Academic Freedom, the Academy and Politics in Ethiopia
Damtew Teferra, Ph. D.

Panel on
Political Detentions, Elections, and "Democracy" in
Wednesday, 7 December 2005 at 6:00 pm
at the Askwith Forum in
Longfellow Hall
Harvard Graduate School
of Education, 13 Appian Way
Harvard University, USA

[Author’s Note: This article was not delivered in its entirety due to time constraints.]

Setting the Scene
It was in the era of red terror, 30 years ago. In Addis. A highly regarded medical professor would walk by a qebele office where the local militias -- abiyot Tebaqiwoch -- would keep a watchful eye on passers by. He would call out one of them to approach, and quiz him “Do you know who I am? Do you know what it takes this country to produce a person like me? Thirty years.” That famous professor, who passed away some years back, was Professor Getachew Bolodia. Whether he survived that regime by wit or by chance, whether this story is authentic, it is for potential autobiographer to establish. I am however pleased to share with the audience that, in his commemoration the Getachew Bolodia Foundation has been established some years back.

It was some two years back at MIT when I first had a chance to meet Professor Mesfin Woldemariam at his presentation on issues of land, drought and poverty in
Ethiopia while he was a Scholar at Risk Fellow here at Harvard. Around that time I just launched a new journal -- the Journal of Higher Education in Africa -- and was looking for authors to write on academic freedom. I had two people in mind: Nigeria’s Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka and Mesfin Woldemariam: Two prominent African legends who had their fair share of harassment, persecution, and imprisonment.

The first time I actually saw Professor Mesfin in person was in a coffee house in Piassa (
Addis Ababa) more than ten years ago. If my pictorial memory is worthy of trust, I now found him more frail, weak, and older.

I introduced myself and put to him the request. First, he congratulated me for focusing on such important issue. As his stay at Harvard was winding down, and commitment at home was mounting, he deferred the invitation. I thought his life time ordeal was over when I considered him as a perfect candidate to write a first hand account on academic freedom. How wrong I was!
I know that Professor Yacob Hailemariam had some connection with this institution—but I did not have the opportunity to meet him.

Engineer Gizachew Shiferaw -- one of the prisoners with Professor Mesfin -- actually taught me a course in industrial chemistry. He fascinated us not simply with the subject, but by his remarkably extensive first-hand knowledge of the Ethiopian industries. In a snap, he would tell you “this is the problem with the soap factory in Gulele”, or “Tannery in Mojo” or “beverage industry in Harar”. 
When I run into him some years back in Addis, and presented myself, he had no recollection of me. You think I was disappointed, not exactly. This was nearly 20 years ago. I mused, however. I must have taken the fastest aging train for him not to recognize me. I excused him. 

I was in
Spain last week to speak at an international conference on higher education. At this conference, six Nobel laureates attended and two actually spoke; the two who spoke were the Guatemalan Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchu and Professor Jerome I. Friedman of MIT. In their remarkable and yet diametrically opposite presentations they both underscored the need for vigorously protecting and upholding human rights, freedom of speech and academic freedom. One thing was obvious: one need not be a conservative or a liberal, a government opponent or proponent, or a disciple of any school of thought to champion freedom of speech.

At this meeting I also run into a South African colleague -- a former ANC student activist and now a vice chancellor -- who collected to me his time with Nicaragua’s Sandinista leader President Noriega as his group was exploring a political and economic path for post-apartheid South Africa -- in a way that has some similarities to the current reality in Ethiopia. He was telling me that the Sandinista’s had a complete control of the legislature, the judiciary and the executive power; and they legislated all the bills and the laws to their whims—having in mind themselves in power forever. Stunned by overwhelming loss to the opposition, they found themselves a victim of their own deeds (or misdeeds depending on your views). To this visiting South African delegation of future leaders their advice was clear: “leave a room for your political opponents to maneuver even when they are remotely your potential challengers, as you may find yourselves in their shoes one day.”
South Africa now has, not only one of the most fiercely independent judiciary but academic freedom is clearly enshrined in and protected by the constitution.

