Monday, February 25, 2008


“Charity begins at home,” goes the old saying. But with the Zenawi regime, it is, “No good deed will go unpunished.” The so-called “Charities and Societies Draft Proclamation No. 00/2007” [hereinafter “Proclamation”] currently under review by the Ethiopian “parliament” is one mean-spirited and uncharitable edict masquerading as a legislative measure. It is an understatement to say the Proclamation is incredibly oppressive, intrusive and arbitrary. It is simply a travesty of law that does not pass the “smell test”, let alone any serious legal analytical scrutiny. It offers a classic case study of law making in a police state — sweeping, stealthy, harsh, heavy-handed and irrational.

Private associations, endowments and trusts have existed in Ethiopia for decades. But modern civil society institutions (that is, domestic and international non-governmental, non-profit, voluntary citizens’ groups that provide humanitarian assistance, communicate citizens’ concerns to governments, advocate and monitor policies, encourage grassroots political participation, promote human rights, environmental protection, health, education, etc.), are a relatively new phenomenon in Ethiopia. Article 31 of the “constitution” of the current regime fully embraces such civil society institutions and provides, “Everyone shall have the right to form associations for whatever purpose.”

The importance of civil society institutions in democratizing Ethiopia has been repeatedly acknowledged by the current regime leader. Zenawi has made public statements declaring his intention to facilitate the establishment and strengthening of professional and popular associations and non-governmental organizations in the country’s development efforts and institution of democratic governance: “The participation of self-organized citizens’ associations is not only the foundation of our development, but also of our democracy.” Various official documents of the ruling regime have emphasized the role of civil society institutions in “building a democratic order in Ethiopia”.

So, what is wrong with Draft Proclamation No. 00/20071? Let’s count the ways.

The Proclamation is a preemptive legal strike aimed at neutralizing and abolishing civil society institutions, and diminishing any threats that may be posed by them against the regime.

An analysis of the totality of the Proclamation shows that the regime, in the absence of a united opposition political force in the country, perceives the greatest threat to its dictatorial powers originating in civil society institutions. The apparent fear of such organizations comes from the inherent potential of civil society organizations to create mass awareness of social and political issues, cultivate a more informed citizenry, mobilize people to make informed voting choices and effectively participate in politics, and equip ordinary citizens with the democratic tools to hold government more accountable.

By imposing an extensive scheme of invasive and suffocating licensing, registration, supervision, compliance and enforcement, and draconian penalty provisions, the regime expects and intends to effectively and “legally” eliminate any potential threats that could emanate from current or future civil society institutions. It is for this reason that the Proclamation sweeps under its regulatory claws all “philanthropic and benevolent” organizations and associations established to aid in poverty and disaster relief, promote economic development and agricultural and environmental amelioration, advance the cause of education, health, art, culture science, sports, enhance access and opportunity to the handicapped, and advocate and defend human rights. Even organizations involved in animal welfare are subject to the Proclamation. In sum, the powers created in this Proclamation to “regulate” all “philanthropic and benevolent” civil society institutions is the unchecked and unlimited power to destroy them. (A partial list of civil society organizations that could be affected by this Proclamation is provided herein.2 )

The Proclamation creates powers that can be exercised arbitrarily and capriciously in the regulation of civil society institutions.

The stated objective of the Proclamation is to “maintain public trust, promote compliance and enhance accountability” as well as “strengthen” and provide “full autonomy” in the operation of civil society institutions. But even a cursory reading of the Proclamation shows that there is no rational connection between the provisions of the Proclamation and its stated objectives. The Proclamation sets no discernable standards for civil society licensing, registration, compliance, investigation and enforcement. It merely creates an elaborate bureaucracy with sweeping and unchallengeable regulatory and administrative powers. Application of the Proclamation, and development of any subsequent enforcement regulations and rules, depends entirely on the whims and fancy of the director of the agency, and any directives he may receive from above. In fact, the director of the agency is a political appointee of the prime minister; and he in turn appoints a brigade of deputy directors, registrars and other bureaucrats. He acts cooperatively with a boatload of sector administrators, charities council and others to police and keep a watchful eye on civil society institutions.

The Proclamation grants unbounded discretionary power to the agency director who has quasi-judicial authority, and the director’s decision is not subject to judicial review.

