An Entire Generation Denied Higher Education? Are we going to stay silent?

Resoum Kidane


Since the 1940s, increasing number of Eritreans have sought to gain higher education. The British authorities had expanded the schooling system for their own reasons, mainly to counter Italian influence, but Eritreans seized the opportunity this offered.  Many went on to universities abroad.  With independence, the expectation was that  higher education would be expanded, to offer the benefits of university training to a much broader stratum of the population.  In fact, the very opposite has happened.  The current government in order to prevent the possibility of students criticizing the lack of free speech democracy has set out to restrict higher education.     

As Ravinder Rena [1] has argued,    Eritrea ’s  level of creativity, its wealth and the future living standard of its people will be determined by the breadth and depth of its intellectual assets.   Despite  the evident truth of this observation,   the sole higher educational  institution  in Eritrea , the  University of Asmara , which could have  a key role in future economic and social developments,   was closed down in September 2006.  The demise of this institution is further proof of  Isays Afeworki’s intense fear of intellectuals and above all of freedom of speech and  democratic debate.  

He began  eliminating  the intellectual  stratum  during the liberation struggle of the 1970s and 1980s.   Alem Tesfay [2]  has documented some of the victims during those years,  and  Teklay Aden, an EPLF security chief who defected to the Ethiopian regime in 1981, estimated that  three thousand fighters were physically liquidated by the EPLF’s security service  between the beginning  of the internal power struggle, 1973,  and the time of his defection in 1980 [3].  The number of fighters physically eliminated by the Front,  between 1973 and the liberation of Eritrea in 1991, could range between three to five thousand, if those fighters who disappeared under mysterious circumstances are included.  However, Solomon Woldemariam who was part of the EPLF leadership from 1971-1977, has suggested that the number was much larger. Solomon estimated that around one thousand fighters who participated in the Menka movement were rehabilitated after undergoing serious political indoctrination and so-called self-criticism[4][p49].

Sherman [5][p64] has claimed  that in 1976 alone perhaps as many as 200 young EPLF intellectuals were arrested. Many were executed for “radicalism” after following an alleged Maoist line. This was when Goitom Berhe, a prominent EPLF fighter and his group tried to form an underground organization called ‘the Eritrean Revolutionary Party’ During this period the party translated a number of Marxist works in to Tigrigna (eg Dialectical Materialism, Four Essays of Philosophy, About the Proletariat Party). All the publications were seized and burnt. The suspected ring-leaders of the anti-Isias movement of progressives were arrested and later executed.

In the independent Eritrea,  staff and students of University of Asmara (UoA)  became the next  intended  target of  Afeworki. The authoritarian tendency of the president was evident  on the (UoA) campus when Andebrhane Woldegeorgis was the president of UoA between 1991 and 1993.  At that time, the  academic staff proposed to reform the  University’s faculty association which had been established during the Dergue period.  The aim was to show the strength of Eritrean intellectuals in meeting the  needs of the newly liberated Eritrea and to re-establish  the autonomy of the University. Their proposal was rejected.   They were informed that they were academically incompetent. The provisional government of Eritrea dismissed 40 lecturers (more than half of the faculty of the UoA). Many of the dismissed lecturers were dispersed into different ministries and became the executors of the EPLF’s political line.  

The repression of academic staff continued even after Andebrhane  was replaced by Woldab who served as  president of the university from 1993 to 2005.  Under President Woldeab, the University became a conveyor belt for the Afeworki dictatorial leadership.  Among the accomplishments of the UoA,  in earlier times, was that it  had produced brilliant students who later went on to  further education in different institutions, some  in USA, Europe, Australia, South Africa, through various links) and assistantship programs[6].   The President of the University was not strong enough to develop the University into an autonomous institution.   During Woldeab’s  period, the UoA  came under still more intense pressure from the  government particularly when the students opposed a summer work programme.  This had involved recruiting  40,000 students to repair roads, plant trees and do construction work over the summer of 2000.  Two years later,   a work programme   was introduced  through the   Warsai-Yeikali Campaign for Radical Development Change[7].    Mr . Al-Amin, the political leader of PFDJ,  stated  that   the new Warsai-Yikalo Development Campaign was meant to involve all citizens for the development of agriculture, infrastructure and human resources.

In order to reduce student enrolment at the University and thereby prevent further challenges to  the Eritrean Government one more year was added to the high school curriculum. Under the previous policy, after finishing 11th grade, students had to take the national examination and were sent to Sawa for military training. Those who passed the examination started their study at UoA  and those who failed left to their military service.   As if the high schools could not accommodate 12th grade students, the government decided that the students  across the nation should attend their final high school grade in a newly opened school, which was a military camp in Sawa    All secondary schools have been closed down.   All students are transferred to the Sawa high school   as soon as  they complete their 11th grade class.   More of their time is  spent  on forced labor than on  studies.  After completing this as their  12th grade those who pass their  examination are transferred to the new technical college in Mai Nefi.   Those who fail are immediately transferred to the Army and  spend the most productive years of their lives in   the Warsai-Yikalo Campaign. The  intention of the government is to brainwash the youth.    