Imprisoning Conscious: The Perpetual Cycle of Victims and Victors
In the scenarios above, I have attempted to paint a human face to the issue we are exploring here today. Countless Ethiopians have lost their lives, their families and their livelihoods over the past 30 years for expressing their political views and fighting against tyranny, authoritarianism and totalitarianism. Under banner of a sinister slogan “Revolution devours its children” -- abiyot lijochiwan tibelalech -- the Ethiopian Revolution claimed so many lives; So many precious lives! Students and university professors -- the central figures of the Ethiopian struggle -- fled in masses, persecuted, tortured and massacred.

The current leadership -- and their proponents -- are the product of the time of that movement who managed to survive it. It is simply disturbing, absurdly ironic, and deeply scary that the former victims, who are now in power, commit the very repression and injustice they fought all their adult life. University professors and students were fired, imprisoned, tortured, and even killed. The current imprisonment of professors, students, editors, journalists, elected and political leaders, civic leaders and others is the testimony of the state of academic freedom and freedom of conscious in the country.

One sad story from
Addis Ababa University always comes to mind how absurd governments turn not simply in their action but in their explanation to cover abuses. Security forces storm the university a decade or so ago and kill one student. It was explained later that it was an accident but then, the explanation went on, the student was a supporter of the party of the former regime anyway. I pondered how smart these Ethiopian bullets have become to eliminate vocal opponents in the midst of a large crowd.

The absurdity goes much deeper.
Ethiopia has now the highest intellectual migration, widely known as brain drain, in Africa largely spurred by poor living standard, lack of recognition and political repression. Personally, I find it perversely hypocritical for many African leaders who fire, torture, assault, persecute, and even kill their intelligentsia en masse and at will, and show up in major international conferences and venues to shed a crocodile tear that brain drain is challenging their development. How absurd!

As it happens, no government reigns in power forever. Thank God! But then, what guarantees are there that the victims of today won’t turn into tyrants of tomorrow? What guarantees are there to stop this perpetual cycle of blatant suppression of academic freedom as governments come and governments go? It is simply difficult to dislodge ones chronic skepticism and even cynicism that academic freedom in Africa would be actually be protected, even as we witness dictators after dictators are swept from their powers. A lot more work and effort remains to address this chronic problem by deeply examining the root causes of such intolerance, injustice, lack of regard for the rule of law and human lives in a nation.

Academic freedom does not exist in a vacuum, however. And in the next session I will briefly discuss the role of the international community and the impact of geopolitics in the 21st century and their significance on academic freedom. Just before I summarize this section however, I would like to read a moving piece recently published on Fortune (an English Weekly published in Addis)
Educators and the educated were slaughtered in large numbers and a whole generation was lost forever. Today, it is the aging "mihuran" (the PhDs) who are left over from the revolution of yesteryear, and their followers, who present a threat to the stumbling Revolutionary Democracy.” (

The Thrust of the International Community
As I said earlier, academic freedom does not exist in a vacuum. To remedy chronic repression on academic freedom and human rights, mobilizing a host of forces beyond national borders is vital. The efficacy and potency of antidotes to protect academic freedom are highly enhanced by leveraging the international community. The international forces have a tremendous influence on how academic freedom and human rights over all are observed in the national context. These forces have considerable influence on repressive regimes—regimes who typically depend for their survival on the political will and economic underwriting of donor governments and institutions—should these institutions and governments actually wish to use this leverage judiciously, fairly and consistently. Not that, however, all the so called international communities speak in one voice, language, and understanding, unfortunately leaving the perpetrators to play one power against another.

Many repressive regimes are quick in mastering the art of exploiting contemporary global -- real and perceived -- threats (and even fads) to silence their opponents and crackdown on freedom of speech, writing, and assembly. The twenty-first century has its own Cold War geopolitics triggered by the War on Terror. And many repressive regimes are capitalizing on it by appearing to be partners in the struggle. Such global fads have a ripple effect on academic freedom and human rights of the common man and woman at the margins of the globe. It is thus prudent and sensible for the international community and its leaders to partner with people and civil society at the grassroots level, and not simply with regimes and cunning personalities, in the global effort to uphold and nurture the rule of law which has a direct impact on academic freedom and freedom of speech -- and above all to world peace.

