For the record: The injustice of 1993 at the University of Asmara (UoA)

By on June 15, 2014

For the record: The injustice of 1993 at the University of Asmara (UoA)

By Mohamed Kheir

This is written with reference to the letter written by three former staff members who were dismissed from the University of Asmara. It is no way meant to go to arguments on the issue. It is not time for judgments and arguments. As I have indicated in my original post, this among other issues needs to be investigated in a free and democratic Eritrea.  As the link to my Facebook post in the letter was deliberately or otherwise made non-functional and to the benefit of the readers to get the two sides of the story, I will write down my original post at the end.  I will add some comments so that the reader can get a broader perspective. They claim that I testified that I collaborated with the regime and try to make me bear the main responsibility for what happened. This is something I have never stated nor did. The presence of a government minister in the committee, who had no relations whatsoever to the university, is not even mentioned or given importance.  All I stated was I was a member of a five member committee that recommended among other things the dismissal and their reassignment to other ministries and that the process was unjust.

It is not easy when you are a victim of injustice and one has a right to express ones views. We have all become victims of the regime. If someone is in the public sphere, one has to expect criticism or defamation with an open mind. As to me, I am not here seeking certificates of innocence or struggle, I was not only a member of the G-13 in 2000 who challenged the regime openly, but I was one of two persons who remained inside Eritrea after writing that letter and was the only one afterwards, when my colleague left the county, earlier. This was the time many persons avoided me in public for fear to be seen with me. I left Eritrea in August 2001 for a research collaboration project in Norway and the tragic arrests of all those who struggled for a democratic change, one month later, happened while I was there. Thus I could not return back.

–          When I chose to write about this issue, it is to clear my conscience, not to satisfy others. It is to be satisfied by judging yourself not by how people judge you. I know we do not have a culture to appreciate honesty and openness and we have to pay a price for that when we do. Your political opponents may use such things against you for temporary gains. Instead of encouraging openness and honesty. We try to haunt those who do and thus discourage others in following suit. It was with a full understanding of such issues that I wrote the post. We are obsessed with a culture of conspiracy and some may ask why I do write about this issue at this time. I get such comments on my Facebook account when I write about different issues that people disagree with or are not comfortable with; forgetting that as an individual I have the right to write on whatever issue at whatever time. For the benefit of the doubt, I am currently on leave to be able to reflect on my life, on my political activism since the early seventies, to write on issues related to Eritrea. This is not the only issue I have reflected on. I have written on my involvement in the General Union of Eritrean Students (GUES), on the ELF and others. Hopefully, I will write more about other issues. As I have indicated on other related issues I posted, we claim we fight against the PFDJ, its culture of secrecy and exclusion, we advocate human rights; but more often than not we become blind to our own hypocrisy.


–          It is true that perhaps by the virtue of its history as a Catholic institution, in Eritrea, most of the staff members were from one region (Akleguzai) and thus many of those dismissed but not all were from that region. To my surprise the regional sentiments were very high at the University and to blame that the regional card was played by then President and not by those who opposed him is far from the truth. But after the dismissal, we found out that all higher positions at the university were given to persons from another region (Seraye). All the rest were a minority at that time.


–          The injustice I refer to is about the process. This does not mean in my humble understanding that all issues raised by the staff during that period was correct and timely. I gave my opinion then openly in staff meetings. It is a fact that the institution was an Ethiopian institution (both in terms of staff and students) operating under the Derge and the previous Ethiopian administrations. The University was far from a national institution. I am not aware of any organized staff protests during the Ethiopian administration, at least in the years before liberation as it happened after it. The struggle was between a group of staff who worked under the Ethiopian administration for a long time and who wanted to have a dominant role in administering the University and who wanted to use former structures such staff union to maintain that role (some may have had genuine motives) and the new University administration of the EPLF represented by Andeberhan who wanted to introduce radical changes and have full control of the University. As I have indicated it is still my judgment that it is difficult to put all the dismissed staff in one pot. In hindsight taking into consideration how the EPLF/PFDJ operates, one cannot rule out that the process was all manipulated to target a group or individuals.


