March 18, 2016 By Chernoh Alpha M. Bah*
Fourah Bay College (FBC), a constituent college of the University of Sierra Leone, has reached the breaking point. Yet, the college’s latest predicaments have nothing to do with the usual issues of students’ welfare or unaffordable tuition fees. This time, the stakes are far higher and directly relate to integrity and survival of the University of Sierra Leone. There is a war against academic excellence and academic freedom going on. A few weeks ago, this matter was brought to the attention of the world when a group of reputable academics from across the world (including from every major university in Europe, America, and Africa) sent a petition to Ernest Bai Koroma, the president of Sierra Leone. The president, under the current educational arrangement, serves as the chancellor of the University of Sierra Leone and is responsible for the appointment of senior officials at the university, including the vice chancellor. The petition decried an evolving climate of repression against progressive academics throughout the country.
It came at the heels of acts of injustice committed against Prof. Ibrahim Abdullah, one of Africa’s foremost contemporary historians, whose employment unfairly, and without due process, faces the threat of termination by university administrators at Fourah Bay College. Until recently, Prof. Abdullah was the only tenured professor with a PhD in history in the Department of History and African Studies at Fourah Bay College. In a letter sent to President Koroma, Prof. Abdullah’s colleagues protested against an unfair threat of dismissal and insulting treatment against him; calling him “a brilliant and well known historian.” They informed President Koroma that Prof. Abdullah’s “research and publications have made seminal contributions to the understanding of working class and youth development, culture and politics in West Africa.”
This group of academics stated they are “deeply shocked that a disagreement over the allocation of courses in his department” was used by the university to unjustifiably change the employment conditions of Prof. Abdullah from a tenured and pensionable position to a year’s contract. Prof. Abdullah challenges the basis for such a repressive treatment and obviously refuses to submit to the unprincipled conduct and coercive attitude of the administration’s officials. The college’s officials remain reluctant to address the merit of his protest – the inviolable rights of academics to independently choose and administer their own courses. Instead, they summarily suspended his salary and threaten to dismiss him from the university. Prof. Abdullah has sent his complaint to the president’s office, hoping for a redress, but the matter had lingered for months without a resolution.
In past years, since he assumed power in 2007, Ernest Koroma had personally intervened in disputes involving trade unions and other social organizations across the country, including leadership disputes of the Sierra Leone Football Association (SLFA). In 2012, a conflict between angry youths and police officers that led to the deaths of two people in the eastern parts of Freetown, for example, was only settled by the arrival of the president at the scene of the riots. Meetings with the president had also settled similar events involving motorcyclists and anti-riot police in Freetown in 2014 (during the Ebola outbreak). The case of Prof. Abdullah appears to be treated differently, despite his justified protest and the complaints of his international colleagues; the president’s office and the education ministry have all deliberately treated the matter with contempt.
There seems to be only one option now left open for Prof. Abdullah: pursuing a legal matter against administrators of Fourah Bay College and the Sierra Leone Ministry of Education. But going to court against appointed officials of a government that appears willing to allow the violation of individual freedoms of its citizens is a difficult battle to win. The fact is that hopes for a fair trial and justice are slim at the courts in Freetown. A case of injustice of this nature (especially one that involves a progressive academic and uncompromising scholar like Abdullah) is certainly bound to drag on for months on end, consuming resources and energy for years with no results.
Prof. Ibrahim Abdullah’s academic work and scholarly influence transcend the borders of Sierra Leone and the confines of the dilapidated administrative offices and rundown lecture halls of Fourah Bay College, the oldest western-style institution of higher learning in Africa south of the Sahara. Fourah Bay College, built in 1827 by evangelists, was considered Sierra Leone’s most prestigious learning center, but administrative corruption and political nepotism in recent decades (central government staffing the university with ruling party members and staunch supporters) have all contributed to decline in standards of teaching and learning. Allegations of sexual harassment against female students, bribery, academic injustice and scholarly favoritism are among the rampant reports of misconduct within Fourah Bay College today. Questions have also been raised about the professional qualifications of certain lecturers. Some professors have complained that junior undergraduate degree holders are eventually employed by university administrators to administer courses on grounds of favoritism without due consideration of merit. Nearly all departments at FBC have lacked running academic journals for several years now.
Prof. Abdullah is on record being critical of the state of the university, and has openly spoken against the decline of teaching and learning standards on the campus since his employment in 2004. Prof. Abdullah left a tenured-track job and returned to Sierra Leone at the height of the rebel war in 1997 – arriving on the eve of the infamous coup of May 25, 1997, that overthrew the government of Ahmed Tejan Kabbah at a time when nearly every other Sierra Leonean academic had fled the country. As a well-known scholar and vocal academic, Prof. Abdullah had taught in universities in Nigeria, South Africa, Canada and the United States before returning to Sierra Leone to assist in the development of higher education at the University of Sierra Leone. Over the decades, Prof. Abdullah has been noted for his passion for academic excellence in his research and teachings. His courses are known for introducing students to emerging scholarship in African studies. His presence at Fourah Bay College was considered by academics from across the world as instrumental to the resurrection of the image and credibility of Fourah Bay College, an institution starved of qualified academics and pedagogic quality.
In the twelve years that he has served at Fourah Bay College, Prof. Abdullah was considered the foremost academic in his department by students whom he taught and inspired. In recent years, he was promoted from a senior lecturer to associate professor and was even asked to head the History and African Studies Department. “It would be a travesty of justice to allow the administrators of the university to terminate his career or tarnish his hard-earned academic reputation,” the international academic community stated in the letter to President Koroma.
His colleagues also said, “the move by the university administrators to terminate his employment suggests that they do not fully appreciate his stature as a scholar of international standing or his admirable commitment to fostering academic excellence.” This is exactly the case. The documentary evidence on the matter between Prof. Abdullah and Fourah Bay College clearly demonstrate an atmosphere of envious hostility. Independent accounts testify that Prof. Abdullah always had professional issues with the university administration, and that some in the administration were uncomfortable with his open criticisms of the way the university operates.
As Prof. Abdullah’s matter sits on the table of the president’s office, another case involving the administration of Fourah Bay College has also been brought to the attention of the president: students have complained of unfair registration rules and the deplorable conditions of student welfare on campus; they threatened to demonstrate if their complaint is not addressed immediately. The president’s office has reportedly singled out the students’ complaint for a resolution. The swift decision to act is obviously due to the potential political implications for the State House and the presidency. But the case of Prof. Ibrahim Abdullah with the Fourah Bay College administration, the Office of the President, and the Education Ministry, is gathering dust on the president’s desk despite the calls by Prof. Abdullah and the international academic community for a resolution.
Chernoh Alpha M. Bah is a writer and political activist in Sierra Leone and chairman of the African Socialist Movement (ASM). He is the author of “The Ebola Outbreak in West Africa: Corporate Gangsters, Multinationals & Rogue Politicians”.