FBC: Drastic and Radical Change Needed

17 June 2006 at 13:19 | 1275 views

Our Features Editor, Zubairu Wai(photo) was recently in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He paid a visit to his alma mater, Fourah Bay College, where he delivered a lecture that received thunderous applause. His report:

By Zubairu Wai, Toronto

I returned to Toronto over the weekend after a three week stay in Freetown, Sierra Leone. While in Freetown, I was invited by the Department of History and African Studies at Fourah Bay College, [University of Sierra Leone], to give a public lecture. It felt particularly good going back where I had graduated ten years earlier with a BA Honours degree in History. On 1 June, I was ushered into the Mary Kingsley Auditorium, full to capacity with young students, faculty members, colleagues, and friends who had come to listen to me talk.

My lecture focused on, among other things, the interpretation of the recent history of Sierra Leone, especially the war, the use of elections as a conflict transformative strategy, and the lessons we have not learnt from the country’s brutal and agonizing past. My problematique was that we, as a country and people, had yet to learn anything from the vital lessons taught by the war. The reason why we have not been able to learn those lessons, I argued, was partly because we still have not been able to correctly interpret and understand what happened in the country in the 1990s.

I urged the young students who had come to listen to me to never uncritically accept common placed explanations, but to always search for critical interpretations, challenge disciplinary and intellectual boundaries and relentlessly question what may appear natural and common placed explanations or solutions. Similarly, I challenged both the academic and policy making communities in the country to develop critical imaginations rather than accepting the sometimes simplistic, banal and common placed explanations in interpreting social phenomena in our societies. It was an invitation to, in the words of Jim George, analytical “thinking spaces,” so that we could move beyond banality, find, as Michael Niemann puts it, “alternative ways of interpreting events and actions,” and develop a thorough understanding of our societies.

Only through this, I continued, could we create possibilities for changing dominant power relations and overturning irreducible “realities” while at the same time creating democratic possibilities, and, to borrow from Walker, extending democratisation into realms where it has never been tried before. Needless to say that my lecture was well received.

I did not realize the full implications of my statements until I left the university and a couple of days later, heard that as a result of some disturbances on campus among opposing student factions, the university administration had, as a usual practice, banned students’ union activities and proscribed the forthcoming students’ union elections and extended the ban, already in place, on students’ club activities. As I absorbed the news, my imagination became fixed on trying to draw a link between what I had said about our failure to learn from the war, and what was happening at FBC. As I reflected on these issues, my life as a student at FBC, its difficulties, frustrations and unfulfilled expectations, came back to me in a vivid re-enactment, and I became sad, bitter, enraged and resentful, but also felt sorry for the current students enrolled at FBC.

The recent actions of the FBC administration, which is in fact nothing new, clearly illustrates that we have not indeed learnt the lessons taught by the war. It is a well known fact that the movement which later became the rebel Revolution United Front (RUF), that led a brutal war for a decade, originated at FBC. If some students saw armed struggle and war as the only way of expressing dissent, it was perhaps partly because they did not see any other viable alternative avenues for the legitimate expression of socio-political grievances. It is interesting, how the university authorities have eluded any scrutiny for their complicity in creating the conditions that partly led to the war and the orgy of violence that gripped our country in the 1990s.

Anyone interested in understanding the factors that led to the war and the events that shaped the agency that drove it, must, in addition to the baggage and nature of colonial and post-colonial violence in Sierra Leone, start by taking a critical look at the FBC administration and understand how their corrupt relationship with successive governments helped in fomenting students’ frustrations and grievances.

Since, especially, the 1970s, FBC has been a site of woes, and has been closely connected with the oppression and victimisation of students. It has been a site of authoritarian high handedness and abuse of power. The relationship between the administration and students could be likened to that between a human body and a rock: whichever falls on the other, only one, the body, gets hurt.

The administration is never held accountable for their actions, nor are they held responsible even when their actions lead to unrest and disturbances on campus. Students have always been repeatedly scapegoated, falsely blamed, needlessly targeted, unfairly penalised, and unnecessarily victimised for whatever happens on campus. They are held responsible for even the inadequacies, ineptitudes and failings of the administration. It even gets worse when the national government is involved. The administration and the government are always on each other’s side as they collude in victimising students. It has always been a corrupt relationship in which the two reinforce each other through a despicable game of shameless collusion and incestuous cohabitation, which, in the process, jeopardises the futures of many hapless students. It is in this sense that I regard FBC as a site of unrelenting violence against students, with a peculiar and unique experience.