–          Through the Committee’s work we had access to all the files of the staff and that is something confidential that I do not want to go into details about.

–          It is also a fact the EPLF dismissed all former EWP (Iseba) members and those that were considered close to the Ethiopian regime from Government positions in all sectors


Regarding some points raised in the above mentioned letter, I would like to highlight the following:

–          It is claimed that they “ didn’t want to ignore Dr Mohammed Kheir’s misleading message that strives to distort the facts while attempting to minimise his culpability” – my response is: I simply state I was a member of the Academic Review Committee (ARC), no more no less, but if some of them want to believe this was not the work of the EPLF, not the work of a committee, not meant to target a particular group, but the major work of a ‘super human being’ called ‘Mohamed’ is difficult to understand.


–          They state “We categorically stress (1) the staff dismissal wasn’t based on academic appraisal, as he tried to present it, but it actually relates to previous conflict with university’s appointed President” . My response is- I have clearly stated that “it may be difficult to all of them into one pot. There are those who were members of the EWP, those who were seen by the Committee to be academically unfit and then there were those who were academics of high caliber but perhaps included for subjective reasons.”


–          They state, “Dr Mohamed Kheir openly testifies that he collaborated with the regime in the process.” My response is: I never said I collaborated with the regime, I just said that I was a member of the ARC. Collaboration means doing something with full knowledge and deliberately.


–          They state “why he has decided to raise this issue of injustice at this particular time.” Though not of relevance to me, I have answered this question previously


–          They state, “It was at this stage, Dr Mohammed Kheir  played his major role. He stood behind the destructive mission of the President and worked hard to discredit the efforts of the Teachers Association of the university and blackmail its executive committee as well as those who support the ideals of the Association by spreading false accusations and information. In so doing he was involved in circulating a petition condemning the Association and insisting on general staff to sign” . My response: I am not aware of any petition that was circulating let alone be part of it. I challenged some of the issues they raised and that I did not agree with, publicly and in open staff meetings. I pride myself on that culture. I remember at the end of one of those meetings, a close friend of mine then and a member of group approached me and said, “Mohamed Fah abilkalna” – You spoiled it for us. I told him I expressed my views openly why didn’t you do the same. I also remember during the period of Woldeab’s  presidency of the university and when I expressed my views openly, staff members who were much senior then me would come after the meeting and tell me, “Tzebug geirka Mohamed” – you did well, and I felt pity for them that they could not express their views publically.


–          As to the claim that I was handpicked by Andeberhan to be a dean, perhaps a reference to incompetence; I would like to state that when I joined the University in 1991 the Agriculture program had three staff members (two with MSc and one with a BSc.) And for the record, the College of Agriculture and Aquatic Sciences was the first college to get a major funding from abroad that was not only used for the college but for the other colleges as well. An initiative that was started by Andeberhan and which I personally followed together with my colleagues, with an agricultural college in Holland resulted in a proposal to Nuffic, an international Dutch funding for higher education which was written with the participation of the department heads. We competed with 10 other universities in the third world and won more than 10 million Dutch Guilders (US $ 5, 6 million) and also got more than 4 million Norwegian kroner (US $ 680,000) from Norway for building laboratories and scholarships to staff for MSc. and PhD studies. That was the money that Dr. Woldeab comfortably started with after he took over the presidency of the university. The day we got the approval, he highly appreciated it.

  One point worth stressing is that fact the group who opposed the President     cannot be put under one homogenous group. They vary from one of the signatories of the letter who used to spit in front of me in a childish manner (he knows himself), after dismissal, only when I was alone and whom I felt then and still feel today he did not deserve to be at the University (yet he was subjected to an unfair process) and someone else a man of high academic caliber and integrity that I knew from the struggle against the regime who I regard it was a loss to the University.

At the end we have all become victims and more and more victims are added every day. We need to concentrate at present on not only bringing down the regime, but on developing a better alternative, too. I have no intention on dwelling on this issue further.

