Ethiopia’s Notorious Campus Wars: Causes, Goals, and Impacts

By Jawar Siraj Mohammed *

The last ten years have seen increased ethnic-based conflicts among university students in Ethiopia. Many of my own friends have become victims of these spontaneous eruptions. After interviewing several students involved in these conflicts and witnessing two violent episodes in Haramaya and Adama universities in 2006, I have come to the conclusion that lack of academic freedom at the universities and infiltration by agents of Ethiopia’s secret police and security services are the major sources of conflict.

Causes:  Restricted freedom of association, poor communication è creating ethnic ghettos

Students generally don’t (and should not) go to colleges to learn specialized subject matters only. They want to experience broader social, political, and cultural lives and activities which would later give them the opportunity to develop social skills, analytical tools and eventually become critical thinkers. Higher education institutions are learning contexts; and communication and networking are crucial skills that colleges provide. Clubs, fraternities and associations that are formed based on shared interests, identities, and projected professions form ways in which students can network and communicate to advance their personal growth and promote ideals. Furthermore, unbridled professorial writings, colloquia, panels, seminars and all other intellectual exercise around higher learning institutions ultimately provide that learning context for students.

However, on a campus where academic freedom (of association, publication, etc.) is heavily restricted,  and where the government recruits hundreds of informants to spy on their peers, a primordial identity becomes the only secure, dependable and accessible means of networking and communication. Without opportunities for cross-identity association, the social environment revolves around assumption, misinformation, and suspicion which pave the way for prejudices and discrimination, and eventually that becomes a norm. Such a campus is a time bomb for group violence. I think academic un-freedom and authoritarian repression causes and sustains much of the recurring violence around Ethiopia’s higher learning institutions.

Goal: Keep them divided and at war with each other è Easy to subdue

I am not surprised that Ethiopian colleges and universities have become home to what can be categorized as “ethnic ghettos”. But one would rightly ask that why a state would waste public resources to bring students from Bale, Adigrat, Debremarkos and Jijigga to one campus only to let them live segregated?  These ghettos are strategically important for the regime, which invests highly in their maintenance. Keeping the student population divided and at war with each other physically or psychologically is crucial to sustaining the regime’s power. Well, physical segregation in the sense of sending them to different universities is not viable. It would have obvious backlashes.  Here is thus how it works.

Let’s take the case of Oromo students, a group that has always had an uneasy relationship with the current government. In the universities, there are no forums where Oromo students can air their concerns, promote their culture, or showcase their poetry and creativity. Therefore, they are forced to establish informal underground networks.  Worse, they are usually harassed, antagonized and insulted by regime cadres posing as ordinary students, most recently coming from Tigray.

What exactly is going on with Tigrean students?  As I have discussed in my previous pieces,[i]the regime wants Tigreans to remain isolated from the rest of students. Rumors have it that they enjoy special privileges and that some are even armed. But I believe privilege has less to do with the segregation. I think most Tigrean students stick to their kin because of the unfriendly behavior of suspicious and angry students from other groups.

Agent-provocateurs: Boiling emotions to fuel anger

Ethnic segregation of the student body has allowed the regime to install agent provocateurs. These agents join their respective ethnic groups to prepare the ground for violence by propagating rumors and conspiracy theories.  For instance, to Tigrean students, the Oromos would be portrayed as hateful, narrow-minded nationalists siding with the OLF to wage mass murder against Tigrean people. To the Oromo students, Tigreans are portrayed as a group ridden with superiority complexes and disrespect for others. Interestingly enough some of these rumors are backed by reality as well. A Tigrean student would act or say things that are offensive to the Oromo, which confirms the truthfulness of the rumors. An Oromo student would in turn utter words that confirm the Tigrean student’s suspicion. Unknown to the innocent students, many of such interactions arise deliberately on the part of agent provocateurs playing both sides. The secret police have assets within all student groups: Tigre, Oromo, Amhara and others. In this way, the tension becomes intense between student groups.

When disturbance becomes tactically relevant, the same assets light the fire. A Tigrean agent will beat an Oromo in front of a crowd that is already enraged by tensions. Mass violence breaks up; the police come in and take sides with Tigrean students, making the issue a national scene. Then an opposition political group would be accused of instigating the violence. The wave continues until it gets to where it was designed for!

This is exactly what happened last week, when mass violence broke out  supposedly over a stolen cell phone. The police arrived late, and by then several students were seriously injured. Since the goal is to enrage the Oromo public, male Tigrean students broke into a female dormitory and beat up Oromo girls. When the enraged students staged a protest, they were rounded up and thrown into jail for inciting violence. They are accused of being used by “external actors” – a code name for the OLF and possibly others as well.

In fact, since this story failed to sell, Bereket Simon changed the story and now alleges that “…hard core supporters of Arena and OPC [Oromo People Congress] are trying to rally each other and have their hands adding fuel to the fire.” Let’s put this statement to test. What benefit would either Arena or OPC gain by pitting their supporters against each other? Due to their past role in TPLF, Arena officials have a tainted relationship with the Oromo electorate; hence their objective at this time is to repair the relationship. Thus, there is no way they can benefit by agitating Tigreans to attack Oromo students. It is simply illogical. Similarly, the Oromo opposition is traveling as far as Mekele to engage Tigreans and rebuild the relationship severed by the current regime. It goes against their interest to incite Oromo students to fight Tigreans. In fact, I personally know, since the conflict broke out, Oromo elders and senior leaders have been advising the students against retaliation and escalating the conflict.

