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June 20, 2021
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The de-intellectualization of Addis Ababa University and beyond

By Tadeos Daniel 

This write-up was primarily motivated by the appalling action the Addis Ababa University (AAU) senior leadership took against two notable academics, namely, Drs. Merera Gudina and Dagnachew Assefa. The former, a prominent opposition political figure, has been teaching at AAU for over 25 years while the latter, a vocal critique of the regime in the public square, is a returnee from the USA and has been teaching at the same university for the past 7 years. These two scholars symbolize what it means to be intellectual in their own individual ways.The dreadful measure taken against these scholars is probably a dramatic closure of an ongoing de-intellectualization process. To say that I was not stunned by the dismissal of these two academics is not too strong an expression. Although expected, given the vengeful nature of the TPLF and its cronies, I was still dumbfounded when I heard of their expulsion from the institution they served with the highest ethic and professionalism. This essay highlights activities that figure in the de-intellectualization process of this institution.

The Addis Ababa University is the first institution of higher learning in the country. It has been the flagship institution where Ethiopia’s intellectual capital has been nurtured and produced. Most of the high-caliber human power in many fields of study was educated at this institution. It provided a first-rate quality education to all those who went through its campuses. One cannot make such a claim today, nevertheless. To the contrary, it now seems that the one-time center of learning and excellence has been transformed into a stewardship of shenanigans.

With all due respect to those who still carry the mantle of scholarship and serve with distinction, the overall setting observed in regards to scholarship, education, ethics, and morality leaves much to be desired to deserve the flagship university accolade any longer. Much of what is observed in research, teaching, and service, the triple pillars of higher learning institutions, is mediocre at best. How did this one-time first-rate University got to this abysmal condition. This essay narrates the contributing anti-intellectual actions taken over the years and how the AAU got to where it is today.

All is not well with the University today. Whether in the area of curricula, instruction, research, or service, problems that arose from an anti-intellectual fervor abound. The University’s undoing of itself began in earnest from the time of the brutal dictatorship of the Derg. The gradual process of devolving itself from an institution that had firm advocacy for a strong liberal arts education started with the scrapping of what used to be called the freshman program and the institutionalization of the three-year program. This program was motivated by an ideological consideration more than anything else.

This unscrupulous action was soon followed by the introduction of a parallel organizational structure to the senior administrative leadership of the University called, meseretawi derejit. This was a party – WPE – structure put in place for the express purpose of controlling decisions and activities that took place on campus. Academic decisions ranging from curricular issues to faculty recruitment have been under the watchful eyes of this center. Later on, there came a time when there appeared a complete overlap between membership of the senior administration and the meseretawi derejit in the sense that the three presidents became members of the later structure.

The University was made no exception to that of the rest of the civil service. Fear and suspicion took center-stage in what faculty, students, and staff did. Ineptitude began to replace skillfulness, resignation and disinterest began to take the place of inquisitiveness, and defiance and exigency began to give way to conformity and docility. All these came about as a result of the much feared Issapa Maekelawi Derjit! One contributing factor to the de-intellectualization process resides in here.

Just like the rest of the civil service and against all qualities of what defines a university, what was then referred to as weyiyit kibeb got to be forcefully introduced and institutionalized. This was a forum where the university faculty and staff met in small groups to discuss so-called radical/progressive literature from the left, the prime intent of which was to indoctrinate and control university personnel.

As usual, it was the thinker, Mesfin Woldemariam, who courageously expressed his objection to this idea on the basis a correct observation of the missions of a higher education institution, namely, teaching and research. He expressed his objection humorously by way of proposing that the community sit for an examination on Marxism and Leninism and let the results on that exam decide who should attend the discussions and who should be exempted. He emphatically suggested that those who pass and get the exemptions can then execute their professional duties, i.e., research. Who would listen to the proverbial thinker-educator!? The triple foci of a university including teaching, research, and service began to be trampled by ideological considerations. The Idea of a University, as John Henry Newman conceptualized it some 200 years ago and was subscribed to by the founders of this modern-day University was assaulted head-on with these actions.