 The  consequences  of this type of training is the same as occurred under the Chinese  Cultural  Revolution.  During this  period no new scientists and teachers were trained,  CAS academician Youqi Tang points out that inorganic, organic, and physical chemistry were neglected during the Cultural Revolution. The  institute’s graduate study program ceased completely during the period from 1966 to 1978.  Dawei Ma, assistant director of the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry (SIOC),  points out that  many academics were sent to remote parts of China to work as manual labourers on farms ( planting rice and vegetables) or in factories.   Professor Min-Bo Chen,  who  was a junior member of the CAS Institute of Atomic Energy in Peking ,   says:  “I was sent to the countryside for labor  in the rice and cotton fields in Hubei Province in central China for two years. The Cultural Revolution was like a nightmare and should not be allowed to return.   Soldiers and workers, selected for political reasons, became leaders of the universities. CAS academician Youqi Tang  notes: “The professors were led by the students.”

Generally, the Cultural Revolution between 1967 and 1977  played a  decisive role   in  running down  the Chinese Education System  and creating a gap that spanned a generation.  When universities reopened in the early 1970s, enrolments were reduced to the below the pre-Cultural Revolution level.  In 1984, only 15 people received Ph.D.s, mainly for theoretical research in subjects like mathematics. Since then . several thousand Chinese scientists receive Ph.D.s each year, which has  greatly contributed to promoting  China ’s  economy[8] 

Similarly to what  happened during the Cultural Revolution in China ,  the Eritrean Education System has reached an all-time low  through the introduction of Warsai-Yeikali Campaign and the transfer, in 2002,    of the 12th grade to Sawa.  The Eritrean government  has sent many  educators  and young students to remote areas for unlimited periods under the guise of   Warsai-Yeikali Campaign. 

As a consequence of the above, despite  the African continent’s tertiary  students increasing  on average by 15% yearly[9],  the University of Asmara has failed to enroll any  freshmen students since  2003, as table 1, below, shows.

Table1.: Student enrollment

Enrollment of students
Academic Year Day Evening































Source Leonida, Tekie Asehun(2004)Student Selection and Retention at the University of Asmara, Eritrea [10] 


  The intention of Isays Afeworki, as has been made clear  through his Education Minister, Osman Saleh, during a visit to the university of Asmara in 2005.   The University of Asmara   should not expect to get any fresh students in the coming 4-5 years. The reason, he explained,  is that “ we are in a transition period” and the University failed to produce human power to accomplish local development needs.   This policy, promoted from the president office was in direct contradiction to the future Strategic Plan of Asmara University itself.   The UoA expected[6] [p189],  to grow to 8000 day students around the year 2005 to 2010 which was nearly 100% increase from 1999/2000.   The UoA’s plan for 1995 – 2010 was to excel in higher education and form a multi-campus,  university system (CAMPUS) with junior colleges in different part of the country.

Accordingly, Asmara University would have been the  main campus [6] [p190]. Instead, the number of students in the UoA  went into free fall to ZERO. And  Eritrea is one of the very few countries now without a University. All  higher education institutions have been reduced to high schools and to military camps.  A president of the nation who has never shown any interest  in the prestigious University of Asmara , a two to three minutes ride from his office has been  shown celebrating a military graduation at the  “ College of Social Science ” in Nakfa, two days ride from his office.  

By contrast,  other Sub-Saharian African countries which are in  a transition period or recovering  from  conflict have  not reduced  their students enrollment in higher education. According  to Materu  Peter[9]  average annual enrollment  growth is particularly strong in Rwand (55%), Nambia (46%), Uganda (37%), Tanzania (32%), Cote d’ Ivoire (28%)  Kenya (27%)  Chad ( 27 %) Botswana (22%), and Cameroon (22%).


Table 2. Average Annual Tertiary Enrollment Growth Rates in Africa (%)

Region 1985-90 1990-95 1995-98 1998-02
Francophone 8.2 6.2 7.9 11.0
Anglophone 12.3 4.4 1.8 18.2
Lusophone 6.2 2.9 13.4 37.6
Sub-Saharan Africa   11.1 4.7 3.5 17.2


Between  2003  and  September 2006 most  departments in the University of Asmara   were  closing down with no more students and   very  few staff. For example, the Marine sciences department had only a laboratory technician and a graduate assistant. The research facility of the Marine sciences department in Massawa was taken over  by the security agents of the government.  At a time when  about 300 universities are operating in Sub-Saharan Africa,   the minister of Education   announced   to the staff the closure of the only  university in Eritrea , as from September 2006.

Following this announcement,   the various  departments of the university  with their staff  were   moved:   the   Social Science and Arts to Adi Keyh,  the  Agriculture Department to Hamelmalo; the Business and Economics Department to Massawa; and   the Natural Science Department  to Mai Nefhi.     

