“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” said Nelson Mandela. For the late Meles Zenawi and his apostles (the Melesistas) in Ethiopia, the reverse is true: Ignorance is the most powerful weapon you can use to prevent change and cling to power. They have long adopted the motto of George Orwell’s Oceania: “Ignorance is Strength”. Indeed, ignorance is a powerful weapon to manipulate, emasculate and subjugate the masses. Keep ‘em ignorant and impoverished and they won’t give you any trouble.
For the Melesistas education is indoctrination. They feed the youth a propaganda diet rich in misinformation, disinformation, distortions, misguided opinions, worn out slogans and sterile dogmas from a bygone era. Long ago, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, “Father of African-American History”, warned against such indoctrination and miseducation of the oppressed: “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his proper place and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.” The rulers in Ethiopia continue to use higher educational institutions not as places of learning, inquiry and research but as diploma mills for a new breed of party hacks and zombie ideologues doomed to blind and unquestioning servility. “Zombie go… zombie stop… zombie turn… zombie think…,” sang the great African musician Fela Kuti. I’d say, “zombie teach… zombie learn… zombie read… zombie dumb… zombie dumber.”
For over two decades, Meles and his gang have tried to keep Ethiopians in a state of blissful ignorance where the people are forced at gunpoint to speak no evil, see no evil and hear no evil. Meles and his posse have spent a king’s ransom to jam international radio and satellite transmissions to prevent the free flow of information to the people. They have blocked internet access to alternative and critical sources of information and views. According to a 2012 report of Freedom House, the highly respected nongovernmental research and advocacy organization established in 1941, “Ethiopia has one of the lowest rates of internet and mobile telephone penetration on the continent. Despite low access, the government maintains a strict system of controls and is the only country in Sub-Saharan Africa to implement nationwide internet filtering.” They have shuttered independent newspapers, jailed reporters, editors and bloggers and exiled dozens of journalists in a futile attempt to conceal their horrific crimes against humanity and vampiric corruption. They have succeeded in transforming Ethiopia from the “Land of 13 Months of Sunshine” to the “Land of Perpetual Darkness”.
But my commentary here is not about the Benighted Kingdom of Ethiopia where ignoramuses are kings, queens, princes and princesses. I am concerned about the systemic and rampant corruption in Ethiopia’s “education sector”. The most destructive and pernicious form of corruption occurs in education. Educorruption steals the future of youth. It permanently cripples them intellectually by denying them opportunities to acquire knowledge and transform their lives and take control of the destiny of their nation. As Malcom X perceptively observed, “Without education, you are not going anywhere in this world.” Could Ethiopia’s youth go anywhere in this world trapped and chained deep in the belly of a corrupt educational system?
I will admit that in the hundreds of weekly commentaries I have written over the last half dozen or so years, I have not given education in Ethiopia the critical attention it deserved. I have no excuse for not engaging the issue more intensely. In my own defense, I can only say that when an entire generation of Ethiopian scholars, academics, professors and learned elites stands silent as a bronze statute witnessing the tyranny of ignorance in action, the burden on the few who try to become the voices of the voiceless on every issue is enormous.
I have previously commented on the lack of academic freedom in Ethiopian higher education and the politicization of education in Ethiopia. In my February 2008 commentary “Tyranny in the Academy”, I called attention to the lack of academic freedom at Mekelle Law School. I defended Abigail Salisbury who was a visiting professor at that law school when she was summarily fired by Meles after she published an academic commentary on her experiences at that law school:
…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…
In my September 2010 commentary, “Indoctri-Nation”, I criticized the Meles regime for politicizing education. The “Ministry of Education” (reminds one of Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth” (Ignorance)) at the time had issued a “directive” effectively outlawing distance learning (education programs that are not delivered in the traditional university classroom or campus) throughout the country. The regime had also sought to corner the disciplines of law and teaching for state-controlled universities, creating a monopoly and pipeline for the training of party hacks to swarm the teaching and legal professions. I demonstrated that “directive” was in flagrant violation and in willful disregard of the procedural safeguards of the Higher Education Proclamation No. 650/2009. It did not faze them. (It was time to mint a new legal maxim: “The ignorant are entitled to ignore their own law and invoke ignorance of their own law as a defense.”)
The “directive” was at odds with the recommendations of the World Bank (which has been assisting the regime in improving education administration and delivery of services) for increased emphasis on the creation of a network of “tertiary educational” institutions (e.g. distance learning centers, private colleges, vocational training services, etc.,) to help support the “production of the higher-order capacity” necessary for Ethiopia’s development. In its 2003 sector study “Higher Education Development for Ethiopia”, the World Bank had recommended “a near term goal [of] doubl[ing] the share of private enrollments from the current 21% to 40% by 2010.” By 2010, the Meles regime had decided to reduce private tertiary institutions, particularly the burgeoning distance learning sector, to zero!