“Education for consciousness” and “education for class struggle” became the driving force behind university education heralding loudly the purely utilitarian but poorly designed purpose of education. The liberal arts education philosophy that guided teaching and research at the AAU for decades was assaulted by this narrow utilitarian approach to education. The purpose of such an education was to just produce technicians who would subserviently serve the interest of the State. This change in philosophy and practice of education brought about a deleterious effect on the cultivation of the intellect. The dictatorship which replaced the Derg perfected the art of de-intellectualization of the institution and continues with much intensity and fury as I write. The roots of the anti-intellectual nature of the TPLF can be traced back to the critique of Ethiopian higher education system by the ESM of the 1960s and 1970s. This critique centered on issues of elitism. Higher education in Ethiopia was viewed as having been elitist as if it can be any other. The massification fervor that soon followed and is still underway is, but an expression of this misconceived view. This view was clearly articulated in multiple fora.

The early anti-intellectual nature of TPLF was demonstrated in what transpired at the University community meeting the leadership organized early. Spearheaded by such personalities as Bereket Semon, Tefera Walewa, etc., the group exhibited no contrition in tarnishing the history of the Ethiopian polity. Their pretentious and juvenile critique of Ethiopian history was made in the presence of such giant students of Ethiopian history as Professors Tadesse Tamerat, Merid Wolearegay, Bahru Zewde, and Shiferaw Bekele. No humility and deference were shown.

These individuals were either high school or college dropouts at the time they were aggressively pushing their tall tales. Co artist of the highest order, they were pretending as if they had a specialized graduate training in Ethiopian history when in fact they had none whatsoever. The swindlers were simply showing their distaste and disrespect to the academy. Power became synonymous with knowledge all at once. Power usurped through the barrel of the gun turned to become the source of knowledge. Egotism and conceit replaced modesty and humility. The pseudointellectual began to reign over the intellectual. The mirage of knowledge inched into replacing hard-labored for real knowledge. The entire tenure of the TPLF is depleted with such kinds of de-intellectualizing traits as can be seen in the following acts:

Act 1: In 1992, the harassment of the leadership of the Ethiopian Teachers’ Association (ETA) of which the Addis Ababa University Teachers Association was a member commenced. The TPLF-led Transitional Government later jailed the President of this Association who was a faculty member of the University and many other leaders.

Act 2: On January 4, 1993, when AAU students took to the streets to protest the planned Eritrean referendum, many were shot at, in close range and wounded. Many others were put in jail. Such actions were deliberate, targeted, and calculated measures to silence dissent and competing voices.

Act 3: In 1993, two years after the TPLF took the state structure, it committed one of its horrifyingly wicked political actions against the academy. By fiat, it expelled over 40 academics from the AAU, a horrendous act that targeted the best and the brightest that the country has taken many years to produce. In violation of academic freedom, TPLF authorized and sanctioned an illegal action that visibly, though temporarily, silenced dissenting voices. It gradually robbed the University off of its prime mission – the education of the critical mind!!

It is known that a university without academic freedom is no university. It becomes an institution that stripes off the thinking mind of its critical nature as in Allan Bloom’s “Closing of the American Mind”. The action TPLF took against these able scholars was nothing, but an inroad to creating loyalty to the established order. It was intended to send a clear warning to all who may dare to engage in the critical appraisal of the TPLF; a message to declare war on freedom of expression and underscore the virtue of ideological conformity at the University. This was a travesty and an oxymoron. Intellectual work and scholarship never intersects with docility and conformity. This indeed is contrary to the pillars of higher education.

