March 30, 2016 By Chernoh Alpha M. Bah*
The matter between Fourah Bay College and Prof. Ibrahim Abdullah is still on the desk of Ernest Bai Koroma, the President of Sierra Leone and the Chancellor of the University of Sierra Leone. For several months now, Prof. Abdullah’s request for the intervention of the president to resolve the matter between himself and the Fourah Bay College administration appears to have fallen on the trashcan of the presidency. Under Sierra Leone’s educational system, Ernest Koroma serves as Chancellor of the University of Sierra Leone. Despite mounting national and international condemnations of the unfair treatment meted out against Prof. Abdullah by administrators of Fourah Bay College, who have suspended his salary and now threaten to terminate his employment, educational authorities in Sierra Leone, including the president, continue to treat his matter with contempt.
Prof. Abdullah’s letter of complaint to President Koroma (sent precisely on January 27, 2016) clearly details the background to the controversy between him and Fourah Bay College. It points directly to the reason(s) why some in the administration, particularly the Acting Vice Chancellor, Prof. Ekundayo Thompson, and Registrar, Sorie Dumbuya, are bent on running Prof. Abdullah out of the university.
University records clearly reveal that Prof. Abdullah’s matter started some three years ago (in November 2013) when he sent a letter to the previous and succeeding heads of the Department of History and African Studies at Fourah Bay College. The letter in question raised a number of issues related to professional conduct, academic standards, allocation of courses, and lack of preparation for the introduction of new courses in his department. There was no proof of any official response to the said letter, which was copied to the current Acting Vice Chancellor and the Registrar. A subsequent meeting that was held between Prof. Abdullah and the Acting Vice Chancellor (on Abdullah’s request to discuss the issues raised in the correspondence) could also not address the concerns of academic excellence that he (Prof. Abdullah) had raised in his letter to the heads of his department.
A year later when the university administration decided to look into the matter, Prof. Abdullah’s concerns were never included in the subject of the discussion. University administrators instead initiated an illegitimate process to change the terms of his employment from a permanent and pensionable position to a temporary one-year appointment. Prof. Abdullah challenges the basis of the illegal decision and rejected the offer. The administration then claimed that Prof. Abdullah’s employment was “irregular” and had to be “investigated.” They eventually established, in an unprecedentedly hurried manner, a sub-committee to supposedly investigate Prof. Abdullah for a possible re-appointment. Before its commencement, two members of the said sub-committee reportedly declined to participate on the grounds of obvious procedural violation, which the said “investigation” had occasioned. According to the Universities Act of 2005, a university lecturer can only be dismissed on grounds of “infirmity, criminality, and failure or inability of the person to perform his/her functions.” None of the said conditions apply to Prof. Abdullah’s situation. The conditions of service for senior staff of the University of Sierra Leone also stipulate that the positions of associate professors are “permanent, irrevocable, and pensionable.”
Prof. Abdullah had worked at Fourah Bay College for twelve consecutive years since 2004. He was officially promoted in 2006 to the position of Associate Professor of History and, a year later in 2007, was asked to head the Department of History and African Studies, a request he declined.
Despite the non-participation of two of its members, the said sub-committee, constituted by the Acting Vice Chancellor and the Registrar, to look into the alleged irregularities of Prof. Abdullah’s employment, handling of the situation is an obvious breach of university regulation. “I found it shocking, insulting and extremely unjust that after twelve years of committed and selfless service to the university, the Acting Vice-Chancellor would question the legality of my employment,” Prof. Abdullah categorically stated in his letter to the president.
At a meeting with Prof. Abdullah held on January 26, 2016, Prof. Ekundayo Thompson, the Acting Vice Chancellor of the University of Sierra Leone, is recorded to have stated that Prof. Abdullah’s appointment was “irregular” and that he (Thompson) was out to “correct” the said “irregularity”, which he claimed, was allegedly commissioned by the previous university registrar, Mr. E. T. Ngandi.