These colleges   were  established  without proper  planning  and  none of them  have  any  international accreditation.  As  the Eritrean Ambassador in the USA    explained at a public meeting on 29th of October 2006,   the government is indifferent as to  whether these college have accreditation or not[11]. The government’s sole concern is  to establish colleges  which will produce  graduates loyal to the government.    Hence,   these colleges  are administered  by military  personnel or  members of PFDJ.   An example of this is  the Mai Nefi   College , led by Colonel Ezira,   The  administration  of  the college  is based on  a military structure.  Students are   organized  in  military groups and guarded by military personnel.  They are also  not allowed to choose what subjects they can study.

It is sad  to see the decline of education  which had  a reasonably good  standard in the 1960s and 1970s.  In those days education in Eritrea was far in advance of the Ethiopian system, which had been ranked   bottom among African nations at the  Conference of African States on the Development of Education, in May 1961[12]. Eritreans, by their success in the  Ethiopian School Leaving Certificate Examination (E.S.L.C.E) were among the main sources of students for the university in Ethiopia .  Erlich [13], who was a lecturer at the University of Addis Ababa , in the early 1970s,  observed that the proportion of Eritreans at this University was higher than for Ethiopians. 

However,  for three decades (from 1960 to 1990),  Eritrea   has experienced a brain drain due to Ethiopian political oppression.    As can be seen from the fig 1 below 45 % of   emigrants from Eritrea had university education.

  Fig 1.   The share of tertiary educated emigration flows for selected countries


The above chart shows the share of tertiary-educated emigrants within total migration flows for selected countries( Gambia , Somalia , Mauritius , Eritrea , Ghana , Mozambique , Sierra Leone and Liberia ) [9].

Today, the situation continues to deteriorate.   With the increasing   harassment of intellectuals,   the brain-drain has doubled.  As a  result,  Eritrea ’s  educated  will in 10 years number below that in  the 1960s and 1970s.

Despite  the one time  the ambition to make Eritrea   a knowledge-based economy in 10 years,   Eritrean society is now much more likely to have an acute shortage of professionals and para-professionals .  These facts could be seen  from  Eritrea Profile headline of  November 1st  2006[14][p4],    which states that  the Ministry  of Health  has produced  47 nurse assistants over an 18-month period,   despite having one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world of approximately 1,000 deaths/100,000 births[15]. On the other hand,  Eritrea is   the  country which has the  highest  prison  population in the world. 500 members of  the Eritrean Police Force  were trained  in three months[16], yet  the country produced  fewer than 100 skilled people  10, 000  school leavers are sent every year  to  the army  after  failing  to pass the examination at the Sawa  School.

The  younger generation  is restricted  to road construction,  dam and house building, and  to military service.   In this way  forced labour  is dressed up as  national rehabilitation and development.  The government has opted for this instead of   laying the foundation  for developing labour skills and a  knowledge-based economy.

Although the Eritrean government closed down the University of Asmara under the pretext  that it was undergoing  a transitional period,  no one could deny   the contribution of tertiary education  to developing the nation’s intellectual and creative powers,  especially in GDP terms. For example, in Australia tertiary education contributes more than 4 billion  US dollars annually to GDP, surpassing the earning of the country’s main agricultural products, wool and wheat[9]

The desperate situation calls on Eritreans abroad   especially those who benefited from education at the University of Asmara   graduates,  to campaign  against this government’s hostility to education which is an integral part of its effort to consolidate its dictatorship. The early beneficiaries of the UoA or Eritreans in academic institutions in Ethiopia in the 50’s to 90’s, the new graduates of UoA 90’s to 00’s and Eritrean intellectuals in general will be judged harshly by history if they do not speak up. Pre-independence Eritrean higher education graduates supported for Eritrean interests and educational rights in Addis Ababa University and in other colleges in Ethiopia , now it is time to reassert those principles.


1.Ravinder Rena  (2003)

   Human Resource Development Program: Eritrea Preparing for a Better Future

2. Alem Tesfay  (2004)

   Kab Mezgeb Tarich

3.  Andu,  Gebrekal  ( 2001 ). EPLF an inside story (special issue)        

4. Mengisteab, Kidane and Yohannes, Okbazghi (2005)

    Anatomy of an African tragedy: Political, Economic and Foreign Policy crisis in Post-Independent

5.  Sherman, R (1980)

     Eritrea , the unfinished revolution

6. Narciso Matos and  Ian G Macfarlane ( 2003)

     MHO Programme at the University of Asmara : Report  of a Linkage Evaluation

7.  Warsai-Yikalo Campaign for Radical Development Change

8.   Cultural Revolution resulted in generation gap: Special report  August 24, 1998

9. Materu Peter ( 2006)

    Revisioning Africa’s  Tertiary Education in transition to a Knowledge Economy

10. Leonida, Tekie Asehun (2004)

   Student Selection and Retention at the University of Asmara, Eritrea

11  A town hall meeting chaired by Mr. Ghirmay “Santim”, Ghebremariam

12   Education During Imperial.

13. Erlich, H(1983)

      The Struggle over Eritrea , 1962-1978

14 Eritrea Profile (November 1st 2006)

   .Eritrea: Ministry Graduates 47 Nurse Assistants

15. Eritrean Women’s Health Project


16. Shabiat. Com ( October 12th 2006 )

     Eritrean Police Force trains 500 members

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