Sierra Leone: Fourah Bay College - the Decline of Sierra Leone's 'Oxford in the Bush'

The radical students at Fourah Bay College were once a source of political dynamism, activism and opposition in Sierra Leone. How times have changed.

Freetown - Sitting astride Freetown's Mount Aureol, Fourah Bay College (FBC) is often regarded as the crucible of Sierra Leone's post-independence history. "When Fourah Bay College sneezes", one student reflects, "all of Sierra Leone catches a cold."

In the mid-1980s, FBC did sneeze. Radical students, alienated by Siaka Stevens' brutal one-party regime, decamped to Colonel Gaddafi's Libya, setting in motion a train of events which meandered, in fits and starts, towards the outbreak of the rebel war.

By the time the students returned to Freetown in the early 1990s, Foday Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front (RUF) was laying waste to the country's south-eastern flank and their idealistic dreams of revolution had evaporated. The combative student movement that had flourished throughout the 1970s and 1980s seemingly slipped off-stage.

Today, West Africa's oldest Western-style university has been reduced to a constituent college of the University of Sierra Leone, although it remains self-consciously the nation's original ivory tower - "an Oxford in the bush," as one academic puts it. Meanwhile the college's 6,000-odd 'Fourabites' - once the country's political vanguard and de facto opposition to the one-party state - are markedly less visible in public life than they once were.

The university itself has slid into apparently irreversible decline. Material conditions have atrophied almost continuously since the civil war ended in 2002, and campus accommodation is now uninhabitable to the extent that even students from the farthest provinces are denied lodgings.

In such circumstances, one might expect to find the students in fighting spirit. Yet despite being equipped with a collective history that boasts the remarkable events of 1977 - when 'No College No School' demonstrations spread from FBC and forced Stevens to hold elections and lower the voting age to 18 - students today rarely challenge the university administration, and almost never confront the government.

At the moment, the university doesn't even have a functioning student union after the last student elections were cancelled by authorities citing campus violence. With faint echoes of the prohibition of the union for three years in the 1980s, the elections have been postponed indefinitely, effectively signalling a moratorium on student politics.

"Since 2007 we have not really had an open opposition to this government from the university," says one former student, explaining that with an enfeebled (or non-existent) student union "nobody can talk for the students." In effect, he says, "the university can just do whatever it wants."

The current situation at the college is not simply the result of cynical brokering on the part of the university administration or the central government - both of which, some argue, may benefit from the current state of affairs. Activism on campus still happens, but unlike in previous eras, when student activists tended to unite against a common enemy, student politics today is largely mobilised around internal struggles. Fratricidal violence is common, and for the best of the last decade (if not longer) an internecine conflict has torn the campus apart. Most of this has been centred on the bipolar factional battle between two camps: the so-called 'Whites' and 'Blacks'.

The history of these factions varies depending on who you speak to, but most narratives locate their origins in the mid-1990s, when a group of students defected from the then all-powerful political club, the Auradicals, to form a rival entity, the Generals. In some accounts this latter group espoused a more 'European' world-view, in contrast to the comparably hard-line Africanism of their opponents, today's Blacks.

The division between the two has steadily hardened, increasingly pervading all areas of university life. A former leader of the Black camp, a figure known as The Dictator, speaks of "invisible lines" that have spread across campus, segregating the entire student body. It has, he explains, "now gone beyond politics; it has gone social." People speak of lecturers threatening to fail students who don't vote for one or other camp, while others complain that access to employment after graduation is strictly determined by camp loyalties.

The consequence, according to historian Ibrahim Abdullah, is that "what used to happen in the past, when students used to come together to fight for a common cause... those days are gone."

In local discourse, the state of campus politics today is treated fairly unambiguously. Public perception of the 'crisis' up at FBC is refracted through a nostalgic lens. "This is a place for gentlemen," one student laments. "It used to be the Athens of West Africa, but it is being transformed into the laughing stock of the world."

Indeed, for many of the radical generation of students that opposed the one-party regime of the All People's Congress (APC) in the 1970s and 1980s, the current crop, with its White-Black rivalry, are regarded with disdain. Gibril Foday Musa, who was expelled in the 1980s and fled to Libya along with a number of fellow radicals, echoes a commonly held view, commenting that "students no longer command the respect that we commanded." For him and many others of his generation, any suggestion of meaningful differences between the Blacks or the Whites is quickly dismissed. "No one talks about ideology or principles anymore," he complains.

Like many others, he sees the violent infighting - rather than fighting against outside powers - as indicative of declining levels of political maturity among current students compared to his generation. "In our day we fought intellectually, then we'd come together to fight against the administration or the central government," he says. Or, as another former student puts it, "the violence, the anger, has been pitted against each other - it's not against the system now. That is what the polarisation is producing."

