Managing African Universities in Turbulent Times
By Minga Negash*
January 19, 2016

"The asymmetry of power between the ruler and the ruled which heightened culture and identity contrast cannot be used to explain the failure of governance and public policy." - Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny 2006:P.105

Several studies document the intricate association between economic growth and the production of new knowledge in a country. The growth is often implicit or endogenous. Its spillover effects are complex; often difficult to quantify and measure its monetary and lifelong effects. Universities are channels of public investment in the process of new knowledge production and dissemination. Their shape and size on one hand and how they are managed on the other is critical. Complex and large organizations require their own “business model” that is founded on inducement and enabling environment rather than high pressure and tension. In environments where higher education is more of public good rather than a private good, contextualization of the institution of new knowledge production and dissemination is necessary.  In my own personal journey in academia that started in 1980 with the responsibility of coordinating the diploma programs of Asmara University in its Massawa campus, I had the privilege and opportunity of learning and teaching at a number of universities in six countries. As of late I have learned that managing the institutions that I worked for so long, and still work for is quiet difficult especially when countries undergo through change, shock and crisis.

When knowledge and power work together, students learn, professors profess, innovators thrive and universities become centers of excellence. Resource driven economies get transformed into knowledge driven economies. Unfortunately this is not happening in the African continent.  No university from Africa is on the top 100 list of university rankings, the productivity of the professoriate is tiny compared to global averages. Worse these important institutions have been centers of political unrest. No higher education system has been safe from change and shocks, but African higher education institutions are in more turbulent environment than their counter parts in other parts of the world. One feature that makes African universities unique is that many of the leaders of the post colony states trace their roots to the student movement, and yet knowledge and power have not been able to work together in contemporary Africa.

Very few African leaders had a sustained relationship with universities or were ready to listen to the voices of reason that came from academics and students. In many countries the leaders were hostile to the universities and either undermined the role or remodeled them to make the institutions centers of indoctrinations where the “vision” of the “great leader” is preached using public resources. Both anecdotal and empirical evidence shows that African universities have been facing both internally generated and nationally and externally imposed crisis. In short the post-colonial states gave the leaders of the 1960s & 70s campus unrests the opportunities to lead and democratize the new states.  Many of the then revolutionaries and freedom fighters become brutal dictators who were overthrown by their own military or public uprisings.

The commoditization of higher education and the corporatization of universities has been a global trend. With the capture of the multilateral global financial institutions by the disciples of neoliberal economics, African governments were advised not to invest in higher education as the rate of return is arguably much higher in elementary education. This fitted the dictatorship’s reasoning. Awakened from the scandals of the 1980s the last ten years have witnessed the expansion and upgrading of polytechnics into universities of science and technology throughout the continent. Many African governments did not learn from Nigeria’s massification of the 1970s. Buildings alone did not and do not make universities. Under paid and under qualified academics were told to teach large classes. Though the private universities have dubious level of qualities the rich and the politically connected sent their kids to these universities or abroad. Seeing the opportunities transnational universities and virtual universities opened shops and reaped the profits from exporting degrees. Degree and honor hungry politicians were the first to receive virtual and/or honorary degrees from both good and dubious American, Chinese and European universities. Donor funds often get recycled back to the country with no discernable evidence of local capacity building in the recipient country’s universities. The recipients of Honoris Causa and normal degrees while the leaders are/were still in power include the late Samuel Doe of Liberia and several current Prime Ministers and Presidents of Africa, thus bringing reputation problems to the degree granting universities.

Today I received two email circulations that relate to two unrelated higher education centers, hence the reason for writing this commentary. The University of the Witwatersrand is one of the four iconic South African institutions that ranks within the top 400 universities in the World and among the top 5 in the African league. The second is Ambo University, one of the new universities of Ethiopia. Both universities are dealing with campus unrest. South African students have been the bed rocks of the antiapartheid movement and recently have been successful in that the “Rhodes must fall” slogan that started at the University of Cape Town changed into national agenda of “Fees must fall”. It sent a shockwave and obliged the government to find temporary solution, but costed the job of the respected Minister of Finance and the depreciation of the country’s currency. The shock adds to the annual industrial unrest, crime and violence, xenophobia and the climate change has made some 14 million people vulnerable. The trouble is the student unrest is now elevated and probably will cost the job of President Zuma.