The Proclamation is unabashed in creating an agency with officials whose powers have no legal bounds or limits. The list of extravagant powers conferred upon the agency and its officials is too numerous to enumerate, but a few glaring examples serve to demonstrate the sweeping powers granted to them. For instance, the agency can deny registration to any civil society group if it feels the internal management “rules of the charity are insufficient for proper management and control”. The agency can demand the membership, financial and any other records of a civil society organization at will, and without probable cause of wrongdoing by the organization, its officers or members. The agency can summarily suspend a civil society organization, its members or officers if it suspects “misconduct and mismanagement”.

A civil society organization could be dissolved if the agency determines on its own that the organization is being “used for unlawful purposes”, or is “contrary to public or the national interest”. The agency alone determines what is “unlawful” “or “contrary to the public or national interest.” The agency has the power to determine the “details of the charitable purposes and public benefits” regardless of the stated mission or objectives of the civil society organization. No action of the agency or its director could be challenged in a court of law with independent judges. There is limited administrative review of adverse agency actions, but ultimately, the agency and its director can do whatever they want in the name of “regulating” civil society institutions. In sum, the proclamation grants such sweeping discretionary regulatory powers, the agency and its director become the policeman, the prosecutor, the judge, the jury and the executioners of civil society organizations.

The Proclamation is extremely intrusive in the affairs of civil society.

The proclamation is extremely intrusive in the internal management and operations of civil society organizations. Using its sweeping powers, for instance, the agency and its director can appoint, remove, or suspend officers of civil society organizations, manage or freeze their assets, perform intrusive audits without suspicion of wrongdoing, unduly interfere in their internal decision making processes, scrutinize their operations and work plan, review their budget, order changes in their bylaws, and even force testimonial and documentary disclosure with “respect to any matter in question”. Incredibly, a civil society organization is required to return to the agency any money it has collected but has not spent within 2 years.

The Proclamation is so intrusive that it even compels disclosure of civil society membership lists. To closely track financial support for such organizations and identify supporters, it prohibits “anonymous donations” and requires records of donors to be kept for 5 years. None of this excessive intrusiveness can be challenged in court before an independent judge. It is obvious that under such an intrusive scheme of regulation, no civil society organization could feel confident enough to perform its mission. Few individuals would dare join such organizations under these circumstances; and those who do will be forced to endure the uncertainties of potential future persecution for membership in the “wrong” civil society institution.

The Proclamation provides for no judicial or administrative appellate review.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this Proclamation is the complete absence of provisions for judicial or meaningful administrative appellate review. For instance, there is no way to challenge an agency determination of denial of an application to register, order of dissolution, suspension or dismissal of officers in a court of law before independent judges. There is no way for civil society members who are not suspected of wrongdoing to challenge disclosure of their private records or statements to the agency. There is an administrative review process by which the decision of the agency director could be “appealed” to the Justice Minister. But that is like appealing the decision of Tweedle Dee to Tweedle Dum. In sum, the decision of the agency director and justice minister are final in all cases.

The Proclamation micromanages civil society institutions, is extremely burdensome and demands financial accountability and ethical integrity rarely seen or required of public institutions in Ethiopia.

The Proclamation authorizes the agency and its director to micromanage civil society institutions to a point of denying them any autonomy whatsoever. The financial accounting and record keeping requirements are so burdensome, unreasonable and punitive that a civil society organization must spend as much time preparing paperwork for red tape as it must performing its mission. For instance, the Proclamation requires “accounting records” to show “all sums of money received from day to day”. Civil society organizations are prohibited from receiving anonymous donations, so that a person who just wants to make a one time donation without membership affiliation can not make a contribution. Civil society organizations “shall be examined by a certified auditor or internal auditor or an auditor designated by the agency.” Civil society institutions are not allowed to establish a branch or change their name without agency approval. They are not allowed to use an emblem, logo or badge without agency approval. There are few things, if any, that civil society institutions can do without the approval of Big Brother!

The Proclamation has a chilling effect on civil society membership and participation.

No civil society organization could be effective without membership. By definition, civil society organizations depend upon the good will, charity and generosity of ordinary people in the community. Under the intrusive regulations of this Proclamation, few people in the community or society are likely to participate. The fact that government will have ready access to their personal information, role, participation and financial support of these organizations will dissuade many from joining. There is a real possibility of government retaliation if the civil society group is on a disapproved list, or is viewed with suspicion by the regime. Potential civil society members could reasonably fear that their jobs, businesses and private lives could be at risk by the mere fact of their membership. They could be targeted for persecution, harassment or mistreatment. The ironic thing is that ordinary citizens are likely to avoid joining civil society organizations — and thereby forego the legitimate exercise their “constitutional” and human rights to free association — out of fear of government retaliation.

