Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Returning to campus

The heady days ahead for Ghana's universities

Emmanuel A. Annor

A nation driven to use the weapons of war on its youth is a nation on the edge of chaos. A nation that has lost the allegiance of part of its youth is a nation that has lost part of its futureā€¦

(The Scraton Report, 1970)
The PNDC administration has instructed the administrations of the three universities of Ghana to recall their students into residence. This is happy news, for it breaks the nine- month deadlock between the Govern- ment and the National Union of Ghana Students (NUGS). However, this happy news is marred by the ill-advised precondition set by the Government for the return to campus.

The students are to apply for re- admission to their respective universities on the undertaking that they 'will not at anytime engage in any activities which could have the effect of disrupt- ing the academic life of the university;' that they 'will behave responsibly in accordance with the University's statutes and regulations as well as the laws of the land."

Apart from the logistics of processing the application forms, some of which would pass through the Regional Secretaries' offices, the order will have the deleterious effects of polarizing the student body into factions and making it difficult for the university administrations to obtain the necessary cooperation from the students to resume academic work. Above all, the order ignores the serious damage done to the fragile academic morale as well as the physical plant of the universities by the long closure.

The penalty for not signing the undertaking is not made explicit except that those who fail to sign the document will be presumed to 'share the stands of the NUGS leadership in May 1983' (which is that students would not resume classes unless the Government resigned), and will, by implication be ineligible for readmission. Assuming that some students objecting to the precondition actually defy the order to apply and are therefore refused re- entry, a new element will have been introduced into university management: admission to college based on non-academic criteria.

It is arguable that no government is likely to treat a blanket threat to its existence as a mere youthful prank, but for the PNDC to insist on promises of loyalty in exchange for readmission is to adopt a head-in-sand posture, because the reality is that the undertaking will not amount to much. In 1968, students of Legon were made to sign a similar pledge, but that did not prevent them from subsequently boycotting classes.

If the Government plays its politics right, this reopening could be turned into an opportunity to repair the crisis of confidence which caused the NUGS' unrealistic stance in the first place, and thereby lighten the heady days which lie ahead for the universities.

It is understandable that the PNDC Administration would be jittery about a declaration which amounts to treason. However, the regime erred in its early days by its over-reliance on student support for its legitimacy. At that time, the students were considered the linchpin of the revolutionary process.

Little did the Government suspect that as the de-facto conscience of the nation, they would show such spontan eous revulsion to the murder of the judges and the ex-army officer particularly when their predecessors had cried for 'more blood' at the execution by firing squad of Acheam pong and his colleagues. The confidence gap between the student leadership and the Government widened when, without prior consultation, an arbitrary two-year national service was imposed on college graduates.

From the student's standpoint this indicated that the Government had betrayed their trust, especially when they had of their own accord abandoned classes to help transport cocoa from the hinterland in order to help the Government earn foreign exchange. Events were not helped much by the government-run media's anti-student rhetoric. To top it off, the attack on students by revolutionary organs - in full view of law enforcement agencies - confirmed to the students that they had been betrayed by the very government which they did so much to bring about.

The Government itself made a major faux-pas by using the opportunity of the presence of invaders on the Legon campus to organize cadre schools. By doing so, it appeared to endorse violent and chaotic behaviour. Although such a perception may well have no foundation, it seems that the Government did nothing to alter the crisis of confidence.

If past experience is any guide, it is quite predictable that all of the students will reapply. However, this fact will not mean that they have any intention of being compliant; indeed, why should they be expected to keep their word to a Government which had already subverted their trust? After an interrupted academic year, many students are genuinely anxious to return so they may complete their academic work and leave.

Others with critical life plans such as marriage or who want to travel abroad would also like to finish their studies. The student leadership needs to regroup to plan new strategies, which is only possible when students are assembled on campus. For these and other reasons, it is likely that some calm will prevail on campus immediately after reopening.

A considerable body of research on student activism has shown that only a small vocal minority actively participate in student politics. And it is conceivable that having returned from such a long break, the silent majority might assert its voice and speak out on 'popular' student resolutions. For the student leadership who invest time and effort in campus political activities, the sensible strategy would be to lie low for a few months until a critical issue emerges. This crop of students tends to be astute power brokers; they believe that such investment in time and energy will yield political benefits. And who is to blame them for using the campus platform for political initiation when soldiers and lecturers behave in similar fashion from the vantage point of their respective institutions?

Back to the laboratories?

