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Have Ethiopian Universities and Intellectuals Lost Their Raison d’etre?

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By Medhanie Gaim and Temesgen Kahsay

As spaces for intellectual engagement in pursuit of insight for understanding and transforming society, universities  are arenas for the  production of knowledge and the fulfilment of the higher needs of scholars. As such, they play a significant role in shaping the working of society. They are primary sites for expanding the boundaries of knowledge and for shaping the discourse of a country and effecting change for the better of society. 

While commenting  on why universities remain meaningful, Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, in his 2003 article, The Idea of a University, said: 

“universities remain meaningful because they respond to the deepest of human needs, to the desire to understand and to explain that understanding to others. A spirited curiosity coupled with a caring about others (the essence of what we call humanism) is a simple and unquenchable human drive, certainly, as profound an element of human nature as the more often cited interests in property and power, around which we organize the economic and political systems.” 

Lee Bollinger

Since the start of the war on Tigray, Ethiopian political, cultural, religious, political and business elites in general and academic elites, in particular, have been supporting a war campaign. From conceiving and dissemination of exclusionary, hate-filled and genocidal rhetoric against Tigrayans, to justifying and supporting a military campaign, Ethiopian intelligentsia have played a crucial and destructive role, which begs the question – have Ethiopian universities and intellectuals lost their raison d’etre?

The War on Tigray and the Role of Universities and Intellectuals 

Wars, like all major crises, shape societies, but they also expose what societies are made of – their underlying values, their asymmetric structural and power arrangements, and the views and role of their intellectual gatekeepers. In times of war, intellectuals, as privileged citizens and acting from privileged positions, have an opportunity that is not available to the masses – a choice either to challenge or defend the status quo; or a choice either to advance justice, peace, freedom or become culprits in the injustice and crimes of the state. 

Sadly, the genocidal war unleashed on the people of Tigray has laid bare the ugly side of Ethiopian universities and intellectuals. Their collusion with the state and their failure to promote dialogue and warn against a dangerous vicious cycle will take generations to break. 

Ethiopian intellectuals, both based at home and in the diaspora, have been using unrelated cases from the past to incite violence and justify human rights violations. Instead of confronting violent rhetoric, they have been producing them. Instead of questioning the state, they were reduced to echoing the state’s false and conflicting narratives, propagating absurd stories to feed state and non-state media. They would pontificate about past abuses during the ‘27-dark years’ while tolerating egregious abuses today, injecting and normalizing ideas of concentration camps, besieging millions, and using starvation as a weapon of war. 

Unashamedly, they have been justifying war crimes, even why invading foreign forces, accused of hundreds of massacres and an industrial scale rape, must stay and inflict more pain. Intellectuals who were supposed to nudge the warring parties toward a ceasefire were criticizing the government for announcing a ceasefire, regardless of its genuineness. They called for more aggression when the devastation was evident for all to see. They have been engaged in misinforming the public, shifting the narrative, cleverly concealing and whitewashing crimes, and demonizing and harassing those who condemned or called for an end to the war.

In a recent investigative report, a university and its staff were reported to have engaged in destroying forensic evidence. The BBC reported that there was a campaign to dispose of evidence, where government and regional officers were accused of ethnic cleansing, “supervised by experts from Gondar University,” according to an eyewitness who said:

It all started following the visit of experts from Gondar University. When they came, they came with trucks that were loaded with chemicals in white jerry cans. The experts were in the town for a few days giving training to the Amhara militia on how to dispose of the remains and then they returned

(As reported by the BBC)

Others, the silent ones, have been indifferent in the face of a genocidal war as civilians have been massacred, displaced, and starved; academics and students have not been spared from the misery. When university staff of Tigrayan origin were in harm’s way, their peers kept silent. No one spoke up while their colleagues, partners, and mentors were assassinated in broad daylight, ethnically profiled, arrested, sent to concentration camps, and denied their employees’ rights. The academic community didn’t even speak up for their own students as they were rounded, harassed and killed only because of their ethnicity. Why were the injustices committed on members of their own community unable to move them? Edward Said once noted:

Nothing, in my view, is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take.

(Said, 1994: 74)

If intellectuals, like a propagandist, are uncritically enthusiastic about what their leaders say, what moral ground would they have to teach about the pre-eminence of ideas, evidence or reason? How can they expect their students to acquire academic integrity and rigour when the supposed intellectuals are not willing to role model these values? We have already witnessed the terrible consequences of students inheriting negative values from their mentors by violently turning against their peers in what are supposed to be sanctuaries for intellectual discourse.

What is more surreal than to see universities turning into training grounds or a graduation ceremony for university staff in military training? To read that a university would revoke academic degrees of individuals who are found to be supporting a political party must have been unsettling. For universities which probably cannot afford subscription fees to access the latest publications, seeing them spend millions in cash, service, and other items supporting the war was baffling. To see university officials visiting military campaigns in support of the war instead of leading town hall meetings to engage the public towards the end of the war is antithetical to the spirit and mission of universities (see, Weldemichel et al., 2022 for an extended overview). 

In a situation where universities and learning institutions are diverting limited resources to war campaigns, international partners collaborating with and financing diverse projects have the obligation to ensure that the funds they made available are used for the right purposes. It would be a dereliction of ethical practices for partner institutions to collaborate with and support institutions and individuals who support a genocide.

