By Chernoh Alpha M. Bah
The crisis of Fourah Bay College (FBC) reached the apex of its surreal drama this weekend. In what many have described as an unprecedented situation in the more than one hundred year history of the institution, the Court of the University of Sierra Leone announced Friday that it has “summarily dismissed” the renowned Sierra Leonean academic, Professor Ibrahim Abdullah.
Professor Abdullah, one of Africa’s leading contemporary historians, has been at the center of a protracted struggle against academic repression and injustice, orchestrated by the current administration, to remove him from the university. Abdullah’s professorial position was revoked in December 2015, and, since then, his salary has been equally frozen. The illegal decision came as a direct response of a beleaguered university administration, currently suffering from a serious crisis of administrative incompetence and ineptitude, to critiques made by Abdullah.
This past weekend, the University’s Court took an unprecedented decision: it unilaterally announced a verdict of dismissal against the renowned professor. The Court said it had terminated the contract of Abdullah on allegations of “insubordination, acts of indiscipline and negative attitude to work.” Abdullah’s only crime, it appears, is his ongoing refusal to submit to the draconian and illegal dictates of the university administration and his continuous criticism of the way the university operates.
The unprecedented decision came a day before a meeting of the Fourah Bay College (FBC) Alumni Association was scheduled to discuss the case of Professor Ibrahim Abdullah and that of another academic, Professor Tom Yormah, who was forcefully retired by the university administration.
The Alumni Association, at its meeting on Saturday, expressed grave concerns regarding the illegal dismissal of Professor Ibrahim Abdullah. The decision of the University Court runs contrary to the provisions of the Universities Act of 2005; the law that governs the establishment and operations of universities in Sierra Leone.
The Universities Act states in Chapter XI (3) that, “no person shall be removed or suspended by the Court, during the period of the contract, in the exercise of powers conferred by these Statutes, unless he has been given a reasonable opportunity to defend himself.” And it further adds in Chapter XI (4) that, “a reasonable opportunity to defend oneself means that the laws of natural justice shall be observed and the person concerned shall be entitled to be legally represented, to call witnesses in his own defense and to cross-examine any adverse witness and to adduce such evidence as he deems necessary for his defense; and if the decision of the Court is to suspend or remove him, he may appeal to the Chancellor who, after examining the evidence, may request the Court to constitute a new panel to review the case.” The Court’s action and decision on Friday clearly violated these provisions of the Act relating to the procedures for suspension, removal and/or retirement of university staff.
Professor Abdullah, for instance, was never invited to a hearing by the Court before the said decision, neither was he given an opportunity to present a defense nor call witnesses as required by the law governing the University and the Court’s operations.
The University Court hurriedly took a unilateral decision to dismiss Professor Abdullah in flagrant violation of the Universities Act of 2005. The required due process, which mandates the Court to give a reasonable time to an “accused” to defend himself, was clearly not followed. The Court clearly took a decision on Abdullah’s case without a hearing and without Abdullah’s side even being heard. It is obvious that the Court’s decision against Professor Abdullah was not only bias, but also represents a clear subversion of the principle of natural justice and a violation of the law itself.
Aside from failing to follow the principle of due process, the mandate of those constituting the University Court is actually long expired, a fact which clearly means that the Court, as currently constituted, lacks the legal mandate to even adjudicate on the matter. Additionally, the Court’s verdict on a matter that is currently on the desk of the University Chancellor also represents a subversion and usurpation of the powers of the Chancellor.
The Alumni Association, in its deliberations on Saturday, has resolved to challenge the illegality of the decision and a delegation of the Association’s leadership will be meeting the president on the matter. The Universities Act empowers the Chancellor to rescind a decision taken by the University’s Court on any matter relating to the university’s operations.
However, the question many have raised is why would the University Court resort to Jungle Justice in its effort to dismiss an academic whose case had attracted widespread international and national outrage in the first place?
In a widely circulated article published last month, Professor Abdullah wrote that he is engaged in a battle against “anti-intellectual forces” in the University of Sierra Leone.
“I am currently hemmed in, battling anti-intellectual forces at our so-called citadel of learning – a broken citadel of learning, as creaky as it is disused; bearing all the hallmarks of its slavery and slavish heritage,” he wrote. Professor Abdullah described the crisis of the university, as “the dirt of mediocrity.”
“It is a militant and passionate anti-intellectual culture, which continues to deprive an already deprived nation of the necessary tools with which to fashion its own emancipation,” Professor Abdullah stated.
At the heart of this surreal drama is the man in command of the university administration, Ekundayo Thompson. Thompson was appointed Acting Vice Chancellor of the University of Sierra Leone in 2013 by the president, Ernest Bai Koroma. Under the laws of the University, the president serves as the chancellor of the university, and he equally appoints leading figures in the university’s administration.
Thompson’s appointment to serve as the University’s Acting Vice Chancellor has come under fire in recent times, with many questioning his academic qualifications and the circumstances surrounding his promotion into the rank of professor and his subsequent appointment to head of the university.
In recent years, Thompson has also been criticized for embarking on the illegal process of forcing the retirement of professors he perceives as threats to his position as head of the university. One such example is the case of Professor Tom Yormah, the former Deputy Vice Chancellor of Fourah Bay College who is currently battling against a forced retirement imposed by the Thompson administration. A University Court ruling in 2011 had recommended the extension of the retirement age for academic professors from 65 years to 70 years. Professor Yormah was forcefully retired at the age of sixty-five by Thompson; a decision regarded to be an irony considering that Thompson himself is now over 70 years old. Professor Yormah insists that the action against him is in violation of the University Court’s ruling on the age of retirement for academic professors, which was supposed to have taken effect since January 2012. But Thompson defied the Court’s verdict on the retirement age, and proceeded with his own plans of targeted dismissals and forced retirements. On Professor Abdullah’s matter, some members of the Alumni Association have described his dismissal as a classical case of jungle justice.
Despite widespread condemnation, Thompson continues to preside over a growing climate of campus disorder at Fourah Bay College and the other constituent campuses of the university. An internal university investigation conducted in 2013 into the operations of the Institute of Public Administration and Management (IPAM) under Thompson, for example, revealed that the vast majority of students who graduated with first class honors degrees did not meet the normal requirement of five Ordinary levels or WASSCE, including English and Math in not more than two sittings. And Thompson, himself, currently faces serious charges of plagiarism and academic fraud regarding his qualifications.