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Pointers of Justice and the Ongoing Debates in Ethiopia

Ghelawdewos Araia, Ph.D

April 10, 2010

Abstract: This article critically examines the current politics in Ethiopia pertinent to the rule of law, governance and the broad range of philosophical foundations of justice. Above all, the article discusses the ongoing pre-election debates, and as a matter of interest to the Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA, Inc.), the focus will be on the education debate.

I am using the word ‘pointers’ not in the sense of a benchmark or a roadmap but in its more humble sense, meaning advice and how to go about and fulfill it. It may sound ironic to extend advice to unresponsive ruling clique in Ethiopia, but I still would not mind doing it especially if it can serve the purpose in warding off violence during the May election of 2010. I am hoping that the Meles government refrains from unleashing its coercive apparatus against the opposition and their supporters.

I have been following the pre-election debates of 2010 between the opposition and the ruling EPRDF party on Ethiopian Television, and not withstanding my own cynicism with respect to election outcomes in Ethiopia, I found the series of debates (the first comprehensive debate; the debate on good governance, health, and the one on education) quite impressive and civil. But I say this with a huge caveat to the reader: these tiny and minuscule (and perhaps ephemeral and transient) debates have taken place in the midst of attacks unleashed by government forces against the opposition that culminated in the murder of Aregawi Gebreyohannes and the incarceration of Birtukuan Medeksa, a member of the opposition who should have participated in the ongoing debates. These actions of the government, of course, manifest the contradictory behavior of the ruling elite and its guiding principle of zero-sum game.

The State is generally defined as “the ability of institutions which facilitate governance and insure social control.” This definition, however, could evoke controversy unless it is redefined and simplified contextually. If we see it in the context of ancient African sense of justice (the concept of MAAT of Kemet that I will deal with later), it would necessarily include (and deliberately so) good governance; but if it is defined in its purely statist or Machiavellian conception of power, dominance, and coercion through the final expressions of the State (police, military, courts, and prisons) the promises of democracy would undoubtedly be dashed and dictatorship would prevail. Moreover, the courts would lose their independent function and rather become punitive institutions and not justice platforms.

Ancient Ethiopian history is replete with governance equated with justice. Contemporary Ethiopia (especially under the rule of the Derg and the EPRDF), on the other hand, is racked by sever injustice and human rights violations. What we have now is cutthroat competition to wield state power at any coast. In fact, there is a tremendous obsession of power among Ethiopians and the wish to control the state machinery. In one of the first debates, for instance, one of the EPRDF debaters accused the opposition of its objective to seize state power and Beyene Petros, a leader of Medrek (Forum), explicitly and in no uncertain terms responded by saying, ‘it should be obvious that we are indeed struggling for state power,’ which is true and indisputable. But he should have added that the Medrek group is not solely aiming at power for its own sake but rather intends to utilize the state to overcome injustice and redress wrong doings and also use key societal values to reinforce good governance.

I have stated in many of my previous works that the government did not only trample over justice but also clearly put itself in contradiction with the larger Ethiopian society. This is mainly because the officials at the top echelon of the EPRDF government have been immersed in enriching themselves while exhibiting the psychopathology of dissociation from their own fellow Ethiopians. It is for this apparent reason that the EPRDF was unable to enjoy legitimacy and mandate from the Ethiopian people.

Had the Meles regime allowed a modicum of democratic culture such as the pre-election debates, however, it could have secured acceptance and recognition not only as de facto government by the people but also as de jure par excellence. But allowing free debate only during elections is the highest form of hypocrisy and, if at all, it could be characterized as flagrantly counter-empirical ideology of the EPRDF. If it were not for this dual or smokescreen nature of the EPRDF, the government could have been in a better position to listen to the people; would have allowed extensive freedom of speech; and could have permitted the use of the free media by the people. Above all, it could have respected independent media to entertain news and views and let a powerful medium propagate a myriad of contending ideas. On the contrary, the government suppressed independent or potentially critical media like Addis Neger and its editors, including Abiye Teklemariam, had to flee for their lives.

My exhortation may not deflect the omen anticipating threat to the opposition, openly declared by the Prime Minister. I am only hoping that the string of curses that have bewitched Ethiopia in the last two decades would end and would not recur as a relapsing fever of yet another horrendous atrocity.

