Anxiety in university city as conflict returns to Tigray

The safety of the university community who form part of the civilian population in Ethiopia’s Tigray region is in doubt following reports of airstrikes by Ethiopia’s air force on the regional capital, Mekelle, which caused deaths and injuries.

The airstrikes come amid the resumption of fighting between Ethiopian government forces and forces from Tigray on 24 August, thereby undoing a five-month truce and dealing a blow to peace efforts.

Professor Kindeya Gebrehiwot, the former president of Mekelle University, said the aerial assault from Addis is killing people and is also placing university professors at risk.

Professor Jan Nyssen of Ghent University in Belgium and a guest professor at Mekelle University, told University World News that the flaring up of the war has brought about anxiety in the university community, which is worried about the staff’s survival as well as that of their relatives.

“Everybody is worried. We are even not able to contact our colleagues through e-mail or telephone and to ask for their whereabouts,” Nyssen said, referring to what appears to be a communication blackout.

Teklehaymanot Weldemichel, a research fellow in conservation politics in Africa, based at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, told University World News that Mekelle is a university city, which is why the air strike could put the safety and security of university communities at risk.

Mekelle University is one of the largest public universities in Ethiopia with capacity for about 31,000 students, 10% of Mekelle’s population.

But, in the divisive conflict, the Global Ethiopian Scholars Initiative (GESI), an independent association of scholars and professionals, has warned against propaganda, misinformation and any group that is attempting “to advance a biased and one-sided political agenda under the guise of concern for human rights”.

The GESI board, in a statement to University World News, has also condemned “in the strongest terms, any violence and atrocities perpetrated against innocent civilians, without regard to their ethnic, religious or political affiliations”.

The group said it was deeply saddened by the plight of the people of Ethiopia, “including those of Tigray, who have suffered for over five decades under successive dictatorships, devastating wars and persistent famines.”

Status of university community

In the meantime, concern about the university and civilian community remain pertinent.

Gebrehiwot believes thousands of university staff members are likely to be leaving because of the siege – without their salaries and some suffering without access to medication.

In addition, no students are attending universities because the federal government has defunded the institutions.

“As far as the universities in Tigray are concerned, there are no students as it is more than a year since the federal government stopped the budget. By law, these are federal universities,” Gebrehiwot noted.

Agreeing with Gebrehiwot, Weldemichel said that the renewed armed confrontations and the spread of the war will only worsen the situation of universities in the Tigray region.

His pessimism stems from an earlier phase in the conflict.

“Universities, as in the past, are likely to be impacted by air strikes, looting and other problems. University employees, and particularly academics, were largely systematically targeted for killings, imprisonment and forced disappearances during the first round of the invasion,” Weldemichel added.

Nyssen agreed that staff are now without salaries. “University professors are dependent on food aid like almost all citizens of Tigray. Students of Tigrayan origin across Ethiopia have often been put in prison camps for lengthy months. I know several of them and they continue being discriminated against,” he said.

A December 2021 summary report of human and material damage on Tigray education details the destruction of Tigray’s school system and the damage to teacher training colleges and educational leadership resulting from war and the government-imposed siege.

“Despite all these challenges, we see some of the medical schools such as the Ayder Hospital of Mekelle University trying to continue academic and public services,” Weldemichel said.

“For example, Ayder Hospital [Mekelle University’s teaching hospital] has been struggling to provide help to survivors of the air strike,” Weldemichel added.

“Some of the doctors were tweeting in distress,” he said, including the former dean of the medical school at Mekelle University and the medical director. Pictures posted showed the destruction.

Protecting university communities

Nyssen said: “To safeguard universities, peace must come and, so far, the international community has put insufficient pressure on the Ethiopian government.”

“Two days after Russia started the war against Ukraine, the United Nations’ secretary general was organising sanctions. But now it is almost two years since Tigray has been subjected to war and blockade, and António Guterres is still only expressing ‘deep concerns’, without talking about sanctions against the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments,” Nyssen pointed out.

Weldemichel added that everyone in the region was at risk.

“Thus, we are calling for negotiated, independently verified ceasefire and urgent dialogue to end the war and protection of civilians and civilian infrastructures (whatever is left from previous campaigns),” Weldemichel said.

“We are also calling for the resumption of basic services, including access to banking, telecoms and other essential services,” he added, “as people are starving to death because they cannot even access their own savings.”

For Gebrehiwot the solution is simple: the federal government “has to stop its war on Tigray, restore basic services and allow unfettered humanitarian aid”.

Calls for boycotting Ethiopian universities

Nyssen, continuing the Russia-Ukraine parallel, said that, as soon as that war broke out, many international academic institutions started screening Russia’s universities, and those who supported the war against Ukraine have been boycotted.

“For instance, my institution, Ghent University, has stopped all cooperation with 14 Russian universities that supported the war against Ukraine,” Nyssen added.

“Similar steps should be taken against those Ethiopian universities that actively engage in war activities by organising or covering ethnic persecution in their universities, budget transfer to the army or even killing professors,” Nyssen suggested.

