The Accomplished Exit of Cuttington’s Henrique Tokpa

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Several years ago the Daily Observer carried a memorable Candid Camera photo of Episcopal Bishop Bravid W. Harris watching a bulldozer clear the wilderness of the Suacoco District in what is now Bong County. The bulldozer was clearing the bush to bring education and enlightenment to the Liberian hinterland and to the entire country.

The bishop, who in 1945 was elected by the American Episcopal Church to head the Episcopal Diocese of Liberia, quickly upon arrival met and befriended President William V. S. Tubman.

Bishop Harris told President Tubman that the time had come to reopen Cuttington College and Divinity School, which had been established in Cape Palmas, Maryland County in 1889 during the episcopacy of Bishop Samuel David Ferguson, the church’s first Liberian bishop.

Bishop Harris also convinced President Tubman to relocate the college to Suacoco in the Central Province, where there was enough land for the college to introduce another vital subject in the curriculum, AGRICULTURE, in addition to Divinity and Liberal Arts.

Tubman was elated. He agreed to have the college transferred from his own beloved Maryland County to Suacoco. The college had not operated since its closure in 1929, due partly to the Great Depression.

Henrique Tokpa wasn’t yet born. But his father, Mahwen (in Kpelle: ‘a man who loves strangers’) Tokpa was around, a very young fellow from Sinyea, a Kpelle village just beyond the Cuttington campus. The unlettered Mr. Tokpa the elder was later employed as a grass-cutter at Cuttington.

It was in Sinyea that Henrique got his beginnings — elementary school. After completing high school, where else could he go but to Cuttington, in whose backyard he was born?

The brilliant, serious-minded and ambitious young Sinyea boy went on to earn the PhD degree and returned to serve his beloved alma mater. Under President Dr. Melvin Justinian Mason, Henrique served as Vice President of Cuttington. Upon Dr. Mason’s retirement in 2000, the Board of Trustees elected Henrique Tokpa President of Cuttington, which by then had been elevated to a University College.

By that time, Cuttington, known throughout the world for its high academic standards and discipline, had produced scores of outstanding graduates, many of whom had made their marks in Liberia, Africa and on the broader world stage. Beginning the 1970s, three Cuttington-trained theologians became bishops — George D. Browne (Class of 1958) of the Episcopal Diocese of Liberia; Bennie D. Warner (Class of 1960) of the United Methodist Church; and Ronald J. Diggs, of the Lutheran Church in Liberia.

Another member of the Class of 1958, Canon Burgess Carr, became general secretary of Africa’s leading pan-African church body, the All Africa Conference of Churches.

By the early 2000s, too, when Henrique Tokpa acceded to the Cuttington presidency, the school had produced many other scholars who were making their mark on the African and the world stages. These included agriculturists, economists, educators, engineers, lawyers, mathematicians, medical doctors and medical specialists, including pathology, radiology, pediatrics and heart and general surgery; international civil servants and statesmen. Two Cuttington graduates have served as Vice Presidents of Liberia — Bennie D. Warner and Ronald J. Diggs. Another, Wilton Sankawulo (Class of 1963) served as Transitional President of Liberia. Several Cuttington graduates by the 2000s had served as leading statesmen in Tanzania, Kenya and Liberia. These included Paul Rupia, Ghisla Mapunda and K. Gombale (all of Tanzania), Ochieng Adala (Class of 1963, Kenya) and Martha Sendolo Belleh (Class of 1968) of Liberia.

All of these Cuttingtonians and many more, and most certainly Dr. Henrique Tokpa, are crowning fulfillments of Bishop Bravid W. Harris’ dream of bringing enlightenment to the Liberian hinterland, Liberia and to Africa and far beyond.

When he retired two Saturdays ago as President of Cuttington University, Dr. Tokpa left several marks of distinction. Paramount among them is that it was under his presidency that Cuttington achieved the status of a full fledged university.

He also developed three important and critical programs that go beyond mere academics. The first is the Peace and Conflict Program. Headed by the eminent Liberian historian, Dr. Joseph Saye Guannu, this Program teaches about the roots of conflicts and how they may be mitigated. From the certificate level, this program now offers degrees in Peace and Conflict Resolution.

The second is the Community Service Program, which prepares Cuttington students to go into the communities, within the university environs and beyond, to render service to needy communities and people.

The third program introduced by President Tokpa is the Entrepreneurial Training Program, in which students are trained to become entrepreneurs or business creators and owners. Instead of graduating to go and seek for jobs, successful participants in this Program go out and start their own businesses. The program is supported by The Netherlands.

It followed a major address which alumnus Kenneth Y. Best (Class of 1963) made to the Cuttington Alumni Association on the Cuttington main campus a few years ago. In that address, Mr. Best called on the university administration to start a program in which Cuttington students would be trained to become entrepreneurs. He suggested that each student, upon entering, should present a business development plan that can be improved upon until graduation. By that time, the student would be ready with a comprehensive plan to enter business.

The highly innovative program impressed this year’s Cuttington Commencement Speaker, Sierra Leonean Vice President Victor B. Foh.

So moved by the programs, he appealed to President Tokpa to assist in introducing some of them at the University of Njala in northern Sierra Leone.

But Dr. Tokpa’s first major challenge upon assuming the presidency was to rebuild the university. It had been devastated during the 2003 war by the rebel movement LURD, which destroyed Cuttington’s infrastructure and looted the campus.

With the help of the Episcopal Church of the USA and Trinity Episcopal Church on Wall Street, New York, Dr. Tokpa was able to raise the financial resources to reopen the university.

By the time he got there in 2003, the university was a bush. He had to relocate classes to Monrovia for a year. But the old Sinyea boy used his local connections to engage the Paramount and Clan Chiefs of his native Suacoco to clear the bush in no time.

Now that he has retired after over 12 years as Cuttington University President, Dr. Tokpa can look back with great pride at his enviable accomplishments.

May God give Cuttington a new President who will work even harder than Dr. Tokpa and carry Cuttington University to new heights of academic excellence, social and civic innovation and the preparation of leaders in every field of human endeavor for Liberia, Africa and the world.

Cuttington’s next two challenges are first, to develop a dynamic Alumni Association which, working closely with the university administration and student body, will raise serious money for the university.

The second challenge is to develop at Cuttington a Think Tank that will formulate home-grown strategies for national and continental development.

These strategies will prevent us from adopting foreign-imposed ideas that do not respond to our national, regional and continental realities.

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