Ngandi had since retired in 2012 and was replaced by Sorie Dumbuya, a staunch ruling party supporter, who was appointed as University Registrar the same year by President Ernest Bai Koroma. University records, however, indicate that the action against Prof. Abdullah, especially the manner in which his employment is about to be invalidated, remained unprecedented in the history of the University of Sierra Leone.
“My appointment has never been subjected to a renewal since I started working in the university,” Prof. Abdullah said, adding that, “there is no official explanation regarding the charges against me or any presentation of the evidence adduced to warrant their unjust actions.”
At a recent event at Njala University, Prof. Ernest Ndomahina, the Vice Chancellor and Principal of that university, was quoted to have said that professors are “endangered species” in Sierra Leone. He was making a call for the extension of the retirement age for professors who, he said, are very few in the country. University records confirmed that there are fewer than thirty professors in the country.
Many have, therefore, wondered why university administrators at Fourah Bay College, a hugely under-staffed academic institution, would want to dismiss one of its most qualified professors at a time when other university administrators in the country are calling for prolongation of the retirement age for professors.
In a recent petition to President Koroma, a group of eminent scholars from around the world stated that, “the move by the university administrators to terminate (Prof. Abdullah’s) employment suggests that they do not fully appreciate his stature as a scholar of international standing or his admirable commitment to fostering academic excellence.”
Independent accounts from Fourah Bay College have blamed the decision to invalidate Prof. Abdullah’s employment on the head of the Acting Vice Chancellor, Prof. Ekundayo Thompson. Thompson was awarded a doctorate degree in education twelve years ago in 2004 (the same year he turned 60 years old), and six years later, he was unprecedentedly promoted to the position of professor in 2010. He was subsequently appointed by President Ernest Koroma to head the Institute of Public Administration and Management (IPAM) and made Acting Vice Chancellor of the University of Sierra Leone thereafter. Some long-serving professors in the university have expressed severe concerns as to the meteoric rise of Thompson in the university, expressing worries over his competence and qualifications to head the University of Sierra Leone. “A vice chancellor must have, at least, twenty years of academic experience after his or her terminal degree, and this is clearly absent in the case of Ekundayo Thompson, whose doctorate degree was awarded in 2004,” some professors have complained. Many people saw Thompson’s appointment as part of a tradition of political nepotism that rewards ruling party members and staunch supporters with strategic institutional appointments. The central government practice of staffing the university with ruling party adherents contributes to the problems affecting the University of Sierra Leone in recent years (especially since Koroma assumed power in 2007).
During a recent convocation ceremony at Fourah Bay College, Thompson was widely quoted to have publicly demanded, from ruling party politicians, additional “extra-ordinary powers” to enable him deal with, what he referred to as, “errant lecturers” at the university. Many lecturers believed the said statement proved Thompson is a politician instead of an academic, meaning he has the potential to undermine academic freedom in the university.
Since his appointment as Acting Vice Chancellor, Prof. Thompson has presided over a rising environment of decline in the university’s educational standards. A growing climate of progressive campus disorder now prevails at Fourah Bay College and the other constituent campuses of the university. Poor service conditions for lecturers and irregular payment of salaries, lack of adequate lecture halls and learning facilities, an ongoing crisis of student’s welfare and registration difficulties are all characteristics of the University of Sierra Leone under Prof. Ekundayo Thompson.
The case of Prof. Abdullah came at a time when the crisis of Fourah Bay College, and the entire University of Sierra Leone, has reached monumental levels; the climax in a plethora of contradictions plaguing higher education in Sierra Leone today. A week ago, angry students from Fourah Bay College took to the streets and stormed the gates of State House in Freetown. They demanded the intervention of the president to resolve the welfare crisis and registration difficulties they faced on campus. The president’s office responded swiftly to the situation: armed police blocked the students at the entrance of the State House. Journalists who were covering the protests, from a local television station, later alleged that armed officers who restricted them access to the students assaulted them. A press release from the president’s communications unit, released a day later, claimed that a resolution was reached with the protesting students. The State House press release reported that the students’ concerns had been addressed. But it later emerged that the said meeting, held behind the curtains of the president’s office, never included the representatives of the “militant students” who were seeking acknowledgement from the president. The protesting students had included, in their list of demands, the case of Prof. Ibrahim Abdullah among the issues they wanted the president to address. The State House press release, which claimed to have resolved the concerns of the university, made no mention of the perennial problems of teaching, research and the issues of academic professionalism, which are at the very the heart of the Fourah Bay College crisis.
