for those of us who were unplugged from Ethiopian politics at that time.
The sadness is often mixed with anger, even scorn, like when Harold Marcus (who is known for his outspokenness) exclaims: “I remain astounded by the absurdities engineered by this government, especially as it is headed by somebody who lived through the madness of the Derg years and last few years of Haile Selassie. Why does nobody in Ethiopia learn that you cannot block ideas and politics through suppression or force?”
Through its base and unconstitutional treatment of human rights organizations, academic associations, students, and faculty, the FDRE has brought disgrace upon itself and tarnished the record of Addis Ababa University, once the nation's pride.
(Read the entire document.)
In April 2002, after a year’s strike, the students returned to AAU. They had dropped all their demands.
So this is roughly the background that helps explain the plasma TVs. I remember when the Derg started determining what students would major in… the outrage we felt. Well…
The Ethiopian government prefers plasma TV education because videotapes don’t talk back. So what if students can’t keep up or lose that teacher-student bond? Teachers possessed unquestioned authority in the Ethiopia I remember. Now they are little more than “DJs” clicking on and off expensive plasma TVs that run on generators in villages where there is no electricity. Meanwhile, hundreds of university students remain jobless. How much of that quarter of a billion birr do you think it would have taken to create some kind of incentive program for teachers to take on assignments in rural places?
This, among similar acts of splendiferous mediocrity, shall be the EPRDF’s legacy. To think that people died for it because they believed it stood for a better Ethiopia! The Ethiopian government will not only have to answer to the Ethiopian people someday soon, it has to also answer to those who actually gave their lives for it.
The Ethiopian government has long enjoyed substantial international backing in spite of its human rights record. Eager to support Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, one of a generation of promising so-called new African leaders who came to power in the early 1990s in the wake of years of devastating armed conflict, the international community has been reluctant to criticize many of his government’s human rights abuses. Foreign powers including the United States have said they preferred to support his efforts to bring peace. A senior State Department official told Human Rights Watch that, after the attacks in the U.S. on September 11, 2001, the U.S. is even less inclined to demand respect for human rights in Ethiopia because it is completely dependent on the cooperation of this strategically located country, which borders Sudan and Somalia in the horn of Africa, as an ally in the U.S. war on terrorism. Ethiopian government security forces have taken advantage of this international climate to systematically repress students, teachers, civil society organizations, and journalists.
Human Rights Watch.
But the EPRDF knows. It knows the power of education; most importantly, it knows the power of under educating a whole generation. Ethiopian children are being used as guinea pigs while the government is praised by the likes of Ishac Diwan and Jeffrey Sachs as being committed to reducing poverty.
By now it is obvious that the world won’t come to Ethiopia’s defense. But there is something in me that believes to my very core in the ultimate decency of the American people, and that’s where this story has to be told. A group of young Ethiopian Americans has started contacting their alma maters’ African and Black student Unions to inform them about the situation in Ethiopia and to urge university professors and presidents to write letters to the Ethiopian government demanding the release of the prisoners. (cc: Condi Rice.) Join them. Contact your alma mater.
SaveNega.org provides guidelines on how to be involved.
It is our responsibility to tell the story.
Some of us have been made heroes by
the government, not that we intended to
be heroes. And we have paid for it. . . .
Seeing this, the public is scared. Even
our friends are scared to talk to us. You
can see how this affects freedom of
speech! . . . [The government] should
know better, having gone through the
same thing before themselves [when the
TPLF started as a student movement].
— Professor who was summarily fired in
1993, July 15, 2002.