The Proclamation is extremely punitive.

Failure to comply with the provisions of the Proclamation entails imprisonment, fines and administrative sanctions. For instance, administering or membership in an unregistered or “unlawful” civil society organization fetches a 5 year term, and a fine of 10,000 birr. Any person who is a member of or attends a meeting of an unregistered civil society organization could be imprisoned for 2 years, and fined 5,000 birr. Anyone who donates to an unregistered civil society organization is liable to jail time and fines as an accomplice. Any person who provides a meeting place for an unregistered organization is liable for a 2 year jail sentence, and a fine of 5,000 birr. Any person who “prints, publishes, displays, transits information by any means in the interest” of an unregistered organization is exposed to the same penalties. The agency also has the power to “at any time stop or restrict” fund raising by civil society organizations. In addition to the criminal penalties, there are untold numbers of unspecified but ominous administrative sanctions and penalties that can be taken against civil society organizations, their officers, board members and regular members.

In Art. 125, the Proclamation criminalizes civil society participation or advocacy of issues considered “politically contentious”. For instance, a civil society organization could be criminally charged under this section if it took a “political position” on poverty. Similarly, a civil society organization which promotes human rights, and its officers could be charged for speaking out on the “politically contentious” issue of political prisoners, arbitrary arrests and detentions, or torture of citizens. Such a provision is just plainly mindless and absurd.

The Proclamation is manifestly “unconstitutional”. It is also manifestly silly.

Article 131 of the Proclamation makes the following silly declaration: “Any laws and practices contrary to this Proclamation are hereby repealed.” Technical rules of statutory construction (legal interpretation) instruct that “words in a statute are presumed to have their usual and ordinary meaning”. If this provision is taken at face value, the Proclamation trumps and abrogates the Ethiopian “constitution” and all other human rights conventions incorporated by reference in the “constitution”. (Art. 13 (2).)

But there are specific provisions in the Proclamation that are manifestly violative of the regime’s “constitution”. For instance, the agency has the power to “cause the production of documents and search records” of the civil society organization, and “take possession of any books, documents or papers… required as evidence in proceedings for an offense under the Proclamation” (Art. 102), in violation of the right of privacy set forth in Art. 26, inter alia, of the “constitution”. Broad powers granted to the agency to have “full and free access to all buildings, places, books, documents papers of a charity or society” (Arts. 102, 104), are in flagrant violation of Art. 26 as well. Civil society organizations are required to notify the agency of any meetings with a 7 day advance notice (Art. 103), in violation of Arts. 29-32, inter alia, of the “constitution”. The Proclamation authorizes the agency to compel oral testimony from civil society members and officers to obtain “any information which relates to any charity or society” (Art. 102) in violation of the prohibition on coerced statements in Art. 19 (5), inter alia, of the “constitution”. In Art. 125, the Proclamation criminalizes civil society participation or advocacy of issues considered “politically contentious” in violation of Art. 29 (1) (2), inter alia, of the “constitution”. The list goes on and on.

The Proclamation is mean-spirited and discriminatory.

The Proclamation treats civil society organizations, groups and members as enemies of the state, instead of partners in building democracy. It makes no sense to have such a draconian Proclamation in the absence of a demonstrated history of criminality, or convincing proof of abuse of public trust, waste of public funds or fraud in the use of publicly collected funds. In fact, the Proclamation makes no legislative findings whatsoever that civil society institutions in Ethiopia have ever presented law enforcement problems or raised issued of public integrity. In the absence of any evidence of wrongdoing by civil society institutions, one can only conclude that the Proclamation in its totality has no rational relationship to the proper objects of governmental regulation, but rather represents a “legal” assault aimed at abolishing civil society institutions.

On the other hand, the Proclamation irrationally discriminates against foreign civil society organizations, and expatriate civil society workers. It prohibits employment of expatriates in domestic civil society organizations unless justified by the nature of the work or qualification of the individual. Failure to comply with this provision will result in jail time. It is also regrettable that the Proclamation appears to have been patterned in material respects after a similar law in Singapore, a country ranked 141st out of 167 by Reporters Without Borders in the Worlwide Press Freedom Index.

A good charity law should be charitable.

