Amhara strife threatens to disrupt academic year

The academic careers of thousands of students are in jeopardy as Ethiopia’s Amhara region continues to be engulfed in widespread conflict which threatens to disrupt the upcoming academic year. A state of emergency, declared by the federal government on 4 August, is continuing.

The latest conflict between government forces and the Amhara Fano militia who are fighting for control over sections of the region – the country’s second-most populous state, with roughly 23 million inhabitants – has shattered the peace secured in November 2022 which ended two years of conflict between the government and rebels in Tigray, to the north of Amhara.

The United Nations Human Rights Office says an estimated 183 people have died in the latest conflict as of last week, and more than 1,000 have been detained for being supporters of the Amhara militia, Fano, which was an ally of the Ethiopian government during the Tigray war, but which is now out of favour with the federal government.

The fighting was sparked by federal government moves to absorb the militia into the national armed forces, and continuing border disputes with the former rebels, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

“Many of those detained were reported to be young people of Amhara ethnic origin suspected of being Fano supporters,” said the UN. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project has said that fighting has been across Amhara, although violence has been particularly prevalent in North Wollo and West Gojam, in the region’s east.

Disruption to universities

The new conflict has seen 10 state universities (Bahir Dar, Gondar, Debre Berhan, Debre Markos, Wollo, Woldia, Debre Tabor, Mekdela Amba, Injibara and Debark) postponing planned graduation ceremonies and cancelling summer classes.

“Many universities are already postponing graduation and admission dates,” said Hone Mandefro, a PhD student and advocacy director of the Amhara Association of America. He said a family member was supposed to have graduated from an Amhara university (which he did not want to name) this month but the ceremony “has been postponed indefinitely”.

Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education did not respond to requests for comment from University World News, but Nigus Tadesse, president of Debre Berhan University, in southern Amhara, close to the national capital, said senior university officials are grappling with delayed registration as the academic year approaches.

“Our plan was to open our registration next week and accept students shortly after, but that is becoming a challenge and it is something we have to reconsider, given the reality on the ground,” he told University World News. “Our pressing issue is whether our students can move around without their safety being compromised and us – as institutions – guaranteeing their safety within our premises.”

Given spotty internet access across Ethiopia, especially in rural areas, Tadesse said there are no plans to offer virtual classes for its more than 5,000 students, many of whose lives have been disrupted by the new fighting.

The state of emergency limits the movement of people around Amhara, with the Ethiopian economic and political news magazine the Addis Standard reporting that “hundreds of lecturers from various government universities in the Amhara region on government assignment to supervise Grade 12 examinations remain stranded” in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, as the conflict continues.

Worried parents are considering alternative options for their student children.

“We are observing what is happening but we fear it will be a lost year for my daughter who was about to begin her third year at Gonder University in their prestigious nursing programme,” said Ewnetu Kebede (57). He is now looking for options, including sending his only daughter to India, a preferred destination for many young Ethiopians with academic ambitions, thanks to affordable tuition fees and safety.

International students

Foreign students studying in the Amhara region have not been immune to the conflict. This month, students from South Sudan made a desperate public appeal to their embassy and requested that their government airlift them to safety. They complained that all modes of transport, telecommunication links and the internet had been cut off across Amhara.

Blaming a lack of resources, the South Sudan embassy failed to assist their young citizens. The then Ambassador James Morgan Pitia told journalists: “I don’t have power to evacuate students stuck in Amhara.”

Pitia was appointed as South Sudan’s foreign minister on 31 August, so may have more resources to command going forward.

In the historic walled city of Gondar, where recent clashes have been intense and where the national army has claimed it has expelled Fano rebels, thousands of students have postponed travelling to one of Ethiopia's biggest and most prestigious universities, the University of Gondar.

It has more than 46,000 students in a usual year, and for those academics and students who have arrived for the start of the school year, an air of uncertainty is palpable. The university has yet to decide whether it will open in September.

“We will decide after our annual plan’s implementation which will be decided in the second week of September,” Gondar University president Asrat Atsedeweyn told University World News.

In Addis Ababa, an Amharan parent who requested anonymity fearing he could be targeted because of his son's activism, said the youth has been imprisoned since the early days of August, accused of being a Fano supporter. He is worried that his son will miss a full academic year should university registration commence without him.

“In a nation where being an activist is illegal, being a student and ultimately a productive citizen is becoming a challenge. With his absence and not knowing how long he will be in prison or his whereabouts and now, missing out on his education … this is something that has hit the core of my own being,” said the parent.

Damage to infrastructure

The conflict has wrought havoc to the region’s economy. Physical damage suffered by the region’s universities and colleges – with Woldia, Wollo and Mekdela Amba universities being particularly badly hit – have contributed to what the UN has called “the world’s largest education crisis” during which millions of students have been forced from their classes – in both tertiary and secondary sectors.

After the Tigray conflict ended, the cash-strapped Ethiopian government had promised to rebuild the thousands of educational institutions destroyed and damaged by the conflict in that region, including universities in Afar and Amhara, with the support of international donors.

But the fact that Amhara is now facing its own conflict is of particular concern to students, including those who fled Tigray during its own war. Many moved to and were accommodated in alternative colleges and universities in Amhara to continue their education.

One of these students was Mehret (last name withheld on her request), who fled from the University of Aksum in Tigray to the Amhara region’s Debre Markos University, in central Amhara. What is happening currently in Amhara is déjà vu for the 23-year-old, who is studying accounting and finance.

“I thought I was finally finishing my education in the upcoming year, graduating and moving on. Little did I know such conflict would follow me,” she said as she now contemplates applying for work with Ethiopian Airlines, the government-owned airline, as an in-flight hostess.