FPA Analysis Of The Unending Tussle Between UL’s Student Activism And Liberian Political Elites Spanning The Tubman, Tolbert, Doe, Sirleaf, Taylor & Now Weah’s Administrations
MONROVIA – Unabatingly, there have been continued violent incidents repeatedly dodging the campuses of University of Liberia (UL), particularly its Capitol Hill Main Campus for times in memory. Among the recent years’ incidents is the Monday March 13, 2023 deadly violence being the freshest on everyone’s minds. This goes to remind how students of the UL have for decades remained unbending in their quest to remain direct participants in national issues and political dialogues which they deem are part of their civic responsibilities.
Now in the face of yet another ban on student politics on the campuses of the UL, tensions are again heightened, especially as more and more observers are keen to see what would be the reaction of the students towards this UL administrative decision. UL President Sarwolo Nelson in a videoed speech on the official Facebook page of the University stated, “As of today, March 16, 2023, student politics on all UL campuses are hereby suspended until further notice. The suspension comes in the wake of the many violent disturbances on the University of Liberia campuses.” The UL Administration disclosed that it had commissioned an immediate independent investigation to probe the Monday disturbances, which led to the cancellation of classes and injuries to students and others.
Proudly tagging itself as the ‘Light in Darkness’, as translated from its Latin name of ‘Lux En Tenebris’, every student leadership at the UL has seen that environment as being beyond the “bastion of learning and enlightenment”. With such radical orientation, the UL’s student leaderships have over the years and decades ensured that the campuses of the largest public tertiary institution have never been favorable grounds for administrating regimes.
The UL students’ opposition to regimes is not just unique to the George Weah Administration. For times in memorial, students’ political activism has been hyped since the 1940’s to the current administration, spaning six different presidential regimes across eight decades and counting.
Past regimes and state actors have been cautious in understanding the orientation of the radicalism of the students, especially on how to mitigate a way on how to penetrate an environment that has remained difficult to infiltrate. From the students’ point of view, those regimes view student activism as threatening to sitting and established authorities. So, they, the student activists have repeatedly taken steps to avert the perceived stance and measures that resemble signs of suppression on what they authorities considered as a mature or adult matter not necessary for any “children’s interference”.
As a result, efforts by political elites over years from the Tubman, Tolbert, Doe, Sirleaf, Taylor and now Weah’s Administrations to dismantle the firm student activism at the UL have most often turned somewhat difficult and sometimes chaotic. Student activists themselves however continue to deny having any history of having unnecessary interests of just opposing any sitting government. They do rather see themselves as standing up to governments when the occasion arises in ‘national interests.’
“To us, the campuses of the UL are grounds for moral guidance and if we think you are not worthy to visit us, please abide by our rules as they [current political elites] did during their times here at the UL”, a vocal student activist once added.
An ever-daring student activism made the UL to witness tension-packed and turbulent years of the 1990’s, stretching into the early 2000’s, particularly during the latter years of the Taylor Administration. Such ranged from prolonged closure of normal academic years and other issues the students felt affected them directly as well as those that affected the general public.
For instance, the Augustine Kpehe Ngafuan-led ULSU bravely spoke ‘truth’ to Taylor’s face during his much-acclaimed ‘All Liberian People’s Conference’ held a year after his 1997 landmark presidential victory. To date, political observers have described as the bravest of daring speeches that 1998 speech when the students questioned the genuineness of the ‘Reconciliatory’ component of Taylor’s 2024 Vision.
Right in the presence of President Taylor, in a jam-packed authority at the Unity Conference Center in Virginia outside Monrovia, a then young ULSU President Ngafuan noted that ‘ULSU commends what is commendable and condemns what is condemnable’ while at the same time accusing President Taylor of being untrue to his own reconciliatory efforts.
“Booing Is Part Of Democracy”
There have been divided opinions and concerns over the students’ reaction towards public officials deemed corrupt or not proceeding well in line with their public offices or roles who went to visit the campuses of the UL. While one side thinks no student or anybody has the right to intimate or determine who visits the campuses of the UL, another side thinks that there is nothing wrong with the students’ action of booing and protesting against such officials.
“What is obtaining at the campuses of the UL is nothing strange that people should think that the UL is now politicized. It has always been like that”, one former student leader says. Adding, he said, “And booing is an ingredient of the democracy we have enjoyed at that UL. It is just another way of disagreeing. Charles Taylor was booed at the UL and I personally witnessed [Former President] Ellen being booed with all what she achieved. Then who else shouldn’t be, especially for this government which is deemed corrupt and which has no experience in handling matters?”
