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From the Ethiopian Classroom to Exile in America: A Rescued Scholar in Connecticut

By Allie Wojtanowski ‘15


It was his vision to improve human rights conditions in Ethiopia that motivated his open criticisms of the Ethiopian government. Dr. Semahagn Gashu Abebe would not be silenced, even when it came at great cost: exile from the country he loves. But with unfaltering hope for Ethiopia, Abebe, now at the University of Connecticut, works to spread uncensored knowledge about the current state of his homeland. He trusts that “the price paid by freedom lovers will bring about a political transformation in Ethiopia.”


Equipped with a Ph.D. from the University of Goettingen in Germany and two LLMs from universities in the Netherlands and Germany, Abebe’s primary focus is in human rights law, conflict studies, governance and development in Africa, federalism, traditional institutions and the law and African studies. He has published extensively in European, African, and American academic journals on international economic law, constitutional theory, and traditional institutions and human rights in Africa.


Before he became a member of UConn’s Institute of Human Rights, where he works as a research scholar and assists with cases of scholars who are at risk, Abebe was, himself, an at-risk scholar. In in 2003, Abebe had become a lecturer of law with the Ethiopian Civil Service University. As a former prosecutor and attorney, he was deeply concerned with human rights violations in Ethiopia, and he regularly raised this topic during class. Along with prompting discussion about the unfair treatment of suspected criminals—who are routinely subjected to torture and forced to provide self-incriminating statements—Abebe encouraged conversation about the lack of progress with Ethiopia’s democratic process, the need for institutional independence of state institutions, and the constrained freedom of expression and assembly in the country.


Initially Abebe’s critical sentiments were grudgingly tolerated by the university administration, but after Ethtiopia’s 2005 general elections—which resulted in the death of at least 200 protesters and imprisonment of 30,000 demonstrators—it was no longer safe to question the government. As Ethiopia’s ruling party restricted the country’s freedom of expression by imprisoning opposition political members, journalists, civil society leaders, and scholars, the little academic freedom that had once existed now disappeared. Even though he was not involved in the activities of opposition parties, Abebe was viewed as sympathetic to them. He received direct threats for exercising his freedom of expression. Along with many other human rights activists, Abebe was forced to consider the likely consequence of his actions: exile.


Abebe left the country to pursue his PhD in Germany, and upon completion in 2012, found himself unable to return to Ethiopia. Scholars at Risk (SAR), a U.S. based international network of academic institutions and individuals organized to support and promote academic freedom, stepped in to connect Abebe with a higher education institution where he safely could continue his research and teachings. From 2012-2013, Abebe was a Bank of Ireland post-doctoral fellow at the Irish Centre for Human Rights, National University of Ireland, and from 2013-2014, he was an O’ Brien Fellow at the Center for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, McGill University. In July 2014, the Human Rights Institute at the University of Connecticut, a member of SAR, decided to host Abebe as a visiting assistant professor.


Teaching has only been one of Abebe’s responsibilities with the Human Rights Institute. Abebe published a book, The Last Post-Cold War Socialist Federations: Ethnicity, Ideology and Democracy (Ashgate 2014), addressing the complex relationship between ideological perceptions of the ruling regime and the ethnically modified federal system in Ethiopia, as well as the ways the regime has undermined democratization and the protection of human rights in Ethiopia. In November 2015, Abebe’s work will also be published in Putting Knowledge to Work: From Knowledge Transfer to Knowledge Exchange. The book will be launched in December at the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) hall in Addis Ababa. Currently, Abebe is researching and writing articles concerning food security in Ethiopia, how the United Nations and western governments are addressing self-determination movements, and whether the Ethiopian government’s developmental state model will worsen political repression.

Along with formal publications, Abebe regularly contributes to blogs and websites concerning advocacy of human rights in Ethiopia; he also gives interviews to radio and television services broadcast to Ethiopia. He continues to advocate for change in Ethiopia because living in freedom allows him to be the voice of all of the scholars who are currently imprisoned. Despite the fact that the Ethiopian ruling regime appears strong, Abebe strongly believes that the country will be changing in the near future. When asked if he thinks he will ever be able to return to or visit Ethiopia, Abebe said: “Definitely. I strongly believe that the winds of change that are affecting many parts of the world will finally reach Ethiopia. The political tsunami of the Arab Spring that has shaken the Middle East and North Africa show that authoritarian systems are not sustainable in the 21st century…When the political reforms are in place, I look forward to going back to my country and contributing to strengthen the democratization process and teach the young generation.”


Come hear Dr. Semahagn Gashu Abebe speak on November 17 at 4:30 p.m.

in the Mary Tefft White Cultural Center at Roger Williams University Library

Co-sponsored by the School of Justice Studies