In my October 2010 commentary, “Ethiopia: Education Unbanned!”, I was pleasantly surprised but unconvinced by the Meles regime’s apparent change of strategy to abandon its decision to impose a blanket ban on distance learning and reach a negotiated resolution of instructional quality issues with distance learning providers. I pointed out a few lessons Meles and his crew could learn from the bureaucratic fiasco. (Is it really possible for the closed- and narrow-minded to learn?)
I focus on educational corruption in Ethiopia in this commentary for four reasons: 1) I was appalled by the corruption findings in the recent World Bank 448-page report “Diagnosing Corruption in Ethiopia”. That report, with bureaucratic delicacy and hesitancy, demonstrates the cancer of corruption which afflicts the Ethiopian body politic has metastasized into the educational sector putting the nation’s youth at grave risk. 2) There is widespread acknowledgement that education in Ethiopia at all levels is in a pitiful condition. For instance, a 2010 Newsweek “study of health, education, economy, and politics” showed Ethiopia with a population of 88 million had a literacy rate of 43.3 percent, and ranked 98 out of 100 countries on education. 3) Few Ethiopian educators and scholars are examining the issue of educational corruption and its implications for the future of the country and its youth. Hopefully, this commentary could spur some of them to investigate corruption in education (and other areas) and conduct related policy research and analysis. 4) I had promised in my first weekly commentary of 2013 to pay special attention to youth issues in Ethiopia during the year. Nothing is more important to Ethiopia’s youth than education. Youth without education are youth without a future and without hope. Youth without education are emblematic of a nation in despair.
World Bank findings on corruption in the Ethiopian education sector
The WB report on the education sector alludes to an Ethiopian proverb in assessing the culture of corruption and impunity: “Sishom Yalbela Sishar Ykochewal” — roughly translates into English as follows: “One who does not exploit to the full his position when he is promoted will lament when he no longer has the opportunity.”
Ethiopia’s education sector has become a haven and a refuge for prebendalist (where those affiliated with the ruling regime feel entitled to receive a share of the loot) party hacks and a bottomless barrel of patronage. The Meles regime has used jobs, procurement and other opportunities in the education sector to reward and sustain loyalty in its support base. They have been handing out teaching jobs to their supporters like candy and procurement opportunities to their cronies like cake. “In Ethiopia’s decentralized yet authoritarian system,considerable powers exist among senior officials at the federal, regional, and woreda levels. Of particular relevance to this study is the discretion exercised by politically appointed officials at the woreda level, directly affecting the management of teachers.”
In “mapping corruption in the education sector in Ethiopia”, “the World Bank report cautions that “corruption in education can be multifaceted, ranging from large distortions in resource allocation and significant procurement-related fraud to smaller amounts garnered through daily opportunities for petty corruption and nontransparent financial management.” Corruption in the education sector is quadri-dimensional “affecting the selection of teachers for training, recruitment, skills upgrading, or promotion; falsification of documents to obtain qualifications, jobs, or promotions and fraud and related bribery in examinations and conflict of interest in procurement.”
The “selection of candidates for technical training colleges (TTCs)” is the fountainhead of educational corruption in Ethiopia. According to the WB report, “students do not generally choose to become teachers but are centrally selected from a pool of those who have failed to achieve high grades.” In other words, the regime’s policy is to populate the teaching profession with, for lack of a better word, the “dumber” students. Such students also make the most servile party hacks. But it is a spectacular revelation that the future of Ethiopia’s youth — the future of Ethiopia itself — is in the hands of “those who have failed to achieve high grades”. Ignorant teachers and ignorant students= Ignorance is strength. Could a greater crime be committed against Ethiopia’s youth and Ethiopia?
To add insult to injury, the selection of underachieving students to pursue teacher training institutes is itself infected by “bribery, favoritism and nepotism.” The most flagrant corrupt practices include “manipulation of the points system for selection of students to higher education.” The “allocate[on] of higher percentage points for results from transcripts and national exams than for entrance exams” has “enabled a large number of inadequately qualified students to join the affected institutes, sometimes with forged transcripts. This practice has affected the quality of students gaining entry to higher education and eroded the quality of the training program.” In other words, even among underachievers seeking to become teachers, it is the washouts, the duds and flops that are likely to become teachers!
Fraud and related corrupt practices in matriculation are commonplace. According to the WB report, there is
a significant risk of corruption in examinations…The types of fraudulent practices in examinations include forged admission cards enable students to pay other students to sit exams for them, collusion allowing both individual and group cheating in examinations, assistance from invigilators (exam monitors) and school and local officials (during exams), higher-level interference [in which] regional officials overturned the disqualification of cheaters, fraudulent overscoring of examination papers [by] teachers are bribed by parents and students, fraudulent certification of transcripts and certificates to help students graduate.