A good charity law should create an environment that enables ordinary citizens to participate in collective activities in their society, and not to fear and avoid civic engagement. Draconian regulatory constraints such as the ones in the Proclamation should only be used preventively if there is a history of criminality, fraud, waste and abuse in civil society organizations. Government should encourage and support citizens who seek to exercise their constitutional rights through organized and active civil society institutions. It is unnecessary and harmful to legislatively presume that ordinary citizens who seek to establish and participate in civil society organizations are criminals intent on defrauding the public. Rather, the presumption should be well-intentioned ordinary citizens who seek to help themselves and others deserve the benefit of the doubt and governmental cooperation through a simple and easy to follow regulatory regime.

An Alternative: The Daniel Bekele Group proposal

The Daniel Bekele Proposal is a compellingly viable alternative to the Proclamation.

There is a viable alternative to the current Proclamation which facilitates “self-organized citizens” to be involved in “development and democracy.”3 It is a proposal that harmonizes constitutional and human rights with the need for accountability and transparency in the operation and management of civil society organizations. This proposal was advanced by the young and dynamic anti-poverty civil society activist Daniel Bekele (who is currently in Kality prison despite a court order to release him and his colleague Netsanet Demessie), and his NGO/CSO Legal Framework Consultative Task Force. A careful analysis of this Proposal shows that it is possible to achieve both civic engagement and effective regulatory regime of civil society organizations in a framework of partnership.

The Bekele Proposal offers numerous advantages over the Proclamation. It provides for a simple registration process unencumbered by bureaucratic red tape. There is no charge for registration, and once registration is obtained it will remain valid for an indefinite time unless good cause exists for revocation. This Proposal does not allow for excessive official interference in the daily management and operation of civil society organizations. It relies on existing Civil Code provisions for reporting and supervision. Civil society organizations will be required to file annual reports, and external audits will be ordered only if there is evidence or good cause to suspect criminal wrongdoing.

Under the Bekele Proposal, if civil society organization are to be suspended or dissolved, such actions will be taken in accordance with the bylaws of the organization, or by court order after a full hearing on the merits. Foreign civil society organizations and expatriates who seek to work in Ethiopia will not be discriminated. Rather, they will be treated equally with domestic groups with respect to rights and obligations. The Bekele proposal also provides for changes in the organization of civil society institution, allowing for expedited mergers, splits and changes from foreign to domestic groups. There are no draconian penalties for violation of the regulations. Any penalties under the Proposal are to be imposed in the sound discretion of independent judges, not political appointees who have an axe to grind. Most importantly, the Bekele Proposal provides for full administrative and judicial appellate review. (The reader can make an independent comparative analysis of the Proclamation and the Bekele Proposal in footnote 3, supra.)

In studying the Proclamation one is reminded of Mr. Bumble, the parish beadle in charge of charity, the workhouse and orphanage in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Informed that “the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction,” Mr. Bumble replied, “If the law supposes that, the law is a ass — a idiot’. Even Mr. Bumble knows a rotten law when he sees one.


1. The Proclamation in four parts is available at:


3. The Bekele Legislative Proposal is available at:;
see also fn. 1 supra.)

Sunday, February 03, 2008


Alemayehu G. Mariam
February 4, 2008

Academic Unfreedom in Ethiopian Universities
Universities in democratic societies crank out legions of technorati, digerati and literati every year. But what do universities in police states produce? Hordes of ignorati?

Welcome to higher education in the Land of Absurd-istan! In an incisive article posted on the web-based legal research service, Jurist, Abigail Salisbury, a law professor at Mekelle University recently painted a chilling and naked portrait of a university in a police state.[1] She courageously described a dizzying state of intellectual absurdity and moral bankruptcy in the Ethiopian higher educational system, and one of its premier universities. She gave a vividly surreal account of fear and loathing in the classroom and on campus: Students plead with their professors not to snitch on them to the authorities on their studies and class work. Students solicit their professors to distribute their academic papers abroad because they are scared they will be punished or persecuted if they were to do so did so locally. Students starving for knowledge are literally deprived of their daily bread because they dared to voice a complaint. Students scramble to learn in an arid intellectual wasteland where the walls have ears and the light fixtures can talk. And professors are afraid to teach because they have signed loyalty oaths disguised as a contractual terms of employment, which prohibits them from ever saying a single word of criticism against the regime. In her penetrating analysis, Prof. Salisbury depicted a nightmarish educational environment where professors labor under a gag order, and students are paralyzed by the omnipresent threat of academic harassment, or worse.

