War is devastating universities, says Tigray HE leader

The leader of a coordination group for universities in the Tigray region that is currently being wracked by military conflict between Tigray militants and the Ethiopian army, supported by armed forces from Eritrea, has said the civil war is devastating Tigrayan higher education.

Dr Kiros Guesh, formerly the associate president of Aksum University teaching inorganic chemistry, and a current member of the Tigray State Council and the central committee of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), told University World News the war had been “devastating” for Tigrayan higher education.

He was speaking as Ethiopia’s 2022-23 academic year started in mid-September, and as the war continues. It emerged from political tensions between the current Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, and the TPLF which, from 2019 ceased to be part of the government, a position it had held for 28 years.

While millions of students, from elementary to tertiary educational levels, are joining classes, with Africa’s second-most populous nation of 121 million people reeling from multiple civil and military conflicts and drought crises, the education ministry has admitted that enrolment rates are 45% of government targets.

Tigray, said Guesh, accounts for a considerable proportion of this shortfall. Ethiopia’s northernmost region (population seven million) has been consumed by almost two years of war and bears the worst brunt as it is totally cut off from the new Ethiopian school year, the only region to suffer this fate.

With reports of weaponised rapes, forced famine and massacres (as reported by Amnesty International, for example), atrocities which have been largely denied by the Ethiopian government, Guesh said the war had prevented operations resuming at Tigray’s Axum, Mekelle, Raya and Adigrat universities.

Financial starvation

Guesh said universities in Ethiopia are divided into four ‘generations’, depending on when they were founded. Mekelle University is a first-generation institution, he said, with a better performance than many other first-generation universities, he claimed.

Axum is second-generation and in 2019-20 was eighth out of about 50 universities assessed across Ethiopia in terms of research output. Adigrat University, a third-generation institution performed well compared to other Ethiopian universities in its cohort regarding research output.

And academic studies at Raya University, a fourth-generation body, compared well with other Ethiopian peers, Guesh told University World News.

Speaking from Mekelle, the Tigray state capital, Guesh said the four universities had suffered severe physical damage between November 2020 and June 2021, after which Tigrayan forces recaptured most of the Tigray region, including its universities.

The Tigray academic said private higher educational institutions, teacher training centres and technical and vocational education and training colleges were pillaged by Ethiopian federal and Eritrean forces during that occupation.

He said soldiers had looted university laptops, desktops, chairs, tables, laboratory and medical equipment from the Shire campus of Axum University; plus the Adwa campus and hospital of Axum University.

“University vehicles were either burned or stolen, while other immovable university properties were set on fire. Similarly, Adigrat University’s renowned ICT infrastructure was pillaged by Eritrean forces and taken to Eritrea, with similar attacks being made on all four universities,” said Guesh.

He said academic staff have been targeted because of their ethnicity during the war, which continues to rage, with violence resuming in August after a five-month ceasefire, with reports of Eritrean troops invading northern Tigray and Ethiopian air strikes.

“For example, among the victims of massacre in Axum city are Axum University staff,” said Guesh. This happened in an attack that has been confirmed by Amnesty International.

Meanwhile, the war and siege of Tigray by federal forces has starved its physically damaged universities of financing, he said: “Universities’ budgets were set by the federal government which has discontinued funding since June 2021, so [Tigray] universities don’t have the finance to operate – 25,000 citizens working in various responsibilities in these universities haven’t been paid salaries from June 2021 up to the present time.”

International collaborations halted

Also, any academic collaborations with the rest of the country and internationally have been halted.

“Mekelle University, for instance, by the end of the 2012 Ethiopian Calendar [2019-20] used to publish research papers collaboratively with institutions working in 132 countries, as well as devising joint projects, sending our masters and PhD students to do collaborative research.

“The closure of the Mekelle University bank account as well as the suspension of banking services in all of the Tigray region put a stop to that.”

Guesh commented: “Before the outbreak of the war, there were more than 90,000 students in the four Tigray universities learning in regular courses, [study] extensions, summer classes, weekend classes as well as night shifts in undergraduate, masters and PhD programmes.

“These students, since then, have been dispersed, and there is no mechanism for the universities to know the fate of these students. The students who came from other parts of Ethiopia were eventually repatriated to their home areas.

“Additionally, many of our universities’ staff were [conducting] masters and PhD studies in other universities, including Addis Ababa University [in Ethiopia’s capital] as well as in foreign universities.

“Many of these staff members could neither complete their studies nor return to Tigray to visit their family members, as it has been prohibited from either entering or exiting the Tigray region,” Guesh noted.

He claimed some ethnic Tigrayan academics working outside Tigray in the rest of Ethiopia have been physically attacked, including murders – for instance, Professor Meareg Amare, a Tigrayan working at Bahir Dar University, in Amhara, the region from which Prime Minister Ahmed pulls significant political support.

Ethnic Tigrayan undergraduate students studying in the rest of Ethiopia have struggled to continue their education because they have not been able to source funding and have been socially isolated at their universities, with “the general persecution of ethnic Tigrayans affecting their economic prospects”, said Guesh.

Tigrayan academics working overseas have also experienced serious difficulties. Those undertaking PhD studies in foreign countries either have been unable to return home or, where they have re-entered Ethiopia, “have been subjected to humiliating experiences such as being arrested and then paraded as prisoners of war. Those that can’t return home are enduring severe economic and social crises” because of lack of funding, Guesh told University World News.

He claimed there were also threats by the Ethiopian government to strip the degrees of academics living inside the Tigray region whose degrees were won outside of Tigray, for allegedly supporting the Tigrayan insurgents during the civil war.

Guesh claimed that the federal government has been pushing Ethiopian universities outside of Tigray to help its war effort publishing research that “directly and indirectly” validate its position in the civil war.

Meanwhile, with the conflict ramping up again, Guesh claimed the four universities in Tigray were under attack through airstrikes conducted by the Ethiopian government and allied Eritrean government forces, which the TPLF claims launched a drone strike on Mekelle University earlier this month (September).

With violence growing and the siege of Tigray continuing, Guesh called on the international community to help the Tigray region administration undertake limited rehabilitation efforts.

“We call upon higher educational institutions across the world that are teaching academics originating from Tigray to give and continue their assistance as well as help out with our own recovery and reconstruction efforts,” said Guesh.

The Ethiopian government, Ethiopian academics and non-Tigray higher education institutions were contacted by University World News to comment on the impact of the civil war on universities and colleges in the country, including Tigray, but they have, since August, declined to offer information or analysis.