 In the Ethiopian case, the slow motion resistance to the Addis Ababa Master plan has engulfed the nation into an even more crisis. Bad governance coupled with climate change has made 18.2 million people vulnerable to hunger. One dimension of the bad governance was the land dispossessions. Like the South African students the campus protest against the so called Addis Ababa Master Plan, has changed into major political question that challenges the recent election where the ruling regime attempted to legitimize its 24 years rule by claiming 100% of the seats of the national parliament. The real question has now changed to “TPLF/EPRDF must fall” and of course for the regime this is the call of the “ጋኔን”:- the “big devil” and the work of “terrorists”. The last two months have rocked universities located in the Oromo regions of Ethiopia. Hence, a study of student movements in the context of African universities in general and in Ethiopian universities in particular is important as campus unrests can be used as early warning barometers of the stability of nations.

Though novice, young people often raise legitimate economic, social and political questions. Students in African higher education systems are a microcosm of broader society and often serve as the early signals of greater societal concerns. Academics who take their public intellectual duties seriously often follow their students and voice societal concerns. Evidently they risk their lives and many never set their foot in the world of dictators as the two are mutually exclusive. Hence, broader societal questions cannot be answered by university managers as the source of the problem is not inside university campuses. University managers, irrespective of their political persuasions however cannot be clueless and remain unconcerned when matters get out of control and lives of young men and women is lost right under their eyes. Most of Africa’s university managers are government appointees and often make opportunistic choice. By comparison the process followed in South African universities is different and complex. It was an easy matter for Professor Max Price to let the statue of Ceil John Rhodes to be removed from the University of Cape Town’s campus but it is much harder for Professor Adam Habib of the University of the Witwatersrand to resolve the “access and funding” issue at the University. In response to his academic critics who blamed him for “militarizing” the campus, he wrote the following:-

…Many have asked why private security was brought in and not public order policing? The answer is simple: public order police would have immediately required a court order to become operational on campus. More importantly, once they are invited onto campus, one is not allowed to limit their operations or influence their tactics and strategies. With private security, such limitations can be imposed… .Finally, the issues facing the entire university system are access and funding. These cannot be resolved immediately and independently by Wits as an institution….”

While Vice Chancellor Habib is concerned about bringing public order police to campus, the Horn of Africa universities are going through much deeper crisis and unrest, making the teaching-learning and research environment extremely difficult if not impossible.  Asmara University where I started my career in academia was reopened after about a decade long closure. On April 2 2015 gunman stormed the Garissa University, killing 148 people and injuring 79. The failed states of Somalia and South Sudan have the task of rebuilding from scratch. In Ethiopia the type of deadly weapon used in university campuses has been elevated to explosives. To quell campus unrest, the regime is not concerned about the uniqueness of centers of knowledge production. It is not clear whether the security forces need court order to come to campus or there is a known regulation about the type of force they are allowed to use in campus. With the regime’s bad track record and the uncertainty about the culprit makes the situation conducive for a prolonged instability in the region.

At present my sources indicate to me that the entire Oromia region and the university campuses are administered under a “command post” of the military and security organ of the federal government, which is inseparable from the Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), the dominant core in the ruling ethnic coalition. Ironically, the rulers trace back their roots to the student movement of the 1970s at my alma mater, Addis Ababa University (former Haile Selassie University). Campus dormitories in Ambo, Adama, Dilla, Haromaya and Jimma universities are places of desperation and fear. The number of students killed continues to rise and Human Rights Watch estimate the death of some 140 people and a substantial portion of this number involves students. A teacher has been reportedly killed in front of his students. Neither the central government nor the regional government is able to tell the military to remove itself from centers of higher education and research.

Making matters worse, the President of the Oromo region has praised the military, and the Minister of Education who himself appears to be in need of higher education, has avoided even the government controlled media. The political appointees of the universities who manage the tense environment appear clueless, dumb and fearful.  Academia however is never dull. No president or Senate of the 30 or so universities has resigned or spoken out to the community of academics. The academic staff did not have even a one hour long national protest. It is trying time to be a President, a Dean, a Head of Department, an academic and worse a student inside many of Ethiopia’s universities.

In the United States today (January 18) is Martin Luther King Day. If Dr. King was alive, in all likelihood he would have been sympathetic to the causes of the protesting students. One lesson from the two unrests is that both South African and Ethiopian students are demanding change, and perhaps breeding the next generation of better African leaders. Deconstructing the causes of the campus unrests and their links with social concerns not only saves missed lecture days and lost lives, but provide early indicators of the locus of the failure of governance and public policy in African countries.

*The writer is a Professor of Accounting at the Metropolitan State University of Denver and the University of the Witwatersrand. He can be reached at minga.negash@yahoo.com


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