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Vision Ethiopia Letter to Professor Dr. Luc Sels, Rector of Catholic University of Leuven (KUL)

An independent nonpartisan 501 (c) (3) nonprofit incorporated in Washington DC


December 5, 2020

Professor Dr. Luc Sels
Rector, Catholic University of Leuven (KUL)
Naamsestraat 22, 3000 Leuven. Belgium
Email: [email protected]

Re: Reaction to the petition of concerned scientists and development professionals Dear Professor Luc Sels, We, members of the Board of Vision Ethiopia, a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization incorporated in Washington D.C., with a mission and vision “to see Ethiopia transitioning to a peaceful, stable, united, democratic, prosperous and livable place for all its citizens” send our compliments of the season to you and the faculty of KUL. We appreciate the opportunity that the University provided, over the years, the high-quality education to African students that came through the Belgian Development Cooperation program (former AGCD/ABOS) which some of us were beneficiaries.

We also recognize the benefits of the continued engagement of KUL academics with global affairs in general and, Sub Sahara Africa (SSA) and Ethiopia, in particular. The partnering of universities/programs that KUL has, is exemplary. The size and shape have increased when compared to our days in beautiful Leuven. Though difficult to ascertain, the values instilled in higher education obliges academic institutions and its products to be free from prejudice and examine the whole truth. The objective reality in Ethiopia’s northern region is that the guns are roaring, tens of thousands solders and regional militia, as well as modern armaments, are in use. The conflict in Tigray is no exception. It has its own actors, casualties, interests, victims and collateral damages. An unbiased interpretation of the objective reality is important for resolving the conflict.

As social scientists we are aware that reality can be selectively used, interpreted and reinterpreted to fit one’s predisposition especially in conflict settings. Therefore, scholars must ask whether the reality described in the petition provides a fair account of the full reality. It was signed by over 2390 concerned scientists and development professionals that are spread across the globe. Interestingly, more than a quarter came from Belgian universities, and KUL appears to be leading. Some observers doubt whether the petition is authentic. Notwithstanding this, its effect is likely to be felt in the courts of public opinion and across the corridors of powers as the European Union is already threatening Ethiopia by holding the flow of budgetary and other support. The odds have assembled against the country:- open military conflict in a region that has now become “renegade”, Covid 19, desert locust, threats from Egypt, aid withholding from President Trump’s administration, youth radicalization and unemployment, and complex geopolitical lineups. We are therefore obliged to examine the contents of the petition letter and share public information in case there is a gap. The petition letter states:-

On November 4th, 2020, a military conflict erupted between the forces of the federal government of Ethiopia and the regional government of Tigray. Rising tensions between the two parties in recent years have intensified in the past months to erupt into open armed conflict… Initially, we were hoping that talks could take place and avoid the use of weapons, however, we now understand the conflict is intensifying at an alarming speed. We have not been able to communicate with our colleagues and friends, and very little information is given on the development of the conflict and its consequences on the civilian population. However, the information available makes it clear that many citizens have lost their lives, many others are wounded, and people in Tigray and other parts of Ethiopia live in fear that their lives are at great jeopardy.”

The description depicted in the petition letter is incomplete. We are also very saddened that the once-invincible ruling ethnic coalition that remained in power for 27 years, the EPRDF, has not been able to transition the country into a stable and more accountable political and economic order. The tensions within the party were simmering, and military build ups were occurring especially after TPLF lost control of the federal government’s institutions and, the benefits that arise from it. Furthermore, the conflict in Tigray has as much do with economics as it is political, primarily driven by ethnicity, regional nationalism, and State capture. This may not be clear to colleagues in the natural and physical sciences. A recent article that appeared in the November 19, 2020 edition of Foreign Policy, for example, describes the problem as follows:

This war is ultimately a battle for control of Ethiopia’s economy, its natural resources, and the billions of dollars the country receives annually from international donors and lenders. Access to those riches is a function of who heads the federal government—which the TPLF controlled for nearly three decades before Abiy came to power in April 2018, following widespread protests against the TPLF-led government.”

Returning to the humanitarian aspects of the conflict, which the letter tries to get the sympathy of academics, before November 3, 2020, in December 2019, there were about 1.4 million internally displaced people (IDP). This figure is lower than the 3 million reported in 2018. The causes are atrocity crimes, armed conflicts, hate media, uncritical scholarship, natural calamities, and government ineffectiveness in maintaining law and order. Over 600 thousand of the approximate 7 million people in Tigray were on food for work projects. The ongoing conflict makes matters worse.

Mediation efforts by elders and religious leaders failed. TPLF became increasingly defiant of the center. Inflammatory and separatist messages were consistently coming out of the political structure, as well as from faculty members working for Makele University. The President of Makele University was sacked, and his deputy was appointed to the top job. One needs to examine whether faculty at universities exacerbated the tensions and have role in collecting the petition signatures. Equally, the Government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed must also be criticized for a host of things, as documented in our recent seven weeks long virtual conference report.

For scientists and development professionals, it is important to find the root causes of the conflict, and not allow to be trapped by anecdotal evidence. What sparked the conflict is ethnicity and its extensions into political, governance, media, economic and, defense and security structures. It reminds us of the mini features of it when KUL’s libraries’ books were shared alphabetically. In Tigray’s case, the scramble was for big guns. The “multinational federalism” went terribly wrong. No national army and federal government would tolerate what happened on November 3, 2020. It requires the finest legal minds to examine whether there was war crime, treason, and atrocity crimes. The matter should be of interest to students of social activism, governance, sociology, political science, economics, and the military sciences as it provides lessons for countries whose national security system is vulnerable to the ravages of ethnicity and other cleavages.

Furthermore, the petition document is short of analyzing whether the conflict is likely to be resolved through new mediation. At this stage, the incentives appear different as the ground has changed. Whether the rebellion will be sustained remains to be seen. The repatriation of the estimated 45 thousand refugees from Sudan and returning the IDPs to their normal places of residence is not as simple as it sounds. To the best of our information, the Government and UN are working out so that aid is reaching to those deserving. Analysts urge that the process should ensure that aid is not utilized to prolong the conflict as was the case in the 1980s and, bring back the traumatic memories of 1984 and 1985.

Finally, in the interest of transparency, bona fide petitioners should be able to engage with the Ministry of Science and Higher Education of Ethiopia, its Advisory Council, and the broader Ethiopian learned society in their search for the whole truth. At the time of writing this open letter we understand that the hospitals of the front line Universities (Bahir Dar University, Gondar University, Makele University) are in dire needs of medical equipment and supplies, higher education is disrupted because of conflict and Covid 19, and universities like Axum University require support as it is located in a heritage city where the conflict has reportedly created an opportune moment for vandalism and the looting of heritage assets and valuable teaching and research equipment.



Minga Negash, (MBA KUL, DEconSc VUB), Professor, MSU Denver & Wits University Seid Hassan, Ph.D. Professor, Murray State University, Kentucky.

Ashenafi Gossay, Ph.D. City Capital Planning Expert, Kings County, Seattle, Washington Yohannes Zeleke, Ph.D. Research Associate, Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C. Gizaw Legesse, Formerly IT Expert Department of Labor, Washington D.C


Professor Samuel Urkato, Minister for Science and Higher Education, FDRE Professor Afework Kassu, State Minister for Higher Education & Science, FDRE Professor Damtew Tefera, Chair, Advisory Council & University of Kwa Zulu Natal Professor Dr. Peter Lievens, Vice Rector for International and Alumni policy, KUL

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