The Paradox of Learning and Living Democracy in Ethiopia

Von Ephrem Tekle Yacob

“We, the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia” is the first phrase of the constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE). It claims that the document is the result of the consent of the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia. About one third of the Constitution ( is dedicated to articles relevant to human and democratic rights.

In this blog, I want to reflect on the idea of learning democracy and living democracy in Ethiopia. But before illustrating details, I would like to share my personal experience as a former civic and ethical education teacher. Some years back, I used to teach in a public school located in one of the slums of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. One day, we were discussing Article 19 of our constitution, i.e. Rights of Persons under arrest. Section three of the same article states that:

“Persons arrested have the right to be brought before a court within 48 hours of their arrest. Such time shall not include the time reasonably required for the journey from the place of arrest to the court. On appearing before a court, they have the right to be given prompt and specific explanation of the reasons for their arrest due to the alleged crime committed”.

School in a rural part of Ethiopia

Soon after I shared this article with my students, one of them raised his hand and asked me a question: “But, last time the police arrested me for a week and released me with no justification. I never appeared before the court or didn’t see anything that you are teaching us now”. This was a breaking moment: a living witness depicting a personal experience which exposed the disparity and discontinuity between on the one hand learning and on the other hand living democracy in Ethiopia. My student’s account inspired me to reflect this issue.

The Best Way to Achieve Learning

The prominent American educator Tyler (1981) explains the best way to learn. In his words a “student is much more likely to apply his/her learning when he/she recognised the similarity between the situations encountered in life and the situations in which the learning took place”. The same scholar stated that students are capable to achieve this under the following circumstances:

  1. The life situation and the learning situation were similar in many respects, and
  2. The student was able to practice seeking illustrations in his/her life outside of school for the application of things learned at school. In the following part, I will try to show the discontinuity and the disparity between what the students are learning in civic and ethical education and what they are witnessing in their real life. By doing so, I will try to illustrate some constraints for the democratisation of Ethiopia.

Discontinuity on Learning and Living Rights

Number ten of the specific objectives of Ethiopia’s education and training policy is “to provide education that can produce citizens who stand for democratic unity, liberty, equality, dignity and justice, and who are endowed with moral values”. In support of this, one of the six programs of the GEQIP (General Education Quality Improvement Program) is dedicated to civic and ethical education. As stated in the GEQIP, civic and ethical education, among other things, aims to develop the democratisation of the nation that has already started, build good governance and to facilitate the overall development of the nation. With this in mind, the subject is taught in two ways: from grade 1 to 4 it is merged with environmental science education and from grade 5 to 12 it forms an independent subject. The syllabuses of the latter suggest that the students are studying the same topics every year. However, as the grade level increases, so does the scope and depth of the topics dealt with. The evaluation of the civic and ethical education program, as indicated on GEQIP document, draws attention to processes such as management, material and human resources. Unfortunately, the issue of discontinuity and disparity of learning and living human and democratic right received no attention.

The syllabuses address both human and democratic rights which are part of the constitution. Thus, I assume that the students are aware of both. Yet I argue that they are victims of both the discontinuity as well as the disparity between learning and living constitutionally enshrined rights. Let me try to concretise this premise.

The Disparity between Learning Situation and Life Situation

As to the learning situation, students in Ethiopia are fortunate to be exposed to not only national but also international human and democratic rights. Viewing the list of rights within a learning situation may create the feeling that there is no difference between the contemporary Ethiopia and Thomas Mores’ Utopia. The problem starts when we assess the life situation in Ethiopia which is the direct opposite of Utopia.

To shed some light on the life situation of Ethiopia, some reports of both international and local human right organisations shall be briefly outlined. The 2017 report of the Human Right Council, which is a local organisation, indicates that the violation of human rights under the existing government is not a new phenomenon. The document points to 2004 as an example in which “there were numerous incidents when police and security forces have tried or have harassed, illegally detained, tortured, or killed individuals who were on the opposing side of the government”. Unfortunately, the situation in Ethiopia has not improved yet. The same report documented the violation of freedom of a peaceful assembly, of freedom of expression, freedom of association, political freedom and unveiled forced displacement. This is in line with the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2016 by the United States Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. The latter further documented violation such as arbitrary deprivation of life and other unlawful or politically motivated killings, disappearances, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Dr. Gebregzabher, the head of the Ethiopian Human Right Commission (EHRC) – sponsored by the government – confirmed in his interview with local media that 699 people were killed during demonstrations that erupted in Ethiopia in 2016/2017 (