What is it that makes higher education higher? It is not just that it is tertiary that defines the essence of higher education, but rather its critical nature. It is its pursuit of truth and the active discussion of its meaning that is at the core of higher education. The principal purpose of a university education is ethically conducting critical discourses vigorously with no fear of reprisal and persecution. It was in pursuit of these lofty ideals of the university that these 42 prized sons and daughters of Ethiopia were expelled! Amazingly, this injustice was committed at the behest of the leadership of a leader, Meles Zenawi, who in some quarters in the West is pronounced as “intelligent” perhaps confusing intelligence, with street-smart or ker’e in Amarigna. As Martin Luther King Jr., once said intelligence devoid of morality and character is really no intelligence and hence should not be valued as “the goal of education”. Looking at the actions the late prime minister took over the years, I find it difficult to consider him more than a clever individual.

There is nothing intelligent in presiding over the partition of the historically constituted sovereign Ethiopia. There is nothing intelligent in reconfiguring a landlocked country. There is nothing intelligent in pitting one ethno-linguistic community against another by pursuing the politics of difference. There is nothing intelligent in ordering the killing of close to 200 unarmed civilians who were only peacefully protesting [exercising their inviolable right enshrined in the constitution]. There is nothing intelligent in incarcerating hundreds of Ethiopians for expressing their free speech and freedom of press rights.

If serving powerful interests expeditiously to the detriment of Ethiopia’s national interest by playing an errand boy’s role is the measure of intelligence, indeed, Meles, qualifies for it distinctively! And, those who rave for his intelligence are accurate in their assessment. If character, ethics, morality, and compassion constitute part of this human quality we call intelligence, Meles is far from it by astronomical distance! This is precisely because his actions for the most part were unethical, immoral, and self-serving. Meles attributed the dismissal of these 42 academics to “incompetence” at the time. For those of us who intimately knew their intellectual prowess, this was a ludicrous allegation. Most were known for their high caliber in their teaching and research and we were astonished at how callous, unethical, and immoral this characterization was.

Meles went on with his rant by expressing a disparaging statement: why is a physics teacher meddling in politics as if politics is the exclusive domain of specific specialists. Little did he know that real physicists are, if scratch a little deeper, philosophers in their search for deeper meaning about the universe and its constituent parts; it is these thinkers who raise very fundamental questions about matter (apparently, Meles did not seem to have understood the dialectical materialism component of Marxism!?). What an expression of intelligence!!?? Did he know that Angela Merkel, who he had a photo op with on several occasions, was a physicist-turned-politician? That a politician can come from any discipline seems to have been unknown to him! I wished at the time that he talked about his own roots.

Interestingly and expectedly, Genet Zewede, the former Minister of Education who oversaw the dismissal of the 42 university professors, in a very recent radio interview attributed the expulsion to incompetence. There is no need to expand on her claim since one of her victims, Ato Fekade Shewakena, had provided us with a brilliant expose, in sober language, of her person and incompetence. In a twist of things, such a brilliant academic, Fekade, was labelled as incompetent by Meles and [un]fit by the sycophant! While Genet was lamenting about the luck of a tenure system at AAU in this interview, she does not seem to realize that the “tenure criterion” is slowly changing to a non-academic one, i.e., membership in EPRDF.

Act 4: The 3-wwek nationally televised meeting between AAU academics and Meles Zenawi, referred to as the “Summer Discussions” in some quarters was one forum where the arrogant TPLF senior leadership further demonstrated its disrespect and disregard for ethically grounded intellectual work. The late Prime Minister used this public forum to show off his excellence in every field by way of cleverly usurping catchy phraseology from disparate fields of study. Ignorance is bliss is an apt descriptive statement that captures the mood and essence of this meeting. Lecturing experts in their respective fields by an arrogant non-expert dictator is indeed unheard of. This is contrary to what we routinely witness. Politicians arrange for a public hearing on myriad of issues to seek information from those who possess specialized knowledge.

Act 5: More recently political cadres from the ruling group have been engaged in indoctrinating faculty and staff from across all institutions of higher learning. Masquerading as fora for open discussion of issues, it was an effort to monitor the public’s view about a host of issues and even trap outspoken oppositional voices. This was nothing new, but a continuation of the so-called legacy of Meles Zenawi, a legacy aimed at unleashing war against the nation’s brain!