Neither are they lacking in precedent. Cann Tamakloe, the 1972 NUGS president who opposed the Busia regime for trying to introduce the student loan scheme, became a wealthy beneficiary in Acheampong's time. Kwasi Adu and Kwasi Kamassa, active in Acheampong's latter days, were appointed to high office in the PNDC Administration based not on competence or experience but rather on their roles as student leaders and participation in the 4th June Movement. Recently, Kofi Totobi Kwakye, the 1978 NUGS President who almost lost his life opposing Acheampong, has been rewarded with the position of Deputy Secretary of the Ministry of Information.

The uneasy calm which will probably pervade the university campuses upon the students' return should not overshadow the damage which they have suffered. First, many lecturers who could not take the chance of jeopardizing their careers sought employment elsewhere. Second, a great deal of psychological harm has been done to student motivation and expectations.

While the impact of this psychological trauma has yet to be assessed, it will most likely leave a lasting mark on our youth. Besides, there is the temptation on the part of the universities to rush through the remainder of the academic year according to the syllabuses without giving the students the chance to recuperate from the shock of the campus invasions. Herein lies the danger of breeding half-baked graduates with diplomas of questionable validity.

An even more critical issue concerns the repair of the extensive damage which the revolutionary organs caused to the fabric of the universities. Reports reveal that the invaders of the Legon campus destroyed most of the plumbing and toilets in the Commonwealth Hall. Glass louvre blades were broken, mirrors removed, and cutlery and crockery stolen. Furthermore these 'new students' on campus, apparently at the Government's urging, gobbled up all the food supplies in the Manciple's organization. This means that the university administrations will be burdened with replenishing the depleted supplies, a difficult task in view of the present food shortages plaguing the country.

Roofs of residential buildings and dormitories are leaking, and potholes abound. The plush greenery of landscape which was once the pride of Ghana has deteriorated. Certainly, revolution does not mean revolt against that which is beautiful; one can presume that the Government did not intend these consequences to the concept of 'power to the people.' But the harm has been done, and the cost of replacement and repair may well exceed whatever gains might have been achieved.

The revolutionary fervour which swept through the country also had a debilitating effect on campus authority. The confusion had attained such proportions that, especially on the Legon campus, the workers in the Estate Organization chased out the Executive Engineer with their newfound 'power.'

Therefore, it makes no sense for the universities to fritter the energies of their administrations on processing forms which induce students to keep their word. No one expects this of the students. Rather, the administration should be given every encouragement to restore order to the universities as critical institutions which harbour the potential for Ghana's development efforts so that they may be rebuilt. Particularly is this so since two veteran Registrars have been forcibly retired and the Vice Chancellors of the Universities at Legon and Kumasi are relatively new.

The Government can help in this endeavour by providing a conciliatory leadership, toning down its tough posture, and instructing its media to control anti-student rhetoric. Because student generations are ephemeral and therefore have relatively short memories, there is the likelihood that toning down in this fashion could return peace to the campuses.

A critical factor in diffusing campus tensions is that of providing an outlet through which students may vent their pent-up opinions. Under former civilian regimes when the Legon Observer had been allowed to thrive, many students wrote intelligent letters to make their views known. But the present Government control of the media will likely result in the emergence of underground leaflets and propaganda material on campus, which will not augur well for the stability of the Government. Thus the PNDC could bring at least a modicum of stability back to campus by instituting some measure of freedom of expression.

The students also have a role to play. In the past, radical students have resorted to using brute force to demonstrate their points, for example, by coercing non-sympathizers with their cause to participate in class boycotts when the power of persuasion failed. If the university campuses are to become the hubs of tolerance of opposing views and the breeding grounds for democratic behaviour, then a great deal of effort will be necessary on the part of the student leadership to seek consensus before acting. Of course these attitudes will not emerge overnight, and it is important that both administration and faculty inculcate such important values.

Even more important is the need for students to understand and appreciate the limitations of their power. Ghana has yet to witness a successful coup d'etat organized exclusively by students. It has been the practice for students to set the tone for military adventurers, only to become the military government's ready target once it becomes intolerant of students' criticisms. Thus students cannot afford to gamble with their futures by presenting themselves as political fodder only to be abandoned once power has been taken.

In conclusion, it bears repeating that it is incumbent upon the Government to exercise leadership. Seeking short term political advantages is a myopic way of dealing with the country's problems. The next generation must continue the process of building Ghana. We cannot afford to fritter the energies of our youth on factionalism any more than we can afford to kill the motivation and enthusiasm upon which the future of our nation depends.

As Sir Gordon Guggisberg advised the Legislative Council in 1927, "Do not let the often fictitious urgency of your desires of the moment obscure the vision of what is best in the future for your children and your children's children."

talking drums 1984-03-05 Ghana immature at 27 - why buhari must declare assets publicly