Despite the above grim scenario that reflects the current Ethiopian reality, the pre-election debates are positive contributions to civil society. In the ‘good governance’ debate, for instance, the arguments and counterarguments of the EPRDF and the Opposition were fair, substantive, and balanced. In point of fact, Ato Gebru Asrat of Medrek unequivocally addressed the unaccounted source of income of corrupt government officials, which is a common knowledge among Ethiopians. Equally strong counter argument, however, was directed to the opposition by the EPRDF and on behalf of the latter, the panelist argued, ‘the opposition need not only spell out the shortcomings of the government; it should also recognize its achievements.’ This line of argument is fair, especially if we want to make an objective analysis of a given reality.

Part I debate on education, unlike the previous debates, was not impressive and was marred by irrelevant pitched arguments. For instance, the EPRDF representative Ato Demeke Mekonnen produced a litany of statistical data pertaining to educational development in Ethiopia, but he was unable to substantiate his arguments on how the EPRDF-induced educational transformation (as he insinuated) impacted the Ethiopian society. His colleague Ato Hailemariam Dessalegn was not of any help either in reinforcing his comrade’s presentation on education policy. In fact, he was only emphatic on how the opposition has become an obstacle to the educational process in the country.

The Kinijit representative, Ato Ayele Chemiso, was ok in trying to deliberate what he calls ‘target-oriented education’ and he was also trying to make distinction between ‘quantity’ and ‘quality’ education but he keeps on saying ‘quantity’ in English instead of using the Amharic word Bizat, as if all members of the Ethiopian audience understand English.

The EREPA representative Ato Asfaw Getachew seems confident in his deliberations but at times he made vainglorious assertions such as ‘EREPA has a more advanced education policy than the EPRDF’ but he did not make any substantive statement to support his argument. Declaratory and laudatory phrases would be meaningless unless ones educational policy is spelled out clearly.

Ato Mesfin Mengistu of the Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP) was good in terms of exposing the lack of auditing in the educational system, but he too falls short of conveying relevant information with respect to educational policy and development or the lack thereof in Ethiopia.

Ato Yacob Like of All Ethiopia Democratic Party (AEDP) seems to have lost in rhetoric rather than presenting education-related issues. He started out with a fine premise of ‘the link between education and development’ but he completely distracted himself by his emphasis on the negative image of the EPRDF, not related to education. The best strategy in any debating forum is to stick to the topic.

Ato Asrat Chale of Medrek (Forum) also started out with a strong premise of the impact of ‘ideology (“revolutionary democracy”) on education’ but he went astray by his irrelevant assertions and as a result he missed the opportunity to dissect the nature and characteristics of education in Ethiopia.

Part II of education debate was by far profound given the issues debated and the deliberations made by the panelists. Although, as we shall see later, the philosophy of education in-depth was not raised, the overall exchanges of arguments are to be commended.

Ato Demeke again was more emphatic on figures and numbers rather than quality of education, which incidentally was the focus of Part II debate on education, especially on the side of the opposition panel. He tried to defend his mantra of “Ethiopia’s miracle in educational development” by claiming that the UN admired Ethiopia’s success and countries like Japan and Nigeria have asked “what the Ethiopian secret” could be in education. He even claimed that Ethiopia has produced 300,000 teachers and in response to the challenges directed against the EPRDF on quality education, he retorted by saying that higher institutions of learning like Addis Ababa University have participated in the making of the educational system and further emphasized the reality surrounding quality education, and argued, “that education is not a one time project that is implemented but a process that evolves in stages.” His contention is quite logical but it does not adequately address the cause for the lack of quality education in Ethiopia.

Ato Hailemariam continued from where Ato Demeke left off but his rhetoric rather than substantive argument diminished the relevant issues in education. He first accused the opposition as “pessimists who portray Ethiopia under EPRDF as a dark spot,” and then bragged about the five million strong EPRDF members who frightened and threatened the opposition. He also added that Ethiopia could now become exemplar [in education] to other countries. His line of argument was irrelevant 

Both EPRDF representatives in the debate on education were relying heavily on numbers that could not be easily verified or validated. Ato Hailemariam, for instance, said, “Currently there is 95% student participation at elementary school levels” but there is no supporting evidence for that in any neutral educational periodicals and/or UNESCO findings. He also tried to support his argument vis-à-vis the opposition’s concern of the problem of using Latin scripts when in fact there is a readymade Ethiopic or Geez (now they call it Saba) alphabet. He is of the opinion that the people must choose whether they want to use Latin or Geez and his argument is well taken, but the implication is that students at the local schools in the respective regional states are learning in their mother tongue.

