On April 27, the day of the anniversary of what is called Sierra Leone’s “Independence Day”, Ernest Bai Koroma made a series of spurious claims about his leadership achievements. It is not that the content of his speech differed from what he had said on such occasions each year during the last nine years. For those citizens who actually listened to the address, they did not do so expecting to hear anything new. Instead, they continue to listen to Koroma as part of a laughing game. Some words and sentences are permanent features of his scripted speeches at this point. Words such as “thousands of jobs for the youth”, “a peaceful and democratic country”, “an economy with a double digit growth”, and “a country with a resilient people” have become staples of the presidential vocabulary in the last nine years. People can write the bulk of Koroma’s speeches before he even gives them. For a decade, he has recycled the same tired phrases.
This year’s “independence day” speech was no different. Koroma said it would be his last “independence address” to the country. This was also not news either. Despite his unsuccessful antics and efforts during the last five years to subvert the presidential term limit and prolong his presidency, everyone, except for his noise makers, expects him to vacate the seat of power when his term expires less than a year from now.
There are, however, some strange and absurd claims made by Ernest Koroma in his “independence speech” this year. Again, it is not that these strange claims were themselves actually unusual or out of character for the administration. The propaganda machine that produced them, however, has become so thin and bare, that their absurdity was obvious. This year, the president went beyond even his usual exaggeration and made too many lies and false claims in his effort to ascribe to himself accolades he does not deserve. The speech left numerous questions in its wake, all of which challenge the truth of what was stated.
While we are all aware that the president’s claims on jobs for the youth, the state of the economy, the health sector, and roads are not new, in this year’s speech, he took his “development propaganda” to a new place in the desert. He claimed to have “established three universities in just nine years”. And while propaganda from this president is expected, while there are many scripted claims from the development hymn sheet his supporters have choired all these nine years, this year’s claim of “newly established universities” went far beyond the margins of even the usual government propaganda that characterizes his leadership.
Where are the three universities that the president claimed to have established in the last nine years? This is the crucial question that formed the centerpiece of the social media discussion which broke into frenzied debate during the speech in order to interrogate the president’s truthfulness. Listeners especially challenged the president’s university claims.
In my own contribution to this discussion, I pointed out that the president’s claim on “newly established universities” is nothing but a complete lie on an Independence Day celebration. The fact is that Ernest Koroma did not build or establish any university in the country during the last nine years of his tenure. Was he actually referring to the University of Makeni (UNIMAK) and Malaysian-owned Limkokwing University campus in Freetown? These two institutions are neither owned by the state of Sierra Leone, nor are they semi-public educational institutions.
Limkokwing in Freetown is an extended campus of the Malaysian-based Limkokwing University. It is purely operating as a private educational institution. Similarly, UNIMAK is a catholic-owned private university. These two universities were not established by the government of Sierra Leone and are not owned and/or administered by government (as opposed to the University of Sierra Leone and Njala University, which actually have the president of Sierra Leone as their Chancellor).
The third institution that comes next in line here is the Makeni Teachers College, which was later named Northern Polytechnic. This is a teacher-training college and has never been a university. Quite recently, Ernest Koroma forcefully re-named this institution The Ernest Bai Koroma University. This was done despite the fact that the institution does not meet any of the required criteria to be named a university. Outside of its HTC Primary and Secondary certification programs, its recent Bachelor’s program in education (B.Ed.) is administered as an ad hoc program under Njala University. How can a teacher training college, which cannot run an independent Bachelor’s program in education, be called an autonomous university? Is this not completely absurd?
The Sierra Leone Universities Act of 2005, which is the law that governs the establishment and administration of universities in the country, is clear on the question of university establishment and administration. It stipulates in Section 3(2) that “each institution specified in the (Act) in relation to the University of Sierra Leone or, as the case may be, to the Njala University, shall constitute a campus of the respective university, and any other institution stated in that schedule as constituting or incorporated with the institution concerned, shall cease to exist in its former name.” Based on this provision, therefore, the Northern Polytechnic or Makeni Teachers College (now forcefully named The Ernest Bai Koroma University), whose B.Ed. program is currently administered by Njala University, is technically a campus of Njala University in the north of the country. So the effort to re-name it as a separate university when it’s highest degree (the Bachelor in Education) is administered by Njala University runs completely against the provisions of the Universities Act of 2005, which is the law that governs the establishment and administration of universities in the country.