I have studied in universities in Asia and North America, and I have a fair knowledge about universities in Europe and even some African countries like Senegal and Ghana; the experiences there are radically different from that of FBC. For example, at York University in Toronto, where I study and teach at the moment, the concerns of students are paramount and central to the policies adopted by the university. Students are consulted on every major decision taken by the administration regarding their welfare. In fact, they are not the only ones that get evaluated. Professors are evaluated by their students too. Similarly, different legal channels exist for not only the accommodation of the concerns of students, but also for the legitimate expression of their grievances.

For example, grades are published well in time to allow the students time to petition the grades awarded them by their teaching assistants (TAs) and course directors. The process is done in a very transparent and verifiable manner that eliminates doubts, suspicions, and accusations of biasness. The moment grading is completed, the scripts are returned to the students, for the same reason. In case of the final assignments (essays, tests or exams), the scripts are handed over to the various departments for the eventuality of a student complaint or petition. A hierarchy for arbitration exists, so that if students are not satisfied with decisions at one level, say at the TA level, they could go to the next, that is, to their course directors, after which, to the programme directors, heads of departments etc. Normally, the issues get satisfactorily resolved at the course director level.

Moreover, students are represented on every major committee of the university, from admissions, through recruitments, to tenureships and promotions of faculty. Students sit on the departmental and faculty councils, and appoint representatives to the university senate. And these are not mere ceremonial representations, but ones that carry real weight as the opinions of students are valued and sought after. Thus, students have a say in how the university is run, who gets hired, tenured, promoted, etc. They also are sure of a redress in case of a transgression.

In addition, the university administration avoids the unnecessary meddling in the affairs of students. The basic fundamentals of freedom - free speech, free assembly, free association etc. - are guaranteed to all students. No university authority has the right to proscribe a lawful student club or association, let alone ban the student union. I remember early this year when the Grass Root Anti-Imperialist Network (GRAIN) held a protest march against the inauguration of George Bush, and the university authorities called in security and the police to disperse the protest. It was an outrage that was resisted by not only students but also faculty members. For weeks, York University was rocked by protests against, and in defiance of the administration. Even people who were not members of GRAIN, or who do not support their politics, joined in. Such an outrageous silencing of free speech and free association could not be tolerated. In fact, some faculty members openly identified with the protesting students and wrote protest letters to the administration deploring such repressive heavy-handedness. Letters were written blasting the administration, targeting specifically the president of the university, and posters with similar messages adorned the length and breath of the university campus. Shortly afterwards, the US ambassador to Canada came to York University campus, and in defiance of the administration’s ban on protests, was almost chased out by protesting students. The police just stood by and watched without getting involved, even when they were taunted. Nobody was arrested, or manhandled, or mistreated, or beaten, or expelled, or rusticated, or threatened with rustication. Life went on as usual.

Not so at FBC: the opposite has always been the case. Every student protest is repressed by the use or threat of the use of force and violence. I remember in 1993, for example, when the farce of an examination malpractice in the Economics Department led to a confrontation between the administration and students, and coercive measures were used to force students to accept a decision that was clearly detrimental to their interests. For the inadequacies of the Economics Department, and the Exams Office, 23 students were singled out, wrongfully accused of cheating and asked to retake the exams. Fresh accusations of cheating marred the re-sit (second) exam and the university wanted the students to take the exam for a third time. Nobody, apart from students, considered even for a second, how both the department (or at least some faculty members) and the exams office could have been implicated in this scandal; for if there was a ‘leakage,’ somebody in exams or the department must have been responsible for leaking those questions in the first place. But no, it was all the students’ fault and in order to cover up the ineptitudes and corruption of the administration, poor students were asked to pay for it, by taking the exam over and over again.