The summary of reports indicates that the life situation highly diverges from the learning situation or, in other words, one can easily identify both discontinuity and disparity of learning and living the idea of human and democratic rights. The annual abstract of the Ministry of Education of Ethiopia indicates that the primary education enrolment in 2014/15 amounted to 18,691,217 million pupils; in the same year the secondary education enrolment reached 2,108,115 million pupils. Thus the total number of enrolment was about 21 million pupils which is equivalent or in some case even greater than some countries’ total number of population. Creating continuity and addressing the disparity between the school situation and the life situation with regard to the various forms of rights is a great hope for Ethiopia’s democratisation. This could be an excellent opportunity since the majority of pupils have access to relatively good learning situations concerning democratic and human rights enshrined in the constitution. Nonetheless, as we are already witnessing in Ethiopia, the discontinuity and the discrepancy could not only affect the democratisation of the nation in the long run, but also the ambition of the government to create a lower-middle income country by 2025. It is generally agreed on that innovation and people’s economic development are connected to their freedom and their trust in the ruling government. This can be witnessed in the two Koreas: Whereas the freedom in South Korea leads to innovation and economic prosperity, the opposite is happening in North Korea.

Lack of Opportunity to Put Theory into Praxis

The other important element explained by Tyler (1981) is the opportunity to experience or illustrate what is learned at school. Doing so will encourage the learner to demonstrate what she/he acquired in school. In this regard, providing access for dialogue, using, for example, social media and the traditional media could encourage the youth to participate and to concretise what they learned in school. Encouraging both political parties and civic societies by further providing the opportunity of learning through experience would provide a platform of experience.

School in an urban part of Ethiopia (Foto: Ephrem Tekle Yacob)

However, this is far away from what is currently happening in Ethiopia. To concretise this premise, let me once again go through the report of the Human Rights Council. Regarding the right of expression, the report states that “Ethiopian people are limited to access information, limited to communicate with the non-governmental organization, foreign governments, and other entities”. People face surprisingly serious consequences when they share or write materials that “can create misunderstanding” in social media, radio, or the Internet. Hence this report suggests that not only the access to information is restricted but also that the attempt to express oneself freely online will have consequences as severe as imprisonment. The Human Right Council, citing Amnesty International, confirmed that in Ethiopia “in 2011, at least 108 journalists and individuals who were on a contrary position to the government were arrested. Merely, it was because of their legitimate and peaceful criticism toward the government.” This, with no doubt, discourages the youth to exercise what they are taught in school, which in turn affects their learning on the whole as they are deprived of the chance to implement their knowledge.

Recent developments in Ethiopia show that the government is determined to limit and even totally and abruptly impede internet connection. Thus, young people who are highly dependent on social media for discussion, communication and learning are being isolated from the various developments both inside and outside the nation. This can be witnessed, according to the Human Right Council, by blocking mobile internet and other sources of information such as international media. For example, action was taken against Voice of America (VOA) and Deutsche Welle (DW) by “limiting domestic audiences, releasing jammed signals, constantly harassing and threatening staff and source, and even arresting individuals who watch or listen to radios and televisions” (Human Right Council 2017).

Finally, we can ascertain that the students are denied the opportunity to illustrate what they are acquiring at school. This discourages students to learn about human and democratic rights as they are detached from their actual experience of the world. Denying constitutionally enshrined rights may lead the youth to consider how to fight for their rights in an unconstitutional manner. This will in turn affect the peace and stability of the nation. Respecting human and democratic rights in a nation like Ethiopia is vital. Thus, the democratisation of the nation, among other things, can be achieved by addressing the discontinuity and disparity between what is happening at school as part of studying theory and the actual life situation. Moreover, providing the opportunity for young people to put into practice what they acquire in the school is critical.

Ephrem Tekle Yacob
Heidelberg University


Human Rights Council (2017). Ensuring human right for people in Ethiopia.

MOE (1994). Federal Democratic Republic Government of Ethiopia education and training policy. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

MOE (2008). General Education Quality Improvement Package (GEQIP). Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

MOE (2016). Education Statistics 2007 E.C. (2014/2015). Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Tyler, Ralph W. (1981). Basic Principles of curriculum and instruction. University of Chicago, Chicago.

YouTube: Interview with Dr. Addisu Gebregzabher, head of of Ethiopian Human Right Commission.

Das könnte dich auch interessieren …

Eine Antwort

  1. Judy Cohen sagt:

    I will be visiting Ethiopia in February: chiefly in Gonder, a bit in Addis. I am traveling with an archaeological group but am not exactly one of them. Can you recommend a school to visit or someone to meet with? I have taught in Democratic schools and am interested in what we can learn from you here in Israel.

Schreibe einen Kommentar

Deine E-Mail-Adresse wird nicht veröffentlicht.

Diese Website verwendet Akismet, um Spam zu reduzieren. Erfahre mehr darüber, wie deine Kommentardaten verarbeitet werden.

Suche in OpenEdition Search

Sie werden weitergeleitet zur OpenEdition Search