Reliable sources later revealed that Dr. Minkailu Bah, Koroma’s choice of Education Minister since 2007, substituted the leadership of the protestors with members of another group he had handpicked from the National Union of APC Students (NUAS), the student organisation of Koroma’s governing party.
For much of the period that Koroma had been in power, students of Fourah Bay College – and nearly all other institutions of higher education in the country – have been prevented from undertaking student union activities on campus. Ruling party politicians and university authorities have undermined all efforts to have a functioning student union government on the campus.
Students alleged that university authorities, in alliance with ruling party politicians, have frustrated all previous efforts to genuinely elect an independent student union leadership. For several years now, the students’ hostels at Fourah Bay College have remained closed and decrepit; a decision, students alleged, forms part of the apparent efforts to undermine the opportunity for students’ mobilisations on campus. There are also allegations that Koroma’s ruling party built the capacity of the student wing of the governing All Peoples Congress (APC) in place of the independent student union movement in the country. They alleged that members of the ruling party’s student wing have been installed by the Education Minister as heads of the National Union of Sierra Leone Students (NUSS), the umbrella organisation of student organisations in the country.
On February 24, 2015 (during the Ebola outbreak) a group of concerned students sent a letter to President Koroma decrying the Education Minister’s imposition of an illegitimate student union leadership on NUSS (the National Union of Sierra Leone Students). They complained that many in the current leadership are no longer enrolled in the University of Sierra Leone or any of the other institutions of higher education in the country as required by the constitution of the organisation. In the letter, the concerned students informed the president that they had sent a letter to the Education Minister challenging the “legality of the said executive” and the violations of the NUSS constitution. “The minister did not engage us on the issues raised,” they complained, adding that, “we remain downcast that no response has yet come from him regarding our concern.”
Since 2007, when President Koroma assumed power, the country continues to witness an accelerated decline in the standard of education. Primary and secondary school students have performed poorly on public examinations since 2010. In 2015, less than five thousands students, out of a total of over twenty-three thousand nationally, who took the West African Senior School Certificate Examinations, qualified for university admission; a factor blamed on the poor quality of teaching in schools. The education ministry has not focused on addressing these fatalities in the educational sector. Since 2010, the education ministry remained trapped in a controversy over the approvals and payments of backlog salaries of thousands of teachers across the country. Citizens have continually expressed serious reservations against Koroma’s choice of Education Minister.Dr. Minkailu Bah, a lecturer at Fourah Bay College, has been at loggerheads with teachers and lecturers across the country since his appointment. In 2011, the Fourah Bay College Academic Staff Association (ASA) forced a shutdown of the university for a whole semester over the government’s refusal to address demands for pay increases and better conditions of services for lecturers. In the case of Prof. Abdullah, however, the ASA ignored the case and chose to remain silent on the matter. Independent investigations reveal that the leadership of the association appears afraid to confront the administration and the central government on the matter for fear of losing housing and other benefits accorded to its leaders. In downtown Freetown also, President Koroma has closed his eyes on the problems of the educational sector: despite the continuous public complaints against the Education Minister and the continuing decline in educational standards, the president has left Dr. Minkailu Bah untouched in the many cabinet changes he announced in recent times. He has also not accorded the case of Prof. Abdullah its required attention. Despite the ongoing requests from national and international groups, President Koroma has done nothing to help protect and restore Prof. Abdullah’s right to employment.
*Chernoh Alpha M. Bah is a writer and political activist in Sierra Leone. He is Chairman of the African Socialist Movement (ASM) and author of “The Ebola Outbreak in West Africa: Corporate Gangsters, Multinationals & Rogue Politicians”.