In part, this discourse demonises today's students, laying the blame for falling standards at their door. But many also believe that national politicians from both the incumbent APC and the opposition Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) are exploiting the division among students, manipulating the two camps for their own ends.

In the eyes of the public, the White camp is in the pocket of the APC, while the Black camp is seen as the handmaiden of the SLPP. Rumours abound of politicians visiting the campus during election times, bribing students and funding campaigns. Many also claim that the APC has taken to remote-controlling student elections in order to ensure that a compliant student leadership remains in power; some point out that the Blacks have failed to win an election since the APC displaced the SLPP at the national ballot box in 2007 and there are rumours that the most recent elections were cancelled because the Whites were facing defeat.

If there is truth to these allegations, it would appear that the APC has learnt its lessons from the 1980s. Back then, FBC students were the government's most trenchant critics; today, the student polity dances dutifully to the tune of national politics. Some cite the example of the student union president in 2005 who was impeached by his fellow students for refusing to demonstrate against the government of the day only to be swiftly restored to office by the government and university administration.

Above all, there is an agreement among commentators that what is happening up at FBC is increasingly just a reflection of what goes on downtown. "The national political divide has eaten deeply into the fabric of student life," says Umaru Fofana, one of the country's leading journalists.

Indeed, as with national politics, intense factional competition appears to be characterised by an absence of meaningful ideological difference, with ethno-regionalism dominating instead. The Whites are presumed to be majority Limba and Temne from the north and west, whereas the Blacks are believed to be composed primarily of Mende people from the south and east.

The reality though is slightly more complicated. For one thing, the rigidity of the ethno-regional configuration appears to be exaggerated. Members of both sides accuse their opponents of being 'exclusive' - while claiming inclusivity for themselves - but in fact neither camp is really a homogeneous ethnic or regional bloc.

Similarly, political alignments are more fluid than most public commentators assume; contrary to Anti-Corruption Commissioner Joseph Fitzgerald Kamara's assertion that being Black or White merely indicates whether "you are for or against the government of the day", the reality is more complex. Indeed, today's leading Whites insist they are fractured with respect to party affiliation and are keen to point out that as recently as 2012, 31 FBC students - including representatives from both factions - were suspended for staging a protest against the eviction of a group of their classmates who had been camping out in college accommodation during the exam period. In the case of the Whites, this meant demonstrating against their supposed paymasters down in State House.

Nonetheless, the fierce conviction held by most commentators that the division on campus is at least partly determined by the topography of national politics cannot be dismissed lightly. Almost all students I spoke to - with the exception of some at the very top of their respective camp hierarchies - confirmed that politicians have been spotted up at FBC at the time of union elections and there is a broad consensus that the government has a firm foothold in student politics. Speaking under condition of anonymity, a former leader of one of the camps confirmed receiving envelopes of cash sent from downtown, although he denies accepting them.

On reflection, it seems likely that national politics plays a part in campus politics not through party political strategy determined from the centre, but via the diffuse efforts of certain individual politicians. FBC has always been a crucial political constituency in Sierra Leone so it should come as no surprise that certain politicians are willing to go to great lengths to manipulate its members.

Student politics at FBC is complex and nuanced, yet with its fibrous web of links to national political life, a certain degree of pessimism is perhaps unavoidable. Most recognise that the campus is a training ground for future politicians, leading some to believe that the prospects for democratic consolidation at the nationwide level in the years to come therefore look a little bleak.

If national politicians are infiltrating campus politics, then the critical distinction between the state and civil society is also being compromised. And if student leaders are being exposed to bribery and patronage politics so early on, then prospects for rooting out corruption in public life are far from encouraging.

A culture of electoral violence is also damaging in another respect: as the difficult experience of this year's only female presidential candidate once again demonstrated, the hyper-masculine atmosphere of the election process and the male-only political clubs severely disadvantages female political participation.

Caution should be exercised when comparing student unionism today with that which came before. It is easy to romanticise the older generation of Fourabites. Yet conditions are different now: the students no longer have a clearly identifiable enemy, and the multi-party system in many ways presents an altogether more complicated challenge then the previous one-party state. Nonetheless, the current situation on campus is worrying. A vibrant and autonomous democratic culture should be allowed to flourish up on Mount Aureol. For whatever happens at FBC - as history has shown all too vividly - has real implications for Sierra Leone at large.

Tom Gardner is a postgraduate student at Oxford University. He is currently making a documentary on the subject of student politics at Fourah Bay College, past and present. For more details visit cargocollective.com/nepafilms or follow him on Twitter at @nepafilms.

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