This is the original post of June 1:

“According to a 1991 Fact sheet of the University, it was re-established in 1991 as an autonomous university by the then Provisional Government of Eritrea with “an all out effort to rehabilitate, restructure and revitalize it as a center of higher learning and development oriented research”. Andberhan Woldeghiorghis, a member of the Central Committee of the EPLF, then, was appointed as its first president. The University of Asmara (UoA) was founded in 1958 as the ” Holy Family” University Institute by the Missionary Congregation ”Piae Matres Nigritiell” ( Comboni Sisters) with Italian as the medium of instruction. It became a chartered University in 1968. It adopted English as a sole medium of instruction in 1975 and became part of the Ethiopian Commission for Higher Education in 1977. The old staff members at the University got into continued confrontation with the President.

By 1990, the UoA was relocated to Ethiopia (some colleges moved to Addis and others to Agarfa in Bale). As most of the staff and students by then were Ethiopians, the few Eritrean staff and students returned back to Asmara, after independence. Though the staff had a staff union and enjoyed some degree of academic freedom during the Derg rule, the Ethiopian Workes’ Party (EWP) had a close watch on the university. Few of the staff members were Party members, others had close ties to the Derg regime, but the majority were academics. There was a degree of mistrust between the old staff members and the EPLF. It was under such circumstances that the some of the old staff got into continued confrontation with the new University president. There were some calls that those who came from the jungle cannot administer the university. The new President had also his weaknesses in dealing with the situation and he was implementing an EPLF policy. The University came to a standstill. The Government then dismissed the new President and the University was temporarily placed under the Ministry of Education that was run by Baraki Gebresellasie.

A new interim President, Dr. Araya Tzeggai, was appointed to run the University. The Minister of Education appointed a five-member group called ‘Academic Review Committee’ that was headed by the late Prof. Kesete Gebrekidan (died in 2011 and was Advisor of Technical Affairs in the Office of the President at the time of his death), the late Dr. Haile Gebrekidan, Kibraab from the law school, Abraha Atzbha (Minister of Public Works since independence), and myself. All of the committee members were new academic staff members who had joined the University after liberation, in addition to the Minister who had no attachment to the University. The committee came up with a report and a recommendations, including dismissing about 35 staff members (mostly academic) and assigning them to other ministries. The Government endorsed the recommendations. I do not know of any hidden agenda (if some members influenced the recommendations, but the decision was taken unanimously). It may be difficult to all of them into one pot. There are those who were members of the EWP, those who were seen by the Committee to be academically unfit and then there were those who were academics of high caliber but perhaps included for subjective reasons.

In hindsight, the decision was unjust:

– The whole process was not transparent

– Those affected were not given the chance to know the grounds on which they were dismissed and assigned to other ministries and did not have the chance to defend themselves

– The Academic Review Committee members were all new to the University and no former staff were included in the Committee

But one thing was clear afterwards, among those dismissed was a very vocal group who challenged the EPLF establishment and the University was silenced forever afterwards.

As far as I am concerned, the fact that I was a member of that committee is an accusation I cannot deny and it is not an honour I can claim. I hope this issue, among other injustices committed, will be investigated in a free and democratic Eritrea and I take my share of responsibility in it. We are used to a culture of speaking of positive things we have been involved in, but it is also good to mention things one is not comfortable with.

I remember one opposition website mentioning that I, personally (described as someone who had only first degree) and Dr. Haile Gebrekidan to be soley responsible for the dismissal as if we had full powers. We were also regarded as Andebrhan’s men. For the record, when Woldeab Isaac took over the presidency of the University and met the University staff for the first time, he mentioned that the only written report that he found was an annual report by the College of Agriculture and Aquatic Sciences. He commended that and asked the other Deans to write similar reports. The next day when I met him, the first thing he asked was how did I become a Dean. I mentioned I did not beg for that and he could relieve me of that position with immediate effect. He seemed surprised and did not reply. From that day onwards whenever a senior person joined the our colleague, I asked him, if he could relieve me from my duty but he insisted I continue and till I left the University in 2001, though there were differences, there was mutual respect between us.” – end of the original post.

Note by the editor – Thanks Dr Mohamed Kheir for including the original facebook post to your response. Malfunction of the link was due to technical reasons; and the writers of the letter made us aware of the problem before we received your response, although we didn’t succeed to make it work on time.