|Shiferaw Shigute, left, watches a presentation from the International Livestock Research Institute on Sept. 16, 2011 alongside other officials from Ethiopia's southern region. The location of the photo is unknown.|
The University of Saskatchewan says it was only made aware of an Ethiopian politician’s alleged controversial behaviour a few days prior to his arrival on campus but that had it found out about the accusations against Shiferaw Shigute earlier, it still would have welcomed him to the U of S.
Shigute is the president of Ethiopia’s southern regional state and the chairman of the board at Hawassa University, located in the region’s capital city Hawassa. He visited the U of S from June 10 to 15 alongside other delegates from the Hawassa campus.
A few days prior to Shigute’s arrival, U of S president Peter MacKinnon received a handful of open letters from human rights organizations and individual activists accusing Shigute of ethnic cleansing and corruption, among other allegations. The letters urged the university to withdraw its invitation to the politician.
On June 12, after Shigute had arrived, protesters took to the grounds of the U of S to demand that he be removed from campus.
According to several human rights organizations and a few Ethiopian news sites, Shigute ordered several people of Amhara descent to evacuate their households in the Gura Ferda district earlier this year. He allegedly stated that the people “should go back to where they came from, which is the Amhara region.”
Along with this, Shigute has been linked to a corruption scandal from February of this year in which the Ethiopian federal government allegedly found that he had embezzled millions of birr — a form of Ethiopian currency — as a major shareholder in the Sidama Coffee Exporter Association. It was reported that Shigute escaped removal from office by saying he shared the money with Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi’s wife Azeb Mesfin. He stated he must only be held accountable if Mesfin is also held accountable. Upon hearing this, Zenawi reportedly reversed the government’s decision.
Shigute declined an interview request from the Sheaf but has dismissed many of the accusations against him in media reports from Ethiopia.
The U of S’s special advisor on international initiatives Tom Wishart said that Shigute’s invite to campus came at the request of Hawassa University and that he was not aware of the allegations against the politician until he read the letters that were sent to MacKinnon.
“I had no idea and I don’t think anybody here had any idea about this matter,” Wishart said, adding that he didn’t believe the university had occasion to explore the identity of Shigute prior to the recent protests.
The University of Saskatchewan kept its meetings with Shigute private this week but, according to Wishart, the goals of the meetings were to help Hawassa University expand its PhD programs and to discuss the governance of modern universities.
The Star Phoenix reported that the two universities were discussing “a $ 1.1-million agriculture partnership” but did not expand on the details of the agreement.
The U of S and Hawassa University have been collaborating since 1997 when they partnered on a sustainable land management research project in south central Ethiopia.
According to the U of S’s International Research Office, there are currently three joint food security projects between the U of S and Hawassa University. All three of these projects centre on improving nutritional and agricultural practices in Ethiopia. They are all funded by Canadian development organizations such as the Canadian International Development Agency and the International Development Research Centre.
The projects’ awarded fundings range from $ 97,000 to $ 1,600,000.
According to Wishart and MacKinnon, the University of Saskatchewan has not sent any money to Hawassa University nor did it fund Shigute’s visit.
It is because of this long-standing research relationship between the two schools that MacKinnon believes had he been made aware of the allegations against Shigute well in advance of his visit, the U of S still would have allowed the southern Ethiopian leader to visit the campus.
“Would we have done differently based simply on the allegations? No,” MacKinnon said. “We weren’t meeting with them to talk about setting up a relationship. We’ve had people working in Ethiopia and at or with Hawassa University for a very long time. You don’t turn your back casually or viscerally on a relationship of that kind based on accusations or emotion.”
“Our relationship is not with Shiferaw Shigute. It is with Hawassa University,” added Wishart.
Wishart also pointed out that because the Canadian government granted Shigute a visitor’s visa, the U of S had no right to deny him entry to the campus.
“To my knowledge he hasn’t been convicted of a crime. The fact that our federal government gave him a visa implies that he’s welcome to come to our country,” Wishart said.
Obang Metho, a U of S political science graduate and the executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia, sent an open letter to MacKinnon two days prior to Shigute’s arrival. Rather than ask the university to withdraw its invitation to Shigute, however, Metho asked that the U of S — which he commended for its efforts to improve food security in Ethiopia — ensure its dealings with Hawassa University do not allow Ethiopia’s southern regional government to abuse its people or to mislead the international community.
Metho warned that Shigute’s administration plans to build both a dam and a sugar plantation in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley. He said that project will displace approximately 550,000 people in the region and that it was refused funding from both the European Union and the World Bank because of its potential impact on human life.
Metho cautioned that Shigute, as the chairman of the board at Hawassa University but also a member of Ethiopia’s federal government, is “only free to discuss and disclose the approved party-line information, statistics, facts and perspectives…. This means he will not be free to share the desperate needs of the people of the region.”
Photo: Aklilu Bogale/ILRI