No one could mistake Prof. Salisbury’s acute resentment and tacit embarrassment over her manifest lack of academic freedom to teach and speak her mind as a law professor, and her heartache over her students’ intellectual desolation and decay. Reading between the lines, one quickly develops empathy for the young American professor and her young Ethiopian students who find themselves trapped in an intellectual wasteland where thought is policed, the very act of thinking criminalized, student complaints punished by deprivation of food for weeks, and intellectual inquisitiveness made a capital offense. In her courageously critical piece, Prof. Salisbury offered a devastating indictment of a higher educational system where professors and students fear their own shadows, and are forced to make an anguished daily choice between the roles of hypocrite to their own education and teaching on the one hand, and professing their faith as true believers in a regime that is determined to keep them in a perpetual state of intellectual trepidation and despair.

But no amount of paraphrasing can capture the sheer intensity and disarming candor of Prof. Salisbury’s analysis of intellectual corruption and enforced political orthodoxy:
…. I sat down to read and grade the mid-term essays of the students in my International Human Rights Law classes. Because all of the instructors at Ethiopian universities are made to sign a contract that we will never say anything against the government or ruling party, I had been very careful in wording my assignment. I asked the students to select a human rights issue in Ethiopia (making sure not to imply that there are any actual problems, just issues) and find another country dealing with that same situation. They were required to then compare the actions of the two nations, discussing them in light of various international human rights instruments which have been covered in class. Then, they were to propose some potential methods they might use to deal with this “issue” they selected. Thinking that this was a sufficiently non-inflammatory prompt, I assumed I would get some rather dry responses, especially given the comments from the H.R. 2003 discussion forum, which all seemed to assert that Ethiopia is doing just fine on the human rights front.

I was absolutely shocked, then, when I started reading my students’ work. Out of the hundred third-year students I teach, probably forty of them had inserted a special section, right after the cover page, warning me of what might happen to them were their paper to leave my hands. A number of students wrote that they would never give their real opinions to an Ethiopian professor because they fear being turned in to the government and punished. Others begged me to take their work back to America with me so that people would know what was going on. Of those who wrote such notes, almost all said that I would probably be surprised to find that many of the students had been afraid to express their true feelings at the H.R. 2003 discussion forum because you never know who is listening.

After my initial shock, I began to wonder if the students weren’t just making exaggerated claims in hopes of getting better grades. I kept trying to figure out whether they were writing these warnings because they were genuine or because they wanted to make me think that they were really putting themselves on the line for this assignment. As I read the papers which had been submitted without the notes about fears, however, I got the sense that the students were just writing in as safe a fashion as possible. They put in long recitations of facts and laws and strove to make the “issue” seem as insignificant as possible within the larger context of Ethiopian government. They were holding back. Their work lacked the color, honesty, and intensity of the writing of the students who had asked me not to show their papers to anyone.

To be fair, I can understand how the students might be afraid to speak their minds, because there have been a number of student protests which have been put down with violence recently, some journalists have been imprisoned, and much of the media is censored. At dinner, some university graduates from Addis Ababa mentioned that they had been without food for weeks at a time on campus but were forbidden by the administrators to ever voice a complaint. My friend tried to learn more about the conditions, but the Ethiopians had quickly changed the subject, telling her that they should not be overheard discussing such things. I even know some expatriate workers here who are hesitant to say anything negative about the country in their e-mails to friends and family at home, because they know that everything goes through a central server and could be read, with possible negative repercussions.
Prof. Salisbury’s analysis of university life in Ethiopia is not the first of its kind. Its importance lies in the fact that it offers solid anecdotal evidence of a long and continuing pattern of political interference in academic freedom in the country’s universities. The 2006 U.S. State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices[2] plainly stated:

The [Ethiopian] government restricted academic freedom during the year, maintaining that professors could not espouse political sentiments. Authorities did not permit teachers at any level to deviate from official lesson plans and discouraged political activity and association of any kind on university campuses. Reports continued throughout the year of both uniformed and plainclothes police officers being present on and around university and high school campuses. The government arrested students and teachers during the year. Professors and students were discouraged from taking positions not in accordance with government beliefs or practices. There was a lack of transparency in academic decisions, with numerous complaints from individuals in the academic community of bias based on ethnicity and/or religion. The freedoms of speech, expression, and assembly were frequently restricted on university and high school campuses.
Academic Unfreedom in the “Good Ole Days”
The recent history of academic freedom and free intellectual inquiry in Ethiopian higher education is deeply scarred by political interference, political correctness, arbitrary purges of professors, harassment and persecution of faculty and students, and general intellectual repression. It is a history that makes one think of the “good old days”. The respected and well-known scholar on Ethiopia, Prof. Donald Levine of the University of Chicago, made a poignant observation on academic freedom during the infancy of Ethiopian higher education when he accepted an honorary doctorate from Addis Ababa University on July 24, 2004.[3] He said:

Under the regime of the Derg, the great gains for Ethiopian education which they produced suffered a series of terrible blows from which Ethiopia has not yet fully recovered. When the Derg took power in September 1974, their first act was to impose a rigid ban on freedom of speech, in the form of proclamation forbidding groups of more than five people to assemble anywhere. What was worse, they closed down the university and also the feeder junior and senior grades of secondary schools for two full years. To make matters worse, when the University at last reopened, they subjected faculty and curriculum to severe ideological restraints. They based admissions on criteria of ethnic quotas rather than merit; they tied appointments to political loyalty instead of academic qualifications; they subjected curricular content to ideological scrutiny rather than to defensible educational principles; and they isolated Ethiopian faculty from the international academic community.

With the overthrow of the Derg, Ethiopians inside and outside the university enjoyed a marked increase of freedom of speech and publication. Even so, the pattern of unwarranted governmental intrusion into the university was matched by such destructive actions as the abrupt dismissal of some forty of the most experienced and accomplished members of the University faculty. It has remained difficult to uphold standards of admissions and to hold faculty performance to international academic standards. The government has failed to realize how delicate and vulnerable a university of high quality is.
It is painfully ironic to learn that there was much more academic freedom during the reign of Atse Haile Selassie than at any time in the modern history of Ethiopia! Such irony was evident in Prof. Levine’s remarks on an incident in Ethiopia in 1958 when he served as assistant to the acting vice president of Haile Selassie University, Harold Bentley:

Before the project [Haile Selassie University] had a chance to break ground, however, Addis Ababa was racked by an attempted coup d'etat against the late Emperor. As a friend of one of the coup leaders, Girmame Neway, I was one of the last persons to talk with him before he was captured and killed. Girmame's parting words riveted me: “Don, please tell our story to the world. Even if we are defeated and killed, at least a word of truth will have been spoken in this land of deception.” A few months later, I published an article in accord with Girmame's testament, an article which the Emperor found so offensive that he wanted the U.S. Government to put me in prison. But then, Acting Vice-President Bentley dissuaded him with this memorable argument. “Your Majesty,” he pleaded, “think of yourself for a moment not as head of the Ethiopian State, but as Chancellor of this new University. You want it to be internationally respected. For that, it must be able to guarantee academic freedom. What better proof of your intent could you demonstrate than to invite Dr. Levine to return to help build it?”

The rhetoric worked. Despite the fact that I had written an article that was terribly critical and threatening to him, the Emperor understood that for this university to be a first-class, internationally respected university, it had to guarantee freedom of inquiry, speech, and publication; and so, with grace and generosity, His Majesty approved the idea of inviting me to return…

As I have pondered this episode over the years, I have come to interpret the actions of Girmame Neway and His Majesty in a new light…. [F]or all his upholding of tradition, the Emperor was taking a large step forward by embracing Dr. Bentley's differentiation between the values of political authority and the values of the university. Although my critique of him had upset His Majesty greatly, he apparently glimpsed the significance of that distinction and embraced it. He understood that the university and the state were governed by different norms and pursued different missions, even when reversing his decision about my return on grounds that consideration of State overrode considerations of academic autonomy. And does that reversal not reinforce the point-that university autonomy requires the management of a university to be fully independent of external political authorities? (Italics added.)

Commitment to the values of academic freedom and excellence animated the generation of remarkable young Ethiopians who struggled to establish a first-rate institution of higher learning here….

Strictly for Those Who Have Never Experienced Academic Freedom: What is a University and What do Professors and Students Really Do There Anyway?
Contrary to some silly misconceptions, the university is not an “ivory tower” that is disconnected from “the real world”. Universities are not populated by absent-minded professors and wild-eyed radical students. And what happens in the university is not just of “academic interest”. The university is the intellectual engine of society, that is a democratic society. The greatest inventions in modern science came out of university laboratories. The vast majority of Nobel Prize winners in all areas of knowledge are university professors, scientists and researchers.