UNESCO’s EFA Global Monitoring Report 2010, however, contradicts the EPRDF’s claim of a huge enrollment of school children and the effective use of ethnic languages. According to this up-to-date UNESCO document (525 pages long) this is how Ethiopia is evaluated:

Children from the poorest 20% of households dominate the out-of-school populations in many countries and are far less likely than higher-income children ever to enroll. To take one example, around three-quarters of children from the poorest 20% of households in Ethiopia are not in school. Of these, over half are not expected to enter school.1  

The above UNESCO finding is also reinforced by another finding that has to do with the lack of effective learning in the Ethiopian schools:

In Ethiopia and Guatemala, children were in class and learning for a third of the time schools were officially open (DeStefano and Elaheebocus, 2009; Dowd, 2009)2   

On the other hand, despite the pitfalls of lack of access to schools of poor Ethiopian children and poor learning time by those who are already in schools, the overall growth in enrollment especially with respect to lessening the gap between the genders redeems the EPRDF:

In countries at low levels of enrolment, such as Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, and Yemen, moves towards gender parity from a low starting point have helped generate large increases in primary enrolment.3

But with respect to the use of local languages mentioned above, contrary to EPRDF’s claims, the UNESCO Report clearly shows that local languages in fact were not used in some districts:

In Ethiopia, a 2008 study of grade 3 students in Woliso district found that 36% could not read a single word in Afan Oromo, the local language. (DeStefano and Elaheebocus, 2009).4

On the other hand, in order to be fair, we need to acknowledge some of EPRDF’s achievements in education. The UNESCO Report states, “Some countries with large out-of-school populations in 1999 have made major advances; examples include Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, the United Republic of Tanzania, and Zambia. Ethiopia and the United Republic of Tanzania each reduced out-of-school numbers by over 3 million between 1999 and 2007.”5

The EPRDF debater throughout the debate has tried to portray the opposition as incompetent and by implication incapable of leading the country. Competency in leadership is controversial and a whole gamut of criteria needs to be considered to really come up with a satisfactory definition of leadership. But at least there is a general consensus that leadership entails commitment, vision, professional critical knowledge, and experience. And without bias to any of the contending groups in Ethiopia, I believe Medrek meets the criteria of leadership enumerated above. A Significant number of the Medrek leadership has either commitment and vision or experience and critical knowledge. By Ethiopian standard and by all measure, compared to other opposition groups, Medrek has the highest number of Ph.D.s, including Hailu Araya, Negasso Gidada, Merara Gudina, Beyene Petros, and Buhe Hussien etc.

Ato Ayele Chamiso of Kinijit made a real come back from his relative weakness in part I of the debate. He underscored the central role of teachers, which he calls the “pillars of education” and appealed for the urgency of salary increment for the teachers in order to make advances in educational improvement. He also suggested that 7th and 8th grade students should learn in English so that they can prepare better for 9-12 secondary education. Moreover, he argued that the college preparatory prerequisite for 12th graders should not be based on political pressure. By and large, Ato Ayele was in much better shape.

Ato Asfaw Getachew of EREPA too was by far better in challenging the EPRDF than in the first round of the debate on education. He seems to have concrete statistical data especially on teacher competency and quality education. He said that 90% of teachers are fresh undergraduates and out of 5200 teachers, 3000 of them hold BA degrees and the rest have MA and Ph.D. He further argued that Ethiopia was at the very tail, numbering 84 out of 100 countries in children education.

Ato Asfaw’s analysis is plausible especially if we consider the 75% out of the 20% poor households children that are unable to enroll and that have already been cited above.

Ato Mesfin Mengistu of EDP attempted to show that the use of information technology in Ethiopia is very weak; that expansion of schools without quality education is useless and as a result Ethiopia will not meet the Millennium Development Goals in education. Irrespective of the special circumstances surrounding education in Ethiopia, however, the deadline for the Millennium will not be realized by most developing countries, and this shortcoming would not be unique to Ethiopia and other countries because it is a much more complex scenario that has to do with history, economic conditions, and global relations.