With the SUP still nursing the causalities of the counter-protest attacks they suffered outside the premises of the US Embassy in Monrovia on July 26 last year, the student grouping seemed to have increased its anti-corruption stance in seemingly reprisal actions against those deemed as being behind that attack and other actions against the public who are within the high ranks of the Weah Administration.
For instance, as fresh as the news of a Martin Kollie anti-academic fraud campaign that had just reportedly unearthed what it termed as a fake Master’s Degree of the Vice President was still lingering, Madam Jewel Howard-Taylor met her own share of the students’ boos and protest when she went to participate at a program on the Main Campus. In another recent incident, as the Nation was still soaked with the news of the US Government’s release of the three US sanctioned public officials, one of them, Cllr. Cyrenius Cephas was harassed, booed and made to cut short his visit to the UL Main Campus.
But the height of these recent actions was then triggered by the reported attack on Aloysius Howe, a special assistant to Finance Minister Samuel Tweh. Minister Tweh himself is a former standard bearer of STUDA whose defeat to SUP during the Taylor Administration resulted to violence that led to the burning of two Taiwanese donated school buses on the Capitol Hill Campus. The SUP and even SIM had accused the STUDA of being a then regime-collaborator of the repressive Taylor Administration, forcing a SIM breakup from that collaboration days to the tension packed ULSU elections.
Howe’s reported attack on the campus came in the aftermath of his reported involvement with the LISGIS saga. There had been reports of him being allotted over US$160,000 as a ‘social media influencer’ for what has become a highly criticized National Housing and Population Census process.
With that incident, Representative Acarous Gray announced a ‘lunch with students’ days prior to the Monday incident, an action still being condemned and seen as a reprisal attempt to instigate violence at the UL. Described in some quarters as an undercover of the past anger against SUP by the other student parties, particularly STUDA, some believe that the dominance of STUDA veterans in the current regime got the “bigger blessing” for Representative Gray to lead that battle. Analysts believe that the ongoing crisis involving a state actor’s direct engagement with the students is a by-product of the STUDA-CDC morphed governance reflected in the current Weah Administration.
A SUP-Dominated ULSU Upholding the Mantra ‘SUP Remains Supreme’?
The dominance of the leadership of the University of Liberia Student Union (ULSU) by the Student Unification Party (SUP) is a key contributor to the vigilance of student activism at the UL. Except for once during pre-war years when an impressive Kwame Clement set the record as an independent candidate who has inflicted the one and only SUP defeat, the ULSU has always been led by SUP which proudly referenced itself as the ‘Vanguard Movement’. With no disrespect to the respective existence and contributions of other rival student parties including the Student Democratic Alliance (STUDA), the Student Integration Movement (SIM) and the recently introduced Progressive Student Alliance (PROSA), SUP’s dominance of student politics on the UL has proven to be a ‘rock hard to crack’ by external forces wishing to infiltrate the student leadership.
Analysts of student activism maintain that the SUP is deeply rooted in the Liberian political landscape and has have a strong support base from all its veterans in and out of the country. SUPists, as they prefer to call themselves, have long coined its mantra “SUP Remains Supreme”.
One of its veterans who had to crossover from the STUDA to SUP during the Taylor Administration but prefering anonymity says, “To be honest, I withdrew my support from STUDA before I left the UL. I knew that group of people called the SIM-STUDA Coalition was not serious-minded people as is being exhibited in government today. But from my standpoint, SUP remains supreme. This party SUP remains the only institution driven by moral consciousness in our society today. …. Its veterans are the ones pulling the strings and providing guidance on the forward march of the vanguard movement (SUP) for the young cadets to continue what they did when they were in there”.
“Look at the UL today for example: most of the instructional staff are all SUPists who provide direction for the junior comrades. On the other hand, all the other political parties on that campus were pro-government, organized to dethrone this dominance of SUP but failed because they were not grounded as SUP is”, he continued.
Other critics however assert that because almost every singular regime has a SUP veteran in high influential public office has given the SUP more mental edge and more leverage how it has remained engaged with political elites and pro-government actors.
