On December 4, 2019, at least a dozen university students from Ethiopia’s Amhara region were reportedly abducted by a group of unidentified men. The students were returning home amidst heightened ethnic tensions and violent clashes in the region.
The exact circumstances of the alleged abduction remain unclear. Asmera Shime, a first-year student who escaped her captors, described the incident to the media. According to Shime, she and other students from Dembi Dollo University and other institutions were traveling on an Addis Ababa-bound bus at the time of the abduction. While outside the city of Gambella, a group of men armed with sticks appeared and forced the bus to stop. The men allegedly confiscated passengers’ phones and forced some of them to march into a nearby wooded area. Shime told reporters that she escaped on foot shortly thereafter.
Since news of the alleged abduction became public on January 10, 2020, government officials have announced that as many as twenty-one students had been released. Family members have disputed the government’s claims that students were released, stating that they have had no sign of them. Those who allegedly remain in the captors’ custody as of this writing reportedly include at least twelve students.
Sources indicate that the captors targeted students from the Amhara ethnic group, allowing other passengers to leave. Tensions between the Amhara and Oromo ethnic groups have intensified in recent months, with violent clashes between the two groups erupting on university campuses, including Dembi Dollo University.
While the identities of the students’ captors remain unknown as of this report, government officials appear to be in contact with them and suggest that they know where the students are being held. Family members and advocacy groups have accused the government of not doing enough to free the students, and have called for massive protests urging the government to secure their release.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the abduction of students in apparent connection to their ethnic identity. State authorities have a responsibility to take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of students, including by investigating and holding perpetrators of such acts responsible. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, abductions of students undermine academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.