It is vital to openly and publicly denounce rogue regimes—whether they are friends or foes—and even more importantly threaten them with serious political consequences, not only to help the struggle toward academic freedom, human rights and democracy but also to push the geopolitical effort itself in the right direction.

Academic Freedom: Confronting the Forces of Repression
There are so many ways the international community can play a role in nurturing human rights, democracy and academic freedom. My focus here is restricted as to how and what the higher education community can do to foster academic freedom around the world.

1.    Members of the higher education communities should lobby their legislatures, their friends and colleagues in government, in business, in the media, and civil society to denounce violation of academic freedom. The community should stand in solidarity with colleagues in the same profession against atrocities perpetrated by rogue regimes. University administrators, student leaders, and other institutions on campus could play a very important role in the struggle against repression and tyranny and respect for academic freedom. It is important to remember that by raising the awareness of the public, such forces did play a vital role to bring down the racist apartheid era to its knees.

2.    Undertake research, publish critical reports, involve in advocacy, and speak against atrocities and assault on academic freedom. “The pen is mightier than the sword” we know. May be in the world we live in, “the keyboard is even mightier than the AK-47”. Crowding the electronic communication space and the conventional media with powerful pictures and stories that chronicle atrocities and repression has an important role in keeping the issue on the lime light and pressuring the international community to act and the regimes to back down.

3.    Develop programs and action plans to rescue scholars at risk and work with institutions with the mandate, such as the Committee on Academic Freedom in
Africa. For instance, on November 11, 2005, sixty representatives of UK universities, the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (CARA), the Scholars at Risk Network (SAR), the Institute of International Education's Scholar Rescue Fund (SRF) and other organizations came together in London to discuss ways to assist threatened and refugee scholars. There are now efforts to establish similar initiatives called “Students at Risk” to rescue prominent student activists and leaders. Institutions can play an important role in saving the lives of these endangered scholars and students, until the political turmoil subsides, by providing them academic refuge in their institutions, and over all working with the institutions that are running programs.

4.    Write to respective professional associations and civic organizations. University professors need to lobby their professional associations, such as the American Association of University Professors, to condemn atrocities and assault on academic freedom. In solidarity, these and other sister organizations should actively engage in upholding academic freedom and denounce repression wherever it is perpetrated—whether it is on campus, within the national border or beyond elsewhere. We need to “think globally and act locally”.

5.    Support civil societies at the local setting and help mobilize them. Many professional institutions—such as teacher and student associations—operate under repressive conditions. Sister institutions that live in a democracy ought to support those that live under tyranny.

I would like to quote an important piece from a paper on academic freedom which we are publishing on the Journal of Higher Education in Africa by Prof. Philip G. Altbach an internationally renowned higher education expert: "History shows that academic freedom is not only a fundamental prerequisite for an effective university but is a core value for academia. Just as human rights have become an international priority, so academic freedom must be placed at the forefront of concern for the higher education community."

Pleading the Power: The Present and the Future
I know that so many voices and institutions are currently striving for the release of the political prisoners in
Ethiopia. I would like to join these forces in pleading the Ethiopian authorities especially His Excellency Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, to release them. Should the government insist that the rule of law take its course, as it has, I plead that they be released in bail or put under house arrest. These are among Ethiopia’s top notch academicians, scientists, scholars, journalists, and members of civil society, and we, as a nation, cannot simply afford to destroy these precious survivors of the past repressive regime -- which the current leadership fought and won. In conclusion, respecting and treating ones political opponents, especially when these enjoy high regard at the grassroots, national and international levels, have its own rewards not simply in heaven, but also on Earth, not simply in the future but also in the present.

Thank you.

Dr. Damtew Teferra is founding editor-in-chief of the Journal of Higher Education in Africa and director of the International Network for Higher Education in
Africa. Professional comments on this and other views on Ethiopian higher education ( and African higher education ( are welcome.
He can be reached at