Beginning last week, lecturers at institutions of higher learning have been holding meetings with government representatives. Though the theme of the discussions was intended to focus on the challenges and successes of the education sector in the past 25 years, the lecturers raised a raft of questions regarding the current political situation in the country. There is no denying that despite the enrollment of some 30 million students across the country, a barrage of criticisms were being levelled in connection with attend academic freedom, quality of education and other matters of grave importance. This said, it is not fitting to organize deliberations on the performance of a single sector while keeping mum on legitimate grievances that are sources of disquiet by all citizens. Thus, the right of the academic world to articulate views on contemporary political developments needs to be respected.
The first conversation of note that top-level officials of the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)-led government had with university lecturers and researchers was in 2002. Although the opinions and proposals expressed then were swept under the carpet, the concerns aired at those gatherings are coming to pass. The participants broached largely the same issues as they did 14 years ago including the competence and credibility of the discussants. Whatever the case, Ethiopia finds itself at a critical juncture where citizens who believe they have a stake in the fate of the country propose solutions on the way forward. Hence, the voice of academics should be heard loud and clear.
The palpable political tension gripping the country is not something that can be whitewashed through overused platitudes; it requires level-headed discourse on every level. The government ought to abandon the notion that forces within the opposition camp are bent on derailing its plans or sullying the credit it deserves so as to engage constructively compatriots that can make useful contributions to their nation’s cause. Everyone remembers the gravity of the problem that ensued following the elevation of hypocritical pseudo-scholars. 25 years of self-congratulating on “successes” can no more conceal the flaws lurking behind them. The challenges brought about by bad governance, miscarriage of justice and corruption, exacerbated by the aversion to listen to each other, continue to bedevil the nation.
Even as the quality of education provided by universities and colleges leaves a lot to be desired, academic freedom or lack thereof has long been a problem area for them. Higher learning institutions have been neutered as knowledge centers where a generation is steeped in the culture of unencumbered exchange of ideas. Leaving aside the tyrannical rule of the military dictatorship from 1974-1991the institutions that enjoyed relatively better academic freedom during the preceding reign of Emperor Haile-Selassie are now practically alien to the concept. It should worry us all that they have become places of congregation for fearful or apathetic individuals instead of centers which as in the past set political agendas. It is somewhat paradoxical that this is taking place on the watch of the EPRDF, which claims to be the vanguard of respect for human and democratic rights. The bulk of the top level management of the institutions inarguably lack leadership qualities as well. The rampant mismanagement in the placement, promotion, transfer, scholarship opportunities, among others, of lecturers as well as the shocking level of corruption besetting the institutions are areas of further concern. The inability to install a management team possessing the requisite knowledge, professionalism and work ethics after 25 years of rule is a manifestation of abject failure in the leadership.
The fact that institutions of higher learning become a microcosm of Ethiopia that serves as a crucible of diverse ideas and avenues for expression of public discontent is in everybody’s advantage. It would be criminally wasteful to miss the chance to exploit fully the wealth of knowledge and wisdom residing in decades-old institutions. When Academia are encouraged to hold dialogues on greater exercise of academic freedom and the solutions to the multi-faceted challenges facing the country the sources and the solutions to them can be found with more clarity. Hence it is imperative to abandon the propensity to hang on the coattails of past successes and engage in critical and frank deliberations on coreproblems.
The other fundamental flaw that characterized the meetings held in institutions of higher learning institutions is their format whereby the tendency to ascribe the role of speaker to government representatives and that of passive listeners to academics was patently observable. The latter’s demand that their opinions should be heeded after being ignored perennially is quite legitimate. A forum wherein government officials deliver a monologue and the participants make no contribution whatsoever is unhealthy in that it is a sign of bottled up resentment and engenders cynicism and apathy. The role of intellectuals in spurring the development of a nation goes beyond academic responsibilities. The kind of mindset which discourages the tapping of the reservoir of knowledge they represent in the belief that the government alone is the source of the panacea for the country’s ailments in no way advances the national interest.
The public is keen to see if the government is committed to honor its recent pledge to introduce deep reforms. The academic community constitutes a resource pool the government can tap to replace incompetent elements within its ranks. There are numerous citizens who have the educational credentials, experience, integrity and patriotism required to serve their country and people diligently and without political partisanship. It is time to headhunt locally and abroad for citizens worthy of taking on the responsibility of steering Ethiopia on the right course at this difficult time. In this regard it is incumbent upon the government to give due consideration to the solutions that scholars propose with a view to bring them on board in the effort to rebuild public trust. The follies of rejecting or mocking the opinions of the academic community have come back to haunt us now. However, care should be taken to ensure that the hatred, innuendo and violence peddled by “intellectuals” on social media and other platforms does not gain traction and detract from the invaluable input of responsible and seasoned citizens. This is why it is high time to heed the voice of academics.