At Yacob Like in the second round reenergized himself and he was more substantive than in the first round. He stressed that quality education is gained through process but he emphasized the lack of a responding government. He also counter-argued the EPRDF position on the use of local language and clearly stated, “The use of local language and/or Geez (Saba) should be decided by referendum and not by imposition as the EPRDF did.” His colleague Ato Getachew Bayafres was emphatic on the lack of academic freedom in the academia and said that Ethiopia would be one of the 28 countries that are not going to meet the Millennium Development Goal.

Ato Asrat Chale was a lot better in his deliberations in the second round. He acknowledged EPRDF’s measure to correct the problem of 10th graders who need learning themselves but who were hired as teachers. But he also challenged the EPRDF regarding professional and technical education and questioned the yardstick employed for this type of education. He charged that graduate students are selected not based on competition but on political connection arranged by the Ministry of Education, and further warned that graduate studies in higher institutions of learning could be questioned by international accreditation. “Even the Senate,” Ato Asrat alleges, “is selected by the university president, which was the other way round in the olden days; and the vice president selects the Deans.” He concluded by saying, “if Medrek assumes power, it won’t face shortage of professionals and will not hold power in monopoly; will pave the road to power via democratic and peaceful means and not by casting stones.”

The final part of the education debate began by reactions from the EPRDF. Ato Demeke claimed that the education system is debated within the EPRDF and he repeated the praise Ethiopia got from the UN and other countries. His colleague, At Hailemariam, ever rhetorical, charged the opposition and bluntly exclaimed, “one cannot analyze things based on wrong information; the EPRDF is not ashamed; it corrects its mistakes; the EPRDF has scored quenching results [in education]”.

The Kinijit group retorted by emphasizing the lack of quality control in the EPRDF; suggested that diplomas and degree must be conferred based on merit; teachers must not be discriminated against and adult education must be reinstated. Ato Merhaedit, by way of reinforcing his party’s position, admonished that “Ethiopia should not be the land of aimless children.”


The EREPA representative raised the current deterioration of quality education at Haremaya University (formerly Alemaya University), which was once a famous agriculture college supported by Oklahoma State University. He said, “Universities cannot be established by campaigns alone and by placing corner stones to education” during elections. He also stated, “Haile Selassie’s time was dormancy; that of EPRDF is extreme hyperbolic or chaotic anarchy.”

Ato Mesfin Abebe of EDP simply said that his party has better alternatives. “We shall depend on the [building] capacity of Ethiopians;” “the EPRDF has fielded at least 10 candidates in each district and this is done by design so that the EPRDF can hold on to power for a long time.” This argument holds water especially if we see it in the context of EPRDF’s ‘revolutionary democracy’ agenda and its emphasis on ‘developmental state’ that systematically precludes other contending forces to seize power, and on the contrary enables the status quo to control the reins of power indefinitely, unless unintended historical circumstances emerge. 

Ato Yacob of AEDP read a litany of his party program objectives, including free market enterprise all over Ethiopia; the elimination of illiteracy in a short period of time; the implementation of educational policy based on Ethiopian culture(s) and natural resources; democracy and multiparty system; education for work; and the augmentation of sport.

Ato Ayele Seyoum of Medrek uttered the last words in the education debate and he focused on alternatives improving educational policy, especially the upgrading of quality education. He also urged that post-graduates should not encounter discrimination; there should be free professional associations; educational administrators should be independent of politics; adult education must operate outside bureaucratic bottlenecks; and he stated that the ill confidence experienced by professionals is a shame.

Overall the debates were productive and constructive given the history of open democratic dialogue and the lack thereof in Ethiopia. However, the format of the debate, in which there was no moderator and interactive audience as in symposium, leaves Ethiopians to become idle spectators; it is all left to the contending party representatives, notwithstanding Hanna Temari and Samuel Kebede of Ethiopian Television who were only time keepers and idle watchers like the rest of us. If the format was like a symposium presided over by a moderator who is an educator by profession, pertinent questions could have been forwarded to the party panelists from the chair and from the audience.