An Improvised Old Game: If It Worked In the Past, You Repeat It

This is not the first time the regime pitted students of one ethnic group against the other for transient political gain. In the past, it was Amhara and Oromo students who fought this manufactured wars. Books, articles and events that ridiculed and humiliated the Oromo people were intentionally organized to infuriate Oromo students and make them appear high-tempered trouble makers. Given the ideological differences that existed between the two groups, government infiltrators could easily exploit the communication gap. The agent-provocateurs painted Amhara students as chauvinists bent on downgrading Oromo cultural identity, while Oromos were portrayed as narrow nationalists aiming to dismantle Ethiopia. A façade of victim victimizer role.

In 2006, when the OLF and CUD formed the Alliance for Freedom and Democracy (AFD), the regime feared the Oromo and Amhara students might follow suit and establish alliance, breaking down segregation. Hence, agent-provocateurs instigated well-coordinated violence that rocked almost every university. First, a child guest on the popular TV show hosted by Ababa Tesfaye uttered the offensive term “Gala”. Following furious viewer response, an Amhara student at Haromaya University wore a t-shirt saying “Gala is the Greatest Animal Living In Africa”. This led to nationwide student violence from Haramaya to Jimma, from Adama to Mekele, Arbaminch to Bahir Dar. Many lives were lost.

This instigation of controversy was declared successful as violence further deteriorated the already ugly student relations. It was based on this accomplishment that the current Tigrean-Oromo tension began to be facilitated. Sometimes the instigation and violence has assumed religious faces.

How Does The Regime Benefit From The Current Conflict?

a)     It keeps students disunited, weak and voiceless. Instead of working together for mutual benefit, they sabotage each other and allow the regime to use one group against the other.

b)    Student violence helps the regime to identify and eliminate key emerging leaders. During crisis, those with leadership potential step up to be voices of dissent and expose themselves.  For example, since Meles came to power, every year, the most promising young Oromo student leaders were identified in this way and eliminated through assassination, imprisonment, expulsion and forced exile. We can count all day many that are languishing in refugee camps, whose whereabouts are unknown to date, and others who were murdered in cold blood.

c)     Remember, Meles cannot afford Tigrean students to listen to the concern and grievances of others. If so, these young people will begin sympathizing with the oppressed group, and will tell their parents about it. He cannot afford it particularly at this time, when Tigrean elites are coming to the opposition side, and losing the students would speed up the end. In recent months, with the formation of Medrek, some sign of cross-ethnic dialogue was seen between Tigrean and other students. Hence, the violence was instigated to short-cut this initiative.


1)     Tigrean elites and elders should carefully study this phenomenon and take control of their students. The regime is attempting to install the most chauvinistic form of nationalism in these young minds. 6% of  the population ruling the country is justified as the uniqueness, especial bravery and intellect of Tigray people, and students are called up on to be proud and defend the system, leading to the inevitable chosen race propaganda.  This fantastic delusion needs to be ceased in time.

2)     ) Tigrean students should know that the welfare of their people is intertwined with the well-being of the rest of the country. Allowing themselves to be used by the regime not only put their lives in danger, but also increases the hatred towards their people, and in the long run creates a dangerous situation for everybody.

3)     Oromo leaders and organizations should refrain from inflaming the situation. While it is justified and expected that they stand with Oromo students, the situation should be carefully assessed and understand the strategic rationale behind these attacks and devise a counter strategy to undermine their efficiency. The root cause needs to be addressed systematically, instead of the spontaneous and sporadic reactions.

4)     For the Oromo student, as difficult as it is to live under constant bullying and demoralization, it is crucial to understand that Ethiopia is currently ruled as an authoritarian and tyrannical economic oligarchy, hiding behind particular ethnic group. Hence, fighting Tigreans misses the point. That is what the system wants: to isolate you and make you fight the wrong war. Instead you should devise a strategy to bring All Ethiopian Students to your side on mutual grounds. The effective strategy is depleting the regime’s support base by exposing its naked identity.

5)     The Ethiopian government should be careful with the fire it’s playing. We know these tactics do work, but in the long run, they will have dangerous consequences. One of the government strategists joked they are exercising with a controlled fire. I asked, God forbid, what if un-forecast wind comes and blow the fire out of your control? You might think you can incite the violence and put it down as easily, but you are forgetting the long term impact of psychological and emotional trauma those violent events would leave in the minds of students. Universities ought to be the place that nurtures free spirit, elevated and constructive discourse to find creative ways of solving our multifaceted problems. To the contrary, the Ethiopian colleges are becoming incubators of racism, prejudices and violence. These will have a far reaching negative consequence. The tactical gains such situation is not worth the long term damage. Just stop it, and discipline racism, prejudice and the discrimination.

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