The university is a special institution in which an enlightened community of scholars, scientists, researchers and students use their intellect in the search for “Truth”. This pursuit of truth takes place in an environment of “academic freedom” where learning, teaching, research and scholarship are done without political or bureaucratic interference and intrusion. As Albert Einstein explained, academic freedom is “the right to search for the truth and to publish and teach what one holds to be true. This right also implies a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true. It is evident that any restriction of academic freedom serves to restrain the dissemination of knowledge, thereby impeding rational judgment and action.” In short, academic freedom is to a university what justice is to an independent court system. No academic freedom, no university! No independent court, no justice!

There are some simple ideas underlying the general principle of academic freedom. First, the university is a place of learning, not a place for political indoctrination. In the university setting, there is no such thing as a “false idea” or an “officially approved idea”, or “The Truth”. Acceptance of an idea at a university does not depend on the approval of politicians or party hacks. Acceptance or rejection occurs in a competitive marketplace of ideas where scholars, scientists, researchers, students and others test and debate the validity of ideas that are presented. The method of “Truth” discovery is different in the various academic fields. The physical sciences rely on equations and experiments to determine the “right” answer. In the social sciences, humanities and the law, the concept of truth is normative, and infinitely more elusive. Thus, there is a much greater need for a robust and wide-open debate in the search for truth.

There are a great many social benefits arising from stimulating academic freedom in a university. One major benefit is intellectual diversity which promotes not only the discovery of new knowledge, but is also essential in cultivating young minds to become creative, knowledgeable and productive citizens. Where academic freedom is maximized, students develop the habits of open-mindedness and critical inquiry, which is instrumental in their own transformation as enlightened citizens compassionate public servants and professionals. Shielded by the principle of academic freedom, university professors help their students explore not only the outer limits of science and technology but also challenge the core principles of politics, culture and society.

Political Dissent and the University
There is a very important aspect of academic freedom that does not necessarily implicate formal classroom learning, research or laboratory experiments. It has to do with expression of political dissent and divergent viewpoints on campus. There is no question that a university is a proper venue to challenge and test the credibility of official government rhetoric and ideology, question the legitimacy of a political party, leader or regime, and openly discuss and criticize official corruption, abuse of power and violations of civil liberties and human rights. As experiences in democratic societies show, the professorait and students are often the tip of the intellectual spear in society not only in the search for truth, but also in demanding change and official accountability. More broadly, universities are the proper venue for all types of dissenting ideas and views and serve as forums for robust debate on issues affecting society. There are few alternatives to a university where such intense intellectual debates can take place in society. When academic freedom is restricted, and students and faculty recoil with fear and horror because they believe telling the truth will expose them to punishment, then the larger society is condemned to suffer in silence.

There is ample evidence to show the dynamic role of universities and dissenting voices in bringing about far reaching social change. In the mid-1960s America, for instance, opposition to the war in Vietnam began at the University of California, Berkeley. The anti-war movement soon evolved into a Free Speech Movement which transformed American universities and the society at large in the decades that followed. Academic freedom in American universities contributed significantly to the debate and policy formulation in civil rights, civil liberties and social justice issues. The Freedom Riders and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s introduced the strategies of nonviolence directly challenging Jim Crow (segregation) laws in the American South. Even after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, American campuses were the epicenters of the debate over terrorism, its causes and cures. In this debate, even those who expressed anti-American and unpatriotic views were tolerated and engaged, and none were censored or denied their right to disagree or dissent with the majority.

Academic freedom is the right of faculty, and to a lesser extent the right of students. Politicians, party leaders or bureaucrats their should understand that decisions concerning the quality of scholarship and teaching are to be made by reference to the standards of the academic profession, as interpreted and applied by the community of scholars who are qualified by expertise and training to establish such standards, and not by loyalty oaths, contractual agreements, intimidation and harassment.

Academic Freedom and Free Inquiry as a Human Right
Article 29 of the “Ethiopian Constitution” provides “1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without any interference. 2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression without interference. This right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through other media of his choice.” Evidently, this article does not apply to professors and students in Ethiopian universities.

Regardless of Art. 29, academic freedom is a question of human rights.[4] Academic persecution is quintessentially political persecution. Abusing, harassing and imprisoning those faculty and students who do not tow the party line or support the official ideology, censoring what they teach and learn and enforcing silence on dissident voices in the university is as serious a human rights violation as imprisoning journalists, civil society leaders and human rights defenders.

