Just what authorities of the University of Liberia (UL) including its President, Julius Sarwolo Nelson, hoped to achieve by actively inviting the Police to the UL main campus to quell student protests using lethal force, is the question he needs to answer.
The students had been protesting against the imposition of a compulsory e-learning scheme and abolition of classroom-based instruction. Both students and professors alike, who this newspaper has spoken to, say the introduction of the scheme is ill-advised.
One professor (name withheld) told this newspaper that students and professors alike are experiencing extreme difficulties accessing the so-called platform and even more so, making presentations online using self-improvised means. Squarely put, the requisite infrastructure is critically lacking, making this an exercise in futility. There is no university in West Africa where direct classroom instruction has been scrapped in favor of a compulsory e-learning scheme.
And both professors and students alike seem to agree. They further maintain that the cost of data is prohibitive and makes it especially difficult for students. The government of President George Manneh Weah has declared the University of Liberia tuition-free yet students are being pressured to enroll in a program that benefits GSM providers and a few top UL officials, according to both students and professors alike (names withheld).
Moreover, student protests at the UL, according to them, are not a new phenomenon whether or not they were directed at UL or state authorities. One professor, reflecting on the situation, said, “Liberia is divided along several lines, ethnic, religious etc; but, most importantly along class lines namely, the have and the have-nots.”
According to him, the University of Liberia is a microcosm of the larger Liberian society and, as long as the divides referred to earlier continue to persist, the undercurrents will more likely than not be felt at the UL. And such manifestations at the UL campuses will continue to happen, he declared.
Speaking to the issue on local radio yesterday, a UL student leader said “protest is the voice of the unheard”. According to him, the UL administration has displayed great insensitivity and treated their legitimate demands with benign concern.
But it is unthinkable that a UL President would actively encourage the use of lethal force against protesting students, according to a UL faculty member (name withheld).
This is because this is the first time ever that a sitting President of the UL has actively called in state security forces to intervene on campus. On all previous occasions, it has been the state officials who have ordered the Police to intervene, but never a UL President, according to them.
According to some UL professors (names withheld) Dr. Julius Julukon Sarwolo Nelson did not go through a competitive selection process as has been the case in previous years and, in their opinion, it was because of his ethnic links to President Weah, the both of whom hail from Grand Kru County, that he was named to the University’s top post.
Both Vice Presidents, Norris Tweah and Weade Kobbah Wureh-Boley who also hail from the same region, lack the requisite pedigree and were not selected on a competitive basis attributing reasons for that to ethnic considerations. Norris Tweah is said to be the biological brother of Finance Minister Samuel Tweah.
They further maintain that aside from the non-competitive nature of her selection, Vice President Boley, by virtue of her senior leadership role in a warring faction, who according to the TRC report committed gross human rights violations, is not the right and proper fit for the job.
They maintain that Dr. Nelson’s performance pales by far in comparison to that of his predecessor, Dr. Ophelia Weeks, who they believe would not have acted in similar stead such as inviting the state security on campus or introducing compulsory e-learning by neither assessing the implications nor making adequate preparations for the introduction of such a scheme.
Reports of Police using lethal force including opening fire with live ammunition echoed very strongly of previous years under the dictatorship of President Charles Taylor but even more so of the Doe Administration’s 1984 armed assault against UL students and the military invasion of the UL main campus, led by then Defense Minister Gray Dioh Allison.
Hundreds of students were wounded, some killed and scores of female students were gang-raped by state security forces including soldiers of the AFL. Former Information Minister under the Doe administration, Emmanuel Bowier, now deceased, at hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission told the public that it was Defense Minister Allison who fired the first shot.
Meanwhile, media reports say a number of students were wounded while other eyewitness accounts say the Police opened live fire on unarmed student protesters sending hundreds running helter-skelter seeking safety from flying bullets. At least one death has been reported allegedly from injuries sustained from bullet wounds. However this account has been difficult to verify.
Scores of students interviewed say their protests are aimed at calling UL authorities to cancel the compulsory E-Learning program which the administration has introduced to replace regular classroom instruction. What this means is that classes will no longer be held on the UL campuses and instructors will have to teach courses online.
But analysts say this is a clever but fruitless and sinister attempt by UL authorities to prevent students from converging on campus, which has historically been used as staging grounds for protest action, especially against official government policies.
Official government reaction to student protests has been heavy-handed to say the least. Perhaps officials fail to realize the lessons of history. Attempts to brow beat the students into submission have always failed and there is absolutely no reason to suggest that the use of such heavy-handed tactics will work.
The UL President as well as the UL Board of Trustees must have a rethink. They must realize that it is in their own best interests to do so and refrain from the further pursuit of this scheme and help defuse a potentially explosive situation laden with grave implications for national stability.