Amid a fragile peace, universities recall conflict’s cost

Academics and students are counting the cost of damage to Ethiopia’s higher education after the two year civil war, which started in November 2020, ended with a peace deal between the government and rebel Tigray forces, which appears to be holding.

Ethiopia’s ministry of education in August 2022 published a report detailing the extent of the damages inflicted on higher, secondary and primary education institutions by the conflict.

The civil strife has destroyed 2,681 institutions and damaged 4,158 others, said the report, with damage to 38 Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) institutions across Ethiopia and three universities – Wollo, Woldia and Mekdela Amba, all in the Amhara region – invaded by Tigray forces between July and October 2021, according to the report.

More than 4.2 million higher and secondary education students, about 200,000 teachers, and other teaching personnel have felt the impact linked to the armed conflict between the Ethiopian government, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and their allies, said the ministry.

Yohanes Wogaso, the ministry’s director- general of schools’ improvements, speaking in a press briefing at the beginning of this academic year in September 2022, described the previous academic year as the most challenging ever.

He noted that 13 million higher and secondary education students did not register for the academic year at the time as a result of conflict and a 2022 drought, which meteorologists say was Ethiopia’ s worst in 40 years.

Post-conflict recovery

The report followed a nationwide conference in January 2022 on 'Post-Conflict Recovery Challenges and Opportunities in Conflict-Torn Settings of Higher Education in Ethiopia’ staged by the Consortium of Ethiopian Public Universities (CEPU) at the Ethiopian Civil Service University (ECSU).

At the time, Samuel Kifle, the state minister of education predicted that at least 20 billion Ethiopia Birr (ETB or US$377 million) would be needed to rehabilitate Woldia, Wollo and Mekdela Amba universities.

This work has been delayed because of continued insecurity since the main damage was wrecked and weak government finances, noted Ethiopian English language newspaper The Reporter.

As a result, Ethiopian academics told University World News, parents have looked at the option of sending their children overseas to complete their university education, notably Chinese universities that continue to offer generous scholarships to local students.

Others are looking at private tertiary colleges in the capital Addis Ababa (which is largely secure) over government-funded universities throughout the nation because of escalating ethnic tensions at university campuses and also because of internal conflicts in certain regions where educational institutions are located.

“I am now grade 12 and my father would rather be in debt than send me to one of these universities outside of Addis Ababa or in any of the public universities in Ethiopia,” said Saron Thomas, an 18-year-old youth now enrolled at an elite private school in Ethiopia’s capital.

Fears over insecurity

These fears have been fuelled by stories of insecurity across the country where the Tigray conflict has encouraged the creation of armed groups that favour guerrilla warfare over peaceful politics, even in Oromia that surrounds Addis Ababa and stretches to the western border with South Sudan.

Wollega University, in Nekemte, in western Oromia is one institution that has been affected, with operations interrupted because of the conflict, including the use of random drone attacks in the city.

Students from Dembi Dolo University, in the same region, are also still concerned about an incident dating back to 2019, before the war erupted last December (2021), when a bus carrying students was intercepted by militants who took the students hostage.

According to parents, there has since been no trace of the 17 students, many of whom came from the Amhara region, despite extensive international media reports.

“I don't want to go back there, as we still don't have security guarantees,” said one 20-year-old economics student who left the campus following recent fighting between government forces and the Oromo Liberation Front, which had been designated by the state as a terrorist organisation.

"I would choose to waste the two years I have spent there as a student rather than endanger and compromise my safety and even my life,” said the student, who now lives in Addis Ababa.

Abraham Yehualaw Demssie, 21, a third-year marketing student at Woldia University was preparing for his final exams when local fighting intensified between the TPLF and Ethiopian troops in December 2021.

Together with friends, Demssie fled to a neighbouring town, Mersa, for initial safety and to find transport to their home towns and villages.

“There was no assistance provided to us and we had many young students with little support and know-how to migrate elsewhere,” said Demssie, whose family lives in the town of Woldia and who helped his friends flee.

“The lucky ones got on a bus, but many of us panicked, and while walking in large groups got lost in the wilderness and not knowing if we would make it alive or dead,” he recalled.

Woldia University had to close for six months because of war damage and security risks, with repair costs estimated at around ETB 6 billion (US$ 110 million), according to the institution’s president, Abebe Girma, who stated this to Fana TV, a government-affiliated television station.

Demssie said that while the university reopened in June 2022, many students were absent amidst concern that the conflict might re-erupt locally. These fears were justified – as another phase of the war intensified in August 2022. When the TPLF captured Kobo, a town just 50km to the north of Woldia, this caused some students to again flee the campus.

Further closures followed. However, the institution re-opened in early December 2022, said Demssie and Belay Mengiste, a professor of management at Woldia University: “We had many students as well as staff shaken by what had transpired within our institution in the course of the year that was uncertain to say the least,” said Belay.

“We came back to an institution that was severely damaged with dwindling resources that ultimately impacted the quality of education we were keen to provide.

Our morale has been diminished and we have students that have been psychologically affected and the trauma of events that transpired in the past is still fresh in our memories,” he added.

Dangerous times

Students studying in Tigray, at the heart of the recent rebellion, have had arguably an even more dangerous time.

Leyou Tadesse, was a fourth-year economics student from the Amhara region, studying at Tigray’s Mekelle University when hostilities broke out in late 2020.

She fled Mekelle, Tigray’s capital in November 2020, but returned within three months, after courses restarted following the Ethiopian army recapturing the city in February 2021.

However, once the TPLF regained control of Mekelle in July 2021, a shortage of funding from relief agencies made it impossible to continue studying and so she left once again. She was later transferred by the education ministry to Bahir Dar University, in the Amhara capital of Bahir Dar, where she completed her studies this year.

“I was forced to wait for more than one year to complete my studies, leaving what I had to deal with when the war began. When the war first broke out, I could have been killed just like some of our schoolmates who attempted to return home and were killed in the midst of the battlefield,” she said, recalling her time in Tigray.

“It was uncertain that I would ever finish my education. I almost gave up. But the war has subdued and I was finally able to finish by education, belatedly,” she added.