Salone News

Sexual Harassment and Radicalism at USL

5 May 2007 at 09:30 | 538 views

Commentary.

By Abdulai Bayraytay in Toronto,Canada.

The problem of sexual harassment and criminalizing student radicalism in African universities is so widespread that if this trend goes unchecked it will undermine the very essence of why these institutions were established in the first place. This trend is particularly worrying in colleges and other higher institutions of learning in Sierra Leone.

Student radicalism is nothing new. Since the founding of Fourah Bay College in 1827 until its affiliation with Durham university in the UK in 1876, what was largely a theological academy of learning had metamorphosed in many ways to incorporate more radically-minded disciplines like Philosophy, Political Science and History, among others.

During the struggle for independence, for instance, young African scholars studying in universities in the Diaspora along with African soldiers fighting the Whiteman’s colonial war became overwhelmed with the contradictions that marred the political doctrines of the colonialists that nationalists like the late Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Nmandi Azikiwe of Nigeria, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Sierra Leonean nationalists such as late Isaac Theophelus Akunna Wallace-Johnson, Constance Cummings-John, Lamina Sankoh, among several others, joined hands with their compatriots to dismantle the ravaging and oppressive structures of colonialism back home.

In Sierra Leone, the University of Sierra Leone, notably Fourah Bay College (FBC), was at the forefront in challenging the status quo of the mainly elitist political class in their attempt to impose a one party state. During the nationwide 1977 student demonstrations, which saw the then president of the FBC students’ union Hindolo Sumanguru Trye playing a leading role, it was brutally quelled down amidst rapes of defenseless students coupled with the brazen vandalization of hostels at FBC by reckless thugs let loose by the authorities.

Sensing the potential for future “troubles” the late mercurial Siaka Probyn Stevens, a politcal wrestler imbued with the disposition of Machiavelli, wasted no time in declaring a one party state in 1978; doing exactly what led to Albert Margai losing his job after his puerile attempt to impose a one party state following the death of his late half brother, the first Prime Minister of Sierra Leone, Sir Milton Margai,in 1964.

Since the imposition of one party rule, the country became a shadow state of it former self. Corruption became institutionalized and the economy mortgaged in the manipulative hands of notably the Lebanese, Indians and other preying foreigners.

In response to this sordid state of affairs in the country which majority of Sierra Leoneans relegated to some pacifism of “ow for do, nar so God say” (what could we do, it is the will of God), it was only students again who organized themselves in 1985 and mounted massive demonstrations.

The same could be said of the massive 1997 massive student demonstrations against the notorious Armed forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) military junta of fugitive Johnny Paul Koroma and his khaki boys. As these events were unfolding, other sectors of the country, including of course the university, remained loudly silent. Rather, it had conspired against its very students with the central government to ban radically minded student organizations,launched campaigns of intimidation and espionage against some its critical lecturers and had expelled, unjustly, some of the respected lecturers like the late Cleo Hanciles, Jimmy Kandeh and the indefatigable no-nonsense editor of Peep Magazine, Olu Richie Gordon, students and even porters.

This, to say the least, had the ripple effect of some student groups going underground with more radical intentions of confronting the kleptomaniacs in power parading as politicians exercising power on behalf of the people, and also struggling against a hostile and gullible university administration under the beck and call of the mostly insane thieves masquerading as politicians.

The reason for the university administration to be silent is a no-brainer. For example, during payments of Sierra Leone Grants-in-Aid (SLG) and study-leave to students, the university’s accountants would conceal the names on the payroll vouchers largely not for confidentiality reasons, but to prevent nosy students from spying on “ghost names” whose payments are still in the pay vouchers coupled with sexual harassment.

These, among others, have only served as some of the acts of complicity of a noble academic institution that is supposed to be the mirror and conscience of the society for political and socio-economic changes. During my days at FBC, for instance, I heard testimonies of women expressing their displeasure over some lecturer coercively asking for sex in exchange for grades accompanied with threats of imposing failing grades if they refused their advances.

Speaking out aloud against these through articles at the famous campus-based Buffalo Press and at press conferences at Wisdom Tree, Bus Tick and the great Amphitheatre landed myself and several other colleagues before the notorious disciplinary committee on a daily basis. I could particularly, rather sordidly, recall very rude remarks like “Sidon fine. Ah nor wan see da dross in color” (meaning sit properly, I don’t want to see the color of your underwear) thrown at a female student by a professor while delivering a rather boring lecture.

The irritating aspect of these comments was when some students, whether with intent or in their subconscious, giggled out loudly in what later became either an endorsement of the professor’s comments, lack of sensitivity, or just being hypocritically passionate about it out of fear of recrimination by the professor.

Agreed, some of the ways, some female students dress could be provocative. Some of them had just entered university where they could wear anything they liked for the first time, after putting away school uniforms, the badge of high school life. As such, the naughty ones really dressed up to kill. This is where female students suffer the double impact of sexual harassment invited and uninvited; being exploited by fellow male students through underground means (remember the word “UG”) and also harassed by some obnoxious professors!

Some female students have however come to use this sad situation to their advantage. To some, it more than prestigious to hang out with lecturers and they know that they won’t have to work too hard to secure passing grades. The worst times are usually just before examinations. Some others have been reportedly scolded by their peers as the main solicitors for lecturers to take advantage of the opportunity that is created with the motive for them to have an easy sail in their studies.

Scandalous as this might look, today, Sierra Leone is transiting from the ashes of war to lasting peace with both presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for August this year. With the dictum that the people get the type of government they deserve, the university should be seen to play a crucial role in ushering the type of government the mass of the people deserve. This self-appointed role is predicated on the premise that the university should first clean its own linens; tolerate student opposition and objective criticisms, stop vilifying perceived “radical” students as well as running the administration in a transparent manner.

This is where some of us would yearn for a serious government that will investigate these anomalies and vindicate those innocent students and lecturers expelled for nothing rather than expressing their radical views in challenging the permeating and cancerous trends of corruption and moral bankruptcy that have eaten deep into the very fabric of the university apparatus. Unless and until this is done, the University of Sierra Leone and other higher institutions of learning in the country for that matter will only stand indicted of being morally bankrupt and will always serve the whims and caprices of the political status quo.

All is not however lost. In order for the university to reclaim its former self, it should be seen to rise up to the challenge of what the Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka aptly describes thus: “...and gradually they’re beginning to recognize the fact that there’s nothing more secure than a democratic, accountable, and participatory form of government. But it’s sunk in only theoretically; it has not yet sunk in completely in practical terms”. This indeed is the real challenge!

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