So the question still remains: where are the three universities that Ernest Koroma claimed to have established in the last nine years? If these are the institutions that the president actually referred to in his speech on April 27, then it is obvious that the head of state did, in fact, lie to his audience when we claimed to have established three universities. It is unfortunate that a speech, which is supposed to commemorate an “independence day” event, contained such barefaced lies about national development rehearsed by the “first gentleman” of the nation himself.
Despite these facts, a few noise-making supporters of the president are trying to stampede those critical of the president’s April 27th address to the nation.
Initially, they tried to argue that the president did not actually claim to have “established three new universities” but that he was allegedly making reference to the fact that the said institutions were “established during the nine years of his tenure as president”. They went even further to say that the president’s comments were, in fact, “we had established three universities in nine years” as opposed to “my government has established three universities in nine years.”
If we have to constrict the scope of this discussion to these very distinctions that the president’s noisemakers are now trying to advance, it is also too obvious that their efforts will still fail to set the president free from the entrapment of lying to the public on an Independence Day celebration. They have failed to understand that the problem itself rests on the president’s use of the collective pronoun “WE” when referring to the establishment of the universities in question (UNIMAK and Limkokwing).
It is the use of the collective pronoun “WE” that makes the president a claimant of the accolade for these institutions establishment. The collective pronoun “WE” is different from the pronoun “THEY”. By employing the use of “WE” when referring to UNIMAK and Limkokwing, the president wrongfully ascribed to himself the accolades for the establishment of the said private educational institutions. The collective pronoun “WE” would only have been appropriately employed if the president were a personal shareholder in the said institutions, or if the said institutions were actually owned or directly established by government. None of these situations apply in this case.
Another effort to defend the president’s statement also argued that whether the president is involved or not, the fact that these private institutions were established during his tenure makes him the owner of the credit for their establishment. The individual who advanced this argument said government is “the most powerful institution of the state” and must not be “grudged of the achievements that happen under its tenure.”
This is a sorry defense for the president’s Independence Day lie to the nation. Certainly, there are things that governments are given credit for. These do not include credit for the private investments of individuals, or for the establishment of private corporations and limited liability companies owned by individuals and/or groups that are not part of the government’s organizational machinery. A private educational institution such as UNIMAK is a private investment in education by a catholic organization. It is not the same as Njala University or the University of Sierra Leone. To equate UNIMAK with University of Sierra Leone is no different than equating SIERRATEL with AFRICELL. There is certainly a difference between these two entities even though they are both involved in telecommunication.
The point is that Private corporations like Bollore Africa Logistics or SOCFIN are not within the same economic tangent as NASSIT or the NRA or SALWACO or EDSA. Private educational institutions, therefore, should not be lumped together with public investment in education. Governments only take credit for educational institutions that are public-owned and administered or funded. They do not take credit for private educational institutions that operate as educational businesses.
The fact is that governments have an obligatory mandate to provide economic and social development for their citizens. It is not a charity but an obligation. The credit for government policies that encourages private sector investments in education, health, mining, agriculture, and other such sectors of the economy are complimentary, but they are not part of the milestone public programs that are used in assessing a government’s scorecard on its social service delivery to the citizens.
The need to address the president’s university claims is crucial, because the president’s record on education is indicative of his failure to deliver fundamental social services to the people. In fact, the crumbling state of the country’s institutions of higher learning and the frightening speed with which educational standards have tumbled in the last nine years stand as one of the president’s greatest failures, especially to the youth of the country. Why have Njala University and the University of Sierra Leone become constant sites for industrial action in the last nine years? What happened to Njala University students who demonstrated recently against the closure of the university for a whole semester? Are all these examples not indicative of Koroma’s failure on education? What does it say about how our president cares for and prioritizes our youth when, despite the clearly dismal state of the nation’s university system, he has the audacity to claim progress is being made?
About a year ago, the London-based Economist Magazine reported that the University of Sierra Leone only has about eight university professors for a student population of eight thousand. Is this not a national disaster? How then can a government talk of establishing three additional universities in a country where the professoriate is almost non-existent?
These are the questions the president’s hero-worshippers and noisemakers must put to him. They must be bold enough to tell him that he lied to the country during his “Independence Day” speech. Anything less is an affront to the thousands of struggling students in this country.