A counter-point to this is that SUP has to some extent distinguished itself as even taking steps against some of its veterans despite their positions and influence in national leadership or government. A cited example was when it expelled then Presidential Press Secretary to former President Sirleaf, Jerolinmek Piah when the former maintained that the latter veteran was not in their interest. Another reminder to counter the point that SUP enjoys protection from its veterans in power was when then Student Activist Martin Kollie was arrested for a protest he staged in Sinoe County against the Sirleaf Administration by public officials who themselves was SUP veterans.
How Different Was The UL Monday Madness?
Of all the past UL crises most of which have been protests often ending chaotic, there has not been any recorded direct confrontation between the students and any state actor such as the March 13 incidence involving the two Montserrado Representatives in Acarous Gray and Yekeh Kolubah. Atleast that’s according to most observers who have followed trending UL incidents of such over the past years.
The infamous 1984 incident, for instance, was a National Defense Minister being instructed by a sitting military dictator to implement what became recorded in history as the ‘Move now or be removed’ order. Defense Minister Gray D. Allison, in a bid to implement then Head of State Samuel Kanyon Doe’s mandate to call off a student protest against the government became ruthless, resulting into deaths and injuries while several student leaders were rounded up and jailed subsequently.
Seventeen years later, an overwhelmed UL President Ben Roberts reportedly sought the intervention of the combined anti-riot squads of the now Police defunct SOD-ATU to calm a purported riot between the SUP and the perceived regime-collaborated STUDA on March 21, 2001. The SUP had made known its intention to raise funds for Journalist Hassan Bility’s legal fees after he fell in problem with the Taylor Administration. That led to a chaotic scene of police brutality against students on the UL Capitol Hill Campus where students were beaten, several others injured with reported rapes and deaths. Unconfirmed reports had it that Representative Kolubah, one of the two involved in the recent March 13 actors, was reportedly one of the commanding voices of the anti-riot police units during that 2001 incident. Journalist Bility is the founder and Director of the Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP), a non-governmental organization that has since been documenting the Liberian war time atrocities while assiting victims to pursue justice.
The UL student activism on national issues even at a crucial point saw its leadership during the same Taylor Administration reportedly rebuking claims of a rebel invasion in Lofa County. The situation heighted to the extent President Taylor instructed that the students’ leadership be taken to the alleged frontline in Lofa County. It’s reported that after their visit to JFK to visit the wounded along with President Taylor, the leadership was reportedly placed under custody to board the helicopter forcefully to the battlefront. Though averted with the intervention of the International Community and the inter-religious group, key members of that student leadership flew into exile until Taylor’s exit in 2003.
Missteps & Condemnations of Authorities
Criticism and condemnations of relevant authorities now trail the ugly UL Monday incident. Critics have lamented the lack of leadership on all fronts:
A Usual Muted Presidency: The trending nature of the incident was up to press time has not been enough to attract any word from the Executive Mansion despite its close proximity to the scene. Many still hope that the Liberian Presidency would issue a statement, even if done days later as was done in the case of the July 26 violence in Central Monrovia.
A Belated UL Administration Action: Despite clear and imminent signs that the March 13 situation would have most likely been chaotic, it took the UL Administration few hours on the same day to the announced ‘12pm Lunch’ to issue a statement announcing the cancelation of classes after 12 noon. Representative Gray didn’t only post about his Monday Lunch over 5 days to the Monday event. He further publicized it for days with appearances on radio stations.
A Late Senate’s Concern: Having done nothing about the July 26 incident aside from the usual admittance of the problem and powerful speeches, the Liberian Senators again on Tuesday did same, promising to continue the debates on Thursday, March 16, 2023.
A Police That Acts After Actions: A stone-throw distance from the UL of not more than 5 minutes’ walk from the National Headquarters of the Liberia National Police, the Police as usual became reactionary in the midst of clear creeping threats even with a late UL administration’s notice of closure.
Should the UL Campus & Public Brace Themselves For A Repeat on March 20?
Despite being an alumnus himself of the University and public condemnations over his actions, Representative Gray believes his Monday’s action is a good precedence that would end years of the usual chronicled trend of such events:
“Good that my visit at the University of Liberia has sparked a national conversation and this could bring an end to years of chaos”, he took to his Facebook page few hours after the Monday chaos.
As Representative Gray promises another visit to the same UL on Monday, March 20 to partake in the inaugural process of Voter’s Registration, all eyes would be fixed on what precautionary steps relevant authorities including the UL administration and Liberia National Police would take to avoid a repeat of the Monday March 13 incident or possibly a worse one.