Although there are public officials who have considered reporting corrupt practices, they have refrained from doing so because there was “a strong sense that there is no protection to guard against possible reprisals directed at those who report malpractice.” There is no place for whistle blowers in Ethiopia’s edu-corruptocracy.
Recruitment and management of teachers is a separate universe of corrupt practices. “In Ethiopia, the overwhelming bulk of expenditure in education is taken up by salaries of teachers” and there is a “high risk of bribery, extortion, favoritism, or nepotism in selecting teachers for promotion, upgrading, or grants.” The WB report found “nepotism and favoritism in recruitment were broad and frequent—namely that, in some woredas, the recruitment of teachers (and other community-based workers) is based on political affiliation, including paid-up membership of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).”
What is shocking is not only the culture of corruption in education but also the culture of impunity — the belief that there are no consequences for practicing corruption. The WB report shows not only the “prevalence of fraud and falsification of teaching qualifications and other documents, reflecting weak controls, poor-quality documents (that are easily falsified), [but also] the widespread belief that such a practice would not be detected… For such falsification to go unnoticed, there is a related risk of the officials supporting or approving the application being implicated in the corrupt practice.”
The types of corrupt practices that occur at the management level are stunning. Managers manipulate access to “program of enhancing teacher qualifications through in-service training during holiday periods by using their positions to influence the selection of candidates. Hidden relationships are used in teacher upgrading, with officials at the zonal or woreda level taking the first option on upgradation programs.” The appointment of local education officials is not “competitive” but “politically assigned”. Collusion between local managers and teachers over noncompliance with curriculum, academic calendar, and similar practices is a relatively common practice and “reduces the provision of educational services.” This situation is made worse by “teacher absenteeism [which] is tolerated by head teachers, within the context of staff perceiving a need to supplement their income through private tutoring or other forms of income generation.” Poorly paid teachers supplement their incomes by “private tutoring [which] is widespread, with 40 percent of school officials reporting it as a practice.” Corruption also extends to “teachers paying bribes or kickbacks to management, mostly school directors, to allocate shorter work hours in schools so that they can use the freed-up time to earn fees as teachers in private schools.” The payola is hierarchically distributed: “Bribes received are likely to be shared first with superiors, then with a political party, and then with colleagues, in that order.”
Falsification of documents including forged transcripts and certificates occurs on an “industrial” scale and is “most prevalent in the provision of certification for completing the primary or secondary school cycles” and in generating bogus “documents in support of applications for promotion”.
Procurement (official purchases of goods and services from private sources) is the low hanging fruit. “In the education sector, a number of public actors maybe involved [in procurement], depending on the size and type of the task. These include national and local government politicians and managers.” Some people have a lock on the procurement system. Successful “tendering companies” are likely to have “family or other connections with officials responsible for procurement”. Procurement corruption also takes the forms of “uncompetitive practices” “including the formation of a cartel, obstruction of potential new entrants to the market, or other forms of uncompetitive practices that may or may not include a conspiratorial role on the part of those responsible for procurement.” Other procurement related corruption includes “favoritism, nepotism, or bribery in the short-listing of consultants or contractors or the provision of tender information.” There are some “favored contractors and consultants” who have a “dominant market position” and are “awarded contracts for which they were not eligible to bid.” Corruption also occurs in the form of defective construction, substandard materials and overclaims of quantities.
Construction quality issues are considered a significant problem in the construction of educational facilities, particularly in the case of small, remote facilities where high standards of construction supervision can be difficult to achieve. For example, a toilet block in a school collapsed a month after completion. The contractor responsible for building the facility was not required to make the work good or repay the amount paid, nor was the contractor sanctioned. The matter was not investigated. Such problems are a significant indicator of corrupt practices, particularly when the contractor is not ultimately held to account for its failures…
There is corruption in the “purchase of substandard or defective supplies or equipment. For this to go unchallenged by those responsible for procurement strongly suggests either a lack of capacity, corrupt practices, or both.” According to an example cited in the WB report, “a large fleet of buses purchased by the MOE [“Ministry of Education”] using Teacher Development Program funds and distributed to TTCs were found to be defective. The TTCs complained that the MOE had dumped the buses on them. The MOE subsequently sent auditors to determine whether the complaint was genuine.”