Conclusion

As it stands, Ethiopian intellectuals have failed their moral obligations to stand against injustice. They have abandoned and compromised their intellectual integrity and lost their legitimacy. Return to normalcy is going to require soul-searching and, as Edward Said would say, a fundamental “moral rehabilitation.”

Ethiopia is in a deep crisis – the continued siege on the people of Tigray, the war in Oromia, the deadly drought, and the skyrocketing inflation. With all that, if the intellectuals do not intervene from a position of autonomy now, then when? When will they urge the government to value multiple voices? When will they challenge the politicians using logic and evidence? When will they challenge government policies pushing the country down the drain? The intellectual, Edward Said argues, above all, must avoid an unquestioning subservience to the state. When will you? 

Uncompromising freedom of opinion and expression is the secular intellectual’s main bastion: to abandon its defense to tolerate tempering with any of its foundations is, in effect, to betray the intellectual’s calling.

Said, 1994: 65-66

For the universities harbouring individuals who do not do intellectual function, you will add to public scepticism when intellectuals from your institutions attempt to tell the public how to conduct their affairs. So, before it is too late(?!), show us, for the sake of humanity, alternative courses of action, defend the weak, and defy oppressive authority. Above all, seek truth and present it as fully as possible – because that is your raison d’etre.

Sources:

Said, E. W. (1993). Representations of the Intellectual. Vintage. (you can listen to Edward Said’s 1993 Reith lectures on the representation of the intellectual here)

Weldemichel,  Teklehaymanot G., Negash, Emnet, Gebreselassie, Gebrekirstos, Teklay, Amare, & Nyssen, Jan. (2022). Database: the Ethiopian public universities during the Tigray war (Version 2) [Data set]. Zenodo. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.6385220

Appendix: Representative quotes that Ethiopian professors said about the ongoing genocidal war on Tigray

Propagating false narrativeThe reports of rape (in Tigray) are false.Professor Haregewoini Assefa, Affiliated with Addis Ababa University
Atrocity Denial Denying the Axum massacre. He was among the first to cast doubt on reports of a massacre in Axum. He attempted to cast doubt on the sources of reporting to claim:
“There is no credible evidence that an attack in Axum has led to 750 deaths…”
Desta Heliso, visiting lecturer at the London School of Theology (London).
Inciting genocidal violence“These people won’t change unless they all die”Professor Haregewoini Assefa, Addis Ababa University
Incitement to GenocideWeyane (conflated with the people of Tigray) are like cancer. Cancer is treated with radiation and chemicals. We must have a plan to completely exterminate them with a guarantee that no one survives. If a single cancerous cell survives, will multiply and eventually destroy the host.”Professor Tilahun Yilma affiliated with the University of California, Davis
Incitement to Violence/Genocide“When 85 ethnic groups are living in peace but one is disturbing. The solution is dilution, to invade them and dominate them in number.”Hasen Injamo. Lecture Affiliated with Addis Ababa University
Demonizing an ethnic minority1. “Homo-devil is a new species of humans mostly found in Tigray, and has been terrorizing innocent people.”

2. “Why is Tigray important for Ethiopia???? Is there no one who can say to Woyane/TPLF take Tigray and go to China? Why do we insist on living with a curse?”

3. “No Ethiopian should die for Tigray. The whole Tigray region is no better than one Ethiopia. You can secede. Now.”
Dr Tedla Woldeyohannes, Visiting Assistant Professor and Direct of the center for non-western studies at Huntington University.
Hate speech “We are better off without them!”Mesenbet Assefa Asst. Professor of Law, Addis Ababa University School of Law
Promoting collective punishment“Although siege warfare is time-consuming, it lowers the human and material costs by averting direct confrontation in open battle or house to house search for insurgents. It also forces the civilian population to ask whether continued resistance is worthwhile, whether it has any chance of success.”Professor Messay Kebede
Promoting collective punishmentIf Tigrayans are left alone, they will be a security threat. The government should take measures [proposes the example of how Eritreans were registered and then deported in the Ethio-Eritrean war] hinting at the registration and possible expulsion of TigrayansDr. Dagnachew Assefa, Addis Ababa University
Promoting collective punishmentFollow your leader and annihilate the enemy!Dr. Zemenewerk Yohanes, DebreBerhan University
Promoting mass internment of children“I think that the best thing to stop children of Tigray from being child soldiers of the terrorist organization aka TPLF is to probably put them in a detention centre for the time being! No matter how inconvenient that may sound!”Dr Solomon Bogale, Assistant Professor and Hospitalist, IM Residency at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center
Promoting invasion and occupation “Sovereignty is not defined by whether neighbouring forces invade your territory or not.”
[Without definitely addressing the withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Tigray.]
Belete Molla,
Department
of Philosophy, Addis Ababa University.

Authors:

Medhanie Gaim is a researcher in paradox theory and entrepreneurship at Umeå University.

Temesgen Kahsay is an assistant professor at the Norwegian School of Leadership and Theology. His area of research is the intersection between religion and society, religion and culture and the role of religion in the contemporary local and global contexts.

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