Debating Ideas is a new section that aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It will offer debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.
The war in Ethiopia has produced a toxic and contested landscape of contradictory narratives. Attempts to control and limit information are not new in Ethiopia, although the intensity and global reach of the current dynamics is a worrying evolution of previous tendencies.
Challenges with access to Tigray since the outbreak of the war in November 2020 have limited information. This has been compounded by government restrictions on telecommunications and power, and restrictions on the movements of humanitarian assistance and workers.
The government has also established a record of making claims which are later proved false, for example denying the participation of Eritrean troops in the conflict, or denying reports which do not fit its preferred narrative, for example downplaying or denying the scale of the humanitarian emergency in Tigray or attempting to shift the blame for aid shortfalls onto international humanitarian agencies. Since the expansion of the conflict into the Amhara and Afar regions in July, the government has increasingly responded to its battlefield challenges by criticizing international media, and putting restrictions on domestic media. In the last few days, the government has forbidden media from reporting on military activities or operations without permission from the Command Post established in the November 2 State of Emergency declaration.
Attempts to control the narrative have gone beyond the conventional media. In particular, activists and other Ethiopians (and Eritreans) in the diaspora have pushed increasingly polarised and toxic narratives on social media about the war, with the fate of civilians caught up in the conflict and the resulting humanitarian crisis overshadowed by competing claims (or denials).
Moreover, this toxic dynamic has had a chilling effect on academic and other intellectual efforts to understand the crisis and its drivers, and to try to contribute to a resolution or the mitigation of its effects on civilians. On Friday 26th November 2021, it was reported that Addis Ababa University has forbidden its graduates from acts ‘supporting the TPLF’, threatening to revoke the degrees of those who did so.
This chilling effect goes beyond Ethiopian academia. Since the outbreak of the war, scholars have struggled to establish constructive platforms for exchange which are safe for participants to share views which may not align with each other, and to protect those involved from attacks on social media. This has been a huge challenge and undermined the ability of the scholarly community to engage with the crisis.
Moreover, attempts to silence scholars from discussing the situation in Ethiopia in a way which challenges the government’s preferred narrative are not limited to Ethiopian higher education. It is in this respect that the situation at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada is so concerning, described in the open letter below. Academia should be a platform where contrasting viewpoints can be engaged constructively. The failure of the administration to protect that role, and the influence of faculty within the university in working with a diaspora lobbying group to pressure the university to shut down such a space, must be called out.
Jason Mosley, University of Oxford
Dr. Deborah MacLatchy
President and Vice-Chancellor
Office of the President
Wilfrid Laurier University
CC: Wilfrid Laurier Faculty Association; Canadian Association of University Teachers
Dear President MacLatchy,
We, the undersigned scholars and researchers, write to express our grave concerns over Wilfrid Laurier University’s decision to indefinitely postpone a virtual event focusing on the ongoing civil war in Ethiopia after a campaign of interference.
The scale of human suffering as a result of Ethiopian military operations, allied militia violence, and the blockage of humanitarian aid in the Tigray Region since November 2020 has been well-documented by the United Nations, humanitarian relief organizations, and human rights groups: over five million people in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, over two million displaced, widespread starvation and famine conditions, sexual violence as a weapon of war, and the targeting of ethnic Tigrayans for arbitrary detention and disappearance. Mass displacement – including high numbers of unaccompanied refugee children – and the interruption of child protection systems in Tigray makes the ongoing crisis an urgent and relevant case for thinking about the impact of conflict on family separation and reunification.
The panel, entitled “Understanding the Implications of War on Children and Families in Tigray,” was to explore these pressing issues on Monday, October 25th as part of the undergraduate course “International Social Work” offered by the Faculty of Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University. It was organized by Professor Bree Akesson, Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Global Adversity and Wellbeing and Associate Professor in the Faculty of Social Work, and Ethiopian-Canadian community activists Tsion Tekie and Kassaye Berhanu-MacDonald, an adoptee from the Amhara Region of Ethiopia. The panel was sponsored by WLU’s Centre for Research on Security Practices, the Tshepo Institute for the Study of Contemporary Africa, and United Tegaru Canada, a community organization created in 2020 in response to the war on Tigray.
On the afternoon of Friday, October 22nd, the Office of the President notified organizers that they could not proceed with the panel scheduled for the following Monday. The administration reached this decision following multiple emails and a threatening letter protesting the panel’s focus on Tigray from Dr. Tihut Asfaw of the Ethio-Canadian Network for Advocacy and Support (ECNAS), a partisan, pro-war organization which fundraises “to support lobbying to fight misinformation and disinformation by the TPLF [Tigray People’s Liberation Front].” The ECNAS position was supported by Professor Ann Fitz-Gerald, Director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs and Professor of International Security in WLU’s Department of Political Science, who has written extensively in support of the Ethiopian government’s military operations in Tigray. Furthermore, the Ethiopian co-organizers have been subject to harassment and abuse on the basis of presumed ethnic Tigrayan identity – to the extent of being referred to as “terrorists” – and the panel targeted by automated bots filling up registration for the virtual event. This is consistent with the escalation of “coordinated inauthentic behavior” and organized disinformation campaigns in virtual space in support of the war identified by researchers and social media services such as Facebook.
Academic freedom is a foundational principle of higher education in Canada and as scholars and researchers, we are committed to the view that the University should be a place for the free exchange of ideas and debate without fear of intimidation, retaliation, or interference.