Also, if educators were involved in the debate, as moderators and as independent participants from the audience, 1) they could have raised important forms of curriculum inquiry related to educational policy and development and they could have related “a cluster of practical activities focusing on conceiving, expressing, justifying and enacting educational programs. Curriculum research involves seeking and justifying the knowledge that is relevant to the making of such voices. It is an enterprise that involves undertaking formal inquiry to generate relevant knowledge.”6   Curriculum encompasses virtually every part of education and Ethiopian educators who, in one form or another, are involved in formulating education policy should begin with shaping the curriculum and everything else that contributes to the edifice of education will follow suit. 2) They could have discovered the comprehensive nature and complimentary function of general education, specialized education, exploratory education, and enrichment education as pointed out by Daniel Tanner and Laurel N. Tanner.7   3) Above all, the Ethiopian educators in particular and the Ethiopian people in general could have benefited if educators in the interactive debate got a chance to present the philosophical foundations of education supplemented by forms of curriculum inquiry from analytical to historical; from scientific to phenomenological; and from theoretical to hermeneutical.

Aims, goals, and objectives, which are the kernel of curriculum planning and development, must seriously be considered but they could not be realized if there is no responsive political regime and a just system in place. For this, we now retract to the pointers of justice and galvanize the main themes of this paper. 

The debate culture in Ethiopia, if allowed to flourish, per force must undergo a forward-moving edge of cultural evolution. Unless we consider a certain input of justice in our performance, our initiative and action could derail a worthwhile reflection. For this apparent reason, thus, I will sojourn to the realm of ancient Egyptians and Ethiopians and take the reader with me.

Ancient Egyptian society was guided and governed by Maat, a powerful concept that could mean justice, truth, order, righteousness, harmony, balance, and reciprocity. Because the Maatian value was deeply entrenched in Egypt, the people and even the most powerful pharaoh were obliged to follow Maat and act accordingly. According to Maat, human beings were created in the image of God and they are dignified and no person is permitted to torture and/or take away the life of other person. “No where is the concept of human dignity and the security of human life,” says Karenga, “more clearly presented than in the Narrative of Djedi. In the Narrative of Djedi, Djedi speaks Maat (truth) to power when he tells Pharaoh Khufu who is about to kill a prisoner that he must not kill or use any person for an experiment. When the king calls for a prisoner to use in a deadly experiment, Djedi tells him: ‘Not to a human being O’ king. Surely, it is not permitted to do such a thing to a noble flock of God.’ His ground for this, of course, is the ancient and sacred Maatian teaching against killing and doing harm to humans.”8     

The ancient Ethiopians, like ancient Egyptians, were also governed by Fet’h(i), literally meaning justice. A good example of the sense of justice of ancient Ethiopians is found in Emperor Ezana’s Victory Text:

I have established this throne here in Shado by the might of the Lord of Heaven, who has helped me and given me sovereignty. May the Lord of Heaven make strong my kingdom. And he has this day conquered for me my enemy, may he conquer for me wheresoever I go. An as he has this day conquered for me and overthrown for me my enemy. [I will rule] the people with righteousness and justice and will not oppress them. And may they preserve this throne which I have (established) for the Lord of Heaven who has made me king and the earth which carries it.”9

In admiration of the ancient justice, inter alia, of Ethiopians, Karenga says, “No African country holds for African people on the Continent and the Diaspora, the mystique and meaning that Ethiopia has. It is a special land with religious, cultural, and political meaning for Africans everywhere and thus a continuous and core focus in African Studies.”10  

Ethiopians must dig into their past and revive the ancient justice systems and it is only when we have a just system that we can really talk about democracy, development, and many other related issues that could propel Ethiopia forward.


  1. UNESCO, EFA Global Monitoring Report 2010, p. 61
  2. Ibid, p. 114
  3. Ibid, p. 64
  4. Ibid, p. 112
  5. Ibid, p. 56
  6. Edmond C. Short, Forms of Curriculum Inquiry, State University of New York Press, 1991
  7. Daniel Tanner and Laurel N. Tanner, Curriculum: Theory and Practice, Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc., 1980
  8. Maulana Karenga, Introduction to Black Studies, Third Edition, University of Sankore Press, Los Angeles, 2002, p. 246
  9. Ibid, p. 102
  10. Ibid, p. 103    

All Rights Reserved. Copyright © IDEA, Inc. 2010. Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia can be contacted for educational and constructive feedback via dr.garaia@africanidea.org