Written by Joan Vilalta
After enduring the hardships of the Covid-19 pandemic, which implied a range of socioeconomic challenges, including educational impoverishment due to the closure of schools, the Tigray territory in northwestern Ethiopia suffered yet another blow in November of 2020, when civil war struck the region. The consequences of the conflict between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and Ethiopia’s National Defence Forces (ENDF), aided by the Eritrean military, represent one of the most devastating humanitarian crises in the world, piling on top of several longstanding crises in Ethiopia such as severe drought and acute famine. The consequences of this conflict are broad, including a critical situation regarding education.
According to the latest UN OCHA (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) report on the matter, around 85% of the schools in Tigray have been partially or entirely damaged by the conflict, and some 411.000 school-age children are in dire need of essential services, which profoundly affects their educational development. The UN plans to cover the needs of 3.6 million affected children and almost 190.000 teachers by providing accelerated learning activities for those who have been out of school for more than three years and providing psychosocial and mental health support services and learning packages.
The current conflict was prompted by a power struggle between the TPLF and the current Ethiopian president Abiy Ahmed. The TPLF ruled the country for over thirty years until Ahmed came to power in 2018 to dismantle the TPLF’s regime. As Ahmed became the president of the country, he managed to rearrange the political power while ostracizing the TPLF. Parallelly, Ahmed also managed to end the longstanding war with neighbouring Eritrea.
On the 4th of November 2020, the government accused the TPLF of attacking a military base near Mekelle and ordered a military intervention to address the situation while calling for the aid of Eritrean forces and Tigray’s neighbouring region’s militias. Since then, the scale of the conflict has grown exponentially, with both sides committing mass killings and other atrocities that have called the attention of the international community. Ethnic discrimination against Tigrayans has been speculated to be entangled with the motivations of this war. It should be considered that while the focus of the conflict was on Tigray, conflict consequences eventually extended to the neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar.
In March 2022, the government agreed to an indefinite ceasefire, but the conflict resumed in August. Nevertheless, a permanent cessation of hostilities was agreed upon in November 2022. While at this moment, the situation seems to have calmed down, Ethiopia now faces the aftermath of a devastating conflict, which calls for accountability on both sides as well as amending the several crises stemming from the war, among them the educational crisis.
One of the main reasons why the war on Tigray provoked an educational crisis was the military occupation of schools to use them as bases, accompanied by the plundering, pillaging, and looting of academic centres and the extensive structural damage suffered by the buildings.
There have been many examples of this on both sides of the conflict. For instance, the historical school of Atse Yohannes in Mekelle was used by the ENDF for half a year, Eritrean forces used a primary school in Basen, and the TPLF used an elementary school in Bissober. This, of course, prompted the closure of schools, impeding the attendance of teachers and students, and resulted in extensive damage to infrastructure and school material since the use of the school would make the school a likely confrontation scenario. In some cases, it even resulted in derogatory messages towards locals being painted on the school walls.
According to several sources, around 2.8 million children missed out on education because of the war, and more than 2000 causalities have been reported regarding students and teachers.
The death of teachers and principals also represents a problem since it has generated a shortage of school staff, especially in areas where access to such qualifications is reduced. Due to this shortage, teachers are now forced to have many students in each class, making monitoring students’ progress closely difficult.
Beyond the military use of schools, a range of problems regarding quality and access to education emerged from the war. Trauma and psychological duress have been rampant among students and teachers, negatively impacting their capacity to attain their learning objectives.
Families’ financial losses provoked by the conflict, combined with extreme drought, famine, and health insecurity, have prompted students to stop learning activities to contribute to their family’s economy. Poverty has also hampered the recovery of damaged schools and the capacity to provide a salary for school staff. Teachers have also been more unable to perform their duties since they had to focus on surviving the situation.
The war on Tigray has generated an estimated 3.5 million internally displaced people, mostly women and children. Internally displaced students often found themselves in precarious situations and could not attend school. Students who moved to regions with different indigenous languages also found a barrier to school integration. In many cases, even to this day, internally displaced people and refugees from the war have sheltered themselves inside schools, the occupation of the space being an obstacle to resuming regular school activity.
According to research on the impact of armed violence on students’ educational attainment in Tigray, the school enrollment rates dropped dramatically due to conflict (almost a 10% decline in the studied areas), and educational wastage overall increased, with dropout and repetition rates at risk of rising. Moreover, the long-term impact of the educational crises is the potential lack of social capital and skills of future generations, rendering the communities of Tigray even more vulnerable.
While humanitarian aid is currently reaching the affected areas in northwestern Ethiopia, it should be noted that the mere reopening of schools without further consideration won’t be a fully effective solution. Facilities will need to be safely rebuilt, and students and teachers will have to deal with the traumatic experience of war and loss in the coming years. Tigray’s educational system was not built overnight, and recovery will not be quick either. Aid and resources such as school materials or teacher training will be crucial to restore the system.
Finally, it should be noted that this educational crisis was not entirely unavoidable. The occupation and looting of schools for military purposes are rarely justified under Ethiopian law. They can constitute a war crime and a human rights violation since it deprives children of access to education. More than that, the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child has urged African countries to ban the use of schools for military purposes or to enact specific measures to discourage it. The African Union Peace and Security Council has also called upon African countries to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration, which contains concrete protection measures. In this sense, Broken Chalk encourages the Ethiopian authorities to support such mandates, to strengthen the law and its application to protect the educational system, as well as to provide the necessary aid sociopsychological and material to affected students and school staff during the coming years to ensure they can recover and strive for the development they deserve.
Assefa, Y., Tilwani, S. A., Moges, B. T., & Shah, M. A. (2022). The impact of armed violence on students’ educational attainment and the role of parents in resilience schooling and the education process. Heliyon, 8(12), e12192. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.heliyon.2022.e12192
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NPR. (2021, March 5). 9 things to know about the unfolding crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. NPR. Retrieved from: https://www.npr.org/2021/03/05/973624991/9-things-to-know-about-the-unfolding-crisis-in-ethiopias-tigray-region
 UN OCHA REPORT (https://reports.unocha.org/en/country/ethiopia/card/5TCJFYzqI4/)