All these acts and many others unmentioned here were facilitated by successive weak and irresolute leaderships of the AAU. A senior academic leadership that courageously stands against these anti-intellectual measures was conspicuously lacking. In fact, things began to get worse after the illegal and illegitimate ascent of Andreas Eshete to the presidency. Lacking the knowledge on the social and academic history of the AAU, the group that hailed from the Diaspora began to vigorously loosen and let go long-held academic rules and regulations which, in turn watered down academic standards and made intellectual integrity questionable. Andy and Samy [Names used by students to refer to Andreas and Samuel, respectively] became synonyms to yielding, happy-go-lucky, and acquiescence.

The Diaspora-based senior leadership of the University, as it used to be referred to by natives to the institution, were perceived to act like all and any kis-ader and/or kers-ader, to borrow a phraseology I heard from Professor Getachew Begashaw on his recent interview on ESAT. Indeed, the group acted like errand boys. They were swift in the implementation of orders that descend from the top brass of the TPLF leadership.

Unlike what Dr. Dagnachew, [the most recent victim of the atrocious act of the TPLF], I could not see even a “crack” and tend to think that despite Andreas’ assertions and pronouncements of truisms, his tenure as president bore no worthwhile indications of valor in protecting AAU from the anti-intellectual onslaught. Nor were there any exemplary actions taken to build and strengthen the academy. The few units that were put into place during his presidency like Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS) and Center for Human Rights are far from being academic; rather they are money-making schemes embroiled in and covered with revolutionary democracy motifs.

The much talked about launching of the Ph. D. programs in multiple fields of study was also initiated with feverish haste just to satisfy the political ambition of the TPLF and to show-case the horizontal quantitative expansion of institutions of higher learning. There were very little discipline based or expert-based deliberations that took place in the planning phase. They were just top-down decisions that lack sincere academic ownership. Revolutionary democracy dictated their launching. Logistical issues in regards to specialized faculty that can render instruction and advisement, laboratory and equipment capabilities, etc., were not serious considerations in the venture.

The intent was largely to produce a large quantity of Ph. D. degree holders irrespective of quality. While I am not into the game of “blaming the victim”, quite a number of the produce from these programs have been victimized themselves. They are schooled, but not necessarily educated. My advice to them is to continue to engage in self-learning. They need to continue meticulously building on their competence and expertise through the cultivation of self-knowledge.

Indeed, the much-talked about expansion of higher educational institutions is just about numbers. They seem to be certificate-issuing factories with very little regard to capability and competency. The utilitarian function of education is in control and that with little quality! The cultivation of the critical intellect and its humane purposes are totally neglected. The cultivation of the creative mind is suffocated with the revolutionary democracy imbroglio; the innovative mind is derailed as a result of the paternalistic educational practices put in place.

Indigenous initiatives have been blatantly tarnished by the huge appetite for exogenous ideas. The generation of new ideas has become a thing of the past. The rehashing of imported ideas such as BPR in policy and management, active learning and learner-directed instruction in education and allied fields has become the fashion and the norm thanks to the domestication of the Ethiopian young intellect by the insidious ideology of, call it revolutionary democracy or developmental democracy.

Victor Hugo, the French Poet and Novelist, once remarked that, “He who opens a school closes a prison”. What a remarkable observation this is! However, the accuracy of this astute observation becomes tenable only in situations where there is academic freedom!! In circumstances where the mind is required to think in a unidirectional way like in Ethiopia, the mind stops to be creative and innovative and the school mimics the prison.

The expulsion of Drs. Dagnacheww Assefa and Merera Gudina from their academic position at AAU is symbolic of how the one-time flagship institution has been transformed into a prison system. These two were heroic symbols of defiance that resisted uncritical boundaries in thought and in action. These two were bastions of resistance to conformity and domestication to ande-le-amst and tirnefa. I am saddened that this malicious political action was taken by the current president of the AAU who appears to be the TALLEST in physique of all presidents the institution had hitherto but clearly the SHORTEST of all in intellect. I am confident that the youthful academics will take from where the respected sons of Ethiopia, Merera and Dagnachew, left-off.

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