Suffian Kalokoh who was the Students’ Union president then, challenged the decision. We boycotted classes in protest of a third exam for the 23 students, demanded that the original results be restored, and called for an investigation of both the Economics Department and Exams Office. Surely, to any rational mind, these were reasonable demands, but not in the opinion of the administration. Their response?; the usual heavy-handedness. In collusion with the national government (then the NPRC military junta), and in order to cover-up their ineptitude and corrupt practise, the university was hastily and unceremoniously closed and students ordered to vacate their residences and leave campus within six hours! A legitimate and peaceful protest had attracted an unreasonably brute force. The eviction orders were effected by a massive police action. Though some faculty, like Dr. Domahina, spoke out openly against such repressive measures and the Ministry of Education, then headed by Bassie Bangura, got involved, the issue was managed but with nobody being investigated or held accountable for what was a needless fiasco that could have been avoided in the first place. In fact, some of the students involved were earmarked and targeted, and in the following year, deliberately failed as punishment for their involvement with the protests.

In fact, these sets of students were the ‘lucky’ ones. Others before them, like those in 1984/85, were expelled. [And remember, it was this group that founded what later became the RUF that brought us ten years of bloodshed and misery]. Others after them, (1996/97) protesting the “drought” on campus, faced disciplinary actions. For that incident, some were heavily fined; others had their results withheld for a couple of years after graduation, while others, rather scandalously, were graduated with degrees not reflecting their capabilities or even their performances in the exams that produced those results. This is an old aged practise at FBC, where one could be in a first class range a year before they graduate, and end up with a third class degree, when they do. How about one result being published (say a Division One) and then withdrawn and replaced with another (Division Two or Three) just because a certain faculty member objects to someone they don’t like getting a good degree? What of denying someone the chance of graduating with a degree by flatly failing them without giving them the chance to do a re-sit exam, after they might have spent four or more years in the university, just because a certain faculty member does not like them? The Department of Law, some of the faculty of which are intellectually decrepit, morally and ethically bankrupt, and academically inadequate, is paradigmatic in its notoriety for this scandalous practise.

Last academic year, for example, out of 24 graduating students of the department, two were flat failures, eleven Pass, [what we normally call “allowed to pass” or ATP], and eleven Third Class degrees! How is that possible, and what does it say about our university system or even the professors themselves who taught those students? The performance of students tells a lot about the competence of their professors. Don’t these people have a conscience? How could they ever live with themselves after destroying the futures of students like this? It is only within an inadequate academic system that professors celebrate and take pride in wantonly failing students. In any other system, such a scandalous act would warrant an investigation of the whole department.

Imagine the frustration of being denied a degree or being given a crappy one, after struggling in such a terrible and harsh living condition at FBC for more than four years. Students (even if they come from rich homes, and the majority come from poor homes), constantly struggle against very excruciating circumstances and deplorable conditions to survive at FBC: no water, no electricity, appalling sanitary conditions, horrible food, etc, and on top of all that, have to contend with not only a corrupt and repressive administration, but crooked professors who have no sense of decency, ethics or morality. How could we ever expect our societies to progress if those expected to create the space for change are socialised in such a corrupt and stifling environment? It just isn’t fair! Doesn’t this kind of situation lead to cynicism, hopelessness, frustration, and/or even aggression and violence? And we still blame the students who founded the RUF for bringing us war and misery, when the real culprits are those who created the conditions out of which the RUF sprung, and are still creating the condition for another such movement?

The use of students as scapegoats and as pawns at FBC is well known, and it is not a new phenomenon. It is an old aged practise, and this takes me back to the recent student disturbance on campus and the response it has elicited from the university administration alluded to above. The administration is complicit in the divisions among students, especially between the so-called “Blacks” and “Whites” and the violent confrontations that ensue between them. This is how oppressive power operates: it divides in order to enable the effective disciplining and control of the body, and in this case, the student body. If there is student on student violence on campus, the administration is as much as guilty in reproducing and perpetuating it as the students are. The banning of student union elections is, therefore, in my view, mere cosmetic window dressing that does not even vaguely begin to address the real problem. It just hides the administration’s complicity in it and grants them the power to wantonly discipline, control and punish students. It is unfortunate, however, that the imaginations of the students have been so clogged and they cannot realise that they are being manipulated into seeing each other as enemies. It is a classical example of displaced violence and the real losers are the students themselves.