There are various efforts underway to protect academic freedom internationally. Human Rights Watch has formed an Academic Freedom Committee to “monitor, expose, and mobilize concerted action to challenge threats to academic freedom worldwide, and to foster greater scholarly and media attention to the critical role played by institutions of higher education in the promotion of human rights and the development and preservation of civil society.” Others have issued declarations and passed resolutions defending academic freedom. For instance, the Lima Declaration on Academic Freedom and Autonomy of Institutions of Higher Education[5] states:
3. Academic freedom is an essential pre-condition for those education, research, administrative and service functions with which universities and other institutions of higher education are entrusted. All members of the academic community have the right to fulfill their functions without discrimination of any kind and without fear of interference or repression from the State or any other source.
The Dar es Salaam Declaration on Academic Freedom and Social Responsibility of Academics similarly provides1:
14. All members of the academic community have the right to fulfill their functions of teaching, researching, writing, learning, exchanging and disseminating information and providing services without fear of interference or repression from the State or any other public authority.
The Earth is Flat, and H.R. 2003 is Bad for the People of Ethiopia?
The university is not a place to tell Platonic “noble lies” (the idea of telling the masses lies to keep them confused and under control). In the university, we do not punish, dismiss or impose a gag order on a professor who may claim that the Earth is flat and is carried through space on the back of a giant beetle. We put his dubious terrestrial claim to an empirical test. By demonstrating that the earth is indeed round in an open forum, we prove the falsity of his idea. Similarly, we should not deprive students of their daily bread or threaten them with expulsion, and intimidate their professors into submission just because they believe H.R. 2003 is a good thing for Ethiopia. We show them (or we let them they show us) the error of their ways by encouraging them to openly and robustly debate the provisions of the bill without fear of retaliation and retribution. In the final analysis the fate of H.R. 2003 should rise or fall in the marketplace of ideas in the universities, (and indeed in the broader society), and not struck down by the heavy hand of untutored and ignorant politicians and bureaucrats.

Professors, Students and Inconvenient Truths
Prof. Salisbury has revealed to us that when university faculty and students in Ethiopia attempt to teach, learn or communicate ideas or facts that are inconvenient to the regime, they will likely find themselves targeted for public vilification, job loss, harassment or even worse. Prof. Salisbury herself was once forced to suppress her natural instincts for academic freedom and tiptoe around the subject matter of her course, human rights. But in writing her article for Jurist she asserted her academic freedom, in much the same way as any freedom-loving American would, and told those who had inflicted an affront to her intellectual dignity, “Take your job and… ! I ain’t gonna take it no more!” We owe her a great debt of gratitude for marshaling the courage to stand for her students, her colleagues and herself against her contractual obligations and potential risk of dismissal from her position. We should applaud her for standing up for academic freedom in Ethiopian universities.

No doubt, some may argue that the kind of academic freedom defended in the foregoing discussion will not work in Ethiopian universities. Neither Ethiopian university students nor their professors are ready to enjoy such freedom. I say poppycock! If students and faculty can enjoy full academic freedom at Harvard, Berkeley or Minnesota, there is no reason why faculty and students at Addis Ababa, Mekelle or Jimma can not enjoy the same scope of academic freedom. In fact, I shall argue that those at Addis Ababa, Mekelle or Jimma universities need much more academic freedom because they are tiny islands of scholarly fellowship in a sea of censorship and repression.

Professor Salisbury is right when she said “Of those who wrote such notes, almost all said that I would probably be surprised to find that many of the students had been afraid to express their true feelings at the H.R. 2003 discussion forum because you never know who is listening. Prof. Levine is also right when he said, “Commitment to the values of academic freedom and excellence animated the generation of remarkable young Ethiopians who struggled to establish a first-rate institution of higher learning here….” Time will tell if a new generation of remarkable young Ethiopians will rise once again and help establish first-rate institutions of higher learning in Ethiopia where courses, including those on human rights, will be taught freely and without political interference, harassment and intimidation.
[1] [2] [3] .html [4] [5] (The Sixty-Eighth General Assembly of WORLD UNIVERSITY SERVICE, meeting in Lima from 6 to 10 September 1988, the year of the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.) [6] The Dar es Salaam Declaration on Academic Freedom and Social Responsibility of Academics,