“Some Ethiopian universities have not wholeheartedly participated in Ethiopia’s war effort, while others were aggressively at the forefront, largely infringing upon human rights,” he said.

“In order to allow African and other institutions to take appropriate decisions in this regard, we published a report in March 2022 entitled Database: The Ethiopian public universities during the Tigray war, as an attempt to document the widespread involvement of Ethiopian public universities in the war in Tigray,” Nyssen pointed out.

Our report stated: “In general, Ethiopian universities have provided financial and material support to the Ethiopian army and allied forces, practised discrimination of their students and staff members of Tigrayan origin, including harassment and limitation of academic freedom. Infringements against human rights by the Ethiopian Ministry of Science and Higher Education are also included,” Nyssen said.

“I must say that, internationally, most governments tend to look for compromises with the Abiy Ahmed government, at the expense of the suffering populations in Tigray and elsewhere in the country,” Nyssen added.

“Many universities tend to only organise sanctions and boycott after their government takes a political decision.

“Yet, there are research groups and individual professors who have chosen not to cooperate any more with some of these ‘prominent warmongering’ universities in Ethiopia.

“For some months, it has become standard for international universities, including my own university, to screen the human rights record of every Ethiopian university before establishing projects and agreements with them,” he said.

Organisations such as the All-Africa Students Union, which issued an 8 August statement, have opposed the violence and death threats against Tigrayan students and called for protest against such actions.

They insisted that the human rights of Tigray students should be respected and perpetrators of the abuse brought to justice.

Echoing Nyssen’s views, Weldemichel, who is also a co-author of the report, said: “I think everyone should call for the boycotting of Ethiopian universities.

“It is a shame to collaborate with universities that openly promote war, ethnically profile and murder their staff and students and send their students and academics to concentration camps,” Weldemichel said.

The Tigray Youth Network (TYN) on 31 August posted comments on Facebook in which it protests what it describes as “callous” attacks.

TYN also made a post on Facebook to say: “We urge you to use all platforms and opportunities to raise awareness about the atrocities taking place in #Tigray. Participate in social media campaigns, contact your elected representatives and, most importantly, donate to organisations providing essential humanitarian aid within the region.”

TYN is a youth-led network advocating for human rights and development in Tigray.

However, GESI warned against a biased narrative in favour of a “terrorist organisation and disregarding the atrocities committed by the same group in different regions of the country”.

“It is well documented that the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which had ruled the country with an iron fist for over 27 years, has viciously destroyed numerous universities, schools, hospitals, industries and infrastructure in the Amhara and Afar regions in the past few months.

“As recently disclosed by a senior leader of the group, the TPLF has also collaborated with other terrorist organizations, such as the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). As reported widely, the OLA has committed numerous crimes against the Amharas and other minorities, including the kidnapping of students from Dembi Dolo University,” according to the academics.

African academic community role

GESI called on the academic community and other human rights researchers to objectively uncover the underlying causes of the conflict in the country and engage the international community in the search for a viable solution.

Fot its part, it aims to contribute to these efforts by presenting a complete picture of the situation in the near future and hope the “academic community will join GESI in denouncing all groups and individuals whose biased reporting will only continue to propagate and exacerbate the suffering of the people of Ethiopia”.

Other commentators are in agreement that peace-building efforts, which include the academic community, are urgent.

Yohannes Woldemariam, a political economist who has taught and worked in universities and research centres worldwide, including Africa – and co-author of an 8 April 2021 article in Foreign Affairs on ‘Ethiopia’s perilous propaganda war’ – told University World News: “The people of Tigray and Ethiopia do not want or need this destructive and pointless war which is responsible for the famine and internal displacement of millions.

“Academics and everyone with a conscience should speak out against this unnecessary suffering and slaughter of the poor,” Woldemariam added.

“African universities should be centres of dialogue, [and] not serve as military training and staging grounds. Universities should call for peace and protection of ethnically and politically bothered people,” Weldemichel said.

Nyssen added his voice to this call.

“The African academic community must condemn the Ethio-Eritrean attack on Tigray and play their role as peace-builder.”

“African academia must be a voice for the voiceless and humanity. They can pressure or air concerns for a political solution to the Ethiopia-Tigray conflict as there cannot be a lasting solution through war,” Gebrehiwot concluded.

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, a professor of global thought and comparative philosophies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, United Kingdom, told University World News he believed in the power of diplomacy and dialogue.

“The conflict over Tigray can only be resolved through peaceful means. What is needed is more international awareness about human rights violations,” he said.

“Scholars have a crucial role to play in effective ways to bring about stability in any conflict. In this case, scholars and intellectuals from all over the world need to listen to their African colleagues, as we have the moral duty to create awareness,” he urged.

“In this era of manufactured untruths and guided stupidity, the activism of concerned scholars is absolutely indispensable,” Adib-Moghaddam concluded.

This article was updated on 4 September with comments from GESI.