We therefore call on Wilfrid Laurier University to immediately:
- Issue a public statement of accountability and apology from the Office of the President to clarify the process by which the decision to indefinitely postpone the panel was made and to outline steps to rectify the situation.
- Affirm the university’s commitment to academic freedom and defending the right to speak, write, and teach without political interference.
- Affirm the university’s commitment to addressing harassment and anti-Black racism.
- Allow the organizers of the event to proceed with the panel as planned and reschedule a date in the near future.
Should the university refuse to act, we urge the Wilfrid Laurier Faculty Association and the Canadian Association of University Teachers to thoroughly investigate this failure to uphold academic freedom at Wilfrid Laurier University.
Carrie Sanders, Professor of Criminology, Director of Centre for Research on Security Practices, Wilfrid Laurier University
Martha Kuwee Kumsa, Professor Emerita, Faculty of Social Work, Wilfrid Laurier University
Jennifer Lavoie, Associate Professor of Criminology and Psychology, Wilfrid Laurier University
Stacey Wilson-Forsberg, Associate Professor Human Rights and Human Diversity and Director of the Tshepo Institute for the Study of Contemporary Africa, Wilfrid Laurier University
Sue Ferguson, Associate Professor Emerita of Digital Media & Journalism, Wilfrid Laurier University
Todd Gordon, Associate Professor of Law & Society, Wilfrid Laurier University
Marcia Oliver, Associate Professor of Law & Society, Wilfrid Laurier University
Jasmin Zine, Professor of Sociology, Wilfrid Laurier University
Sarah Matthews, Associate Professor of Global Studies, Wilfrid Laurier University
Greg Bird, Associate Professor of Sociology, Wilfrid Laurier University
Peter Eglin, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Wilfrid Laurier University
Garry Potter, Professor of Sociology, Wilfrid Laurier University
Penelope Ironstone, Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Wilfrid Laurier University
Dr Hillary Pimlott, Associate Professor, Dept of Communication Studies and MA in Cultural Analysis and Social Theory Programme, Wilfrid Laurier University
Tsion Tekie, EdD, Education Leadership, Western University
Catherine D’Andrea, Professor of Archaeology, Director, Eastern Tigrai Archaeological Project (ETAP), Department of Archaeology, Simon Fraser University
Awet Weldemichael, Professor and Queen’s National Scholar, Queen’s University
Alissa Trotz, Professor, Caribbean Studies and Women and Gender Studies, University of Toronto
Thashika Pillay, Assistant Professor of Education, Queen’s University
Susan Dianne Brophy, Associate Professor, Legal Studies, St. Jerome’s University (federated with the University of Waterloo)
David Bishop, Associate Professor of History, Bishop’s University
Tag Elkhazin, Professor (Retired), Senior Fellow NPSIA, Carleton University
Safia Aidid, Arts & Science Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Toronto
Patrick Wight, Africa Insight Editor & Lecturer, Institute For the Study of International Development, McGill University
Mulugeta Atakhelti, Professor, St. Clair College
Jeffrey Sachs, Instructor, Department of Politics and History & Classics, Acadia University
John Young, PhD, Simon Fraser University
Getachew Assefa, Associate Professor of Sustainable Design, University of Calgary
Elleni Centime Zeleke, Assistant Professor, Middle East, South Asian and African Studies, Columbia University
John Comaroff, Hugh K. Foster Professor of African and African American Studies and of Anthropology, Harvard University
Jean Comaroff, Alfred North Whitehead Professor of African and African American Studies and of Anthropology, Harvard University
Laura Fair, Professor, Middle East, South Asian and African Studies, Columbia University
Sean Jacobs, Associate Professor, The New School; Founder and Editor, Africa is a Country
Bhakti Shringarpure, Associate Professor of English & Women’s, Gender & Sexuality, University of Connecticut
Adom Getachew, Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Political Science and the College, University of Chicago
Lidwien Kapteijns, Kendall/Hodder Professor of History, Wellesley College
Jason Mosley, Associate Senior Researcher, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and Research Fellow, African Studies Centre, Oxford University
Sarah Vaughan, PhD, Independent Researcher, United Kingdom
Wolbert G.C. Smidt, Associate Professor in Ethnohistory, Mekelle University
Lahra Smith, Associate Professor, Georgetown University
Amber Murrey, Associate Professor of Human Geography, Oxford University
Lauren Carruth, Associate Professor, School of International Service, American University
Nisrin Elamin, Assistant Professor International Studies, Bryn Mawr College
Samar Al-Bulushi, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Irvine
Rachael Hill, Assistant Professor of African History, California State University, Pomona
Sarah Balakrishnan, SSHRC Fellow and Assistant Professor of History, University of Minnesota
Suban Nur Cooley, Assistant Professor of English, New Mexico State University
David McNally, Cullen Distinguished Professor of History & Business, University of Houston
Iman Mohamed, PhD Candidate in History, Harvard University
Ayantu Tibeso, Cota-Robles Fellow, PhD Candidate, UCLA
Khadijah Abdurahman, Tech Impact Network Fellow, AI Now Institute, New York University, UCLA C2I2 and UWA Law School. Director of We Be Imagining, Columbia University
Victoria Copeland, Ph.D Candidate, UCLA
Kristen Reynolds, Graduate Student, University of Minnesota
Timnet Gedar, PhD Candidate in History, University of Michigan
Awol Allo, Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Keele
Rachel Ibreck, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, Goldsmiths, University of London