Students’ factional politics is not new at FBC. When I was a student (1992 - 1996) for example, we had divisions mainly between the Radicals (or whatever you choose to call us) and the Generals. It was mainly an ideological and political divide that, somehow, had nothing to do with our identity as students. True, we had our difference and sometimes heated verbal exchanges, but that never affected our consciousness as being students first. This was why for instance in the 1993 case referred to above, we were united in support of the 23 students affected by the exam fiasco. Similarly, this was what enabled us in 1995/96 to successfully resist the proposed astronomical increase in fees and make a case for the reopening of Njala, which, as a result of rebel activities, was at the time closed indefinitely.

I vividly remember the “press conference” called by the then SU government then led by Umaru Fofanah to discuss our response as students to the unrealistic fee increase proposed by the administration. Our candidate, Foday Mannah, had lost the elections that returned Umaru Fofanah, and because of the way in which the elections had been fought, Umaru Fofanah and his team were suspicious of our intentions. Then the administration announced an outrageous increase in fees which the SU government sought to contest, but were not sure how, or whether to trust our recommended suggestion of a protest march to the Ministry of Educated, then headed by Christiana Thorpe. If, the radicals were proposing a protest march, they thought, it was because they had lost the elections, and wanted to put the SU government in a difficult situation and push them to make mistakes out of which, they, the radicals, would have a political capital. But that was not the case. As a united Student Union, (regardless of factional affiliations; in fact the radicals, the opponents of the SU government, were the most visible and vocal), marched on the ministry, and successfully made our case both for a freeze on fee increase and the reopening of Njala. Political divisions between Radicals and Generals did not affect our cohesion as students when we needed to act collectively in our general interests as students. We were always students first, and whatever, second.

The administration wouldn’t have this and started using one set of students against others. Though this was a practise that had started with the appointment of Jenkins Smith as warden of students in 1985, it intensified when Jenna Burk assumed that office in 1994, it has continued to deteriorate under Fofanah the current warden. For example, in the 1996/97 strike against Strasser-King for lack of water on campus referred to above, the administration contacted certain students, and offered to drop the case against them if they agreed to testify against others they had singled out for disciplinary action. Thus, only a few students were held responsible and punished for what was a collective students’ action. In most cases, the disciplinary action taken against these students, was not proportional to their alleged transgressions. And we expect that these types of manipulations and double dealings would not lead to the type of atmosphere among students on campus? Returning to the warden’s department, it has been a central part of the problem, with the wardens themselves being implicated in the divisions and bad blood among students. Apart from adopting and enforcing draconian rules against students, they have been known to be hopelessly partisan, playing students against each other and taking sides when they should be neutral.

So also are some faculty shamelessly implicated in this mess. In my just concluded visit to Freetown, a colleague who is now a faculty member at FBC told me that they, (the university administration), were this time round, determined to expel any student involved in disturbances, even if it was 80% of the student population, and that they were only waiting for the slightest sign of trouble. I couldn’t believe my ears! It was worrisome and sad that such a statement celebrating a decision that would see the mass expulsion of students was coming from someone who, in his student days, had, like me, been a vocal critique of the injustices on campus and administration’s heavy-handedness when dealing with students? Oh I got it: power, especially the banal type, corrupts and produces zombified bodies, and here was a living example.

For how could someone who teaches politics in the university fail to see the folly in such a decision and the repercussion it might have? This a priori decision of the administration is in my view a travesty of justice. It is like they were more interested in disciplining students than doing anything to protect them and prevent confrontations among them. Does the administration really believe that mass expulsions would solve the problem? Well, in my very humble opinion, that is just a recipe for further trouble. One could go and on, for the FBC story is one without an end.

Let me conclude by saying that my present diatribe should not be taken as a collective and undifferentiated indictment of every person and institution associated with FBC. The Department of History, for example, has for the most part, been somewhat socially progressive; so also now is the Political Science department under Osman Gbla. Similarly, some faculty like JAD Alie, Samuel Brima (a.k.a. Sammy Jay) of Economics, amd Osman Gbla, to name a few, have remained largely untainted by these scandals and have, even under difficult circumstances, maintained their dignity and respect in the eyes of students. They are doing wonderful work and should be commended. However, they are in the minority. FBC is in need of a radical overhaul and this should be done now. Somebody has to do something to clear this mess. I hear the new Vice Chancellor and president of the university, Professor Aiah Gbakima, has started shaping things up. One area that would need his immediate and urgent attention is the administration’s relationship with students and their perception of each other. I would only encourage him to be steadfast, and wish him good luck in this difficult and tortuous task.