The amazing fact is that the regime reflexively decided to investigate those who filed the complaint, and not the reported crooks. They automatically assumed the technical training colleges were lying and sent their auditors to investigate them for possible false reporting of defective buses!! (Orwelliana: The criminals are the victims and the victims are the criminals.) There is evidence of theft and resale of school supplies or equipment. “One such indication relates to the alleged illegal sale of education facilities, with related allegations of nepotism. A city education office is alleged to have sold valuable heritage buildings in a secondary school to a private developer and then to have requested land to rebuild the school facilities.”
Changing the culture of corruption and impunity
The culture of corruption and impunity in Ethiopia must be changed. The WB report observes,
In Ethiopia, the pattern of perception suggests that outright bribery is perceived to be more corrupt than, for example, favoritism or the falsification of documentation. There is also a sense that some practices, such as expressing gratitude to a client through the giving of a small gift, are normal business practice and not necessarily corrupt. Finally, there is an underlying acceptance among many that the state has the right to intervene in the market if that is considered to be in the national interest, and there is little sense that such interventions could be at variance with ongoing efforts to promote the level playing field needed for effective privatization of service provision, including in the education sector.
It is unlikely that a corrupt regime has the will, capacity or interest to change its own modus operandi. As I have argued elsewhere, having the “Federal Ethics and Anti-corruption Commission” (FEAC) investigate the architects and beneficiaries of corruption in Ethiopia is like having Tweedle Dee investigate Tweedle Dum. It is an exercise in futility and an absurdity. FEAC is a toothless, clawless and feckless make-believe do-nothing bureaucratic shell incapable of investigating corruption in its own offices let alone systemic corruption in the country.
Pressures for accountability and transparency could come from domestic civil society institutions, but as the WB report points out, a 2009 “civil societies law” has decimated such institutions. The only practical and effective mechanism for accountability and transparency in the education sector is the institutionalization of an independent and energetic teachers’ union. But the regime has destroyed the real teachers’ union. According to the WB report,
Teachers in Ethiopia have historically been represented by the Ethiopian Teachers’ Association (ETA), founded in 1949. Following a long legal battle, a 2008 court ruling took away the right of the ETA to its name and all of its assets, creating a different organization with an identical name. Most teachers are now members of this replacement organization, for which dues are deducted from teachers’ salaries. The original ETA, now reorganized as the National Teachers Association (NTA), considers the new ETA to be unduly influenced by the government and has complained of discrimination against its members. Such concerns have in turn been expressed internationally through a range of bodies including the International Labour Organization (ILO 2009).
The mis-edcuation of Ethiopia’s youth and stolen futures
Education of Ethiopia’s youth is a human rights issue for me and not just a matter of professional concern as an educator. Corruption in the education sector is so severe that the future of Ethiopia’s youth is at grave risk. As Transparency International admonishes,
Stolen resources from education budgets mean overcrowded classrooms and crumbling schools, or no schools at all. Books and supplies are sometimes sold instead of being given out freely. Schools and universities also ‘sell’ school places or charge unauthorised fees, forcing students (usually girls) to drop out. Teachers and lecturers are appointed through family connections, without qualifications. Grades can be bought, while teachers force students to pay for tuition outside of class. In higher education, undue government and private sector influence can skew research agendas.
It is true “ignorance is strength”. The Meles regime seeks to create an army of ignorant youth zombie clones who will march lockstep and follow their orders: “Zombie go, zombie stop, zombie think… zombie learn… zombie dumb… zombie dumber…” If ignorance is strength, then knowledge is power. When “ignorant” youth gain knowledge, they become an unstoppable force.
It may not be manifest to many but Ethiopia’s mis-educated youth are on the rise. A quiet riot is raging among the youth debilitated by overwhelming despair and anguish. The youth look at themselves and their lost futures under a corrupt tyranny. They know things are not going to get better. For now the despair simmers but it will reach a boiling point. Mohamed Bouazizi was a 26 year old Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in December 2010. Dictator Ben Ali did not see it coming, but the fire that consumed Bouazizi also consumed and transformed not only Tunisia but also led to an Arab Spring. Moamar Gadhafi, the great “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution of Libya” died at the hands of youth he miseducated for 42 years. Informed, enlightened and interconnected Egyptian youth brought down the Mubarak regime in less than two weeks!
Ethiopia’s youth will rise because there is no force that can keep them down. The only question is when not if. That is the immutable of law of history. In the end, I believe Ethiopia’s youth will remember not the deeds and misdeeds of those who miseducated them and robbed them of their futures, but the silence of the scholars, intellectuals, academics, professors and learned men and women who watched the tyranny of ignorance like bronze statutes. I am confident in my conviction that there will come a time when Ethiopia’s youth will stand up collectively, and each one pointing an index finger, shout out, “J’accuse!”
Ignorance is strength but knowledge is power! Fight the tyranny of ignorance. Educate yourself!
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
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Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at: